Davening together with some of the Noahides. (Photo: Courtesy)
Not Just the Seven Noahide Mitzvot
An interview with Rabbi Oury Cherki
By Hillel Shalit
From India to the United States, Brit Olam: The Noahide World Center is leading a fast growing Noahide movement.
“I was wondering what’s holding up the process of redemption,” says Rav Oury Cherki, “and I realized that the main point of contention between the left and the right, broadly speaking, is that the right thinks about the Jewish people and the left thinks about the world. Meanwhile, Judaism actually talks about the Jewish people for the sake of the world. I said to myself that the place where these two sensitivities can come together is in Judaism’s universal message. It’s nothing new. It’s the dogma of the Noahides, spelled out in our old, trusted sources.” With that, Rav Cherki set out to found an organization that would make Judaism accessible to the nations of the world.
“I decided it would be a good idea to start telling the world that the Jewish people have a message of tikkun olam, a message that emanates from the innermost depths of Judaism. It emanates from rabbis, from people who are loyal to the Torah of Moshe with every fiber of their being, from people who are driven by their ideals.”
In Parashat Noach, Hashem commands Noach and his children to fulfill certain commandments known as the seven Noahide mitzvot. Rav Oury Cherki, however, explains that these seven mitzvot are just the beginning. The larger goal, he says, is to glorify the name of Hashem in the world and transmit Judaism’s universal message to all nations.
Rav Cherki, the rabbi of Congregation Beit Yehudah in Jerusalem, founded Brit Olam eleven years ago and serves as chairman of the organization. He was fascinated by prior efforts to spread Judaism in the world: the activities of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the work done by Rabbi Menachem Borstein with encouragement from Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, and more. “So,” says Rabbi Cherki, “I founded an organization and called it the Noahide World Center, or in short, Brit Olam, and thank G-d, with time, we’ve seen great successes and a lot of interest around the world. Before we started Brit Olam, the whole subject of the Noahides was only only vaguely understood or even considered fiction. That is no longer the case today. In fact, many people throughout the world identify as Noahides and are associated with our organization.”
How many Noahides are there in the world?
“It’s hard to give an exact number. I’d estimate that there are around fifty thousand in the world.”
Over the years, Rav Cherki has published a special siddur and a halachic guide for Noahides. “We have very meaningful support from the Jewish people’s brightest lights. I wrote both a siddur and a halachic guide for Noahides, and we have approbations both from the chief rabbis of Israel and from the leading halachic decisors,” he explains.
Rav Cherki describes the siddur, entitled Brit Olam, as similar to the Jewish siddur. “It has instructions about how to pray, and it has the text of prayers. Noahides aren’t required to recite any particular prayer, but they often want to go into a synagogue and follow the Jewish prayers. But the problem is that the text of the Jewish prayers doesn’t work for them. They can’t say “our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov.” So we made them a siddur that helps them follow the prayers and is relevant to them. It also includes instructions for lifecycle events – weddings, births, divorces, funerals, holidays – and ethical guidance from Pirkei Avot and more.”
Rav Cherki’s halachic guide is called Brit Shalom, and there’s a lot more to it than the famous seven Noahide mitzvot. “The seven Noahide mitzvot,” he says, “aren’t the goal. They’re the foundation. A person starts with loyalty to seven mitzvot, and then there’s lots of information taken from Jewish law and general ethical teachings that are relevant to everyone. Everything is backed up with Talmudic and halachic sources. We offer guidance that can change the life of any person on Earth.”
Among the examples that Rav Cherki gives are the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, which is illustrated by the story of the non-Jew Dama son of Netina; the subject of international relations and what the Torah says about war or a given type of government; the prohibition of cruelty to animals; and more.
“Formally, the Noahide laws only prohibit eating from an animal that’s still alive,” says Rav Cherki, “but the rule against harming living things comes from the Torah, and it applies to Noahides as well. The Noahides want to know what’s allowed and what’s prohibited. They ask whether hunting and fishing are allowed. There are many details to the rules against worshiping other gods, too. I was contacted by someone from the island of Sakhalin, north of Japan, a backwoods a world away. He wanted to build a house, but under his house, he discovered the remnants of a Buddhist temple. He asked me whether he was allowed to build there or not. If Noahides want to offer sacrifices to Hashem, can they or not? We have guidance for these questions.”
At Brit Olam, there are a number of departments operating in an array of languages: French, English, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Indian dialects, and more. “There are inquiries in many languages. The halachic guide has been translated to sixteen languages, and we’re working on editions in Arabic and Japanese,” Rabbi Cherki says. “We hope that people everywhere in the world will buy this halachic guide, because it’s important for understanding what Judaism demands of them.”
What kind of reactions did you get when you started doing this?
“People get baffled, or sometimes incredulous, about any new thing. I’m very happy to say that I met with almost no opposition. At the end of the day, Torah scholars know that the material about Noahides exists, that it’s not made up. The question for them is simply how relevant it is to our lives, and whether to ask rabbis to work with Noahides. That doesn’t always go without saying, but once it’s been explained, it’s definitely received well. We have individuals and many communities around the world of people who want to know more.”
Rav Cherki believes that the State of Israel has an important role to play in teaching Judaism to the nations of the world. As far as he’s concerned, there must be no distinction between Judaism and the Jewish state. “The goal is to get the State of Israel involved. It shouldn’t just be something that rabbis do. It should be the Jewish people addressing the world – and the Jewish people today are represented by the State of Israel. At some point, the government of Israel must take responsibility for this movement.”
During the last two Shemitta years, Rav Cherki received a request from the Chief Rabbinate to provide a Noahide living in Israel who would be able to buy state lands for the year. “According to some halachic decisors,” he notes, “selling land to a non-Jew is problematic, but selling to a Noahide who lives in the country is allowed. I brought them a few Noahides who were elated to be able to help. They felt that they were partners with the Jewish people – instead of feeling patronized, with someone else telling them what to do, they felt that all of us are working together to bring G-d’s kingship to the world.”
The status of Noahides is enshrined in halachah, and it’s different from the status of non-Jews who belong to other religions. To be considered a Noahide, a person has to leave his old religion and declare before a court of three judges that he accepts the seven Noahide mitzvot. “It’s a halachic status that’s explained in Rambam’s Hilchot Melachim, chapters 8, 9, and 10. It starts with personal acceptance, done privately, which is completed later on when the person appears before a court,” notes Rav Cherki. “It’s a very exciting event for them, people say Shehecheyanu, they feel like it’s a holiday. The person is transformed from being a non-Jew to becoming a Noahide, to whom the Jewish people relate and have what to say.”
The declarations before the judges take place in Israel, around the world, and sometimes even over Zoom, under halachic oversight. Rav Cherki says that many Noahides came because they were disappointed with Christianity or other religions. When it comes to Islam, the situation is more complicated. “There’s a real, concrete danger to someone who wants to leave Islam. They identify as Noahides, but socially, they keep going to their mosque, because they know that otherwise, they could get hurt.”
What variables affect your work on the ground?
“There are ups and downs in our work, but it doesn’t change. We want to build a critical mass where there are so many Noahides that the world can’t ignore them. In the meantime, we only have tens of thousands of Noahides, a number that does not yet demand attention. Nevertheless, we’re starting to talk about it in intellectual circles, and interest is growing. Any person who wants to cling to the G-d of Israel must know that he can be a Noahide.”
“We’re working on building awareness. We’re working on a pan-European Noahide congress, and we want to have such a congress in the United States and in South America, too. The goal is to get to the point of a worldwide Noahide congress that takes place in Israel, attended by Noahide representatives from all over the world, accompanied by leaders and heads of state. It will be a tremendous contribution to sanctifying G-d’s name in the world. After all, the prophets say that the State of Israel is a sanctification of G-d’s name before the nations, and we’re making our contribution to that.”
In Congo, for example, there are about a hundred Noahides, and the leader of the community consults regularly with Brit Olam. Just a few weeks ago, a community of sixty-five families from Arizona joined the Noahides and asked to affiliate with Brit Olam. In southern India there are roughly a thousand Noahides organized into communities, and a Brit Olam envoy has been dispatched to them.
“There are seven billion people on Earth, and we’re far from getting even to the first billion, but we know that just as redemption will come step by step, tikkun olam will come the same way,” Rav Cherki says with confidence.
“Today, in every Jewish community in the world, there are non-Jews who visit the local synagogue and want to take part, and they can’t be ignored. They ask the rabbis for help. Often the rabbis suggest either conversion or nothing at all. We try to help the rabbis so they know how to guide these people, people for whom conversion isn’t necessarily right but who want the light of the G-d of Israel in their lives.”
In his remarks, Rav Cherki talks briefly about a Noahide’s daily life. “In India they held a Tanach competition for Noahides. They also organized a choir that sings the Noahide anthem I wrote. In Texas, the Noahides told us about a local slaughterhouse that sometimes takes parts from animals before they’re dead. They asked whether they should boycott the slaughterhouse because of the rule forbidding meat cut from a live animal. They ask us about weddings. Does there need to be a marriage contract? A chuppah? Some Noahides even designed a special mezuzah for Noahides with the number seven on it, to distinguish the Noahide mezuzah from a Jewish mezuzah.”
Rav Cherki also describes questions that arise when one spouse joins the Noahides while the other remains committed to a different religion. “How can they live together? A Noahide whose wife is a Christian asked whether they can be buried next to each other. I said, Yes, as long as there’s no cross on the grave. The couple searched for a connection with each other, and they found the verse “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” which is written in the Torah and – not to compare the two – the New Testament. The Noahides have a lot of creativity!”
Over the years, have you come up against any opposition to your activities?
“There’s been very little opposition. There are a few rabbis who say, “why are you dealing with non-Jews, you need to deal with Jews first.” “The poor of your city take precedence,” and the like. I’m in the habit of answering that tikkun olam isn’t like charity. Instead, it’s part of the essence of the Jewish people: “All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Bereishit 12:3). This is the mission for which G-d chose us. Usually there’s more reluctance or hesitation than opposition. It’s almost impossible to find someone who will actually say this work isn’t appropriate or desirable.”
And around the world?
“Obviously some members of other religions object to it. Christians and Muslims feel threatened, but for the time being we still haven’t gotten big enough for there to be major objections, either. Sometimes, though, there’s definitely criticism that goes along with the general criticism of Judaism as a whole.”
How can the average Jew help with your work?
“We conduct seminars for Jews to teach them about the subject and how they can help people who come to them. We train them as mentors for Noahides. We also have leadership training seminars for the Noahides themselves. When a large enough group comes together, a seminar can be organized.”
● Originally published in Hebrew in Giluy Daat, October 26, 2022.