Friday, October 20, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Noach 5778-Armageddon, Loopholes, and Theisms

Some random, disjunctive thoughts about the parasha this week.

First, I had the strangest dream last night, the first of its kind that I can recall. For some reason I was with my mother Goldie (z”l) and we were listening to an expected broadcast of national import. I’m doing my best to recall details, but like most dreams, it’s not entirely coherent. What I can recall is that the nations of the world  were about to announce their decision regarding some action that the U.S. had taken. The broadcast began and a spokesperson starting speaking about how the world could no longer tolerate the U.S.’s behavior, and, just then, the display and audio changed to an emergency action notification to seek shelter that nuclear attack was imminent. I helped my mother down to a car and we set off for some safe location. Eerily, no one else seem interested in escaping the coming holocaust and there was no traffic or even people on the streets. Though it tugs at my memory that there is much more details to the story, that’s about all I can recall. Perhaps, between contemplating the present state of the world, of our country, and adding to that teaching students about an trying to come to my own understandings of the biblical flood my mind turned to this scenario. The parallels seem clear, even if the story is not. The people (in this case, the country) were sinful and evil, and destruction was to be wrought upon them for their sinfulness. I seemed to believe there was safety  to be found somewhere, which I guess makes me a Noah figure, of sorts. The dream didn’t get far enough and I wonder if I would have been proven to be like Noah, not caring about all the others, or would I have tried to help more people get to this elusive place of safety from nuclear Armageddon.

Random thought number two. I’ve been participating in a new Facebook group devoted to Six-Word Prayers. My first contribution to the group was this:

Not by flood is a loophole

Is that really a prayer? I think so. It is my way of putting G”d on notice that I’m wise to G”d’s imperfections, and I won’t give them an easy pass. The very fact that I’m making it a prayer is testament to my desire to be in relationship with G”d.

In B’reishit 9:15 G”d explains the rainbow as the sign of a covenant that G”d will never cause the waters to become a flood to slaughter all flesh. You bet your bippi that’s a loophole. Not just in the surface understanding, either. Most people understand that to mean that it gives G”d an out to destroy the earth by other means, and it does. However, the clever wording also allows G”d to gather waters into a flood to destroy less than all flesh, or for other purposes.

If you continue reading, it appears that G”d has created the rainbow as a sign of this covenant because apparently G”d’s is going to need a reminder of this covenant? This won’t be the last time we’re reminded that G”d can be forgetful (or perhaps deliberately ignore.)

Another random though is related to a resource I was pointed towards to describe the students the parallels and differences between the various ancient flood narratives – Noah, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, etc. Though attempting to use a somewhat academic approach to comparing the stories, the site’s descriptions of the parallels and differences turned out to be somewhat biased by a more traditional Jewish perspective. Many of the comparisons depended upon Talmudic or midrashic understandings, and not just the pure biblical text. I am not surprised that a site presenting things from a more orthodox Jewish perspective would simply assume acceptance of orah Torah (and its subsequent iterations in Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, Midrashim, Halakha, and more.) I often use such sites in my teaching – however, I am always careful to represent the various biases of the perspective of the different resources I provide to my students through my teaching.

Though it attempted to present materials in an academic/scientific manner, the site had all sorts of underlying assumptions. There was no hint that all these etiological stories found early (and later) in Genesis were precisely that – etiologies, not history. (Right here in this parasha we have a number of etiologies, including the story Noah as the first drunkard, the origins of the Canaanites, the story of midgal Bavel to explain why we all have different languages. I believe that even among many orthodox there is a general understanding that the creation story, the flood, and perhaps other parts of the Torah are clearly metaphors/similes/analogies – stories meant to explain, to teach, but not meant to be bona fide histories.)  [Here’s an interesting aside. In discussing the Noach story the other day with the 6th and 7 grade students, a number of them were insistent that Noah brought dinosaurs with him on the ark. Is this their attempt to reconcile science and religion? I didn’t have time to explore it with them, but I intend to do so. As a strong opponent of pediatric Jewish education, this is a concerning development.]

Also, in summarizing comparisons, it makes some claims which do not conform to my understanding of the realities of the biblical text. It claims that the pantheon of polytheistic gods of the Babylonians and Sumerians were entirely anthropomorphic whereas the G”d of Torah is not. I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Torah is replete with verses that show G”d in an anthropomorphic light, engaging in human-like behaviors and thoughts. It claims the Mesopotamian gods were capricious whereas the G”d of Torah was just and moral.  Oh right, the G”d of Torah is never capricious.

The site clearly attempts to portray the Torah’s account of G”d and the flood in a positive light, while pooh-poohing the other Mesopotamian stories. I find this sort of promoting Judaism at the expense of other religions (even those long gone) troubling. A religion should stand on its own. Additionally, western religion may believe than monotheism is superior to pantheism, but it’s not at all an open and shut case. A Deity smart and worthy to be a Deity is smart enough to understand that different peoples may need different types of manifestations and understandings of the Deity. A pantheistic concept is simply one of those manifestations. “Heresy!” I hear people shout. Heresy according to the so-called oral Torah, perhaps, though I’m not even sure that’s true. If nothing else, the very word “El”him” should give us pause. It, too, is a loophole.

Think, for a moment, on why we’ve settled on “Ad”nai” as our substitute word for G”d’s name. What’s does it mean? My Lord. Put the emphasis on the word “my” and think about that in a collective sense, and you’ll see it still allows for other and different understandings of the Deity. My understanding of G”d. Might not be your understanding, and that’s OK.

I understand that clinging to an understanding of G”d through a monotheistic lens is necessary for adherents to classic rabbinical Judaism. However, even among the Orthodox there is a growing if begrudging acceptance of the notion that for much of their history the ancient Israelites were not monotheistic at all, but monolatrous – worshipping a primary G”d without denying the existence of other G”ds. It’s a logical way to operate in ancient times, and perhaps even today. It was not entirely unusual for travelers from another place to worship and offer sacrifices to their own god in the temple of the god of the place they were visiting. This sort of live and let live attitude has much to recommend it.  This sort of attitude could go a long way to preventing the scenario about which I dreamed.  My understanding of the principles upon which this country were founded is that this is exactly how we are expected to do things.

Time to put this train called the U.S. back on the right track.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Noah 5777 - Tzur Yisrael and Standing Rock
Noakh 5776 - Two Short Thoughts on Noah
Noakh 5775 - To Make a Name For Ourselves (Revisited)
Noakh 5774 - Let's Rebuild That Tower
Noakh 5773 - Nothing New
Noakh 5772 - The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 - Redux 5765 - A P'shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 - Don't Ham It Up
Noah 5768 - Redux 5761 - Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!

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