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From Genesis to Hollywood: The sons of God and the abuse of power Parshat Noach

For a printable PDF version please click here:Tanya Parshat Noach 5778 updated

Weinstein, Hollywood and the Sons of God

Why does God send the flood? What sin is so great as to arouse Divine regret at creating the world leading ultimately to its total annihilation?

It is a result of a story that tragically never grows old.  The answer begins in a narrative from the end of last week’s Parsha, but can just as easily be found by opening the newspapers and reading about the sad state of affairs in Hollywood, and if we’re honest in many work places, as well as on a devastatingly dramatic and systematic scale in some countries in the third world. The irony that last week’s Parsha contains a haunting narrative that depicts the ‘sons of God’ taking (forcefully) the daughters of Adam because they ‘looked good’ should not be lost on us.  Humanity has learnt little since its inception. We still struggle with the ‘God complex’ inside ourselves.  In positions of power we still take advantage of those inferior to us to fulfil our base desires or simply because we can.  Nietzsche warned us is the nineteenth century that in killing off God men would seek to become Gods themselves, but the Bible already alerted us to this centuries earlier.  The entire Genesis narrative is a sustained lesson in the dangers of being created in the image of God. It is a warning to us of what happens when we forget to channel our human qualities, both good and bad, responsibly.  Created in the image of God and from the dust of the earth, we are called upon to be both innovative and reticent, assertive and subservient, audacious and obedient, creative and submissive and to find the right balance between them all.  More often than not we miss the mark and fail to retain the balance between them all.  The consequences, as we see through the Genesis narratives and as witnessed throughout human history, can be devastating.

Adam 1 and Adam 2: Millennials and Generation X

In the first two chapters of Bereshit we read about the creation of Man.  The infamous discrepancies between the two chapters were known to ancient commentators but have been illuminated more recently by biblical critics and in religious circles through Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. In one account Man is created in the image of God, woman is created with him and the world is delivered to man ready and waiting for him to take residence. In the second he is created from the dust of earth, woman is created from him but the world is created around him, he must wait and watch only assuming ownership once the process is complete.  In the first account he must occupy and conquer the world. In the second he must guard and protect it, naming the animals, searching for an Ezer ke’negdo – a soul mate/helper. R. Soloveitchik claims that every person is composed of both Adam 1 and Adam 2. Adam 1 is the creator, innovator, the one who seeks dominion over the world, who asks the how questions and seeks answers to his questions, created in the image of God he nurtures the Godliness within him elevating him above other species and sometimes as a consequence above others. For him there are no questions without answers, there is no mystery or uncertainty. Adam 2 is the contemplative philosopher who approaches the word with wonder and marvels at its splendour. He asks the why questions seeking union and connection as opposed to answers and certainty.  Created from the dust of earth he frequently buries himself in the suffocating blanket of existential loneliness desperately seeking some kind of redemption from his singular existence, he sacrifices himself, sometimes even becoming the victim of exploitation, in order to find solace in the arms of the ‘other’ be it God or man.[1]  According to Rav Soloveitchik, we are all destined to oscillate between these two types, finding a home in neither redemption constantly eludes us.

I want to humbly suggest another feature of Adam 1 that is distinctly evident in the Millennials Generation (or generation Y -those born from approximately mid 80’s to 2000’s) – a mistaken sense of entitlement.  Adam 2 must wait for the world to be created, by doing so he learns the art of patience. He must name the animals, thus acquiring the skill of empathy compassion and identification, he must guard and protect thus nurturing the capacity for endurance and process. He is more typical of Generation X (those born from the 1960’s to the 1980’s) who learnt from their parents, the post war generation, lessons of endurance and patience, work and community and the secrets of sustainability.  Adam 1 conversely is born into an instant society, the world is at his fingertips, he waits for no one, the world is ready to be conquered. Woman is created with him thus he bears no sacrifices in his search for a partner. He is born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Like the ‘Millennials’ he harbours a sense of self-entitlement and narcissistic tendencies believing the world revolves around him and he has the right to possess it. Untampered by the humility and uncertainty of Adam 2, Adam 1 knows his questions will have answers and his action will be rewarded, the danger of course being that he takes the world for granted

‘Kayin’ and Hevel: The dangers of ‘acquiring’ only an Adam 1 persona

The genesis narrative continues along this trajectory, consistently warning us of the dangers of overindulgence in the Adam 1 or Adam 2 model.  Kayin was an Adam 1 type, his very name suggests so.  He was an ‘acquirer’ or in Martin Buber’s language a person who related to the world through the mode of I-it as opposed to I-Thou.  Everything was seen as a means to end, it was about what I could take from the world, not what I could give to the world. He related to people and objects through the mode of consumption and not relationship. He sought to possess not to engage.  In this mode there is no moral responsibility. Hence when God asks him ‘where is your brother’, his answer is ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’.  If it’s not my property, I do not own it hence I need not take responsibility for looking after it.  The potential of Kayin was enormous.  He was an innovator just like Adam 1, his ‘idea’ to sacrifice to God was novel, he was a businessman building a successful farming industry[2], but his indifference towards his Adam 2 side to the ‘hevel’ within him, the feelings of nothingness, of dust, of a passing breath, of existential questioning meant he failed to hear God’s warning.  His arrogance and ‘God complex’ killed the ‘hevel’ within him.  The danger of only nurturing Adam 1 or Adam 2 is a scourge of every generation and every society and is the opening and closing message of Parshat Noach.

On men becoming Gods

There is an often-unnoticed narrative that features right at the end of Parshat Bereshit and the start of Parshat Noach. It receives scant attention perhaps due to its mythological undertones, or perhaps because it falls between the two central accounts of creation and the flood, but I believe it deserves to be re-read and internalised for its message is decidedly more relevant today than ever. The enigmatic text that features after creation but before the flood reads as follows

And it came to pass, when Men (literally the man: Ha’adam) began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God (Bnei Elohim) saw the daughters of men (literally: Benot ha’adam) that they were fair (literally: good, tovot); and they took(vayikach) them wives from whomever they chose. (Genesis 6:1-2

There are many questions which the commentators grapple with. Who are these ‘sons of God’? where do they come from? who are the daughters of Adam and why does it culminate in the shortening of human life to 120?

Following the development of the ideas thus far, I would like to suggest that this story is a continuation of the creation narrative and that of Kayin and Hevel.  Once again, we have a group of people who see themselves as the ‘sons of God’.[3] They possess power and responsibility to populate the earth;

God has called upon them to carry his name.  Instead they abuse their power, they fail to oscillate between hubris and humility, instead taking the Adam 1 characteristics to their dangerous limits.  Imagining the world is theirs alone, they conquer it and everything in it, including those who should be their ezer kenegdo (woman).  Instead of appreciating the ‘beauty’ they desire to possess it.  The resulting consequence is indicative of the malaise.  Inherent in an Adam1personae is an assumption of mortality.  The transience and uncertainty allied to Adam 2 cannot be found in Adam 1.  The Bnei Elohim, like Kayin before them, presume they will live forever. Mortality harbours arrogance which ultimately leads to exploitation and violence.  A remedy to this is to create an environment of uncertainty – for Kayin it is to become a vagrant or nomad, for the Bnei Elohim it is to cut short their lives reminding them of their mortality and that they, like Adam 2, are but dust of the earth.  So God says ‘your lives shall now be of hundred and twenty years’, a reminder that humans are not God and never will be.  In their quest to become ‘like God knowing good and bad’ Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge; the result – they become mortal, death becomes intrinsic to their existence.  Death reminds us that we are limited, that our time is short, that immortality is attained through the legacy of our actions rather than loftiness of our stature.  Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood learnt this over the last week, but it is no secret, the opening narratives of genesis has taught it to us for thousands of years. It should come as no surprise the corollary to this story is God’s decision to destroy the world. Exploitation leads to violence and violence leads to destruction and it all begins when man believes he can act like God

Its ‘comfortable’ to be ‘Noach’ but is it right?

The discontents of an exclusive and extreme Adam 1 existence have been highlighted above, but Parshat Noach also reveals to us the maladies of excessive Adam 2 living; Being created from the dust of earth also has its dangers.  The inclination, especially in religious circles, to supress the individual, to submit to the word of God (or more often the religious authority) even against our rational or ethical intuition, to be subservient at the cost of our creativity, to humble ourselves so considerably that we lose our persona, to imagine ourselves as mere dust and ashes is also an exceptionally dangerous attitude.  At best it leads to stunted growth in the individual, at worst it leads to victimhood. But this is not its only danger.  As Heschel reminded us religious complacency, and I would add human complacency, is a condition that has led to the demise of many societies.  When we become ‘noach’[4] – comfortable in our circumstances, when we stop thinking and growing, stop struggling and submit ourselves to the will of God and the fate of man, when we think redemption will only be bought about through the hand of God alone without any human responsibility, we become passive bystanders, and that is perhaps an even greater danger than mere docility. Instead of conquering and creating (Adam 1) we will simply guard the status quo (Adam 2).  Noach was a great man, he was righteous, he walked with God, he listened to God, he did as he was told.  But he has a sad and tragic end, the man who lived through destruction and saved humanity, couldn’t save himself.  He waited too long. He waited and then he waited some more. He was reticent, reluctant, nervous, timid, scared. He was strong enough to build an ark and enter it but not bold enough to come out from it and build a new world. It is less a criticism by the Torah more an observation, that Noach was enough for the time he lived, a world consumed by violence, but not enough to build a new world order infused with innovation and good. He becomes a victim of his passivity at the hands of his own sons.  Yes, he planted vineyards but it was not enough.  And so chapter 11 brings hope for a new world, a longing for the dialectical swing between Adam 1 and Adam 2 personality traits.  Thus we are introduced to Avraham, the man who challenges God to save the evil city of Sodom and submits to God at the risk of losing man, his own son, at the Akeida. Could Avraham’s greatness be that he achieved the model we must emulate, oscillating between Adam 1 and Adam 2?

Shabbat Shalom

[1] When one is so desperate to find comfort or solace from a despairing situation one becomes open to abuse at the hands of others.  What I am suggesting here is that the Adam 2 persona in its extreme can be an easy target of abuse at the hands of an Adam1 persona in its extreme.  Often religious extremism posing in the guise of a comforting or even vengeful God will find favour in the eyes of a lonely, sometimes even existentially lonely, person who mistakenly identifies the polemics of religious fervour with the redemption of their lonely soul.

[2] To be a successful farmer – which Kayin clearly was which can see by the crops he brings to sacrifice, one needs aptitude and skill. One must create farming tools, one must be able to imagine artfully how what becomes grain and grain becomes bread. This is no simple feat.

[3] It is interesting that some commentators such as Rashi understand them to be the sons of the ‘judges’ and the ‘princes’, who felt a sense of entitlement due to the stature of their fathers. This has undertones of what has been discussed about the ‘millennials’ generation and an attitude of entitlement.

[4] The translation of the word Noach in Hebrew is ‘comfortable’ or as the commentaries suggest it comes from the word ‘lenachem’ which means to comfort. When we comfort someone it is often in the face of a loss or a situation that cannot be changed.  Thus comforting means that I cannot change the status quo but I can try to alleviate the pain by being with you and offering a shoulder to cry on.  Noach represented this exact paradigm, he did not change the violent world he inhabited, he did not even attempt to do so, he comforted God by showing him there was still a small part of humanity that deserved to be saved. When tragedy strikes sometimes the only comfort and the only possible option we have is to take comfort in our ‘ark’ the confines of our family, our community and our religious structures. When one is struggling just to survive the storm, thoughts of changing the world are very far off, and that too has a time and place, for that Noach was indeed a ‘righteous man in his time.’

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