Weekly Message 10-8-10

8 October 2010
Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan 5771

Shalom Chaverim,

Over a year ago a task force from CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection contacted us about their interest in exploring ways to deepen and expand the relationship between our two cities and our two school communities: Gann and Ironi Hey. Thanks to the vision and investment of CJP, our passionate lay leaders, the creativity and commitment of educators from both of our schools, and the tremendous generosity and engagement of our host families, the Gann-Ironi Hey partnership reached a new level this week. A delegation of 22 students and two teachers from Ironi Hey spent the week with our eleventh graders and their families. In addition to having fun and building bonds, the students were asked to reflect on their differences and their commonalities, and, in the process, to gain a greater understanding of each other’s and their own Jewish identities.

One of the core elements of this year’s mifgash (encounter) was an overnight retreat at Camp Yavneh, at which the students took part in a collaborative art project designed to foster dialogue through creativity and project-based learning. When the students presented their projects to our entire student body, many common themes emerged. It was clear that our students and their Israeli friends have a strong sense of the dynamic interplay between individual and community as a core part of what it means to be a Jewish People.

For example, one group created a puzzle, in which each person contributed his or her own piece (representing an understanding of Judaism and Jewish identity), and where each of the pieces fit together into a collective whole. As if this alone were not a beautiful enough metaphor for Peoplehood and community (and, of course, pluralism), the students chose to leave a blank space in the middle of the completed puzzle and explained that this space represents the ongoing and evolving nature of each individual’s self-expression and contribution to the klal (the whole).

Inspired by our students’ capacities to understand and convey the complexities of their world and of building and sustaining diverse Jewish community and People, I was also impressed by the contrast between their thinking and the people of the story of (Migdal Bavel) the Tower of Babel in this week’s parsha.  Our tradition offers many different explanations for what the people who built the tower did wrong. We know from the story that the people all spoke one language, and it even appears that they all spoke the exact same words. We also know that God punished them, not only by destroying the tower but also by dispersing them and creating multiple languages. While unity and collaboration are values that we usually celebrate, there was something wrong with the nature of the unity of the people in the story.

I am grateful to one of our teachers for sharing with me an excerpt from Byron Sherwin’s book,  “Sparks Amidst the Ashes,” in which Sherwin summarizes the 16th century Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi’s interpretation:

According to Ashkenazi, the people who built the Tower had not only one language, but one religious language, one theology.  They were all of the same faith as well as of the same language.  This, he suggests, leads to absolutism, which inevitably stifles free thought, creative speculation, and authentic religious expression.  A monolithic society, according to Ashkenazi, often suppresses the individual search for religious truth instead of encouraging it.  Therefore, God divided the people into different languages, that is, into different faiths, so as to encourage the individual search for religious truth.  In this view, religious absolutism is a sin, while religious pluralism is the will of God.

The Tower of Babel, according to this reading, teaches us an important lesson about the limits and dangers of being so unified that we stifle or even suppress the kinds of individual expression and dissent that, ultimately, should make our community stronger and hold us accountable to values and aspirations larger than our own egos.

I am proud that so many of our students seem to understand this lesson in both authentic and sophisticated ways. We can learn from the blank space in their puzzle that they are ready and eager to build and live in communities and a world that are a tikkun (a reparation) for this misguided generation of Migdal Bavel. Our students value community and Peoplehood, as well as preserving the integrity and vibrancy of diverse expressions of Jewish life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,

Rabbi Marc Baker

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