I’m sad to say it, but apocalypse was on my mind over Pesah. Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, took me through a few hundred million years of natural history, during which the earth has experienced five “extinction events” when a large portion of the biosphere died off. The most famous and most recent of these was the strike of a bolide (asteroid) near the Yucatan Peninsula to end the Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago. This event wiped out 75% of animal and plant life on earth, including all non-avian dinosaurs, and it was rapid. Yet the current rate of extinction in what some scientists have come to call the “Anthropocene” era of human manipulation of the environment is faster yet. As the atmosphere warms and the oceans acidify, humanity is rapidly displacing other species and reducing the remarkably diverse species of plants and animals on our planet. The swift pace of extinction means that many species do not have time to adapt to their new circumstances. Doubtless, new forms of life will develop and even thrive in the next era, but it is not evident that humanity will be one of them. As my teacher Stephen J. Gould once said, “the earth is not in trouble; people are in trouble.”
Kolbert’s book is fascinating, edifying and deeply disturbing. I highly recommend it! On a less scholarly level, I went to see Darren Aranofsky’s film, Noah, which brought his vision of apocalypse into vivid focus. As a reader of Bible and Midrash, I was puzzled by many of Aranofsky’s decisions. The film’s main drama derives from a Midrash of his own invention, namely Noah’s decision to end the human story by excluding wives for his sons, with the exception of Emma Watson, who plays Shem’s partner, a girl assumed to be infertile. Noah’s plan to doom not only his human contemporaries, but even his own descendants, is not popular with his family, and runs counter to the explicit narrative of the Torah, where God commands Noah to pack his sons and their wives onto the boat, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. But Aranofsky is less interested in fidelity to the original text than in creating a new morality tale in which humanity probably doesn’t deserve to survive. Humans are corrupt, and their habit of eating meat is a sign of their demonic and destructive nature.
Against these grim depictions of human depravity, Parashat Kedoshim arrives with a message of hope. True, the portion has its own vision of apocalypse, with the Land itself prepared to vomit out its inhabitants if Israel were to abandon its God and the path of holiness. Still, the opening line, Kedoshim tihy’u, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy,” is more optimistic . It may be read either as a command—here’s a goal for you; or as a prediction—you can do it! Reish Lakish has a saying, quoted often in the Talmud, that “one who wishes to become pure, others help him out” בא לטהר – מסייעין אותו (b. Yoma 38b; AZ 55a; Menahot 28a), and there is a long Jewish history of viewing humanity’s chances of achieving purity with optimism. Continue reading