Torah Commentary- Noah: Transcending Deluge-Era Consciousness

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The story of Noah is on the surface rather straight forward. The people are bad, Noah is good, God decides to wipe out the Earth but saves Noah and a large number of representative animals in a big wooden boat. After bringing down rain for 40 days and nights, the rain stops, and Noah sends out two animal emissaries, when the second finds dry land, they disembark. Makes for a great children’s book, cartoon, or sci-fi movie. Versions of this tale are found throughout the ancient world, and much literature is dedicated to the roots of this story. Ultimately, though, in any version of this, it is a horrible story, so much death and destruction, and it doesn’t even end well for Noah.
My interest is less in the ancient near eastern roots of this narrative, nor about its authenticity. What moves us in this series of essays on Tikkun is what meaning or sense could be derived from the text we have by the serious spiritual thinkers who have encountered these passages over the generations. Is there a meaning beyond “be good or be a good swimmer”?
Much of the Rabbinic writings focus on Noah, why was Noah saved, what merit did he earn that can be emulated? Much like in the contemporary presidential debates, the ‘media’ as it were seeks a winner. If one compares Abraham, Moses, and Noah, among the great religious figures of crisis, who did the right thing and who committed ‘gaffes’? My interest, however, and for which there seems to be no strongly held position, was what did humanity do that was so terrible that a collective punishment of this scale was warranted, and what lessons does it have for us today?
The only reason for the mass destruction that the text provides is that God was essentially fed up with sentient life, because the planet was full of “hamas”, which is usually translated as “violence” but whose meaning is not clear. A well known ‘explanation’, already found in the Jerusalem Talmud, is that the people would steal from one another small amounts that were below the threshold of legal action, with the interesting explanation that God says “You have acted to one another unfairly, thus I will act to you unfairly”, recognizing the essential injustice in the text. The midrash goes on to round up the usual criminality suspects, such as idolatry, sexual misbehavior, and violent crime based on other uses of the word “hamas” in the bible. Still, there is no definitive statement about what the people were guilty of, and it is doubly compounded by the absence of any commands or other rules given to mankind earlier which they were to keep or choose to violate. So the assumption is that there is something more primal at play here, and I believe it may resonate with a consciousness that humanity is only just beginning to develop.
In a posthumous work, Jacques Derrida grapples with the concept of “human” vs “animal” consciousness. Derrida writes:

The question of the living and the of the living animal… will always have been the most important and decisive question…

Well known to us is that philosophically the animal was always an “other”, whose life is not valuable, not rational, primarily because they are not given to language, or that it is entirely “reactive” and incapable of “response” (I have dealt with this specifically elsewhere). This approach persists in Heidegger, and even to Lacan, or Deleuze-Guattari who limited their thoughts to the “becoming-animal”, how they reflect in human consciousness (and notoriously were not apparently fond of animals, especially domesticated ones, favoring primarily extreme wild life in their writings). However, the question of defining our relationship to animal life and consciousness has become acute in recent years, given that:

Traditional forms of treatment of the animal have been turned upside down by the joint developments of zoological, ethological, biological and genetic forms of knowledge… this has occurred by means of farming and regimentalization at a demographic level unknown in the past, by means of genetic experimentation, the industrialization of what can be called the production for consumption of animal meat, artificial insemination on a massive scale, more and more audacious manipulation of the genome, the reduction of the animal not only to production and overactive reproduction (hormones, genetic crossbreeding, cloning, and so on) of meat for consumption… and all of that in the service of a certain being and the so-called human well being of man…

Derrida recognizes, as we are all beginning to recognize, if only from the sudden awareness of sophisticated animal behaviors through the sudden surfeit of animal videos on social media and YouTube, that there is not always a clear difference between human and which he terms “that which we call animal” (since one of the gross distortions of the older approach to animal ontology is to group them all together, primates, snails, dogs, bees, all of whom have clearly different levels of being). Derrida coins the terms “limitrophy” for those increasingly recognized overlaps or poorly defined limits between “human” behavior and the behavior of that which we call animal.
The importance of rethinking these limits to thinkers such as Derrida and Agamben, and that relevant to our narrative here, is that insensitivity to these matters are not only abstract issues about animal consciousness, but relevant to our own behaviors. For one thing, as Derrida points out,

No one can deny the suffering, fear or panic, the terror or fright that humans witness in certain animals… the response to the question “can they suffer?” leaves no doubt… Before the undeniable of this response (yes, they suffer, like us who suffer for them and with them), before this response that precedes all other questions, the problematic changes ground and base.

Once this limitrophy is transgressed, and we decide that certain bearers of suffering are not worthy of our care and concern, it is clear that we have stepped into bloody terrain. For who decides which life is more human and worthy of concern, and which is not? Which characteristics of “animality”? for example, Agamben, in The Open, suggests that once these kinds of taxonomies are considered (a progression from werewolves and such part-human constructs, through to the not fully human, such as slaves, barbarians, etc), we can too easily elide into Nazi taxonomies:

… it is enough to move our field of research ahead a few decades, and instead of this innocuous paleontological find we will have the Jew, that is, the non-man produced within the man, or the néomort and the overcomatose person, that is, the animal separated within the human body itself…” (p. 37)

Derrida views this from the perspective of our contemporary science and suggests a thought experiment:

… as if, for example, instead of throwing people into ovens or gas chambers (let’s say Nazi), doctors and geneticists had decided to organize the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic experimentation or extermination by gas or by fires. In the same abbatoirs…

In summary, the lines between “human” behavior and the behavior of “that which we call animal” is in recent times, going through a serious reevaluation, and the results are critical not only for our relationship with animals but for our own communal life. Whether we choose to respect or exploit the suffering of life in general is not isolated from the way we choose to respect or exploit one another.
And this brings us back to our text. The Tiferet Shlomo asks our initial question, after quoting the teaching we cited earlier about stealing from one another: “… this is not understandable, even if bad people stole money from one another, is their money so valuable to God that he destroys them as a result of stealing?”
In response, he quotes a very interesting passage from the Midrash Shochar Tov (section 37) in which Abraham asks Malchizedek, midrashically identified as Shem, the son of Noah, what charity or good deed he did to merit survival during that time of divine wrath, since there were no people alive upon who to have mercy? Shem answers, we had all those animals in the ark, and we needed to be up all day and night to feed them, and because we exhibited this mercy and care for the animals, God had mercy upon us and saved us. The Tiferet Shlomo concludes from this that had mankind had for one another the kind of mercy Noah and his family showed to the animals, the world would not have been destroyed.
The Beer Mayim Hayim suggests, in a similar vein, that the name of God spelled as Elokim has the numerical value of the word hatevah, nature, and that a sentivity to the lessons of animal behavior would have provided a minimal set of parameters for basic interactive behavior that had it been followed, would have been world saving, but that humanity in their cruelty to one another had actually sunk lower than the animal world and thus brought about their own destruction.
I believe the lesson is clear. The message of our text, from this vantage point, is that we cannot be appropriately human with an exploitative approach to the natural world. A society in which we ignore the suffering of other life is a corrupt society which has condemned itself. As Agamben and Derrida point out, ignoring the suffering of that which we call animal opens the door to drawing the limits of human and animal in ways that ultimately lead us to torture and destroy one another.
How to respond? As a first step, let us learn a healing lesson from the great Italian mystic Luzzato (Ramhal). He suggests that the Deluge is a paradigm rupture of the divine and human consciousness, which needs to be healed for Tikkun Olam, a setting of the world in proper alignment. He points out that the numerical value of the two names of God which need to be mystically reunified in this setting have the numerical value of 45, which is numerically equal to the word Adam, symbolizing humanity, and the divine name with the numerical value of 52, which is also the numerical value of behemah, animal. It is this recognition, this mercy for all living beings, this “unification”, the bringing together of humanity and nature, which will lead to global healing and evolution from Deluge generation consciousness, still with us, sadly, today.
For previous essays on Perashat Noach, see