Monday, October 31, 2011

Noah (Wanderings)

“Their Thoughts were Only Evil all Day Long”

The first images that come to mind when we speak of the story of Noah and the Flood is of the building of the great ark and the animals filing in by twos, of the dove flying back and forth and returning with an olive branch in its mouth, and the appearance of the rainbow. To this, one must add the detailed description of the construction of the ark and the actual chronology of the Flood (which, appropriately enough, both began and ended very close to the time, early in the month of Heshvan, when we read Parshat Noah every year) detailed in the Torah.

But what is really significant, to my mind, is the portrait found here of a world that has “gone to rot”—i.e., totally surrendered to evil. There are two accounts of sin in Parashat Bereshit: the eating of the “forbidden fruit” by Adam and Eve, which seems to have been motivated by curiosity, temptation, an element of willfulness and “testing of boundaries,” and persuasion by the clever arguments of the Serpent; and Kain’s murder of Abel, which may be seen as a sudden outburst of anger and frustration, possibly also an “accident” resulting from Kains’ lack of awareness of his own strength. In both cases, it is difficult to speak of “radical evil” or of evil utterly dominating the personalities involved.

What one may say, in a reading relevant to our abiding interest here in matters of community, is that God, once He had created the world and the human species, “tried His hand,” so to speak, at building community and harmonious social interactions among this new and interesting species. His first attempt was in the nuclear family, in the attachment of man and woman, sexual and otherwise (ודבק באשתו), but the ultimate result was not one of true equality and harmony, but of domination (see 3:16). He then tried fraternity—the camaraderie of two brothers, who were inherently equal in status and standing. The end result was a quarrel that ended in murder. (Interestingly, some midrashim make Kain out to be the “bad guy” from the outset, while others show the two quarreling without distinction about property, religion, or access to a desirable woman. See Gen. Rab. 22.7; HY I: Bereshit2)

In the generation of the Flood, there seems to be a “raising of the ante”: humankind had somehow become fixed on an evil path. The last four verses of last week’s parashah Bereshit speak of God’s seeing that “man’s evil had become very great on the earth, and all the impulses of the thoughts of his heart were only evil all the day” (Gen 6:5). (This follows upon an account of the “sons of God” who took—grabbed, really—whatever women they fancied.) The opening verses of Parshat Noah go on to say that mankind, nay, “all flesh had corrupted its ways in the land” and “the land was filled with violence” (כי השחית כל בשר את דרכו על הארץ... ותמלא הארץ חמס; 6:12, 11).

What was the nature of this radical evil, and what was its source? Martin Buber, in a short essay entitled “Images of Good and Evil” (in his Good and Evil, pp. 63-143) speaks of two kinds of evil: The first is evil as confusion, indecision: lack of direction in life, what he calls the whirlpool or vortex of the multitude of options and possibilities, or what Levinas calls the “temptation of temptation” (the Don Juan, who tries to sleep with every attractive woman who comes his way, epitomizes this type). In my generation, which reached young adulthood in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, there were those who saw life as a field for varied and intense experience, and advocated the idea that “one should try anything once.” But, per Buber, there is another kind of evil, in which a person (or an entire community—and it is thus that I see the generation of the Flood, and the people of Sodom) consciously chooses evil as a path. The essence of such evil is not so much in the specific acts performed, but in the scoffing at all values. An attitude of cynicism, apathy, indifference to others, sheer cussedness—which may in turn include hatred, maliciousness, and gratuitous violence; even, a certain hatred of goodness (note the midrash about the people of Sodom, who viciously punished a young woman who showed kindness, generosity, and compassion to an unfortunate person).

What can we learn from the Biblical account about the origin, the roots of these negative attitudes? I would like to return to the verse about Eve’s temptation. The Serpent—whether we see him as an actual persona, a mythical forebearer of modern reptiles or, as Maimonides sees him in the Guide, as a personification of the Evil Impulse within the human being himself—is portrayed as clearly understanding human psychology, and appealing to its most vulnerable points. Eve, after being presented with the Serpent’s offer, says to herself three things: “And the woman saw that (a) the fruit was good to eat, (b) and that it [aroused] desire/appetite through the eyes, (c) and the tree was pleasant [for acquiring] knowledge—so she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 2:6). I suggest reading this verse as alluding to three basic human needs or proclivities. It was “good to eat”—on the most basic level, it fulfilled a basic need, A person may steal an apple or a loaf of bread because he is hungry, or violate a sexual norm because of overwhelming lust. “And it was desirable to the eyes.” The eyes are an organ of perception, not of desire—but they trigger the imagination, which in turn awakens the heart—i.e., the realm of desire. Through sight, a person begins to imagine a multitude of possibilities, of things he might want (see Rashi at Num 15:32). (Some social biologists would say that one of the differences between human beings and other animals is that, standing on two feet, our sexual desire is triggered less by the sense of smell, and more by that of sight—a fact which in turn carries a panoply of further implications.) Third, “the fruit was pleasant for knowing.” Human beings differ from the beast in their intellect, which is not limited to the direct encounter with the environment. Human beings envisage possibilities and lay plans; the human intellect expresses itself in curiosity, in language, in the ability to create abstractions—ideas and concepts; and in the ability to dominate others—the natural environment, other species who may have greater brute strength, and other human brings. This last factor is a two-edged sword: through the application of intellectual power, through tool making and social organization, human beings and humankind generally may help others, build a better world, construct labor-saving devices—but may also develop weapons of destruction and means of enslaving others, literally or figuratively.

The desire to dominate and rule over others is very powerful. It is already alluded to in 1:28, as a blessing, but it may become a central plank in the path of evil. The will to cause fear in others, to bend them to one’s own will, may stem from the imagination, it may take its power to act from the intellect, it may stem from the instinct for self-preservation somehow gone wrong, transformed into black hatred. I think of the case, a few years ago, of three young people who attacked a stranger, an older man sitting on a park bench with his family near the Tel Aviv beach, and viciously beat him to death for no coherent reason (adding insult to injury, the criminals were eventually apprehended, tried, and convicted, but of manslaughter rather than murder). This may be taken as a microcosm for far greater examples of evil our world has known, perhaps especially in our age, from Hitler on down.

To summarize the story of Etz ha-Da’at, the Tree of Knowledge and what went after: God wanted man to have free will, to make his own choices in life. Only thus could he be a true spiritual being; otherwise he would forever remain a child, morally and emotionally (I follow here Erich Fromm’s reading in You Shall Be as Gods). But this freedom carries the possibility of being taken to extremes of evil: of unchecked desire, unchecked curiosity, unchecked imagination, and unchecked aggression towards others. So God gave the Torah (including the “capsule version” in the Noachide code) as a kind of antidote against humanity becoming overwhelmed by its own evil propensities (בראת יצר הרע, בראת תורה תבלין לו–בבא בתרא, פרק א'; “You created the Evil Urge, You created the Torah as a ‘seasoning’ for it”). The Torah teaches a decent path—but of course no one can force people to follow it.


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