It is said that "there is no early or late in the Torah" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 6b). In other words, the sacred template of the Hebrew Bible can be reordered so that a phrase from the time of Adam and Eve explains an idea in Jeremiah or vice versa. It also means, if we extend this to the concept of commentary on sacred writ as a kind of textual time travel, that the house of study brings figures of every type and era under the same roof. As long as they have something authentic and meaningful to say about Jewish tradition, the conversation is open and the participants are contemporaneous.
That's how singer-songwriter Randy Newman - contemporary cultural commentator and religious cynic extraordinaire - joins us this week to help us think about Noah and the Flood, a signature tale not only of this week's Torah portion, but of all of sacred story.
The weather has gotten nasty. Forty days and forty nights of a downpour have washed out the very life for which the balance of sun, moon, rain, and sky are meant to provide. Sound familiar? It's South Carolina, Wisconsin, Utah, South Dakota, Texas, and Arizona in September. And, as told by Randy Newman, it's Louisiana, 1927.
What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard and rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
The river rose all day, the river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right
The river have busted through cleared down to plaque mines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
They're tryin' to wash us away
Playing the game of "no early or late" in commentary on sacred text makes it easy to apply the voice of Newman's narrator (from one of the most devastating natural disasters of the North American 20th century) to the world's most famous flood story. And as myths and archetypes go, it's hard to imagine that Randy Newman wouldn't have been thinking of Noah, who built an ark in order to corral his family and pairs of the animals while the rest of the world got lost in the rising waters.
"They're trying to wash us away," Newman sings. Who are they? Is it President Coolidge who appears in the next verse saying, "Isn't it a shame" to one of his advisers before returning to the north? Is it a divine force, that same angry, impatient, or - maybe even worse - apathetic creator who decides that the human project just doesn't matter anymore?
Newman's tune carries a tone of despair and helplessness tinged with anger that is fully opposite the feel of the biblical tale. In the Book of Genesis, a divine voice is unequivocal that God wants to destroy the entirety of mankind because it has failed to live up to the basic standards of justice God expects from God's creatures. Noah simply bows his head, listens, and starts building without a hint of challenge to the decree.
Religious critique - providing layers of color and questioning to a variety of traditions - is one of Newman's most wonderful songwriting traits. In "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," he sings:
Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind
Turning a religious tenet, tale, or unconscious touchstone on its head - as with the revolutionary concept that chronology does not limit our understanding of "before and after" in the Torah - is a core practice of commentary on sacred text. Comparing the lonely voice of the drowned-out farmer from 1927, or the burned-out divine voice of "God's Song" to the story of Noah, opens up a new window - like a window in Noah's ark as he gazes into the gray waters of the flood - and makes me think not of divine punishment, but of the responsibility we humans have for washing ourselves away.
Winter and summer are swapping places more and more; drought, torrential rain, changes in the weather that fit no pattern other than what science tells us is the result of climate change driven by humanity. To borrow a phrase from Newman, who paraphrases a divine watcher watching us as Earth slowly turns away from us, and we look to blame anyone or anything but ourselves: Doesn't it make you love mankind? Here, textual time travel forces contemporary introspection.
The story of Noah concludes with a verse that might suggest a way to think about the Divine, love, and mankind with more subtlety than the undeniable violence of God turning the world upon God's creation. Noah has a direct line to the Divine and is called the "righteous man of his generation". After everything, in a reversal of the extreme decree of destruction against humanity that prompts the Flood, when the waters begin to lower and Noah and his family finally come back to the land, God blesses them to restart the human project, never to be drowned out again.
"Then God said to Noah," it is written, "'Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth'" (Genesis 9:17). It's as if a love song after the storm appears in the sky, a statement of a kind of unconditional love between two entities -divine and human - that have taken each other to the brink. Even Randy Newman admits at the end of "God's Song" that there is a dependency between the two players in this all-stakes drama, one that is very difficult to shake. "You really need me," he sings. "That's why I love mankind."
In sacred stories so thick with meaning, the mix of voices spanning time and space challenge our settling into any single meaning. Narratives and counter-narratives are built into Jewish tradition, which invites interpretation and reinterpretation in a constant dance - with both the destroying flood and the protecting ark, as well as love and despair, flowing together through the world of imagination where Randy Newman and Noah meet.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.