Monday, October 15, 2007

Does God grade on the curve?

The commentators fall into disagreement at the very first verse of parashat Noach. The source of the disagreement is the statement, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age” (Gen. 6:9).

One school of thought about this is that Noah was only relatively righteous. That is, that he may have been blameless by the standards of his own time, but in another age he might not have been considered righteous at all.

The other school of thought is that, living in a particularly depraved time, Noah must have been especially righteous. Where the first interpretation holds that Noah is only considered righteous in comparison with those around him, the second holds that he was particularly heroic to have been righteous in such unrighteous surroundings.
For those who are keeping score, the first interpretation is that of Rabbi Jochanan, and the second is that of Resh Lakish.

To put this in the terms most familiar to educators, the question that is being asked is: Does God grade on the curve?

According to the first way of thinking, the answer must be yes, because Noah is judged righteous through being, apparently, the most righteous person of his time, even if he would not have ranked high on an absolute scale of righteousness. Furthermore, the Torah says (at the end of parashat Bereshit) that Noah found favor with God, and (in this parashah) that Noah walked with God.

In religious school, the question of grading on the curve doesn’t arise, because grading as such is rarely an issue. How often does anyone fail Sunday school?

What does arise, however, is an issue that is implicit in a more extensive criticism of Noah: that although he is obedient to God, he fails the test of genuine righteousness because he accepts the judgment and does not plead or argue on behalf of all those who will die in the flood. In other words, he is criticized for not being as righteous as Abraham, who pleaded for the people of Sodom. It implies that being Noah isn't good enough; he should have tried to be Abraham.

That line of criticism should speak to us. Although our school has a formal curriculum, we can’t, as a secular school might, take for granted that a student who fails to master the curriculum is merely a mediocre student. We’re not in the business of teaching children to be mediocre Jews.

The text tells us that Noah walked with God, and from that we may conclude that, regardless of whether Noah was genuinely righteous or only relatively righteous, God must have walked with Noah.

2 comments:

Mike Skinner said...

God does not 'grade on the curve.' Another possible translation of Genesis 6:8 is that Noah was found to be in the possession of grace in the eyes of the L-RD, or that grace in the eyes of the L-RD happened upon Noah.

We know that the result of this is that Noah was accounted an especially righteous man, because Ezekiel 14 records G-D saying that judgment was determined for Israel because of their transgressions and that even if "Noah, Daniel and Job" lived together in Israel at that day they would only themselves be delivered from the judgment. (vv. 14-20) (Which says a lot about Daniel, as well, for he was a contemporary of Ezekiel. It would be a little like lumping Greg Laurie in with the Apostles Peter and John)

How do we reconcile Noah's righteousness with Solomon's assertion that "there is not a just man on earth, that doeth good and sinneth not" (Ecclesiastes 7:20, 1 Kings 8:46) and G-D's vow not to "acquit the wicked?" (Nahum 1:3)

For G-D to remain righteous, yet call unrighteous men "righteous," something like what happened to David in Psalm 32:2 must occur. Like what was done for Abram when he "believed in the L-RD; and He counted it to him for righteousness." (Genesis 15:6)

Paul said...

The idea that Noah might not be wholly righteous has long standing in Jewish thought. It's based on a close reading of the statement that Noah was "a righteous man, blameless in his age" (ish tzadik tamim haya bedorotav) in Gen. 6:9. The rabbis of old thought that the qualifier "in his age" (bedorotav) would have been unnecessary if Noah had been totally righteous.

I have to disagree with translating Gen. 6:8 in a way that introduces the idea of grace, especially to say that grace "happened upon" Noah. The concept of Divine grace is weak in Jewish thought.

The locution "matza hen be-enay" is very common in Hebrew and conveys no more than "found favor with," which is how the 1985 JPS edition translates it. It could also be rendered as "God was pleased with Noah."

But the point here is that God chose Noah to build the ark. Since Noah followed God's call, the description of him as righteous seems to be justified.

Nevertheless, the rabbis questioned whether Noah was fully righteous, for example, whether he was as righteous as Abraham. One lesson we might draw from this text is not to make that kind of comparison.