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!

Thus in the Midrashic imagination, Noah looks after his own family’s welfare but does not concern himself with the community. Though he works on the ark for 120 years, it never occurred to him that there might be another way to avert God’s decree. In another midrashic deconstruction of Noah, the medieval writer imagines what Noah’s initial reaction must have been like when he first beheld the devastation wrought by God and confronts his Creator:

When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw  the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said: ‘Master of the Universe! If You destroyed your world because of human sin or human fools then why did you create them?’ Noah said : ‘Master of the Universe! You are called Compassionate! Shouldn’t You have shown compassion for Your Creation?’

But the Blessed Holy One answers him, “Foolish shepherd! . . . I lingered with you and spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved only yourself and family. Now that the world has been destroyed, you dare open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?”

Rabbi Yochanan said: “Come and see the difference between Noah and the righteous heroes of Israel! Noah did not shield his generation and did not pray for them like Abraham. For as soon as the Blessed Holy One said to Abraham ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorra is so great,’ immediately, Abraham came forward and said: (Gen. 18:23) ‘Wilt you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?’”

He countered the Holy One with more and more words until he implored Him to forgive the entire generation if just ten innocent people could be found. Abraham thought there were ten in the city, counting Lot and his wife, sons, and daughters; that was why he did not pray for more.[2]

The Zohar’s use of the term foolish shepherd is most instructive, for it addresses not only the Noah narratives, but the narratives about Abraham and Moses too. As a shepherd, a spiritual leader must be steadfast in soliciting Divine mercy whenever possible. The Midrash and Zohar both condemn passivity on the part of its leaders. Death, destruction, plague, and sickness must not be accepted fatalistically.

[1] As noted by Rashi on Genesis 6:9.

[2] Daniel Matt, The Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 58‑59.

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