“This is Noah’s chronicle. Noah was a righteous man; in his generation, he was above reproach; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). The Rabbis have long debated this verse questioning the quality of Noah’s righteousness.
The wording of the verse gives rise to this debate. The text states that “Noah was a righteous man,” but immediately follows with the phrase “in his generation, he was above reproach. . . ” All of us, including the ancient Rabbis, are left to wonder if Noah is exceptional or not, if his righteousness would be universally righteous or simply righteous in his time.
Why is there a debate over Noah’s level of righteousness? Did he not obey God? Did he not build an ark? Did he not save the animals? Did he not save humanity to repopulate the earth? Noah did all these things, but the Rabbis raised a concern. In Noah’s time the earth was corrupt and filled with violence. In his generation Noah was righteous; it is quite likely that anyone doing any act of righteousness in that era would be considered so. Thus the rabbinic debate hinges on whether or not Noah did enough.
It is true that Noah did not attempt to save any other human beings aside from his own family. He did not argue with God to try to save human life as we shall see Abraham do in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20–33). But as a midrash relates, for over one hundred and twenty years (Alshekh), God wanted people of the Flood generation to repent but they would not, so God instructed Noah to build an ark. Mocked and ridiculed as he went about this task, Noah’s tzedek, “righteous behavior,” had no impact.
This debate of the quality of one’s righteousness took on an added resonance for me in the winter and spring of 2012, when my husband, Rabbi Bruce Kadden, and I spent two months on sabbatical in Warsaw, Poland. We worked at Beit Warszawa the progressive Jewish community (http://www.beit.org.pl/). We also spent time visiting a variety of museums, traveling in Poland, and reading about the wartime history of Poland and the Jewish community. Among the places we visited were the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Maidanek. We also went to Prague in the Czech Republic and visited Terezin.
Much to my surprise, on the Web site of Yad Vashem, the Israeli museum and memorial to the Holocaust, I learned that the largest number of those honored as Righteous Among the Nations come from Poland. This fact alone astonished me. Before we went to Poland I believed the following:
- The Polish people were willing collaborators with the Nazis
- There were very few Polish people who helped Jews during the war
Here’s what I learned (or relearned) during our time in Poland:
- Poland was invaded by the Nazis in the fall of 1939 after an unsuccessful resistance effort by Polish armed forces
- Three million Poles in addition to three million Jews of Polish citizenship were killed by the Nazis
- Some rescuers based their aid on monetary reward while other rescuers provided help out of moral conviction without the expectation or desire for payment
- In 1942, Zegota, the Council of Aid to Jews, was formed with non-Jews in Poland. (Note that while most of Poland’s Jews had already been murdered by the time Zegota was formed, the organization is still credited with saving several thousand Jews.)
There are remarkable similarities between the story of Noah and the events of World War II. As the world was filled with violence and corruption during Noah’s time, so it was during the time of the Nazis. According to the midrash, Noah was taunted and mocked for building the Ark. Jews and others deemed unacceptable to the Nazis were taunted, mocked, and persecuted. God commanded Noah to build the Ark, which would be a safe haven for Noah, his family, and the animals. During the war, courageous individuals built safe havens to protect Jews who were being pursued.
What does it take to be righteous? What motivates an individual to stand up in life-threatening circumstances and behave exceptionally?
In describing the Righteous Among the Nations, the Yad Vashem Web-site states:1 “attitudes towards the Jews during the Holocaust ranged from indifference to hostility. The mainstream watched as their former neighbors were rounded up and killed; some collaborated with the perpetrators; many benefitted from the expropriation of the Jews’ property. In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values . . . these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings. . . . ”
Stories about rescuers often relate how they seem to have acted on the spur of the moment when faced with a Jewish individual seeking help. As the Yad Vashem materials describe them, the rescuers were ordinary people: Some acted out of political, ideological, or religious convictions. Others were not motivated by ideals, they simply cared about the people around them.
Being a rescuer had a price; in Eastern Europe the Nazis executed not only those who sheltered Jews but also their families. As one of the senior educators at the Brama Grodzka—the Holocaust education center in Lublin—shared with us, the Nazis built the Maidanek concentration camp at the edge of Lublin to terrify the Polish population to help ensure that few, if any, Poles would dare to aid a Jew.
Much study has been done to determine what qualities led individuals to act as rescuers. The researchers Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner defined the altruistic personality2: by comparing and contrasting rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust, they point out that those who intervened were distinguished by characteristics such as empathy and a sense of connection to others. Nehama Tec3, another researcher, found a cluster of shared characteristics and conditions of separateness, individuality, or marginality. The rescuers’ independence enabled them to act against the accepted conventions and beliefs.
Moral courage, identifying with the persecuted, knowing what it means to be an outsider, and being able to connect with and care about others are the characteristics that can influence an individual to behave in extraordinary ways in dire situations.
Both Noah and the Righteous Among the Nations demonstrate that each and every person can make a difference.
- For more on the Righteous Among the Nations, visit Yad Vashem.
- For more about Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, visit The Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute.
Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE, has written extensively in the area of Jewish education and has co-authored books including: Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities; Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer; Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities; and, Teaching Torah: A Treasury of Insights and Activities. Barbara Binder Kadden is married to Rabbi Bruce Kadden, who, at the time of this writing in 2012, was the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington.