Torah-embracing non-Jews fuel their movement online

cleveland, tenn.  |  When Jack Saunders began questioning the core religious claims of Christianity in the mid-1980s, it set him on a journey that eventually led to his embrace of the Torah and Jewish teachings.

But rather than become Jewish, the former Baptist minister — at the time the head of a small rural parish near the Georgia-Tennessee border — ultimately took on the identity of a B’nai Noah, or Noahide. The term refers to the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood, requiring all humankind to observe seven categories of laws: the prohibitions on idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy and eating the limb of a living animal, and the requirement to establish courts of justice.

Saunders gradually began gently prodding his followers in that direction, too, preaching solely from the Old Testament and quietly sowing doubts about central Christian teachings like the virgin birth. Eventually, approximately half the church members became Noahides as well, tearing down the church steeple and renaming their congregation Frazier’s Chapel B’nai Noah Study Center.

“I had made a promise to God that if he would show me truth, I would say it no matter what,” Saunders said. “On the emotional side, it was pretty heavy stuff. But on the intellectual side, I knew this was right. This is the truth.”

In the past, non-Jews interested in the Noahide laws often turned first to their nearest rabbi — usually a Chabad emissary, as Noahides typically hail from areas of the United States with little or no Jewish presence — or to one of the handful of Orthodox rabbis who have been willing to help them.

But in recent years, Noahide activity on the Internet has exploded. In addition to several informational Web sites that discuss the laws, Noahides have numerous ways to study and connect to each other, including a virtual Noahide yeshiva, Noahide personals and an organization of Noahide home-schoolers that provides detailed curricula for youth.

Former Baptist minister Jack Saunders (right), pledges to keep the seven Noahide laws at a 2006 ceremony in Israel. photo /jta/courtesy of jack saunders

“A Noahide has some freedom in deciding how to celebrate,” advises the curriculum guide for Passover. “Consider reading a story of the Exodus, or watching Dreamworks’ ‘Prince of Egypt’ before or after the meal.”

Kristine Cassady, a 31-year-old mother who home-schools her five children in Indianapolis, started the Noahide Online Association of Homeschoolers, or NOAH, two years ago because of the few Noahide resources available for children. Cassady says about 35 families are now affiliated with the group.

“We’re trying to teach our children Torah, coming to the realization that HaShem has given the nations the laws from Noah,” Cassady said.

Like Saunders, most B’nai Noah come from Christian or messianic Judaism backgrounds, and their frustrations with Christianity tend to be more intellectual than spiritual.

“We were always seeking the truth, we didn’t care where it fell,” said Ray Pettersen, who runs the Web site and hosts a Noahide radio show on Arutz Sheva, an Israeli station with conservative viewpoints.

The Internet has helped foster a sense of community for Noahides, who can study Torah and participate in discussion groups with Noahides from around the world. Several sites list contact information for Noahide communities as far afield as Brazil and the Philippines, while events such as the virtual Rosh Hashanah — hosted by the Oklahoma B’nai Noah Society with the help of a webcam and microphone — help unite Noahides separated by geography.

Nearly all the Noahide laws are prohibitions, and many Noahides say they need rituals to pass on some affirmative religious identity to their children. But mindful of the fact that most Torah laws are incumbent only on Jews, and of the prohibition on creating a separate religion, they adhere strictly to rabbinic dictates concerning what they may observe.

The Oklahoma group spent 11 years creating a Noahide siddur, “Service From the Heart,” that also functions as a guide to Noahide living. Many Noahides mark Shabbat by blessing wine and eating a festive meal, and refrain from eating pork products. On Sukkot, the Oklahoma group hosts an annual gathering that this year attracted about 25 people. They built a sukkah for eating and prayer, and screened the Israeli film “Ushpizin” on the sukkah wall.

Though some Noahides go on to formally embrace Judaism as converts, their geographic separation from the centers of Jewish life renders that choice viable for only a few. But Noahides also take comfort in the knowledge that the Torah has ordained a purpose for them as gentiles.

“We decided HaShem might need more gentiles than he needs Jews,” Rogers said. “We set out to be the best B’nai Noah we can be.”

Pettersen believes he can be more effective in spreading the truth of Torah as a gentile. Though he quit his job and spent two years studying Torah full-time, he never felt called to convert.

“If HaShem decides to change that,” Pettersen said, “He’ll let me know.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.