Sermon: The Tower of Babel and Responding to Difference

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 21 October 2017

What happened immediately after God’s intervention in the story of Babel?
What happened at that moment that the people suddenly discovered they could no longer communicate with one another as once they had?
How did they react to their newly confounded speech?
The biblical text, as is so often the case, is sparing with its detail.  The rabbis, as was so often the case, saw this as an opportunity.  Always seeking to read creatively out of, and into the text, they responded to this omission with their own insights.

Here is one rabbinic version, taken from Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer – a text which is normally dated to around the eighth or ninth centuries, the dating based on its clear relationship with the early Islamic world.

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer imagines the moment that things went wrong for the builders like this:
“And they wished to speak one to another in the language of their fellows, but each did not understand the language of the other. What did they do? Every one took their sword, and they fought one another to destroy each other, and half the world fell there by the sword, and thus God scattered them upon the face of all the earth”

It’s an amazing text.
When the rabbis who wrote this text read the foundational, pre-history story of Babel, it felt natural to them to assume that tension automatically followed when difference appeared.  Each did not understand the language of the other. So what did they do? Every one of them picked up their sword. Of course they did – when we do not understand one another, what else would we do?  The text presents tension, hatred and fear as almost inevitable, as an immediate corollary of difference.

Alas, this rabbinic analysis does not feel so alien to us.  We also see this – in ways large and small – throughout our lives.

On a relatively trivial level, we see this in something like the tribalism of sport all the time.
At the other extreme, we know that those who once lived side by side – working, living, socialising together – in Srebrenica, in Rwanda, in twentieth century Europe – found it possible to hate, to carry out atrocities on those they once had as colleagues, friends, neighbours, once they saw the other not as a human partner in building but as different.

Perhaps no longer do we immediately reach for the sword, but that does not mean that we are immune.  As a neighbourhood we are continuing to live through our own, local, experience of difference, with the development of the Golders Green Hippodrome into an Islamic religious centre.  With this new experience of difference has come its corollary of distrust.  In 21st century London we might not reach for the hateful sword, perhaps, but plenty have reached for the hateful pen (or keyboard) as the Islamophobic comments on social media demonstrate.

Mark and I have spoken a great deal over the last couple of weeks about this specific issue.  But, more broadly, how do we respond – how does our tradition respond – to the human instincts identified in this midrash?

Our tradition contains a number of powerful responses.
The first is very simple – prohibition.  To act hatefully towards the other on the basis of difference is forbidden by Jewish tradition.  Every Jewish person who has written hateful things about the Hussainiat al Rasool al Adham over the last few weeks is acting in contravention of Jewish law.
Hatred, hateful feelings, are prohibited, repeatedly warned against in Torah.  “You shall not hate your fellow in your heart” Leviticus commands.  This injunction applies beyond our immediate communities to others.  In Deuteronomy we read, “Do not hate an Edomite, because they are your kin” and “Do not hate the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land“.  These last instructions are worthy of note – both Edom and Egypt represent formative moments in the Jewish story both represent tension, conflict, oppressive forces, and yet – lo t’ta’eiv adomi; lo t’ta’eiv mitzri.  Even where there is difference and pain, even a difficult history, still there is no justification for hate.

Beyond simple prohibition, our tradition also recognises that in the face of difference, there is a sense of mutual communal obligation.  Perhaps the most famous expression of this is found in the rabbinic laws “mipnei darkhei shalom” for the sake of peace, to foster harmony:
“They must not prevent the poor among non-Jews from gathering gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, the corner of the field” – the Mishnah tells us – “mipnei darkhei shalom”.  Our sense of communal obligation crosses communities.
The Talmud adds: “We provide support to their poor along with the poor of Israel; we visit their sick along with the sick of Israel; we bury their dead along with the dead of Israel – mipnei darkhei shalom”
We might add that we should help with the creation of their centre of worship and meeting, mipnei darkhei shalom.

Importantly, neither of these responses, prohibition and obligation, deny the possibility of suspicion, the reality of our midrash.  They do not ask us to pretend there are not concerns, to push those feelings down, and replace them with some vague sense of love.  Rather, in a very Jewish way, they tell us to just get on with being good:  Recognise that those feelings are not OK, do not act upon them, steel yourselves… and get on with working for the sake of peace instead.

The midrash with which we began has another insight at its heart.  Central to it is the importance of communication.  That those with whom we cannot or do not speak are those with whom we are in tension. We know the power of dialogue to ease divisions, to remove assumptions; the importance of communication and mutual understanding without which we are more likely to pick up our swords.  And so, another obligation falls on us: to reach out, to find common language.

An often quoted text about the importance of communication in removing hatred is the story of Joseph and his brothers, about whom it says “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him” – “vayis’nu oto, v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom” – in their hatred they were not able to speak to him to peace – they couldn’t talk their way to peace.   The head of the yeshivah of Prague in the early 1700s Yonatan Eybeschutz added that had they sat together, had they spoken to one another, had they argued with each another, eventually they would have made peace with each other.

It is partly this reality that means our synagogue, and the Progressive movements in this country and around the world – even the most particularistic rabbis among us – are committed to interfaith dialogue.  To quote my colleague Fred Morgan: “I would argue it is an obligation today for Jews to learn about other faith traditions, to allow others to speak for themselves, to live with the contradictions and tensions that emerge… By calling this activity a mitzvah, I mean to say that it is no longer an option for me to choose to engage with the other in terms of their faith tradition; it is a necessity.”

As was so often the case, the early rabbis when reading Torah put their finger on a real challenge of human experience: one that was real for them nearly 1500 years ago and one that remains present for us in our lives.  They identified the challenges of difference.  But their voice is not uncritical: if, in the face of difference, our immediate response is to reach for the sword, the rabbis tell us, that is not OK.
Rather, it is our task, our obligation, to try to have a conversation, even where this is hard; not to behave hatefully, even where we feel there may be reason; and to strive to help the other.  To act “mipnei darkhei shalom” – for the sake of peace and harmony.