12 September 2017

Standing in the Rain/Speaking Truth to Power

Temple Sholom congregant David Richmand* just shared with me David Brooks' latest OpEd in the New York Times about the universal imagery and lessons of the flood narrative.

As always, I find Brooks to be knowledgeable and willing to go beyond the surface level in his thinking - especially in areas concerning morality.  While the texts about Noah are not new to me - and hopefully not new to our congregants (I've cited them a few times in classes and sermons.) - he does explain them well and they are very useful to bring forward.

Rabbinic commentary goes back and forth about Noah.  As a human being in an extraordinary situation, there is sympathy for what he is able to do.  On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, the comparison with Abraham (vis a vis standing up to God to reconsider the punishment) is highly critical.  I view this dichotomy with one lens and two lessons.  The stories that have been preserved for us in Jewish text are those that we are meant to learn from.

The first lesson is that we should show compassion and understand the humanity of others.  Our tradition has a concept that what might be proper to say before someone makes a decision, might not be the right words after the decision is in the past.  We have guidelines on how to behave - prescriptively; and then a process for repentance (t'shuvah) when we realize that we may have made the wrong decision.  We act with sympathy, even if we disagree with the decision.

The second lesson, that Brooks brings out, is that we are called upon, by our tradition, to speak up for others.  Abraham becomes a model for that - compared with both Noah and Abraham's nephew, Lot.  They are not condemned by the text. Rather, Abraham is held up, in that instance, as a better model.

Brooks' takes this argument in a bit of a different direction - that the lesson is that we must not blindly accept ANY authority.  Remember, as we will read next week at Rosh haShanah, Abraham later follows God's command to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, without an explicit word of protest.  (Rabbinic commentary does attempt to find an implied argument in God's detailed description of who is to be sacrificed.)  Living under Roman authority and trying to find a way to justify a Jewish Rabbinic authority at the same time, the Rabbis walked a tightrope.  I would read the more nuanced idea that we should not blindly follow authority that acts in contradiction to the morals that we have been taught to not only espouse, but bring into the world.

An early shanah tovah to you all.

*Update - Natalie Darwin also called to let me know about this article.