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Noahide Rebirth, 1990

April 28-30, 1990

by Rabbi Michael Katz

   Introductory Comments
by Rabbi Menachem Burstin

 " "I must also add," said Rabbi Burstin,"the name of another important participant in this convention. I mean Rabbi Michael Katz from the United States, who has been the rabbi and teacher of one of the Bnai Noach communities for some years. He studied at Belt Hatalmud in Israel and by consultation with important American rabbis decided to take on himself the job of guiding one of these gentile communities. And he helped us during the convention to find a common language and understanding with them."

From page 9 of the Bnai Noach article "Parashat Matot" by Rabbi Menachem Burstin

Also see A Brief History of the Modern B'nai Noach Movement, by Jack Saunders  

Rabbi Michael Katz was an Orthodox rabbi residing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In August 1989 he was approached by two local gentleman who called themselves Ben Noachs, asking the rabbi if he would provide them assistance in their understanding of the Seven Laws of Noah. Rabbi Katz accepted the request, which eventually lead him to becoming the spiritual guide of both congregations in Athens, Tennessee (Emmanuel Congregation) and Cohutta, Georgia (Rev. Jack E. Saunders' Frazier's Chapel) that had renounced Christianity to become Bnai Noach study centers. In the rabbi's own words, "When you are the only Orthodox rabbi within a radius of over 100 miles in the Christian Bible-belt, you expect some strange calls for information from Gentiles of every description. For me the one call that catapulted me into unexplored territory came in August of 1989."

Rabbi Katz writes:  

Over the past few years we have seen the resurrection of the Noahide community--an obscure and poorly defined concept in Jewish theology

As Jews, we understand that G-d has entered into a unique and eternal covenant with Israel. At the same time we accept that G-d has not discarded gentiles as irrelevant in His creation. If G-d has a program for gentiles, what is its nature? What does G-d expect of gentiles?

The Talmud in Sanhedrin tells us of the seven laws of B'nai Noah. These may be summarized as prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, the eating of parts of an animal while it is still alive, incest and adultery, and the requirement to establish a system of justice. As Rambam indicates in Hilchos Melachim, these laws must be accepted as a Divine contract.

These seven laws should really be understood as seven categories for they encompass many details. There are halachic opinions, for example, that maintain that the requirements of justice necessitates a legal code that mirrors all of the Jewish civil law.

Additional laws such as charity, tithing, and levirate marriages have been added by the Gaonin and Rishonim. Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon enumerated 30 commandments that are binding on B'nai Noah. All would agree, however, that only the seven are derived from the Torah (either in the commandments to Adam or those to Noah) are capital sins the transgression of which is punishable by execution.

Jews are bound to enforce the Noahide Code to the extent that is possible given their own circumstances of exile.

Were the Noahide Code to have remained as it has for millennia, an esoteric tangential area of study, we could be satisfied with what we have. This is no longer possible.

Noahide communities have, in fact, come and gone throughout our history. We know of Noahide communities from Tanach. The descendants of Yisro were the Kenites who studied Torah with Osniel ben Kenaz when there were not too many Jews clamoring for shiurim. Yael was the defender of Jews as she slew Sisera. Saul asks them to leave the battleground and be spared harm in the battle against Amalek. Later they surface as the Rachibites in Jeremiah's days.

In modern times communities have existed in European countries but did not survive for very long or leave much impact on history. Aime Palliere, the disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozeg, contributed his autobiography, The Unknown Sanctuary, a work that until recent years lived in obscurity.

Are the Noahides of today destined for the same fate?

This brings us to the amazing happenings in Southeastern Tennessee.

When you are the only Orthodox rabbi within a radius of over 100 miles in the Christian Bible-belt you expect some strange calls for information from gentiles of every description. For me the one call that catapulted me into unexplored territory came in August of 1989.

J. David Davis, the pastor of a church, once Baptist, in Athens, Tennessee, was calling for information on the Noahide Covenant. He, together with Jack E. Saunders, the pastor of a once Baptist congregation in North Georgia, met with me and described their odyssey from fundamentalist Christianity to their recognition of the chosenness of the Jews and to their desire to discover what plan the Jewish G-d had for gentiles.

(I deliberately used the terminology "jewish G-d" and not the more familiar "G-d of Israel" because of Christian belief that Christians are the "new Israel.")

We began studying the Seven Commandments of B'nai Noah.

I soon discovered two things I had not expected. First, I was amazed at the dedication of these two men and their communities. Both communities had stripped themselves of all Baptist trappings, including the removal of the steeple on their building. Both communities watched as half their numbers resigned in disgust to seek out "true Christians churches." They withstood enormous pressure from their families and friends who were convinced that they had cast their fate with the devil (!) and would lose their eternal reward. And they all displayed incredible love and respect for the Torah and for the Jewish People, although they disdainfully reject those Jewish philosophies such as non-Orthodox Judaism that are not obedient to the Torah and Talmud. Indeed, it is rabbinic Judaism that these Noahides embrace.

Secondly, I was dismayed to find that there did not exist a Shulchan Aruch, a Code of Law, for B'nai Noah. Many Jews are surprised by this. They think that seven laws should be easy to follow. Yet each one of these commandments has many details.

For example, does the prohibition against thief include a fruit-picker eating the fruit as he gathers it (permitted for a Jewish laborer in a Jewish owned orchard)? Does the prohibition on murder include abortion? Does the prohibition on sexual sins include homosexuality? And most important, does the prohibition on idolatry include some or all of Christian practice?

How do Noahides marry? Can they divorce? May they celebrate Jewish holidays? May they rest on Sundays?

There is no single answer to these and many other problems Noahides need resolved. On practically every issue there is a dispute among Achronim, Rishionim and even Amoraim and Tannaim. Whether or not the prohibition against eating the limb of a living creature (not far-fetched when you consider that the liver is removed from slaughtered animals before they are halachically dead) applies to chicken depends on a Tannaitic dispute as to whether or not chicken is meat.

Who, indeed, is prepared to do today for B'nai Noah what Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moshe Isserless did for Jews? Who is capable of doing so?

Some 250 people from all over the USA attend the annual conferences usually held in Tennessee. In April of 1990 a conference was held in Ft. Worth, Texas, organized by Vendyl Jones, once a Baptist minister himself, who had become something of a Biblical archaeologist. Aside from Jones, Davis, and Saunders, the conference heard from Dr. James Tabor, a Noahide who is professor of ancient religion at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte). The conference heard from a number of rabbis including me and Rabbi Menachem Burstin who was sent to the conference by Rabbi Mordechai Elihu, the sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.

An accord was reached whereby the Chief Rabbinate of Israel would recognize the fledgling Noahide movement in the United States and develop a Shukchan Aruch for them. Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, a well-known author of halachic and philosophical works in Jerusalem, would undertake the editing of such a code in consultation with leading authorities in Israel.

In the meantime contact has been established with small groups of Noahides inother countries. There is no doubt that the concept is spreading and gaining respectability. The revival of this concept at this time may well be one of the indications that we are living be'ikvesa de'mashicha--in the footsteps of the Messiah.

Indeed, Noahides tell me that their desire is to fulfill Zechariah's prophecy and clutch on to my tzitzis as I go to meet the Messiah and study Torah in Zion. 

Rabbi Michael Katz
Beth Shalom
Chattanooga, Tennessee



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