Biblical Affirmative Action: Noah As A Product Of His Generation

The talmudic discussion of Noah's righteousness sheds light on our understanding of affirmative action.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

Instructions: Read the following case study and discuss the various sides to the issue, then read the full Midrash below and answer the questions following the Midrash.

Larry comes from a poor minority neighborhood, and spent the better part of his adolescence trying to avoid becoming a victim of the drugs and crime that infest his community. He came from a largely dysfunctional family, and had very few worthwhile role models. Barely surviving the ridicule of his friends and family, and balancing a part-time job along with his schoolwork, he managed to pull off mostly A's and B's throughout high school. He earned an 1100 on his SATs.

If the Ivy League university to which he applies has an average SAT score of over 1300, and is frequented by scholastic over-achievers, should Larry be accepted at the expense of a student with better grades and SAT scores but who comes from a more affluent, stable environment?

Genesis 9:1

These are the Generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous man in his generation: Noah walked with God.

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 30:9

In his generation: There was a disagreement between Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nechemiah.

Rabbi Yehudah said: In his generation he was considered a righteous man, but if he would have lived in the generation of Moses or in the generation of Samuel then he wouldn't have been considered a righteous man.

In the market where the blind cry out, the one-eyed man is called clear-sighted.

There is a story of an individual who opened up one barrel of wine and found it had turned into vinegar. The same thing with the second barrel. The third barrel he found to be only sour (and so he took it). The others said to him, "That barrel is sour!" He answered back, "Is there any better?"

Rabbi Nehemiah said: If he was considered a righteous man within his own generation, then surely he would have been considered a righteous man had he lived in the generation of Moses and Samuel.

This could be compared to a tightly closed flask of expensive perfume placed within a graveyard that still produced a pleasant smell. If it was outside the graveyard it would produce a smell that much better!

This could also be compared to a virgin that frequented a marketplace of prostitutes, and she didn't receive a bad name. How much more so if she was among better company!

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Rabbi Avi Weinstein is the Head of Jewish Studies at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City.

Rabbi Ilan Haber is the director of Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), a college campus Orthodox outreach program sponsored by the Orthodox Union in collaboration with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and Torah MiTzion - Religious Zionist Kollels. He was previously the Orthodox Rabbinic Advisor at Yale University.