Parshat Noach: 

The Conflict between Religious Consistency and Conformity

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And Hashem said: I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for I regert that I have made them. But Noach found grace in the eyes of Hashem. (Sefer Beresheit 6:7-8)

1. The degeneration of humanity and Hashem’s dilemma

Parshat Beresheit describes the creation of the universe. The Torah explains that all of humanity descends from a single set of parents – Adam and Chavah. Yet, humanity is remarkably diverse. How can this diversity be reconciled with the Torah’s assertion of humanity’s shared parentage?

According to Maimonides, this is one of the issues discussed in the Torah’s second parasha – Parshat Noach.1 The parasha continues the narrative that began in the ending passages of Parshat Beresheit. There, the Torah explains that humanity had descended into a state of self-indulgent degeneracy. Hashem concluded that His world must be destroyed. However, Noach was different than the rest of humanity. He had escaped humanity’s headlong race towards depravity. In Noach, the original Divine vision of humanity survived. He, alone, retained the image of the Divine with which Hashem had wished to endow all of humanity.

Thus, Parshat Beresheit ends with a paradox. On the one hand, Hashem has determined that the earth and its inhabitants should be annihilated. On the other hand, Hashem approved of Noach. He embodied Hashem’s vision for humanity.

And G-d said unto Noach: The end of all flesh is come before Me for the earth is filled with violence through them. And behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make for you an ark of gopher wood; with rooms you shall make the ark, and cover it within and without with pitch. (Sefer Beresheit 6:13-14)

2. The solution – Noach’s rescue and the salvation of humanity

Parshat Noach opens with the presentation of the solution to this paradox. The earth and its inhabitants will be destroyed. However, Noach and his immediate family will be rescued. Humanity will be reestablished through Noach and his descendants. Noach is commanded to create great teyvah – an ark. Into the teyvah, representatives of all of the earth’s species will be brought. Hashem will destroy civilization and all life with the Deluge but Noach, his family, and the occupants of the teyvah will survive. From them, life will be reestablished on the earth and humanity will begin anew.

And Noach awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him.

And he said: Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brothers.

And he said: Blessed be Hashem, the G-d of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant. May G-d enlarge Yafet and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant. (Sefer Beresheit 9:24-27)

3. The beginnings of human diversity

Of course, all of those who survived on the teyvah and emerged as humanity’s ancestors were members of a single family. However, with their emergence from the ark the roots of human diversity began to form. The Torah explains that Noach had three sons – Shem, Cham, and Yafet. The Torah recounts that Noach planted vines, made wine, and then became drunk. Noach’s sons had different reactions to their father’s drunkenness. The Torah is vague in its description of Cham’s response. However, it indicates that he acted with disrespect and perhaps cruelty. Shem acted with respect towards his father. He found him laying naked and insisted that he be covered. Yafet followed Shem’s lead and assisted him in caring for their father. In other words, Cham’s response was crude and immature. Shem’s was appropriate and ethical. Yafet was able to distinguish between these two responses and select for himself the more appropriate.

In the above passages, Noach awakens from his drunkenness and becomes aware of the different responses of his sons. He reacts by blessing Shem and Yafet and cursing Cham. Cham failed to use proper judgment. He is placed under the authority of his older brothers. He and his descendants will be servants to the Shem, Yafet, and their descendants. Shem had demonstrated the surest and clearest judgment and receives Noach’s most profound blessing. Hashem will dwell among his descendants. Yafet was confronted with two models of behavior and chose between them properly. Noach blesses Yafet and part of this blessing is that he will continue to benefit from the influence of his brother Shem. In short, in its description of this incident that Torah describes three general paths along which the family of nations will develop. Some element of human diversity has been introduced.

And they said: Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven. And let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And Hashem came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men had built. And Hashem said: Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do. And now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. (Sefer Beresheit 11:4-7)

4. The blueprint of diversity is transformed into a reality

Although this incident describes a very general blueprint for human diversity, the account ends without this diversity being realized. In fact, the Torah explains that as Noach’s sons began to repopulate the devastated world, their descendants chose to remain in very close association. They sought an area for settlement in which they could live together and grow as a single community. They planned and initiated the creation of a city to serve as their home. The prominent feature of this city would be its magnificent tower that would reach up to the heavens. They believed that through their efforts they would create a single community of humanity with a shared language and values.

The Torah explains that Hashem considered these plans and decided to act against them. Through His providence, different languages began to emerge within this community that had hitherto been remarkable in its homogeneity. The introduction of diversity led to the disintegration of the single unified community into a multitude of smaller, distinctive communities. Eventually, the vision of a shared city and common community was abandoned and humanity’s diverse nations developed.

In its narrative of these events – the Dispersion, the Torah does not provide a clear explanation of Hashem’s objection to humanity’s vision of preserving a common community and shared culture. The vagueness of the Torah explanation has led the commentators to provide a plethora of explanations. These range from explanations that interpret Hashem’s decision as guided by practical considerations to explanations that suggest that this generation was indeed engaged in a rebellion against Hashem. However, the Torah’s reason for not providing a clear statement of Hashem’s objection is probably because that issue is irrelevant to the theme of the parasha. As Maimonides explains, the intent of the parasha is to account for the emergence of human diversity. That is accomplished through relating the account of the Dispersion. A more detailed explanation of reasons for Hashem’s actions might distract and thereby, conceal from the reader the intention of the account.

And Terach took Avram his son, and Lote the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur Kasdim, to go to the Land of Canaan. And they came unto Charan, and dwelt there. (Sefer Beresheit 11:31)

5. The Dispersion as a segue into the life of Avraham

Gershonides, suggests that Hashem brought about the Dispersion for completely practical reasons. The concentration of all of humanity in a single location endangered its survival. A terrible natural disaster could destroy, cripple, or setback human development. The dispersion of human settlement among geographically diverse locations, assures that human development will continue even if a single community is destroyed.2

Rashi suggests that the Dispersion was a punishment. He posits that the generation of the Dispersion was engaged in a rebellion against Hashem. The people questioned His omnipotence and the Dispersion was His response to this challenge.3

One of the most interesting explanations is provided by Rabbaynu Nissim and presented in summary form by Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno. Rabbaynu Nissim explains based upon the Talmud4, that the creation of a community is neither a positive or negative phenomenon. Instead, the worth of a community is determined by its values. If the members of a community are brought together by shared virtues, then the community will accomplish more than its individual members can alone accomplish. Such a community is positive. However, when a community is founded upon its members’ shared vices or shortcomings, then the community is negative and the evil that it will produce exceeds the evil that its individual members can cause.

Rabbaynu Nissim provides an interesting example of the affect of an evil community. He explains that during his era, Jews are a persecuted minority seeking shelter and security in host nations and communities. Jews benefit from the humanity’s lack of unity and even from the fragmentation of humanity into a plethora of nations. When one nation launches a pogrom against its Jews, when Jews are expelled from their host country, or must seek relief from persecution, they flee to a neighboring country. Rabbaynu Nissim invites us to imagine the fate of the Jewish people in a world in which all humanity is united and hostile towards the Jewish people. How would we survive in such a world? Thus, the fragmentation of the human community into diverse nations has assured the survival of Jewish people through long ages of exile and wandering.

Rabbaynu Nissim explains that Avraham, our Patriarch, was the first person that history records as benefiting from this state of affairs. He was a monotheist and a religious rebel in a world completely dominated by idolatry. He was persecuted but he survived by fleeing the country of his persecution and relocating into another country that was not as hostile. He was a direct and immediate beneficiary of the Dispersion and his experience was a harbinger of the experience of his descendants in exile.5

6. An encounter with the Chafetz Chaim and a discourse on individualism

However, there is another benefit that emerged from the Dispersion that impacts humanity in a more general sense. In order to appreciate this benefit, it will be helpful to consider an unusual comment made by Rav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel Z”l (1910 – 1998). Rav Wachtfogel was the mashgiach – the “spiritual dean” of the Lakewood Yeshiva. He was the product of primarily a traditional European yeshiva education and narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Rav Wachtfogel noted in a lecture he gave towards the end of his life that he had been fortunate to spend a few hours with Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan – the Chafetz Chaim – sixty years earlier.

In their time together, the Chafetz Chaim stressed the importance of individualism and the personalization of the religious experience. Rav Wochtfogel reviewed and elaborated upon this message. He explained that one of our greatest human weaknesses is the tendency towards conformity. We are drawn towards and we naturally imitate the behaviors of our peers. This is not a failing that impacts a few isolated behaviors. It is the dominant motivation in our action and a pervasive influence upon our thinking. Rav Wochtfogel exhorted his audience to be individuals. He explained that in all that we do, we should feel personal commitment and not allow ourselves to settle for being “miserable, cheap imitations of our peers”. One should not study Torah as an expression of conformity or prayer because others are praying. Our study of Torah should be an expression of personal commitment and our prayers should express our individual and personal involvement in the activity of prayer.

Rav Wochtfogel continued and explained the greatness of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. They discovered and promoted a perspective that was completely contrary to the beliefs universally accepted by humanity. They embraced the conviction that there is a single G-d who created and rules all existence. Their contemporaries believed in a multitude of deities, idols of their own creation, and other primitive delusions. Because the Patriarchs overcame the pressure to conform to the shared beliefs and practices of their peers and instead, embraced a radically individualistic outlook, they succeeded in revolutionizing humanity’s relationship with Hashem.6

7. Avraham’s encounter with religious diversity

Rav Wochfogel’s comments suggest another benefit that emerged from the Dispersion. As he notes, the pressure that society exerts upon its members to conform to its beliefs and practices is enormous. It impacts all of actions and our perceptions. Before the Dispersion, all of humanity formed a closely integrated community sharing a common set of idolatrous beliefs and practices. In such a society, the pressure to conform to the shared beliefs and practices is virtually irresistible. There is no dissention to suggest alternatives to the shared mores. There are no neighboring communities or nations with alternative practices and perceptions that compete for credibility with those of one’s own community. Instead, the veracity and credibility of the accepted system in constantly and pervasively reinforced.

The Dispersion engendered diversity. It encouraged the development of multiple cultures each with its own distinctive views and customs. Religious doctrines proliferated among these societies and each doctrine’s practitioners asserted the truth of their beliefs and averred the folly of those who practiced opposing religions. Avraham, his descendants, and followers were confronted with a world devoted exclusively to idolatry. The doctrine Avraham developed was a radical departure from the premises universally shared by the conventional religions. Yet, Avraham and those who joined his revolution were not confronted with a homogeneous set of beliefs and practices shared by a tightly organized society encompassing all humankind. The diversity of religious practice and belief suggested room for doubt and question. The variety of religious practices invited the inquisitive investigator to look deeper into and to challenge the conventional wisdom of the age. In short, the diversity that emerged from the Dispersion moderated the intensity of the pressure to conform and provided a stimulus for investigation and inquiry. Avraham, his descendants, and followers were beneficiaries of this diversification of societies.

8. The contemporary dilemma

The comments of the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Wochtfogel’s also suggest a dilemma. They suggest that we seek individualism and personal ownership of our religious experiences. We should not be “miserable, cheap imitations of others”. However, it must be acknowledged that organized religion encourages conformity. We wish to communicate and reinforce our beliefs and practices within our community and to transmit them to our children. In order to accomplish this, we strive for consistency. For example, we want our children to receive a consistent message at home, in synagogue, and at school. We realize that this consistency facilitates the transmission of Torah values to our children. However, through the pervasiveness of the messages we transmit, are we not also inviting and encouraging them to embrace Torah beliefs and practices through conformity? Is that bad? Is there really an alternative?

Perhaps, the solution is to maintain consistency in regard to the fundamental practices but encourage individual expression in other areas. If we find opportunities to nurture individual expression or to at least not suppress it, then perhaps the emergent individualism will extend to our own and to our children’s religious attitudes. For example, individualism can be expressed in dress. Halachah does establish guidelines for appropriateness and modesty to which we must adhere. It does not demand that we all dress in the same color or style.

If we accept the perspective of the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Wochtgogel, then we must challenge ourselves and ask some hard questions. Are we stifling the individual expression and personal ownership that they stressed through current trends towards exaggerated, nuanced conformity? Are we providing ourselves and our children adequate encouragement and opportunity for individual expression and ownership of one’s Judaism?

1 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 50.

2 Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 98.

3 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:1.

4 Mesechet Sanhedrin 71b.

5 Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi (Ran), Derashot HaRan, pp. 4-7.

6 Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim on Pirke Avot, pp 91-92.