This week’s parsha is named after Noah, the man chosen by God to regenerate the existence of the world following the Flood. Our Sages develop an halakhic concept around this personality: a “son of Noah”, a concept expressing the status of a gentile within the Jewish system of halakha. Just as a Jew is obligated to observe commandments, a “son of Noah” is likewise obligated to observe commandments – seven in number. Rambam lists them, as follows:
“Adam was commanded concerning six things: [the prohibitions of] idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, stealing, and to establish a system of law. Although all [these commandments] are defined as being passed down as a tradition from Moshe Rabbeinu [i.e., that they were commanded to Adam], and they all in fact make sense, there is actually also textual support suggesting that they were commanded to him.. And for Noah, God added the additional prohibition of eating a limb from a living animal, as it is written: “But you shall not eat meat with its soul, its blood”. Thus there were seven commandments, and this applied to the entire world until [the time of] Avraham.” (Laws of Kings, chapter 9)
Rambam quotes the Sages’ definition of the seven commandments that apply to the “sons of Noah” as he lists them in his Laws of Kings: six of them had already been given to Adam, while Noah and his sons were given one additional commandment. This creates a total of six negative commandments and one positive one.
If we review the list of commandments that the “sons of Noah” are obligated to observe, it is difficult to perceive any common denominator that would explain what lies behind them: why is it specifically these laws that are obligatory for all of mankind?
One interesting explanation is to be found in a work by Hermann Cohen, a Jewish philosopher who lived in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century and considered one of the Jewish thinkers who helped to create a new modern Jewish philosophy as a reaction to general philosophy. The Tanakh was one of the most important and central sources in Cohen’s thought, and he explained and interpreted many excerpts and concepts from it.
Cohen regarded the concept of the “sons of Noah” and the seven commandments incumbent upon them from a moral point of view. In his famous work “Relgion der vernunft aus den quellen des judentums” he claims the following:
“As a “son of Noah” he is not commanded to observe the Torah of Moshe, but rather only seven commandments – these are the seven commandments to the sons of Noah, and these seven commandments are of purely moral character. Only one apparently religious obligation is included among them: the prohibition against blaspheming and insulting God and the prohibition against idolatry… These must of necessity be included, so that the land will not be polluted through idolatry and so that its inhabitants will not go astray after it. But all the rest of the commandments incumbent upon a son of Noah are moral ones.”
Cohen regards the commandments to the sons of Noah as moral instructions given by God to all of humanity in order to create norms for society. (Concerning the prohibitions against blasphemy and idolatry, he explains that their function is to prevent the Jews from being drawn after the “sons of Noah” who dwell among them). Orderly life conducted by society – Jewish and gentile alike – must be based upon a certain moral level which itself is inspired by a Divine source.
Cohen is making a most important statement: that God addresses not only the forefathers of the Jewish nation and their descendants, but to the forefathers of all of humanity and their descendants. Every command creates a relationship of attention on the part of God and commitment on the part of man, and this applies to every person qua person: God addresses and takes an interest in him, while he, for his part, is obligated in certain duties.
The significance from our point of view today is the same moral perspective that Cohen presents: we must try to evaluate human society by moral parameters, and to advance and improve the moral social reality in attitudes towards each other, in assistance for the needy, and in other social spheres.