Noah and the 21st Century

This coming Shabbat, in synagogues around the world, the story of Noah will be read and discussed, as it has been for thousands of years.

The great medieval exegete Rashi famously cited a timeless discussion in the Talmud about just how virtuous Noah really was. One sage said that it mattered not a whit what generation Noah was born in- he would have stood out as a great man regardless of time and place. Another differed, and said that had Noah been born, say, in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been seen as exceptional.

I found myself wondering this week how those competing rabbis would have evaluated the great leaders of our time.

I think we’re slowly but surely getting to the point where being a politician (male) and keeping your pants up and zipper closed qualifies you as being in some way exceptional and worthy of admiration. I personally think that’s setting the bar kind of low, considering the myriad and vexing challenges of our times, but it’s hard not to see it that way.

And, of course, it’s not just politicians who seem so frequently to fall short of the mark.

I have great compassion for my clerical colleagues in the Catholic church who do God’s work with great devotion and faithfulness, but regularly get lumped together in people’s minds with their colleagues who are pedophiles.

They start their work with two strikes against them, and have to make an extraordinary effort to gain the trust of those they serve.

And then, of course, there are colleagues and laity in our own faith community, some of whom have been engaged in all matter of inappropriate and illegal activities over the course of the past year, sullying the sacred name of God in the process.

Truth to tell, we have hardly reached the level of systemic crisis that the Catholic Church has endured, and I guess we have to be thankful for that (talk about setting the bar low!).

But we have had more than enough terrible news stories coming out of the Jewish community to make it seem as if living a Jewish life without embezzling, cheating, or engaging in some kind of sexual impropriety is some kind of praiseworthy accomplishment.

There are more than enough working definitions out there of what constitutes a “good” or “worthwhile” Jewish life. Almost all have merit of one form or another. What would seem to be true is that religion, when it is doing its job well, should generate a way of life that, no matter when we lived, would be praiseworthy.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.