The Whites (and Others) Who Want to Be Jews
A MAN with a brambly salt-and-pepper beard, a kippah on his head, and circular glasses balanced on his nose stood behind a podium, lecturing on the parasha, the weekly Torah reading, in a southern twang. He was not a rabbi. He wasn’t even Jewish. (ILLUSTRATION: Rabbi Michael Schulman, who encourages Noahidism among non-Jews)
In front of him, an audience of about 20 sat in rows, listening attentively. Some wore head wraps and dresses suitable for a wedding, and others looked like they came in off the street. One man boasted neck tattoos and a gauge earring….
They call themselves Righteous Noahides: non-Jews who believe in Orthodox Judaism. According to Jewish theology, there are laws that Jews must obey, the 613 mitzvot, but then there are seven laws for children of Noah — everyone else in the world. They are: Do not deny God; do not blaspheme; do not murder; do not engage in incest, adultery, pederasty, or bestiality; do not steal; do not eat of a live animal; and establish courts.
The Noahide laws, which are derived from passages in the Torah, were enumerated in the Talmud. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides urged their observance on non-Jews, writing, “Anyone who accepts upon himself and carefully observes the Seven Commandments is of the Righteous of the Nations of the World and has a portion in the World to Come.” But the idea never really caught on among non-Jews.
But about 40 years ago, Chabad grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson launched a global “Noahide Campaign,” writing and speaking about the need for Righteous Noahide communities, believing Noahide laws would bring about peace and understanding and would hasten the coming of the Messiah. Some non-Jews listened. For example, in 1987, President Reagan signed a proclamation glorifying “the historical tradition of ethical values and principles, which have been the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization when they were known as the Seven Noahide Laws, transmitted through God to Moses on Mount Sinai.”
Noahidism now encompasses communities around the world, especially in Great Britain, the Philippines, Latin America, Nigeria, Russia, and the United States. According to Rabbi Michael Schulman, who runs Noahide Web site AskNoah.org, the Philippines may have the most developed community, with well over 1,000 adults and their children living in a collection of agricultural towns. They run Hebrew schools, community meetings, and even a national summit.
The group I visited, called Netiv, is a bustling 40-person community located in Humble, Texas — in the United States, Texas is the center of Noahide life. Some members travel over two hours each way, two or three times a week, for classes. They obey the Noahide laws, but they also take the concept further, endeavoring to obey other mitzvot and learn more from Judaism.
Adults set out a potluck in the kitchen while children ran around. The man with neck tattoos showed everyone the Kabbalistic painting he made and auctioned it to the crowd.
But the main event was Rod Bryant’s lecture on the parasha, in which Moshe — Bryant used Moses’ Hebrew name — strikes down an Egyptian for beating a Jew. It’s a familiar story, but Bryant put a Noahide spin on it. He emphasized how Moshe stood up for what he knew was right, despite the masses around him just following the status quo.
Like Moshe, Bryant said, Noahides struggle to stand up for their beliefs, despite being surrounded by Christian families and friends. Unlike those around them, Noahides do not identify as Christian. Their feelings on Christianity and Jesus range from respect of the “all religions have something to offer” variety to palpable disdain. They’ve given up what they consider idol worship to follow Jewish theology.
Bryant didn’t always teach Torah; he was a Pentecostal chaplain in the Army during the first Gulf War. He started a small study group in his house that got so large that it moved to a church. Around that time, Bryant began finding inconsistencies in Christian scripture, so he started digging into historical records.
“It was like archeology,” Bryant recalled….
The typical story goes like this: A person starts out Christian. (I’ve yet to meet someone who came to Noahidism from anything else. Bryant said one Muslim girl used to stop by, but her family found out and put a stop to it.) These seekers then find inconsistencies between the scripture and the priest’s or minister’s teachings. They start asking questions their religious leaders can’t answer to their satisfaction, questions like: “Why don’t we keep the Sabbath?” “Why do babies need to be baptized?” “If the Bible says God is one, why do we have a Trinity?”
And so on.
Thus begins a journey into different kinds of Christianity. Some searchers become Seventh Day Adventists, who obey Old Testament commandments. Many, interestingly enough, join Messianic Judaism, which becomes a stepping-stone toward more traditional Judaism — apparently, Jews for Jesus can occasionally bring Christians to Judaism rather than the other way around.
At some point, many give up Christianity altogether, which puts them in a boat that seems to be taking on water….
People around the Waers didn’t really know what was going on when they became Noahides, and many confuse them for Muslim. Even the Waers’ three daughters were perplexed by the sudden “Guess what, kids! We’re not Catholic anymore!” nature of their family’s change, but they noticed that their parents seemed happier.
Ryan Smith’s journey to Noahidism was considerably different. While incarcerated in 2009, he dreamed he was watching the news, and the weatherman said there would be a solar flare causing temperatures to hit about 800 degrees.
In the dream, Smith waited for everything to start burning. Then he saw some sort of figure coming out of the sky, saying, “Don’t be afraid, I’ve come to take my people home.” Smith started crying in his sleep and woke up.
Despite growing up Catholic, Smith had never seriously read a Bible before, but the moment after waking up from an apocalyptic dream seemed like a good time to start. He went on to research religion obsessively and even taught himself to read Hebrew, he said, so he could read the Torah. He contacted Schulman, the rabbi who runs AskNoah.org, from whom he learned about Noahidism, and began teaching Noahidism to other inmates, turning it into a small prison religion.
For Smith, who has since been released and is now volunteering with Schulman, Noahidism changed everything; he wouldn’t take back being incarcerated.
“It was the highlight of my existence,” he said. “I’m glad I went there.”
Just as paths to Noahidism are different, so are individual practices. Tina Sachs is a Noahide, and her husband is a secular Jew. For her, Noahidism mainly means attending classes at Netiv and lighting candles on Shabbat. On the other hand, others at Netiv are “Noahide Hasidim,” as Bryant, the Netiv leader, jokingly calls them….
Noahides elicit mixed responses from religious Jews. When I first began researching Noahidism, one rabbi emailed me, telling me to avoid a particular Noahide leader, saying the leader was “throwing teachings like pasta at the wall to see what sticks.”
Some rabbis emphasize that Noahides should not perform any mitzvot designated specifically for Jews; they point to interpretations of Genesis 8:22 that argue it is forbidden for non-Jews to keep Shabbat. According to Maimonides:
The general principle governing these matters is: [Non-Jews] are not to be allowed to originate a new religion or create mitzvot for themselves based on their own decisions. They may either become righteous converts and accept all the mitzvot, or retain their statutes [in the Noahide Code] without adding or detracting from them.
Arilio Navarro understands these concerns, but he doesn’t abide by them.
“There are a lot of blessings that come with Shabbat, and I don’t want to leave them on the table,” he said. “I spent most of my life doing that; I don’t want to do that anymore. I have a Jewish soul.”…
One thing about Noahides: They really, really want to be accepted by Jews.
“We all came from Adam and Chava,” Smith pointed out. “We’re all related, just with very big branches.”
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