November 4, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
It is so remarkably appropriate that it rained, hard, this week, because of course on this Shabbat we are reading the greatest rain story of all time, the tale of Noah, the truly ancient mariner, when it poured for forty days and forty nights and the world was inundated with water. Sometimes the Torah syncs up so beautifully with the natural world around us… although in the Sonoran Desert it takes more than a single hard rain to create a flood, or even a steady flow in the Rillito River. I should note that it also rained quite a bit the night of Simchat Torah ten days ago, just after we had offered the prayer for rain, the t’filat geshem, during Shemini Atzeret services that morning. Apparently, we are very good at directing divine intervention here at Temple Emanu-El, at least of the meteorological sort.
I must note that in addition to the coincidence of rain, there is another great confluence in our portion that goes, perhaps, a little deeper into current events and the present climate, although the political rather than the weather-related climate. After the flood there is a great covenant, a brit, established in our Torah portion. A covenant—what an elevated word that is!—in more prosaic terms is a contract between God and humanity. We agree to certain things, and God agrees to certain things. In this case, after the dove brings back the olive branch and the waters subside from the earth, God agrees to never again wash away humanity and all other terrestrial life through a great deluge. Noah doesn’t say that we won’t have the capacity to do so, say through creating global warming, but it does definitely testify that God won’t flood us all again. In exchange, Noah and all his descendants—that is, all of us—agree to abide by certain stipulations.
The sign of this covenant, of course, is the rainbow in the sky after a storm, favored subject of many songs and myths, from Judy Garland singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the show Finian’s Rainbow to Tony Bennett warbling “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” to the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” to The Muppets, “The Rainbow Connection…” Heck, Kermit the Frog even started his song in The Muppets Movie by saying, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows…” But I digress.
This covenant of the rainbow here in Noah actually is important for moral reasons, not just atmospheric ones. It describes the central commandments that God sees as essential for any nation or people to be viewed as ethical and striving for good. The code created here bears examination, because it sets the standard for just how human society should run. There are shiva misphatei b’nei Noach, seven Noahide laws established. These laws, mind you, are not specific to Jews. The covenant that is created is with Noah, the ancestor of all human beings—he is the new Adam in this week’s Torah portion, as the only survivors of the great deluge are Noah and his own children and family. That means, in our tradition, adherence to these laws determines if any society is moral and worthy of respect, Jewish or not. They are the first effort to create a universal standard of morality.
So just what are the seven Noahide laws?
Most of them are pretty straightforward, and familiar to us from later covenants that God makes, like the Ten Commandments. They are also not very controversial. The first five of the seven Noahide lawas are:
- Do not commit murder.
- Do not steal.
- Do not commit acts of sexual immorality, forcibly or inappropriately, such as rape, incest, and bestiality.
- Do not eat a limb of a live animal—ever min hachai—that is, do not practice cruelty to animals.
- Establish courts of justice, to ensure the rule of law.
All of these are pretty easy commandments to support and observe. Even in this election year I think you would likely find that both sides would be able to agree on them, at least officially. They do seem rather like minimum standards of decency, the least we can expect from a moral society. We ought to be able to agree, whether we are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green Partiers, or
But the covenant of Noah includes two more laws, which are a little harder to understand. They stipulate that we must not commit two grave offenses: idolatry, and blasphemy. How do these fit into the understanding of a minimal standard for human societal conduct? And how can they be compared to laws against murder, theft, rape, and torturing animals?
The answers can help us understand something central about ethical society.
Idolatry is scarcely a serious problem today, or at least not in the way that it was in Biblical times. Very few people actively worship idols, or mountains, or trees, or rivers or streams, as though they were gods, and thus the ultimate source of authority. In our ancestors’ times the threat to an orderly, moral society was the multiplicity of divine entities, the belief that the most powerful source for ethical imperatives were diverse. One god might tell us to do something, another god might contradict that, and we would never have an ultimate arbiter to determine just what we really needed to do to be good human beings, and to live in our civilization in a way that was conducive to a good life. In order for a society, a nation, or a people to be truly good they had to accept that there was an ultimate source of authority.
In Noah, this is, of course, God, however we conceive of God. But the principle is not that everyone should accept the Jewish God. That never becomes a part of our belief system or our sacred text. No, the idea is that in order to live successfully in a society—any society, remember, not just a Jewish society—we must accept that there is the rule of law, and ultimate authority vested in the highest power in the land. In essence, idolatry led to anarchy. And the covenant of Noah rightly requires that anarchy, and the failure to acknowledge the essential justice of the land, destroys any chance to have a morally sound society.
For us today this has important implications indeed. It tells us that whether or not we ultimately like the results of something our system determines, it is our responsibility to accept them. We have the right to work to change the result next time. But we do not, as observers of the covenant of Noah—to say nothing of the actual Jewish covenants that follow, which go much farther—have the right to challenge the legitimacy or seek to overthrow the system because we refuse to accept the way that it actually worked.
But what are we to make of the rule against blasphemy? In those days perhaps it had meaning. But in a world today in which anything and everything can be posted or Tweeted on-line, and pretty much anything is, and virtually anything can be said over the airwaves, what are we to make of the concept of blasphemy? What could that even mean?
The reason for the law against blasphemy in the Noahide code is related, but different, from the reason for the restriction on idolatry. It has to do with something perhaps even more important for us right now.
Blasphemy is the way in which we ridicule and shame and use words to destroy the legitimacy of the highest authority. In Noah’s time, this would have been God. In a political sense, here in America, this would be the duly elected officials and representatives of the people, those candidates who receive the majority of the vote. That is not to say that leaders are supposed to be immune to criticism or argument. In fact, Judaism encourages both, and seeks always to have the direction of decision-making tested and re-tested until it proves itself honest and good.
But it is very much to say that extreme ridicule and verbal attack is a violation of this covenant, and an act of immorality that takes the attacker beyond the pale of civilized conduct.
My friends, we are in the midst of the ugliest election campaign that any living American has seen. We are in the final days of that election, and fortunately it will be over by Tuesday night—at least we fervently hope and pray so, since many of us recall an election 16 years ago that seemed to go on forever. In a word, good riddance. We have seen a virtually unending stream of evil speech, lashon haRa, invective, falsehood, dirty tricks, horrible advertisements, and generally awful conduct, by now on all sides.
But again, it will be over in a few days. And the way in which we as a society react will say a great deal about whether or not America remains a place of decency, a civilization with a moral foundation or not.
Whatever the election results bring on Tuesday, it is imperative that we observe this Noahide covenant. We have a moral responsibility to respect our own country, to adhere to the standards the preclude idolatry and blasphemy, to accept and work to heal the damage that has been done by this endless, fairly gruesome campaign.
There is a concept in political theory called the Social Contract: Rousseau’s great book coined the term. It says that there is an agreement between the governed and the governing to act responsibly towards one another, to demonstrate respect. It is up to us now to fulfill something similar, a kind of Social Covenant.
Of course, I urge you to vote, if you haven’t yet done so. But more than that. I urge you to recognize that our system, flawed and limited as it is, must be respected if we are to have a moral society, whatever the result. We have much work to do to restore trust and decency after this brutal campaign, and we must do that work. We owe it to ourselves, to our children, to God.
If we wish to see that rainbow in the sky after the long hard rain of this campaign, we must agree to act as Noah’s descendants were supposed to. With respect, with honor, and with morality.