By Shlomo Riskin
“Noah was a righteous man, whole-hearted in his generations; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).
Was Noah truly righteous? And what does true righteousness entail? At first blush, this shouldn’t even be a question. After all, does any other figure in the Torah receive three adulatory statements in one verse?
Rashi reminds us that although certain Sages look upon Noah favorably, others were meager with their praise. The text states, “righteous…wholehearted in his generations.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) suggests that there are two ways to interpret this qualifying phrase: on the one hand, if he is so worthy of praise in a generation so completely evil, how much more praiseworthy would he have been in the generation of Abraham when he would have had righteous company. On the other hand, perhaps the qualifying phrase suggests that Noah is only praiseworthy in comparison with his generation of scoundrels. Had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not even be worthy of mention.
Let us compare and contrast Noah and Abraham in similar circumstances. When Abraham is told that the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed, he argues with the Almighty as though he were bargaining in the marketplace of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehudah: Will the Almighty destroy the righteous with the wicked, will not the Judge of the entire earth do justice? If there are fifty righteous men, 40 righteous men…even ten righteous men, will the cities not be saved? (Gen. 18–22).
In stark contrast, when Noah is informed of the impending destruction of the world, he obediently goes about constructing a private ark to rescue himself, his family, and a requisite number of earthly creatures. While Abraham emerges as the missionary who breaks walls as well as idols, as one who opens doors to his tent in every direction to welcome and influence as many people as possible, Noah would rather cut himself off from all adverse influences in order to erect an enclosure to protect his high-level communication with his God.
Whether one identifies with the Abraham camp or the Noah camp reflects one’s outlook on Judaism and its relationship to the secular, non-religious world. Hasidism, which began as a distinctive Jewish outreach movement, usually sided with Abraham in its biblical interpretations. Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoy, the famous disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov in the eighteenth century, writes in his Toledot Yakov Yosef that when the Torah describes Noah as ‘walking with God,’ it is a pejorative description. Noah walked only and exclusively with God, tragically neglecting the wayward individuals all around him. Noah missed the opportunity of bringing God to humanity.
On the other hand, the Ketav Sofer, probably reacting to the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) and the Reform movement which threatened the Orthodox community during his lifetime (Pressburg, Hungary, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century), utilizes his biblical commentary to justify turning inwards. He argues that Noah was absolutely correct in maintaining the wall between himself and the world. Noah had good reason to fear that if he went outside into the prevailing currents, his own children might be tossed to the edges by their strong impact. The risk just wasn’t worth it.
Clearly, there is no singular view in the biblical and rabbinic sources. However, it is the outgoing Abraham, and not the in-reaching Noah, who is declared the first Jew. We are unequivocally commanded to teach our fellow co-religionists who are straying from the path. Maimonides goes so far as to define the commandment to love God as directing us to ensure that God is beloved and known throughout the world, and insists that God instructed Moses to teach Israel the 613 commandments and the rest of the world the seven laws of morality. Further, our prophets instruct us to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ and the Aleinu prayer sets forth the vision of perfecting the world under the kingdom of ethical monotheism.
Faced with the contemporary challenges of assimilation and alienation of many Jews from traditional Judaism, can one mediate a balanced position between the Abrahams and the Noahs, between the advocates of in-reach and practitioners of outreach?
I believe that the correct balance is suggested by Rabbi Yitzhak Arama in his commentary Akedat Yitzhak, in his remarks on the mishna in the Ethics of our Fathers (1,18): Raban Shimon ben Gamliel says: ‘the world endures on three things: justice, truth and peace….’ Justice, he explains, is the relationship between the Jew and his society, our obligation to the world at large. Peace, on the other hand, is shalom bayit, the relationship between the Jew and his home, our obligation to family. And truth is the balanced combination of both.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.