Everybody knows the story of Noah. It is a beautiful story. The wickedness of man was so great that God decided to destroy the whole world. But in his mercy, God saves the righteous man, Noah, his family, and representatives of every kind of animal on earth. Not only does God tell Noah how to build the ark to save life, after all the people and animals are on the ark and the deluge has begun, God closes up the ark to make sure they are safe. The ark floats upon the water until the Flood had lasted its ordained period. Then the breath of God -- the same breath that created the world and brought life to Adam -- separated the Flood waters and dried the land. And we cannot forget the animals; you know, the animals coming onto the ark, fourteen of each kind of the clean animals and two of each kind of the unclean animals.
We generally do not read the story of Noah carefully. I always am amazed that people think that two of each kind of animal got onto the ark as stated in Genesis 6:19-20, and seldom or never note the contradictory instruction in Genesis 7:2. That is not the only inconsistency in the rather short story of Noah. It is not clear how long the flood lasted, why Noah sent out a dove to look for land when a raven was flying around with the same task, or even whether Ham was his middle or youngest son. These are only some of the problems within one translation; the problems multiply with different translations or if one wonders where the dove got the olive twig if, except for occupants of the ark, every living thing on earth had been destroyed. Nevertheless, I believe we can answer our most basic questions about life by studying the stories carefully and paying attention to the contradictions.
By the way, these contradictions aren't things I just noticed. People have argued about them literally for millennia. Until about the past hundred years, people, accepting that God dictated the Torah to Moses, ingeniously explained away the contradictions. More recently, the predominant theory has been that there are at least two stories of Noah, written at very different times, intertwined in the various redactions of the Torah. Although the same process applied to all parts of the Bible, the inconsistencies seem more glaring in Noah than in most other stories. Both Plaut's Commentary on the Torah (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.62-63) and Richard Elliot Friedman's wonderful book Who Wrote the Bible? are good sources to study the separate stories of Noah.
So, why were the contradictions allowed to remain in the Torah? Perhaps the redactors did not want to delete any part of two separate sacred traditions, although other sections of the Torah seem to be abbreviated versions of other ancient sacred traditions. Moreover, some sacred traditions of the ancient Jews were lost or otherwise entirely omitted from the Biblical cannon. And, one might ask, what does the fact that there are multiple stories of Noah have to do with Reform Judaism? My answer is that both the contradictions and the actual substance of the Noah story offer important insights about the source of authority in Judaism.
Arguments about how to interpret the stories of Noah and other parts of the Torah continue because there is no final, authoritative Jewish interpretation of any of the stories; in fact, Jewish tradition explicitly permits and encourages multiple interpretations. Even at the time that the Bible was being canonized (about 100 C.E.), Rabbi Akiba stated that there are seventy ways to interpret Torah. The rabbis recognized that over time, people would discover new meanings of the Torah, so no one person could claim the definitive interpretation of sacred texts. Even a limited study of Talmud makes this lack of final authority obvious, with numerous disputes about Torah and points of law appearing on every page, representing hundreds of years of controversy. Some of the best known sections of Talmud are the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, who took opposite sides of every point under discussion. Both are revered as great teachers, and their argument was recorded so that later students would learn both positions. Apparently, both were right, for the Talmud summarizes their arguments: "These, too, are the words of the Living God." ( quoted in Where Are We?: The Inner Life of America's Jews by Leonard J. Fein, Harper and Row, 1988). I do not mean to imply that the Talmudic rabbis thought all interpretations of Torah were equally authoritative, but they believed that everyone had the obligation to study Torah and try to understand its precepts.
To me, this is the essence of Reform Judaism: we, each of us for ourselves, must study Torah - and Talmud and other historical texts, to answer for ourselves the big questions -- What is the meaning of life, what is true, right, and good, and what is our relationship with and obligations to ourselves, the Jewish community, the world, and God? But the Torah is an ancient, complicated book containing contradictions and ambiguities. We cannot just skim the stories and find Truth. Moreover, we can't just turn to a pope, the Talmud, or a rule book, or halaka, or our rabbi to tell us what to do; we must each think and decide for ourselves. This does not mean that we are free to ignore the questions or the answers that we honestly derive - and it doesn't count to just look up a quote to justify whatever action we already intended to take. The Bible is not Bartlett's. Nor are we free to ignore tradition; it would be extremely foolish to dump thousands of years of wisdom. It is equally foolish to ignore our own rabbis, modern scholars, or our own experience. We should use all available resources to find Jewish answers to our questions.
Let's get back to Noah. To me, the lessons of the story do not depend upon its truth - it really doesn't matter whether the whole world was submerged when the windows of heaven opened or whether one flood in Mesopotamia inspired the story. It doesn't matter that the story reworked the themes of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic. Given the obvious contradictions in the text, I don't even think that it was necessarily important to the writers or redactors that it be true. What makes the story important is that it gives us a Jewish way to think about God and the questions of existence.
We learn that human beings have free will, both to do wrong and merit destruction or to do right, to act to save life and to be responsible for their own salvation. God chose Noah to survive because Noah was good, but it is important to note that Noah was otherwise an ordinary person; he was not a god, a king, or even a hero. God told Noah to build an ark, how to make it, and what to put on it, but God did not build the ark for Noah or gather the food needed for survival. The ark Noah built could not be controlled by its occupants, so their survival did not depend solely upon their efforts. Their efforts would have been in vain without God's instructions or for that matter, if the Flood had outlasted their food. But nothing would have survived the Flood if Noah had not acted. Ordinary people must choose to act -- when they do, their behavior can change the world.
Another lesson is the one that God Himself learned: it is wrong to destroy the earth. God regretted His action and in at least one version of the story, promised never to destroy it again (the other version merely promises that it won't be a flood the next time). In fact, in the next story after the Flood, the Tower of Babel, all people sin, but the punishment is a confusion of languages, not death. We, like God, can learn from our mistakes and do better next time. Note that God apparently sides with the Endangered Species Act; at least a pair of all animals, clean or unclean, ugly or pretty, useful or not, snail darter or spotted owl, were on the ark. (Well, not snail darters; fish were apparently not on the ark). We have an obligation to prevent extinction of any form of life.
The Noah stories also make clear that no-one is or can be perfect. Noah is righteous in his generation and walked with God -- and Noah walked off the ark, planted a vineyard, and got drunk. Then, while Noah was in a drunken stupor, his son, Ham, uncovered Noah's nakedness (the meaning of which has occupied many a rabbinic mind). When Noah discovered Ham's sin, he cursed not Ham , but Ham's son. Rabinnic authorities considered both of these actions to be Noah's sins. But even before these sins, God concluded that the "devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21). There was no point in destroying all people to root out evil; man and woman are made in God's image, but they are not God. Sometime people will exercise free will to do wrong. Moreover, we are not free to rely on Cohens or Levis for holiness -- or descendants of famous rabbis either. Noah arguably was as close to perfect as people get, but his son, Ham, sinned. Perfection is not genetically assured.
Perhaps the most important lesson from Noah is that although we each must interpret the stories and find our own answers, not all possible answers are equally correct. Truth, good, and justice are not relative. God judged the world and Noah according to God's standard, not according to the thoughts or intentions of the peoples of the earth. Even God in the Bible is subject to these same standards. When Abraham later asks "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen. 18:25), we know the answer is "Yes." We each must find our own path to that truth. We Jews have the incredible gift of Torah to use as our map of those paths. Please note, however, that reading that map requires analysis of right and wrong. Merely because something is reported in the Bible does not make it right. The most obvious example involves Noah's failure to act, which revealed man's evil nature to God. The Zohar, written in the thirteenth century, beautifully explains Noah's sin:
When Noah came out of the ark
he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed.
He began crying for the world and said
"Master of the world!
If you destroyed your world because of human sin or human fools,
then why did You create them? One or the other you should do:
either do not create the human being
or do not destroy the world!"
[Noah continues:]"You are called Compassionate!
You should have shown compassion for Your creatures!"
The Blessed Holy One answered him, "Foolish shepherd!
Now you say this, but not when I spoke to you tenderly [about making
an ark to save your family]....
I lingered with you and spoke to you at length
so that you would ask for mercy for the world!
But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark,
the evil of the world did not touch your heart.
You built the ark and saved yourself.
Now that the world has been destroyed
you open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?"
The Zohar points out that Abraham argued with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if just ten innocent people could be found; Moses pledged his life for the people of Israel to save them after they built the golden calf. The Zohar continues:
So all the righteous heroes shielded their generations....
The Blessed Holy One lingered with him and spoke many words to him;
perhaps, he would ask for mercy for his generation.
But he did not care and did not ask for mercy.
He just built the ark
and the whole world was destroyed.
(Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, translated by Daniel Matt)
Like Jacob who became Israel, we must struggle with God and with Torah. One more quote, this one from Hillel: "Now, go and study."