Reader: I am a new Noachide and recently received an inquiry from a Christian acquaintance asking me about something that Rabbi Maimonides wrote. I am unfamiliar with this work of the Rabbi and I do not know how to answer this person's questions. The quote by the Rabbi and the inquiry that follows are below:
“Whoever accepts the seven commandments and observes them with care is considered a pious Gentile, and has a share in the eternal life; but this is on condition that he receive them and fulfill them because G-d commanded them in the Torah, and made us to know (them) through Moses our teacher, because the sons of Noah were commanded in them earlier.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakim 8.11)
Does this mean that if a gentile doesn't know or believe that the Noachide precepts were revealed in the Torah, but he keeps them anyway, he doesn't have a share in eternal life because of his lack of belief? Just wondering how belief vs action comes together in this quote. I'm thinking of the many moral pagans who never knew anything of the Jewish Scripture.
Mesora: Your quote from Maimonides is accurate, but incomplete. He continues to conclude that law as follows:
“…But, if they were done (the Noachide commands) from one’s own decisions, this is not a Gare Toshav (proselyte) and he is not of the righteous of the worldly nations, and not of their wise people.”
Maimonides concludes his law, teaching that eternal life depends on the fulfillment of the Noachide laws, but only if fulfilled as “G-d’s commands.” Interesting though, Maimonides formulates his latter statement addressing one who acts from his own knowledge – not G-d’s command – but surprisingly, he omits the gentile’s loss of eternal life. Does he mean to say that although the gentile is not acting in accord with Torah law, he nonetheless merits eternal life? This omission is very significant. In the beginning of his law, as you quoted, Maimonides states clearly that one who merits eternal life is one who follows the Noachide principles as “commands of G-d”. It would follow, if one does NOT follow these Noachide commands based on Torah obligation, he should forfeit his eternal life. But Maimonides omits such a statement.
The verse from which this principle is derived is Psalms, 9:18:
“Return ye wicked to the grave, all peoples (who) forget G-d.”
This verse teaches that there is one cause for those who will return to the grave. (Rashi teaches in Sanhedrin, 105a that “returning to the grave” means a loss of eternal life.) This one cause is the “forgetting of G-d”. One who forgets G-d (not cognizant of Him) causes his or her forfeiture of eternal life.
Perhaps Maimonides correctly distinguishes between what it is that renders one a proselyte, and what forfeits one’s eternal life. One is considered a proselyte if he adheres to the commands of G-d. The following of these same seven Noachide laws - not as a fulfillment of G-d’s word - does not make one a proselyte. Only if one follows these seven laws ‘to fulfill G-d’s commands’, does he become a proselyte. A Torah status of “proselyte” devolves only upon the person who meets the Torah’s criteria. Such a person also inherits eternal life by a fulfillment of G-d’s word. But if one follows the seven Noachide laws, from his own reasoning, he is not a proselyte.
However, Maimonides teaches that the latter does not forfeit eternal life. Since one may come to the realization of G-d on his own, he does in fact receive eternal life. He is not a proselyte, as this Torah status only devolves upon one who fulfills the Torah’s criteria. A Torah status of “proselyte” is achieved only via Torah adherence. But eternal life is not determined by fulfillment of commands - an interesting point. One may inherit the World to Come, although he has not fulfilled the seven Noachide laws as an act of subjugation to G-d’s word. The World to Come is granted to one who realizes G-d, even if arrived at by his own reasoning, and when this reasoning guides him to follow the same principles contained in the seven Noachide laws outlined by the Torah.
For example, one may live without a Torah, ponder the world, and recognize his Creator. He may then continue his probing of the world, and arrive at the same seven principles enveloped in the Noachide laws. He then follows these principles - his mind alone reasons that these principles are truths. This person never heard of the Torah, yet, he arrived at the same truths contained in the Noachide laws. Maimonides teaches that such a person inherits eternal life. We have an example of a person similar to this, Abraham.
It appears that Maimonides derived his principle from the verse in Psalms, “Return ye wicked to the grave, all peoples (who) forget G-d.” Only those who forget G-d lose eternal life. But if one recognizes G-d, even on his own, he merits eternal life.
Eternal life, then, is only possible if one recognizes G-d. Why is this? Why isn’t the adherence to the Noachide laws alone sufficient? The answer is based on an understanding of “eternal life”.
Eternal life is synonymous with realizing G-d. It is a state in which man’s soul continues after physical life. All that exists of man after life is his soul. His body decays in the grave, but his non-physical feature – his soul – is not affected by physical death. The soul continues to exist. But how? It is by G-d’s will that the soul which studied Torah during its Earthly stay, should reach even higher knowledge after death, for eternity. This is the blissful state that all our Sages anticipated. They enjoyed their studies during life, but with the impediments necessary to procure health and wealth. These were distractions. After life, such needs are inapplicable. The Sages realized this state would be one of uninterrupted thought, and higher knowledge of G-d. They looked forward to this state. Conversely, many Jews and gentiles believe the next world to be something different. Maimonides classifies many groups possessing faulty notions of the next world, based on their Earthly and material desires. However, the Sages possessed correct knowledge of the afterlife. They knew that it is not of Earthly phenomena. They anticipated a pure state of acknowledging truths, with no interruption, and no cessation. Only one, who appreciates and looks forward to new ideas here, will enjoy an afterlife bereft of physical hurdles.
If one’s studies do not eventuate in the appreciation of G-d, then the afterlife is impossible. All knowledge must culminate in an appreciation of the Creator; otherwise, it is not true, knowledge. Why is this so? This is because “knowledge”, by definition, means knowledge of “something.” We can study mathematics, physics, philosophy, and even Torah. But if knowledge in any area is not viewed as a reflection of G-d’s wisdom, then it is not knowledge. In such a flawed state, we lack the central component of our knowledge – that what we learned stems from G-d. Our studies are a complete failure. Our purpose in life, in every activity, is to come closer to knowledge of G-d. Therefore, there can be no continued existence after death, if such a state is not a continued knowledge of G-d.
We must realize how essential it is to possess accurate knowledge, and knowledge of G-d. Maimonides formulates his law perfectly. One may become a “proselyte” only through strict fulfillment of the Torah’s criteria. But even if one does not become a proselyte, he may still inherit the World to Come, if he has acquired accurate knowledge of G-d. This must be so, as the Torah was not given to mankind until the year 2448. What eternal life was available to Adam, Eve, Noah, and the rest of the world, if Torah must be followed as a pre-requisite? The answer is that even without Torah adherence, eternal life was, and is available to all those who acquire knowledge of G-d.
One last point on Maimonides’ formulation: He says that one is a proselyte, provided he fulfills the Noachide laws as G-d’s laws, instructed through Moses, “that Noachides prior to Sinai were commanded in them.” What is Maimonides saying by, “that Noachides prior to Sinai were commanded in them”?
It appears that a Noachide must comprehend that his laws originated prior to Sinai. Why?
In Maimonides’ previous law, he states that Moses caused only the Jews to inherit the Torah. This teaches a new lesson: Noachide laws, by definition, must be understood to be a system separate from the Torah given at Sinai. Although included in the text of the Torah, the Noachide laws predate Sinai. This Noachide system exists today, as it existed before the Torah. The Torah encapsulates two systems, Noachide laws, and Judaic laws. Torah is for all mankind. However, just as parts of the Torah apply only to priests, so too, parts of the Torah apply to Noachides alone.
Maimonides teaches that Noachides must comprehend that their system is not part of Judaic Torah, but it is a system that G-d commanded much earlier. This knowledge is essential to their fulfillment of their commands. If a Noachide feels he is following something that originated at Sinai, what does he lack? He lacks the realization of the nature of Noachide law. Noachide laws address not what Judaic Torah address. Judaic Torah is the ultimate system for the highest perfection in man, which also includes the seven Noachide principles. But the Noachide system differs: it is the basic, fundamental laws entitling man to human existence. As Maimonides states, “And anyone who does not accept the Noachide laws, is killed.” The Noachide system is one that procures a right to a continued life. This idea is central to one’s adherence to the Noachide laws. One must realize he fulfills these laws as his right to existence. A Jew too, must be concerned with the curses that befall him, or the nation, when Torah is abandoned. But the Noachide laws, when abandoned, are met with death, and are thus, a more grave violation.
G-d’s will is that there be one nation, the Jews, who study and teach Torah to the world. These Jews must be highly refined in their knowledge and in their morality. This is not the role of other nations. But any person created, may decide to benefit by joining the Jewish nation, and such a proselyte will be consider equal to the Jew, as it is written, “as you (are) so is the proselyte”.