The Laws of Noah

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 24, 1998 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

As the story of No·ah opens, the Torah returns to the word “elohim” for “God:” “When God saw how corrupt the earth was… God said to No·ah… (Genesis 6:12-13).” And with few exceptions (Genesis 7:1,5, 16; 8:21), this remains the term for God throughout. It is the same noun used by the Torah in chapter one to depict the creation of the cosmos. Unlike the four letter personal name of God – YHVH – (rendered as “the Lord” in the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Bible), elohim is a plural form and a generic term for deity that can also serve to refer to pagan gods.

The Rabbis did not fail to turn the distinction between these two names of God into a far-reaching theological insight. Indeed, the ineffable nature of God is precisely what gives rise to a profusion of divine names in Judaism, with each one conveying but a single aspect of God. For the Rabbis, the majestic and universal term “elohim” refracts God as a sitting judge, whereas the intimate personal name of YHVH portrays God as a comforting parent.

Rashi alludes to these contrasting portraits in his comment on the use of “elohim” in the first creation story. The nomenclature is meant to suggest that at the outset God had intended to create the world on the principle of justice. But it quickly became apparent that on that strict basis the world would not long survive. Hence, the second creation story opens with the sudden appearance of both names: “When the Lord God made earth and heaven (Genesis 2:4),” with the attribute of mercy preceding that of justice.

Underlying Rashi’s comments is a royal midrashic image: A king has two fine crystal glasses. If he dares to fill them with hot drinks, they will shatter; with cold ones, they will crack. So he proceeds to mix the beverages and the crystal goes undamaged. Likewise, the world will endure only if God tempers justice with love (B’reishit Rabba 12:15).

Against this backdrop, the reappearance of “elohim” alone at the beginning of our parasha signals the calamity to come. Yet what had humanity done to arouse God’s wrath? The Torah’s indictment lacks a bill of particulars: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence (Genesis 6:11).” Again Rashi, quoting the Rabbis, specifies: “corruption” in the Torah always refers to sexual perversity and idolatry, while “violence” denotes robbery. But before we nod assent, we should ask ourselves, how could the descendants of Adam and Eve know that such behavior was repugnant? Where was the law code that defined acts of this kind as criminal? And without one, could perpetrators be fairly held accountable? Till now in our narrative, God had singled out only murder as culpable, as in the case of Cain. Or are we to take Eve and Adam’s sin, their eating of the tree of knowledge of good and bad, as endowing their progeny with an innate sense of morality that makes them liable in the eyes of God?

It seems to me that the Rabbis, despite the thrust of the biblical narrative, eschew the second option, perhaps because it would border on the Greek notion that humans have a rational capacity to live their lives in accordance with nature. Instead they posit a set of seven Noachian laws revealed by God as the minimal standard necessary for the conduct of civil society. They include one positive commandment to establish courts of justice and six negative ones prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy, sexual perversion, murder, robbery and the consumption of the flesh of an animal that is still alive (Tosefta, Avoda Zara 8:4).

To be sure, these commandments accord with reason and the laws of nature, which means that if they had not been revealed by God we would have had to come up with them on our own (Sifra, Aharay Mot, 13:10). But that is exactly the point: these Noachian laws may correspond to reason, but they are the product of revelation. Nor is it an accident that the Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin 56b) attaches them exegetically to the first verse spoken by God to Adam (Genesis 2:16). Undeniably, the derivation is strained, but, what compels the Talmud to inject the Noachian laws so early in the story of humankind is the aforementioned problem of accountability. The generation of the flood could not plead ignorance. Natural law, universal but unenacted by human agency, had long been legislated by divine revelation.

Even in the case of Abraham, the Rabbis shy away from admitting that the power of human reason is able to discover truth on its own. God’s command to Abraham to leave the city of Haran (Genesis 12:1) appears to come out of nowhere, in medias res. The Torah provides no hint of a prior revelation that would have enabled Abraham to come to believe and trust in God. It is this omission that the Rabbis address when they raise the question who taught Abraham the Torah, to which they respond that none other than God “invited his two kidneys to serve as his two teachers, exuding and imparting Torah and wisdom (B’reishit Rabba 61:1).” In short, Abraham did not discover God or Torah entirely on his own. God imbued him with the right predisposition and triggered his burst of new insights.

So it should not surprise nor disappoint us when Maimonides near the very end of his magnificent halakhic codification, the Mishne Torah, reaffirms that in an era of Jewish sovereignty gentiles are not expected to convert to Judaism but merely to live by the seven laws of No·ah on the basis of God’s revelation. To do so on rational grounds, Maimonides stipulates, would fall short of becoming a righteous gentile and gaining entry into the world-to-come (Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11). For all its power and grandeur, human reason remains subservient to revelation, even according to Judaism’s greatest philosopher. The freedom to exercise our minds is not absolute, but ever in dialogue and tension with the vast expanse of a multivocal tradition rooted in the human experience of God.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The electronic distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s comment on Parashat ha-Shavua has been made possible by a generous gift from the members of Temple Beth Sholom, Cherry Hill, NJ, in honor of Rabbi Albert L. Lewis in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination from the Seminary, and his 50 years as the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom.