Torah from around the world #86

By: Tirzah Ben-David, visiting Rabbi to Shir Hatzafon Progressive Community, Copenhagen, Denmark
Parashat Noach tells us two stories that have haunted the Western imagination for over two thousand years, and remain chillingly relevant now. The images are iconic. Noach rides the flood with the entire gene pool of the planet huddled in the darkness beneath his feet, while the wreckage of the world floats in his wake. And the thwarted architects of the great City and Tower of Babel shout vainly into a blizzard of meaningless words, before scattering blindly in panic and despair, refugees of God’s displeasure.

The story of the Flood, despite its apocalyptic scale, ends on a note of hope – the earth will be repaired and humanity, along with all the other species, will survive. The Tower of Babel, on the other hand, is a study in failure and alienation. It may indeed ‘explain’ why different nations speak different languages, but its purposes, I believe, are much darker. It is, for the writer, a bitter farewell to any hope of a unified and mutually comprehensible humanity; and we have (so to speak) been going to hell in a handcart ever since. But whose fault is it? With varying degrees of justification, we blame ourselves for everything these days, from global warming (floods) to intractable political and religious conflicts (take your pick, but the Israelis and the Palestinians are pretty high on the list). But the Genesis writers blame God.

And we have to admit that God is not kind to His fledgling creation. Much of the time it seems to survive in spite of Him (no room for gender equality here). In the Darwinian view of things, we only had to outwit our fellow creatures: in the Garden of Eden we don’t stand a chance of outwitting God. Punished for being too clever, all but wiped-out in a marine blitzkrieg, scattered over the face of the earth; the fate of primordial mankind eerily prefigures the more recent history of the Jews. Blaming God is of course still an option. But it doesn’t really get us very far, and it outrages the very sense of self-accountability, of moral obligation, that both prophetic and Rabbinic Judaism have sought to instill in us. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai came to be regarded by our Sages as the crucial moment when responsibility for running the world was placed squarely on our shoulders. But this is precisely what the God of Genesis was determined to prevent, when He punished Adam and Eve for attaining self-knowledge, and confounded the builders of Babel, lest their achievements should rival His own. So what changed? Misfortune and its attendant challenges, if they don’t kill us in the process, mature and toughen us. In the long haul between Eden and Sinai God also grew up; a covenant requires partners, not victims.

So where do we draw the line nowadays, between our responsibility and God’s? What are the current terms of our Covenant? If everything that happens on earth is connected, however remotely, with what we humans do, if every mouthful we consume, every mile we drive, deprives/exploits/pollutes someone or something, and only we have the technology, and the power, to alter this state of affairs, then what do we need God for? We seem to have left Him with very little to do.  But the illusion of total autonomy is both a burden and a temptation. Is our acute sense of responsibility fed by our humility or our arrogance?

In an age when everything is judged and measured to the nth degree, how does the God of Genesis shape up? Would He get our vote? Or is He something of an embarrassment? These are not facetious questions; there is a deep, unacknowledged divide between the secular, humanistic values that inform our culture, which most Jews are proud to serve, and the despotic, spiteful old Deity who glowers out at us from the pages of our beloved Bible stories. We have moved on; our vision of God has moved on, but the time-capsule of our childhood still preserves that image, and our Scriptures still challenge us to reckon with it. But the clues are there; the seismic changes are scrupulously recorded, embedded in something as apparently banal as a genealogical table. A fault line runs through Chapter  Eleven of the Book of Genesis: on one side are the universal, myth-freighted stories, taking us from the creation of the world to the tragedy of Babel. On the other side, God’s concerns suddenly narrow down to a single point, a single man: the old creation must fend for itself awhile. Abraham is God’s new project. And the experiment is still running.

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