Salvation Through Moderation

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 8, 1994 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

Last week was a good week for the Seminary and Judaism: a new generation of incoming students arrived to study at one of its four New York schools. They number nearly 200 full-time students, including the largest entering classes ever in our Cantorial and Rabbinical Schools, 20 new masters students in Jewish education and 34 new undergraduates in List College. Many come with extensive Jewish education and from the finest universities in the U.S. and Canada. Above all, they are highly motivated, eager to fill their lives with Jewish content and purpose. Given half a chance when finished, this generation of students will serve the Jewish community for decades with an inspiring blend of idealism and competence.

In speaking of them, I have used the term “generation” advisedly, because it is a key word in the book of Genesis, occurring no less than thirteen times. The Hebrew noun toladot always appears in the plural and literally means offspring. As in English, the Hebrew noun derives from the verb “to generate or give birth to,” yalad. We have already met the term toladot in Genesis 2:4 and 5:1 and it serves to introduce this week’s parasha: Eleh toldot No·ah, “This is the line of No·ah (Genesis 6:9).” The noun almost always appears in the genitive case toldot, “the line of.”

But my point is not to smuggle in a Hebrew lesson, though that is always a laudable goal. I wish to extract the meaning imbedded in the word. Throughout Genesis, toladot also connotes the larger concept of history, while in chapter 2:4 it does so specifically: “Such is the story of heaven and earth as they were created.” The result is that in Hebrew, toladot becomes one of several words for “history.” English fails to take this linguistic route from generation to history, though it might have, in the archaic phrase “the generations of man.” What I like about the Hebrew nexus is the implicit affirmation that history begins at home. The future is a function of the family. Children unsocialized jeopardize the stability of community and the transmission of culture. Whatever the power of the impersonal forces that shape human destiny, and they are not to be minimized, parenting is a critical factor in determining the course of history.

The transitive verb yalad contrasts strikingly with the ungenerated and unchanging picture of God in the opening chapter of Genesis. Toladot suggests the quirkiness, fragility and impermanence that mark human life. What is most God-like in us is also what is most corruptible or, in the immortal line from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and itself can make Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven!” The Torah abjures mythology for history as the turbulent domain in which God seeks to help us against ourselves.

Toward that end, the family is posited as a divine institution, a vehicle that could make the future worth remembering. Bonding for life is as unnatural as resting every seventh day. Accordingly, the Torah offers an editorial aside in its telling of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib. Adam’s exclamation of relief, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Genesis 2:23),” is immediately followed by a sanctification of marriage, “For this reason a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, so that they may become one flesh (2:24).” In fact, I prefer to read the final verse of chapter two, which is really an introduction to the story of the serpent, as a further comment on marriage. What is the ideal state of matrimony? One in which there is neither apartness nor shame, where sharing and talking eventually fuse two people into one. This is the meaning of “one flesh,” a relationship in which, “The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame (2:25).” The Sheva Berakhot of the wedding ceremony explicitly link every marriage to this first union at which God officiated.

To marry and have children, therefore, are divine commandments in Judaism. The Mishna goes so far as to stipulate just how many. According to the School of Shammai, begetting two sons as did Moses fulfills the law. In contrast, the School of Hillel requires a child of each sex in emulation of God’s original creation. I am struck by the relative moderation of both views. Though surely greater than the current fertility rate of 1.6 children for Jewish women in America by ages 40-44, the norms articulated by both schools suggest a measure of sensitivity to the individual needs of children and their mothers. Wives are not obligated to limit their lives to childbearing. Judaism has long staked survival on the quality of life rather than sheer numbers.

Nor did rabbinic Judaism ever allow the swift degeneration of humankind after creation and God’s dark realization that “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21),” to bring it to idealize celibacy and asceticism as the epitome of holiness. Theological constructs such as Adam’s Fall and Original Sin remained alien to its spirit. Judaism refused to turn against the flesh and dichotomize human beings into a pure soul trapped in an impure body. An intriguing midrash on the verse just cited echoes the debate:

The Roman Emperor Antoninus is imagined as asking Rabbi Judah the Prince when does the evil inclination first appear in us, in the womb or after birth? Rabbi Judah replied, while still in the womb, implying a case of genetic transmission. But the Emperor rejected the notion on empirical grounds, for if that were indeed true then the fetus would have torn its way out of the womb much sooner. The Rabbi quickly conceded and thanked the emperor for defending a view that actually concurred with the Torah, which spells the word “from his youth” (mineurav) without a vav, thus permitting one to interpret it to mean “from the moment the fetus is aroused (ninar) to leave the womb,” that is, after birth. Rashi alludes to the midrash in his comment on the verse.

Linguistics aside, the midrash rings with irony and truth. It portrays a Roman emperor teaching the leader of Palestinian Jewry and the editor of the Mishna that a mechanistic view of human nature which diminishes freedom and responsibility fails to accord with the Torah. Salvation remains within our reach and does not call for an eradication of the passions but merely for bringing them under control. The remedy for the human condition is mitzvot and not messianism, deeds and not faith.


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.