Morality and the Mind

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 31, 1997 / 5758 | Torah Commentary

But ten generations after Adam and Eve, we find God in despair over the unrelieved waywardness of humanity. Human depravity threatens to turn created order into primordial chaos. The Mishna (in Sanhedrin 10:3) declares the behavior of the generation of the flood to have been so reprehensible that it will be excluded for eternity from the world-to-come. Yet the Torah denies us any illustrative details, leaving a gap that begs for reader participation.

The midrash steps in to sketch a moral meltdown that leveled all norms and boundaries. The Torah generalized: “all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (Genesis 6:13).” The midrash specified that this corruption extended even to the natural world. Thus dogs would copulate with wolves, chickens with peacocks. A farmer would plant wheat, but the earth yielded only weeds. Punishment came in the form of water because humankind lived by lusting openly after whatever it laid eyes on. Since eyes flow with tears, God unleashed the waters contained in the fountains deep within the earth (Genesis 7:11 — note also the similarity between the Hebrew word for eye “‘ayin” and fountain “ma’ayan,”). In the words of Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century), summarizing the vivid talmudic discussion of the subject: “No living creature adhered any longer to the laws of its procreation, flagrantly perverting the known path implanted in it.”

Surrounded by such a massive assault on the order of creation, No·ah, a man of limited spiritual resources, needed God by his side constantly. Hence the Torah, according to Rashi, describes him as walking with God (Genesis 6:19), whereas it is said of Abraham that he had the religious endowment to walk before God (Genesis 24:40). The fact is that No·ah is a far more passive and dependent personality, never evincing any sign of protest, anger or grief at what befalls him.

Still, his family does not survive intact. His son Ham seems to have been infected by the decadence of the environment. The cryptic story that happens some time after they emerge from the ark suggests that No·ah failed to imbue him with the same degree of moral virtue as his brothers Shem and Japheth. When Ham discovers his father lying naked in a drunken stupor in his tent, he does nothing to repair the situation, but merely recounts it to his brothers. The lack of action is glaring. Did he relish the scene? Did he embellish it in the retelling? Did he, as the midrash avers, subject his father to an act of bestiality, or even castrate him?

The point of this sad tale is to identify Ham and his descendants, especially his son Canaan, as bearers of a genetic defect, transmitters of an ancient and insatiable sexual appetite. When No·ah finally awoke, he hurled a curse that would reverberate throughout the period of the First Temple and beyond: “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers (Genesis 9:25).”

Many a historical tale tells us more about the age in which it was authored than about the past of which it speaks. It is the land of Canaan that God would soon promise to Abraham and his progeny. To ancient Israel, the Canaanites were a dissolute leftover from a primitive past destined to be transcended by history. Ham’s indecency and No·ah’s curse reflect an era in which Canaanites still represented an ever-present danger.

Moreover, according to the first chapter of the book of Judges, as opposed to the book of Joshua, the Israelite conquest of Canaan was gradual, protracted and far from complete. It is for this reason that the patriarchal narratives exude a consistent antipathy toward the indigenous Canaanites. They are not to be a source for marital partners. Abraham has his domestic servant take an oath that he will never take a wife to Isaac from “the daughters of Canaan (Genesis 21:3).” When in the next generation Esau at age 40 does, his parents are beside themselves (Genesis 26:34-35).

In part then, the religion of Israel defines itself over against the perceived depravity of Canaanite civilization. “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt,” demands Leviticus, “or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their customs (18:3).” Monotheism comes with an extensive set of sexual constraints. To violate them is to pollute the land and risk expulsion. The chosenness of Israel must express itself not only in its lofty theology but also in the purity of its sexual ethic. As long as Canaanites abounded in the land they threatened to dilute both. Hence the command to drive them out. “If you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land,” declaims Numbers, “those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides (33:55).” Israel’s mission is to transcend the ethic of self-gratification that lies at the heart of Canaanite religion.

The passage of time has changed little. America’s culture of narcissism is saturated with the excesses of uninhibited sex, which is why I have such sympathy for the five Orthodox undergrads at Yale who have asked to be excused from the requirement to spend their first two years in co-ed dorms. Whether living on single-sex or co-ed floors, they would constantly be exposed to the unseemly reality of common bathrooms. To insist on a little more privacy is neither illiberal nor anti-social. Most American universities, with their lax dorm policies, not only have withdrawn from their customary role of standing in loco parentis but come pretty close to facilitating casual sex.

The essence of a college education is to free the mind, not the body. These youngsters hail from homes where modesty, fidelity and abstinence are lived values. That a university should erode these values by compelling its students to live in a setting with few boundaries governed by peer pressure is, to my mind, the antithesis of a liberal arts education. The reason there is so much infidelity after marriage in America is because there is so much promiscuity before it.

Shamefully, Yale has already let slip that the issue is primarily one of money. Pay the housing fees and you can live anywhere. If you want to be moral, it will cost you twice as much, a lesson hardly designed to advance the character formation of Yale students.

The contribution of Judaism has been precisely to link the life of the mind to a moral matrix of instinct renunciation, caught eloquently in the term “ethical monotheism.” To sever one from the other – mind from morality – is to return us to the inferior state of Canaanites.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat No·ah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.