Saturday, January 24, 2015

Strong Evidence that the Talmudic-Era Rabbis Rejected the One-Law Doctrine Taught by Second-Temple-Era Rabbis

Earlier today I was reading Rambam's letter to Hasdai Halevi and noticed that Rambam's quote of the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin, Folio 59a) appeared to change the quote from an anti-One-Law position (since the Talmudic version reinterprets "Torah" in the context as referring to the "Gentile's Torah" or "Noahide Laws") to a Pro-One-Law position:
"As to your question about the nations, know that the Lord desires the heart, and that the intention of the heart is the measure of all things.  That is why our sages say 'The pious men among the Gentiles have a share in the World-to-Come,' namely, if they have acquired what can be acquired of the knowledge of God, and if they ennoble their souls with worthy qualities.  There is no doubt that every man who ennobles his soul with excellent morals and wisdom based on the faith in God, certainly belongs to the men of the World-to-Come.  That is why our sages said, 'Even a non-Jew who studied the Torah of our master Moses resembles the High Priest," Rambam, Letter to Hasdai Halevi, 12th Century, as quoted in Jacob S. Minkin's "The Teachings of Maimonides"
To what Sages does he refer?  I thought naively that he was referring to this passage:
"R. Johanan said: A heathen who studies the Torah deserves death, for it is written, Moses commandedus a law for an inheritance; it is our inheritance, not theirs. Then why is this not included in the Noachian laws? — On the reading morasha [an inheritance] he steals it; on the reading me'orasah[betrothed], he is guilty as one who violates a betrothed maiden, who is stoned.  An objection is raised: R. Meir used to say. Whence do we know that even a heathen who studies the Torah is as a High Priest? From the verse, [Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments:] which, if man do, he shall live in them.  Priests, Levites, and Israelites are not mentioned, but men: hence thou mayest learn that even a heathen who studies the Torah is as a High Priest! — That refers to their own seven laws," B.T., Sanhedrin, Folio 59a, taken from
But it turns out that there is a much earlier version of this in Sifra.  Sifra was a midrashic commentary on Leviticus that came out in the Second Temple era or perhaps circa the Bar Kochba revolt (see note at end of post).  Notice that the earlier Sifra version does not have anything in it about the so-called "Noahide Laws":
"From where do you know that a gentile who practices the Torah is equal to the High Priest?  There is a teaching in this respect in the Scriptural verse that reads, '[You shall observe my decrees and my laws,] which man shall carry out and by which he shall live' (Lev 18:5).  And likewise it says:  'This is the Torah of man, O Lord God' (2 Sam 7:19).  It does not say:  'This is the Torah of Priests, Levites, Israelites', but, 'This is the Torah of man,'" (Sifra, Ahare Mot 13:13, I. H. Weiss edition)
It's just purely One-Law.  I then realized that Rambam wasn't quoting from B.T. Sanhedrin 59a at all.  I only assumed that he was because I was unaware of the Sifra passage.  (However, Rambam elsewhere specifically references B.T. Sanhedrin 59a and incorporates it into his halachic decision-making).

The most frustrating thing about B.T. Sanhedrin 59a is that the underlying argument from Leviticus is that "man" (mankind broadly, not any particular ethnicity) is supposed to keep the chukim and mishpatim (i.e. the Torah of Moses, which is exactly what Rambam references in his letter) yet---YET--the Talmudic rabbis completely set this aside and replace it with the so-called "Noahide Laws."

Now, in defense of the rabbis, maybe they were reacting to Christian persecution at the time--I have no idea. But this little interpolation of Noahide Laws cannot be sustained in light of Jewish Tradition (from Sifra, and from the wording in Leviticus).

...unless someone has a different opinion.  I'm open to anything I may have missed.


"An early version of Sifra even dates back to Hasmonean times.  Stemberger, however, can prove that Finkelstein's arguments do not bear close examination.  The preferred exegetical rules of Ribbui (amplification) und Miut (restriction) rather show that the text in its oldest version can hardly have been written before 70 and in any case has to be dated to rabbinic times, to the decades after the Bar Kochba revolt at the earliest," Rendtorff, et al, "The Book of Leviticus:  Composition and Reception, Volume 93", pg. 407


  1. Hovav Ben Avraham AvinuJanuary 24, 2015 at 9:29 PM

    I don't think they "changed" or edited anything... they just updated the idea to match the nohide idea. It did not exist as such on the first "draft" of this tradition, and, when it became more fully developed, they made a way to systematize the whole concept.

    Traditional Judaism is completly "one law"! The gentile is accepted on the covenant of Abraham as a full member and receives the whole Torah upon himself.
    "Noahide laws" - and it's antecessors - were only a series of steps of the non-jew on his way to becoming a full jew: a way of making sense of the ones who had not completed the process yet.
    Actually this idea too is very One Law: one is saved even if he has not completed the process of conversion. When that stopped being the theory, it was still the practice: the whole notion of noahides only made sense for gentiles getting near to judaism and, also, as a matter of scatology.
    The whole idea was also very functional on determining relationships with the prevailing christian and muslim cultures - but nor so much a soteriology issue, at least not practically.

    It becomes a soteriology and a philosophy only recently, and gets really going - as far as I'm concerned - only on the end of last century!

    The whole noahide idea as existing today is only really a problem when it gets involved with new testament ideas because it is completly anachronistic and non-sense: The NT see gentiles as part of the abrahamic and Israelite covenant and does not even mention Noach on this issue. Being a nohide was a later figuring out of non-covenant-members status in relation to God. Summoning this category as undertood by the rabbis to deal with NT problems makes no sense, but is completly logical from a rabbinic perspective! Actually, it has much more to do with the status of gentiles who never heard about the God of Israel from the jews (as perhaps Paul deals on Romans 1 &
    2), than with anyone who has a relationship with the G-d of Israel through the messiah.

  2. G-d's love is revealed only via the Revealed Torah which contains positively-framed commands such as "love the Lord your God". Yet the so-called Noahide Laws only contain negatively-framed commands which would imply that G-d does not love the Gentiles.

    That's problem #1.

    The other issue is that Noahide is unworkable. It presents the false idea that man doesn't need Scripture (i.e. Revealed Law), he simply needs his own mind. That's false. Men have different conceptions of what is moral and what is immoral and, consequently, are in dire need of the Revealed Torah.

    That's problem #2.

    I could go on but I'd like to hear your rebuttable to those 2 issues.

  3. Hovav Ben Avraham AvinuJanuary 25, 2015 at 1:51 PM

    I partially agree with you on the first one Peter, that's why I don't live by noahide laws! I would only disagree on the strong terms about what that meaning G-d does not love them, since it could be understood differently.
    I'm just saying that on the rabbinic system noahide laws make sense. And the idea that through his mind man can come up with a moral system that resembles Torah is not mine, not even only rabbinical, you yourself have already mentioned a belief in some time of natural Law and that is exactly what I meant.

  4. Shalom Hovav (and Shalom to my Brazilian Brothers and Sisters),

    First, glad that you're not Noahide.

    Second, I want to address the idea of Gentiles seeking the Jews once they reach a certain threshold of knowledge about "Natural Law."

    I see Natural Law as a glimpse into Torah. However, this glimpse is easily obscured by the evil inclination. And we both agree that Scripture is necessary. Yet you mentioned Gentiles going to the Jews.

    If that were the case that G-d wanted Gentiles to go to the Jews wouldn't that course lead to a wide-scale rejection of Yeshua--given that the majority of Jews reject Yeshua?

    Because not only do we need Scripture but we need a legitimate interpretation of it. The common Jewish interpretation of Scripture is that the Apostolic Writings are not Scripture, that Yeshua is not the Messiah.

    Thus, it seems to me that Yeshua would send folks to communities (or communal traditions) that offer proper understandings on the fundamental issues, communities that teach for example that salvation comes only through belief in Yeshua, that Yeshua is G-d, etc.

    Blessings to the Messianic Community in Brazil,


    (P.S. If you ever want to do a guest post about what it's like being Messianic in your part of the world, you are welcome)

  5. Hovav Ben Avraham AvinuJanuary 26, 2015 at 8:55 AM

    I think your accessment is correct. That's why what I am saying is only that noahide theology MAKES SENSE in orthodox non-messianic judaism, because thats where it was born (far away fom NT theology). In the point you start to put the Messiah and NT, the noahide idea just stops making sense. That's why I am not noahide, it is an idea that makes sense, far away from my faith in Yeshua.

    On the offer, I'll think about it, thank you very much! I just don't think there is much to say about it.