As someone who has written several articles for Public Discourse on applying universal moral and ethical principles to current social and cultural issues, I was recently informed about a 2013 project almost unknown outside of Australia. It was primarily funded by the Attorney General of Australia and sets forth the common values on which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam agree. These values are part of a Divine covenant and are referred to as the Noahide Code. Three prominent theologians, one from each of the faiths, cooperated to publish this ground-breaking document.
Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen, founder and director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne, as well as the author of The Theory & Practice of Universal Ethics: The Noahide Laws, coordinated the effort. He was assisted by Professor Ismail Albayrak, a renowned Islamic scholar, author, and Professor of Islamic-Christian relations at the Australian Catholic University, and Professor Tracey Rowland, Dean of Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family at the University of Melbourne and one of five women on the thirty-member International Theological Commission appointed by the Pope to assist the Holy See and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Australian report informs us that “The common values making up this shared ethic are found in the Abrahamic stem of the world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” They suggest that although western societies were founded on what has become known as the Judeo-Christian ethic, “the interaction of Islamic culture with Judeo-Christian culture, both in Australia and globally, has now made it desirable to seek a deeper common denominator, which we have here called the Abrahamic values.”
The shared values of these three Abrahamic religions, according to the authors, are the “moral rules by which Abraham lived before these religions developed.” The authors explain that even though “these religions absorbed, elaborated and added to these stem Abrahamic values,” they continue “to acknowledge them as central. . . . These differences—the way cultures have developed beyond this stem—do not detract from the educational template of this shared ethic and do not disturb it.” The individual religions continue to acknowledge these seven laws of Noah as the foundation on which the religions were developed. In addition, “at the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, of which the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece, these pre-existing moral laws were reiterated by Moses. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam acknowledge Moses as a genuine transmitter of these values to their own prophetic traditions.”
A Monotheistic Moral Vision
The heart of the commonality shared by the Abrahamic faiths concerns the ideal of monotheism. These faiths concur on three classical theological dimensions of monotheism and the importance of G-d’s relationship to the world.
The first is that creation is wholly dependent upon G-d. G-d is the world’s Creator and Sustainer. The second is that G-d has revealed a moral code or compass for humanity. The norms of that code are eternal, have been set forth in Scripture, and are elaborated by religious tradition. The third involves a process, guided by G-d. The process aims at a reconstituted creation that is brought into alignment with the Divine. Such reconstituted creation will be freed from evil and imperfection and can be accomplished through the interaction of Divine providence and ethical human conduct that is informed by Divine teaching.
To produce a civilization based on G-dly values, a respect or a reverence for G-d is paramount. Such reverence is the principal motivator enabling people to follow the moral conduct communicated through revelation. The knowledge of the existence of Divine redemption is what in turn activates redemption into concrete moral actions and permits us to rectify our conduct in a way that is consistent with the moral code of Noah.
This universal moral code acknowledges that, in order to transcend our innate selfishness and the subjectivity of our intellects, society must be predicated on a belief in G-d. If we are to follow His Commandments, we must recognize the existence of a Higher Power, one to whom we are responsible for our actions. Morality should not (and cannot) be altered to suit one’s personal whims or social convenience.
Once we understand these first two commandments of the Noahide Code—belief in One Creator (G-d) and respect and reverence for Him by not blaspheming His name—the three faiths agree on five other specific laws initially provided to Noah by G-d. They involve guarding sexual purity, establishing a system of justice to bring society’s rules into alignment with G-d’s moral principles, sanctifying human life, respecting the property of others, and prohibiting gratuitous pain to animals, including the needless destruction of natural resources.
Cooperation Among the Abrahamic Religions
While this report from Australia may be one of the first times in which members of all three Abrahamic religions together wrote of their shared common values, individual leaders of these faiths have previously recognized the differing roles of their individual religions in support of the Noahide Code.
Jews recognize they have a special obligation to spread knowledge of the Noahide laws, which were reiterated at Sinai and are elaborated in the tradition of commentary that comes down from Sinai. Maimonides (1138-1204), a great rabbinic sage, stated that Moses was instructed by G-d to charge the Jewish people with the task of communicating to “all of the inhabitants of the world” the universal commandments given to the children of Noah and to bring about their observance.
Throughout history, circumstances often prevented Jews from sharing the Noahide laws. In the early 1980s, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the revered leader of the worldwide Chabad movement, made a major contribution to reviving this lost tradition. In addition, recent rabbinical support from a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis reaffirmed “the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before G-d [as] . . . taught through the universal Noahide covenant.” Additionally, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, urged Jews to inform non-Jews about the Noahide Code of Conduct. He said that, “every Jew has the obligation to encourage all the peoples of the world to observe the Seven Noahide Laws. An integral component of the Jew’s task is to see to it that all peoples, not just Jews, acknowledge G-d as Creator and ruler of the world. . . . The religious tolerance of today, and the trend towards greater freedom, gives us the unique opportunity to enhance widespread observance of these laws.”
Jews are mandated not to proselytize religious conversion to Judaism but simply to make known to all of humanity the laws that we are all commanded to follow. The Noahide laws are not co-extensive with all the commandments given to the Jewish people. Rather, they are the common denominator values that all human beings—including Jews, Christians, and Muslims—are obligated to preserve. Because a life of atheism can be more dangerous to society than believing in the Divine, regardless of one’s particular faith, Rabbi Schneerson opined that it was generally preferable that “non-Jewish children are educated in their [faith-based] schools rather than in public schools.”
Most Christian believers today see these Seven Noahide Laws as compatible with the main ethical tenets of their faith and advocate adhering to its Code of Conduct. Indeed, early Christian references to the essence of the Noahide Laws as a Code of Conduct can be found in the first century, as recorded in Acts 15:1-31, when Paul agreed to admit gentiles into the Christian Church only after they accepted the substance of these principles. In a Bilateral Commission Meeting between a delegation from the Vatican and Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen in Jerusalem in 2007, an agreement was made recognizing that the Noahide Covenant contains a universal moral code that is incumbent on all humanity. Moreover, the Bilateral Commission affirmed: “This idea is reflected in Christian Scripture in the Book of Acts 15:28-29.” The New Testament incorporated the universal values of the Noahide Laws, which are part of the Old Testament that G-d gave at Mt. Sinai for all of humanity.
Because Noah is recognized as a prophet in the Koran, there is Muslim support for and compliance with the spread of the Seven Noahide Laws. This fact is evidenced by its specific acceptance by many Muslim leaders. For example, the mayors of several Israeli Arab communities (such as the mayor of the Galilean City of Shefa-Amar (Shfaram) and the Abu Gosh mayor (Salim Jaber), signed a Declaration in 2004 committing to establish a more humane world by adopting the values of the Seven Noahide Laws. Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco, expressed the view in 2012 that these values truly unite civilizations. The spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif (in 2004) likewise recognized these seven principles as fundamental values of society and called on non-Jews living in Israel to observe the Noahide laws. And Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, a leader of the Italian Muslim Assembly, unequivocally declared in 2006, “Islamic law holds within it the seven laws of Noah and can be taught correctly to the Muslims of the world.” It is hoped that acceptance of these common moral values can end the centuries-old animosity between Muslims and Jews and Christians.
It is encouraging that some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders in Australia sought to find common ground and worked together to promote the flourishing of humanity through educating about a shared ethic: the Noahide Code that provides the foundational premises of the three Abrahamic faiths.
Religious leaders of other western societies should follow the Australians’ example and educate their citizenry about the shared universal moral and ethical values of the Noahide Code. By doing so, we may have a chance to reverse the widespread acceptance of a worldview that is fundamentally atheistic, materialistic, and geared to a pleasure and pain calculus alone.
Our religious institutions must avoid parochialism and stand up for the traditional values promulgated by G-d to Noah after the Biblical flood. Spreading this ethical tradition not only enhances the spiritual good but also verifies the resonance of this common ethical quest.