In the various collections of Midrash that we have, we find our Rabbis preoccupied with the question of what exact sort of wickedness it was on the part of human beings that caused God, as it were, to throw up God's hands and proceed directly to Version 2.0.
One explanation that is offered can be found in Midrash Tanhuma (Bereishit 12). In this, we are told that the reason the earth was destroyed is immorality - in Hebrew, zimmah - since this is the one thing that God simply cannot bear. Because of zimmah, the Rabbis teach, chaos comes to the world, sweeping away the good and the evil alike.
We moderns might react by rolling our eyes. How Victorian, we might say to ourselves; how preoccupied the ancients were with sexual rectitude! And yet, there is a lesson here for us, too.
The word the Rabbis use for chaos is itself a chaotic word - anderalamusia. We can see from its structure that it isn't really Hebrew - in fact, it comes from the Greek word for plague, carrying the idea of wholesale destruction of humanity. What is it about zimmah that creates destruction that is so immense that it's beyond the powers of ordinary Hebrew to convey?
The examples the Rabbis give of zimmah - the coupling of the heavenly beings (bnai elohim) with humans and the antics of the residents of Sodom - have in common an act of flagrant breach. Zimmah runs red lights; it recklessly ignores accepted, or proper, standards of behavior, combining what should not be combined. When that happens, the Rabbis are suggesting, other boundaries get broken too. The lack of discrimination that causes an act of zimmah in the first place overflows into the result - a wholesale and likewise indiscriminate destruction.
This definition of zimmah can work for us, too, and examples of it abound. At time of writing here in California, commentators are still discussing Miley Cyrus' routine at the VMA in which the actress who formally played Hannah Montana (making her required viewing for a generation of pre-teenage and teenage girls) performed a song in which, clad in a latex bikini, she 'twerked' - danced in an explicitly sexual way - with an older (and fully clothed) man. There has been a lot of discussion of that dance - was she being adult or was she being flagrant? Was it a rite of passage to show that she's finally left Hannah Montana behind her for good? Or was she simply a product of the team who planned the costume and the choreography?
Stories like this are a nine days' wonder (if that); we might wrinkle our noses at them in distaste before getting on with our lives. If we have daughters of our own they might draw our attention a little more. But we'd hardly use the word 'immoral' to describe them...would we?
And yet, in the way that boundaries between childhood and adulthood were breached, in the combining of what should not be combined (young and old? innocence and corruption?) this might well be an example, albeit a minor one, of zimmah. And perhaps, too, it creates a small amount of chaos in the world. Hardly a crisis, hardly a flood - but, nonetheless, a ripple of disorder. The Rabbis are teaching us to notice it, and to name it.
Rabbi Deborah Silver is a member of New North London Synagogue and Assistant Rabbi at Adat Ari El, Valley Village, Los Angeles