An Early Rabbinic Critique of Noah

While the biblical writers love depicting how its spiritual leaders confront God in the face of danger, it is only in the midrashic literature we discover how each biblical protagonist stacks up against one another.  Early post-biblical writers like Philo of Alexandria and the early rabbis felt ambivalent about Noah’s piety—especially when contrasted to Abraham’s religious devotion.  “These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).

Rabbinic tradition explains that Noah was truly a just person and was not merely just relative to his generation.  Indeed, had Noah lived in a more pious generation, he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: Noah is considered as a just man only in comparison with his own generation; had he lived in a generation of Abraham, he would have paled to him by comparison. Noah requires extra support because he lacks the moral strength Abraham possesses.[1] Although Noah deserves credit for saving the world, he nonetheless is criticized for allowing God to destroy the world. When God indicated how corrupt the world was, Noah is eerily silent and indifferent. One well-known 19th century Hassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, explained this passage:

Why is Noah referred to as a tzaddik in peltz (“a righteous man in a fur coat?”) When one is cold at home, there are two ways to become warm—one can heat the home or get dressed in a fur coat or other warm clothes. The difference between the two is that the first case the entire house is warm and everyone in it feels comfortable, whereas in the second case, only the person wearing the fur coat feels warm, while everyone else freezes! Continue reading “An Early Rabbinic Critique of Noah”

Jewish survival must depend upon something more than vague sentimentalism

While many Jews live a nostalgically religious life, at least an equally large number have become ambivalent about their religious heritage. Consequently, a substantial number of Jewish young people have left their religious roots and have gone to other faiths, while over two million Jews no longer identify— even superficially—as Jews.

Appealing to ethnicity and “Tradition” (whatever that means) and “Jewish survival” fall short of the mark. “Survive for what?” No, the cardiac or gastronomical experience is not going to cut it.  As religious leaders, we ought to be seriously concerned. The 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed similar patterns to those documented over the last thirty years. The survey looks at major U.S. religious denominations: evangelicals, mainline Protestants, historic black churches, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Buddhist and Hindus, noting their beliefs and demographic patterns. When compared to other religious groups, the study revealed that Jews struggle mightily with the notion of a “personal God,” which only 25% subscribe to, compared to the 72% of the greater Protestant community. With respect to the category entitled, “Religious Beliefs and Practices,” only 41 percent of Jews are absolutely certain there is a God. Nevertheless, 31 percent of Jews say that religion is very important in their lives. The only groups that have lower rankings in any of these categories are Buddhists, the unaffiliated and atheists (some say that Jews also comprise a large share of the unaffiliated and atheists).

On the other hand, according to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, approximately 59 percent of Jews fast on Yom Kippur. This would certainly suggest that the Jewish connection to its ancestral faith is deeper than one might think. Beyond the mere statistics, it is obvious that Jews wrestle with their faith—especially when it pertains to the nature of belief. This in itself is not necessarily problematical, but Jewish leaders need to understand the nature of the problem if it is to continue as a religion. Finally, little more than 40% of American Jewish households attend or affiliate with synagogues—and of these, most attend synagogue services only twice a year. If nothing else, the demographic studies cited reveal that the Jewish community has done a woefully inadequate job in articulating its spiritual message to its members.

The following anecdote sardonically captures the complexity of the dilemma:

Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish woman from New York, goes to her travel agent. “I vant to go to India,” she asks the agent in her thick accent. “Mrs. Cohen, why India? It’s filthy, much hotter than NewYork; it’s full of poor people.” “Sweetheart, I vant to go to India!” Continue reading “Jewish survival must depend upon something more than vague sentimentalism”