Sloganeering has never in my life time been so hideously crass. I’m only young remember. I was a young adult in the 90s when we thought the world was going to actually get better as long as we survived the Millenium bug. Now we have to make everything great again. Like the greatness of institutional racism, embedded misogyny, slavery and the Empire.
I had an amazing teacher when I was studying in Jerusalem. Her name was Rabbi Naamah Kelman, a prominent rabbi, teaching at HUC the rabbinic seminary of the Reform movement. In fact, the first woman to be ordained in Israel as a rabbi. At the time, in the early noughties, the text ‘Bowling Alone’ was a regular read for community builders. By Robert Putnam it details the decline of civic engagement and community infrastructure. The idea for the title coming from the demise of bowling clubs in America. My teacher, Rabbi Kelman, taught me something I’ll never forget. She said, quite simply, you have to look at who was in those bowling clubs. White, Christian men. The disintegration of those community membership groups cannot be looked back on with fond nostalgia. Because, she said, it was in the fragmentation that the cracks appeared that meant people like her could become rabbis. The breakthrough of women as rabbis, of black men and women in positions of power, and so on, also meant that the homogeneous façade of bowling clubs could not be forever sustained. She would not, in fact let me restate that, she could not be a rabbi if things had not changed. So you can take your nostalgia for all things great in the past and remember that.
In case I’m babbling on and I’ve lost you. Let me share the wonder of our Torah portion this weekend. The futility of greatness:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם: פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.
The said, “Come let us build for ourselves a city and a tower the top of which is in heaven and make for ourselves a name. Lest we be scattered across the face of the all the earth” (Genesis 11:4).
The root of ‘tower’ is גדל – big or great. Let us build a great big thing all the way to heaven to make ourselves renowned.
The sloganeering of our time is nothing new. There is nothing new under the sun. Only the Tower of Babel is the first time it happened. Let’s make ourselves really big and great and then forever after we can talk about that time when we were big and great.
Now listen to what God does:
הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם–אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ. וַיָּפֶץ יְהוָה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיַּחְדְּלוּ, לִבְנֹת הָעִיר. ט עַל-כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ, בָּבֶל, כִּי-שָׁם בָּלַל יְהוָה, שְׂפַת כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְהוָה, עַל-פְּנֵי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.
Come, let us go down and confound their language, so that they do not understand one another’s language. The Eternal one dispersed them from there across the face of the earth and they ceased from building the city. Therefore, they call that place ‘Bavel’ for there the Eternal balal (confounded) the speech of all the earth. And thence the Eternal scattered them across the face of the earth. (Genesis 11:7-9)
In the dispersion, in the fragmentation and in the disintegration of homogeneity, comes humanity. In fact, this is where we get the notion that we are spread everywhere in the world and develop unique identifiers for where we live like language and culture. We don’t become great by building massive monoliths for the sake of just being renowned.
Greatness comes through, and here’s my simplistic list: prosperity, safety and security, respect for difference and dissent, protection of minorities, cultural interaction and international cooperation, the rule of law, peace.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the tower of Babel story was read regularly as a critique of the Soviet Union and communism. Everyone is coerced into the building, you all have to be the same and individual life is less important than the ideology and State you were forced to sustain. The commentators read this as a critique of unity through homogeneity and preferred a reading that demonstrated how humanity is united through its difference.
These days I read it as the loss of understanding of what it means to build our world for the future. We don’t build buildings to remind everyone we were once great. We do not force everyone to agree with our project, dissent is part of the fabric of our democracy. We are not prepared to sacrifice our intelligent critical faculties and respect for truth on the altar of a slogan. Remember my list: prosperity, safety and security, respect for difference, protection of minorities, embrace of cultural interaction and international cooperation, the rule of law, peace.
So let me finish by saying this, since one national paper took the liberty of mentioning West London Synagogue in the text of their report of yesterday’s High Court decision. We should be very afraid of slogans and headlines that attack individuals fulfilling their function in the heart of our democracy – an independent judiciary being something rather dear to us as Jews I think. You can disagree with a legal decision on the grounds of the law (I would have thought having a Supreme Court might give you some grounds for comfort proving that you can disagree on a point of law) – and by the way my view on Brexit is my own private matter. But if you’ve reached a point in which, however briefly, an online headline attacks someone by highlighting their sexuality, or their sporting prowess, and sees fit to mention their religious affiliation, or if you are ignorant enough to forget or never understand the purpose of an independent judiciary and you call judges an enemy of the people for fulfilling their democratic and legal function you’re in deep trouble (or have accidentally travelled in time to the 1970s).
Just to make the point as clear as possible, at 9:50am this morning, Brendan Cox, widower to the late Jo Cox MP tweeted: “Whatever our views on the court ruling I hope we can take a step back & debate it soberly. Inciting hatred has consequences.”
More frequently than almost every other text in the Bible, The Tower of Babel, is interpreted as a cautionary tale about the purpose of society. What is our aim, what is our purpose, what is our intention? We do not exist to be great, to have big towers emblazoned with our name on them. That is about as meaningless a slogan as may be possible to entertain. The means, to paraphrase Buber in writing about the early State of Israel, then becomes the ends. Civil society (or even uncivil society) and the nation state and the institutions of democracy do not exist for their own sake. They are the best mechanism so far devised to achieve the vision, which I think everyone of us would share:
The vision of prosperity, safety and security, respect for difference, protection of minorities, embrace of cultural interaction and international cooperation, the rule of law. A vision of peace.
May it be God’s will that it come soon in our days and let us say: Amen