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Judaism Was Founded By Abraham, Not Noah, A Man Who Sat Idly By


This week, the world has been mesmerized by the story of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl who was targeted and shot by the Taliban for publicly criticizing them and their educational policies regarding girls. As you probably know by now, she was airlifted from Pakistan to the U.K. for treatment of her wounds. Although the crime would normally have surely killed her, it seems that she has miraculously been making a good recovery in hospital and may even have a chance of full recovery at some time in the future. True to form, the Taliban is very angry about this incident. Not because they almost murdered an innocent teenage girl, but because they feel they have been unfairly treated in the press. Although it seems clear that she was shot for advocating for girls' education, the Taliban proclaim that they quite rightly targeted her for being a “spy of the west” and that they were correctly interpreting Sharia law which they say permits “killing of a child if that child is propagating against Islam.” I won't even begin to bore you with the number of blogs and media postings I read that did not exactly justify the shooting, but seemed to find a kind of moral equivalence, or at least a sort of justification for the actions of the Taliban by explaining their extremism as some kind of legitimate response to the phenomenon of U.S. drones in Pakistan. As you can see from their own response to the attempted murder, they don't make that moral equivalence themselves, so I don't see why so many people in this country are so eager to make it for them.

Although by no means of the same scale as this incident, you may not be aware of the sorry incident that took place at the Western Wall this week as well. The report is that Anat Hoffman, chair of the organization Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism in Israel, was arrested at the Western Wall on Tuesday night for saying the Sh’ma out loud at the Wall, Israel’s holiest site. She reported, “I was saying Sh'ma Israel and arrested for it. It’s just unbelievable,” she said in an interview from her bathtub, where she was soaking limbs bruised from being dragged by handcuffs across the police station floor and legs shackled as if she were a violent criminal. “It was awful.” The report continued, “Hoffman has been detained by police at the Western Wall six times in the more than two decades that she has led Women of the Wall, a group which conducts prayer services in the women’s section at the start of each Jewish month [on Rosh Chodesh]. But on Tuesday night, when she was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit and praying out loud, she was treated far more violently by police than ever before.....'In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.....I’m a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh’ma Israel.'” Needless to say, the Reform and Liberal rabbis of this country, as well as in North America have been shaken and shocked by this escalation of violence against progressive Judaism in Israel, and against women practising Judaism as their conscious dictates. Letters have been written to the Israeli government and to the Israeli ambassador, including one by myself. In essence, the incident demonstrates that there now seems to be a war on between those who would seek to dictate how Jews should observe their faith and tradition and those who interpret things differently. What is particularly disturbing is that those who would dictate seem to have co-opted the government and police of Israel to help enforce their decrees, and they also seem to have claimed the Western Wall for themselves, to the exclusion of all others who find this remnant from our history meaningful and special as a focal point for their prayers. While Ms. Hofmann was not shot or physically maimed by this incident, the purposes of those who attacked her are not wholly different form those who attacked Malala Yousafzai.

Our parashah this week is the eternally fascinating one of Noach. In the section that we read today, Noah is singled out and praised for being "a righteous man; blameless in his age" who "walked with God.” It is this phrase that captures the imagination of our ancient rabbis. Obviously reading the text retrospectively, comparing Noah to Abraham, for example, the midrashim, very sensitive to wording in the text, seek to explain this qualifying wording, “blameless in his age.” According to Rabbi Judah, Noah was precisely blameless "in his age," but had he lived in future generations, he would not have been considered righteous. Similarly, while Noah "walked with God," midrash suggests that this designation is lesser than that of Abraham, who "walked before God." Where is Noah's failing, this interpretation seems to cry out?

Immediately following the words describing Noah's righteousness, the text continues, “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness…God said to Noah, I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them. I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…” Noah immediately runs to do God's bidding, just as he is commanded. As one commentator put it, “God sees evil prevalent in the world and decides to purge it and start again from one righteous individual. He informs Noah of his plans and Noah faithfully accedes, immediately constructing the ark. Noah is obedient, but surprisingly unperturbed by the destruction of all life. It does seem very strange to view someone like Noah as blameless or righteous. When faced with the destruction of all humanity and the entire world with it, he says nothing and then proceeds to do nothing to stop it.

Noah's behaviour is in stark contrast to Abraham, and then Moses after him, who intervenes numerous times to stop God's intended destruction of the Israelites. Let's consider Abraham first, though, as it is Abraham who is seen as worthy to be the founder of our people. Not long after the Noah story in our Torah come the stories of Abraham. In an astounding incident that occurs between Abraham and God, God chooses to inform Abraham of His intended destruction of the entire city of Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil and violence – much the same reasons that God gives Noah. Unlike Noah, who says nothing, Abraham immediately retorts, "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?" bargaining for the opportunity to save the lives of the citizens of those towns. He even proceeds to use rational argument to convince God to spare the cities on account of the righteous contained within them. As there are no righteous, none are, in the end, spared, and Lot and his family, alone, are ordered to run from the city. His wife doesn't make it out alive and Lot and his daughters barely escape with their lives.

So, as our commentator continues, Noah is obedient, he walks with God, but he makes no attempt to intervene; he simply saves himself from destruction. Abraham, on the other hand, acts to transform the situation. Though humble, Abraham is not content to merely be led. He confronts God, challenges the decree, and insists on involvement...... While Noah provides disaster relief for himself and all animals, Abraham is involved in the long hard work of reconstruction. And we identify ourselves, of course, as the descendants of Abraham, not of Noah. It is Abraham who is our model and aspiration.

I read an interesting excerpt from a new book about Abraham this week. It is intended to compare the Abraham of the three so-called “Abrahamic faiths,” as Abraham is common in each of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I find the Jewish view of Abraham most interesting, and the most pertinent to my discussion of the ambivalent view of Noah as he is described in our Torah portion this week.

Indeed, it is most obvious in the narratives about Abraham that he was the progenitor, or in other words, the “father” of the Jewish people. That is, it was through him and his offspring that our people began. In the discussion of the Jewish view of Abraham, the writer, Jon D. Levenson, observes that, “...... as time went on and Jewish traditions grew and adapted, Abraham the father became Abraham the founder as well — the man who heroically stood up for the one invisible and transcendent God, the God who created the world, guides and governs it through his providence, and graciously gave the Torah and its commandments to the Jewish people.” When Abraham the father became Abraham the founder would have happened in the period we now see as the real beginning of Judaism, the rabbinic period, going back about 200 B.C.E. to about the end of the second Temple period in the first century C.E. It was in this period that Judaism faced the challenge of advances in scientific thinking in the Greco-Roman world..... One way in which Judaism sought to meet the new challenge was by finding in Abraham the man who had looked beyond astrology/astronomy and discovered the God who is above nature and not wholly immanent in it or constrained by it.” The author of the book observes that the idea of idolatry and false gods is not really present in the actual Torah narratives about Abraham. It is only in the midrashim, written much later, in this period, that Abraham is depicted as someone who “...not only intuits the non-corporeal nature of God but also sets himself courageously against the regnant idolatry. In the manner of biblical prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah, or of later Jewish martyrs, this Abraham is willing to witness to the highest truth with, if need be, his very life.” So Abraham becomes a great hero, attesting to the truth of the One God who is above nature, willing to sacrifice his own life in order to propound and spread this truth.

In other words, Abraham is worthy of being our father and founder because of his moral conviction, his courage and willingness to fight and die for what he saw as truth. But I don't believe we even need Levenson's vision of the Jewish Abraham to make the case, as we have sufficient evidence about Abraham's moral conviction and courage from the text narrative itself. Indeed, the Abraham who argues with God over Sodom and Gomorrah is already an ethical world apart from the Noah who is merely blameless in his generation.

Abraham is the heroic founder of a people willing to stand up for truth and ethical conviction, for people willing to speak out and even risk personal safety for what they believe to be right. People like Anat Hoffman and Malala Yousafzai. Also people who stand up to protect people like Anat and Malal, or stand up to protect their right to act and believe as they feel speaks to their own truth, whether they agree with them or not. Perhaps Noah is only righteous in his own generation, a generation that merits destruction by God, because he, too, was willing to sit idly by when violence was perpetrated on others. Let us not sit idly by in the face of such outrageous and disturbing behaviour carried out in the name of religion. I am proud to be a Jewish descendent of Abraham, the man who spoke out. Let us not allow our Judaism to be dictated by those who wish to impose their vision of truth upon us, who are willing to carry out violence and injustice against those who disagree with them, and who have usurped access to the Wall that is such a precious symbol for all Jews. Let us work together for a Judaism that can include many versions of truth and, correspondingly, for a Jewish state that tolerates all these diverse ideas of truth within it.

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