Individual and Collective Rav Lord Sacks

Noach(Genesis 6:9-11:32)
I once had the opportunity to ask the Catholic writer Paul Johnson what had struck him most about Judaism during the long period he spent researching it for his masterly A History of the Jews? He replied in roughly these words: “There have been, in the course of history, societies that emphasised the individual – like the secular West today. And there have been others that placed weight on the collective – communist Russia or China, for example.”

Judaism, he continued, was the most successful example he knew of that managed the delicate balance between both – giving equal weight to individual and collective responsibility. Judaism was a religion of strong individuals and strong communities. This, he said, was very rare and difficult, and constituted one of our greatest achievements.

It was a wise and subtle observation. Without knowing it, he had in effect paraphrased Hillel’s aphorism: “If I am not for myself, who will be (individual responsibility)? But if I am only for myself, what am I (collective responsibility)?” This insight allows us to see the argument of Parshat Noach in a way that might not have been obvious otherwise.

The parsha begins and ends with two great events, the Flood on the one hand, Babel and its tower on the other. On the face of it they have nothing in common. The failings of the generation of the Flood are explicit. “The world was corrupt before God, and the land was filled with violence. God saw the world, and it was corrupted. All flesh had perverted its way on the earth” (Gen. 6: 11-12). Wickedness, violence, corruption, perversion: this is the language of systemic moral failure.

Babel by contrast seems almost idyllic. “The entire earth had one language and a common speech” (11: 1). The builders are bent on construction, not destruction. It is far from clear what their sin was. Yet from the Torah’s point of view Babel represents another serious wrong turn, because immediately thereafter God summons Abraham to begin an entirely new chapter in the religious story of humankind. There is no Flood – God had, in any case, sworn that He would never again punish humanity in such a way (“Never again will I curse the soil because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. I will never again strike down all life as I have just done”, 8: 21). But it is clear that after Babel God comes to the conclusion that there must be another and different way for humans to live.

Both the Flood and the Tower of Babel are rooted in actual historical events, even if the narrative is not couched in the language of descriptive history. Mesopotamia had many flood myths, all of which testify to the memory of disastrous inundations, especially on the flat lands of the Tigris-Euphrates valley (See Commentary of R. David Zvi Hoffman to Genesis 6 [Hebrew, 140] who suggests that the Flood may have been limited to centres of human habitation, rather than covering the whole earth). Excavations at Shurrupak, Kish, Uruk and Ur – Abraham’s birthplace – reveal evidence of clay flood deposits. Likewise the Tower of Babel was a historical reality. Herodotus tells of the sacred enclosure of Babylon, at the centre of which was a ziqqurat or tower of seven stories, 300 feet high. The remains of more than thirty such towers have been discovered, mainly in lower Mesopotamia, and many references have been found in the literature of the time that speak of such towers “reaching heaven.”

However, the stories of the Flood and Babel are not merely historical, because the Torah is not history but “teaching, instruction.” They are there because they represent a profound moral-social-political-spiritual truth about the human situation as the Torah sees it. They represent, respectively, precisely the failures intimated by Paul Johnson. The Flood tells us what happens to civilization when individuals rule and there is no collective. Babel tells us what happens when the collective rules and individuals are sacrificed to it.

It was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the thinker who laid the foundations of modern politics in his classic Leviathan (1651), who – without referring to the Flood – gave it its best interpretation. Before there were political institutions, said Hobbes, human beings were in a “state of nature.” They were individuals, packs, bands. Lacking a stable ruler, an effective government and enforceable laws, people would be in a state of permanent and violent chaos – “a war of every man against every man” – as they competed for scarce resources. There would be “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Such situations exist today in a whole series of failed or failing states. That is precisely the Torah’s description of life before the Flood. When there is no rule of law to constrain individuals, the world is filled with violence.

Babel is the opposite, and we now have important historical evidence as to exactly what was meant by the sentence, “The entire land had one language and a common speech.” This may not refer to primal humanity before the division of languages. In fact in the previous chapter the Torah has already stated, “From these the maritime peoples spread out into their lands in their clans within their nations, each with its own language” (Gen. 10: 50. The Talmud Yerushalmi, Megillah 1: 11, 71b, records a dispute between R. Eliezer and R. Johanan, one of whom holds that the division of humanity into seventy languages occurred before the Flood).

The reference seems to be to the imperial practice of the neo-Assyrians, of imposing their own language on the peoples they conquered. One inscription of the time records that Ashurbanipal II “made the totality of all peoples speak one speech.” A cylinder inscription of Sargon II says, “Populations of the four quarters of the world with strange tongues and incompatible speech . . . whom I had taken as booty at the command of Ashur my lord by the might of my sceptre, I caused to accept a single voice.” The neo-Assyrians asserted their supremacy by insisting that their language was the only one to be used by the nations and populations they had defeated. On this reading, Babel is a critique of imperialism.

There is even a hint of this in the parallelism of language between the builders of Babel and the Egyptian Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites. In Babel they said, “Come, [hava] let us build ourselves a city and a tower . . . lest [pen] we be scattered over the face of the earth” (Gen. 11: 4). In Egypt Pharaoh said, “Come, [hava] let us deal wisely with them, lest [pen] they increase so much . . .” (Ex. 1: 10). The repeated “Come, let us … lest” is too pronounced to be accidental. Babel, like Egypt, represents an empire that subjugates entire populations, riding roughshod over their identities and freedoms.

If this is so, we will have to re-read the entire Babel story in a way that makes it much more convincing. The sequence is this: Genesis 10 describes the division of humanity into seventy nations and seventy languages. Genesis 11 tells of how one imperial power conquered smaller nations and imposed their language and culture on them, thus directly contravening God’s wish that humans should respect the integrity of each nation and each individual. When at the end of the Babel story God “confuses the language” of the builders, He is not creating a new state of affairs but restoring the old.

Interpreted thus, the story of Babel is a critique of the power of the collective when it crushes individuality – the individuality of the seventy cultures described in Genesis 10. (A personal note: I had the privilege of addressing 2,000 leaders from all the world’s faiths at the Millennium Peace Summit in the United Nations in August 2000. It turned out that there were exactly 70 traditions – each with their subdivisions and sects – represented. So it seems there still are seventy basic cultures). When the rule of law is used to suppress individuals and their distinctive languages and traditions, this too is wrong. The miracle of monotheism is that Unity in Heaven creates diversity on earth, and God asks us (with obvious conditions) to respect that diversity.

So the Flood and the Tower of Babel, though polar opposites, are linked, and the entire parsha of Noach is a brilliant study in the human condition. There are individualistic cultures and there are collectivist ones, and both fail, the former because they lead to anarchy and violence, the latter because they lead to oppression and tyranny.

So Paul Johnson’s insight turns out to be both deep and true. After the two great failures of the Flood and Babel, Abraham was called on to create a new form of social order that would give equal honour to the individual and the collective, personal responsibility and the common good. That remains the special gift of Jews and Judaism to the world.

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3 Responses to Individual and Collective Rav Lord Sacks

  1. Noach(Genesis 6:9-11:32)
    True Morality
    by Rav Lord Sacks

    Is there such a thing as an objective basis of morality? For some time, in secular circles, the idea has seemed absurd. Morality is what we choose it to be. We are free to do what we like so long as we don’t harm others. Moral judgments are not truths but choices. There is no way of getting from “is” to “ought”, from description to prescription, from facts to values, from science to ethics. This was the received wisdom in philosophy for a century after Nietzsche had argued for the abandonment of morality – which he saw as the product of Judaism – in favour of the “will to power.”

    However, an entirely new scientific basis has been given to morality from two surprising directions: neo-Darwinism and the branch of mathematics known as Games Theory. As we will see, the discovery is intimately related to the story of Noah and the covenant made between God and humanity after the Flood.

    Games theory was invented by one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, John von Neumann (1903-1957). He realised that the mathematical models used in economics were unrealistic and did not mirror the way decisions are made in the real world. Rational choice is not simply a matter of weighing alternatives and deciding between them. The reason is that the outcome of our decision often depends on how other people react to it, and usually we cannot know this in advance. Games theory, von Neumann’s invention in 1944, was an attempt to produce a mathematical representation of choice under conditions of uncertainty. Six years later, it yielded its most famous paradox, known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    Imagine two people, arrested by the police under suspicion of committing a crime. There is insufficient evidence to convict them on a serious charge; there is only enough to convict them of a lesser offence. The police decide to encourage each to inform against the other. They separate them and make each the following proposal: if you testify against the other suspect, you will go free, and he will be imprisoned for ten years. If he testifies against you, and you stay silent, you will be sentenced to ten years in prison, and he will go free. If you both testify against one another, you will each receive a five-year sentence. If both of you stay silent, you will each be convicted of the lesser charge and face a one-year sentence.

    It doesn’t take long to work out that the optimal strategy for each is to inform against the other. The result is that each will be imprisoned for five years. The paradox is that the best outcome would be for both to remain silent. They would then only face one year in prison. The reason that neither will opt for this strategy is that it depends on collaboration. However, since each is unable to know what the other is doing – there is no communication between them – they cannot take the risk of staying silent. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is remarkable because it shows that two people, both acting rationally, will produce a result that is bad for both of them.

    Eventually, a solution was discovered. The reason for the paradox is that the two prisoners find themselves in this situation only once. If it happened repeatedly, they would eventually discover that the best thing to do is to trust one another and co-operate.

    In the meantime, biologists were wrestling with a phenomenon that puzzled Darwin. The theory of natural selection – popularly known as the survival of the fittest – suggests that the most ruthless individuals in any population will survive and hand their genes on to the next generation. Yet almost every society ever observed values individuals who are altruistic: who sacrifice their own advantage to help others. There seems to be a direct contradiction between these two facts.

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma suggested an answer. Individual self-interest often produces bad results. Any group which learns to cooperate, instead of compete, will be at an advantage relative to others. But, as the Prisoner’ Dilemma showed, this needs repeated encounters – the so-called “Iterated (= repeated) Prisoner’s dilemma”. In the late 1970s, a competition was announced to find the computer program that did best at playing the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma against itself and other opponents.

    The winning programme was devised by a Canadian, Anatole Rapoport, and was called Tit-for-Tat. It was dazzlingly simple: it began by co-operating, and then repeated the last move of its opponent. It worked on the rule of “What you did to me, I will do to you”, or “measure for measure”. This was the first time scientific proof had been given for any moral principle.

    What is fascinating about this chain of discoveries is that it precisely mirrors the central principle of the covenant God made with Noah:

    Whoever sheds the blood of man,
    by man shall his blood be shed;
    for in the image of God
    has God made man.

    This is measure for measure [in Hebrew, middah keneged middah], or retributive justice: As you do, so shall you be done to. In fact, at this point the Torah does something very subtle. The six words in which the principle is stated are a mirror image of one another: [1] Who sheds [2] the blood [3] of man, [3a] by man [2a] shall his blood [1a] be shed. This is a perfect example of style reflecting substance: what is done to us is a mirror image of what we do. The extraordinary fact is that the first moral principle set out in the Torah is also the first moral principle ever to be scientifically demonstrated. Tit-for-Tat is the computer equivalent of (retributive) justice: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.

    The story has a sequel. In 1989, the Polish mathematician Martin Nowak produced a programme that beats Tit-for-Tat. He called it Generous. It overcame one weakness of Tit-for-Tat, namely that when you meet a particularly nasty opponent, you get drawn into a potentially endless and destructive cycle of retaliation, which is bad for both sides. Generous avoided this by randomly but periodically forgetting the last move of its opponent, thus allowing the relationship to begin again. What Nowak had produced, in fact, was a computer simulation of forgiveness.

    Once again, the connection with the story of Noah and the Flood is direct. After the Flood, God vowed: “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.” This is the principle of Divine forgiveness.

    Thus the two great principles of the Noahide covenant are also the first two principles to have been established by computer simulation. There is an objective basis for morality after all. It rests on two key ideas: justice and forgiveness, or what the sages called middat ha-din and middat rachamim. Without these, no group can survive in the long run.

    In one of the first great works of Jewish philosophy – Sefer Emunot ve-Deot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions) – R. Saadia Gaon (882-942) explained that the truths of the Torah could be established by reason. Why then was revelation necessary? Because it takes humanity time to arrive at truth, and there are many slips and pitfalls along the way. It took more than a thousand years after R. Saadia Gaon for humanity to demonstrate the fundamental moral truths that lie at the basis of God’s covenant with humankind: that co-operation is as necessary as competition, that co-operation depends on trust, that trust requires justice, and that justice itself is incomplete without forgiveness. Morality is not simply what we choose it to be. It is part of the basic fabric of the universe, revealed to us by the universe’s Creator, long ago.

  2. Parshas Noach
    Noach’s Technology Lesson
    by Rav Berel Wein

    The rabbis were not so much critical of Noach – as he is paid the highest of compliments, throughout the Torah as a righteous person – but they were wary of him. I have often felt that this attitude is born of the idea that Rashi himself states in commenting upon the origin of Noach’s name. Rashi makes a point that the name Noach should not be construed as a derivative of the Hebrew word “nacheim” – meaning to comfort – but rather it is derived from the other Hebrew word “noach” – meaning, rest, leisure, comfortable but not comfort as in consolation.

    Rashi attributes this understanding of Noach’s name to the fact that he was the father, so to speak, of modern agricultural technological advancement and progress. The iron plow, the first great essential tool for farming developed for humans, enabling settlers to abandon a nomadic existence, was an invention of Noach. This was his great contribution towards the advancement of human technology.

    Noach therefore becomes the source of human technological progress which grants us leisure, eases our physical workload and gives us many physical comforts in life. However, technology alone with all of its attendant blessings does not guarantee us any sort of mental, spiritual or social comfort. It does not console us in our hour of grief nor does it strengthen our spirit in our moments of self-doubt and personal angst.

    If Noach could have achieved these goals then Rashi points out that his name would have been Menachem – the one who brings true consolation and comfort to troubled souls. Hence Noach is viewed in tradition as being incomplete – technologically advanced but spiritually wanting – in short a pretty accurate description of our current human society.

    The Rabbis of the Talmud taught us that if “one tells you that there is wisdom, knowledge and skills present amongst the nations of the world you should believe him.” However, if one tells you that there is Torah amongst the nations of the world, then do not believe him.” Judaism and Jewish society has no basic argument against the advance of technology. We are not the Amish nor are we willing to be consigned a back seat in the drive to physically improve the human condition of life on this planet. Yet Judaism realizes that true psychological and spiritual comfort cannot be found in the latest version of the ipod.

    Noach’s technology can be enormously beneficial in a society that adopts Avraham’s values and beliefs. But bereft of any spiritual focus or restraint, technology run wild makes our world a more fearful place to inhabit and forces many to yearn for the good old, less technologically advanced, eras that preceded us. Noach’s grand technology could not save the world from the ravages of evil that brought upon humankind the great flood described in this week’s parsha.

    Avraham’s grand values and holy behavior almost saved the seat of world evil, Sodom. The world is Noach’s world but its survival is dependent upon the survival and eventual triumph of Avraham’s children, ideas and beliefs.

  3. The Great Ocean of Truth
    by Rav Adam Jacobs

    Despite the staggering discoveries made by science, the universe is still shrouded in awesome mystery.

    “A rare experience of a moment at daybreak, when something in nature seems to reveal all consciousness, cannot be explained at noon. Yet it is part of the day’s unity.” – Charles Ives

    In the not too distant past it was considered an obvious truth that the universe, nature and their respective details were the handiwork of a conscious designing intelligence. People simply observed their surroundings and noted the beauty, the ingenuity and the orchestrated harmony of the massive multiplicity of its parts – and stood awed by it. This view was perhaps most artfully expressed by the English philosopher William Paley in his well-known watchmaker analogy:

    “In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use… Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.” – William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

    In the course of the two centuries since Paley wrote these iconic words, the mystery of life was seemingly eroded by the march of science. For example, in 1828, Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea, destroying the concept of Vitalism – the idea that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. In 1833, Anselme Payen isolated the first enzyme, diastase. Most significantly, for social and political purposes, was the 1859 introduction by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace of the theory of evolution by natural selection. For the first time, it became possible to imagine that the mechanized complexity of life as we know it is the result of purely material and wholly unguided processes. This new possibility electrified the scientific community and had a profound effect on public consciousness. As Dr. James Le Fanu wrote in his engaging work on this topic, “Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves,” science was triumphant – almost.

    The Cell

    A funny thing happened on the way to materialist hegemony: the more scientists discovered, the less explicable certain facets of the natural world became. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century, biologist Earnst Haeckel conceived of the cell as “a simple little lump of albuminous carbon,” easily produced from inanimate material. The invention of the electron microscope in 1931 laid that quaint notion to rest. The subsequent decades have piled us high with new understandings of the staggering complexity of the functional nano-machines that rule the world of the cell. These machines are capable of producing thousands of proteins (highly complex, task-oriented biological compounds) per second, per cell. Some scientific thinkers wonder whether or not Darwin’s theory is equal to the task of generating an object of this sort in the time frame that it arose.

    “Faced with the enormous sum of lucky draws behind the success of the evolutionary game, one may legitimately wonder to what extent this success is actually written into the fabric of the universe” (Nobel laureate Christian de Duve, Tour of a Living Cell).

    The Human Genome

    The Human Genome Project was undertaken to uncover the blueprints of life. It was thought that if the genomic information was “unpacked” and cataloged we would be able to articulate an adequate scientific explanation of the human experience. It didn’t work out that way. One surprise was the discovery that humans share 98 percent of their genome with the humble field mouse. What, then, accounts for the rather severe physiological and cognitive differences between us and our rodent companions? We don’t know. It seems as though opening one box has simply revealed another. This is how science historian Evelyn Fox Keller put it:

    “We lulled ourselves into believing that in discovering the basis for genetic information we had found the ‘secret of life’; we were confident that if we could only decode the message in the sequence of chemicals, we would understand the ‘program’ that makes an organism what it is. But now there is at least tacit acknowledgement of how large that gap between genetic ‘information’ and biological meaning really is.”

    A very recent addendum to these discoveries is that science has now essentially laid to rest the idea of “Junk DNA” – the assumption that the bulk of the human genome contains mostly useless fragments of non-coding DNA sequencing produced by eons of Darwinian action. As this is not an expected outcome of the classical Darwinian model, this new development seems to have struck a nerve in the anti-Paley community.

    The Universe

    One would do well to stand silently awed by the intellectual achievement of the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein and others. They succeeded, as precious few have, in describing crucial, fundamental properties of existence – their force of mind piercing though layers of shroud. Einstein was especially eager to simplify all of these forces into a single “unified field theory,” a goal which eluded his genius and all those who have subsequently attempted it. Once again, in the wake of cognitive achievements of immense proportions, when (some) physicists walked proudly, confident that all but the finishing touches on a complete grasp of the workings of our universe were on the cusp of discovery, the universe took a step back, retreated to obscurity and thwarted the materialists expectations. The more that was discovered, the stranger matters became. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was one obvious example. It was also soon noted that the properties that allow for life’s development seemed uncannily precise – “fine-tuned,” as they were later described. If gravitation, or the strong or weak nuclear force or the electromagnetic force were any different than they are, life could never have arisen. Physicist John Polkinghorne has estimated that they had to be accurate to within one part in a trillion trillion – a degree of accuracy equivalent to hitting an inch wide target on the other side of the universe.

    Jewish tradition teaches that the Creator of the universe is infinite and that the study of Him or his works must, perforce, be infinite as well. One who has dipped his or her foot into the sea of spiritual exploration is familiar with the feeling that we will never get ourselves on top of the pile – that no matter how far we go there will always be an infinity stretched out before us, waiting to be discovered. Perhaps that is why despite its unassailable achievement, science has not (nor will it ever) bring us to anything like a full understanding of the beautiful yet ever elusive reality laid before us.

    “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” – Isaac Newton

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