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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