They’re funny, the connections that our minds make. Reading the story of Noakh, the flood, and the two genealogies, split by the story of the Tower of Babel and the confounding of human speech, what kept leaping to my mind is the recently released “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. A lot has already been written about the report, even though it was just published on October 1. Much of that has been knee-jerk reaction, and I am hopeful than in time, more thoughtful reflections will find their way into print, social media, etc.
As with any new study, some people are shouting “doom and gloom.” Others are saying “we told you this would happen if you didn’t do [insert pithy slogan for saving Judaism here.]” Still others read the report an ask “so what’s new?” Then there are those who look at the new study and say “hey, things don’t look so bad after all. Could be better, but all in all, not bad.”
This disparity of viewpoints occurs on a much broader level, even encompassing the very state of human beings. We are going to “hell in a handbasket” say some of the hand-wringers.
If humankind is truly being that badly behaved, why are we not seeing G”d reverting to the same process used to cleanse the world the last time? Well, not exactly the same process, because G”d promised a flood would never again be used to destroy the earth, but there are lots of other tools at G”d’s disposal (not to mention all the human-made tools like global warming, nuclear war, pollution, and so much more.) Some (self-proclaimed) prophets, pundits, and fundamentalists alike are suggesting that the cleansing is already underway (through things like terrorism, war, tsunamis, earthquakes, mass killings, etc.) or is coming soon. They say Armageddon is upon us, or threatening, if we allow gays to marry, poor people to have health care, if we restrict gun ownership, and so on. Others suggest Armageddon is more likely to come from rising socio-economic inequalities.
There are, sad to say, still plenty of Noakhs out there, who will build their arks without question. but won’t raise a finger to help their neighbors or invite them on board. Our society is full of people who are anashim tzadikim tamim b’doroteihem, righteous, blameless people within their own generation. That is to say, compared to society as a whole, which is, by inference, not particularly righteous, they are more righteous and blameless than most.
This does not appear to describe most American Jews, according to the Pew study. 69% say leading a moral and ethical life is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. Sadly, only 56% say the same about working for justice and equality. (Remembering the Holocaust is the top value, at 73%. There’s a whole musing waiting to be written someday, as I did find this surprising given the strong push in the Jewish community, and in particular in Jewish education, to stop making the Shoah a centerpiece of answering the “why be Jewish?” question. There was a time when being able to say “mir zenen do” – we survive – was enough for me. It no longer is, and I suspected this was true for more people. The survey tells me I might be wrong about that. The variances among different age groups is from 68% for ages 18-29 to 77% for 65+. I am surprised to learn so many younger folks still give this such a prominent place in the pantheon of what being Jewish means to Jews. Don’t get me wrong-The Shoah should be remembered, and it should be part of our core understanding of what it means to be Jewish. I wish, however, that other things – like ethics and justice were at a similar or even higher level.)
Reality and survey answers often differ, and we are still left asking “what percentage of the 69% of American Jews who value a moral and ethical life actually act and behave in a manner consistent with that. Why 100% don’t believe that working for justice and equality is a core part of being Jewish is something that troubles me. Still for the 56% who do believe so, how many of them are walking the walk and not just talking the talk?
(For that matter, what percentage of the 69% who place Remembering the Holocaust at the top of their list of what being Jewish means to them actually spend a lot of time remembering and thinking about it, and actively working to prevent it from ever happening to Jews, or to anyone else, again?)
We’ve lived through the Babel story more than once. First, as humanity. Then again, countless times, as Jews. Coming together as one people, one language, building our towns and cities and towers, only to be scattered over the earth. The most recent scattering has been the longest, and it goes on – even with the establishment of the modern state of Israel, we Jews remain dispersed. The Pew study tells us that American Jews, while we do share many things in common, have a very broad and diverse understanding of what it means to be a Jew. That’s not unexpected, given how long we have been scattered. (It’s also not unexpected because of how, despite our scattering, and the Divine instructions to spread out over the earth, we still clump together in ghettos and shtetls, in cities and suburbs, on coasts. Even all these millennia later, we resist G”d’s call to spread out everywhere. I’ve spoken before about how making aliyah to America, to places where there are now few Jews, could lead to a new era of understanding between people. A time of less prejudice and hatred due to fear, ignorance, and unfamiliarity. Places where few Jews live have time and again demonstrated their bigotry. They have also, many times, demonstrated their love and willingness to embrace and support their Jewish neighbors when they are threatened or face prejudice. If more of us lived among these people, perhaps there’d be less need for them to step up and support us in the face of hatred an bigotry. But I digress. Especially [SPOILER ALERT] since my theme here is first about coming together, before we again disperse. Though the coming together I envision need not be physical. The dispersion afterwards, however, ought to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
If anything jumps out at me from the Pew study, it’s that our American Jewish community is, in some ways, like humanity after G”d confounded their common language and forced them to disperse. (How often is it overlooked, in discussing the story of the Tower of Babel, that it was just not human hubris, or G”d’s fear of what humanity might accomplish. G”d had given us direct instruction not just to be fruitful and multiply, but to disperse and spread over the earth. We didn’t. We stayed together and marched east. We clumped together in a valley and built a city and a tower. It’s important to remember that one other major result of the Tower of Babel is that G”d scattered us over the face of the earth. In fact, I think the scattering is the real point of the whole story. Gan Eden was nice, but it’s time to see the whole, wide, beautiful, amazing world. And that includes Alaska as much as it does Costa Rica, Death Valley and the Alps. What would society and the world be like if we had never moved from the area around Gan Eden [or Olduvai Gorge?] Now, where was I?)
There are many things that still tie all Jews together, but there are definitely many things that separate us, drive us apart.
49% of us believe that being intellectually curious is an important part of what it means to be Jewish. Intellectual curiosity is great. It can also just be mental masturbation. Intellectual curiosity without any deeds resulting from the process. Let’s put that intellectual curiosity to work. Let’s combine our intellectual curiosity (and our willingness to do, and not just think) and embark on a communal effort again, as one people. Let’s build a new tower.
G”d, if I may be so bold as to suggest it, You may have been wrong with the whole Tower of Babel, confounding of language, scattering the people thing. Or maybe it’s not that it was wrong, but maybe now is the time for Jews (and perhaps all of humanity) to once again have a common language, common values, and to all live together-and build a new tower. (The global village is becoming a possibility.)
Now, dear reader, don’t jump to conclusions. Calling for Jews to have a common language and to live all together again doesn’t necessarily mean I’m talking about all living in Israel, or about Hebrew. I am, in all probability, because I haven’t fleshed this all out yet, talking about Torah, about the whole body of Jewish text and knowledge and experience and…and. And? And!
As for building that tower, well, I’ve talked about that before. And yes, I’ve made that dreaded WTC connection. http://www.durlester.com/musings/Noach5762.htm
If we are to build a new tower, we must be cognizant of what happened the last time. Last times.
Torah says our ancestors built the tower to make a name for themselves. What if our purpose in rebuilding the tower is different? What if we built our new tower for G”d’s glory and not our own? Could we make it a worthwhile endeavor? For those of you for whom G”d isn’t necessarily a good motivation, then think more humanistically. That’s fine with me.
I already know, and I am working with people in the Jewish world who are helping to envision, plan, and build this new tower, that unites and connects us all. The tower we build, because it is not meant pridefully, is less about the ediface itself, and more about the process of building it – and what comes next. The next dispersal. A purposeful dispersal.
The genealogies in parashat Noakh remind us that remembering those who came before, upon whose shoulders we stand, is important. What the Pew study tells us about ourselves today is partially result of those who came before, and the decisions and choices they made. Depending upon your view of the study as good, bad, or not particularly useful news, what we can take from the study to help those who come after us? Can we come together as one, build ourselves a tower, and then deliberately and purposefully scatter ourselves all over the earth again so that we can carry, with renewed vigor and renewed insight, the messages for making a better world, ancient and newly formed, that our common encounter with Torah and our Judaism, our Jewishness has enabled us to glean?
We have each been toiling in our own vineyards, and that is a good thing. Yet perhaps the time has come to toil together in one big vineyard, to share our secrets of viticulture with each other, and then go back to our own vineyards and spread the secrets to our neighbors and friends, to all who would come and listen?
The technologies of today and tomorrow can enable us to bring the ancient words, the millennia of experiences, traditions, understandings, knowledge, together so that all may partake of them. This is the tower we can build – the repository of all that has been, is, and could be.
[Before I end, I do have to acknowledge that the title of this musing is based on a mistaken premise that I have complained about in previous musings. Nowhere (in Torah) does it say that G”d destroyed the tower the people built at Bavel. As I said earlier, the story is about the scattering more than the tower!]
Is it a pipe dream, this vision of American, of world Jewry coming together to build a new migdal from whence the light of Torah can go forth? To paraphrase Hertzl, if we will it, it is no dream.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Noakh 5773 – Nothing New
Noakh 5772 – The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 – Redux 5765 – A P’shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 – Don’t Ham It Up
Noah 5768 – Redux 5761 – Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!