Occupy Noah

A Guest Post by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein- He is considering a year of Occupy Parsha.
Rabbi Avraham Bronstein currently serves as Program Director of the Great Neck Synagogue. He previously served as Assistant Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue where he developed and coordinated the extensive Cultural and Adult-Educational Program.

Sermon: Occupy Noah

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote on Parshat Noach:

The Flood tells us what happens to civilization when individuals rule and there is no collective…It was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the thinker who laid the foundations of modern politics in his classic Leviathan (1651), who – without referring to the Flood – gave it its best interpretation. Before there were political institutions, said Hobbes, human beings were in a “state of nature.” They were individuals, packs, bands. Lacking a stable ruler, an effective government and enforceable laws, people would be in a state of permanent and violent chaos – “a war of every man against every man” – as they competed for scarce resources. There would be “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Such situations exist today in a whole series of failed or failing states. That is precisely the Torah’s description of life before the Flood. When there is no rule of law to constrain individuals, the world is filled with violence.

As I read Sack’s piece, I got the sense that making his point about failed states or chaotic, violent societies really takes the bite out of the narrative. It teaches us a lesson we already know about, say, Rwanda, but it doesn’t necessarily teach us about ourselves. If anything, we come away with a false assurance, almost a cultural triumphalism.

Instead, I would argue that the pre-Flood landscape Sacks calls “Hobbesian” is actually much closer to Wall Street, 2011 than Iraq, 2005. Our new Guilded Age, with its vast wealth and innovation but gaping chasm between haves and have-nots, is the direct result of an unregulated “war of every many against every man,” where the winners wield the political process itself as a weapon, using their resources to ensure that it represents their interests as opposed to those of society at large.

The Rabbis were eerily sensitive to this in their own depiction of the pre-Flood society. They describe a remarkable situation where, despite an environment of amazing prosperity, people were robbed of the opportunity to succeed:

The wantonness of this generation was in a measure due to the ideal conditions under which mankind lived before the flood. They knew neither toil nor care, and as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent….So cunningly were their depredations planned that the law could not touch them. If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value, but in a little while the dealer would have none left to sell.

It doesn’t take a great imagination to make the jump to deceptive ATM fees, crippling student loans, punitive foreclosure procedures, and taxpayer bailouts of “too big to fail” financial institutions. The laws on the books that provide no protection to the weak nor accountability for the powerful ring strikingly familiar as well.

The amount of overall wealth in our society is truly staggering, yet our culture’s blinding focus on individualism has resulted in both the rich getting richer and social mobility becoming harder. In short, the “hamas/corruption” that doomed the world to the Flood was not Bernie Madoff – it was AIG and Goldman Sachs.

The Rabbis, as is well known, were ambivalent about Noah as a character:

“These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous, innocent man in his generation” (Gen 6:9). Rashi: “in his generations.” Some of our Sages expound this to his praise: all the more so had he lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. And there are those who expound it to his defamation: by the standard of his generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been considered as nothing.

The most damning critique of Noah for those who thought less highly of him was his silent acceptance of the Flood without protest. In contrast to Abraham who forcefully resisted God’s plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, at possible risk to himself, Noah quietly built his Ark, content to save himself. He may have assured himself that his neighbors and associates deserved their fate, or he may not have really thought about it much at all.

I would argue that, according to this reading, Noah perfectly embodied the harshly individualistic culture of his generation. The same lack of shared responsibility than enabled Noah’s peers to steal each others vegetables blinded him to his responsibility to society at large. In fact, his success came at their expense. Noah may well have been righteous, but he was certainly “in his generation.” There are surely many Noahs in our world today, people who live privately decent lives but do not address the systemic failures and injustices of the system. Noah demonstrates a passive “hamas” by accepting the world as presented to him, by trying to succeed within the prevailing system and not making himself fully aware of its ramifications and larger costs.

The Midrash maintains that the extended period it took Noah to build the Ark was intended to attract the interest of those around him, so as to make them aware of what was going on so that they would reform their behavior. It could well have also been to sensitize Noah to the implications of his own lifestyle, to demonstrate to him that by continuing to passively live his life, he was condemning everyone around him to the coming flood.

Perhaps a question we need to ask ourselves is: what are the Arks that we build in our own lives to secure our own prosperity, and what are the costs (social, economic, moral) to the world at large?

One response to “Occupy Noah

  1. Pingback: Mitt Romney, Ish Tzaddik B’Dorotav? « Virtual Cloud Pulpit

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