This week’s parshah (I know, not how I tend to start a column) lends us a hand in understanding two very different mentalities currently at odds with each other in this country. Noach is described as an ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorosav, being a righteous and pure man of his generation. Rashi discusses the two ways to read this pasuk. The first is that Noach was a righteous man in a terrible generation, and had he existed in a different time, he would have been even greater. Opposing that is the opinion that Noach was only great in comparison to his terrible generation, but had he existed in a time period with greater men, he would not have been of note.
This distinction is at the center of several issues in today’s society, and it manifests itself in different ways. How do we judge people? How do we judge events? How do we define the written word? All of this seems to depend upon which side of the aisle one falls.
Let’s start with the obvious comparison: people. By which standards do we judge individuals? Do we do so on the basis of the time period in which they lived or do we do so by modern standards? A not-so-controversial area would be the field of athletics. Do we judge an athlete against different generations or do we do so against his or her own era? If you take Babe Ruth and drop him in the major leagues today, would he be even better than he was in the 1920s or would he be a nobody? On pure talent, you would have to assume he would be a nobody. There is no question that today’s baseball player is much more athletic, and has the advances in technology, medicine, and coaching that the Babe did not have. If you plop Ruth down as is in a major league lineup, he’d be terrible. But we never saw him with the same advantages. It’s more accurate to analyze hm to how much better he was than the average player of his generation.
Let’s expand this to something a little more controversial: the founding fathers. Here, we are specifically talking about the ones who owned slaves – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc. There is no question that in their time, these men were considered to be among the greatest of their generation. Today, we look back at them, and since slavery is now rightly considered to be an abhorrent institution, they are demonized by many who wish to define them exclusively as slaveowners without the consideration of the time period. I am guessing that the belief here is that if these men were pulled out of their time period and dropped in today, they would be racist white supremacists, who wouldn’t be able to handle the fact that black people are considered equal, let alone play a prominent role in today’s society. They are judging an individual from a previous era based on today’s standards.
But this isn’t exclusive to people. Words have this issue as well. We learned from Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s testimony last week what an originalist is. President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee explained that it means to understand the constitution “to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it, so that meaning doesn’t change over time.” Words have meanings, and at the time they were written, the words meant one thing. That doesn’t mean that if that word changes meaning from the time it was written that we apply today’s meaning to it. For instance, if in the year 1975 a law was written regarding an apple, that doesn’t mean that in 1976, that law would apply to Apple, the technology company founded after the law had been written. It’s true that they are both called “apple,” but that couldn’t have been the intention of the law, considering that this particular definition of the word hadn’t been in existence at the time.
For further proof of this, we can look to a statement made by Coney Barrett in her confirmation hearings that was deemed to be offensive by some on the political left. To accentuate this issue, Merriam-Webster changed their definition of the term to be offensive. On their website, on the day of the testimony, the term was non-offensive, and on the day afterwards, it was offensive. In this way, Coney Barret was being judged on the dictionary definition of a word that was changed the day after she had used it. That is an originalist’s exact point: At the time she used the term, it was a fine term; the next day, it was no longer acceptable. So we are now judging an individual and a term based on today’s definition when the word was used yesterday.
Until now we have been discussing bringing individuals and terms forward in time. But this works in reverse as well. Many people today like to think that if they were to be taken out of today and inserted into an earlier time period, they would be on the side of issues they know now to be right. “Put me in the South in the 1830s,” they say, “and I would know that slavery is wrong, and I’d fight for their freedom.” Or they would think “if I were in Nazi Germany, I’d fight to make sure the Holocaust didn’t happen.” No. No, you wouldn’t. At the worst, you would be a slaveowner, or a proud Nazi. At the very least, you’d be complacent in the goings-on, and think that it wasn’t your business to get involved. If you have never stood up for something in a way that risks your social standing or personal comfort, that’s exactly where you stand. When was the last time you took a stand at great personal risk? If the answer to that is “never” or “extremely rarely,” then you would have been complacent in previous generations as well.
I consider myself to be in this category as well. I risk nothing by writing these columns every week. My readers mostly agree with me; my public persona takes little beating with these words. Those who disagree with me tend to do so respectfully. I use the name “Izzo” when writing so that potential employers don’t link these articles to my professional persona. I am as close to completely free from risk as possible while still having a weekly column. So no, I don’t think I am an exception to the rule I have stated. I am just like anyone else who has never put himself out there for a cause.
Noach was the exception. He wasn’t taken seriously. He was ridiculed. He risked his public persona for the right thing. Sure, his methods were different than others’ may have been - but that doesn’t take away from his greatness. We can only judge people, events, and words by the rubric of the time they existed. Using the standards of one generation to explain another is foolish. Had Noach lived in Avraham’s generation, he still would have been a tzadik - not because of his actions, but because Noach risked something to make a point.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.