Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Shall we create humanity?

Such Elul-Torah, these midrashim of humankind’s creation – a creature glorious enough to confuse the angels, dubious enough to spark heavenly doubt and dissent. “Now that we have been created,” say the sages in the Babylonian Talmud’s Eiruvin 13b, “let us carefully consider our actions.” In a sense, these creation aggadot are the basis of our Jewish tradition of deliberate, mindful, careful action - which, in the light of these stories, becomes a question of justifying our existence, of vindicating our having been brought into being. In that sense, “Truth will grow from the earth” – one way or the other. The divine gamble has been made, and time will tell whether a glorious or devastated world will result. Have those two alternate possibilities ever been more vividly apparent than they are in our own age?

It often strikes me that, in ancient times, suggesting that human actions might matter on a cosmic scale must have been the height of spiritual chutzpah. The natural world was so clearly mighty and impervious and we were so buffeted by its every fluctuation. Our stories of droughts brought on by sin, or rains by righteous acts were a desperate bid for a feeling of control – “If it can be my fault, perhaps I can make it better.”

Now that it has become clear that our actions as a species do in fact tip the balance of this world, suddenly our tradition of careful, mindful, principle-driven action is extremely relevant. Suddenly a tradition that teaches that our individual and collective actions matter on a grand scale is just what this world needs. Our tales of angelic disputes over the adding of humankind into the world have suddenly become stories that the world well can use. We, as Jews, are heirs to a tradition that should prepare us ideally to meet the cosmic question of our times, of a planet teetering on the brink of cataclysmic shifts brought on by unbridled human action.

I hold in my hand at this moment – I kid you not – one of the latest Jewish innovations in our ongoing effort to justify our having been brought into existence. It is a “Shabbos Toothbrush.” I don’t use it, I have kept it in the bright, endorsement-filled packaging for show-and-tell. We can now avoid the acts of ‘spreading’ toothpaste, of ‘squeezing’ liquids from bristles, of ‘cutting’ gums. This, apparently, is what is so desperately needed to vindicate the trust that the divine has put in us as a species that a factory has been built, in China, to produce these “Kosher Innovations” brushes, designed, somewhat to my shame, in my home and native land of Canada.

To my shame? Don’t get me wrong. More power to our impulse to take care, to weigh our every action carefully as though the world depended on it, to obey our best understanding of our obligations in this world to the letter – even to brush our teeth with sacred duty and consequence in mind, in such a way as to justify our existence. But the world is burning, and I wish we were teaching our children that such a crisis is precisely what we have been training for as a people for millennia. I wish we were offering the world “Kosher Innovations” fit to the urgent tasks at hand (alongside kosher toothbrushes if you like). “Shall we make humankind?” “What shall be its actions?” If our tradition of Torah, aggadah and halakha, cannot teach us to do better, cannot fill our hands with better tools for the moment, then, in our matriarch Rebekah's words, "Lamah zeh anochi?" - "Why should I exist at all?"

1 comment:

anotherqueerjubu said...

A new wrinkle on the old saying: how many angels can argue on the head of a toothbrush?

The story was covered in today's NY Times. Yes, we're brushing our teeth while Jerusalem burns.