In 1958, Esquire published a graphic version of the story of Noaḥ, called “The Deluge,” by Jewish satirical cartoonist Jules Feiffer. He depicted one Harvey W. Noah, government employee, who is contacted by an angel in a dream to build an ark.
The angel instructs Mr. Noah more or less according to the story we read today in the Torah. Feiffer wrote:
“What a screwy dream,” thought Harvey W. Noah, and he went back to sleep, only to be awakened the next morning by a telegram being slipped under the door. “This is to confirm your hallucination of last night. Proceed as directed re conversation pertaining to deluge, etc.”
So Mr. Noah goes to work and speaks to his government supervisor, who proceeds to alert the Navy, which contacts the Atomic Energy Commission, and a series of committees are launched to respond to the message, which is soon hopelessly garbled. 50 boats are launched, one for each state, containing lawyers, doctors, philosophers, and atomic scientists, but no animals, and no Harvey W. Noah. So he heads home.
And then it starts to rain.
Harvey W. Noah is caught in the tension between a message from an ancient God, and the response of modern institutions. And of course, Feiffer’s work is satire, so we can chuckle at the mess of it all, and maybe be grateful that we have never had such a dream, or all the more so received a follow-up telegram.
But we all live in tension between the ancient and the modern. In fact, we are all doing that right now, as we celebrate today with a young woman who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, something which did not happen until 1922, but is an idea with truly ancient roots. The first indication that a young boy becomes an adult with respect to the mitzvot at age 13 is found in Pirqei Avot (5:21), which dates to the 2nd century CE.
The idea that we are in tension of any sort with our tradition is not a new one. You can actually find it just about anywhere you look on the Jewish bookshelf.
Consider just the first verse of Parashat Noaḥ (Bereshit / Genesis 6:9)
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.
Noaḥ was a tzaddiq, a righteous man. Had the Torah stopped there, everything would be fine and dandy. But then there is a qualifier: תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו. He was blameless in his generation.
So what’s the problem with that? The world at the time, as we learn in the subsequent verses, was filled with corruption and lawlessness. So when the text says, “in his generation,” what does it mean?
Rashi, the 11th-century French wine merchant, might have been sampling his product a little too hard when he wrote his commentary for this verse. On the one hand, says Rashi, this qualifier suggests a compliment: if he was righteous when everybody around him was corrupt, then how much more righteous would he have been in a righteous age! He would have been a saint! (Not that we have saints, of course.)
And then Rashi offers exactly the opposite. In his own generation, he says, Noaḥ was the most righteous. But in Avraham’s generation, Noaḥ would have been considered a nothing.
In other words, it could go either way. Thanks, Rashi, for clarifying that.
And there is even more tension in the verse, related to the curious end:
Which is generally translated as, “Noaḥ walked with God,” but that actually obscures the grammatical impossibility of what the text says, which, if translated somewhat more literally, might read, “Noaḥ walked God.”
Don Yitzḥaq Abarbanel, the Iberian commentator of the 15th century, tells us:
והיה זה לפי שאת הא-להים התהלך נח ר”ל שעם היות שדר בתוך רשעים לא הלך בדרך אתם אבל נתחבר ונדבק אל הא-להים לא נפרד ממנו כל ימיו
Being that Noaḥ lived among wicked people, he did not go along with them; rather, the text is telling us that he cleaved to God for all of his life.
In this case, resolving the grammatical tension leads to a different sort of tension, the problem of what it could possibly have meant for Noaḥ, who would have lived ten generations before Avraham and many centuries before Moshe received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, to “walk with God.” So what guidance did Noaḥ have that led him to be such a tzaddiq?
It is an intrinsic anachronism. We, the readers, know what it means to be righteous in our day. But how could Noaḥ have known?
The idea of living in tension with our text, with our traditions, is really an essential feature of being Jewish, and all the more so in the Conservative movement.
In 2005, Rabbi Neil Gillman, one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary and, perhaps coincidentally, the grandfather of our bat mitzvah, addressed the convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Boston. His talk was titled, “A New Aggadah for the Conservative Movement,”* and in it he attempted to reframe what it means to be a Conservative Jew.
Now, many of us tend to think of Conservative Judaism as being neither Orthodox nor Reform, but rather somewhere in-between with respect to practice and approach to Jewish life. And that is a somewhat over-simplified view.
Rather, we prefer a definition which includes our adherence to halakhah / Jewish law. We like to refer to ourselves as being similar to Orthodoxy in that we respect and maintain (i.e. “conserve”) halakhah, the laws which govern our observance, while also sharing some similarities to Reform in that we seek lenient positions which allow for adaptations to modernity.
A perfect example: calling a girl to the Torah as a bat mitzvah can only happen because we are egalitarian – we count men and women as being equal under Jewish law, an idea which is not acceptable in mainstream Orthodoxy.
But Rabbi Gillman rejects calling our movement halakhic, even as he states that our conservation of halakhah is a foundation stone of our movement.
Rather, he says, the primary way we should describe ourselves is as being “in tension.” And he pulls no punches in describing the ironies of our movement.
Our approach to halakhah is a superb paradigm of living with tension. Why do some laws change and others don’t? Why can we drive to worship on Shabbat but not to a museum? Why are all cheeses now kosher but oysters still treif? Why can a kohen marry a divorcee, but a Jew can’t marry a non-Jew? … Why change some portions of our liturgy but not others? I concede that these distinctions are real and important and I and my rabbinic colleagues can defend each of them, but for the layperson who has neither the education nor the time to study and speculate about these matters, the impression we make is total confusion. Our message is complicated… In contrast, the messages of the movements to our right and to our left, their aggadot [back-stories] are relatively clear. Polar positions are always clear. Center positions rarely are.
And he’s spot on. I spend a lot of my time trying to teach the nuance of what we do as Conservative Jews, and I often wonder how much is absorbed. We are complicated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is hard to relate, particularly in a world with attention spans that stop at 280 characters.
Rabbi Gillman concludes by saying that, rather than calling ourselves “halakhic,”
I suggest that we embrace the tension and ambiguity which has always been at the heart of our reading of Judaism. If we believe that all of God-talk is metaphorical, if we deny the historicity and the literalness of the Sinai narrative as it appears in Torah, and if we claim that the Jewish religion was essentially the creation of the Jewish people, of groupings of Jews at various critical moments in our history, … a notion that I am convinced most of the ideologues of our movement share—then we must conclude that authority in matters of belief and practice lies within the hands of the committed Jews of every generation. To say this is to relativize all of our ideological commitments, and effectively to consign us to a life of tension—which, I suggest we should embrace and which we will find liberating.
Now, I do not have time to unpack all of what Rabbi Gillman said here regarding how our religious tradition came into being; that is a lecture that would require several hours. But the tension which we experience as 21st-century Jews attempting to muddle our way through ancient rituals and texts is nothing new. It has always been a part of the Jewish experience, in every generation.
And Rabbi Gillman is right on: we should embrace the tension. That is how Jews have always lived, and that is how our tradition, particularly right here in the ideological center of the Jewish world, will continue. This is what keeps our religion alive, relevant. Ledor vador / from generation to generation we wrestle with God.
So what does that mean to us? How can we act on this today, here in Pittsburgh?
It means that we can confidently continue living how we live: firmly in the contemporary world, and yet still striving to find the ways in which our tradition still helps us to be better people. It means believing on the one hand that we are still cleaving to the framework of the Torah’s mitzvot, given at Mt. Sinai, because they fill our lives with structure and meaning, and that we also adapt them to our current circumstances. It means that we can celebrate a bat mitzvah, and still see ourselves connected to the spiritual pathways of our forebears.
I am grateful to be living in that tension, and proud to be a Conservative Jew.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/29/22.)
* Aggadah: Aramaic, equivalent to the Hebrew haggadah, “telling.” Refers to the collection of rabbinic folklore, as opposed to the parts of rabbinic text that are law-giving (halakhah). The aggadah sits alongside the halakhah, in the pages of the Talmud and other works, giving context and story which often illuminate the halakhic discussion.