Was Noah Really Righteous?

It seems that nothing is truly sacred. Even the words expressed by God himself can be manipulated and challenged. The Torah states: Noach ish tzaddik tamim hayah b’dorotov – Noah was a completely righteous person in his generation. However, the Talmud debates whether Noah really was righteous and offers the opinion that he was only righteous compared to his evil peers. Had he lived in another generation he would not have been considered righteous. On one hand I find it audacious for the rabbis to challenge the written word of God, but I’m also impressed that they had the willingness to question the status quo.

As I reflect on the spiritual quest we have embraced during the past month, I question whether we actualized our journey or reached our desired goal. Did we contemplate our objectives or follow through with our game plan? Were our prayers mechanical or did they appear as a mirage – always a smidgen beyond our grasp? And in its conclusion, were we satisfied with the result? Were our spiritual needs satiated until next year? Or are our prayers neatly packed away in proverbial moth balls, no longer focusing on who will live and who will die? Did the piercing sounds of the shofar and the haunting tune of Kol Nidrei fade quickly? Are we so preoccupied with today that yesterday has already become a fleeting, meaningless, and forgettable moment in time?  Am I being too negative or stereotyping those to whom I should give the benefit of doubt? Perhaps I am subjecting my readers to my own biases.

I just landed in Munich en route to Israel and intentionally decided to put on my tallit and tefillin in the openness of the terminal. For me, the hour in Germany had a stronger influence on my Jewish spirit than all the prayers and time spent in shul over the High Holidays. Being amongst friends I began to lose focus on who I am; I went through the motions but without fervor and emotion. But being among those that I still find it difficult to call my friends, a sense of purpose and religious emotion filled my innerself. My negativity is not directed towards others, it is a direct consequence of my surroundings.

In a few hours I will be in Israel, the country that pulsates our heart with love and pride. I will breathe in air that Moshe craved but was never granted the privilege of inhaling. I may also stand on the same stones on which King David and King Solomon stood. I will visit the kotel and see the walls of Jerusalem, but while I allow myself to feel the inspirational highs, I am aware that whatever euphoria and emotions I receive will be short lived.

Is it wrong to be a realist? Should I sugar coat or say I see a full glass when I only see a glass half full? Over the years I have found it difficult to convey the turmoil in my soul. My world has gone through a spiritual awakening and I can no longer acquiesce blindly to a mortal authority that is flawed. In my youth I was unencumbered by inconsistencies, but the ease of acceptance and tolerance have withered with age. No, I don’t see this as a flaw but rather as an encouraging sign of my ability to grapple with painful questions.

I believe that questioning the status quo is our religious mandate, not a heretical pursuit. I believe those unwilling to contemplate and question the often immoral religious authority lack depth in their practice of Judaism. If we truly find that shul services are no longer meeting their desired result and actually turning our youngsters off to Judaism, then it becomes our holy duty to find an alternative solution.  Synagogue prayers are not biblically mandated, they were instituted as a direct consequence of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It served its purpose for almost two millennia, but that is little comfort for today’s youth. Recently, Rabbi Cardozo has been condemned by his peers for his article that suggests our sages saw flaws in the living Torah. He stated that rather than putting their heads in the sand, the rabbis found the courage to confront their challenges and modify laws. In my eyes, the vilification of a man like Rabbi Cardozo, by alleging his views are heretical, serve only to denigrate his accusers. (Both political parties shunned and castigated FBI Director James Comey when he didn’t act in a manner consistent to their game plan.) In medieval times the rabbis shunned Maimonides and throughout the ages those in power consistently sought to discredit their adversaries lest their views be legitimized by the masses. Corruption of power is not just the domain of politicians. Religious leaders have abused their power for non-religious reasons. I am not high enough on the totem pole of importance to defend Rabbi Cardozo, nor does he need my defense, but my concern is the ease in which rabbis escalate the castigation of an opponent by referring to them as a heretic.

Ignorance is only promoted as bliss by those trying to maintain absolute allegiance and subjugation amongst their adherents. The brightest university students who can grapple with philosophy, delve into advanced calculus, and discuss with impartiality quantum physics, have been known to unquestioningly follow the mindless mass hysteria of a charismatic leader.  The yeshiva student who can analyze difficult Talmudic quandaries by articulating pointed and often dissenting opinions, is limited by his/her rabbis in using their mind solely for abstract thoughts.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. I think the fundamentals of Judaism have stood the test of time and shouldn’t be unnecessarily modified. But I also believe the words of King Solomon: there is nothing new under the sun. Every change is merely a realignment of something which previously existed. It is only the haughty and arrogant who claim their way is the only correct and genuine way while dismissing and denouncing even the most devout who practice differently.

So was Noah righteous? Maybe the rabbis have a point. He didn’t put on tefillin or wear a tallit. He never recited the Sh’ma nor said Kaddish on a yahrzeit. He observed only seven laws and did not consider six hundred and seven other laws as fundamentally important. He didn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat. He never stepped foot in a shul or gave donations to Jewish causes. His mother wasn’t Jewish so I assume neither was he. (That should be obvious as he was capable of building an ark and when it was finally over he passed up on the food and went out for drinks.) He would not have been counted in a minyan or able to immigrate to Israel under the law of return. I guess even though God called him a tzaddik, a righteous person, by the standards of certain rabbis, God himself could and should be overruled.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel

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