Noah the Activist

Noah the Activist
A long line of animals waits to enter the ark Noah built, under a threatening sky. Painting by Edward Hicks.

What is activism? And is Noah an activist?

Rabbinic Views of Noah

Our sages don’t ask the question that way. Instead, they ask: how good was Noah, really.

Torah says, “Noah was a perfectly righteous man in his generation” (Gen. 6:9).

What does this mean?

Should we be impressed at Noah’s moral compass? Because, even in a time of violence, he holds fast to justice?

Or should we be disappointed in him? Because, in his time, even a neutral person would seem relatively good?

Our early sages saw both possibilities (Sanhedrin 108a). And so do I.

Disappointing Noah

When you compare Noah with other Torah heroes, he seems pretty disappointing. At first, anyway.

When God tells Abraham that Sodom will be destroyed, Abraham argues. It’s true that Abraham’s nephew lives there. But Abraham does not ask God to save his family. Instead he says, “Surely a few good people live there. Save the city just to keep its goodness alive!”

And remember when God tells Moses that God wants to destroy all the Israelites and start again with just Moses and family? Moses is also angry with his people. But he refuses to play along. “If that’s what you plan, God,” Moses says, “then write me out of your book.” God relents, and gets back to lawgiving with Moses.

But when God tells Noah the world will be destroyed, Noah does not argue. God explains how Noah can save his own family. And then Noah follows the instructions. True, he also accepts the big job of saving a few animals of every species. But he never challenges God’s plan to drown all the rest.

Emergency Noah

But is Noah worse than Abraham or Moses? Or is he just different?

Because we could think of the three heroes as engaged in three different kinds of activism. Abraham believes in doing good work. Moses, who accepts his community’s flaws, works to change its laws. And Noah focuses on keeping a few creatures safe.

Honestly, I can relate to Noah’s response.

Once, a tornado ripped through my neighborhood. And, somehow, in only two minutes, I ushered a spouse, two young children, a cat, a bunny, and a bird into the basement shelter. My mind flipped to emergency mode. Keeping the family safe was my only goal.

Now, my emergency did not last long. But a crisis can last for years. So here’s Noah: the storm slowly gathers. But he barely has time to usher a spouse, children, and thousands of animals into a floating shelter.

That’s activism—though in a narrowly focused mode.

Or maybe it’s a seed of activism. Because that’s often how it begins: figuring out how to stay safe.

Lessons on Activism

Remember: Torah says, “Noah was a perfectly righteous man in his generation” (Gen. 6:9).

Maybe Noah assessed his situation. And then, his mind focused on exactly what was needed. He did a right thing at the right time.

So did Abraham. And so did Moses. Because activism comes in many forms. And, often, we do what seems right to us at the time. Always, it’s only part of what could be done. We can also work to change laws. And to counterbalance evil with good.

Surely, you remember this famous teaching: You are not obligated to complete the work. But you’re not free to abandon it, either (Pirkei Avot 2:21).

This post was inspired by discussions at SlateSpeak, a weekly twitter discussion group for progressive Christians and their friends.

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