The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
The story of Noah is among the most widely known in the entire Torah. For generations, this portion has lent itself to songs (“floody, floody”), comedy routines, movies, toys and even home décor.
But over the years, it has not only been a multifaceted source of inspiration but a source of considerable controversy, as well.
At the root of this dilemma is the question of Noah’s character.
Is he a wholly righteous and blameless man? Or is he only considered righteous in comparison with his own wicked generation?
Genesis 6:9 describes Noah as “a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God.” The question remains, however: Is Noah truly righteous? Is he a paragon of blamelessness and righteousness on whom we can model our own moral leadership and actions today?
Throughout history, many rabbinic commentators defend Noah as a blameless and upright man. Ramban contends that Noah was a completely innocent and just man. Rashi agrees, stating that, in a wicked generation, Noah alone was righteous and worthy of being saved — and had he lived in a righteous generation, that would have been even more true.
Other commentators disagree, asserting that had Noah lived in the generation of Abraham, he would have been accounted of no particular importance, and certainly not considered righteous (Sanhedrin 108a).
The rabbis may argue about Noah’s virtues and values, but the truth remains that he is a problematic and flawed character.
What I find most disturbing is Noah’s response to God. Upon realizing how corrupt and lawless the Earth had become, God declares to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh … I am about to destroy them with the Earth.” Then God tells Noah to build an ark for him and his family, along with two of each kind of animal.
And how does Noah respond? Does he argue with God, like Abraham, fighting for the lives of his neighbors, the elderly or even the children of his land? Does he try to talk God out of this harsh and cruel plan to destroy all of humankind aside from his own family? Does he bargain with God for more time to improve his generation?
No, no and no. Instead, Noah remains silent, dutifully follows God’s ark instructions and abnegates his own responsibility to humanity.
Is Noah truly righteous if he fails to stand up, remaining silent in the face of such monumental destruction?
Standing up for the oppressed and speaking out against danger and hatred are central tenets of Judaism. In fact, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who became one of the most influential Jewish champions for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, said the following: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important … was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
In contrast to Noah’s silence, many characters in Torah do stand up and speak out in the face of injustice or cruelty. Abraham argues with God to save the innocent of Sodom and succeeds in saving human lives. In the Book of Numbers, five sisters, collectively known as the daughters of Zelophehad stood up for their own rights (and those of other women) to inherit their father’s estate after his death. Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah plead to God, “Our father died in the wilderness and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no sons.” God hears with the women, transferring their father’s estate to them, setting precedent for future generations.
These are the voices that move us toward greater righteousness. These are the voices that call us to combat and stand up against the corruption and wickedness of our day.
And such voices resound throughout the world today: the voices of young climate activists, those fighting against gun violence, against bigotry and prejudice.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England said, “Judaism does not seek to reconcile with the world. Judaism is a religion of protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet, but ought to be.”
To be a tzadik (righteous person) today means to call out injustice in our world while simultaneously envisioning and working toward a world of wholeness, goodness, and peace.