Judaism: The 'Noah Covenant' With Mankind
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo RiskinRabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the founder and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel.
Is Judaism a universal religion, with a message for all of humanity, or a national religion, with a message specifically for Jews?
Unlike surviving records of the ancient world, our Bible opens with a universal sweep, introducing G-d as the
The Torah insists that every human being - not just Jew or Israelite - is created in His Divine image.
Creator of the universe, not just of a local area, and the Torah insists that every human being - not just Jew or Israelite - is created in His Divine image: "In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1); "and G-d created the human being (Adam) in His image, in the image of G-d created He him, male and female created He them." (Genesis 1:27)
Adam, the first human being, was then placed in the Garden of Eden and given one commandment - not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, leaving the judgment of what is good and what is evil to G-d's objective decision, rather than to the subjective desire of the individual. Had Adam and Eve obeyed the Divine command, this world would have merged with the eternal world, and Eden would have remained the human universe. Alas, Adam failed and humanity was banished from the perfectly harmonious haven called Eden.
Exiled from an eternal life in close proximity to G-d, the ten generations that follow Adam descend into an even deeper depravity. The final result is that G-d recants having created humanity and decides to destroy the world with a flood.
Our Biblical portion opens with the one righteous individual who, together with his family and representative creatures of the Earth, was deemed worthy of rescue from the deluge: Noah, effectively a second Adam. Through Noah, G-d gives humanity a second chance to redeem itself. He blesses Noah with the same blessing He initially bestowed upon Adam, "Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth...." (Genesis 1:28; Gen 9:1), granting Noah the same dominion over the animal world He had granted Adam. The Almighty goes even one step further: unlike Adam and Eve who were required to eat a vegetarian diet exclusively, G-d permits Noah to express his mastery by being permitted to eat all living creatures.
But G-d gives Noah two additional commandments, very different from the command given to Adam in the Garden: He forbids Noah to eat the flesh or the blood of a living animal, and He forbids Noah to carry out self-murder (suicide), or the taking of any human life, "since G-d created the human being in His Divine image." (Genesis 9:4-6)
The sages of the Talmud add five more Noahide laws: prohibitions against stealing, against adultery (including sexual transgressions such as rape and incest), against blaspheming G-d, and against idolatry, as well as the positive directive to establish Courts of Law to see to it that these six commandments are adhered to (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56).
At this point in the Biblical text, G-d establishes His first covenant with all of humanity. G-d pledges that "never again will all flesh be destroyed by a flood," and the sign of this Divine Covenant is indelibly embedded within nature by the formation of the rainbow in the heavens, often appearing in the sky after a rainfall (Genesis 9:11-16).
The 12th-century Biblical commentary by Ramban (Nahmanides) has a striking explanation for the symbol of the rainbow: ancient cultures fought their wars with the bow and arrow, and the side which surrendered, pursuing peace instead of war, would express their will to do so by raising an inverted bow that the enemy could see. Similarly, G-d places an inverted bow in the heavens as a sign that He is no longer warring against humanity.
In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested an even deeper meaning to the rainbow's symbolism. When we look upon the glorious colors of the rainbow, we are dazzled by the red, orange, yellow, green, blue indigo and violet. In truth, however, these colors only appear to be different hues and shades; they are all light refractions of white, the one true base of all of them. So, too, with the cosmos of humanity; so many peoples of different colors and diverse ethnic backgrounds, all emanating from the "womb" of the one G-d who created them, who all are united by the spark of the Divine which gives them life.
Whatever the symbolism, it's clear that the rainbow is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. G-d can pledge not to destroy humanity, but since He created humanity with freedom of choice, He cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself, especially in our global village when a mad Ahmadinejad publicly and unashamedly threatens the stability of the world by seeking the destruction of the Jewish nation. Much of the world looks on quietly, acquiescently, even investing in Iranian oil, thereby speeding up the process of Iran mastering nuclear power; a nightmarish prospect as we watch Ahmadinejad's trigger finger inch its way toward The Button.
G-d's half-circle bow must be predicated upon humanity's acceptance of the seven Noahide laws of morality.
That is why G-d's half-circle bow must be predicated upon humanity's acceptance of the seven Noahide laws of morality which precede it, even, at least, the prohibition against murdering innocent people. For the world to endure, everyone need not be Jewish, but everyone must be moral. Human life must be seen as sacred and inviolable.
If this interpretation is correct, then it means that, at the very least, the Noahide laws must be disseminated throughout the world. Tragically, Noah failed; at the end of his life he falls prey to alcoholism, and the ten generations which follow were again filled with debauchery and depravity. G-d is true to His world; He destroys the especially wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but preserves the world intact.
Finally, there is a third attempt to bring about redemption, this time through Abraham, the first Hebrew-Israelite Jew, establishing a covenant with him and his descendants; eventually charging those descendants with 613 commandments in order to forge them into a "holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers (to the world)." G-d guarantees that Abraham's progeny will never be destroyed and that - from the backdrop of their land of Israel and Jerusalem - the world will learn to accept a G-d of love, morality and peace.
G-d's initial charge to Abraham includes this Jewish mission to the world: "I will make you a great nation.... I will bless those who bless you and those who curse you, I shall curse; and all the families of the Earth shall be blessed through you." (Genesis 12: 2,3)
Maimonides, the greatest Jewish legalist-philosopher in history, codifies the Jewish mission to the world: "Moses is to bequeath the 613 commandments only to the Israelites, as it is written, 'a heritage for the congregation of Jacob' (Deuteronomy 33:4), but similarly (and of equal importance) did the Almighty command Moses (to teach and if necessary to enforce) all of the Noahide commandments to all of humanity...." ("Laws of Kings", 8,10)
Yes, humanity doesn't have to be Jewish, but it must be moral for a free world to endure.