Friday, October 08, 2010

Noah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2005_10_15_archive.html/, as well as at October 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Two Negative Models of Community

Parshat Noah contains two examples of communities gone horribly wrong in very different, almost diametrical opposed, ways: the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the “Schism” (dor ha-plagah).

The Torah does not describe the Generation of the Flood as such, viz. the nature of their evil, in very much detail. At the end of Parshat Bereshit, Gen 6:5, we read: “And God saw that the evil of man upon the earth was very great; all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart were naught but evil all the day.” Later, when God tells Noah of the coming cataclysm, we are told in a few pithy phrases that “the land had become corrupted before God, and the land was filled with violence” (v. 11) and that “all flesh had spoiled their way upon the earth” (v. 12). The Torah then goes on to describe in some detail the construction and populating of the ark, the manner of its operation, etc.

The wickedness of the Generation of the Flood is described by means of two Hebrew words: חמס and השחית. Hamas means “violence” or “wrongdoing,” particularly robbery, the violent taking of that which is not yours. Hishhit or its root shahat means “to be spoiled / corrupt / gone to ruin” (the same verb is used when Onan “spoils his seed earthward” in Gen 38:9). Interestingly, the Bible uses the selfsame verb to describe the Divine response: “I shall destroy (משחיתם) for them the land” (v. 13). Rashi sees this “despoiling of the way” (hashhatat derekh) as encompassing the three cardinal sins of sexual perversion, bloodshed, and idolatry, particularly the first of these: the entire animal kingdom, following the lead of humankind, went astray sexually, members of one species coupling with others, “and all of them with humans, and humans with them all.”

Interestingly, even before portraying God’s disappointment in humankind, Chapter 6 begins with the description of the ”sons of God” who came and took the “daughters of men,” who were goodly i.e., attractive in their eyes—that is, a combination of sexual wrongdoing with violent appropriation of whatever one wanted.

In brief, in the Generation of the Flood we find widespread corruption and violence, and the absence of any real social ethics. Anarchy reigned; there was no real social organization; each individual was out for himself, taking whatever he wanted, be it property or sex, using violence if necessary. It was ultimately an individualistic society, ruled by brute power. To anticipate the leitmotif repeated at the end of the book of Judges, “each man did that which was fit in his own eyes.”

The Generation of the Tower of Babylon, or of “the Schism,” was the exact opposite. It was a highly organized society: . “The whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1). It was a strong, seemingly cohesive society, which devoted all its energies to a great project: building a great city with a tower reaching up to heaven in the middle. The reason? “That we may make ourselves a name, lest we be dispersed all over the earth” (v. 4). Why this fear of dispersion? We are not told, but there is a hint here that unity, or uniformity, was of the greatest importance to the people of Babel—and they were punished by precisely that which they most feared. While it is not stated explicitly in the Torah text, there is more than a hint here (elaborated in the Midrash) of hubris, of a wish to transcend human limitations, of a desire to displace God Himself, for human beings to become as God (an echo, perhaps, of the potential in the Edenic Tree of Knowledge: see Gen 3:5, 22).

On the face of it, the unity of all humankind is a noble, positive value, one which has attracted many idealistic advocates even today; indeed, that was the impulse behind both the League of Nations and the United Nations. But there is an inherent danger in it: Who is to decide what ideas and values shall govern united humanity, and what cultures and religions and philosophies will be suppressed in the name of unity? The hubris implied in the collective desire to replace God means that people forget the limitations and paradoxes of the human condition, our capacity for intellectual thought combined with emotional needs and base physical drives, which often lead to faulty and biased, self-serving judgments. Time and again, the Evil Impulse in man, with its desire for power and gain and pleasure, gains the upper hand, invoking the most elevated ideas to justify what it wants.

The twentieth century was marked by struggles with societies and ideologies that might be compared to the Generation of Babel: Nazism, fascism, and Soviet Communism were all totalitarian systems that subjugated the individual to the society in an absolute, ruthless manner, leaving little room for diversity or independent thought. These movements succeeded in large measure in convincing the ordinary person to undergo a revaluation of vales, in which the greatest crimes—systematic “extermination” of the Jews, the murder of the “bourgeois” or “enemies of the revolution”—were performed in the name of seemingly good and positive values. Thus, in the 1930’s Marxism attracted “best and brightest: of many Western youth. Even more so than Nazism, which revived pre-Christian Nordic racial myths but minimally tolerated Christianity, Soviet Communism saw itself as a substitute religion. Hence, atheism was a central tenet of its state ideology—because religion gave people a focus other than the state or its leader as a source of values. Stalin was all but deified as a demigod, “The Sun of the Nations,” and after his death his embalmed body served as a focus of pilgrimage.

During the later twentieth century, collectivism, socialism, or almost any kind of communitarian thinking were rejected as a result of these totalitarian movements, which manifested the tyranny of the group. Even in Israel, the great emphasis upon collective, national values—a sheer necessity in the early years of the State, when a new society was being created, demanding enormous energies—evoked a counter-reaction. At some time in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Israelis began to rediscover the values of the private and the personal life; even the kibbutzim (with some notable exceptions), hitherto the bastion of collective socialism, began to privatize and to revamp their ways; novelists, playwrights, songwriters and thinkers began to celebrate the individual, his rights and his existential situation, quickly going to the other extreme.

* * * * *

BERESHIT: Postscript: Who Was Cain?

Last Shabbat I noticed some interesting points in the story of Cain. After killing his brother Abel, God informs him that he will be further punished: the earth will no longer yield its strength to him (even less so than it would for Adam, who was already cursed with having to earn his bread “by the sweat of his brow”); and he will be forced to become a wandering nomad (Gen 4:11-12). Cain objects: “Is my sin truly too grave to bear [i.e., to forgive, per Rashi]?” or “The [punishment for] my sin is too great to bear!” (v. 13; the translation of the word עווני is ambiguous). Interestingly, before even mentioning his alienation from God (“I will be hidden from Your face”), Cain complains that he has been pushed off the face of the earth—i.e., off his land. Note that Cain was a farmer; hence, being deprived of his “God’s little acre” and being forced to wander (unlike his dead brother, who was a shepherd and perhaps hunter, accustomed to constant migration) was the worst possible punishment. (Are there echoes here of the ancient rivalry between hunter-gatherers and farmers?)

But the basic question is: why does Cain talk back to God? Why does he not accept God’s judgment? Does he at all realize the gravity of what he has done—killing another man, and his own brother? Also: In what sense may we see him as paradigmatic for human experience? Both his crime and his reaction seem typical of many criminals and miscreants. As Uriel Simon has noted (in an as-yet unpublished lecture), he acted out of frustration and anger at what he perceived as an insult to his ego, which then led to violence (God warned him of this in 4:6-7). But after the fact, he tries to evade responsibility and punishment for his act, using any and every possible excuse, or by begging for Divine mercy. Does he at all recognize the wrong he has done? Interestingly, although condemned to wander, God gives him a sign to protect him from any mean-spirited strangers he may encounter, and soon enough he settles down, in a town significantly named Nod (in Hebrew” “wandering”), and even takes a wife and has children (vv. 15-17).

All this is offered as food for thought; I have no conclusive answers.


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