A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.

Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran

[Web Page Last Revised: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 02:33 PM ]


Chapter 15. Atheists, Agnostics and Non-Jews

The title should not annoy the reader. The last subject is presented in contrast and not complementary to the first ones, in duplication of the style of Maimonides in his Mishne Torah. He states:

One may not make a covenant with the "seven nations" to make peace with them in order to let them worship their idols undisturbed ... they must either repent or be killed and we may not pity them. If one of them is drowning ... we are forbidden to save him. However to kill them outright is forbidden since they do not war with us. However, all this is concerning the "seven nations" only; the betrayers and "apikorsim" of the Jewish Nation are to be destroyed with positive action and they are to be thrown into bottomless pits because they harm the Jewish Nation and force the people to leave G~d.

The reason for the harsh treatment of the "seven nations" (mentioned in the Torah as being inherent idol-worshippers and evil peoples to be eventually annihilated) is another subject altogether. Let it suffice to say that so is G~d's will and we have no right to question it. The practical implications are non-existent; we cannot trace any people today back to these seven nations.

The point intended in the quoting of the lengthy passage from Maimonides is to show how the Torah's attitude is much harsher toward Jewish non-believers than it is even toward the seven nations and certainly toward other non-Jews, who are in no way marked for any harm. [Note that the law, that betrayers and "apikorsim" ... are to be destroyed ..., has also been declared to be non-applicable today.]

The Hebrew terms used to describe these non-believing Jews are "min", "kofer", and "apikoros". The exact meanings of each of these words and the specific types of disbelief implied by each one in distinction to the others are the subject of controversy in the Talmud and in later Jewish thought. Allusions are found, for instance, concerning the meaning of "apikoros" which translate it as "one who embarrasses a talmudic scholar", "one who sins in spite", "one who embarrasses his fellow man before a talmudic scholar", "one who denies the existence of prophecy", "one who denies G~d's omniscience", "one who causes many others to sin", or "one who denies the future resurrection of the dead". Quite likely is the hypothesis that all of these definitions are correct, each one of them portraying a person who causes irreparable harm to his fellow men.

Maimonides lists no less than five types who qualify for the title "min" and then lists a roster of similar non-believers, totalling twenty-four different types of people who lose their reward in the next world because of their lack of basic belief or their perverted outlook. The technicalities involved in listing the particulars of this subject, like which types of non-belief are included under which category, are overwhelming. We shall, for the sake of simplicity, dispense with said details. I direct the reader to use the simple and fairly accurate rule of thumb that anyone who willfully rejects one or more of the basic tenets of Judaism, as listed in the last chapter, is either a "min", "apikoros" or "kofer", their implications being the same. These people lose their reward in the next world, unless they repent from their non-belief before they die.

Turning now to the non-Jew, we find quite a different story. With the exception of the idol-worshipper, the non-Jew is not, contrary to popular belief, and to the attitude of orthodox Christianity toward the Jews, damned in any way whatsoever. The Jews are not to try to hurt non-Jews or even to try to convert them to Judaism. The non-Jew is capable of, as we have already stated once, fulfilling his purpose in life, and thereby winning G~d's favor as well as can any Jew. As the Talmud states: A non-Jew who fulfills his obligations and studies the Torah is compared to the High Priest of the Jews. (Note: this refers to the study of the parts of the Torah which apply to the non-Jew, and only those parts. Quite to the contrary is the attitude of the Torah toward a non-Jew studying the Jew's laws, venturing into what has nothing to do with him. Only after conversion to Judaism can he study the entire Torah, for then he is a Jew like any other Jew.)

To become one of what the Talmud calls "the righteous of the other nations" a non-Jew must faithfully observe the seven commandments set down for him by the Torah. He must do so with the express intention that he is doing so because it is G~d's will, as related to Moses on Mount Sinai. Therefore one who fulfills the seven commandments by chance, or through human reasoning, or because of man-made laws does not receive reward for doing so and is a spiritual failure, not having lived up to his purpose on earth. The seven commandments of the non-Jew, according to Maimonides, are the following:

  1. Not to worship idols – to recognize one G~d as the creator and ruler of the universe and to put trust in nothing else.
  2. Not to "curse" G~d – to treat G~d's name with reverence and to utter nothing nor entertain any thought which is "anti" G~d.
  3. Not to kill another human being.
  4. Not to have illicit sexual relations – the relatives included in this prohibition are one's mother, paternal aunt, or sister (from the same mother). Also forbidden is intercourse with another man's wife, homosexual relations and relations with animals.
  5. Not to steal – any amount of money, no matter how small, from any man, in any way whatsoever.
  6. Not to eat a limb torn from a living animal – though the non-Jew is not subject to the other dietary laws of the Jew, this law applies to all men.
  7. To set up courts to deal with violators of the other six commandments – and to mete out capital punishment to those who violate any of them, for this is the only punishment applicable to a non-Jew's violation of his seven laws.

Some of these commandments are "sensible" while others, including possibly the punishment for the violation of any of them, are not as acceptable to the "enlightened" mind. None of this makes the slightest bit of difference. G~d has given us His laws to fulfill, not to question.

I would like to close this chapter with an excerpt from the Midrash, the homiletical comments on the Torah written by many of the same authors who appear in the Talmud. The quote, liberally translated, for the sake of clarity, follows:

Rabbi Berachia in the name of Rabbi Abahu says: If the text would have said "And I (G~d) will separate the other nations from you" then there would be no hope or room for improvement for the other nations; but, in fact, the text states "And I will separate you from the other nations," the case being comparable to one who picks out the better from the worse, only to return again and choose the best of the remaining ones. But one who chooses the bad ones out of the good ones does not return to the bad ones again.

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