Prev | Table of Contents | Next
The Seven Laws of Noah | Terms Used for Gentiles | Interfaith Marriages | Conversion
The Torah maintains that the righteous Gentiles of all nations (those observing the Seven Laws of Noah, listed below) have a place in the World to Come. But not all religious Gentiles earn eternal life by virtue of observing their religion:
Contrary to popular belief, the Torah does not maintain that Jews are necessarily better than other people simply because they are Jews. Although we are God's chosen people, we do not believe that God chose the Jews because of any inherent superiority. According to a story in the Talmud, God offered the Torah to all the nations of the earth, and the Jews were the only ones who accepted it. According to another story, the Jews were offered the Torah last, and accepted it only because God held a mountain over their heads! Another traditional story suggests that God chose the Jews because they were the lowliest of nations, and their success would be attributed to God's might rather than their own ability. Clearly, these are not the ideas of a people who think they are inherently better than other nations.
Because of our acceptance of Torah, Jews have a special status in the eyes of God, but we lose that special status when we abandon Torah. Furthermore, the blessings that we received from God by accepting the Torah come with a high price: Jews have a greater responsibility than non-Jews. While non-Jews are only obligated to obey the seven commandments given to Noah, Jews are responsible for fulfilling the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, thus God will punish Jews for doing many things that would not be a sin for non-Jews.
According to Torah tradition, God gave Noah and his family seven commandments to observe when he saved them from the flood. These commandments, referred to as the Noahic or Noahide commandments, are learned by tradition but also suggested in Genesis Chapter 9, and are as follows:
These commandments may seem fairly simple and straightforward, and most of them are recognized by most of the world as sound moral principles. But according to the Torah only those Gentiles who observe these laws because God commanded them in His Torah will enjoy life in the World to Come: If they observe them just because they seem reasonable or because they think that God commanded them in some way other than in the Torah, they might as well not obey them so far as a part in the World to Come is concerned.
The Noahic commandments are binding on all people, because all people are descended from Noah and his family. The 613 mitzvot of the Torah, on the other hand, are only binding on the descendants of those who accepted the commandments at Sinai and upon those who take on the yoke of the commandments voluntarily (by conversion). Some say that the Noahic commandments are applied more leniently to non-Jews than the corresponding commandments are to Jews, because non-Jews do not have the benefit of Oral Torah to guide them in interpreting the laws. Some European rabbis (presumably because of fear of reprisal from their Christian neighbors, famous for their violence to Jews) have gone so far as to say that worshipping God in the form of a man constitutes idolatry for a Jew punishable by death, but the Trinitarian Christian worship of Jesus does not constitute idolatry. In truth, any idolatry for which a Jew is punishable by death is also punishable by death for non-Jews, including the worship of a man as a god.
We plan to provide on this site a full exposition of Seven Laws, including many details that could not be guessed from the listing above.
It appears that some Gentiles prefer the more neutral term non-Jew, but few today are insulted by Gentile, the classical term for them appearing often in Bible translations. When we use it here, we certainly intend no offence and hope that none is taken; we would not be writing much of this, if we were lacking in respect and affection for Gentiles.
The most commonly used Hebrew or Yiddish word for a non-Jew is goy. The word "goy" means nation, and refers to the fact that goyim are members of other nations, that is, nations other than the Children of Israel. There is nothing inherently insulting about the word "goy". In fact, the Bible occasionally refers to the Jewish people using the term "goy". Most notably, in Exodus 19,6, God says that the Children of Israel will be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation", that is, a goy kadosh. Because Jews have had so many bad experiences with anti-Semitic non-Jews over the centuries, the term "goy" has taken on some negative connotations, but in general the term is no more insulting than the word "Gentile".
The more insulting terms for non-Jews are shiksa (feminine) and shkutz or sheketz (masculine). It may be gathered that these words are derived from the Hebrew root Shin-Qof-Tzade, meaning loathsome or abomination. The word shiksa is most commonly used to refer to a non-Jewish woman who is dating or married to a Jewish man, which should give some indication of how strongly Jews are opposed to the idea of intermarriage. The term shkutz or sheketz is most commonly used to refer to an anti-Semitic man. Both terms can be used in a less serious, more joking way, but in general they should be used with caution, if at all; in fact, we personally only use these terms to refer to apostate Jews whose behavior is disgusting.
The Torah does not permit or even recognize marriages between Jews and Gentiles, if performed despite the prohibition. The punishment for Jews for such marriages is being cut off from the Jewish people and any part in the World to Come, whether the couple formally marries according to secular law or they just live together.
The Written Torah states that the children of such marriages would be lost to the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 7,3-4), and experience has shown the truth of this passage all too well: Children of intermarriage are rarely raised Jewish; they are normally raised in the faith of the non-Jewish partner or non-religious. This may reflect that Jews who intermarry are not deeply committed to their religion in the first place (if they were, why would they marry someone who did not share it?), but the statistics are sufficiently alarming to be a matter of great concern to the Jewish community.
Some Orthodox Jews go so far as to state that intermarriage is accomplishing what Hitler could not: the destruction of the Jewish people. That may seem an extreme view, but it vividly illustrates how seriously many Jews take the issue of intermarriage. Nonetheless, currently most Jews outside the Land of Israel are taking non-Jewish marital partners.
If the non-Jewish spouse truly shares the same values as the Jewish spouse, then the non-Jew is welcome to convert, and if the non-Jew does not share the same values, then the couple should not be marrying in the first place. While conversion just to allow a Gentile to marry a Jew is not legitimate, many a Gentile initially considered conversion after finding a Jewish potential marital partner, and then in the end became a sincere convert before the marriage.
In general, Jews do not try to convert non-Jews to Judaism. In fact, according to halakhah (Jewish Law), rabbis are supposed to make three vigorous attempts to dissuade a person who wants to convert to Judaism.
As the discussion above explained, Jews have a lot of responsibilities that non-Jews do not have. To be considered a good and righteous person in the eyes of God, a non-Jew need only follow the seven Noahic commandments, whereas a Jew has to follow all 613 commandments given in the Torah. If the potential convert is not going to follow those extra rules, it is better for him or her to stay a Gentile, and since we as Jews are all responsible for each other, it is better for us too if that person stayed a Gentile. The rabbinically mandated attempt to dissuade a convert is intended to make sure that the prospective convert is serious and willing to take on all this extra responsibility.
Once a person has decided to convert, the proselyte must begin to learn Jewish law and customs, and begin to observe them. This teaching process generally takes at least one year, because the prospective convert is encouraged to experience each of the Jewish holidays; however, the actual amount of study required will vary from person to person (a convert who was raised as a Jew might not need any further education, for example, while another person might need several years).
After the teaching is complete, the proselyte is brought before a Beit Din (rabbinical court) which examines the proselyte and determines whether he or she is ready to become a Jew. If the proselyte passes this oral examination, the rituals of conversion are performed. If the convert is male, he is circumcised (or, if he was already circumcised, a pinprick of blood is drawn for a symbolic circumcision). Both male and female converts are immersed in the mikveh (a ritual bath used for spiritual purification). The convert is given a Jewish name and is then introduced into the Jewish community.
In theory, once the conversion procedure is complete, the convert is as much a Jew as anyone who is born to the religion. In practice, the convert is often treated with caution, because we have had a lot of bad experiences with converts who later return to their former faith in whole or in part.
For more information about conversion, see The Conversion to Judaism Home Page. The information provided by Professor Epstein at that site is written from a Conservative perspective, but is valuable to anyone considering conversion.
Got a question or comment?