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Parashat Noah

October 24, 2012

Testament for Universal Humanity
By Rabbi Len Levin

The Portion of Noah concludes the Torah’s universalistic preamble to the narrative of the Jewish people. Though clearly written from a Jewish perspective, it nowhere mentions Israel or Jewry. Abram and Sarai are mentioned at the very end, as among the descendants of the line of Shem, a harbinger of the national narrative of Israel which is to follow. These eleven chapters offer a narrative of the genesis of humanity, with numerous lessons, explicit and implicit, for their moral guidance. They are addressed to all humanity, and have been accepted as a spiritual testament by the Western monotheistic faiths comprising over half the human race.

In Jewish vocabulary, bnei Noah (Noahides, or descendants of Noah) is a technical term. Descriptively, it denotes the entire human race, who according to the Biblical narrative are all descendants of Adam and Eve, but also of Noah (as only Noah and his family survived the Flood). Theologically, it affirms that all humanity are covenanted to God and commanded to observe the fundamental principles of universal ethics. This affirmation is based on the account in Chapter 9 of Genesis, that after the Flood God addressed Noah and his sons, commanding them to refrain from homicide and from eating animals “with the blood.” The rabbis expanded on this and said that in fact God instituted seven commands for the Noahides: outlawing (1) murder, (2) theft, (3) sexual immorality, (4) idolatry, (5) blasphemy, (6) cruelty to animals, and (7) as a positive measure, requiring institution of courts of justice.

The significance of these provisions in the context of the Biblical narrative cannot be underestimated. It was Thomas Hobbes who said that left to their own devices in a state of nature, the human race would degenerate into a war of all against all, in which case life would be nasty, brutish and short. Therefore, he argued, it was necessary to establish a social contract and to institute political authority and laws for the protection of all. The Biblical author similarly narrates the institution of the Noahide covenant against the background of a previous age of violence and lawlessness. God is the sovereign, against whom they rebelled, but to whom they must return. In the ensuing reconciliation, all humanity are covenanted to God, to pledge themselves to a life of ethical decency to avert the dire alternative. And God pledges in return, henceforth to insure the stability of the order of nature so that there will never be a repeat of such a catastrophe as the Flood.

There are splinter groups in the United States and Israel today who adhere to a literalist interpretation of this doctrine, and seek to adhere to strict adherence to the Noahide laws, as interpreted by Orthodox rabbis for the benefit of a gentile audience. (See this website.) The thrust of the Biblical message is however much broader than this, and must include all peoples and faiths, who are called on to unite and work together for a better world.

Judaism early on renounced exclusivist triumphalism in favor of religious pluralism. It embraced a vision of a world in which there could be many national cultures and many religious practices, as long as they all adhered to worship of a universal God and humanistic ethics. The majority of later rabbinic authorities recognized the validity of Christianity and Islam as Noahide religions. Even the medieval philosopher Judah Halevi, who vehemently argued for the superiority of Judaism as the truest of all religions, and the Jews as a superior people, allowed that Christianity and Islam played a providential role in bringing mankind closer to the one true God. (Kuzari IV,23) For their part, both the Christian traditions and the Muslim traditions affirmed the Noahide legacy explicitly in their scriptures. (See Hebrews 11:7; Koran Sura 71.)

The breathtaking universalism of the Noahide narrative can be seen in its sequel, especially Chapters 10 (the Table of Nations) and Chapter 11 (the Tower of Babel narrative). Clearly, the narrator sought to include all the known nations in the Middle East (the world he knew) among Noah’s family. Roughly speaking, the descendants of Ham represent the peoples of Africa (Mizraim = Egypt, Cush = Ethiopia), the descendants of Japheth represent the peoples of Europe (Yavan = Greece, Ashkenaz would later be identified with Germany), and the descendants of Shem represent the peoples of Asia. In short, every nation is as legitimate as a child of God and a representative of universal humanity.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in The Dignity of Difference, finds this moral confirmed in the Babel narrative, “teaching humanity to make space for difference. God may at times be found in [the] human other, the one not like us.” (p. 53) In the world of differences we live in today, this lesson, coming from this week’s parashah, is as urgently needed as ever.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy and pluralism at AJR.