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Friday, October 4, 2013

Tirtzah, Damon, The Tower of Babel and Everything

I recently had the unique experience of attending the wedding of my daughter Tirtzah to her husband Damon. The wedding was unique to me for a number of reasons beginning with the fact that Damon is not Jewish.

If you feel a priori that such a marriage is not to be sanctioned in any way or that reading about such a marriage will disturb you deeply and would rather not, let me advise you now to leave this page and to say that I understand.

Interestingly, though, the Pew Survey of American Jews just came out this week. Some of what I say here is pertinent to how I relate to some of the results of that survey. But I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

I asked to speak at the wedding and found myself by that time in front of a group of one hundred some guests, many of whom I had just met for the first time in the previous hours or days. Many of them, perhaps most (I didn't make a count) were not Jewish. I took this into account as I formulated what I wanted to say and the following is based on that talk:

Tirtzah's marriage to Damon is not a simple thing in my mind and in the mind of many who attended the wedding. I am speaking mainly of perhaps most of the Jewish participants. You see, for a Jew to marry a non-Jew is not at all simple in the eyes of the Jews. Reasons abound as to why it is not simple and I will try to summarize my own feelings.

Historically, Jews have been separated from non-Jews by a kind of de facto mutual choice; that is, non-Jews, particularly in Christian Europe, did not want Jews mixing in their society and thus put Jews into ghettos and did not grant them citizenship until beginning around the Enlightenment. Jews, for their part, did not want to mingle with non-Jewish society and quite a bit of Jewish law which developed in the Diaspora reflects this.

Jews suffered a long history of oppression at the hands of Christians from at least the time of Constantine and up to the present. The idea of marrying someone of Christian background was, and still is, anathema to many Jews. The marriage was seen as consorting with the enemy and a rejection of one's heritage.

While many Jews are acutely aware of this long history of antisemitism, generally, in my experience, non-Jews are not. Non-Jews have by now heard of the Holocaust if only by way of certain pop culture phenomena, such as the movie “Schindler's List” or hearing about one Holocaust museum or another.

In the 'melting pot' atmosphere in the United States, non-Jews may have a hard time grasping why Jews would be reluctant to marry them. After all, we're all human beings, citizens of the world.

I am not advocating intermarriage, I am merely trying to relate to this particular marriage.

Clearly, Damon is a wonderful, caring man. I can see that he loves Tirtzah very much and that she loves him. But, as we Jews often ask, is this marriage good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Whereas in the past (and even in the present) when a Jew married a non-Jew they were often making a declaration of disconnection from their Jewish identity. Intermarriage generally led to assimilation and loss of Jewish identity and therefore loss of another Jew and all their future offspring to the Jewish people.

But when I witness Tirtzah and Damon I see something else happening. This wedding, while not halachic (adhering to Jewish law) could only be categorized as a Jewish wedding. We all saw the procession of the bride and groom with a klezmer band (and an outstanding band at that). We all saw the bride and groom stand under a chupah, the traditional Jewish marriage canopy where they read their self-composed ketuba to each other in Hebrew and in English. And we all saw as seven close friends and family, both Jewish and non-Jewish, came under the chupah to bless the couple, reminiscent of the Jewish tradition of reciting seven blessings at a wedding.

Rather than a rejection of Jewish identity and Jewish tradition, this wedding embraced those elements of Jewish tradition which the couple finds meaningful and attempted sincerely to make the ceremony meaningful to all.

So while Jews have very good reasons to remain apart from non-Jewish society, this wedding has brought to mind an oft overlooked and perhaps misunderstood story of the Torah. That is the story of the Tower of Babel.

Just before the story of the Tower of Babel begins, in Genesis 10, we read a list of the generations of Noah's sons. If we count them all up we get a total of 70.

We then read the story of the Tower of Babel. Let's set the scene: This story takes place in the first generations after the Deluge. The Deluge wiped out all of humanity save Noah and his family. Now people are regenerating but perhaps carry with them the fear of being wiped out again despite God's promise that he will not bring another flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 9:11).

At this time, they were all one nation and spoke one language. They plan to build a city and a tower that will reach to the sky in order to make a 'name' for themselves lest they be scattered on the face of the earth.

It is not clear why, and there are no shortage of explanations, but God does not see this as a good thing. Perhaps, though, it is simply their desire to stay together for protection and that they did not trust that God wouldn't try another flood. A tower could possibly afford them some refuge in the face of another deluge.

I believe that at minimum we understand that while the people were united, they did not see themselves as being united with God.

God understands that it is precisely the fact that they are united as a single nation with a single language that allows them to make such a plan. As such, in order to thwart their plan, God confounds their language and, as a result, they no longer understand each other and the building stops. Not only that, but they are scattered over the land, exactly the situation they wanted to prevent!

Chazal understood that this story serves as the basis for the notion that the world is made up of 70 nations. But what is to happen to these nations? According to Chazal, they will wane over time until just one nation remains.

We read in Zechariah, one of the latter prophets, an account of 'the end of days.' Chapter 14 verse 9 states:

והיה יקוק למלך על כל הארץ ביום ההוא יהיה יקוק אחד ושמו אחד:

And the Lord will be as king over the entire world. On that day the Lord will be One and His name One.

In other words, the ultimate goal of humanity is to come together as a single nation recognizing the Oneness of God. It is not the ultimate goal that everyone become Jewish. The Jewish task in this world is primarily to promote the idea of the One God. It is only by embracing that idea that humanity will be truly united.

You might well ask: If God wanted everyone to be united, why didn't He leave well enough alone at the time of the Tower of Babel? But we understand the answer is that this was not true unity as God was left out of the equation.

You might further ask if God wasn't being a bit petty and petulant? After all, is He so concerned with Himself that he had to break up a nice party and wait for God knows how many millenia until they get it together again?

My personal answer to these questions is based on my own notions about God and the nature of God. I will expound on this more in later posts. However, for now, I will tell you that God is not some old man who sits on high and looks down upon us. This is the image we get by reading the story of the Tower of Babel. But I would argue that the account in the Torah here is what those who experienced the dispersion may have felt and perceived and not necessarily the best way to understand God.

In short, I believe that while God is unknowable per se, all of us have a soul and the soul is the spark of God and the Divine within us. Thus, true unity of mankind can only come about when we all recognize and embrace everyone else's humanity and that humanity includes the idea that we were all created in God's image, that all of us are connected to the Divine by being connected to each other.

We don't know the way in which the scenario of ultimate unity will play out. Perhaps, though, when people like Tirtzah and Damon get together, they are actually making their own step toward the coming together of all mankind. May their union be a blessing to us all.