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.