The Perfect But Imperfect Noah

The Perfect But Imperfect Noah

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:40 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 6:9-11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 44:1-45:5
Havdalah: 6:43 p.m.

‘Noah was a righteous man; perfect in his generation.” As many students learn in their first Torah classes, the phrase “in his generation” gave our Rabbis license to fling open the gates of interpretation. Some saw it as additional praise for Noah, while others saw it as a criticism of his righteousness: perfect “in his generation” — but, evidently, not in the generation of Abraham or Moses. What is this rabbinic ambivalence all about?

Noah provided the Rabbis with a central idea in Judaism. The Torah paints a generally negative picture of gentiles (think of Genesis, where Abraham’s neighbors are immoral pagans, or Exodus, where they are Egypt’s cruel slavemasters; in Leviticus, gentiles engage in abominable practices like sacrificing their children to Moloch; in Deuteronomy they appear as idolatrous Canaanite nations), but our classical sages saw Noah as an ethical person who refused to participate in the violence inundating his generation. In their eyes, he followed the fundamental moral rules that make living in society possible. In an act of conceptual boldness, the Rabbis expanded the single person of Noah and constructed an entire category for good gentiles everywhere, “B’nei Noah” (Noahides), whom Jews are obligated to value and protect.

According to Jewish legal tradition, Noahides have a sacred covenant with God to obey moral laws. In Talmudic and medieval times, Rabbis extended the highest theological compliment to righteous Noahides, teaching that  “all righteous gentiles of the nations have a share in the World-to-Come.” This explains why Jews never felt a need to convert gentiles. Judaism never taught “extra synagoga, nulla salus” (“Outside the synagogue there is no salvation”), but that God loves both righteous Jews, and moral Noahides. It was the figure of Noah that enabled our rabbinic tradition to entertain a sense of optimism and tolerance toward gentiles.

If so, why did not Noah become the father of the Jewish People and the great teacher of Am Yisrael?  What was defective about Noah’s righteousness?

The key lies in a Midrash that compares Abraham, Noah and Moses. All three faced a similar test: When God informed Noah that He was about to destroy the people of his generation, Noah felt no responsibility for the rest of humanity. Content to build an ark that would save merely his family and himself, Noah did not protest or attempt to save others. Though righteous because he refrained from killing and stealing, he had no concern for anyone outside his immediate family. He was what became known as a “tsadik im peltz” — one who warms himself by donning a fur coat, but who is unconcerned about warming others. 

By contrast,  when God informed Abraham of His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham brazenly challenged his Creator: “Heaven forbid for You to do such a thing, to destroy the innocent with the guilty! …. Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” It was Abraham’s commitment to “righteousness and justice” and his concern for others that distinguished the righteousness of Abraham from the self-righteousness of Noah. Because of this commitment and concern, Abraham merited becoming God’s covenantal partner and the father of our people.

Many generations later, Moses also took a moral stand for others.  After the Jewish people worshipped the Golden Calf, God informed him that He would destroy the people and begin a new nation from Moses himself. Moses refused to accept this and implored God to spare the Jewish people: “Forgive their sin, and if not, erase me from the record You have written!”

Concern and acting out of responsibility for others is, then, an essential characteristic of God’s covenantal partners. Yet why are these so critical to Jewish religious identity? When establishing the covenant with the Jewish people at Sinai, God called on us to be “a holy people and a kingdom of priests” — two ideals in tension with each other. Holiness connotes separation, and if we are to survive as a people and not fall prey to the ravages of assimilation, Jews must carefully guard what makes us unique. Yet we are not allowed to retreat into a self- enclosed “Noah’s ark,” severing ourselves from others, both physically and morally. As our rabbis understood, becoming a “kingdom of priests” means staying connected to the world and bringing God’s blessings to others, just as individual kohanim offer divine blessings today to all worshippers in their congregations. 

This balance is difficult achieve, especially today when the Jewish people faces enormous existential challenges. All of us are tempted to hunker down with our family in Noah’s ark or warm ourselves in the security of a fur coat. But sensitively carving out a path between separatist holiness and responsibility for those beyond our community is the key to a healthy and successful Jewish life.

As our covenantal partner, God asks us to strive for nothing less.

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is editor of Meorot: A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse and the American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel.

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