Between the creation of the universe and the call to Abraham the Torah tells four stories: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the generation of the flood, and the tower of Babel. Is there any connection between these stories? Are they there merely because they happened? Or is there a deeper underlying logic? As we will see, there is.
The first is about Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. Once they have eaten, and discovered shame,
G-d asks them what they have done. This is the conversation that ensues:
And he said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?"
The man said, "The woman you put here with me - she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it."
Then the Lord G-d said to the woman, "What is this you have done?"
The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."
The man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent. Both deny personal responsibility: it wasn't me; it wasn't my fault. This is the birth of what today is called the victim culture.
The second drama is about Cain and Abel. Both bring offerings. Abel's is accepted, Cain's not (why this is so is not relevant here). In his anger, Cain kills Abel. Again there is an exchange between a human being and G-d:
Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"
The Lord said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.
Once again the theme is responsibility, but in a different sense. Cain does not deny personal responsibility. He does not say, "It wasn't me." He denies moral responsibility. "I am not my brother's keeper." I am not responsible for his safety. Yes, I did it because I felt like it. Cain has not yet learned the difference between "I can" and "I may."
The third is the story of Noah. Noah is a righteous man but not a hero. He is born to great expectations. "He will comfort us," says his father Lamech, giving him his name. Yet Noah does not save humanity. He only saves himself, his family and the animals he takes with him in the ark. The Zohar contrasts him unfavorably with Moses: Moses prayed for his generation, Noah did not. In the last scene we see him drunk: in the words of the Midrash, "he profaned himself and became profaned." You cannot be a sole survivor and still survive. Sauve-qui-peut ("let everyone who can, save himself") is not a principle of Judaism. We have to do what we can to save others, not just ourselves. Noah failed the test of collective responsibility.
The fourth is the story of the Tower of Babel. What was the sin of its builders? There are two key words in the text. It begins and ends with the phrase kol ha'aretz, "the whole earth." In between, there is a series of similar sounding words: sham (there), shem (name), and shamayim (heaven). The story of Babel is a drama about the two key words of the first sentence of the Torah: "In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth." Heaven is the domain of G-d; earth is the domain of man. By attempting to build a tower that would "reach heaven," the builders of Babel were men trying to be like gods. What does this have to do with responsibility?
Not accidentally does the word responsibility suggest response-ability. The Hebrew equivalent, achrayut, comes from the word acher, meaning "an other." Responsibility is always a response to something or someone. In Judaism, it means response to the command of G-d. By attempting to reach heaven, the builders of Babel were in effect saying: we are going to take the place of G-d. We are not going to respond to His law or respect His boundaries. We are going to create an environment where we rule, not G-d. Babel is the failure of ontological responsibility - the idea that something beyond us makes a call on us.
What we see in Bereishith 1-11 is an exceptionally tightly constructed four-act drama on the theme of responsibility and moral development. The first thing we learn as a child is that our acts are under our control (personal responsibility). The next is that not everything we can do may we do (moral responsibility). The next stage is the realization that we have a duty not just to ourselves but to those on whom we have an influence (collective responsibility). Ultimately we learn that morality is not a mere human convention, but is written into the structure of existence. There is an Author of being, therefore there is an Authority beyond mankind (ontological responsibility).
This is developmental psychology as we have come to know it through the work of Jean Piaget, Eric Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg and Abraham Maslow. Never underestimate the subtlety and depth of the Torah. It was the first, and is still the greatest, text on the human condition and our psychological growth from instinct to conscience, from "dust of the earth" to the morally responsible agent the Torah calls "the image of G-d."
What we can talk about we can cure
(An excerpt from “The Politics of Hope” P.24-27)
What we can talk about we can cure. What we cannot talk about eventually takes a heavy toll. In an age in which the most private emotions are paraded in public and the most intimate confessions broadcast to millions, things that used to be public knowledge have become unsayable. Words like virtue, vice, sin, evil, righteousness, modesty, grace, humility and repentance have become the ultimate solecisms . They have taken on the role that was once occupied in our culture by blasphemy and obscenity. Utter them out loud in a crowded room and there is a shocked silence and lingering disbelief. The barriers we have erected against moral debate are formidable. Judgement, a quality we once prized, has become judgementalism, “blaming the victim”. Moral statements are dismissed as moralising. Concern about the weakening of our social framework is described as moral panic. Morality has been exiled from polite conversation.
There is an air of unreality about this situation. For several months Britain was seized by a wave of panic about the infection of cattle with BSE, which had a possible, yet not proven, connection with the death of twelve people from the condition known as Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease. For several years acute concerns had been expressed about and environmental phenomenon, global warming, whose existence is still being debated. These anxieties were justified. A risk, however remote, a possible connection, however speculative, is worth taking into consideration if we are to do all we can to ensure public safety. Yet the possibility that many of our social ills are related to the way we live and the principles we teach is resisted with a vehemence hard to understand, fateful in its consequences. The relationship between beef-eating and CJD is far more remote and speculative than that promiscuity and AIDS and divorce and depressive illness, or fragmented families and child dysfunction, but while we find it possible to debate the one, we find it difficult to talk about the other. Livy’s words about ancient Rome are uncomfortably close to us: “We have reached the point where we cannot bear either our vices or their cure.”
If we are to talk openly about our shared future, moral principles cannot be excluded. They are central to our conversation about what kind of society we seek to create, what kinds of people we aspire to be, and what ideals we wish to hand on to our children. Such conversations have been at the heart of democratic civilisation. In the first half of the nineteenth century they were joined by such figures as Coleridge, Southey and Carlyle; in the second half by Dickens, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and William Morris. In the early twentieth century R.H.Tawney, T.S.Eliot, George Orwell and Archbishop William Temple set out their very different visions of ethics, politics and culture. None of these was a sermonic exhortation to virtue, but they were expressions of moral conviction none the less. Their assumption was that society is, at least in part, constituted by its image of itself and that this must regularly be tested, probed and if need be, criticised. The idea that moral language is essentially private and that a nation is no more than an arena in which individuals do their own thing would have struck them as absurd. That, they would have said, is not a society but the abscence of society, not a culture but the destruction of the possibility of culture. Surely they were right.
I need therefore to make one thing clear at the outset. As I understand it, moral judgement is about the future not the past, about the ideals we aspire to, not about condemnation or accusation. Our abortive moral conversations - like those in the wake of the murder of James Bulger (1993) or during the International year of the Family (1994) - fail because almost immediately they descend to the question of blame. Who is responsible? Politicians blame religious leaders. Religious leaders condemn the politicians. Parents accuse the teachers. Teachers reproach the parents. Thinkers on the right indict the liberalism of the 1960’s. Thinkers on the left point the finger to the free market philosophy of the 1980’s. In the dock stand the usual suspects: affluence, poverty, genetic programming,, original sin, footballers, pop singers, and the media. The air is thick with mutual recrimination and there are only two things on which we can agree. Someone is to blame and it isn’t me.
I want to move away from the language of blame. It is not helpful. It produces defensiveness, self-justification and counter-accusation. It turns us into a finger-pointing society, which is not the place most of us would choose to live in. It does not meet the standards of generosity and charity demanded by our great religious traditions, almost all of which teach that judgement in the sense of blame belongs to G-d alone. It confuses righteousness with self-righteousness (a great Jewish teacher once said: “I would prefer a wicked man who knows he is wicked than a righteous man who knows he is righteous”). Above all, it is not true.
Most politicians I know struggle seriously with the dilemmas of power. Most religious leaders think deeply about the conflict between condemnation and compassion. Parents wrestle with the pressures of work or unemployment and try to do their best. Teachers are the unsung heroes of our society, under-recognised, underpaid and often desperately unsupported. None of us is or should be immune to criticism, but we do not need to be told by those who neither know nor understand that we are not doing our job. It is de-motivating and undeserved. More importantly, it misconceives the nature of the moral enterprise.
To build, it is not necessary to blame. The leader of a team knows that after losing a match the best way to prepare for the next encounter is not to make accusations about whose fault the defeat was. It is to build the morale of the players, so that they can, honestly and together, face the fact of defeat, analyse why, and work out how to avoid repeating the same mistake a second time. It is no dishonour to lose. To play a game means being willing to take that risk. What is fatal, however, is the inability to learn. This can happen for two quite different reasons: because we are convinced we can never win, or because we are sure that losing was someone else’s fault. That is the difference between, and the common outcome of, being de-moralised and being over-moralised.
The moral tradition most familiar to us, that of the Judaeo-Christian ethic, suggests that our failures are forgiven as soon as they are acknowledged. It says that risk is of the essence of the moral life, as it is of learning generally, and that it is often less important to be right than to be open: to wisdom, experience, the voice of tradition and the insights of the present. The true moral leader is the captain of the team, the one who has faith in us even we have lost faith in ourselves, who is always there when we call on him but rarely when we do not; who never second-guesses us or steps in front of us when we are about to kick a ball; who allows us to make our own mistakes but who asks us to take time out for reflective moments in which we can recognise that they are mistakes. That is a religious vision, but you do not have to be religious to share its essential outlines.
The inability to talk about the public dimension of morality closes off to us one of our most important problem-solving resources. It separates the individual from society and suggests that whatever we do affects us alone, and therefore whatever can be done on a large scale is beyond our direct participation. This induces a potentially tragic and quite unfounded sense of helplessness. For many centuries, the moral view allowed people to feel connected to one another, joining their individual striving to a larger world of common purpose. That connectedness is part of the logical geography of hope. To reconnect we need recover confidence in a way of speaking which we have never forgotten but which has become systematically undermined.
That as Ludwig Wittgenstein said in a memorable line in Philosophical Investigations, is part of the task of thought and its greatest aspiration. “What is your aim in philosophy?” he asked. “To show the fly the way out of the bottle.” The fly keeps banging its head against the glass in a vain attempt to find a way out. The one thing it forgets to do is look up.