Prologue: Rashi makes it clear that the matter is open to debate. Was Noach a Tzaddik or not?
But why open the issue up to debate in the first place? Why would one who could be judged favorably be judged negatively?
Rav Zaidel Epstein once suggested that even the negative can be seen positively. The fact is, that had Noach lived in Avraham’s generation his actions would not have been impactful. Therefore he would have had to work harder to leave a lasting impression on the world at large. The call of non-ppraise, is not a call of disgrace – merely a call to do more for the glory of Hashem.
In Praise of Power
With the baseball season moving at a high pace, one can notice a great catch or a prowess within one of the athletes playing the game. Elsewhere, in our world the Nobel prizes are being awarded and man’s genius is being toasted and lauded. It begs the big question…can one praise an athlete for his physical strengths and a scientist for genius or is this a violation of Lo Seichaneim?
The Rambam (Hil. A.Z. 10:4) notes that one is not permitted to praise Ovdei Avoda Zara since to do so might lead you to learn from their ways and succumb to the same practices of Avodah Zara. The implication is that praising players and scientists with these foreign backgrounds should be Assur.
The Torah Temima (VaEschanan 7:2) limits the scope of “Lo Seichaneim” to the 7 nations that inhabited the land of Israel. His logic assumes that since the other application of this prohibition speaks to the 7 nations, this one should as well. The problem with his logic is that when logic is used by an Achron to uproot a position of an early commentary (Rishon), more proof is necessary.
Rav Chaim Palagi (Nishmas Kol Chai) notes two exceptions to the rule of “Lo Seichaneim.” The first one, is that the prohibition only applies to something that is uniquely found among members of the religion or group that cannot be found from a Torah source. In addition, he adds that the prohibition only applies to a single individual. However when praising an entire race, community or group, the rule would not apply.
Based on this explanation, we can explain odd comments in the Talmud – which seem to praise the nations of Persia or Medina (See Berachos 8a) for possessing particular traits, in diametric opposition to the prohibition of Lo Seichaneim. Though it should be pointed out that the Vilna Gaon does not differentiate between individual and collective in this matter (See Shabbos 33b).
The Tzitz Eliezer (XV:47) adds another series of bases for leniency in the matter: Firstly, he allows one to praise an Akum it through such praise one would wind up praising Hashem. After all, do we not have a text for a beracha to be recited when one sees a non-Jewish scholar? Obviously, the praise due to the scholar is really ultimately the praise due to Hashem. In addition, it seems to him that only those who are idol worshippers are included within the prohibition of Lo Seichaneim. Therefore, most of the scientists --- and by extension athletes --- can continue to amaze us with their accomplishments. We in turn, can be amazed and offer tremendous praise.