Isn’t Jonathan Sacks right the first time around?

The antediluvian (and presumably even postdiluvian) Noah was beloved by God. No one in the Hebrew Bible –  not Abraham, not Moses, not David – was encased in the unambiguously endearing phraseology reserved by the Bible’s Author for Noah alone. Indeed, as the Bible explicitly tells us, Noah “found grace in the eyes of God.” He was “a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” And, finally, he “walked with God” (Genesis 6: 8-9).

The trinity of encomia that the Bible’s Author reserved for Noah alone, however, spoke of a man who never belonged to any religion. He didn’t, as far as we know, observe the Sabbath. He didn’t abstain from eating the flesh of unclean animals. And, he didn’t pray to God, or seem to worship Him. Indeed, not a Hebrew.

Still, despite all this, Noah managed to delight God so well. He seemed to “know” God, and God rewarded him by his status in the history of the civilized and humane world. Indeed, it is by reference to Noah (and his sons), that the Hebrew Bible articulates the “Seven Mitzvot of the Sons of Noah” – a seemingly more simple, surely less demanding, route for non-believers and non-adherents to find a place in the World To Come. That is, without believing in God,  without a faith on any sort, without adherence to the practices of any religion, the rabbis of yesteryear and today tell us that these non-adherents to any religious practice or holders of any particular spiritual truth may still gain God’s eternal reward.

Imagine – under the “Seven Mitzvot” regime, those who observe those seven relatively straightforward regimens that are vital to any civilized and humane society but not to any spiritual regime, can enter the portal of heaven with no faith and no religion-based encounters with God or any godly figure compelling or motivating their conduct. “Imagine,” as John Lennon would say, “no religion.” Nonetheless, some rabbis of today seem to have forgotten the unambiguous persona of Noah.

We recently lost this generation’s and perhaps the world’s most profound and thoughtful voice in (at least Jewish) theology, Lord Jonathan Sacks. A number of obituaries honoring him made notice of the controversy he stoked in his 2002 volume, “The Dignity of Difference.”(Bloomsbury, 2002).  In its first edition Rabbi Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,” notably said this: “God had spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims .  .  . No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilisation encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expression of mankind .    .    .  In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths  .     .    .  God is greater than religion. He is only partially comprehended by any faith.”

Rabbi Sacks, though, was essentially compelled — basically forced, if you will — in the second edition of the book, to retreat from this universalist expression regarding belief in God. He had been confronted by orthodox rabbis about his comment, one of whom actually accused Sacks of “heresy.” (Lord Sacks Obituary, Guardian, Jenny Frazier, 11/8/20).  So, in response, in the Preface to his second edition he explained that while his book had initially been written in the wake of 9/11 as “a plea – the most forceful I could make – for tolerance in an age of extremism,” Sacks felt the need in the second edition to “restate” his views “in less problematic terms.” Thereby to overcome the misinterpreted view, apparently held by some, that his offending comments, cited above, were “incompatible with the classic tenets of Jewish faith.”

One wonders whether, before his restatement, Sacks actually asked the offended rabbis, who ostensibly believed that they themselves had the monopoly on truth and religious interpretation, to vet the second edition. For, in his Preface, in asking whether religion can be a force for peace rather than a source for conflict, Sacks says that “it depends in turn on how different faiths and cultures make space for ‘the other’, the one who is not like us, whose race, colour and creed is different from ours.” Was it even sufficient for those rabbis for Sacks to have proposed “making space” for those who don’t believe as do those rabbis?

Interestingly, observant Judaism typically presents Noah as somehow subordinate — even given his unique contribution in saving humanity from destruction — to the Patriarch Abraham, the ostensible founder of monotheism. This, surprisingly, despite all the honorifics God accorded Noah in the Bible. It’s as if certain faith leaders – such those rabbis who confronted Lord Sacks – possess the innate authority to determine “who’s in, who’s out, and who’s unentitled” to believe that some members of mankind may relate to and know God differently than we do.

One supposes that despite having been responsible for literally saving humanity, if Noah were still walking the earth Lord Sacks’s first edition detractors would still see Noah as “second grade” – simply not the peer of Abraham.  They would argue, after all, that Noah was “perfect in his generations” only because, unlike Abraham who purportedly founded monotheism, Noah stood as an obelisk in the desert of his time only because his contemporaries were all total wrongdoers.

And, one might also suppose that, for those rabbis, they alone are uniquely equipped to be the proper arbiters of the precise manner how diverse individuals and the religions that they follow, can properly relate to God.

For me, Lord Sacks should probably have stuck to his guns. Easy, I know, for me to say — without constituencies or peers to whom one needs to be responsive.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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