Monday, October 30, 2006

Noah (Rashi)

For further teachings on Parshat Noah, see archives for November 2005.

“Righteous in His Generation”

“These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous, innocent man in his generation” (Gen 6:9). Rashi: “in his generations.” Some of our Sages expound this to his praise: all the more so had he lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. And there are those who expound it to his defamation: by the standard of his generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been considered as nothing.

This first Rashi on the parsha is particularly well-known. (In general, there is a tendency of many preachers to “get stuck” on the opening verse or two and never get past them; even as great a Hasidic thinker and darshan as the Sefat Emet devotes a disproportionate number of his derashot, over thirty years, to the first passage from the Midrash on each weekly portion.) The problem in the verse is a double one: first, that following the words “these are the generations of Noah,” the text doesn’t go on directly to listing his offspring, as one would expect, but stops to comment on his upright character. Second, the word “in his generations” (bedorotav) seems extraneous: surely it would suffice to say that “Noah was a righteous and innocent man”?

Interestingly, both the midrashic and Talmudic sources for these two views (Gen Rab 30.9; b. Sanhedrin 108a) places the answer denigrating Noah before the positive one. It seems to me that this is done so that the latter may be read as a kind of refutation of the former: i.e., you might think that the words he was “righteous [only] in his generation” was a kind of damning through faint praise; that it was only by comparison with the utterly corrupt people of the generation of the Flood that he looked at all good and decent. Bu no: his ability to be righteous in that generation is itself the strongest proof of the power of his character. Thus, the positive answer, “all the more so in the time of Abraham,” is intended as the bottom line.

The question posed here, on a deeper level, deals with the relation between the individual and society. How is a person influenced by living in a society, in a generation, of bad people? Does it inevitably influence him in a negative way, or may his mettle best be proven precisely through his resistance to negative forces in society? Indeed, can one speak meaningfully of a person’s character outside of social interaction? A person may be a pious individual in a closed room, spending his days in prayer and study; he may even attain what we call holiness, but may he be called righteous? I see Noah as the forebear of all those who showed toughness and resistance in difficult times: members of the anti-Nazi underground in Europe who risked their lives to behave in an decent, humane, moral way and to save the lives of others; righteous Gentiles such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; indeed, those who resisted fascism, communism, totalitarianism and evil in the name of the state in whatever form.

The Nature of Evil

The story of the flood raises an obvious question: what was the nature of the wickedness of the generation of the flood, that prompted such a catastrophic punishment? Rashi, in the opening verses of our chapter, gives two separate answers:

“And the earth was corrupted before God, and the land was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11). Rashi: This is language of sexual licentiousness and idolatry (Sanhedrin 57a; 108a), as in the verse “lest you be corrupted” (Deut 4:16).

And a little later we read:

“For the earth was filled with violence” (v. 14). Rashi: Their sentence was not sealed except for theft (Sanhedrin 108a)

The picture portrayed here is of a society that has gone completely berserk, that has lost all sense of decency or basic morality, of respect of one human being for his neighbor, of any kind of norms or rules that are agreed. (Yet another midrash, quoted by Rashi in verse 12, sees this anarchy carried over into the animal kingdom: even the beasts and fowl, who normally instinctively followed certain sexual boundaries, violated these to cohabit with members of other species.) It is no coincidence that the first two of these correspond to two of three “cardinal sins” of Judaism, which a person must die rather than violate (see Sanhedrin 74a ff.); and, in the version of their sins given in the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 31.6), the term hamas is seen as referring to all three: sexual licentiousness, idolatry, and bloodshed.

Taking the two versions together, one has four of the seven Noahide laws: specifically, those concerned with the basic morality of the individual in society. The other three—setting up courts of law, not eating the limb of the living, and not profaning the Divine Name—pertain to other areas: the need for order and authority in society; humane behavior toward animals; and basic respect for religion. Eschewing paganism is seen as central because it implies, at least covertly, acceptance of the belief in one god.

At the risk of overstretching my homiletic license, I would also suggest a certain parallel between these sins and the Garden of Eden story and its sequel. Certain potentialities for human behavior were first discovered in the Garden and in its aftermath. First of all, hubris and arrogance, the belief in the unlimited and unrestricted potentiality of the human being, first cousin to idolatry. Second, even though sexuality itself is not perceived as sinful in Judaism, there was certainly discovery the power and attraction of sexuality, as well as the possibilities for its misuse—i.e., violence and oppression of the other through sex. Third, immediately after the expulsion from the Garden, we have the discovery of violence with the first murder, an act of fratricide.

It seems to me that these three areas are still very much with us in the contemporary world, and indeed relate to the greatest dangers facing humankind. Violence and warfare have always lurked just beneath the civilized façade of the human beast, but in modern times, with nuclear weapons and other diabolical tools of mass destruction, they carry an utterly different significance, making the resolution of conflicts in peaceful way—which seems an utterly quixotic idea, particularly in our region—an urgent imperative. The very real threats to the ecology of the planet earth have their roots in hubris: in the belief that we humans are little gods and can exploit and abuse our environment without consequence. Finally, sexuality: it seems to me that the sexual mores that have emerged in Western countries over the past half-century have lead to a cheapening of our culture and to a weakening of family structure that may, again, have grave and unforeseen social repercussions.

A second question raised by this passage: why is theft, specifically, mentioned as the crowning note? What is meant by “Their sentence was only sealed because of theft”?

In examining the various sins mentioned, we find that bloodshed involves the greatest violation of another person—destroying his very life. Sex, whether consensual or not , is also concerned with intimate penetration of the boundaries of the other’s body. By contrast, gezel, theft, has to do with a person’s property—a certain extension of the person’s identity to certain objects around him, that are reserved for his exclusive use. In a certain sense, then, it seems more tangential and arbitrary than these other violations of person.

Indeed, there are many forward-minded people who would celebrate the ethos of Robin Hood, “to rob from the rich to give to the poor.” Many socialists would see the root of all social evils in the notion of private property. But Judaism cannot accept such a radical position. The respect for private property, even its sacrosanct character, in some sense relates to respect for the person himself. Whatever quasi-socialist ethos the Torah may advocate in passages such as Leviticus 25 is based on an underlying concept of private property, in which certain categories of property are made public by dint of specific rules and legislation—hefker of produce of the sabbatical year, the corners of the field and other portions reserved for the poor, release of debts in the seventh year, restoration of property to its original owners in the jubilee year, etc. It never suggests abolishing the category of private property per se.

At this point in history, it is clear that the Soviet experiment in state communism was an abysmal failure (which does not mean that we need to recite Hallel Hagadol over neo-liberal capitalism). Similarly, the kibbutzim have to a large extent reinstated the concept of private property. There is sharing, equality, a sense of mutual responsibility for the collective realm, but they have rediscovered the importance of a certain private sphere that belongs to the individual and/or nuclear family unit. Even if, e.g., the “means of production” are collectively owned, there is still a realm of personal property that remains inviolate.

Finally, a speculation: it occurs to me that, in a certain, semi-technical sense, the sin of eating the fruit of the tree might be categorized as gezel, as theft. The Garden belonged to God; He gave permission to Adam and Eve to eat everything therein except for the fruit of the one tree; hence, by picking it and eating it they in a certain sense committed an act of theft. (The idea that one needs to “acquire” the right to partake of food that grows in God’s world is suggested by the Talmudic discussion stating that, prior to a person reciting the blessing, “The earth and its fulness is the Lord’s,” while afterwards “The heavens are the Lord’s, and the earth he gave to the children of men.”) Imagine that you invite a guest for dinner. You place food on the table, which he is clearly welcome to eat; but later on you find him, without asking your leave, rummaging through your refrigerator and helping himself to whatever he fancies. You will feel a sense of violation: perhaps you were planning to serve this item the next day, or perhaps he consumed the last fruit of the season which you were planning to eat. The sense of violation may be trivial, but it is nevertheless there, and the act is one of gezel.


Blogger Rachel said...

I just found your blog, and am browsing through the archives; I've added you to my aggregator and will make your blog one of my regular reads. Thanks for making this available!

2:43 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home