Noah and the Covenant

Another brilliant commentary by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.
Enjoy, and repair the World!
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Parashat Noah 5781
R. Yitz Greenberg

The Torah inherited a Mesopotamian cultural consensus that a Great Deluge had wiped out almost all of humanity. In the Gilgamesh epic, the gods (Anu and Enlil) inflict this catastrophe arbitrarily in a display of their power, but later defend their actions both as deserved punishment and designed to curb population growth. According to the older epic, Atrahasis,
Enlil, and the gods are troubled by the rapid growth of human population and offended by the noisy, raucous human behaviors. They use the flood (and then shortened life span) to drastically reduce human presence on earth. Rearticulated through the Torah’s revelation, the Flood is explained as inflicted because of widespread human wickedness, especially
violence and oppression. God, who wanted Earth to be a living paradise of justice and peace, is so disappointed and angered as to decide to undo the initial Creation with a flood of watery chaos and try again. The Lord determined to wipe out the corrupt human race and renew humanity, building it on righteous Noah and his family.

But the crucial departure and revolutionary moral path of the Torah is expressed in the day after the Flood—which may well be the most transformative religious moment in Judaism’s history. God pledges never to inflict such a catastrophe again. Attributing a cataclysmic flood to willful action by God would define the Lord as a perfectionist who cannot tolerate the flawed and wayward human nature acting out badly, and so rejects the world and starts again. Alternatively, such a flood would reveal God as a punitive Ruler who ruthlessly wipes out those who disobey divine instructions to be good.

Instead, the Torah reveals that God is a loving Lord who is deeply distressed at the sight of widespread devastation and death. To wipe out people for the sin of disobedience and violence is so coercive that even if people do the right actions thereaer, there is no dignity or genuine morality in their behaviors. A loving God wants people to be good out of free will and
love of others. Therefore, God permanently renounces the threat of inflicting catastrophe: All powerful but loving God self-limits and offers humanity a covenant or partnership.

In this committed partnership of love, humans will join with the Divine in building a better world and filling it with life. But they will do so out of free choice and doing their best, not out of terrorized submission to divine dictates. In the covenant, there is full allowance for human weakness in the form of lower, “compromised” expectations—at least along the way to the final goal. Even bad behaviors are provided for by mechanisms of repentance, milder punishments, and divine forgiveness. God still wants Creation and society to be perfected. However, God loves humans and wants them to mature and become fully images of God—that is, independent creatures who are infinitely valuable, equal, and unique. God wants humans to live lives of dignity and creativity in partnership. That is more important than humans building God’s desired paradise while living lives of robotic conformity to divine instructions.

In entering covenant, omnipotent God self-limits, out of love, to allow humans their freedom and the chance to grow into full dignity. How? First God establishes the natural order as independent and irrevocable process, never to cease or be disrupted (Genesis 8:22). The Talmud explains: “Olam ke-minhago noheg, the world follows its custom” (Avodah Zarah 54b). The objectivity of the natural order means that nature will not differentiate between stolen and honestly acquired seeds—both will germinate. The sperm of adulterous intercourse can conceive a child just as much as sperm emitted in moral or legal sexual relations. Nature will not hound or punish those doing evil. In God’s world, humans freely choose to do good or bad. By choosing to do good, humans exercise—and earn—their freedom. This means that God upholds human freedom (with the risks of bad behavior) ahead of obedience or guaranteed preferred outcomes.

The divine self-limit means that humans must pick up the slack in creating life and repairing the world. Rather than confer a paradise by miracles, God binds God’s self to depend on human actions to complete the world. By upholding the human role and making the divinely desired outcomes dependent upon human behavior, God enables human freedom. People
must participate in their own liberation or they remain imbued with a slave mentality. If paradise is simply bestowed, humans are likely to remain dependent, or even spoiled children, rather than repair their own world and become mature masters of their own fate.

The covenant mechanism protects against the two most widespread pathologies that flow from the human encounter with God. One is to neglect this world or even allow it to rot and instead pray for God to upgrade it miraculously (Footnote: Thus religion became in Marx’s critique the “opium of the masses” which enabled an unjust status quo to persist of necessity and established culture.) The other is to turn to God and to ritual life in order to escape from this world, with its challenges and burdens, into the timeless, perfect heavenly realms. The covenant tells humans that they have a companion or partner or helper, but that they must do their share. They must fulfill their commitment by creating life and doing good in this mortal realm.

Our parashah illustrates the covenantal method of working for tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. Out of deference to human needs and nature, society takes small and compromised steps toward the ultimate goal. The ideal diet of the Torah is vegetarianism; no creature should live by taking the life of other creatures. In the Garden of Eden, all living animals including humans were vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30). However, after the Flood, allowing for human hunting for food and human need for protein, permission is given to eat meat. (Genesis 9:3).

The covenantal goal of a final peaceful world is upheld by restricting meat eating. All humans are prohibited from eating blood of the animal. Blood is seen as the carrier of life (Leviticus 17:11). The prohibition is a reminder that the ideal remains not to take another life. Not consuming blood is humanity’s acknowledgment that it is “violating” the sanctity of life—out out of necessity and established culture. The prohibition goads people to try to ultimately reach the vegetarian ideal.

It is noteworthy that Noah’s covenant includes a warning not to shed the blood of humans. (Genesis 9:5-6). This is an acknowledgement that compromising with nature and culture by permitting the killing of animals raises the risk of humans acting out their hunting instincts by killing people. There is an implied moral risk in every compromise of the ideal. There is a price in accommodating human beings and the status quo.
Our parashah concludes this account by reminding us of the goal of this partnership: It is to fill the world with life and so upgrade the world as to enable people to live abundantly— not constrained, not deprived, not reduced—but rooted and flourishing lives (Genesis 9:7).

Postscript: The covenant with Noah is a universal covenant with all of humanity (and other living creatures, see Genesis 9). This covenant has not received that much attention in Jewish tradition, certainly not as much as the particular Jewish covenants, i.e. with Abraham, at Sinai, on the plains of Moab at the end of Moses’ life (Deuteronomy 29-30ff).

The Noahide covenant supplies the model in the Torah of covenantal process (ideal goal, initial lowered expectations or compromise in actions, upholding the ideal through ongoing restrictions, provision to minimize the inevitable, negative side effects and costs of compromises with an unredeemed status quo and a sign/marker of the covenant; in our
parashah the sign of the universal covenant is the rainbow, Genesis 9:12-17). This model shapes our understanding of all the later laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23) and the rest of the Torah.

I believe that all subsequent covenants—not just with the Jewish people but, I argue, those made with other non-Jewish covenantal communities as well—are based on and draw authority from this Noahide covenant.

I call on the prophet Isaiah to back up this view. When the exiled Jews returned from Babylonia, they were wracked with religious concerns. Maybe God had rejected the covenant with Israel and, therefore, allowed the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of Jewry? Isaiah assured them this was not so. He tells them: Just as God’s covenantal pledge not to
allow another Deluge was self-evidently unbroken—it was operative and irrevocable—so they should be assured that God’s covenant with Israel would never be withdrawn (Isaiah 54:9-10). In other words, the manifest validity of the Noahide covenant and the ongoing natural process
is our assurance that our particular covenant is ongoing and eternal.

Shabbat Shalom.

Creation – Parashat Bereshit: R. Yitz Greenberg – 5781

A wonderful 10-minute listen or read from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, bringing together ancient and modern thinking in one amazing and convincing text.

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Creation

R. Yitz Greenberg

Parashat Bereishit 5781

Rashi famously suggests that if the Torah is primarily a book of laws—after all, it contains hundreds of laws—then the Five Books of Moses should start with the first law given to the whole people of Israel (Exodus 12:1-2 “This month [Nissan] is the first of the months of the year…” i.e. the commandment for the courts to designate the months of the year and the dates of the holidays). But this verse is preceded by 62 other chapters! And, by Rashi’s logic, if the Torah is primarily the story and history of the Jewish people (on which it focuses most of the time), then the text should start with the story of Abraham, the first Jew. This occurs in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, v. 26 ff.

What then is the Torah telling us about its primary message by beginning with the story of Creation? Why does the Torah begin with the very first moment of existence of the whole world? What does the idea of Creation mean for us?

The Torah is presenting itself as the book of human destiny. It offers a revelation of the meaning of existence and a guide to the mission of humanity to upgrade this world. Chapter 1 of Genesis is not telling us the actual facts of Creation. We know from contemporary physics that there is a process from Big Bang chaos to radiation to matter and the emergence of order through galaxies to stars to planets. In fact, the idyllic portrait the Torah offers in chapter 1 is not how the earth looks initially but how the planet will look when Creation is completed and this globe will be turned into a paradise.

By focusing on the beginning of the world, the Torah intends to reach all of humanity. In its opening it offers the idea of Creation itself. This idea has been one of the most influential Jewish teachings in world civilization. Creation means that this world is not the outcome of a blind and random physical process that has no values or goals and will end in oblivion. Rather it has an intended outcome. “It was not created to be void; it was brought into being to be filled with life” (Isaiah 45:18).

Creation means that there is a shaping Creator, an Infinite Consciousness that knows every one of the endless number of stars (Psalm 147:4) and loves every one of God’s creatures (Psalm 145:9). This Creator is called Elohim in chapter 1—focusing on a high intensity, unlimited energy Power that is capable of creating and sustaining an infinite universe. Despite the incredible variety and conflicting forces in nature, there is only One God or Universal Force. All of reality is unified and governed by a universal natural process. This Jewish teaching of unity in Creation has profoundly shaped religious understanding and scientific thought.

By instructing us to see the world as a Creation of the Ultimate Artist, the Creator, the Torah guides humans to approach life and existence as we would a work of art. We should not glance casually or look routinely. We should seek out patterns of beauty, and connections that enrich the view. We will discover juxtapositions that add depth dimensions that ravish the eye—and the soul. Seeing the world as a created work of art, we instinctively explore: What is the artist’s message to us? What has the artist seen to which she seeks to open our eyes?

Through the lens of Creation, we approach the world with wonder and seek out the “Wow!” factor in every creature and in every human being that we meet. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of experiencing radical amazement in encountering the Divine Presence. In other words, religion, prayer—indeed all human experiences and relationships—are not maximized out of logic and proof. They should grow out of emotional encounter and openness to life in all its dimensions.

There is another implication of Creation. This world is good (Genesis 1:31). This mortal life is real—not an illusion, as some other religions would have it. Living this life and repairing this world is an eminently worthwhile pursuit of human beings. Humans are called by God to work this creation and guard it (Genesis 2:15).

The Creation concept also teaches us that, while physical existence is real, that is only the tip of the iceberg. The encounter with the Creator/God makes us realize that there are important dimensions of existence that are not measurable or touchable—yet are as real and important as the visible. The whole internal life of humans—love, emotions, relationships, imagination, creativity—is validated. They exist at one of the various levels of being, built into the Creation. Over the course of history, the encounter with God moves from the external to the internal realm. In our time, we know the Lord through intuition, emotion, relationship, and through plumbing the depths of reality to meet the invisible Deity. If we drill down to that level, we meet the Lord in whom the image of God is rooted and who is present in the depth dimension of life.

Finally, the Torah’s narrative of Creation calls our attention to three rhythms that the Lord has embedded in the unfolding universe. In the Torah’s language, the world is moving, first of all, from chaos (tohu va’vohu) to order (Shabbat), where everything is completed and in its proper place with no clashing natural forces or conflicts between creatures. Second, the world is moving from non-life to life (in each of the first four days there is no presence of life, except vegetation on the third day; on the fifth and sixth days, life explodes). Finally, life is moving and developing from lesser developed forms into far richer, more capable, more evolved forms—from the vegetation on day three (a limited non-mobile form of life), to the fish of the sea on day five, to the birds, climaxing in the human, who is so developed and capable as to be God-like (“You made him only a bit less than a Divine being,” Psalm 8:6). In chapter 1, this third movement is defined as from less to more like God and climaxing in the human who is so advanced as to be in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

The limited human lifespan obscures these truths. We think of ourselves as moving from life to death, from birth to end of life. In our daily pursuits, we perceive our schedule and our desks as going from initial order to growing chaos. The Torah’s Creation account tells us to view life and the world from the divine perspective. Cosmically, the world has moved from the Big Bang’s total chaos to orderly galaxies, stars, and planets. On this planet, viewed from the divine perspective, we have moved from non-life to life in 14 billion years. Then in 1-F billion years there has been a flow and explosion of life in all its forms. The Creation account tells us this so we can see the world sub specie aeternitatis, from the point of view of the infinite. The Torah guides us to identify the three rhythms of creation and join in. Humans should live our lives on the side of (life sustaining) order as against chaos. In all our behaviors, we should be choosing to create and uphold life as against non-life and death. Finally, in unfolding the potential of life—starting with our own—we should act to increase the quality of life in the world, especially of humans, created in the image of God. In so doing, the Torah teaches us that we become partners in Creation.

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Rabbi Jacob… (Jews in Paris in the 13-14th Century)

My francophone friends will look at the title of this post and immediately think of the movie “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” (French: Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob) featuring the great Louis de Funès.

But this is about another Rabbi Jacob!

This Kosher Pizza joint in the Marais Jewish neighborhood of Paris was likely not a XIIIth Century establishment…

Jewish life in the Paris region in the middle ages was a veritable roller coaster.  Local edicts would allow Jews to live in Paris, only to be reversed 20 years later.  Yet, Jewish communities would re-establish themselves quickly, principally along trade routes.  In 1182, King Philippe II ( Auguste) seizes the debts owed to Jews and their real estate, forcing synagogues to become churches.  Jews are called back in 1198.  They are partially expulsed in 1253, but a royal order gives them access to old cemeteries and synagogues.

In 1272, there are signs of Yeshivots on the right bank of the Seine. In 1283, Phillipe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, enabled the community to expand somewhat.  During the 13th Century, there were about 4,500 to 7,500 Jews or 3% to 5% of the total population of about 150,000.  Yet, 20 years later, the Jews were driven out of Paris by Philippe le Bel in 1306.

This brings us to the cemetery at the rue Pierre-Sarrazin…

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The building under which the Jewish Cemetery was found. (Photo dated 1898)

In 1849, during work on a building belonging to Louis Hachette on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin, about 80 headstones were uncovered, belonging to a Jewish cemetery dating back to the XIIth Century.  This large cemetery was contemporary to a prosperous era for the Jewish community of Paris.

What about Rabbi Jacob?

One of the most amazing headstones found at the cemetery of the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin is that of Rabbi Jacob, son of Rabbi Haïm. (see below)

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Traduction (Nahon, 1986)

זאת מצבת קבו[רת]
ר[בי] יעקב ב[ן] הר[ב]
חיים שנפטר
לגן עדן יום א
פרשט אמר
שנת שלשה
עשר לפרט
תנבה

This is the headstone of
Rabbi Jacob son of Rabbi
Haïm who left us for
the garden of Eden the first day
of the parasha Emor
in the year three
ten of the computus 
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life

The headstone was discovered in 1849 and given to the Museum of Cluny in Paris (Museum of the Middle Ages), cataloged in 1912, and given to the Paris Museum of Jewish Art and History.  The estimated date of Rabbi Jacob’s death is April 17, 1253.

Conclusion…

Jewish life survived the Middle Ages despite incredible odds.  Communities were regularly pushed from one place to another, losing their fortunes, places of worship and cemeteries.  The headstones found under the Hachette building on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin are a miracle of history.  And the history told through them enables us to better appreciate the struggles and the extraordinary resilience of our people.