Noahide Commandments and Natural Law

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I

It is often said that Judaism is a religion for Jews. Judaism teaches that the people of Israel are chosen for a divine mission, that God has made a special covenant with them, and that the Torah represents God’s directives for the people of Israel.  Although Judaism accepts converts, Jews are not directed to proselytize or convert other peoples. In this sense, Judaism is not a universal religion. The particularity of Judaism has given rise to the theological problem of chosenness, namely, why would God give a special law only to one favored nation? Furthermore, the impression is created that Judaism has nothing to say about how human beings (other than Jews) should behave, nor about how they should relate to God.

In fact, this impression is false.  As interpreted by the Rabbis of the Talmud, Judaism also teaches that all human beings are bound by what is sometimes referred to as the Noahide commandments or Noahide law.[1] Genesis 9:3-7 teaches that God issued several commandments to Noah, and the Talmud[2] teaches that these commandments are binding on all future generations of Noahides, that is to say, all human beings. The received view in traditional Judaism is that there are basically seven commandments, to wit,  do not commit idolatry, do not blaspheme or curse the name of God, do not murder, do not commit incest, do not steal, do not eat flesh taken from a living animal,  and the commandment to establish courts of justice.  Some Jewish scholars interpret the seven commandments as seven categories of commandments, so that, each category contains within itself numerous other commandments as well. For example, the category of not stealing may include not deceiving others.  According to some Rabbis, other commandments beyond these seven are incumbent upon Noahides.[3] In this sense, although Judaism is a religion for Jews, it provides a universal teaching for non-Jews as well.

The concept of Noahide Law invites many theological questions. What is the divine purpose of the Noahide commandments? In what way does Noahide Law complement Torah Law? Does the phenomenon of Noahide Law in any way alleviate the problem of chosenness alluded to earlier? Can Noahide Law be understood as equivalent with or reducible to “natural law,” as some scholars have argued? It is particularly this last question which I aim to address in this paper, that is, the relation between Noahide Commandments and natural law. The main claims of this paper are as follows.  First, I argue that Judaism is compatible with a theory of natural law.  Second, I argue that even if one accepts the view that Judaism is compatible with a theory of natural law, it is a mistake, or at least problematic, to identify the Noahide commandments with natural law.

In the course of this paper, I shall also attempt to shed some light on Moses Maimonides’ views on these matters.  Attention to Maimonides’ views is justified in light of his importance and influence in the history of Jewish thought, and also because his views on these matters have been a subject of scholarly controversy.  In particular, I shall argue that it is plausible to interpret Maimonides in such a way as to agree with both of the main claims of this paper, namely, that Judaism is consistent with a natural law theory, and that at the same time, the Noahide commandments are not to be equated with natural law.

II

For the purpose of this paper, a theory of natural law says that human beings, by using reason and ordinary experience, can recognize or know certain practical principles or norms which describe how all humans ought to behave.[4]  These principles or norms may be said to constitute a universal moral code. We may add that a theistic natural law theory holds  (in addition to the above) that human beings, by using reason and ordinary experience, can recognize that there is a God, that is, a single supreme being who is the cause and author of the universe, and who is also in some sense the “legislator” of the natural law.  Theistic natural law theories may differ on to what extent it is deemed necessary for a human to recognize God’s existence or God’s authorship of the natural law in order to properly fulfill natural law. In any case, a theistic natural law theory holds that God legislates the natural law with reason. Hence, although God is in some sense the ground or cause of the natural law, there is no need for revelation or prophecy in order for humans to know the natural law. The moment one starts speaking of a commandment which is known only by way of  divine revelation, one is no longer speaking of a ‘natural law’ in the sense used here.[5]

Of course, it is quite possible for someone to adopt a theistic natural law theory and still hold that through revelation, God has issued further commandments which are not part of the natural law. A paradigmatic example of someone who believes in a theistic natural law theory is Thomas Aquinas.[6]  Yet Aquinas also holds that there are certain divine teachings which go beyond the natural law, and these include the particular teachings of Christianity.[7] Similarly, even if one were to say that Judaism allows for, or endorses, a theory of natural law, one might still hold that Judaism teaches that there are some divine commandments which go beyond natural law.

It is worthwhile to distinguish a theory of natural law from a theory of moral intuition or moral sense. The latter theory holds that humans have the ability to “just know” or “immediately recognize” what is right or wrong, without using reason. Such a theory might say that moral intuition is a mysterious gift from God, or that it is some inexplicable innate power, or that it is simply a basic instrument of sense like vision or hearing. Such a theory might hold that we can intuit or sense only what is right or wrong in specific cases, or that we can intuit or sense certain general rules of behavior. In either case, a theory of moral intuition differs from a natural law theory in that it holds that our knowledge of how humans ought to behave is not based on reason.

With these stipulations in mind, we may now proceed to discuss the relation between natural law theory and Judaism. 

III

This section aims to address the following question. Does Judaism recognize or endorse a theory of a natural law?

A very good case could be made that according to Judaism, humans have some kind of moral awareness that is epistemically independent of God’s explicit commands. Speaking colloquially, “people are supposed to know” that certain things are right or wrong, independently of having been commanded so by God.  This seems implicit from the very beginning of the scriptures. For example, Cain is expected to realize that he is not supposed to murder, even though there is no explicit scriptural record of his having been commanded not to do so.[8] Furthermore, the flood is a punishment for immorality of some sort, even though, again, there is no prior scriptural record of an explicit commandment not to steal or commit immoral acts.

Another example of this is Abraham’s complaint to God in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18).  Arguably, the fact that Abraham could complain about what God had in store for Sodom and Gomorrah makes sense only if it is not the case that justice is defined strictly by God’s fiat or will. A similar lesson is found elsewhere in Scripture.[9] Finally,  a well known Talmudic passage (Eruvin 100b) reads as follows:  “Even if the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, not to rob from the ant, not to be promiscuous from the dove, etiquette from the rooster, etc.”[10] This passage can be taken to imply that humans have some kind of moral awareness that is independent of God’s explicit commands. We can know that certain things are wrong or right without having been commanded explicitly by God what to do or avoid.[11]

Having said all this, it is another question whether Judaism teaches or endorses a theory of natural law, or even, a theistic theory of natural law. For it is one thing to say that people are somehow “supposed to know”  that certain things are right or wrong; it is quite another thing to advance a theory of natural law.  As intimated earlier, one could argue that the moral sense is an innate gift from God, or that it is based on something non-rational or trans-rational; that it amounts to something like moral intuition.  It is also possible to claim that this moral sense is not capable of formulating laws or general principles, and that it can only know moral directives circumstantially, that is, it can only know what is right or wrong in specific cases, and even then, without the kind of certainty or backing that is provided by reason. It could also be claimed that even if we have some kind of moral intuition, it is weak and fallible.

Furthermore, it is  possible to say that none of the scriptural or Talmudic passages cited above compel one to adopt a natural law theory. For it is possible to say that within the Scriptural narrative, God’s existence is either taken for granted, or is known through revelation or divine communication,  and it is only because of our experiential knowledge[12] of God that humans can recognize certain things are right or wrong.  Thus, for example, perhaps Cain was expected to know that it was wrong to kill Abel, only because Cain had experiential knowledge of God, and in light of that knowledge,  it was expected of him that he should recognize that it was wrong to kill a fellow human.  The same could be said for the generation of the flood.  Perhaps the generation was expected to know that it is wrong to commit robbery and incest,  in light of their (supposed) knowledge of the fact that there is a God who is worthy of respect and worship. Similarly, perhaps Abraham’s argument with God in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah is only an argument ad hominem. That is, Abraham knows that God is just, and he knows what God considers to be just action, so he argues that God would not be living up to His own standards  if he were to destroy a city that has at least some righteous citizens. But this does not conclusively show that Abraham has some moral sense that is independent of his knowledge or awareness of God.

Finally, the passage cited from the Talmud above (Eruvin 100b) can be understood not to say that we would know that there are universally valid moral laws, but rather that without divine guidance, humans would adapt certain practices from the animal kingdom as socially useful behavior.[13]  The very imagery of this passage – that we would learn certain patterns of behavior from the animal kingdom – indicates that this is not a matter of recognizing an absolute and universal moral code, but rather a matter of learning, like animals, to do that which suits us in the long run. This is not the same thing as recognizing that certain actions are wrong or right by nature.

Hence, in my view, it has not been established that a theory of natural law is implied by Judaism. The sources of Judaism do not dictate that a theory of natural law is true.  At the same time, it seems to me that a natural law theory is compatible with Judaism, that is, it is a legitimate view within the Judaic framework. By this I mean that it does not conflict with anything directly taught in Scripture, or with anything that is universally agreed upon by the Rabbis of the Talmud.  It is compatible with Judaism to hold, after the manner of Aquinas, that using reason man can recognize that there are certain principles which describe how human beings ought to behave.  It is also compatible with Judaism to hold that the belief in God, in the sense of a Supreme Being, is rationally available to mankind, without revelation.

It is well known that this is the view of the great medieval Jewish philosopher and legal authority, Moses Maimonides, who attributes this recognition to the patriarch Abraham, based on a rabbinic passage which indicates that Abraham came to a recognition of God prior to any revelation.[14]   Now, it is a matter of  controversy whether Maimonides himself  held a theory of natural law. For, it is one thing to say that God’s existence is rationally knowable; it is quite another to say that man can rationally know the basic practical principles of moral behavior.  We shall discuss Maimonides later in this paper. At this stage, here I claim only that a natural law theory, and certainly, a theistic natural law theory, is compatible with Judaism.

This leads to the following question. If indeed it is correct to say that Judaism is compatible with a natural law theory, what is the relation, if any, between natural Law and the Noahide commandments?   This is the main focus of the rest of this paper.  I shall argue that even if one holds (as I do) that Judaism allows for a theory of natural law, it is still a mistake, or at least, highly problematic, to identify natural law with the Noahide commandments.  

IV

Several scholars have asserted an equivalence of some sort between the Noahide commandments and natural law. Among Jewish writers, this view was perhaps most famously espoused by one of the major figures in the Enlightenment period, namely, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Though he was a bit ambivalent on this point, the same view is also espoused to some degree by Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900). Finally, a prominent current exponent of this view is Professor David Novak. Let us briefly discuss each of these thinkers in turn. [15]

Moses Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s view is perhaps best approached by considering his criticism of a certain view expressed by Moses Maimonides.[16] The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105a) records a dispute about whether the Noahide merits a place in the world to come. It is the view of Rabbi Yehoshua that Noahides can merit a share in the world to come. Maimonides accepts the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua, but with an important qualification. In his Code of Jewish Law (Laws of Kings 8:11) Maimonides writes that a non-Jew can merit a portion in the world to come only if he observes the Noahide commandments, and only if he does so because they are divine commandments.  He adds that if the non-Jew obeys them solely out of reason than he is not considered a pious gentile.[17]

The next portion of Maimonides’s passage is mired in a textual controversy.  In one textual version, Maimonides goes on to say that a Noahide who obeys the commands out of his own reasoning is “not from the pious, nor from among the wise.” But another version has it that such a person is “not from the pious but rather from among the wise.”[18]  Mendelssohn had before him the former, less charitable version.  In any event,  Mendelssohn was disturbed by Maimonides’ claim (found in both textual versions) that the Noahide counts as a pious gentile and merits the next world[19] only if he obeys the Noahide commandments out of a conscious sense of obedience to God’s commands through Moses at Sinai.[20] Mendelssohn wrote to one of the leading rabbinic authorities, namely, Jacob Emden (1697-1776), and asked whether Emden could identify any source in the Talmud for Maimonides’ view. Emden defended Maimonides’ position, but he could not locate a convincing explicit passage in the Talmud or rabbinic literature which supported it.

In more recent years, a possible source of Maimonides’ view was discovered.[21]  In any event, Mendelssohn was left with the impression that Maimonides had an unnecessarily harsh position on this point. Mendelssohn himself took the view that the natural law or the rationally knowable moral law is equivalent to Noahide commandments.  As Alexander Altmann writes:  “As he saw it and stated in his reply to Lavater, the Noachian Laws, which he also termed ‘the religion of the patriarchs’ are identical with the essence of natural law.”[22]

Elijah Benamozegh

Benamozegh’s book, Israel and Humanity,[23] is largely devoted to the topic of the Noahide commandments. Benamozegh indicates that he sees a natural law doctrine in Judaism, and there are some indications that he identifies natural law with Noahide law.   In one passage[24] he quotes Spinoza favorably, seemingly endorsing the idea that the “universal religion” of Noahism is no different from that ‘law which the natural light of reason reveals to us.’  Later, he quotes Renan who seems to endorse the idea which he attributes to Josephus, namely, that the Noahide law is basically ‘natural law.’[25]   In discussing the relation between the Noahide commandments and Torah law on the one side, and Mendelssohn’s view on the other, Benamozegh writes as follows:

 “ . . . all this may be summed up in the concept of a double law: the rational and the suprarational; the knowable and the unknowable; the intelligible and the supraintelligible.   It is the first which we find in the Noahide law and the second which corresponds to Torah law.”[26] 

Finally, he writes that the Noahide law:

“. . . contains only the essential principles of religion and ethics which are in accord with universal reason and conscience; the [Mosaic Law] with its dogmas, rites and priestly concepts responds to the mystical needs of humanity.” [27]

These passages indicate that Benamozegh identifies the Noahide commandments with natural law. Elsewhere in his writings Benamozegh takes a slightly different tack, indicating that Noahide law also speaks to the mystical needs of humanity; and that, conversely, Torah law is also ultimately rational. So it appears that Benamozegh may have had either a confused view, or, more charitably, a more complex view about this issue.  In any case, in at least some of his writings, Benamozegh identifies the Noahide commandments with natural law.

David Novak

For the most part, Mendelssohn and Benamozegh assert their view as if it were evident from the mere fact that both the Noahide commandments and the natural law have a universal application. This fact alone does not imply that the two notions should be equated. On the other hand, David Novak more rigorously defends the notion that natural law is taught by Judaism.   Earlier in this paper, I argued that Judaism is compatible with some doctrine of natural law.  Novak goes further than this, by endorsing the idea that the doctrine of the Noahide commandments is a Jewish version of classical natural law theory. In this section, I shall consider Novak’s arguments for this claim.

In his book, Natural Law in Judaism, Novak says that the debates over whether there is such a thing as natural law in Judaism “inevitably become debates about the meaning of the Noahide laws.”[28] He goes on to state that “those who argue against Natural Law in Judaism characterize Noahide law as a Jewish version of ius gentium . . . namely, law made by Jews for non-Jews.”[29]  Novak’s claim seems to be that those who reject natural law in Judaism are somehow committed to holding that Noahide law is a law made by Jews in order to control or dominate non-Jews.  Novak goes on to argue that this is indefensible.

But surely, Novak has set up something of a straw man. His suggestion here is not the only theoretical possibility open for those who would deny that Noahide law is identical with natural law.  That is, one could dispute the view that the Noahide commandments are equivalent with natural law, and still not hold that the Noahide commandments were somehow concocted by Jews as a means to dominate non-Jews.  As I shall argue later, one could understand the Noahide commandments in a much loftier way, without identifying it with natural law.  The Rabbis surely did not concoct these laws so that they could lord it over non-Jews. As Novak himself argues, this notion is preposterous both socially and historically.  In fact, even those scholars who explicitly argue against natural Law in Judaism (such as Marvin Fox)  could and would argue that,  the Rabbis, in developing the Noahide commandments, saw themselves as expounding a received tradition,  which claims that God issued certain commands to Noah and his descendants. The Rabbis expound and develop that tradition,  in much the same way that they do for Torah law that is applicable to Jews.

Another argument Novak makes is that, “The speculative character of rabbinic thought on the issue of Noahide Law . . .  strengthens the case of those who have argued for natural law in Judaism, and who have located natural law primarily in the doctrine of Noahide law.” [30]    A full assessment of this argument would require an examination of complex Talmudic passages.  Let it suffice to say that while Novak may be right that some of the verses used by the Rabbis of the Talmud to elucidate the Noahide commandments are intended as not genuine derivations (drashot gemurot) but rather as speculations (asmakhtot),[31] there are still many other verses which the Rabbis use which seem intended as genuine derivations. Novak refers to Judah Halevi in support of his claim.[32]   But in fact, Halevi suggests only that one Rabbinic argument in this context is an asmakhta. This is the rabbinic exegesis which claims that the seven Noahide commandments are all hinted at in Genesis 2:16, which reads, “And the Lord God said to Adam, from every tree in the garden you may eat.” I shall discuss this exegesis shortly.  But even if this exegesis is considered an asmakhta,  Halevi does not go so far as to say that all the rabbinic arguments involving Noahide commandments are asmakhtot.

Indeed, there are many other verses used to derive Noahide commandments that do not  appear to fall in the category of asmakhta.   For example, in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a) we find an argument to establish that the non-Jew is obligated not to curse the name of the Lord. The argument is based on an apparent repetition of the use of the word, “man” in Leviticus 24:15.  We also find (Sanhedrin 58a )  an argument to prohibit illicit sexual relations that is based on Genesis 2:24,  which reads, “Therefore a man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” These do not appear to be asmakhtot,  nor do many of the Rabbinic arguments on that page and following pages.

Moreover, there are several verses in Scripture in which God explicitly commands Noah and his descendants certain things, including the prohibition against murder and the prohibition to eat the flesh of a living animal. If Novak’s view is correct, these verses (and the Talmudic exegesis of them) would have been unnecessary.

Furthermore,  suppose Novak is right that the rabbinic arguments are “speculative” in developing some of the  Noahide commandments, and that this shows some kind of innate moral compass and even some theory of natural law implicit in Judaism. Still, it would not show that Noahide law is natural law. It would at most show that the Rabbis used natural law to develop their exegesis of Noahide commandments from the divine text.

What the Rabbis should have done if Novak were right is to argue that without revelation, one can realize that certain obligations are binding on non-Jews. Indeed there are some texts where the Rabbis seem to do just that, as in the passage mentioned at the outset from B.T. Eruvin 100b. (“Even if the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, not to rob from the ant, etc.”)  But, interestingly enough, the Rabbis do not link this kind of argument with their elucidation of the Noahide commandments.  Instead, they take elaborate pains to show that, in and through Scripture,  God commanded certain things that are binding upon non-Jews. Clearly, the Rabbis treat the Noahide commandments as divine commandments that are revealed to us, and that our knowledge of them is based on scriptural passages or on an oral tradition of revelation.

Let us return for a moment to the verse which both Halevi and Novak identify as an asmakhta. At first glance, it is easy to see why one would label as asmakhta  the Rabbinic argument that the seven commandments are all hinted at in the verse, “And the Lord God said to the man, saying, from every tree in the garden you may eat.”  It seems quite an interpretive stretch to say that this verse really intends to refer to the seven Noahide commandments. However, I wish to suggest that it is quite conceivable that the Rabbis did see the Noahide commandments as implicit in this verse, and with good reason. After all, this verse represents the very first statement to Adam when he was put in the garden of Eden. Thus, based on this verse, mankind learns not only that there is an ultimate cause or source of the universe, but also that God is the Lord, that is, that God is a Supreme Person, who takes an interest in his creations, who speaks to human beings, who expects obedience and respect, who makes explicit demands on mankind, and – of all things!— He  even cares about what we eat! Once we know on the basis of revelation that there is, so to speak, a personal God of this sort, perhaps all the Noahide commandments follow from that premise.[33] I shall return to this point later.

In sum, Novak’s argument based on the purported “speculative” nature of the Rabbis’ arguments for Noahide commandments is not convincing. However, it is still possible for Novak to assert (without argument) the claim that Noahide commandments are somehow equivalent or identical to Natural Law. In his “Conclusion” to his book on this topic,   Novak asserts the notion that natural law is taught  by Judaism. Novak also writes as a thesis that “Natural Law is Noahide Law.”  He immediately recognizes this statement needs qualification, if not revision. He writes as follows:

“To say that natural law is Noahide Law is not to identify natural law with a concept constructed within the Jewish tradition. For natural law to be “natural” namely, inherently universal, it must be recognized and developed throughout the world. If only Jews had thought it, that itself would falsify  it.  Instead, we should say that with the concept of Noahide law, Jewish thinkers have an authentically Jewish way to engage in thinking natural law.”[34]

Still, the meaning of this last claim is unclear. In the succeeding paragraphs he does not further explain what this means; he goes on to say that even though his thesis is controversial, that is not a reason to reject it.

What can be meant by the claim that Noahide Law is in some sense identical or equivalent to natural Law?  And, can this claim be valid in any sense? We shall discuss this issue in the next section. 

V

First, it is worth pointing out that the phrase Noahide Law is – so far as I know – not a phrase that has any Hebraic or Rabbinic source whatsoever (whether in Hebrew or Aramaic). If we were to imagine such a term in Hebrew, it would be something like “Chok shel bnei Noach” or “Torat bnei Noach.” Such a phrase is not found. The relevant Rabbinic phrase is always mitsvot bnei noach, that is, Noahide commandments. Talk of “Noahide law” makes it all too easy to slip into an identification of natural law with so-called “Noahide law.” To my knowledge, the rabbis never speak of these seven commandments as a system of law. There is of course Scriptural talk of a covenant with Noah. But there is never talk of Noahide Law in Scripture or Biblical literature. Use of the English term, “law,” obscures the fact that these are commandments, and makes it easier to view them as rational principles or universal norms.  Nevertheless, Mendelssohn or Novak might insist that the terminology is inconsequential, and that the Noahide commandments “boil down to” or are reducible to natural law.

But what would such a claim amount to?  Using a distinction common to analytic philosophy, I propose that the claim that Noahide commandments are equivalent with natural law could mean one of two things:

(1) Natural law is “intensionally” equivalent with Noahide commandments. In other words, “natural law(s)” and “Noahide commandment(s)” mean the same thing.

(2) Natural law is ‘extensionally’ equivalent with Noahide commandments, that is, the class of “natural law(s)” and the class of “Noahide commandments” refer to the exact same set of laws or principles.

Now, I wish to argue that on either reading, the claim turns out to be mistaken or problematic. Let us begin with option (1).  It is easy to see that it does not make sense to read the notion of a Noahide commandment as  co-equivalent in  meaning with the notion of natural law. A Noahide commandment is commanded by God. A natural law is discoverable through reason. One obeys the natural law because it is rational to do so. One obeys a Noahide commandment, qua Noahide commandment, because God commanded it. It may be rational to obey God’s commands, but that’s a separate point. It may also be the case that God uses divine reason to issue commands, but that is still a separate matter.  For those who accept the doctrine of natural law, even if God had not given the Noahide commandments, there would or could still be natural law. And conceivably, even if there were no such thing as natural law, there could still be Noahide commandments, that is, conceivably God could simply legislate by fiat that certain things are prohibited and certain others are forbidden.  Hence, the concepts of Noahide commandment and natural law are distinct concepts. In other words, Noahide commandments and natural law are not intensionally equivalent.

Let us turn to option (2).  Could we understand the Noahide commandments as co-extensive in reference with natural law? Again, let us assume for the sake of argument not only that there is such a thing as natural law, but also that Judaism is compatible with this doctrine. Could we understand the Noahide commandments to include all and only those things which one would have understood to be demanded by reason, without resort to revelation?  In other words, perhaps one could hold (against Novak) that the Rabbis derived the Noahide commandments from God’s revealed word, but still maintain (with Novak) that those commandments coincide exactly with the demands of natural law.

This seems feasible for at least four of the seven commandments. The prohibitions against murder, robbery, and incest, as well as the injunction to establish courts of justice are plausibly understood as demanded by natural law.[35] But how well does this work for the remaining three commandments?  Is it reasonable to view these actions as prohibited by natural law, without resort to revelation?

First, what of the commandment not to eat from the flesh of a living animal? Is that prohibition rationally knowable, independently of God’s explicit commands?  While this commandment is sometimes treated as a prohibition against cruelty to animals, [36] this interpretation does not hold up very well to analysis. For indeed, one could be quite cruel to an animal, and still avoid eating one of its limbs altogether.

And conversely, one could conceivably anesthetize an animal, and eat of one of its limbs, without being cruel to it (or at least without being any more “cruel” than one is by killing it). If the reason for the commandment was really to avoid cruelty to animals, the commandment should simply have been, “don’t be cruel to animals.”

Perhaps the prohibition is more plausibly viewed in light of the notion of “respect for animal life,” which could include avoiding cruelty as well, but is still something different. There is something vile about eating an animal while it is still alive, even if it is not undergoing pain. It seems the respectful thing to do is kill the animal first, and then eat it. This is not the place to embark on a discourse as to whether this view can be sustained rationally. Let it suffice to say that if such a position can be sustained from a rational point of view, then the commandment not to eat from the limb of a living animal could be viewed as co-extensive with a natural law.[37]

Still, what of the prohibitions against idol worship and blasphemy?

One might try to argue that, if one holds that God’s existence is rationally demonstrable, then it follows that idol worship is wrong. [38] But the matter is not so clear. Even if one could prove the existence of a single first cause or source of the universe, whom we may identify as “God,” it is not entirely clear that idol worship and blasphemy would be wrong. One would have to be able to know through reason alone not only that there is a God but also that God is in some sense a supreme person, who is worthy of exclusive worship and respect. And how can one know that God is in some sense a person, without being privy to revelation?  It seems to me that without resort to revelation, it is difficult to show that God cares about whether he is, in some sense, insulted or affronted by the actions and words of human beings.[39]

Thus, it seems that although some of the Noahide commandments might plausibly be viewed as co-extensive with natural law, it is difficult to see all of the Noahide commandments as co-extensive with natural law.  Even for those Jewish thinkers who believe that there are rational precepts of morality that are knowable independently from revelation, it is difficult to understand the Noahide commandments as extensionally equivalent with such precepts.  Noahide commandments are divine injunctions that go beyond such precepts. One might be inclined to ask, what, if anything, is the divine purpose of these commandments?  That is a theological question which I shall discuss toward the end of the next section. 

VI

I turn now to Moses Maimonides’ view regarding natural law and the Noahide commandments. Several scholars have claimed that, for Maimonides, the necessity for the Noahide commandments is to be explained by the hypothesis that Maimonides rejected any doctrine of natural law.[40]  On this reading, for Maimonides, human reason can at best come up with suggestions about what is right or wrong, but reason cannot know for sure and with enough detail what is right or wrong.  Thus the need for the divine revelation of the Noahide commandments.[41]

The view that Maimonides rejected any such doctrine as natural law is based also on statements in the Treatise on Logic,[42]  the Guide, I:2[43] and II:33[44],  and the Eight Chapters, 6.[45]  These passages are taken by some to indicate that Maimonides holds that our beliefs about what is right or wrong are not rationally defensible. On this basis, it is claimed that Maimonides rejected any doctrine of natural law, and that the only we way we can really know what is right or wrong is by divine revelation.

On the other hand, there are several passages where Maimonides indicates that reason by itself can discover that certain actions are right or wrong. In the Code, Laws of Repentance,[46] he writes that using reason, one can distinguish what is good or bad. In both of the very works referred to just above, the Treatise on Logic and the Eight Chapters, he writes that man uses his rational faculty to distinguish between base and noble actions.[47]  In the Guide, III: 28[48] he implies that humans understand, independently of divine revelation, that actions such as theft, murder, and other basic violations of justice are wrong. Hence, despite the passages cited in the previous paragraph, it appears that Maimonides did hold that reason can know, independently of divine revelation, that at least some actions are right or wrong.[49]

How can we resolve this apparent conflict within Maimonides’ writings?  I suggest that for Maimonides, there are three categories of beliefs (that are relevant to our discussion). First, there are intellecta, or first intelligibles, which are knowable as necessary truths. These include propositions such as, God exists, God is one, and other logical truths, such as, the whole is the greater than the part.

Second, on the other end of the spectrum, there are beliefs about nomoi, or practices that are acceptable or unacceptable. The rightness or wrongness of these practices are relative to given cultures and are matters of convention.  Every society needs these things to get along, but they are somewhat arbitrary, especially in their details.  There is no way of demonstrating these nomoi and they are just generally accepted without argument.

Third, I suggest that there is a category of beliefs which are neither first intelligibles, but nor are they merely matters of convention.[50] These beliefs may be reasonably held, but they are not perfectly demonstrable either. One example of such a belief is the belief that God created the world. For Maimonides, this belief is not logically necessary, but it is a plausible belief, even without revelation.[51]  I propose that Maimonides also places into this third category our philosophically developed[52] beliefs about what character traits are virtuous or vicious, and what types of actions are right or wrong. Beliefs about the virtues can and should be grounded in beliefs about the nature of created being, particularly, in the nature of man and his telos.  Since human nature is universal and fixed, beliefs about virtue and vice may also be universal and fixed. Of course, the ‘fixed’ nature of creation stems from God’s free action, as does the creation of the world itself.  Hence, our beliefs about virtue and vice are not “intellecta” or matters of necessary truth.  Still, it turns out that beliefs about virtue and vice may be held reasonably, and, if so, they are not merely matters of convention.

It is within this framework that we should interpret those passages cited above which superficially seem to support the view that Maimonides’ position is incompatible with the notion of natural law.  In those passages where Maimonides seems to ridicule the idea that normative claims are rational or even “true,” all he means to ridicule is the claim that they are first intelligibles, that is, that they are knowable as necessary truths.  When he writes in  the Guide,  II: 33 that all of the commandments (aside from the first two) are only commonly accepted, he doesn’t mean to put them in the category of merely conventional beliefs, but rather in the category of beliefs that are not first intelligibles.[53]

Similarly, when he says in the Treatise on Logic and in Guide I:2 that beliefs about good and bad are generally accepted, he means only that they are not first intelligibles, but not that they are rationally indefensible.  One might complain that such a reading is forced.   However, such a reading is actually required in the case of the passage referred to above in the Eight Chapters, 6.[54] For in that passage, despite his barb against those who classify certain commandments as “intelligible,” Maimonides makes substantive use of the notion that some commandments are rational in order to explain away a certain difficulty.[55] In sum, Maimonides clearly recognizes that some of the commandments are rational independently of revelation; what he objects to is the classification of any commandments whatsoever as intelligibles.[56]  On this reading, Maimonides’ view is entirely compatible with the doctrine of natural law, as long as one recognizes that while those laws are rational knowable, they do not rise to the level of counting as necessary truths or intelligibles.

Although it falls somewhat outside the scope of this paper, Maimonides’ discussion in the Guide, I:2 needs to be addressed in more detail.  For, one can easily come away from that chapter with the impression that Maimonides thinks that mankind would have been better off without knowledge of good and bad, since such ‘knowledge’ is in his view not strictly a matter of intellectual apprehension. But I think this is a grave error. For, Maimonides makes clear elsewhere that knowledge of good and bad is not only possible but commendable.[57]

In my view, for Maimonides, the proper interpretation of the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden is as follows.  Man was forbidden “to eat from the tree of knowledge” not because such knowledge is inherently bad, but rather because man wasn’t ready for that knowledge until he went through the proper preliminaries. The account of man’s “fall” is a metaphor for how man tends to fail in gaining knowledge of good and bad, by succumbing to the temptation of the pleasure of laziness and by not taking the proper preliminary steps in order to gain genuine knowledge. Because man succumbs to temptation and rushes ahead to seek knowledge that he is not ready for, he becomes infected with opinion and must be told to do certain things and not others, without apparent rational justification. (This is precisely the fault of the unnamed critic in I:2 who poses the very question that begins I:2 – Maimonides accuses him of laziness and self-indulgence!)

However, as Maimonides’ argument in the Guide progresses, it turns out that when man follows the preliminaries properly, he can access knowledge of good and bad. Of course, the highest understanding of good and bad comes when man understands God’s ways, as Moses did when he had the revelation of God’s back (see Guide, I:38). But even an ordinary human can understand God’s ways, if only after a long and arduous philosophical process, which requires study of logic, natural science, and metaphysics. This knowledge is also achieved by the reader of the Guide at the very end of the book, in III: 54, when the reader is encouraged not just to understand but also to act in a divine manner, that is, with loving kindness, righteousness, and justice (chessed, tsdakah, and mishpat). The structure of the Guide brilliantly exemplifies Maimonides’ teaching: it is only after a long and arduous process – reading the entire Guide – that the reader grasps the true knowledge of good and bad. I have maintained in this paper that, for Maimonides, while the highest knowledge of good and bad requires an understanding of God as a revelatory being, man can still recognize rationally and independently of revelation that certain ways of acting are right or wrong.

The claim that Maimonides’ position is compatible with a doctrine of natural law makes good sense, especially if we read Maimonides’s text in the Laws of Kings (8:11) to say that those who keep the commandments solely out of reason are “not from the pious of the nations, but rather from among the wise.” There is only one lingering point that needs to be addressed. What of Maimonides’ statement – which so bothered Mendelssohn – that a Noahide who keeps the commandments out of reason alone does not constitute a pious gentile and so does not merit a place in the world to come?

As indicated above, some scholars take this as evidence that Maimonides rejects natural law or that he finds reason too weak as a source of moral knowledge. But this is a non-sequitur. Even if Maimonides accepted some version of natural law, it could still be quite plausible for him to hold that a gentile is “pious” only if he keeps the Noahide commandments out of conscious obedience to God. As I have argued in the previous section, even if one holds that Judaism endorses natural law, and even if one holds that the set of natural laws coincides with the set of Noahide commandments, that does not mean one should conflate the notions of natural law and Noahide commandment. The significance of keeping the very same ‘rules’ under one description is different from the significance of keeping the same rules under the other description.

I wish now to elaborate further on why this might be so (and in doing so, attempt to alleviate Mendelssohn’s difficulty with Maimonides’ position on what is required for a non-Jew to inherit the world to come). [58]  As I argued at the outset, it appears from Scripture that God expects mankind to behave morally, even without revelation. But as the account of Genesis progresses, it turns out that God expects more than mere morality from the non-Jew. God expects and demands that the Noahide establish a covenantal relationship with him. This is a relationship that is based partly on the acceptance of divine revelation, and on the acceptance of all that this implies about the nature of God, viz., that God is personal, that God speaks, interacts with humans, that he rewards and punishes the righteous, and so on.

In other words, the theological purpose of the Noahide commandments is to establish a good relationship with God.   An indication that this view is correct is God’s promise of a certain kind of protection over the Noahides, namely, that he will not destroy them in the way he did with the flood, and that the seasons will never be altered.  Once the covenant is in place, God takes on certain commitments to mankind that go beyond just giving them their due. This indicates that humanity has moved from the situation of mere morality to a new and deeper relationship with God. That relationship with God is enshrined in the Noahide commandments. Therefore, it makes sense to hold that keeping the moral law strictly out of reason alone does not have the same significance as keeping the Noahide commandments out of a sense of obedience to God’s commands.

VII

In summary, the main claims of this paper are as follows. Judaism is compatible with the notion of natural law.  Nevertheless, it is a mistake to identify natural law with Noahide commandments.  Moreover, it is possible to interpret Maimonides in such a way as to agree with both of these claims.  For Maimonides, a non-Jew lives a moral life if he behaves virtuously just on the basis of reason alone. But he lives a pious life only if he fulfills God’s will out of a sense of obedience. On this view, Noahides have obligations that go beyond ordinary morality and that stem from divine commandments that establish a covenantal relationship between God and mankind. [59]

 

Notes

[1] For an exposition of the Noahide commandments, see Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah, Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press, 1986. On the terminology of Noahide commandments as opposed to Noahide law, see the discussion below, Section V.

[2] The main locus of Talmudic discussion is Sanhedrin 56a-60a.  See also Moses Maimonides’ summary in Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Kings, Chapters 8:10-10:12.  

[3] These include the prohibition against ingesting the blood of a living animal, certain forms of mixed breeding, castration, witchcraft (Sanhedrin 56b) and the positive commandment of giving charity (Sanhedrin 57b).

[4] My use of the term natural law is consistent with the following pronouncement: “In so far as any common core can be found to the principle versions of natural law theory, it seems to amount to the statement that the basic principles of morals…are in some sense or other, objective, accessible to reason and based on human nature.”  D.J. O’Connor, Aquinas on Natural Law , 1967 p. 57 (quoted by Oliver Leaman in “Maimonides and Natural Law,”  Jewish Law Annual, (hereafter JLA) 1987 vol. 6,  p.92).   Of course, for the theist, human nature itself is based on the causal agency of God, but one can still be both a theist and a natural law theorist.

[5] My use of the term “natural law” differs from that of the British Hebraist, John Selden (1584-1654). But this depends on how he is understood. According to Jason P. Rosenblatt, Selden held that there is such a thing as natural law, but that it can be known only through revelation. See Rosenblatt’s discussion in Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi: John Selden, p.161.  This appears to differ from J.D. Bleich’s understanding of Selden. Bleich writes that for Selden “the content of the Noahide Code must be regarded as universally binding on the basis of reason alone.” See “Judaism and Natural Law,” in JLA 7, 1988. p. 5. Yet, based on the following passage in Selden’s Table Talk, Rosenblatt seems correct.  “I cannot fancy to myself what the Law of Nature means, except it be the Law of God. How should I know I ought not to steal, I ought not to commit adultery, unless somebody had told me so? Surely ‘tis because I have been told so. ‘Tis not because I think I ought not to do them, nor because you think I ought not; if so, our minds might change. Whence then comes the restraint? From a higher Power; nothing else can bind. I cannot bind myself, for I may untie myself again; nor an equal cannot bind me, for we may untie one another: it must be a superior Power, even God Almighty.” See Table Talk, Law of Nature,  London: John Russel Smith, 1856, p. 84. I am indebted to Steven Berg for this reference.

[6] See Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, q. 94.

[7] See Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, q. 91 art. 4.

[8] The traditional commentary,  Kli Yakar, makes exactly this point. See his commentary on Genesis 4:9. I am indebted to Gidon Melmed for this reference.

[9] One might try to argue that the lesson of  the episode of the akedah or “binding of Isaac” (Genesis   22 ) is precisely that man’s sense of what is moral is trumped by what God tells us to do. However, the akedah can also be turned into an argument in favor of the view that man has some moral sense independently of God’s commands. Abraham’s challenge was precisely to obey God, even when God’s orders conflict with what the human being’s moral sense.  But this is a ‘challenge’ only if, in general, one has a moral sense to begin with, that is, one can usually know what is right or wrong, without merely relying on information from God.

[10] A seemingly similar but actually very different passage is found in B.T. Yoma 67a. See below, note 33.

[11] Many traditional scholars have endorsed this argument, including for example, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (not to be confused with Aaron Lichtenstein in footnote 1 above). See Aharon Lichtenstein, Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic independent of Halakha?  in Modern Jewish Ethics ed. by M. Fox  (Columbus, OH 1975). On this view, God may hold people liable for their moral sins and errors, even though they were not explicitly forbidden to do those things.  This is apparently the view of Rabbi Yehudah in Sanhedrin 55b. He holds that the Noahide commandment not to steal or commit incest was given after the flood.  However, other Rabbis say that God must have given these commands to Adam, for otherwise he would not have punished them (See Sanhedrin 57b and Tosfot, s.v. Dichtiv Vatishachet).

I am inclined to say that even those Rabbis  who adopt this latter view still hold that humans can realize that certain things are right or wrong without God’s explicit commands; their view is only that God would not punish without first explicitly commanding or forbidding certain things. However, it is also possible to understand these latter Rabbis as holding that without explicit divine commands, humans can know nothing about what is right or wrong.  Personally, I disagree with this reading but I think it is hard to disprove.  One might come to the conclusion that the debate about whether Judaism allows for a moral awareness that is epistemically independent of divine commands dates back to the Talmud itself.

[12] By “experiential knowledge of God” I mean knowledge that involves a revelation or prophecy of some sort, as opposed to “a priori” knowledge, that is,  knowledge that one could get without relying on revelation or prophecy.

[13] Marvin Fox makes this argument. See “Maimonides and Aquinas on Natural Law,” reprinted in Interpreting Maimonides, University of Chicago, 1990, p. 127. Indeed, this seems to be the conception of “natural law” (dat tivi’t) as employed by Joseph Albo (1380-1444)  in The Book of Principles (I:5,7). Albo uses the term “natural law” to refer to the basic set of rules that are required for human survival. Despite the fact that he is a theist, Albo does not offer a “theistic natural law theory” in the sense described in Section II of this paper.

[14] See Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Idol Worship, 1:3.

[15] A much earlier but lesser known writer who very plainly identifies natural law and Noahide commandments is Isaac Cardozo, in his book, Las Excelencias del los Hebreos. (published in Amsterdam, 1679). See the Hebrew translation, Maalot Ha-ivrim,  trans. Yosef Kaplan, Jerusalem: Bialik 1971, pp.78, 84.  On the other hand, Joseph Albo (see note 13 above) sharply distinguishes what he calls natural law (dat tivi’t) from the Noahide commandments.

[16] See Steven Shwarzschild’s paper on this topic. “Do Noahides have to believe in revelation?”reprinted in The Pursuit of the Ideal, ed. M.Kellner, 1990 Albany Press;  originally in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Apr., 1962), pp. 297-308 and continued in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 53, No. 1 (July 1962), pp. 30-65.

[17] The Hebrew phrase chasid umot ha-olam is often translated, righteous gentile. But the translation, pious gentile is much better. The Hebrew term chasid connotes someone who is not merely righteous (tsadik) but who goes beyond what mere decency or justice requires.

[18] Scholars have lined up on different sides on the question of which version is accurate.  See Oliver Leaman’s summary in JLA 6, p.80  and J.D.  Bleich’s discussion in JLA 7, pp. 8-10 ; see  (in Hebrew) David Henshke’s discussion in “Lishelat achdut haguto shel ha-Rambam” in Daat HaRambam, ed. Hallamish, Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press 2004, pp. 123-137.  On p. 134 n. 36 Henshke strongly supports the more charitable version.

[19] Henshke (see ibid., note 43 on 136) argues that these do not necessarily go hand in hand; Maimonides asserts that a non-Jew who keeps the Noahide commandments out of reason alone is not a ‘pious gentile,’ but he still may have a share in the world to come. However, the general reading widely accepted is that for Maimonides, these do go hand in hand.

[20] Many scholars (such as Schwarzchild) seem to be under the impression that Maimonides was the first medieval writer to say such a thing in print. However, a very similar statement is found in Duties of the Heart, written by Bachya ibn Pakuda some fifty years before Maimonides’ birth.  In Shaar Ha-avoda, Chapter 6, Bachya discusses the Noahide commandments. First, he implies that the Noahide commandments are sichliot, that is, intelligible.  But he goes on to write that if a non-Jew keeps these commandments for the sake of worshipping Hashem, then he merits the next world. (The italics are mine.) Bachya does not explicitly state the negative, to wit, that people who keep the commandments out of reason alone do not merit the next world.  Also he does not state that the Noahide must obey the commandments specifically because they were given to Moses. But Bachya’s qualifying phrase, for the sake of worshipping Hashem, sounds very much like Maimonides’ restrictive view that keeping the commandments  ‘out of reason’ is insufficient for meriting the next world. This lends support to the notion that the restrictive view predated Maimonides (see next footnote).

[21] As Schwarzchild notes, in 1933 a Rabbinic text was published which appears to be the source for Maimonides’ view. The source known as Mishnat Rabbi Elazar says that a non-Jew who keeps the Noahide commandments out of reason gets his reward in this world;  but if he keeps them because of God’s command, he merits the next world.  (NY: Bloch Publishing, 1933, ed., Enelow, p.121).  This text was apparently unknown to Moses Mendelssohn and to Jacob Emden. Maimonides apparently refers to this text in a responsum written after the completion of the Code. (Moses Maimonides: Responsa, Rubin Mass Ltd., Y. Blau ed., 1986, Responsum #148, pp. 282-283).  However, he refers to it as the baraita of Rabbi Elazar. This has raised a question about whether this is indeed Maimonides’ source.  In any case, it seems that Maimonides did have some rabbinic source for his ‘restrictive’ view.  In fact, this source implies that some amount of praise is due to the person who keeps the commandments out of reason alone – for it says that he “receives a reward, albeit only in this world.”  It seems to me this text supports the version of Maimonides’ text which reads that those who keep the Noahide commandments out of reason are wise; the point is that they are “wise,” but only in a this-worldy manner. However, see Bleich, op. cit, p. 34.

[22] Moses Mendelsson: A Biographical Study, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization:  1973, p. 217.

[23] Israel and Humanity, New York, Pauline Press 1965.

[24] Israel and Humanity, p. 256.

[25] Israel and Humanity, p. 257.

[26] Israel and Humanity, p. 317.

[27] Israel and Humanity, p. 327.

[28] Natural Law in Judaism, p.149.

[29] Natural Law in Judaism, p.150.

[30] Natural Law in Judaism, p.151.

[31] Novak has in mind the rabbinic distinction between a drasha gemurah and an asmakhta. A drasha gemurah is a genuine derivation or interpretation of a textual verse. On the other hand, an asmakhta is where a verse is used merely as a heuristic device to support some view that is independently known from some other verse, or that is based on independent reasoning (sevarah).  In other words, an asmakhta does not represent a genuine interpretation of a verse. Novak’s claim is that the Rabbinic elucidation of the Noahide commandments in the Talmud is based on the Rabbis’ independent reasoning, and that when they cite verses to support their views on these matters, they are merely engaging in asmakhta.

[32] Yehuda Halevi, Hakuzari, 3:73. Incidentally, Yosef Karo (in Kessef Mishneh commenting on Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Kings 9:1) also suggests that Maimonides understood this argument as an asmakhta.

[33] I suggest that this reading dovetails well with a passage in Yoma 67a. There we find the following. “The Rabbis taught, ‘My judgments you shall do’ (Leviticus 18: 4) — this refers to those [forbidden practices] which even if they had not been written, should have been written, such as, idol worship, incest, murder, robbery and cursing the divine name . . .” This passage gives a different list of commandments than the passage in Eruvin 100b, and it includes five of the seven Noahide commandments. (In context, this verse refers to commandments given to the people of Israel, but there seems to be no reason why the Rabbis wouldn’t extend the same thought to commandments given to all mankind.)

At first glance it may seem that this is an excellent source for those who wish to see natural law in Judaism, and who wish to identify the natural law with Noahide commandments. But careful scrutiny shows otherwise. Whereas the passage in Eruvin speaks of those commandments which we would have known even the Torah had not been given, this passage speaks of commandments such that, even if they were not written, should have been written.  In other words, the passage in Yoma 67a states that once it is already taken as a fact that the Torah has been given, one would expect to find these commandments written in the Torah. Given that there is a God who reveals himself, who is personal, who takes an interest in his creatures, and who cares about what humans do, it stands to reason that he would forbid certain things, such as, idol worship, cursing the name, etc. But this does not mean that we would have known that these things are forbidden if we did not know that there is a personal God.

[34] Natural Law in Judaism, p.191.

[35] Aquinas, for example, would recognize these prohibitions as coinciding with the demands of natural law. See Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, q. 94 art. 2.

[36] In his Code of Jewish Law, Moses Maimonides apparently treats this commandment as not one to which reason inclines. See Laws of Kings 9:1. “On six things Adam was commanded: On idol worship, blasphemy, murder, incest, robbery, and social justice; even though all of these things are a received tradition in our hands from Moses our Master, and reason inclines toward them, from the words of the Torah it appears that they were commanded; subsequently he [God] added to them the commandment against eating a limb from a living animal; thus there are seven commandments.” The italics are mine. While it cannot be absolutely proven from here, it seems that Maimonides’ choice of words indicates that he does not regard the commandment not to eat from a limb of a living animal as one to which “reason inclines.” However, in the Guide to the Perplexed, (III:48)  Maimonides offers an explanation of this commandment as having to do in part with avoiding cruelty.

[37] As mentioned earlier, some rabbis add that there is also a Noahide prohibition against eating the blood of an animal. This removes the prohibition even further from cruelty to animals. But it still seems plausible to see this as a matter of respect for the life of the animal. From a biblical perspective, there is a deep connection between the blood of an animal and its life (see e.g., Leviticus 17:11). Also, as mentioned earlier, some rabbis held that there are other commands which are obligatory on the Noahide, such as the prohibition against castration, mixed breeding, and witchcraft. It seems possible to view these as violations of the ‘natural order’, and so to see them as knowable by reason independently of revelation.

[38] Maimonides seems to make just this claim in several places, viz., that using reason alone, one can know not only that God exists but also that idol worship is wrong.  See Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Kings, 9:1 and Guide, II :33.

[39] Thus it appears that Aquinas, for example, does not include such prohibitions as part of natural law. In Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, q. 96 art. 4, he implies that idolatry is a violation of divine law (and not natural law). In Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, q. 13, he writes that blasphemy is a violation of the “virtue of faith.”  This seems to imply that blasphemy is not a violation of natural law but rather of divine law.

[40] Clearly, Maimonides did not use such terminology as ‘natural law’ or any such equivalent in Arabic or Hebrew to describe moral prescriptions. But there is still a legitimate debate about whether such a doctrine is implicit in or at least compatible with Maimonides’ views. On this point, see the remarks by Lamm and Kirschenbaum, in “Freedom and Constraint in the Jewish Judicial Process”, Cardozo Law Review I/1 (Spring 1979) 110 n. 40.

[41] This is the view of Mendelssohn and Schwarzchild.  J.D. Bleich follows in this vein as well. See Judaism and Natural Law,  JLA vol. 7, 1988.  M. Fox vehemently argues that Maimonides rejected natural law (see above, footnote 13).  Although he calls Maimonides a natural law theorist, Oliver Leaman (JLA vol. 6) agrees to a certain extent with this perspective, since, according to Leaman, using reason alone the best humans can do is recognize that certain forms of behavior are prudential and conducive to mutual self-interest (p.91). Leaman takes Maimonides to assert that people can acquire no obligations, by the use of reason alone ( ibid., p.89).  Such a view has gained wide currency in Maimonidean scholarship. In his recent biography of Maimonides, Joel Kraemer writes without qualification,  “Human law and morality, apart from revelation, in Maimonides’ view, are based on convention.” Maimonides: The Life and Work of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, NY: Doubleday, 2008, p. 378.

[42] In Chapter 8 of this work, Maimonides writes that an example of a generally accepted opinion is moral beliefs, such as the belief that nudity in public is inappropriate. See Ethical Writings of Maimonides, edited by Weiss and Butterworth, NY: Dover 1975, p.156.

[43] In his interpretation of the Biblical account of Adam’s fall, Maimonides writes that the human intellect can know only statements which are true or false; statements about good and evil are neither true nor false and are not matters of intellectual comprehension but rather “accepted opinions.” This has lead many to assert that Maimonides viewed moral beliefs that are not based on divine revelation as not subject to rational defense.

[44] In this chapter, Maimonides writes that of the ten commandments, the first two are based on truths which are rationally knowable; the remaining ones are in the category of commonly accepted beliefs. This seems to imply that that with the exception of the first two, none of the commandments are rationally knowable at all.

[45] Maimonides states in passing that those who refer to an entire category of  commandments as “intelligibles” are “infected with the disease of the Mutakallimun.” This seems to be a criticism of Saadia, who refers to an entire category of commandents as intelligibles.  See Saadia, Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Chapter 3.  Maimonides’ critical remark may be taken to imply that he himself does not think any commandments are rationally knowable independently of revelation (except for perhaps two; see previous footnote).  See Ethical Writings of Maimonides, p. 80, and pp. 101-102, footnotes 13, 14.

[46] See Chapter 5:1. As a prelude to his discussion of man’s freedom of choice, Maimonides writes, “man is unique in the world . . . in that of his own accord, using his own intelligence and mind, he knows what is good or bad.” The translation is mine.

 [47] See Eight Chapters, Chapter 1: “The rational part [of the soul] is the power found in man by which he perceives intelligibles, deliberates, acquires the sciences, and distinguishes between base and noble actions.” See Ethical Writings, p. 63.  He says something almost identical in the Treatise on Logic, Chapter 14.  See Ethical Writings, p. 158.

[48] “The reason of a commandment, whether positive or negative, is clear, and its usefulness evident, if it directly tends to remove injustice, or to teach good conduct that furthers the well-being of society, or to impart a truth which ought to be believed either on its own merit or as being indispensable for facilitating the removal of injustice or the teaching of good morals. There is no occasion to ask for the object of such commandments: for no one can, e.g., be in doubt as to the reason why we have been commanded to believe that God is one; why we are forbidden to murder, to steal, and to take vengeance, or to retaliate, or why we are commanded to love one another” (Freidlander translation).

[49] Some might add to this as evidence the well known fact that Maimonides strongly insists and argues trenchantly that there are reasons for all of the commandments of the Torah.  But this by itself doesn’t show that he thought that there is such a thing as natural law. The “reasons” for the commandments might be reasons that are given in light of revealed information about God. For example, if we know through revelation that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, then the commandment to keep a Sabbath day makes sense. Or, if we know by way of revelation that God forbids animal sacrifices to idols, and we know from experience that man has a tendency toward animal sacrifice, we might explain the reason for the commandment to offer animal sacrifices to God.  But none of this shows that any commandments are rational independently of revelation.  However, Maimonides’ remarks specifically on theft and murder in Guide,  III: 28 (see previous footnote) indicate that he thinks humans can realize on their own that at least some actions or types of actions are wrong, even without revelation.

[50] I confess it would have been nice if Maimonides had explicitly stated this third category in his Treatise on Logic or in the Guide.  But that doesn’t mean he rejects such a category. Frankly, I think Maimonides may have been unclear on this third category himself. Perhaps the reason is that it does not fit well with Aristotelean thought, where essentially, any truth that is not a matter of pure intellect is ultimately a matter of pure contingency or happenstance. The theistic notion of God as a free agent splits this divide.

[51] See his discussion in Guide, II:15-25 and where he defends the plausibility of this belief, and not just on the basis of Scripture. Some readers take Maimonides repeated assertions that creation cannot be proven as a hint that he rejected the doctrine. It is important to bear in mind that, for Maimonides, there is a theologically significant reason for continually reasserting that the belief in creation is not logically demonstrable. For Maimonides, the only beliefs that are logically demonstrable are those that are logically necessary.  Hence, if it were logically demonstrable that God created the world, it would follow that it was a necessary truth that God created the world, and this would mean that God did not freely create the world (and that man is not free either).  But freedom is critical to Maimonides’ concept of God (as well as his concept of man).

[52] I say “philosophically developed” beliefs because, obviously, someone could have very arbitrary and silly beliefs about virtue and vice; in which case they need not be universal.

[53] See Aristotle, Topics I:1. Aristotle there uses the word true to describe those things that are purely rationally grasped and are necessary; he distinguishes this from those statements which are generally accepted. But that  doesn’t mean he thinks there are no facts about virtue that are ‘true’ in our everyday sense of that term; nor does it exclude the possibility that there is some sense in which generally accepted beliefs can be rationally defended.

[54] See note 45 above.

[55] The difficulty is that one passage (Sifra: Kedoshim, 10 ) implies that someone who desires to violate the commandments but keeps them strictly because God commanded them is more meritorious than someone who has no desire whatsoever to violate the commandments at all. This does not fit with other Talmudic passages (and with the view of the “philosophers”) that the man without evil desires (the virtuous man) is better than the man who has evil desires but overcomes them (the continent man). Maimonides resolves the contradiction by distinguishing two types of commandments. For those commandments which make rational sense, it is better to have no desire whatsoever to violate them. For those commandments which we know only by way of revelation, it is more praiseworthy to keep them strictly because they are commanded. Thus, despite his critical remark against those who regard certain commandments as intellecta, Maimonides here accepts the notion that there some commandments make rational sense independently of their having been commanded.

[56] Again, this is Maimonides’ criticism of Saadia. Indeed, in one translation, Saadia refers to some commandments not merely as intelligible but as “mi-chiyuvey ha-sechel ha-rishonim,” that is, “from among the first intelligibles.” Thus Kapah’s translation of Saadia’s Sefer Ha-nivchar be-emunot ve-deot, Chapter 3, p. 117,  Jerusalem: 1970.  Thus, Saadia repeatedly writes that it was necessary for God to issue certain commandments. On my reading, the implication to which Maimonides objects is that God had no choice but to issue certain commandments. This diminishes or degrades God’s freedom.

[57] See above notes 46 and 47, and see Guide, III:54.

[58] For another approach to this issue, see Henshke, op. cit. p. 135. Henshke suggests that for Maimonides, the commandments (both Torahitic and Noahide) are a means for achieving hasagat ha-boreh (= comprehension or knowledge of the creator). In order to qualify as a pious gentile, one must perform the commandments with the conscious aim of achieving knowledge of God. Hence, knowing that the source of the commandments is God is necessary for attaining their true purpose. But it seems that the Noahide must to some to degree already know God in order to accept the commandments in the first place!  Thus Henshke’s proposal seems off the mark. Hence, my suggestion is rather that the purpose of the Noahide commandments is to achieve and fulfill a certain covenantal relationship with God.

[59] The further question may be raised, if a person can attain a place in the world to come by being an obedient Noahide, why was it necessary for God to choose a special nation and give them the Mosaic Torah? This is known as the problem of chosenness. This goes beyond the purview of this paper.   For one attempt to address this question,  see  my book, Rationality and Religious Theism, Chapter 4, and my essay “Jewish Identity and the Teaching of Chosenness,”  in Jewish Identity in the Postmodern Age, ed. Charles Selengut, St.Paul: Paragon House, 1999. Briefly, I argue that since God is a person in some sense, God is capable of establishing an intimate relationship of love with some beloved person or set of persons. The dynamics of the relationship of love requires a chosen beloved, and it also requires a much higher and more rigorous standard of commitment and obligation than the Noahide commandments. In my view, this is the rationale for the chosen people and the Mosaic Torah.

Joshua Golding

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Joshua Golding is Professor of Philosophy at Bellarmine University in Kentucky. He is the also the author of Rationality and Religious Theism (Routledge, 2003) The Conversation: A Jewish Philosophical Novel (Urim, 2011) and The Jewish Spiritual Path: The Way of the Name (Urim, 2019).