Tuesday, 21 Oct 2014

Written by Nathan Godleman

He was a big man, in stature and in reputation. He wore a bowler hat and a three-piece suit, and grew a beard of almost biblical proportions. It matched his name, Solomon Godleman, and he was my great grandfather. Although he died nearly fifty years before my birth, his name lives on in the family. Indeed, he was responsible for changing the spelling of our surname from Godliman with an ‘i’ to Godleman with an ‘e’, and for the inevitable mispronunciation that this has meant ever since! A week before we meet anew the mamas and the papas of the Torah, ancestors we all share in common, it seems like a good time to discuss a patriarch of my own.

The stories I know of my great grandfather are the stuff of saga, and much of the Book of Genesis is saga, rooted in relationships and domesticity, as well as in the supernatural. As a child in the 1860s, Solomon moved from rural Ickenham in West Middlesex to Kilburn, in the growing metropolis of London. He built up a large haulage and demolition business, with horses and carts the mainstay of the operation. He married, lost children in infancy and saw six sons go off to war, although all returned alive. He kept goats as a hobby and entered them in shows, as he did horses at grounds such as White City, and he had a house built in Kenton, near Harrow, which he said he would never live to see finished; and he was right. There was a little of Job, Kohelet and Noah in my great grandfather, as perhaps there is in all of us.

The family business, demolition, as carried out by Solomon, his sons, and then my own father, happens to link us to this week’s parashah, Noach. Yet here it is not a human who sets about destruction, it is Elohim, God. The theology is a little complicated, to say the least. What has happened since the seventh day, when God finished all the work of creation and declared it ‘tov me’od’, ‘very good’? There is a beautiful midrash in Genesis Rabah, in which the word ‘me’od’, spelt mem-aleph-dalet in Hebrew, is seen as an anagram of Adam, aleph-dalet-mem, so that the Eternal One is actually declaring humankind to be ‘good’: ‘tov Adam’. How, then, did evil take hold to such an extent that God decides, effectively, to end history and start again at Year Zero? And were not the flood victims, too, made in the image of God, b’tselem Elohim?

Before the days of steel-framed buildings, breeze blocks and bulldozers, demolition was something of an art. Men armed with little more than hand tools, courage and ingenuity, set themselves two tasks. The first was to clear land for new building, to demolish what was no longer desired so that something else could go up in its place. The second was to salvage everything that was usable from the houses they knocked down. Bricks, timbers, roof tiles, floorboards, doors, lead-framed window panes, fire places; all could be used again. Even what was broken, such as plaster work, was turned into the rubble essential to road building. Next to nothing was thrown away. Each commodity had an inherent value, which was well known to the workmen.

In the story of Noah, God is also salvaging. It is difficult to reconcile more sophisticated notions of God, often focussing on divine attributes such as love, mercy and justice, with a Deity who sends a flood, which surely washes away the innocent along with the guilty. Did the children of the wicked, for example, also deserve death by drowning? There was no Abraham to plead for the innocent, as in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Noah seems concerned only with himself and his family, despite being ‘righteous in his generation’. Therefore, God’s salvage operation is a limited one and his demolition more far reaching. However, great care is taken so that a remnant of humanity is saved, perhaps the better part, for the rebuilding that will come later, and what was ‘good’ about creation, particularly the abundant species of animals, insects and birds, is spared. Thus, God is not the vengeful or petulant destroyer of worlds, as in some Greek myth. Rather the Eternal is intent on establishing something better than what exists before the Flood.

If God’s behaviour in Parashah Noach can be seen in a more favourable light, it may still be out of kilter with our own Judaism. With the Days of Awe barely behind us, we are particularly aware that we should be confronting our challenges, not avoiding them, rebuilding relationships and not giving up on them. Two core Jewish values stand in contrast to the events of the Flood. One is Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, and the other is Teshuvah, returning or repentance. The events we read about allow for neither, so that the only way of understanding them may be to admit that God is capable of learning, too. Learning, perhaps, about anger, or the implications of human free will; realising that this is not the way to act and resolving never to do so again.

There could be a lesson for us here. How easily do we give up on a project, or a relationship? Are we prepared to work at something, or are we more likely to sweep it away and start over? If so, it is reminiscent of a line in a Lou Reed song: ‘I do believe, if you don’t like things, you leave, for some place you’ve never gone before’. Of course, there will be times when something is irredeemable, when one needs to draw a line under it and move on, so as to make the badly-needed new start. The problem may be knowing when that time has come. If earlier generations were too slow to act, perhaps we are too quick. And if we do move on, what is there that we can salvage? What is there of worth that we can take with us to inform our lives in the future? Will we recognise what had inherent value and even find a way to use that which was broken, as in the rubble of demolished houses?

Student Rabbi Nathan Godleman

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.