Noah and the Covenant

Another brilliant commentary by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.
Enjoy, and repair the World!
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Parashat Noah 5781
R. Yitz Greenberg

The Torah inherited a Mesopotamian cultural consensus that a Great Deluge had wiped out almost all of humanity. In the Gilgamesh epic, the gods (Anu and Enlil) inflict this catastrophe arbitrarily in a display of their power, but later defend their actions both as deserved punishment and designed to curb population growth. According to the older epic, Atrahasis,
Enlil, and the gods are troubled by the rapid growth of human population and offended by the noisy, raucous human behaviors. They use the flood (and then shortened life span) to drastically reduce human presence on earth. Rearticulated through the Torah’s revelation, the Flood is explained as inflicted because of widespread human wickedness, especially
violence and oppression. God, who wanted Earth to be a living paradise of justice and peace, is so disappointed and angered as to decide to undo the initial Creation with a flood of watery chaos and try again. The Lord determined to wipe out the corrupt human race and renew humanity, building it on righteous Noah and his family.

But the crucial departure and revolutionary moral path of the Torah is expressed in the day after the Flood—which may well be the most transformative religious moment in Judaism’s history. God pledges never to inflict such a catastrophe again. Attributing a cataclysmic flood to willful action by God would define the Lord as a perfectionist who cannot tolerate the flawed and wayward human nature acting out badly, and so rejects the world and starts again. Alternatively, such a flood would reveal God as a punitive Ruler who ruthlessly wipes out those who disobey divine instructions to be good.

Instead, the Torah reveals that God is a loving Lord who is deeply distressed at the sight of widespread devastation and death. To wipe out people for the sin of disobedience and violence is so coercive that even if people do the right actions thereaer, there is no dignity or genuine morality in their behaviors. A loving God wants people to be good out of free will and
love of others. Therefore, God permanently renounces the threat of inflicting catastrophe: All powerful but loving God self-limits and offers humanity a covenant or partnership.

In this committed partnership of love, humans will join with the Divine in building a better world and filling it with life. But they will do so out of free choice and doing their best, not out of terrorized submission to divine dictates. In the covenant, there is full allowance for human weakness in the form of lower, “compromised” expectations—at least along the way to the final goal. Even bad behaviors are provided for by mechanisms of repentance, milder punishments, and divine forgiveness. God still wants Creation and society to be perfected. However, God loves humans and wants them to mature and become fully images of God—that is, independent creatures who are infinitely valuable, equal, and unique. God wants humans to live lives of dignity and creativity in partnership. That is more important than humans building God’s desired paradise while living lives of robotic conformity to divine instructions.

In entering covenant, omnipotent God self-limits, out of love, to allow humans their freedom and the chance to grow into full dignity. How? First God establishes the natural order as independent and irrevocable process, never to cease or be disrupted (Genesis 8:22). The Talmud explains: “Olam ke-minhago noheg, the world follows its custom” (Avodah Zarah 54b). The objectivity of the natural order means that nature will not differentiate between stolen and honestly acquired seeds—both will germinate. The sperm of adulterous intercourse can conceive a child just as much as sperm emitted in moral or legal sexual relations. Nature will not hound or punish those doing evil. In God’s world, humans freely choose to do good or bad. By choosing to do good, humans exercise—and earn—their freedom. This means that God upholds human freedom (with the risks of bad behavior) ahead of obedience or guaranteed preferred outcomes.

The divine self-limit means that humans must pick up the slack in creating life and repairing the world. Rather than confer a paradise by miracles, God binds God’s self to depend on human actions to complete the world. By upholding the human role and making the divinely desired outcomes dependent upon human behavior, God enables human freedom. People
must participate in their own liberation or they remain imbued with a slave mentality. If paradise is simply bestowed, humans are likely to remain dependent, or even spoiled children, rather than repair their own world and become mature masters of their own fate.

The covenant mechanism protects against the two most widespread pathologies that flow from the human encounter with God. One is to neglect this world or even allow it to rot and instead pray for God to upgrade it miraculously (Footnote: Thus religion became in Marx’s critique the “opium of the masses” which enabled an unjust status quo to persist of necessity and established culture.) The other is to turn to God and to ritual life in order to escape from this world, with its challenges and burdens, into the timeless, perfect heavenly realms. The covenant tells humans that they have a companion or partner or helper, but that they must do their share. They must fulfill their commitment by creating life and doing good in this mortal realm.

Our parashah illustrates the covenantal method of working for tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. Out of deference to human needs and nature, society takes small and compromised steps toward the ultimate goal. The ideal diet of the Torah is vegetarianism; no creature should live by taking the life of other creatures. In the Garden of Eden, all living animals including humans were vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30). However, after the Flood, allowing for human hunting for food and human need for protein, permission is given to eat meat. (Genesis 9:3).

The covenantal goal of a final peaceful world is upheld by restricting meat eating. All humans are prohibited from eating blood of the animal. Blood is seen as the carrier of life (Leviticus 17:11). The prohibition is a reminder that the ideal remains not to take another life. Not consuming blood is humanity’s acknowledgment that it is “violating” the sanctity of life—out out of necessity and established culture. The prohibition goads people to try to ultimately reach the vegetarian ideal.

It is noteworthy that Noah’s covenant includes a warning not to shed the blood of humans. (Genesis 9:5-6). This is an acknowledgement that compromising with nature and culture by permitting the killing of animals raises the risk of humans acting out their hunting instincts by killing people. There is an implied moral risk in every compromise of the ideal. There is a price in accommodating human beings and the status quo.
Our parashah concludes this account by reminding us of the goal of this partnership: It is to fill the world with life and so upgrade the world as to enable people to live abundantly— not constrained, not deprived, not reduced—but rooted and flourishing lives (Genesis 9:7).

Postscript: The covenant with Noah is a universal covenant with all of humanity (and other living creatures, see Genesis 9). This covenant has not received that much attention in Jewish tradition, certainly not as much as the particular Jewish covenants, i.e. with Abraham, at Sinai, on the plains of Moab at the end of Moses’ life (Deuteronomy 29-30ff).

The Noahide covenant supplies the model in the Torah of covenantal process (ideal goal, initial lowered expectations or compromise in actions, upholding the ideal through ongoing restrictions, provision to minimize the inevitable, negative side effects and costs of compromises with an unredeemed status quo and a sign/marker of the covenant; in our
parashah the sign of the universal covenant is the rainbow, Genesis 9:12-17). This model shapes our understanding of all the later laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23) and the rest of the Torah.

I believe that all subsequent covenants—not just with the Jewish people but, I argue, those made with other non-Jewish covenantal communities as well—are based on and draw authority from this Noahide covenant.

I call on the prophet Isaiah to back up this view. When the exiled Jews returned from Babylonia, they were wracked with religious concerns. Maybe God had rejected the covenant with Israel and, therefore, allowed the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of Jewry? Isaiah assured them this was not so. He tells them: Just as God’s covenantal pledge not to
allow another Deluge was self-evidently unbroken—it was operative and irrevocable—so they should be assured that God’s covenant with Israel would never be withdrawn (Isaiah 54:9-10). In other words, the manifest validity of the Noahide covenant and the ongoing natural process
is our assurance that our particular covenant is ongoing and eternal.

Shabbat Shalom.

A quick look at twenty notable Rabbis…

Hundreds more notable Rabbis could have made this list.  My goal is to give an idea of the intellectual depth and breadth (yes, not much social diversity!) over the centuries: the development of Rabbinical Judaism and its codification, mysticism, the interaction with scientific discoveries, philosophy and other religions, the Holocaust, the return to the Land, and Judaism in a world of technology, globalization, social diversity and integration. You may want to check my companion post for my comments on Rabbinic Judaism in general.

Yohanan ben Zakkai

Yohanan ben Zakkai  (c.30 BCE–90 CE) was an important rabbinical sage who lived in the final days of the Second Temple, essentially marking the transition from the Judaic priestly system to Rabbinical Judaism. Following the destruction of the Temple, Yochanan opened a school near Yavneh that was instrumental in moving Judaism away from sacrifices and towards prayer.  He led the establishment of the tannaim school of thought that became the main contributor to the Mishnah and the Talmud.  He was buried in the city of Tiberias.

Rabbi Akiva

Akiba ben Yosef  (c.40–c.137, Judea}, was a tanna of the latter part of the first century and the beginning of the second century (the third tannaitic generation). Rabbi Akiva is a leading contributor to the Mishnah and to Midrash halakha (religious practice). He is referred to in the Talmud as Rosh la-Hakhamim “Chief of the Sages”.   He was executed by the Romans in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

Sa’adia Gaon

Codex_ArabicusRabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon   (882/892 – 942 ) was born in Egypt.  His Book of Beliefs and Opinions represents the first systematic attempt to integrate Jewish theology with components of Greek philosophy.  Sa’adia wrote about his opposition to Karaism (the belief that the Tanakh or Old Testament is the only source of Jewish law and theology) in defense of Rabbinic Judaism.  Sa’adia wrote both in Hebrew and Arabic.

RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki (RASHI)

Rashi (Years 1040 to 1105) lived in Troyes, France, about 200 km Southeast of Paris, an important center of trade in the Middle Ages. Many Jewish merchant-scholars attended trade fairs in Troyes which gave Rashi access to many Jewish manuscripts of the ToseftaJerusalem TalmudMidrashTargum and the writings of the Geonim.  His writings and commentaries were seen as the “official repository of Rabbinical tradition” which ultimately influenced Martin Luther. Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch is considered the first printed Hebrew work.

Maimonides

Moshe ben Maimon was born on March 30, 1135 in Cordoba, Spain.  He fled to Morocco in 1160 then later to Jerusalem, and finally settled in Cairo, Egypt where he died in 1204.  He is mostly known by his greek name, Moses Maimonides, or the acronym of his title and name, RaMBaM.  He was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher.  His major works consist of the 14-volume Mishneh Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed, written to provide rational explanations for traditional Jewish law.   He was heavily influenced by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher.  Maimonides was also the personal physician of the Vizir of Egypt and of Saladin himself.
seder-olam-mishneh-torah Maimonides.JPG
Manuscript of Mishneh Torah, signed by Maimonides, c. 1180 — found in the Cairo Genizra
(source: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Ms. Heb. d.32, fols 53b-54a)

Nahmanides

Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nachmanides or by the acronym RaMBaN, was born in Girona, Catalonia, Spain in 1194 and died in Jerusalem in 1270.  He was a Sephardic rabbi, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.  He was a great supporter of the original Talmudic work in response perhaps to Maimonides breakthrough work and the influence of Greek and Arabic philosophy.  He helped mediate opposition to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed by allowing its philosophical approach to remain, but prohibiting its study…   In 1263, he was called by King James I of Aragon to participate in a disputation against Pablo Christiani, a Jew who had converted to Christianity.  The RaMBaN clearly won the disputation but was still sent in exile.  Fleeing Christian persecution, he ended up in Jerusalem where he helped re-establish Jewish communal life there following the end of the Crusades.   

Obadiah of Bertinoro

Obadiah of Bertinoro was born c. 1450 in Bertinoro, now Italy and died before 1516. He is known for his commentary on the Mishnah, integrating explanations from Rashi and rulings from Maimonides. He is also remembered for three letters describing his three-year journey (1486–88) to Jerusalem. The letters include descriptions of the people and customs of the Jewish communities he visited on the way from Italy to the Holy Land.  See additional articles on R. Obadiah here and on Jewish life in early modern Italy here.

Rabbi Yitzhak Luria

10 SephirotIsaac (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi is also known as Ha’ARI. He was born in 1534 in Jerusalem of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother.  He died on July 25, 1572 in Safed, Israel.  Luria is considered the father of modern Kabbalah.  He is known for his oral teachings, having written only a few poems on his own.  He turned to mysticism as a young man, spending seven years in Egypt as a recluse and focusing on the Zohar, the main work of Kabbalistic commentaries.  He returned to Palestine in 1569 and eventually settled in Safed.  He was known for his impassioned oral teachings referred as Lurianic Kabbalah.  These lectures or teachings were  captured by his disciples led by Rabbi Hayyim Vital, and compiled into eight volumes known as Etz Chayim, (“Tree of Life”.)  R. Luria is buried at the Old Jewish Cemetery in Safed. See more in this article.

Moses Isserles

Mojżesz ben Israel Isserles, also known the acronym Rema was born in 1530 in Kraków, Poland. He died there in 1572.  His father was a well-known talmudist and wealthy community member.  Moses became Rabbi of Krakow at age 20 and estalished a yeshiva there.  Isserles’ major accomplishment was in the area of halakha where he contributed to the Shulchan Aruch authored by Yosef Karo with whom he is said to have corresponded.  His writings also covered Aggadah, Kabbalah, philosophy, and even astronomy.  He served on the Polish Council of the Four Lands.

Joseph ben Ephraim Karo

Joseph Karo, known also as Mechaber (the Author) was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488 to a renowned talmudist father. At age 4, his family fled to Portugual following the Alhambra expulsion decree then to Nikopolis, Greece.  He eventually settled in Safed, Palestine where he served on the Rabbinical Court of Safed (which adjudicated Jewish law in the Southern Ottoman empire and Syria).  He remained there until his death in 1575. 

His major works include Beth Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch. These works sought to standardize Jewish laws and customs following the expulsion and collapse of the Jewish community of Spain.  The Shulchan Aruch is still considered a work of reference today.

Leon of Modena

R. Leone Modena also known as Judah Aryeh was born in 1571 and died in 1648 in Venice, Italy.  Leon of Modena lived a difficult personal life, losing three of his five children, seeing his wife becoming insane and being addicted to gambling himself.  His work focused on the conflicts between the new scientific knowledge acquired during the Italian Renaissance and loyalty to Jewish tradition.  His writings include Ari Nohem, (“The Lion Roars”), a critique of the Zohar, and Historia de ‘riti Ebraici published in Paris in 1635.  This last book was written at the request of the English Ambassador and describes Italian Jewish customs of the time.

Israel ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov) 

Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) or his acronym BeShT, was born around 1700 in Western Ukraine. He died in nearby Medzhybizh in 1760.  Like R. Isaac Luria (see above) he is mainly known for his oral teachings which were documented by other authors later.  Israel ben Eliezer is considered the founder of the Hasidism movement.  As an itinerant teacher’s assistant, he devoted himself to the education of poor Jewish children living in small villages.  He studied Kabbalah(Jewish mysticism.)  He eventually settled in Medzhybizh where he developed a spiritual following.

Hasidism is a Kabbalh-inspired revival movement drawing from, emphasizing and amplifying certain aspects of Lurianic teachings (see above) such as oneness with God, piety, and fervor.  This approach is derived from the BeShT’s life experience and, in part ,in response to the Khmelnitsky massacres of a generation earlier and the false messianic movements of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank.  Hasidism evolved with the development of “dynasties” led by charismatic rabbis who demand total allegiance from their flock.

Vilna Gaon

Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as the Gaon (genius) of Vilna or the acronym HaGra (“HaGaon Rabbenu Eliyahu”), was born in Sialiec, Belarus in 1720 and died in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1797.  He was a prolific writer on matters of the Talmud, law and Kabbalah but is best known as the leader of the Mitnagdim (opponents) movement (see below).  He encouraged his students to study natural sciences, and translated geometry books into Yiddish and Hebrew, famously saying that Judaism could only benefit from this type of knowledge. When Hasidic Judaism became influential (through proselytism), the Vilna Gaon joined local rabbis in 1777 and again in 1781 in excommunicating Hasids and trying to prevent “inter-marriages”.  The Gaon believed that the main focus of Jewish education should be on the Jerusalem Talmud.

Aryeh Levin

Aryeh Levin was born near Bialystok, Poland in 1865 and passed away in 1969 in Jerusalem. He was also known as the “Tzadik (“saint”) of Jerusalem” for his work on behalf of the poor and the sick.  He attended yeshivoth in Poland and immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in 1905.  In 1931, he was officially appointed Jewish Prison Chaplain and visited Jewish prisoners, often interceding to have their death sentences commuted.  Inmates universally praised the rabbi’s warmth and sincerity, and the honor and respect with which he treated them. He was also known for his visits to the sick at Bikur Holim hospital in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem.  Rabbi Aryeh was asked to mediate an incident where a young child was refused a second portion of chocolate pudding in the school cafeteria and spilled the entire container in anger.  After the young child promised never to do it again, the Rabbi asked him, “Do you really like chocolate pudding?” “Yes,” he answered. Reb Aryeh continued, “I love chocolate pudding too. I brought two containers of chocolate pudding so let us sit down and eat some chocolate pudding together.”   See this article for more stories.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also known as Rav, was born in 1903 in Pruzhany, Belarus, a descendant of the Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. He died in 1993 (aged 90) in Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Eastern Europe and attended University in Berlin from 1924 until 1932 when he graduated with a Ph.D. in epistemology and metaphysics.  He then emigrated to Boston where he ran an orthodox school.  In 1941, he became head of the Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City, succeeding his father.  He ordained over 2000 rabbis over his lifetime and promoted instruction for women.  He sought to combine the best of Jewish scholarship with the best of secular wisdom and is considered the father of Modern Orthodox Judaism.  His best-known work is The Lonely Man of Faith which addresses the need to stand alone in the face of monumental challenges.

Yehouda Léon Askénazi

Rav Yehouda Léon Askénazi, also known as Manitou, was born in Oran, Algeria in 1922 and died in Jerusalem in 1996.  His father was the head rabbi of the city of Oran.  He fought as a soldier in World War II, moved from Algeria to France and developed a vision that bridged the religious and secular worlds, becoming one of the spiritual leaders of 20th century French Jewry along with André Neher and Emmanuel Lévinas.  In 1968, he moved to Jerusalem and opened and ran the Mayanot Jewish Studies Center until 1988.  The focus of his teaching and writing is on the meaning of the identity of Israel and of Biblical, explaining Hebrew concepts and themes through the use of universal terminology.   (essay in French)

Ovadia Yosef

Ovadia Yosef , also known by his arabic name Abdullah Youssef, was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1920 and passed away in Jerusalem in 2013 at the age of 93.  He emigrated with his family to Jerusalem in 1924.  His family was very poor. He rapidly progressed in religious school while at the same time supporting his family.  He was ordained rabbi at age 20.   He is considered one of the foremost Sephardi Talmudic scholars and rabbinic judges of the last 200 years. He favored so-called “open-source Torah” and the work of 16th Century Rabbi Yosef Karo (see above) as opposed to the closed mystical Kabbalah that has been in favor in the ultra religious community.  In 1973, he was elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Yosef attracted criticism during his lifetime and after his death for some of his political and religious views as explained in the 2013 Haaretz articles by David Landau (“The Political Kidnapping of a Torah Phenomenon“) and by Anshel Pfeffer (“The Great Opportunities Missed.”)   The articles ascertain that, despite his personal success, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was used by the Ashkenazi religious establishment for political purposes. He entered politics when he founded the Israeli Shas party to better represent Sephardi and Mizrahi religious minorities but still failed to make significant differences in the lives of his constituents.

Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, also known as Yitz Greenberg, is a Harvard-educated Jewish-American scholar and author who identifies as a Modern Orthodox rabbi. He is known as a strong supporter of Israel, and a promoter of greater understanding between Judaism and Christianity. Wikipedia.  Rabbi Greenberg was born in Brooklyn in 1933.  He founded and led the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) from 1974 through 1997. CLAL is a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center that links Jewish wisdom with innovative scholarship to deepen civic and spiritual participation in American life.  Rabbi Greenberg is the author of many books and articles.

David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931 and passed away in Jerusalem in 2013. He attended Yeshiva under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik but then pursued philosophy degrees from Fordham and McGill Universities, rejecting what he perceived as the intellectual insularity of Ultra-Orthodoxy.  He served as rabbi in Montreal for 10 years before emigrating to Israel in 1971 and founding the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976.  His teachings and writings encourage a greater understanding between Israel, the Jewish Diaspora and different Jewish affiliations.  He favored diplomacy with the Palestinians and peace and social justice in Israel. Another post on this blog is devoted to his essay entitled “Auschwitz or Sinai”.  Learn more: Tablet, Jewish Week, and David Hartman’s interview with Krista Tippett.

R. Deborah Brin

Deborah Brin, born in 1953, is one of the first openly gay rabbis and one of the first hundred women rabbis. She was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and led Congregation Nahalat Shalom as their rabbi in Albuquerque, New Mexico for about 10 years. She co-edited the poetry section for the Reconstructionist prayer book KOL HANESHAMAH: Shabbat Vehagim, and has written an article chronicling her experience leading the first women’s prayer service and Torah reading at the Western Wall for the book Women of the Wall.

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