Saturday, April 26, 2014
The righteous man
The righteous man
- Written by Ole Mads Sirks Vevle (Norway) filmmaker and master’s degree recipient in religious history. [the article was originally on print April 6 in Norway's largest regional paper, Bergens Tidende]
As a new epic movie about Noah washes over us, it is well worth refreshing our Bible
knowledge, but this time filtered through Jewish tradition which after all is the origin of our knowledge about Noah and the Flood. This story contains a universal message.
Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of being a righteous person. It is this which is essential. Religious people can get too caught up in rituals. They can even be too hung up on God.
This can be counterproductive as it may detract attention from our universal obligation: to be righteous human beings.
Focus on the here and now
Judaism, which has no monasticism, stresses that we should not devote ourselves solely to the spiritual. Our human task is not primarily to get to heaven, but rather to bring heaven down to earth. Our focus must be on the here and now. Our purpose is to dedicate ourselves to the difficult task of making just societies. Through striving to make oneself a righteous person, one also contributes to making society more just.
Jewish tradition teaches therefore that it is not necessary to belong to a particular religion to have a relationship with God; to be "saved." It is not even necessary to be Jewish. "All human beings who are righteous earn a share in the world to come" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a). Noah was saved from the flood, not because he belonged to a particular religion, but because he was a righteous human being.
The earth was filled with violence
Why did God initiate the Flood? It was not because people did not believe in God, or that they did not act religiously enough. Rather it’s because they behaved unjustly – the opposite of what God intended. They broke the basic house rules.
A natural consequence of man's unjust behavior was that "the whole earth was filled with violence" (Gen 6:11). The Hebrew word for violence, hamas, also denotes murder, robbery, oppression and general immoral behavior.
Mankind’s sin was that they committed atrocities against each other and against nature, with the result that the whole social structure collapsed. In place of social justice, raw power and lawlessness reigned. Jewish scholars teach that humans, due to their behavior, were on track towards their own self-destruction. This can also be read on the basis of the original text: "And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted" (Gen 6:12).
This description is not very unlike the U.N.’s latest climate report which even warned that climate change could create major flooding. There is no shortage of those who claim that humanity is in danger of eradicating itself. If not through climate change, then through global financial collapse, food shortages, social unrest, a clash of civilizations, and/or good old-fashioned warfare interspersed with international terrorism and more recent weapons of mass destruction. The possible scenarios are many. There is certainly no shortage of weapon capacity, and the bloody war in Syria shows us that there is no lack of bestial behavior and willingness to kill people. The growing conflict between Russia and the West also shows us how fragile world peace is.
In light of the above, we can better understand how God's action in Noah's time was a necessary emergency measure. If God had done nothing, then humanity would have managed to destroy everything and nobody would have survived. Through God's action, which was thus a merciful act, did humanity receive a second chance.
The righteous man
"Noah was a righteous man." But, what criteria is it that defines whether someone is righteous or not? According to traditional Jewish teaching the recipe for being a just human being is to follow the Seven Noachide laws. These are seven universal categories of laws which were first given to Adam, but which are known by Noah's name since these laws were given again to Noah and his descendants after the Flood. "And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 'And I, behold I am setting up My covenant with you and with your seed after you.'" (Gen. 9:8-9).
The influential Jewish Rabbi, Moses ben Maimonides (1135-1204) specifies,
Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these seven laws and is precise in their observance is considered one of ‘the righteous among the nations’ and will merit a share in the world to come. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:11
The seven laws are:
1) prohibition against worshipping false gods.
2) prohibition against cursing God.
3) prohibition against murder.
4) prohibition against sexual immorality.
5) prohibition against theft.
6) prohibition against eating meat that was separated from a living animal (cruelty to animals).
7) and a positive command to establish laws and courts.
A righteous person is therefore one who does not worship idols, does not curse God, does not murder, does not steal, who is not sexually immoral, does not mistreat animals and who encourages the observation of these laws.
The law creates peace
Jewish tradition considers the Noachide laws as binding on all men, since they later became an integral part of the Torah. This happened when they were repeated by God when He spoke to the Israelites at Sinai. Traditional Judaism teaches further that the Oral Torah contains the details of these laws and the knowledge of how they are identified.
The Torah thus consists of two covenants between God and man: a universal covenant that applies to all of Noah's descendants, and a special national covenant which applies to all Jews (descendants of Israel) in their role as the stewards and communicators of the Torah. "For you are to be a nation of priests" (Ex 19:6).
Compliance with these laws is intended as a safeguard against humanity ever again descending to the point which reigned before the Flood. On an individual level, compliance with these laws will refine the individual's personality and help establish a connection with God.
The story of Noah gives us the recipe for how we can save the world and enter the messianic age. According to Jewish tradition, observance of the seven laws will ensure us stable and just societies with no stealing, no murdering, etc. Such communities will, as a natural consequence, pave the way for global world peace.
"In that era, there will be neither famine or war, jealousy or competition, for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust." (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:5).