Renewing our Vows: A New Approach to Intermarriage

Recently, my congregation’s lay leadership voted to permit its clergy to officiate at marriages between a Jewish individual and a partner from another background (with some important conditions), if and when the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the Cantorial Assembly change their current Standards of Practice forbidding their members to officiate at such events.

I both championed and fully support my congregation’s move. We made our decision because we believe that the Conservative movement’s rule prohibiting its rabbis from officiating at intermarriages is rooted in outmoded halakhic reasoning, conclusions not corroborated by the empirical evidence, and failed strategy.

What follows is the reasoning that led me and us to this conclusion and momentous change. I am grateful to my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Jesse Olitzky for being my hevruta in studying about and thinking through this issue. I publish this essay in the hope that my argument might encourage my colleagues and other Conservative congregations to follow suit.

I will begin by saying that I am a proud Conservative rabbi. I have been nurtured by Conservative movement organizations and institutions my entire life. I am honored to serve a vibrant and thriving Conservative-affiliated congregation. And I am fully committed to the strength and vitality of my movement’s approach to Judaism.

But I believe the Conservative movement’s stance on intermarriage is wrong, and that it’s time for a change. My colleagues and I should be permitted to officiate at wedding ceremonies between a Jew and someone from another background in instances where it can be reasonably presumed that the Jewish partner will remain Jewishly committed, where insofar as a religion is practiced in the household it will be Judaism, and where any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews.

I have been drawn to this conclusion by reexamining the halakhic reasoning, the social science, and the strategic thinking that produced the Conservative movement’s ban in the first place.

The ban on Conservative rabbis officiating, participating in, and even attending wedding ceremonies between a Jew and someone from another background has been in place for over 40 years (however, it should be noted that, as of October 2018, the Rabbinical Assembly notified its members that, as it turns out, there was never officially a prohibition on attending interfaith wedding ceremonies, and now Conservative rabbis may feel free to do so).

The ban, called a “Standard of Rabbinic Practice,” was established around the same time as the first survey on American Jewish population trends reported a 23% spike in the intermarriage rate among American Jews since 1960. This study prompted widespread fears that the American Jewish community was intermarrying itself into non-existence. For example, the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York responded to the study by sponsoring a full-page advertisement in The New York Times declaring, “If you’re Jewish, chances are your grandchild won’t be.” The Conservative rabbinate shared these fears, and argued that the best way to prevent the disappearance of American Jewry was to take a firm stance against intermarriage.

The basis for this fear is the presumption that when a Jew marries someone of another background s/he will be swayed away from his/her tradition and community, and/or the children from such a union will be raised with little or no meaningful Jewish identity, attachment, beliefs, or behaviors.

This fear has deep roots. There is a biblical passage that many have interpreted as banning intermarriage because “they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:4). And the fear has remarkable resilience. In 1990, the lead researcher of an American Jewish population study wrote, “most children of mixed marriages will be lost to Judaism.”

This fear, however, was and is misguided.

As intermarriage has shifted in our time from crisis to simple fact of contemporary Jewish life (indeed, on a personal level, many of my own extended family members are intermarried), many have come to realize that intermarriage is not a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather an opportunity for Jewish flourishing and vitality.

A growing body of research challenges the equation between intermarriage and Jewish erosion, and points us toward an altogether new paradigm.

A recent Brandeis University study argues that Jewish identity, practice, and affiliation remains strong in intermarried households where the couple has exposure to Jewish education, observance, and community. Research out of Brown University adds that, when Jewish organizations and institutions adopt more inclusive postures toward intermarried couples and their children, those couples and their children “[remain] Jewish.”

In other words, who one marries doesn’t determine the Jewishness of one’s household as much as does Jewish learning and Jewish living. When Jewish organizations and institutions reach out to and include intermarried families in Jewish life, they become as likely as in-married families to remain Jewishly attached.

Conversely, when the Jewish community adopts an exclusionary posture toward intermarried families, we miss an opportunity to strengthen the Jewish partner’s connection to his/her tradition. Similarly, such policies inhibit our ability to bring the partner from a different background into deeper and more meaningful relationships with Jewish tradition and community.

In my experience as a congregational rabbi who strives to include interfaith families in my community, I have often found that partners from different backgrounds, even those who never have any intention of converting to Judaism, become highly involved in Jewish life when they feel invited to do so. They become active in their children’s Jewish upbringing, from bringing them to Religious School or Day School, to attending Shabbat services, to participating in Jewish rituals at home and in the synagogue. The exclusionary posture of the established Jewish community towards interfaith families does not only push away the Jewish partner from his or her tradition. It also prevents the partner from a different background from experiencing the beauty, richness, and joy of Judaism. But when we welcome and include intermarried couples and their families into our communities in every possible way, we substantially increase the likelihood that Judaism will remain a core part of their family’s life.

That fact – that the Jewishness of intermarried couples and their families is directly related to how much we as Jewish leaders reach out to and include them in Jewish life and community – calls upon us to reexamine our stance about the wedding ceremony itself.

In recent years, researchers have increasingly focused on the impact of Jewish wedding ceremonies on the Jewishness of intermarried couples and their children. It turns out that the wedding ceremony itself represents a unique opportunity to strengthen an interfaith couple’s Jewish identity and ties.

The data suggests that intermarried couples married by a sole Jewish clergy officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than intermarried couples who had other forms of officiation. They are three times more likely to raise Jewish children compared to intermarried couples who married under other auspices, and on multiple measures of Jewish engagement, including synagogue involvement, intermarried couples whose weddings were presided over by a Jewish clergy officiant look very similar to the in-married.

This, in many ways, is not surprising. As the authors of a recent study on the subject put it, “Weddings are a pivotal moment in the life of all couples, but particularly so for intermarrying spouses. The process leading up to the ceremony can provide a unique opportunity for the couple to articulate their religious identity, commitments, and connections to a larger community.”

This analysis comports with my experience. When I agree to officiate at any couple’s wedding, I usually meet with the couple no fewer than five times. At these meetings, we discuss the ceremony, along with its liturgy, its symbols, and its multifaceted meanings, in great detail. We talk about the unique challenges and opportunities of married life, and I work with every couple to improve their communications skills and strengthen their bonds. And, not unimportantly, I talk about religion and values, and how each couple might uniquely enrich their and their families’ lives through Judaism and involvement with the Jewish community.

During these meetings, I form a close relationship with each couple. Because of the unique opportunity to spend such quality time together, and because of the intimacy of the context, the time leading up to a couple’s wedding is, I feel, when I truly become their rabbi. Additionally, I typically encourage couples to hold a celebration announcing their forthcoming wedding, an aufruf, at my synagogue during Shabbat services. In this way, my community forges or deepens their connections with these couples and vice-versa. In my experience, planning a wedding with a couple is a truly singular opportunity to form strong Jewish connections with them, an opportunity that is not easily matched at any other point in a couple’s life, including when they have children or when their children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

For these reasons and more, officiating at a couple’s wedding is an act of Jewish welcoming, engagement, and relationship-building without parallel.

Furthermore, the fact that an interfaith couple seeks out a rabbi to officiate a solely Jewish wedding ceremony is in itself not insignificant. More and more, Americans are asking friends and family members to officiate their weddingsinstead of seeking out a member of the clergy. So, whether a couple asks me to officiate because the Jewish partner grew up in my shul, or called me out of the blue because they need an officiant and heard good things about my officiation, or are just trying to make their Jewish grandmother happy, I do not take for granted the fact that a couple wanted a rabbi to preside over the most important moment of their lives, and that they wanted that moment to be infused with Jewish symbols and rituals. Given the realities of our time, we can indeed see the simple act of reaching out to a rabbi to officiate at a wedding as a desire to maintain a strong connection to Jewish ritual, tradition, and practice.

I believe, therefore, that the time has come for a change in the Conservative movement’s thinking and approach. While it is true that the classical understanding of the halakhic tradition regards intermarriage as forbidden, our movement has long held that “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” The question, then, is not whether intermarriage is compatible with halakhic norms as we’ve inherited them, but rather whether there is a desire among the Conservative rabbinate to understand and apply halakhah in a way that permits intermarriage.

I believe there are compelling reasons to do so. As I pointed out above, the strategy of holding fast to the prohibition on rabbinic officiation at intermarriages while encouraging endogamy and conversions has not stopped Jews from intermarrying. If anything, it has driven Jews, in particular Jewish partners in interfaith relationships, to leave our congregations and our movement, and in many cases to divest from Jewish life altogether. It has turned out to be a historic and colossal missed opportunity to strengthen the Jewish connections and commitments of Jews (and their partners from other backgrounds). It has driven Jewish family members of intermarried couples – parents and grandparents – away from our synagogues and movement, unwelcoming as we have been of their children. And, most painfully, this strategy has turned away untold numbers of people from different backgrounds who, while perhaps not ready to convert to Judaism at the time of their weddings, might have eventually discovered joy and meaning in Jewish life, and would have, down the line, been moved to convert.

If those reasons are sufficient motivation for the rabbinic will, as I believe they are, what would be the halakhic way?

According to inherited rabbinic tradition, the prohibition on intermarriage originates in Deut. 7:1-4. Understood simply, this passage forbids Israelites from marrying Canaanites because such relationships might lead the Israelite spouse (and/or any children produced by the union) to adopt the Canaanite spouse/parent’s religion. The Torah does not forbid all intermarriages, for any reason. Rather, the Torah restricts intermarriage between Jews and certainpeople of other backgrounds, and for a specific reason. Where the person of another background in question is not one explicitly banned, and where the rationale no longer holds, the prohibition cannot be invoked.

The prohibition of Deut. 7:1-4 does not – and was never intended to – apply in instances where it can be reasonably presumed that the Jewish partner will remain Jewishly committed, where insofar as a religion is practiced in the household it is Judaism, and where any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews.

I recognize, of course, that to understand the biblical commandment this way would overturn the interpretation and application of the passage by many ancient and medieval rabbis, who expanded the prohibition to include all people from other backgrounds. In the halakhic tradition, this reinterpretation would be a radical legal move, and one not to be undertaken lightly.

But I believe current circumstances warrant such a step. The halakhic tradition recognizes that, sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. The Talmud teaches that when maintaining a prohibition would erode the Jewish people’s commitment to the tradition as a whole, even a clear biblical prohibition can be set aside. This principle is known as “hora’at sha’ah,” the demands of the moment.

Historically, halakhic authorities in the Conservative movement have been willing to invoke the hora’at sha’ah principle, uprooting biblical prohibitions when circumstances warranted. We already celebrate and sanctify relationships that were previously deemed as biblically or rabbinical prohibited, and we have even boldly and beautifully created new ceremonies and legal contracts for these relationships.

Fortunately, in this case, we needn’t go so far as to abrogate a biblical prohibition. Instead, we Conservative rabbis need only invoke our authority (authority we have long maintained we possess) to overturn the classical interpretation and application of the passage by rabbis of bygone ages who expanded the original biblical prohibition.

For all the reasons outlined above, I believe present circumstances warrant invoking the “hora’at sha’ah” principle with respect to intermarriage, overturning rabbinic precedent to restore and uphold the plain and limited meaning of the prohibition in Deut. 7:1-4. This means that when a couple affirms Judaism will be the sole religion practiced in their household and that any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews, the union is not prohibited by Jewish law, and Conservative rabbis ought to be permitted to officiate at the wedding.

How would a rabbi know and ensure that a couple is prepared to make and adhere to such an affirmation? Of course, nothing in life is certain. People can change during the long span of a marriage. And people can sometimes deceive in order to get what they want. However, this is as true of endogamous couples as it is of interfaith couples. There is no way to know for sure whether an interfaith couple will ultimately build a faithful Jewish home together, just as there is no way to know for sure whether a Jewish couple will do so.

However, the social science strongly suggests that when a couple seeks out a rabbi to officiate their wedding and agrees to a ceremony conducted exclusively by Jewish clergy and solely with Jewish rites, a rabbi can both predict and ensure that the couple intends to build an exclusively Jewish household. Conscientious rabbis can further ascertain a couple’s intentions in the course of pre-marital conversations and planning, as well as provide meaningful support and guidance about building a Jewish home and life together. I believe that my colleagues and I are trained to have the sensitivity and judgment necessary to develop appropriate standards and criteria for determining a couple’s Jewish commitments. And when a couple does demonstrate that their household will be a Jewish one, my colleagues and I should be able to sanctify their union.

Of course, I do not believe Conservative rabbis should be required to officiate intermarriages. I admire and respect my colleagues who, for various legitimate reasons, will continue refuse to do so. I simply believe my colleagues and I should be permitted, that we should have the choice, that our movement’s leadership ought to respect our understanding of tradition, sensitivity to people’s needs, and halakhic authority, enabling us to do what we believe is right in this matter, as we can in every other matter that comes before us as rabbis. As a proud Conservative rabbi who loves Conservative Judaism and believes it has much to offer the Jewish people and humanity, I do not want to, nor do I believe I should have to, leave my movement, or risk damaging or splitting it, over this issue.

At the same time, one of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism has always been “tradition and change.” Sometimes, change is initiated from the top-down. And sometimes, change can and must be driven from the grassroots, by visionary congregations and clergy pioneering a new path. I called for and embrace my congregation’s new policy, which will enable me to officiate at weddings between a Jew and someone of another background when the above criteria are met, in that spirit. As soon as the Rabbinical Assembly changes its policies, I will joyfully and proudly officiate at such ceremonies. I hope other Conservative clergy and congregations will be inspired to declare publicly that they feel similarly, demonstrating to our movement’s leadership that rank-and-file clergy and congregations are ready for a new direction on this issue.

My sacred work as a rabbi is to help bring Jewish individuals closer to Torah, and to bring Torah closer to Jews. Jewish wedding ceremonies are significant opportunities to fulfill this rabbinic calling. My colleagues and I have missed too many of these opportunities, and for too long, shrinking in fear from an erosion narrative that could just as easily be seen as an opportunity paradigm.

The time has come for a new approach. In so doing, we will undertake a renewal of vows: a renewal of the vows we make as rabbis to strengthen the bonds between Jews and their tradition, and a renewal of the vows every individual Jew makes with God and Israel to perpetuate Torah from generation to generation.

(Originally published at: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/renewing-our-vows-a-new-approach-to-intermarriage/)

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The Disappeared: A Richmond Rabbi Takes On Human Rights In Guatemala

The history of Guatemala’s secret abductions reminds us how important the principle of universal equality really is — and points out how far from that principle the United States has gone.

On a recent trip to Guatemala with rabbinic colleagues from around the country, I learned the story of a boy named Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. Marco Antonio reminded me so much of my own son: He loved to draw and write so much that even when he couldn’t find a pencil or paper, he would draw pictures with his finger in the air; he loved outdoor sports, bike riding, and Star Wars.

Tragically, that’s where Marco Antonio’s story ceased to be normal. In the early 1980’s, at the height of Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict (1960-1996), Marco Antonio’s older sister, Emma Guadalupe, became involved in student-led protests for democratic reforms and human rights. One day, she was kidnapped outside of her school by members of the Guatemalan army, presumably as a punishment for her activism. They took her to a military zone, where she was repeatedly tortured and raped. Despite this, after nine days, she managed to escape and return home.

The army set up an intelligence operation to find Emma Guadalupe. Within days, agents had tracked her down. They stormed the family’s house, but Emma wasn’t home. Unwilling to leave empty-handed, the agents took Marco Antonio while his mother looked on, powerless to stop them. He was never heard from again. He was disappeared. He was 14 years old.

Before traveling to Guatemala on a trip organized by American Jewish World Service, I had never heard the terms “to be disappeared” or “to disappear someone.” It was a usage of the verb “disappear” I had simply never encountered. In Guatemala, meeting with human rights advocates and victims of state-sponsored abuses, I heard these terms repeatedly. It turns out that “to be disappeared” or “to disappear someone” is a common term in the world of human rights, although the more proper term is an “enforced disappearance.”

An enforced disappearance is the secret abduction of an individual by the state or its agents. To disappear someone is to make someone vanish indefinitely without a trace, telling no one about where they were taken and what has happened to them. This is different than kidnapping someone, or even imprisoning or murdering them; in those circumstances, the status of the person apprehended is generally known. When someone is disappeared, the objective is the uncertainty; the point is for the victim to go missing and for no one to know what has happened.

Guatemala has a history of extrajudicial forced disappearances. Forced disappearances were a deliberate and systematic government strategy during the period of the Internal Armed Conflict, designed to psychologically torture and terrorize segments of the population into submission. As of 2013, there are 45,000 people who were documented as disappeared during the conflict era. And given the fact that many conflict-era war criminals still populate Guatemala’s ruling and political class and that corruption and repression remains widespread, the tactic continues as a strategy of the security and intelligence services — often with impunity — to this day.

Marco Antonio is one of those 45,000 disappeared Guatemalans. Still today, nearly 40 years after his disappearance, and over 20 years since the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, his family has never been told what happened to him, and no one involved in his disappearance has even been charged with a crime, much less brought to justice.

The establishment of a just society is the indisputable theme of my tradition’s sacred scripture, which Jews call the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). For instance, the Torah demands the death penalty for the perpetrators of crimes like the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio: “He who kidnaps a man — whether he has sold him or is still holding him — shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). That law is but one of many expressions of the famous biblical perception of justice: “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (21:23-25).

Contemporary commentators sometimes criticize this biblical approach to justice as brutal, violent, and unnecessarily harsh. The ancient Jewish rabbis, too, were somewhat uncomfortable with the practical application of this biblical law of retaliation, substituting where they could monetary damages: an eye for the monetary equivalent of an eye, a foot for the monetary equivalent of a foot, and so forth. And yet while the rabbis may have been squeamish about actually cutting off the hand of a violent perpetrator, and while they correctly pointed out that, in effect even if not intent, this kind of retaliatory justice can result in injustice, they did not challenge the basic moral assertion embedded in this biblical teaching.

The basic moral assertion of the Torah’s legal system is that all lives have equal value, that everyone must be treated as equals under the law. The life of a noble and the life of a peasant are legally equivalent — their eyes have the same value, their hands have the same value, their feet have the same value, their bodily integrity and dignity are equally worthy.

Astonishingly for a Bronze Age text, the Torah even goes so far as to extend this equality of status to foreigners, people who otherwise in the ancient world would have never been considered social equals with citizens. Yet the Torah says “you shall have one law” for citizen and stranger alike (Leviticus 24:22), that the foreigner is to be considered legally equal to the native-born, and even goes so far as to enshrine special protections to the alien to ensure their fair treatment.

The Torah, while admittedly imperfect, was a revolution of values in its time, and advances a core principle that we have yet to fully realize even in our time. It thus challenges us, in every place and in every age, to advance societies in which all people are considered and treated as equals, in which no life is treated as more important than another, and in which no life is treated as less worthy than another.

When I reflected on what I witnessed and learned while in Guatemala, this was the principle to which I kept returning. Guatemala today remains a country of profound inequality: Nearly 60% of the country is impoverished, and about a quarter of the population lives on less than $1 per day. About half of all Guatemalan children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. All of these inequities and more disproportionately impact Guatemala’s large Mayan population, the country’s indigenous inhabitants. Corruption and impunity remain rampant. If you are wealthy or well-connected, if you possess political or economic power or enjoy proximity to the powerful, you benefit from legal and extralegal privileges unimaginable to the poor and weak majority.

There seemed to be a direct line between centuries of colonization and exploitation (including American-orchestrated overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically-elected leader in 1954) and the wholesale slaughter of native communities during the conflict period to the discrimination, poverty, and oppression rampant today. The legacy of considering some Guatemalan lives as more valuable than others keeps a select few wealthy and powerful while preventing the majority of the population from rising.

It is why, for example, whole communities can have their lands confiscated by the state with no just cause or fair compensation, and be forced to live in makeshift tent villages in the wilderness with inadequate access to food, water, and healthcare, while fighting years-long battles in the courts that they are likely to lose. It is why human rights activists and journalists are routinely threatened, harassed, imprisoned, and even murdered or disappeared with impunity by the same people they are protesting or trying to expose as corrupt or criminal. It is why very few perpetrators of atrocities during the conflict era have been prosecuted for their crimes. These were the people I met in Guatemala. This is what a society looks like when the lives of some are considered more valuable than the lives of others.

More troubling still, I could not help but hear in all of this echoes of my own country’s history and present realities. As I encountered past and present injustice in Guatemala, the longest government shutdown in American history dragged on. Hundreds of thousands of government workers had been furloughed without pay for weeks over a demand, leveled by some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals, that we treat some people — namely, asylum seekers and migrants from Central America — as less deserving of dignity and opportunity as others.

The shutdown, of course, merely compounded cruelty upon cruelty. Even without a wall, current immigration policy perfectly illustrates how we today treat some lives as inferior to others. What, after all, was happening at the border over the past year if not the forced disappearances of hundreds of migrant children, some of whom died in our custody? Why are those fleeing violence and poverty from places like Guatemala less worthy of dignity and opportunity than anyone else?

It increasingly dawned on me that, similar to Guatemala, the U.S. was built upon a foundation of plunder, exploitation, and brutality; our history replete with legally ordained inequality and judicially enforced discrimination. One can draw a straight line from those historic injustices to the facts that, today, roughly one in every five American children live in poverty, more than two million Americans are incarcerated, and our rate of income inequality is greater than any other democracy in the developed world. And every single one of those inequities disproportionately impacts Americans of color.

It was painful to consider whether my own society’s injustices were differences of degree, rather than kind; that even in America, in practice if not in theory, some people’s lives matter more than others. What, I wondered, will become of us if we remain on this path?

If all lives have intrinsic and equal value then we yet have considerable work to do at home. And, if we accept this core principle of justice, then the inequities in a faraway place like Guatemala must also concern us. We should care about a foreign government disappearing a child before his parent’s eyes, because if all lives have equal value, no parent anywhere deserves to fear such a horror any more than you or I do. If all lives are equally precious, than the systematic murder of an entire population should matter to us whether it is happening to our own people or to people halfway around the world. The principle is universal. It transcends borders and applies across national, ethnic, and religious divides. And it calls us to attention and to action at home, in Central America, and, indeed, everywhere.

The biblical tradition insists that all lives have equal value. Moreover, it demands not just that we cherish this principle but also that we build a society, and ultimately a world, that enshrines and ensures the equal worth of every human being.

(Originally published at: https://rvamag.com/rva-global/the-disappeared-a-richmond-rabbi-takes-on-human-rights-in-guatemala.html)

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Remarks at Islamic Center Standing Together Event (March 17, 2019)

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Asalamu aleikum. Peace be upon you, my brothers, and sisters.

As I utter those words, I am cognizant of how painfully ironic it feels to be extending greetings of peace to a community shattered by a cruel and horrific act of violence. How can we speak of peace in a world torn apart by malice and terror, in which people of faith cannot even gather in their sacred spaces for prayer without fearing the next eruption of malevolence from men indoctrinated in white supremacist hate, emboldened by the cynical words of callous leaders, radicalized on the internet, and armed thanks to political cowardice and negligence? How can we speak of peace in this moment? How can we speak at all?

Sometimes, when the hurt is too raw or the anger is too fierce, all there is to do is cry. Like so many of you, I have done my share of crying since I first heard the news on Friday morning — I weep for the dead, I weep for their families, and I weep for Muslim people everywhere, for the attack on Muslim worshippers in New Zealand was an attack on Muslims everywhere, a devastating reality that I as a Jew know all too well. I cry because an act of terror like this rips off the scab of my own wounds that had only just begun to heal. I cry because of the brokenness of our world in which such tragedies seem not only frequent but inevitable. I cry for my children, for all of our children, to whom we’ve bequeathed a world in which they are not safe anywhere, not even in their schools or in their synagogues, their malls or their mosques.

But my faith affirms that in my tears, I keep good company. According to Jewish tradition, God is also perpetually in tears due to the brokenness of our world. One of the first teachings in the Babylonian Talmud, the central sacred text of my ancient rabbinic ancestors, is that God arises several times each night, unable to rest, and roars like a lion in pain, crying out, “Woe to Me! For because of My children’s sins I destroyed My house, burned My Temple and exiled them among the nations of the world” (Tractate B’rakhot 3a).

In the rabbinic consciousness, the destruction of the ancient Temple was the greatest of cataclysms, an event that involved not only the deaths of thousands but that precipitated centuries of Jewish homelessness, powerlessness, and pain, and as such, it came to symbolize the damaged and unredeemed state of our world.

A piece of me draws comfort from this notion, that God looks down at what happened in New Zealand and cries out loudly like an injured lion

But I also believe in this teaching my tradition is offering us more than the mere comfort of an empathetic God. According to the ancient rabbis, the sin that resulted in the destruction of the Temple was sinat hinam, unfettered, free-flowing hate. It’s not that this hatred was baseless — which is how the term sinat hinam is often, but wrongly, translated. People then, just as today, had reasons for their animosity, however misguided those reasons may have been. What was unrestrained was people’s willingness and ability to act on their hate. My rabbinic ancestors taught that ruin and catastrophe, destruction and death, is the inevitable end result of a society where hatred is not only pervasive, but also unchecked. Each and every night, then, and especially on a night like tonight, God wails and weeps along with us because of the devastation loosed upon the world thanks to hate run rampant.

But if unrestrained hate is the cause of the world’s brokenness, then we also know the way toward repair. The way to begin putting the shattered pieces of our hearts and our world back together is through ahavat hinam, unfettered, free-flowing love.

What kind of love is that?

It’s the love that propelled the Muslim community to lead the charge in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Jewish community after the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings. It’s the love that drove Muslims and Christians to form human chains around synagogues all of the country to protect Jewish worshippers with their own bodies. It’s the love that brought people of all backgrounds to the airports and to the mosques all over the country in outrage and in solidarity in the face of travel bans and persistent Islamophobia emanating from corridors of power. It’s the love that brings us all here tonight, a love that has moved us time and again to stand together — too many times— in defense of the vilified, the dehumanized, the marginalized, and the vulnerable in the face of resurgent and resilient threats to their freedom, equality, and safety. It’s the love that says whatever our differences, we are all of us brothers and sisters, children of the same God, all of us equal in our worth and infinite in our dignity, all of us fundamentally responsible to and for each other.

It is, in the end, the love of 71 year old Daoud Nabi, one of the victims of the shootings in Christchurch. Daoud stood at the door of the mosque, warmly greeting everyone who entered, even the terrorist who ultimately killed him. “Come in, brother,” were his last words before he died saving a fellow worshipper from a bullet.

Daoud’s love tragically did not spare him from death. But if all of us commit ourselves to that same love, that same graciousness, and that same hospitality; if all of us commit ourselves to welcoming the stranger and seeing in the face of the other our brother or our sister; if all of us here tonight commit to advancing unrestrained love in the face of a world torn asunder by free hate — it might just save us. We might yet be able to put the broken pieces of this world back together and build of this world a sanctuary fit for the indwelling of a God of compassion, justice, and peace. May we merit to see such a world built speedily and in our days.

May the memory of those we mourn be a blessing, and may they find their comfort in Paradise. And may we soon bring God’s peace upon us, and the whole world.

Salaam, shalom.

 

Amen.

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The Heart Repair of Hanukkah: Blessing Each Other’s Light

Compared to many other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is relatively simple. Sure, there are many lovely customs — latkes, dreidels, sufganiyot, gelt, and the like — but the essential practice of the festival is lighting the menorah each night. And, just as we do when we perform other mitzvot (commanded ritual acts), when we kindle the Hanukkah lights, we recite a blessing.
 
Unique, however, to this particular mitzvah is that we are not only obligated to recite a blessing over candles we light ourselves, but also when we see someone else’s kindled menorah (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 23b). In other words, if I am driving down Monument Avenue, and I see a lit menorah in someone’s window, I am supposed to recite the blessing, “…who made miracles for our ancestors in those days, in this season.” This is the case even if it’s the home of a complete stranger, even if I hadn’t lit my own menorah, and even if I wasn’t planning on lighting candles at all. There is no other mitzvah like this, in which we recite a blessing over a deed done by another person!
 
It is this distinct feature of Hanukkah that leads Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to identify Hanukkah as the holiday of heart purification. On Hanukkah, we are asked to celebrate our neighbors, to bless the work of their hands. We are given an opportunity to set aside ego, narcissism, and self-congratulation, taking — to borrow language from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — our minds “out of the narrowness of self-interest.”
 
On Hanukkah, in other words, we are invited to see our fellow human beings from God’s vantage-point, a vantage-point of unconditional and infinite love, of parental pride that is equally bestowed on each and every beloved child.
Hanukkah, then, according to Reb Shlomo, is an annual opportunity to repair this defect in our hearts, to realize that we are all of us children of the same Parent; siblings, who were not brought into being to compete against each other or to tear each other down, but rather to celebrate one another and lift each other up.
 
It’s no coincidence that the heroes of the Hanukkah story, the Maccabees, are kohanim, priests. Rabbinic tradition teaches that the defining characteristics of the first High Priest, Aaron, were that he “loved peace and pursued peace, loved people and brought them close to Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). On Hanukkah, we celebrate the triumph of Aaron’s children, the victory of peace over violence, of love over hate, of generosity over meanness, in the hopes that it will inspire us, too, to embrace and practice those qualities.
 
Today, it is far too common to see people building themselves up by tearing others down. Hanukkah urges us to make a different choice, to see the light that others are kindling in the world and offer our blessings. If we can practice doing this for eight nights, maybe, just maybe, it will become habitual. And with hearts so repaired, the repair of the world will not be too far behind. Hanukkah same’ah!
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Spiritual Revolutionaries: Making Religion Meaningful in the 21st Century

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On December 1 and 2, 2018, I participated in an interfaith “pulpit swap” with my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Hollie Woodruff, of Seventh Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond. She preached to my congregation on Saturday, and I to hers on Sunday. Below is the script of the sermon I delivered at Seventh Street on Sunday, December 2, 2018 (coinciding with the first Sunday of Advent and the eve of the first night of Hanukkah):

In June of 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and civil rights advocate, sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy that I’m eager to share with you. A few months before, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were arrested for protesting against segregation in Birmingham. Religious leaders — Christians and Jews — in Birmingham objected to King’s presence, organizing, and action there, prompting King to author a reply, which we now know as his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The next month, Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on African-American protesters, including women and children, while many if not most congregations and clergy continued to remain silent about the mounting injustices. Heschel wasn’t having it. He wrote to President Kennedy:

I LOOK FORWARD TO PRIVILEGE OF BEING PRESENT AT MEETING TOMORROW AT 4 P.M. LIKELIHOOD EXISTS THAT NEGRO PROBLEM WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION. WE FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP GOD AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO HUMILIATE NEGROES. CHURCHES SYNAGOGUES HAVE FAILED. THEY MUST REPENT. ASK OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO CALL FOR NATIONAL REPENTANCE AND PERSONAL SACRIFICE. LET RELIGIOUS LEADERS DONATE ONE MONTH’S SALARY TOWARD FUND FOR NEGRO HOUSING AND EDUCATION. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY. A MARSHALL PLAN FOR AID TO NEGROES IS BECOMING A NECESSITY. THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.

Heschel’s point was that religion means nothing if it does not respond clearly, forcefully, and directly to the greatest moral crises and challenges of the day. Faith fails — and deserves to fail — when it is not a progressive force for social transformation.

It seems to me that this is the good news in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:5-25).

Luke takes care to set his scene in a particularly dark moment in Jewish history. He tells us that his tale occurs during the reign of King Herod. Setting the story during this period puts the narrative at the height of the Roman consolidation of power over the Jews of Judea: a zenith of Roman imperial grandeur, and also of tyranny and of subjugation.

But Luke doesn’t tell a story about Roman oppression. He doesn’t need to. His audience knows all about the injustices and brutalities of the Empire. Instead, Luke tells a story about religion; specifically, he tells a story about the role religion ought to play in challenging and changing the status quo.

Luke juxtaposes his dour backdrop — a world plundered and terrorized and subjugated by an insatiable militaristic and materialistic Empire — with a pristine and serene picture of Jewish worship in our ancient Holy Temple (ironically and importantly the very Temple that, Luke’s original audience would have known, the Romans ruthlessly destroyed just a few short decades after Jesus’ death).

The ritual is happening exactly as it is supposed to, everything “according to the custom of the priesthood” (Lk 1:9). In other words, the world is on fire, and the response of the Jewish religious leadership of the time, along with, in Luke’s words, “the whole assembly of the people” is to simply go about its normal business, sacrificing incense and praying, without paying much mind at all to the broken world just outside the retaining walls of the Temple Mount. These are religious leaders and practitioners who have a lot to say about ritual and liturgy, but nothing at all, apparently, to say about the brokenness of their world.

My teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous once called this phenomenon “brunching at the edge of the abyss.” In coining this term, she was referring to a passage from the Book of Genesis — a passage, in fact, that my congregation read in synagogue this week, and about which Rev. Hollie preached yesterday — in which Jacob’s sons grab their younger brother, Joseph, strip him of his technicolor dreamcoat and cast him into an empty pit. After perpetrating this violent crime, the older brothers sit down together to enjoy a meal (Gen. 37:25).

“Brunching at the edge of the abyss” is about going about your life as if everything’s fine when nothing is fine; it’s about ignoring  profound injustices because you’re doing alright, and because getting involved would just rock the boat too much; it’s about pretending something is not broken because it would be too much of a disruption of your comfortable status quo to do something about it.

To Luke, the Jews of Judea, epitomized by the priest Zechariah, are brunching at the edge of the abyss. They offer sacrifices — to a God who their tradition (my tradition) celebrates for overthrowing the ancient world’s most iconic tyrant, securing freedom and justice for a band of poor, foreign, slaves — while doing and saying nothing about the Pharaoh of their time. They content themselves with the sweet smells of burning incense and comfort themselves with priests who, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” while the world burned and their people suffered.

In this observation, Luke echoes the critiques of the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, who centuries earlier lambasted Zechariah’s ancestors for showy sanctimony decoupled from moral action (cf. Isaiah 58, Amos 6). Slyly and subtly, Luke indicts the religious leaders and practitioners of this period. How, he wonders, could they carry on business as usual in the Temple while the world was burning just outside?

It is no coincidence that when this serenity is disrupted by the angel Gabriel — a figure who, in Jewish tradition, represents God’s attribute of justice and supremacy over human power — to announce that the time has come for a new generation of leaders who will inspire people to reconciliation, righteousness, and repair, Zechariah refuses to believe and is struck dumb. In response to the true spiritual crisis of his time, to God reminding him of the real-world needs of his oppressed people, and to his awakening that the hour was calling for changing hearts and transforming the world, Zechariah is shown to literally have nothing to say.

My friends, I fear that the challenge facing communities of faith like yours and mine in the 21st century is that most people look at us and see what Luke described. They see in our clergy the priest Zechariah: well-meaning, hard-working, and earnest folk who quite literally have nothing to say about the profound and pressing challenges of the day. They see in our congregations the Jews waiting in the Temple courtyard, unmoved by and apathetic to the cries of the oppressed just outside the sacred precinct. They see religion that talks a big game — as do the traditions that both you and I share — about toppling Pharaohs, about righteousness rolling down like waters and justice like an unfailing stream, about a God who demands of us that we love both our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves, about making of our communities a sanctuary for the indwelling of the Divine presence, about being a blessing to all we encounter, while the leaders and the practitioners of those faiths stand silently and idly by in a world wracked with oppression, injustice, poverty, pollution, hatred, and violence. They see us occupied with small questions — which hymn should we recite this week, or how to change the seating in the sanctuary — while unconcerned and unengaged with the major issues that threaten God’s children and God’s world. They see us “brunching at the edge of the abyss.”

The people who are increasingly turning away from congregations like yours and mine, and from our religious traditions altogether, are by and large those who came of age in the last twenty years, the Gen-Xers and the Millenials —my generation. We have inherited a world more technologically capable than any in human history, and yet it is filled with war and violence, increasingly irreversible ecological devastation, deepening inequality, growing authoritarianism, and rampant, unrelenting, oppression of the most vulnerable. We feel that the repair of our broken world is within reach and yet, ironically and frustratingly, more elusive than ever.

In this time of turbulence and anxiety and creeping despair, in which the moral call of our ancient traditions is so urgent and so necessary, our religious leaders, institutions, and communities are, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., too often “more cautious than courageous,” remaining “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” No wonder so many have looked at our worship and have found it wanting. No wonder so many have deemed us irrelevant and have walked out the door.

Recognizing this, Luke beckons us to embrace the charge of John the Baptist in a world of Zechariah’s: We, too, are called from birth to be prophets of the Resistance, rather than pastors to the Empire; to be filled with the spirit of Elijah — the prophet who took the lonely and unpopular path of rebellion against the powerful and the privileged of his time to turn people back to the path of righteousness; to be the people who work “to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke is telling us that, like John, this is what we, too, are born to do; and what religion, when it is doing its job, catalyzes us to do.

Forgive me if I come across as presumptuous here, but is this not ultimately what the season of Advent is about? Preparing for goodness and righteousness to erupt into our broken world, for compassion and justice to disrupt a world filled with cruelty and oppression, for peace to interrupt a world replete with violence, for light to dispel the darkness drenching our world? Like John, this has always been our calling, each of us from before we were born; and this season, this moment, now more than ever, beckons us to fulfill it. The world is waiting for us. For you.

And it is fortuitous that this beginning of Advent coincides with the onset of my community’s holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah similarly invites us to bring light to all the dark places in the world. It is a celebration of a small but determined band of Jewish priests whose faith compelled them to fight for what was right, even though it could have cost them everything, even though the odds were against them, even though it was impolitic and uncouth and controversial and angered all those deep-pocketed Greek and Hellenistic donors.

We, too, are called on this holiday to embrace the spirit of those Maccabees, heeding the real-world urgency of our faith, refusing to defang its moral message and decouple it from the realm of politics and social change; being able, when necessary, in the words of Heschel, to embrace high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. For we only deserve the right to worship God when we have worked to build a world that reflects God’s glory.

The other day, my four year-old son, Shemaya, was telling me what he learned about Hanukkah in preschool. “The king broke the Temple,” he said. “He was a bad guy.”

“So,” I asked him, “who were the good guys? Who saved the day?”

“The Jewish people,” he replied.

“Wow,” I said, “Did you know that you’re also Jewish?”

Without missing a beat, he fired right back: “Yeah! I can save the day, too!”

We Jews and Christians are heirs to traditions that remind us we can be heroes. And not only do our faiths claim that we can save the world, they also insist that we must. Judaism and Christianity not only offer us the promise of redemption, but also demand of us to ourselves be saviors. And if our religions are to remain meaningful in the 21st century, we must embrace our sacred charge to be spiritual revolutionaries. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. The only question is, how will we respond?

Wishing you a Happy Advent and a Joyous Hanukkah. Shalom.

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A Non-Partisan Jewish Voting Guide

1. Anti-Semitism, racism, hate, and bigotry. Does the candidate stand up against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry? Did s/he condemn the neo-Nazis and other white nationalists who marched with guns and torches in Charlottesville in 2017? Does s/he speak out against or do anything about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in this country? It goes without saying that failing to fight anti-Semitism is bad for the Jewish community. But stoking bigotry against other minority communities emboldens those who are less discerning in their hatred, amplifying the danger of hatred against all minority groups, including Jews.

2. Health Care and Taxes. Jewish tradition teaches that healthcare is a fundamental human right and, therefore, a communal responsibility. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes in Matters of Life and Death, “Jewish ethics…demands that American Jews work to ensure that the United States, as a society, provides healthcare to everyone in some way.” Does the candidate’s record or stance on health care issues move us closer to or further away from the goal of attaining universal access to adequate healthcare? Similarly, Jewish tradition argues for enough redistribution of wealth from those who have the most to those who have the least so that “there shall be no needy” (Deuteronomy 15:4). A candidate who wants to cut taxes for the wealthy and slash the social safety net to pay for it moves us further away from the Jewish vision of a just society.

3. Guns. The Mishnah calls weapons “an embarrassment” for a person. Jewish law prohibits its adherents from hunting animals and owning a weapon to do so. But more importantly, a primary Jewish value is the sanctity of life and the obligation to save life. Guns are responsible for over 35,000 deaths in America each year. Does the candidate support, at the very least, common sense initiatives to regulate the widespread availability of these instruments of death?

4. Immigration. Does the candidate support extreme restrictions on immigration and draconian border policies? Such views are antithetical to Jewish values and an affront to the Jewish historical experience.The Torah makes explicit our moral responsibilities toward migrants and refugees through an appeal to Jewish historical experience: “You shall love the migrant as yourself, for you were migrants in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). The Bible invokes our collective immigrant experience no less than 36 times, harnessing our history over and again so that we connect the crises others face today with our crises yesterday, to see their story as our story, to experience their reality as personally as we would our own. Most of the people Jewish Americans claim as ancestors were able to settle in the United States by virtue of the lenient immigration laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If the candidate’s proposed immigration policies were on the books back then, would your ancestors have been able to immigrate?

5. Law and Order. It goes without saying that one of the primary purposes of government is to preserve law and order within society. This principle is not only enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution, it reflects a core Jewish value: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 17:18). However, while Jewish tradition sees law and order as crucial, it insists that it must be administered fairly. The very next verse clarifies: “You shall not judge unfairly.” The rabbinic tradition insists that, for justice to mean anything, it must be executed justly. So, we must ask of candidates for elected office not only what they will do to preserve law and order, but what they will do to ensure that our system of law and order — our law-enforcement practices, our judicial system, and our penal system — is as just as it can possibly be. Moreover, the expectation of law and order must apply equally to our leaders. According to our tradition, our officials — even kings — must be held accountable to the laws of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Given the fact that, in a manner virtually unprecedented in American history, high-ranking government officials have acted in ways that are hostile to and undermine the independence of law-enforcement and the judiciary, and that high-ranking government officials are under serious investigations for crimes ranging from corruption to conspiring with foreign adversaries, this election calls upon us to consider whether a given candidate will be steadfast and vigilant in holding themselves and other elected officials, even of their own party, accountable to the law, up to and including the President of the United States. Where does the candidate you’re considering voting for stand on holding leaders, even and especially those of his/her own party, accountable to the law?

6. Israel. Most mainstream American politicians of both major parties are publicly pro-Israel. Thankfully, the right of Israel not only to exist but to thrive as a strong, secure, and sovereign nation is a matter of broad bipartisan consensus. But it’s not enough simply to give lip-service to being pro-Israel, or to endorsing policies that support Israel’s security and the American-Israeli partnership, as important as those positions are. A just peace with the Palestinians through a two-state solution is essential to Israel’s long-term security, stability, and status as a moral exemplar. Does your candidate support policies that undermine the peace process and threaten Israel’s future, like supporting new Israeli settlement construction and the demolition of Palestinian villages in the West Bank, supporting America’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, supporting moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem in the absence of a negotiated agreement, or supporting dismantling the UN agency that supports schools and hospitals in Palestinian communities? Does your candidate support the Iran Nuclear Deal, which American, Israeli, and international military security experts agree has been effective in neutralizing a major existential threat to Israel, namely the specter of a nuclear-armed Iranian regime? If your candidate opposes the Iran Nuclear Deal and/or supports policies that undermine the peace process, s/he is putting Israel’s very existence in jeopardy.

7. The Environment and Climate Change. One of the Bible’s first commandments is for us to be stewards of our planet, to protect the environment and the other species with whom we share this earth, to bequeath a world fit for habitation to our children. Does the candidate accept the reality of human-induced climate change? Where do they stand on the question of embracing policies that would protect our planet?

8. Education and Civil Rights. From the fundamental Jewish principle of human equality flows the command “You shall have one law” (Leviticus 24:22), that all people should have equal status, privilege, and protection under the law. For that reason, American Jews have always been passionate advocates for the availability of a quality education for all Americans, the enforcement of civil rights laws, and the expansion of voting rights. Is the candidate a champion of those historically Jewish issues?

9. Responsiveness to Constituents, Gerrymandering, and Voting Rights. Does the candidate listen to the voices of his/her constituents? Where does s/he stand on gerrymandering and voting rights? Jewish tradition insists that every human being is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Additionally, the Bible asserts that all human beings can trace their ancestry to one parent, Adam, a teaching that the rabbinic tradition understood to mean that we all have equal value (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). From the fundamental Jewish principle of human equality flows the command “You shall have one law” (Leviticus 24:22), that all people should have equal status, privilege, and protection under the law. Furthermore, Jewish ethics dictate that leaders must be concerned about and responsive to the will of their constituents. When, for example, Pharaoh ignores the cries of the oppressed Israelites (see, for example, Exodus 5:17-18), God responds by sending ten plagues, devastating Egypt, and liberating the Israelite slaves. Moses, too, is severely punished for lashing out thirsty Israelites rather than providing them water (Numbers 20:1-13). Even God, according to rabbinic tradition, governs through popular assent (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a). Jewish tradition guides us to insist on a political system and leaders who feel beholden to the needs and concerns expressed by the governed, and issues warning after warning of the inevitable consequences that ensue when officials cease to care about what their constituents have to say. If a candidate effectively says that some people in his/her district or state matter less than others, is inaccessible or unresponsive to constituents, and does not support measures that ensure full, expansive, and equal access to the ballot for all citizens, their stance runs counter to bedrock Jewish democratic values.

A version of this was published in the Forward on Nov. 6, 2018: https://forward.com/scribe/413655/6-jewish-voting-issues-according-to-a-progressive-rabbi/?fbclid=IwAR01nge6hewjFqV9jbB0DhsYrciYGGp8RgVp3C2R1tnRdwqt47SD6wtKy0g

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Think Different: A Sermon on the Tower of Babel

Toward the end of Parashat Noah we encounter an intriguing but perplexing story: After the flood, Noah’s descendants multiplied and began to settle in the land of Shinar, otherwise known as Babylon. There, they decide to build a great city with a tall tower. God sees what the people are building and becomes upset over the tower. So God confounds the peoples’ speech, rendering them unable to communicate with each other, and scatters them across the earth.

What was so bad about a bunch of people trying to build a tower? Many of the classical commentators understood this passage as an allegory about human hubris. Perhaps, when the people state that they want to build a “tower that reaches to heaven,” they were implying that they desired to reach the realm of the divine, or to become godlike, or, perhaps, even to challenge God’s sovereignty, to wage war against God. Their arrogance required God to put them in their place.

I have always found this interpretation deeply unsatisfying. Building a tower in an attempt to become godlike may be folly, but it hardly seems criminal, or even immoral. The narrative begs a crucial question: Is it possible for human beings to literally build a stairway to heaven, or to become like gods, or to wage war against God? Interestingly, God’s rationale for punishing the people and stopping them from finishing the tower is “if this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach” (Gen. 11:6). Does God really feel threatened by humanity? Does God really mean that literally anything is possible for we human beings, including physically entering heaven, attaining godlike status, assuming godlike powers, or successfully waging a war against God? That if we put our minds to it and work really hard at it, we, too, can literally become gods? Most of us know enough about the Bible and Jewish tradition to presume that the answer to those questions must be no.

But if those actions are impossible, then God’s response seems both strange and harsh. Why does the building of the tower so anger God? And what does God mean when God says that nothing that [human beings] may propose to do will be out of their reach?” Why punish the people, rather than, say, by teaching them the error of their ways? And why choose the specific punishments of confusing their speech and scattering them across the world?

Let’s look closely for a moment at the whole narrative. It begins like this:

[And so it was] that everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.’ — Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. — And they said, ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.’ The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

The first piece of information that the text gives us is that “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” This is important. After all, God justifies punishing them for building the tower because they are “one people with one language for all,” a reality that apparently makes it possible for the people to do just about anything they desire. And, of course, the punishment God chooses, confounding them linguistically and scattering them geographically, is directly connected to this initial fact. The terminology used here, however, is interesting. Why does the Torah need to say both that the people “had the same language” and that they had “the same words.”

The rabbinic tradition frequently notes that, typically, the Torah is a terse document; it tries to say what it needs to say in as few words as possible. So when the Torah uses two words in a verse when it could just have easily used one to express the same sentiment, it must be making a different point with each phrase. According to Rashi, “the same language” refers to the Holy Tongue, or Hebrew. And “the same words” means that the people held the same beliefs. In other words, not only did they speak the same language; they used that language to arrive at a uniformity of thought and opinion.

When God expresses fear over what humanity could accomplish when everyone had the same language, we should understand God’s concern to be more directly about the dangers inherent in a universal language, namely, that a common language can lead inexorably and irredeemably to common beliefs.

A major problem with commonly held beliefs is that they are often wrong. Consider this: according to Jewish law, if the judges in a capital case unanimously find a defendant guilty, then the defendant must be acquitted. At first blush, this seems counterintuitive. Indeed, our own American judicial system requires unanimity in order to convict in a capital case. And yet the rabbis of the Talmud observed that unanimous agreement often indicated the presence of some systemic error in the judicial process. They didn’t always know what the error was — perhaps a prestigious and respected judge had some sort of unconscious bias about the defendant that caused him to misinterpret the facts, but given his status, his colleagues were more readily influenced by his opinion — but they intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, it most likely is. It’s somewhat paradoxical, but it turns out that the things that everyone knows are true more often than not turn out to be false, whereas when some people believe something but not others, there is a higher probability that one of the divergent groups will be correct.

This is a meaningful point when it comes to the Tower of Babel story, because – and let’s be honest here – the beliefs that everyone agreed upon were nonsensical. According to Rashi, the people either universally agreed that they should wage war on God, or that they should build some kind of scaffolding that would prevent another flood. The midrash adds that the people’s desire “to make a name for ourselves” and to avoid being “scattered all over the world” were rooted in the same anxiety, that they wanted to build the tower to challenge God so that God would not destroy them as God had destroyed the generation of the Flood. As Professor Frink says in The Simpsons, these are ideas so ridiculous they make me “want to laugh out loud and chortle.”

But the fact that universally held opinions are often wrong does not inherently make them morally problematic. The larger problem is that when something is unanimously agreed upon, people become extremely reticent to change their minds. When people are certain about something, and feel emboldened in their certainty about their belief because everyone else thinks similarly, they become all the more willing to harm themselves or others — indeed, even to kill or be killed — for their beliefs. This, according to legend, is precisely what happened with the Tower of Babel, and why it elicited such a forceful response from God. One midrash holds that the people were so passionate about building the tower, so convinced were they of its utter necessity, that they paid no mind if a worker on the tower fell to his death; whereas if a brick fell, they would wail and mourn and lament the setback. The peoples’ conviction of the justness of their cause, aided and abetted by the universality of their belief, diminished their humanity and their concern for the welfare of their fellow human beings.

This, I think, is part of God’s problem with the building of the Tower of Babel. It’s not simply that the peoples’ rationale for building it was foolish. It’s that universally held beliefs, however foolish they may be, can result in monstrously immoral behavior.

And there is yet a deeper danger lurking in uniform belief. If people can convince each other of nonsense like the need to build scaffolding that will prevent the sky from falling, or the plausibility of physically attacking and defeating God, then there is literally nothing that people couldn’t be convinced of; not only no matter how wrong, but also how dangerous.

That’s where the relationship between uniform language and uniform belief factors in, and why God panics when God observes the people building the tower. Recall that when God sees the building, God says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” The Hebrew word for “propose” is “yazmu,” which is a revealing word choice. Yazmu is better translated as they may conspire, as in the eidim zommemim, the conspiratorial witnesses of Deuteronomy chapter 19, who conspire with each other to give false testimony that will result in the conviction of an innocent person. God’s concern, then, is not merely that, with ease of communication, people could convince each other of nonsense. To put it back in the language of the text, it’s that if, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then there is literally nothing — no matter how dangerous — that people couldn’t conspire to convince each other of. When dangerous ideas are universally agreed upon, they can become extraordinarily deadly.

God’s response, then, to scatter the people and cause them to speak different languages, is less a punishment than a course-correction. God observes the dangers inherent in uniform thinking, seeing how groupthink can yield not only wrongheaded but harmful ideas, and can cause people to abandon their compassion in fealty to their beliefs, and reasons that by making interpersonal communication harder, both through language and proximity, uniformity of thought will be diminished.

God does not want us all to think or be alike. God made every human being different for a reason, to encourage freedom and independence of thought. We are called to be skeptics, to challenge commonly held ideas, to generate new concepts and theories, to confront orthodoxies and smash sacred cows. We are urged not to blindly follow the crowd or to acquiesce in our thinking simply because everyone else believes differently.

We are challenged to not avoid ideological conflict or controversy in order to maintain some superficial standard of civility or long-standing courtesies, despite what is being argued today in some quarters (just as it was in the eras of abolitionism, of women’s suffrage, and civil rights). We are beckoned by our tradition to seek truth and to advance justice, even if it makes us unpopular.

This is even true of our most deeply cherished beliefs. Remember that according to the midrash the language the people all spoke before the Tower of Babel was Hebrew, and that language is both an aspect of culture and a vessel for cultural norms and values. In other words, before the Tower of Babel, everyone was a Hebrew. Given the fact that the Torah and the Jewish tradition generally think that the Torah and the Jewish tradition are pretty swell, given the fact that we Jews like to see ourselves as having a special relationship with God, wouldn’t you expect to see the Torah express a desire for everyone to be Jewish? And yet here, in the Tower of Babel story, we see God confronting that very possibility and, instead, choosing to institute diversity. God made us different because God wants us to be different, and rejoices in the diversity of belief, thought, and culture in our world. Indeed, as the Mishnah puts it, human diversity is a reflection of God’s greatness, for when a human ruler mints coins, all the coins come out from the mold identical to one another. But not so with God: God created a mold in the first human beings, Adam and Eve; but when more human beings were made from that original mold, no two came out the same.

In our lives, we constantly face pressures to think and act like everyone else. As the world shrinks through modern communication technologies, and it becomes increasingly easy to communicate with one another across linguistic and geographic and cultural divides, it makes these pressures even stronger. But our parashah today reminds us that we must always beware of the towers that popular opinion can lure us to build. And the bigger the climb, the harder the fall.

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