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. 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”