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On the Role of Intuition in Shaping One’s Service of God: The Change at Sinai and the Difference Between Avraham and Noach

October 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Philosophy, Tanach


On the Role of Intuition in Shaping One’s Service of God: The Change at Sinai and the Difference Between Avraham and Noach

By Gidon Rothstein

What’s So Bad About Noach?

Rashi, following the tenor of Hazal, beats up on Noach, seemingly anxious to point out his failings. For just one example, Rashi records a dispute as to whether the word בדורותיו, that Noach was complete in his generation, praises Noach, indicating he would have been even greater in another generation, or denigrates him, in that had he been in the generation of Avraham he would not have been great. Immediately after this seemingly even-handed treatment, though, Rashi notes that the verse refers to Noach having walked with God whereas Avraham is told to walk before God, a difference Rashi attributes to Noach’s needing greater support from Hashem.

 This distinction is already clear in well-known sources in Hazal, such as the two Mishnayot in the fifth chapter of Avot that contrast the ten generations between Adam and Noach and between Noach and Avraham. That Hazal refer to both as being ten generations already suggests they had a point to make, since we have to count generations differently in order to get ten from Adam to Noach (including both Adam and Noach as part of the ten) than to get ten from Noach to Avraham (where only one of the two counts as part of the generations).

The Mishnayot have identifiable reasons for seeing Avraham as better than Noach: Avraham’s arrival brought redemption of the world (apparently staving off some catastrophe like the Flood), whereas Noach did not, with the world getting destroyed and having to start over. Rashi, therefore, may have simply been reflecting that insight in his comments, and there have been many other answers offered for why we see Noach as so inferior to Avraham.

Taking just these two sources, we see Hazal seeing Avraham as spiritually more self-sufficient than Noach, and having a greater impact on the world around him. The well-known tradition that Avraham found his way to belief in God on his own (a tradition Rambam assumes to be true at the beginning of Hilchot Avodah Zarah, an example of Rambam codifying aggadic material from the Gemara) fits nicely with this contrast as well.

Shaping the Path Himself: Avraham’s Novelty Over Adam and Noach

That image of Avraham’s ability to find his way spiritually even without the direct guidance of God being his point of greatness when compared to Noach seems to me to be at the heart of a stimulating formulation of Rambam’s in the first halachah of the ninth chapter of Hilchot Melachim. The text in question is describing the process by which Torah came into the world, and Rambam says

על ששה דברים נצטווה אדם הראשון: על ע”ז, ועל ברכת השם, ועל שפיכות דמים, ועל גילוי עריות, ועל הגזל, ועל הדינים, אע”פ שכולן הן קבלה בידינו ממשה רבינו, והדעת נוטה להן, מכלל דברי תורה יראה שעל אלו נצטוה, הוסיף לנח אבר מן החי שנאמר אך בשר בנפשו דמו לא תאכלו, נמצאו שבע מצות, וכן היה הדבר בכל העולם עד אברהם, בא אברהם ונצטוה יתר על אלו במילה, והוא התפלל שחרית, ויצחק הפריש מעשר והוסיף תפלה אחרת לפנות היום, ויעקב הוסיף גיד הנשה והתפלל ערבית, ובמצרים נצטוה עמרם במצות יתירות, עד שבא משה רבינו ונשלמה תורה על ידו. +/השגת הראב”ד/ וכן היה הדבר בכל העולם וכו’ והוסיף תפלה לפנות היום. א”א כן היה ראוי לומר והוא התפלל שחרית והפריש מעשר (ויצחק הוסיף תפלה אחרת) עכ”ל.+

The first Man was commanded on six things, idolatry, blasphemy, murder, inappropriate sexual relationships, stealing, and establishing courts; even though all of these are a tradition from Moshe our Master, and the intellect leans towards them, the general sense of the words of the Torah indicates that he was commanded on these. [Hashem] Added to Noach a limb from a live animal, as it says “But flesh in its soul blood you shall not eat,” thus we find seven commandments, and so was the matter in all the world until Avraham, came Avraham and was commanded more than these on circumcision, and he prayed the morning service, and Yitzchak tithed and added another prayer towards the end of the day, and Yaacov added the sinew of the thigh and prayed the evening prayer, and in Egypt Amram was commanded on more commandments, until Moshe our Master came and the Torah was completed at his hands. Rabad notes: He should have said “and he prayed the morning service and separated tithe…

Of the many ideas to derive from this rich presentation, I am most interested here in the question and role of intuition. For Adam and Noach, Rambam only mentions commandments they received, and ignores any contributions they made to worship of God. Most notably, he does not mention the idea of sacrifice, which Cayyin, Hevel, and Noach all engaged (as did the Patriarchs). I suspect that these were moments of religious endeavor, but not regular practices instituted as part of how humans approach their Creator.

When he gets to Avraham, though, Rambam records that which he was commanded and that which he added on his own. And so with Yitzchak and with Yaacov; one of the markers of the Avot, in other words, was that they not only accepted what they were commanded, but they creatively evolved religious practices, to institute for all their generations, as part of their relationship with God.

The Avot Kept the Whole Torah—How Did They Know It?

I note this especially since Rambam seems to ignore a tradition that goes even further with this idea. In Yoma 28b, Rav reads God’s words to Yitzchak, “עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקולי וישמור משמרתי מצותי חוקותי ותורותי, in return for Avraham having hearkened to my voice, and kept my charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings” as meaning that Avraham kept the entire Torah, including Rabbinic rules such as Eruv Tavshilin.1 Rashi records that view in his commentary to Genesis 26;5, and an entire literature arose, trying to align various incidents in the lives of pre-Sinai Jews with the assumption that they were keeping the entire Torah.2

The Gemara does not explain how Avraham knew the whole Torah to keep it; Ramban suggests that it was by inspiration of רוח הקודש, the Holy Spirit, but does not elaborate as to whether he means that Avraham was told these matters or figured them out on their own. Either way, that tradition seems to see Torah as almost wholly predetermined, since עירוב תבשילין is a Rabbinic ordinance, meaning that already in Avraham’s time it was known the Rabbis would institute this practice.

Rambam does not include any of that in the Mishneh Torah, and the simplest reading of his words is that Avraham figured out the value of reciting morning prayers on his own, as did Yitzchak and tithing and afternoon services, and Yaacov with evening services and refraining from eating the sinew of the thigh. We see none of that with Noach, which may be the essential failure Hazal were pointing out. For all that he lived through a Flood, Noach leaves no further imprint on human worship of God than that which God had commanded him. In fact, we find much the opposite, that his first actions after the Flood—the planting of the vineyard and getting drunk—are embarrassing ones rather than religious ones.

The Limits on Initiative Today—A Right That Can Be Forfeited

Applying that to our times would seem to promote the idea that we not only follow what we are told, but that we find creative and valid ways to expand our religiosity beyond that. Of course, post-Matan Torah, we have significant limits on innovation, since the prohibition of בל תוסיף, against adding to the Torah, certainly restricts our ability to imitate exactly this characteristic of the Avot.

That should not have affected Noach, though, so that his failure to respond to the events of his life with any religious creativity betray a deep flaw in that religiosity, indeed in his whole relationship with God. Following that line of reasoning, we can explain an oddity of the Noahide laws with which I have long struggled. Most people assume that the Noahide laws, expected of all human beings, are intuitive, a basic morality we would expect most people to find on their own. Aside from Rambam rejecting the religious value of observing these laws as anything other than commandments from God,3 I have elsewhere argued that the Noahide laws, in many of their most salient details, are anything but intuitive.4

R. Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, notes a comment of Rambam’s in the Mishnah Commentary to Hullin that also takes away from how much we can see these laws as intuitive.5 Rambam was explaining the majority view that the prohibition against eating the sinew of the thigh was said at Sinai, and written in Genesis only to tell us its origins. For Rambam, that means that all of the commandments we follow today have their source in the command at Sinai, not any earlier events. R. Lau extends that idea to the Noahide laws, saying that the obligation to follow them for non-Jews, too, has its source in Sinai.

If so, we can suggest that the Noahide laws, when originally given, were in fact intuitive. God said don’t kill, and the definition of that was left up to human beings to figure out—and so, too, with the definition of idolatry, incest, and so on. But when the Torah was given at Sinai, the nature of service of God changed, such that the definition of terms became more technical and halachic. From that point on, intuitively defining those mitsvot (or the rest of them, for Jews) was no longer an option. In our times, the world of halachah is not fully open to our intuitions, since we have to make sure that our understanding of God’s commands and of Rabbinic ordinances fits with the sources in front of us. In other areas, though, we are left with a sizable freedom to use our intuition, such as in choosing the emphases we place within our service of God, whether by which professions we choose, how to apportion our time among the competing mitsvot crying out for attention, or deciding among the worthy causes that try for our limited funds. As we make these decisions, the lesson of Noach might be that a failure to use our intuition as it was meant can lead to God defining our responsibilities more exactly, further lessening our right to use our intuition at all.

  1. This is the Rabbinic strategy for occasions when Yom Tov leads into Shabbat; the Eruv, two cooked items, allows us to cook on Yom Tov for Shabbat. []
  2. Interestingly, Ramban suggests that the Avot’s observance of Torah was limited to the Land of Israel, part of his general perspective of the difference between Israel and the rest of the world. []
  3. See Hilchot Melachim 8;11. Whatever the right textual version of the last word in that paragraph, Rambam denies religious validity to any observance of the Noahide laws that is not performed as an act of obedience to the God Who commanded them. []
  4. See my “Involuntary Particularism: The Noahide Laws, Citizenship, and Alienage” 18 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 543. []
  5. שו”ת יחל ישראל ס”ה, note 1. []
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