Friday, November 02, 2007

Noah (Supplement)

“Let us build a tower…”: A Short Essay on Hubris

Towards the end of Parashat Noah, following the lengthy account of the Flood, there is another incident, described in brief, almost laconic terms: the building of the Tower of Babel, the “confusion” of languages that God brings about in response, and the dispersion of the various nations.

Rather surprisingly, and in striking contrast to other sinful deeds described elsewhere in Genesis (the eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Cain killing Abel, the “sons of gods” snatching the daughters of men, the sin of the generation of the Flood, the sin of Sodom, etc.), the Bible does not tell us the exact nature of their transgression; indeed, we are not even explicitly told that this act was “evil in God’s eyes.” (This point is noted by the Midrash: “the sin of the Generation of the Division (dor ha-haflagah) was not made explicit”). All we are told is that God went down to see what they were doing, and thereupon jumbled their languages so they could no longer communicate with one another.

To understand this story, we must first return to the opening chapters of Genesis, where we find a certain ambivalence regarding the basic question: how powerful ought man be allowed to be? In the opening chapter of the Creation, Adam and Eve are blessed with dominion over the rest of creation: “fill the land and conquer it, and rule over the fish of the seas, the birds of the heavens, and every creature that swarms over the earth” (Gen 1:28)—a very considerable charge, that contrasts with the later, more modest mandate of being placed in the garden “to till it and protect it” (2:15). Later on, in the story of the Garden, this motif returns, with a disturbing twist: that man not only dominates the rest of nature, but may be a potential “rival” to God Himself! The serpent says as much in his persuasion of Eve: “For God knows, that on the day that you eat it your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be like gods (!) knowing good and evil” (3:5). Although, in point of fact, the first and only thing they knew after eating the fruit was that they were naked—a phrase prompting speculation about the interrelations among sexual knowledge, moral knowledge, and what might be called cosmic knowledge; but more on that another time.

All these scenes revolve around one theme: what the Greeks called hubris—man’s desire to transcend his natural limits, to reach for the infinite, to become like God—and God’s response: that such a thing is intolerable. Adam is already shown saying, in at least one midrash: God rules in the upper region, and I am alone / unique in the lower regions, so let me be like God… As if to say: we have been given dominion below, so let’s make the most if it. This motif reappears in several of the midrashim about the Tower of Babylon: that the people wished to wage war against God and unseat Him from His throne in Heaven; that they challenged “the One of the Universe”; etc.

There is an interesting linguistic parallel between the scene of the expulsion from the Garden and that of the Tower:

Behold, man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; Now, lest he thrust his hand, and take from the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever’ (3:22).

Behold, they are one people, and one language for all, And all this they have begun to do. Now, nothing that they scheme to do shall be withheld from them (11:6)

Note particularly the use of the sentence structure: "hen... atah..." “Behold…. ; now….” As if to say: they have already done thus-and-such; now, if we don’t take measures to prevent it, they will surely do much worse.

* * * * *

The question is: how are we to interpret all this? Cynics might say: aha, we see here a picture of a god who is a petty chieftain, a dictator who is ultimately concerned about his “turf” and power. And indeed, there is a secular humanist position that celebrates this impulse. Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind, and may in certain ways be seen as a kind of Greek counterpart to the Dor haflagah, was a kind of hero for the European Romantics. They saw him as a prototype, representing the triumph of the human heart and intellect over tyrannical religion. He was the rebel who resisted all forms of institutional tyranny, as epitomized by Zeus—church, monarch, and patriarch. Comparisons were drawn between Prometheus and the spirit of the French Revolution, Christ, Milton’s Satan, and the divinely inspired poet or artist. In similar spirit, psychologist Erich Fromm (one of the Central European Jewish refugee intellectuals who helped shape post-War American culture), in his book You Shall be as Gods, interprets the “sin” in the Garden in a positive light. His thesis is that the real purpose of the “test” in the Garden was that Adam and Eve should eat, and thereby gain moral maturity, through a sense of autonomy and responsibility for their decisions. Had they never eaten, they would have in some sense remained infantile and dependent.

Judaism certainly affirms human responsibility and free will, but sees a subtle line separating valid use of autonomy, intelligence, and initiative, from hubris. An alternative reading of the Tower story would say: God’s moves to limit man’s powers is rooted in a moral position. Humankind has been blessed with awesome powers, with mental acuity unparalleled in the world of living beings, with the ability to plan, to anticipate the future, to organize society, as well as with a desire for knowledge and understanding of the world far beyond his immediate practical needs. But with this comes hubris: the desire to transcend limits. The moral life of humanity in fact revolves around the acceptance of limits, and the humility of knowing that we are not infinite, that we are not God, knowing that nothing is failsafe, that even the wisest of men cannot anticipate every last possibility.

That hubris, that the desire for infinite power and knowledge, is part of our makeup, is evident to anyone who has accumulated a bit of life experience. For example: the notion that the greatest achievement of mankind is the conquest of space, the probing of distant worlds. Or, in uncanny analogy to the desire to eat of the Tree of Life, there are people today who speak of “living forever,” of conquering death, of deep-freezing bodies to be thawed out once a cure is discovered to their final disease, or who speak seriously of human beings living for tens of thousands of years? There is something similar in religion itself: the fascination of esoteric knowledge, of popularized versions of Kabbalah, stems in large measure from the craving for the knowledge of the secrets of the universe—and the power believed to come with it. That is why Hazal placed fences around the study of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, of certain secret areas of Torah—because in the hands of non God-fearing people, it too could become a vehicle of hubris.

Without advocating a latter-day Luddism, many of the world’s problems today are the result of unforeseen consequences of technological progress. Thus, for example, the invention of the automobile reduced distances between people and made many aspects of life far simpler and easier; but it brought in its wake traffic fatalities, atmospheric pollution and, above all, the overall sense that “the party is over”—the specter of global warming caused in large part by the massive use of petroleum (in industry as well as for transportation), coupled with the threat of depletion of natural resources, which may in any event bring our current way of life to a dead halt. A second example: atomic energy. Is there any doubt today that “taking the genie out of the bottle,” without any change in mankind’s ability to control its own murderous impulses, has made the world a far more frightening and dangerous place to live? And a final example: reproductive technology has proven a blessing to childless couples, but it may yet bring about a nightmarish “Brave New World” of genetic engineering, and of ever sharper social division between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” based on genetic design. Moreover, there are signs that these new techniques, severing even further the relation between sexuality and reproduction, may change the nature of sexuality, weakening even further the bonds of couples and within families. So is humankind then wise, or foolish?

* * * * *

A brief comment about my way of reading the opening chapters of Genesis. Clearly, as literal accounts they either test our credulity or are hopelessly naïve. Rather, Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and all the rest are best seen as archetypes of human experience, the basis for a “philosophical anthropology” couched, not in conceptual, but in mythic terms. Within these eleven chapters that precede the emergence on the scene of Abraham, we find a presentation of the major themes, paradoxes and problematics of human existence: sexuality, violence, the desire for knowledge and mastery.

I choose these three areas for particular emphasis, both because they are so problematic, and because they are unavoidable parts of our lives. They cannot be eliminated even if we would wish it and, used in proper manner and proper measure, they are essential to our world. A well-known midrash relates that once, some pious men wished to “solve” the problem of sin for once and for all by “slaughtering” the Evil Urge. No sooner had they done so, then a deathly stillness descended over world; no offspring were born to either human or animal, and no eggs were laid. This insight, which refers specifically to sexuality (Hazal’s “Yetzer ha-Ra”), may be applied fruitfully to aggression and hubris as well: they are vital to human existence, but misused, can lead to catastrophe.

Not coincidentally, these three areas are also those with which humankind is facing its greatest challenges in the 21st century: sexuality—the collapse of the traditional family in advanced West, numerous problems of sexual ethics, sexual ambiguity, widespread divorce, etc.; aggression—the existence of weaponry with unprecedented destructive power, that has raised the dangers of warfare to another dimension; and hubris—scientific progress that backfires, issues of ecology, globing warming, etc. In the present essay, I have presented a few initial thoughts on the issue of hubris and human intellect. In succeeding essays, I will address the issues of aggression and violence, and the knotty issues of sexuality.


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