This question is an essential one and we must deal with it if we ever hope to have humanity get its act together. The precedent for this can be found both in the beginning of Noah’s reading portion in the Torah, which describes a state of chaos which led up to the flood and once again at the end of the parshah, when the Almighty mixed the languages. The mixing of the languages does not only mean that someone who speaks one language cannot understand someone speaking a different language, but that even two people who speak the same language cannot understand one another. There is a total lack of communication. Only once humanity reaches this lowest level of an inability to speak and relate, to understand one another, only then does the rising star of Abraham begin to rise on the horizon.
The first two parshahs of the Torah are of a universal nature. The setting is humanity in general. Noah was also a great scientist, he was the first to invent a plow and with that brought a measure of peace to the people of his generation. Then he was able to construct this truly tremendous structure called the ark, a structure that was able to contain all the animals—not a small feat by any measure. Noah was not Jewish; he was one of the greatest tzadikim of the generations before Abraham.
In this respect, we should mention that if Adam had succeeded in his test and not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he would have become the first Jew. So Adam had the potential to become the first Jew. Likewise, about Noah, the Torah says that he was a righteous and sincere man, still he was not yet Jewish. The first Jew was Abraham. There were many tzadikim before Abraham, but what set Abraham apart was his self‐sacrifice for his fellow men. Noah did not sacrifice himself in order to save the people of his generation. Indeed, for this reason the flood was named after Noah, because he did not pray and try to save his generation it is attributed to him. The first one to pray for the people of his generation was Abraham, even though he was not successful. The high point of self‐sacrifice for others was Moses, whom we first meet when he places himself at risk to save another Jew and who later prayed that God forgive the Jewish people and succeeded in saving his generation.
Universal Torah Wisdom
To begin, let us spend some time understanding the following famous statement made by the sages. They tell us:
Believe that the nations possess wisdom, but do not believe that they possess Torah. On the one hand, we need to know that the nations have wisdom and that we should learn from this wisdom and incorporate it in some way. On the other hand, if non‐Jews claim to possess Torah, this is by and by a false statement, and we are told to discredit it point blank. This is the key statement of the sages regarding the wisdom of the nations. The first question we need to address is what is the difference between Torah and wisdom?
More specifically, the Torah itself is Godʹs wisdom. In the Zohar it says that the Torah comes from wisdom [Godʹs wisdom]. So if some other wisdom is true, it must also have come from God. Any true wisdom is Godʹs wisdom. So what is the difference between the two?
As with every statement of the sages, this one too has a multitude of explanations, each uncovering a deeper dimension in the sages’ wisdom.
Torah is a Way of Life
The simplest explanation is that the word ʺTorahʺ stems from the verb meaning ʺto guide.ʺ In other words, the Torah guides us in how to live our lives, how to go about day after day, whether life be good or not so good.
If we look at Noah we can understand that his wisdom was expressed in his ability to build this tremendously complex sea‐vessel called the ark. Noah was able to carry out all of Godʹs commandments which led directly to incredible technological success. As we noted, Noah was an inventor even before he was commanded to build the ark. He invented the plow. This, the sages say, is why he was called ʺNoah,ʺ which means ʺrest,ʺ because he bettered the condition of humanity by providing it with new technology. Just as today, the more technology we have, the easier life is and the more the quality of life can increase.
Noah was really involved with quality of life. Until his generation the Earth was cursed, because of Adamʹs Primordial sin and Cainʹs murder of his brother, Abel. By inventing the plow, Noah sweetened (i.e., he dissipated and transformed) this curse, to a large extent. So we can see Noah as a type of applied scientist, someone whose concern for the well‐being of humanity fuels his search for new technology that will alleviate suffering and bring tranquility. Relatively speaking, the invention of the plow was more important than the invention of the computer.
But, all of this is wisdom, it is not Torah. Knowing how to help people, whether it be physically or psychologically, makes a good technologist. But, this is not the ability to provide people with a way of life. We see this very clearly in our generation. Scientists and inventors do not necessarily know how to live better lives than other people. To be a brilliant scientist or successful technologist does not mean that one knows how to bring Divine awareness to people, to imbue them with the awareness that there is a Creator of the universe. All the more so that they cannot answer questions relating to purpose:
Why did the Creator create us in the first place?
Based on science and technology alone, there is no purpose. This is the simplest explanation of the difference between wisdom and Torah. The Torah is a way of life given by the Almighty.
by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh