When I was in the 8th grade, I attended a public school. The story of Noah, this week’s Torah portion, was a part of the curriculum. Though I assure you that the story of Noah was never referred to as “this week’s Torah portion.”
The teacher asked our class, “ Why did God save Noah?” No one answered. So she asked again. “Why did God save Noah?” One young girl raised her hand and said, “God saved Noah because Noah was a good Christian.”
Now I knew that Noah was not a Christian. After all, I had learned the story at Hebrew School, so I was sure that Noah was Jewish.
But actually Noah was neither Jewish nor Christian, nor a member of any organized religious community for that matter. The Torah says only “Noah was a righteous man.” From this we learn that you do not have to be religious to be righteous. You can be a good person without membership in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. And neither Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists have cornered the market on righteousness. In fact, Judaism teaches that the righteous of all people have a place in the world to come.
You do not have to be religious, you do not have to be Jewish to be righteous but if you are going to claim membership in a religious denomination, especially if that religion is Judaism, then your job is to strive for righteousness.
What religion adds to righteousness is a communal or corporate dimension. Remember Noah left the world, went into the ark and saved only himself and his family. Our Judaism teaches us that we have a responsibility to the world beyond ourselves. The greater world and the greater good should also be our concern.
Community can be difficult because people can be difficult, but what we can accomplish together is manifestly more effective than what any one person can accomplish on his or her own. And when we get it right as a community then we are truly a kehillah kedoshah - a sacred, holy and righteous community.