Noah: Two Views of Being Righteous
Rabbi Noah Farkas
A Jew once came to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and asked him for advice about how to warm his frigid home in the winter. He said to the Jew, “When the house is cold, there are two ways to get yourself warm. You can warm up the house, or you can put on a coat. The first way warms up the house for everyone, while the second way warms you up but leaves everyone else in the cold.”
Jewish wisdom is always taught this way – from silly examples come serious questions. The Kotzker Rebbe highlights two fundamental worldviews. When we are faced with the complexities life, we can either see ourselves as meeting our particular needs of the moment, or we can meet the needs in relationship to others. We can warm ourselves with a coat, or we can warm everyone by lighting a fire.
This debate is an ancient one, with roots planted deep in the Talmud’s discussion of one of the great biblical heroes: Noah. If you recall, the world was ripping itself apart and God was having none of it. God found Noah, whom the Torah describes as being righteous, and told him to build an ark to save himself and his family along with all the animals so that God can reset creation and start over. Now, the Talmud quotes a section of this story saying:
‘Noah was a righteous man, and perfect in his generation’ (Genesis 6:9). Rabbi Yohanan explained [that Noah was righteous and perfect] only in his own generation, but not [in respect] to others. But Reish Lakish explained the verse saying, Noach was righteous in his own generation, and how much the more so would he have been [in respect] to other generations! (Sanhedrin 108a)
Let’s explain: Both Rabbis in this discussion, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish see Noah as a righteous individual. For Rabbi Yohanan, Noah was not so extraordinary – he was a simple, moral human being and because the world was wrought with sin, a normal guy like Noah is suddenly considered to be righteous.
Reish Lakish, on the other hand saw the story of the flood as an extraordinary event that required an extraordinary level of moral heroism. Noah was indeed a hero. In fact, later in the Talmud, Noah tried to warn the rest of the world that the flood was coming; begging all of humanity for repentance only to be rebuffed by a populace consuming itself in avarice and greed.
From this debate, our two worldviews again emerge. In Rabbi Yohanan’s view, Noah is seen as simple man who saves himself when given the opportunity. Reish Lakish’s view he is lauded for taking a moral stand when it wasn’t popular. To use the Kotzker Rebbe’s example, either Noah put on a coat to warm himself, or he tries and fails to warm the house. Both are singular views of righteousness. Both are laudable. Both are in the Talmud.
This ancient debate between a strong sense of individualism and a strong belief in communitarian values is one of fault lines that is breaking America apart. Do we as a nation define ourselves as autonomous individuals with only some regard for others, or do we see ourselves engaged fully in a wider communal project where the greater good outweighs an individual’s autonomy? Which version of righteousness is right?
In America, our values are often at war with each other. How much liberty? How much security? What shall be done with the poor and vulnerable? How can good work be rewarded?
What has traditionally kept us all together, however, is a commitment to the American experiment of self-rule. It is a sense that we are part of something grander, more perfect and eternal. We can have different worldviews of righteousness, and still live in the same country. Whether with a coat or a fire, we are all in the same house.
The Jewish tradition operates out of a similar skirmish of values. The Talmud is full of texts that preserve both worldviews. It even puts them on the same page, because the rabbis believe both are necessary for God to live amogst the people.
When we fail to see that America and Judaism both need a plurality of worldviews to thrive, we risk letting our baser instincts take over. We retreat to our corners and show our teeth and talons. We use our constitution and our Torah not as basis of well being but as a cudgel against our enemies. The serious risk of our moment in history is that we no longer find our fates covenanted together. In the absence of a common project we risk the absent of all value. We drown in the flood.
Lastly, I should note that Jews do not trace our heritage through Noah. Perhaps the reason is that Noah never laid bare the fragility of human life before God. Unlike Abraham, who argued for the innocence of the dwellers of Sodom, or Moses who threw his lot in with the Israelites against God’s wishes, Noah responds in silence to God’s pronouncement. When God says their will be a flood, Noah never questioned it. When God gave him the plans for the ark, Noah never asked if there was room for more people. When the rivers flooded, the levies broke, and the skies poured forth their wrath, Noah never questioned God’s actions. Above the screams and torments of the damned, Noah said nothing. Noah is no prophet, he does not stand for the godliness of people, nor for humanity of God. He stands only for himself.
If we learn anything from the story of Noah, it is that holiness and righteousness can take many paths, and that each of us is in the ark together. If only Noah understood that. Perhaps when the deluge of hate in our time subsides and we can again walk on dry land, we can cast our eyes upward and see a better model for communal discourse. In that instant when our eyes peer into heaven, we see the rainbow, the visual symbol of the covenant that draws all humanity together in holiness to become a Godly community.