“Did Rabbi Yochanan do a disservice to Noah?”
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Sidrah Noach - Shabbat 05 November 2005

Every year, as we read the sidrah Noach, the same old debate rears its head, regarding the nature of Noah’s righteousness. This harks back to the famous midrashic dispute between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. The debate hinges on the opening words of the sidra, Noach ish tzadik, tamim hayah b’dorotav, ‘Noah was righteous, perfect in his generations.’ Those two sages felt instinctively that there was an inescapable emphasis implied in the addition of that word ‘in his generations.’ Hence R. Yochanan interprets that emphasis pejoratively, ‘in his generation Noah appeared as a righteous man, but had he lived in a generation of righteous people, such as Abraham, he would hardly have been regarded as such.’ Resh Lakish inferred the very opposite. ‘In his generations he was perfectly righteous – that is, against the backcloth of people who, without exception, had descended to the very depths of depravity. And a man who could so defy the corrupt mores of an entire civilisation would surely have been an even greater spiritual star had he lived in a climate of righteousness, with colleagues such as Abraham.

Now consider this: If we hadn’t had that speculative debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, what would have been our perception of Noah? There is no doubt that he would have enjoyed an unqualified spiritual status in our tradition’s hall of fame. After all, not content with the opening tribute, God repeats it later, telling Noah to his face, ki otkha ra’ity tzaddik lefanai bador ha-zeh, ‘for I have seen that you are a righteous man before me in this generation’ (7:1). We can hardly imagine God describing someone as ‘righteous’ twice and ‘perfect’ once if such a person was only relatively righteous, against the backcloth of a rotten world! God is a master of literary style. He could certainly have made abundantly clear Noah’s rather limited spirituality had that been the true situation.

Is it not unfortunate, then, that a sage, sitting in his Bet ha-midrash a few thousand years after Noah, could suddenly get a thought into his mind that maybe Noah wasn’t so righteous after all, and that such a thought could totally undermine the hitherto unsullied reputation of a great biblical character? After all, until the age of Rabbi Yochanan, we have no evidence of anyone having had the temerity to make such a negative assessment of Noah. But once Yochanan planted that thought into the minds of his students, it took on a status of its own. It was carried across the Jewish world and invested with the weight of tradition, as befitted the view of the great Rabbi Yochanan. Presumably no one ever dared to call that view ‘character assassination,’ but, in essence, that is precisely what it was.

Defenders of Rabbi Yochanan’s view would undoubtedly adduce arguments to justify his critical assessment. Such as Noah’s deafening silence when God told him that he was going to destroy the wicked world and save him alone. When God told Abraham that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, on the other hand, Abraham protested vehemently.

That cannot be denied. But there are other ways of explaining their respective responses. After all, Abraham is described by God as ohavi, ‘my friend’(Isaiah 41:8). He was the one who re-discovered God for the new world that grew up after the Flood. He was accustomed to hearing God’s voice. There are as many as eleven recorded encounters and conversations in the Torah between God and Abraham, in the space of as many chapters. In most of them Abraham responds to God confidently and fearlessly, the most notable occasion being when he vigorously challenges God’s disclosure that He is to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah (18:17-33). If God’s decisions seemed incomprehensible and incompatible with his own moral judgment, Abraham did not flinch from asserting the fact.

Poor Noah. The very first time that the great Lord of the universe appears to him, he discloses to him the most terrifying news that the world is to be destroyed and that Noah should build an Ark to save himself and his family (6:13-18). Imagine Noah’s fearful state of mind, not only to be engaged in conversation by Almighty God, but also at the terrifying content of that communication. Is it surprising that Noah, traumatised by that experience, just did as he was commanded without comment or protestation? I think not.

Significantly, God issued commands to Noah on a few occasions, but Noah never utters a single word in reply! He was petrified into silence. Abraham was clearly such a towering and unique spiritual giant that it is invidious, therefore, to even attempt to compare Noah with him. Resh Lakish heroically attempts to vindicate Noah, but Rabbi Yochanan’s view is so obviously the authentic one.

Pirkei Avot tells us that ‘any dispute that is in the name of heaven shall endure.’ Ironically, although this was certainly a dispute in the name of heaven - to ascertain comparative levels of spirituality - yet more is the pity that it has ‘endured’ and that Rabbi Yochanan’s negative assessment of Noah’s piety has been preserved down the ages, notwithstanding the Torah’s superlative description of his spiritual attributes.

The assessment of a scholar’s knowledge is an acceptable exercise, and, when it is a matter of an appointment or for the purpose of establishing authority, it is obviously a necessary exercise. Indeed in that very Pirkei Avot (2:10) we have the illustrious sage, Rabban Yochanan ben Zaccai making a comparative assessment of the academic and rabbinic prowess of his five senior students.

The assessment of someone’s piety, on the other hand, is a most hazardous exercise, for the truly pious are also truly humble. Invariably they struggle hard to conceal their piety and to perform their good deeds well out of the glare of the public spotlight. Perhaps this is the meaning of the enigmatic verse in Kohelet, Al tehiy tzaddik harbeh, ‘Don’t be too righteous.’ If someone is considered too righteous, he or she has clearly been performing their good deeds in too conspicuous a manner.

It is a pity that the Torah provides no details of the nature and scope of Noah’s acts of piety, which must have been numerous and impressive for him to have merited the desifnation tzadduk tamim, ‘perfect and righteous.’ Perhaps such concealment was in deference to the nature and wishes of the man. One think is certain: the fact that he failed to convert an entire civilisation, mired in iniquity, is hardly an indictment of him. Even Abraham, who lived not far from Sodom, was either ignorant of their wickedness or tried and failed to influence them. He certainly failed to save them.

Show me the man who has ever, single-handedly, induced piety on a global scale. It is difficult enough trying to achieve a measure of piety in a single community!

So was Noah the victim of his own piety, of his wish for anonymity? Probably yes. Had we had a full biblical record of Noah at work, immersed in his good deeds, there would surely have been no negative assessment of him. So what does this teach us? It teaches two things. First that there is a subtle balance between doing good deeds ostentatiously and doing them anonymously. Silence is not always golden. We have to have role models. We have to know about good deeds, about charitable donations, about selfless sacrifice, in order to serve as a model, inspiration and challenge to others to follow suit and to order their priorities.. But we certainly do not need to hail as celebrities those who have the means to give large sums to charity. If God has blessed us materially, it is our duty and privilege to give in a manner that is commensurate with our means. It is not an act of special piety that the wealthy man gives a much larger donation that those of modest means. And in this respect we may doubt the propriety of the award of national honours to those magnates whose businesses contribute to worthy causes. It is commendable, but it is also incumbent.

And the second message we can take away is that silence in general can be counter-productive, as it clearly was in the case of Noah. Whether it be the silence of the oppressed, the silence of witnesses to violence or oppression, the silence of people being victimised or abused, the silence of people in government or authority who conceal their exploitation of their office for personal or family advantage. Or the silence this week of the Archbishop of Canterbury when listing the main victims of terror. His list consisted of Christian, Muslim, Hindu and humanists, with a deafening silence regarding Jews, surely the prime victims in the world today.

So there is much still to learn about Noach. Much to learn from the silence that surrounds him. Much to learn about the benefits and dangers of silence. There is much to infer, and even more to misunderstand.