Sunday, November 02, 2008

From Creation To Noach - A Perspective.

Many are bothered by the science and historicity of the events described in the Parshyot that we read at this time of year. The descriptions of the creation of the world and man, the Dor Haflagah (Tower of Babel) and the Flood have been discussed by believers and non-believers for generations and at times used by some as a reason for denying religion as Truth. How can a divine torah be wrong, or at best inexact, about history?

Rambam in MN 3:50 makes a sweeping comment which addresses the issue.

Know that all the stories that you will find mentioned in the Torah occur there for a necessary utility for the Law. Either they give a correct notion of an opinion that is a pillar of the Law or they rectify some action so that mutual wrongdoing and aggression should not occur between men.”

In other words, one has to look at the reported stories more as commentaries on occurrences rather than a description of an historical event. It does not mean that the story is untrue but rather that the details that are reported are only those that are needed to make a theological, ethical or moral point supporting a teaching. After all the word Torah, comes from Hora’ah which means teaching. The Torah teaches ethics, morals and theology not science or history. We cannot look to the Torah to tell us how the world was created and operates, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, but we look to it to tell us that it was willed into existence by a unique entity that we refer to as God. The question whether the Big Bang (if this theory is eventually proven without doubt) occurred as a result of a singularity or if it was willed by an entity that we call God, cannot be answered empirically. It will always remain in the realm of theology which is what Torah addresses. Judaism is based on a belief in a universe that was willed into existence by HKBH as the basis for its ethics, morality and theodicy. It is why we believe that there are consequences to our actions and we therefore have to do our part in how the world is run as an active participant in this great universe conceived and willed into existence by HKBH.

The same logic applies to the stories that describe human evolution. Starting with Adam Harishon, the first human in the line of contemporary man, it describes the different branches, Cain, Hevel and the branch that eventually became ours, Seth. It describes very cryptically how man slowly became aware of how his actions have consequences in the lead up to the great cataclysm of antiquity, the flood. It describes briefly how humanity changed after the cataclysm, how the basic laws of ethics and morality, the Seven Noachide Laws, were developed, how nations and different cultures flourished in the area of the Fertile Crescent. That awareness of consequences to our actions brings us to Avraham, who developed a coherent theology that offers an explanation and a raison d’etre to our existence.

Looking at these Parshyot from this perspective, I understand the whole of Sefer Breishit as the narrative that puts our religion and theology in context. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narratives but at the same time we cannot expect to learn from the text exactly how, when, where and what happened. We know that at some time in antiquity there was a cataclysmic flood that left an indelible mark in human memory. There is no way of knowing from the Torah narrative where it occurred or how widespread it was. All we know is that it was a cataclysm of such proportions that it changed the course of human history at least in the Fertile Crescent. The Torah uses it to teach us that we have to be aware of our environment and sensitive to the messages it sends us just as Noach was. Like Noach, we have to act on that information to protect ourselves.

The inordinate long life of early man as told in the Torah is another area that has baffled generations. I do not purport to have a good explanation of it but I would rather seek to understand the underlying message the Torah is sending us. Rambam is bothered by this problem and suggests that these long-lived individuals were the only ones in their generation to live so long. Ralbag however has an interesting take on it. He says that at the early stages of human civilization, man being a tabula rasa as far as sciences and general knowledge were concerned, needed a long life to allow for continuity so that difficult concepts could be developed and understood within a lifespan. The lack of continuity in a short life leaving half-developed ideas to be developed by the next generation would not permit the speedy advancement needed to create sophisticated societies. Thinking along similar lines, I would like to suggest that the Torah describes different schools of thought. Each long-lived individual represents one school of thought that led to the next which eventually brought humanity Avraham who changed its way of thinking as the first proselytizer of monotheism. Each school of thought required a long time, several normal life spans, to mature enough to allow for the next more advanced one to take over. It also suggests that at some point there was an overlap where after a few years the next school started to germinate its own ideas taking hold as the earlier one matured. That is how I understand why the Torah tells us at what age of the father the next son was born namely the next step in the evolution of ideas. It also tells us that there were other branches that developed in parallel but apparently did not leave a mark; just the one that survived and became dominant for a while is identified. That is how I understand the repetitively similar verses to this one –

ג וַיְחִי אָדָם, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ, כְּצַלְמוֹ; וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, שֵׁת. 3

And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.

ד וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי-אָדָם, אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת-שֵׁת, שְׁמֹנֶה מֵאֹת, שָׁנָה; וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים, וּבָנוֹת.

4 And the days of Adam after he begot Seth were eight hundred years; and he begot sons and daughters.

ה וַיִּהְיוּ כָּל-יְמֵי אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר-חַי, תְּשַׁע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, וּשְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה; וַיָּמֹת. {ס}

5 And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died. {S}

(Breishit 5:3-5)

Adam’s philosophy was accepted by his son Seth, he begat “a son in his own likeness” (see MN 1:7), but other schools of thought began to develop in the later years of his life, after 800 years he “begot sons and daughters”. I would suggest that the other verses that follow be understood in a similar vein.

I say this because the Torah leaves several signposts that indicate a start of a major new school of thought.

כו וּלְשֵׁת גַּם-הוּא יֻלַּד-בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ; אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה. {ס}

26 And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh; it was then that the name of God was invoked. {S} (Breishit 4:26)

The Rabbis read the last few words negatively. The word הוּחַל is translated by them as profane, God’s name was profaned at that time and the philosophies that support idolatry were developed. A few generations later, we encounter a new theological step.

כב וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת-מְתוּשֶׁלַח, שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה; וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים, וּבָנוֹת.

22 And Chanoch walked with God after he begot Methushelach three hundred years, and begot sons and daughters.

Chanoch discovered God and understood the need to walk with Him, try to understand His world and act in concert with it. The Rabbis considered Methushelach to be a righteous man who apparently absorbed and further developed Chanoch’s ideas leading up to Noach who acted on this understanding. The Rabbis tell us that Noach was a man of action who took the ideas of Chanoch and Methushelach and expressed them practically by developing agricultural implements and methods. He also was attuned to his environment to the point that he could presage the great cataclysm of the flood, acting to protect himself from it.

Looking at these narratives from this perspective puts them in their proper context as the description, though cryptic, of the development of human thought and ideas that led to Avraham and eventually the emergence of the Jewish people and its beliefs, the subject of the rest of the Torah.

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