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Good Times, Difficult Times: Thoughts for Parashat Mikkets

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Mikkets

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


Pharaoh’s dreams foretold seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. While the story relates to a situation in ancient Egypt, it also alludes to a more universal phenomenon. Societies are subject to wide fluctuations. Sometimes things go very well, and sometimes things are terrible. Wisdom teaches—as Joseph taught—that the resources of times of plenty need to be drawn upon in times of famine. When life is challenging and difficult, we need to draw on the strengths and courage of our past successes to give us the wherewithal to cope and to succeed.

Currently, Israel is in the midst of a war with Hamas. All of us are deeply concerned with the situation there, with growing anti-Jewish manifestations throughout the diaspora, and with so many other troubling issues. But we maintain hope for a better future. Below are some thoughts as we face a turbulent world.


The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once observed: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what is not true. The other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

In the current war between Israel and Hamas, we have witnessed ugly bursts of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred. Virulent pro-Hamas demonstrators believe what is not true and seek to foist their untrue views on others. They accuse Israel of “genocide,” an egregious lie.  Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular national or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that group.  Israel has no intention of wiping out all Palestinians and in fact does everything possible to avoid harming civilians. Israel is at war with Hamas (a war that Hamas started) and seeks to defeat its sworn enemies. The only talk of “genocide” in the Middle East emerges not from Israel but from Iran, Hamas and their supporters. They unabashedly call for the annihilation of Israel. They proudly proclaim their goal to establish Palestine “from the river to the sea,” i.e. to entirely wipe out Israel. 

Much of the anti-Israel venom arises from people who believe what is not true. But it also emerges from those who refuse to believe what is true.

Israel is the homeland of the Jewish People since biblical times. After many centuries of exile, the Jewish People was successful in returning to its land and establishing a vibrant, modern country. It sought peace, it seeks peace, and will always strive for peace among all its neighbors.

The Muslim Ottoman Empire controlled the land of Israel from the 16th to early 20th century. During all those years, no one called for or created a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its Capitol. From 1948 to 1967, Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt controlled Gaza. During that entire period few, if any, called for the establishment of a Palestinian State in those territories. Only after Israel took control of these areas in 1967 did a growing chorus of voices call for a Palestinian State “from the river to the sea.”  Those who march for Hamas refuse to believe what is true: that the Palestinians never had a State in the land of Israel, and that Israel has a historic, legal and moral right to its own land.

When hatred prevails, dialogue and mutual respect become increasingly unlikely. The result is continued hatred, continued violence, continued suffering. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians need not be seen as a zero sum game, where only one party may win. It can be—and should be—framed as a win-win opportunity where both sides can gain peace and prosperity for their people. The real enemy is hatred. Until that hatred can be uprooted, people will continue to believe what is not true; and refuse to believe what is true. The result is more hatred, violence, and suffering.

 In 1939, when Rabbi Benzion Uziel became Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, he delivered his inaugural address in Hebrew and then added words in Arabic. He appealed to the Arab community: "We reach our hands out to you in peace, pure and trustworthy....Make peace with us and we will make peace with you. Together all of us will benefit from the blessing of God on His land; with quiet and peace, with love and fellowship, with goodwill and pure heart we will find the way of peace."

Rabbi Uziel’s offer and challenge remain our hope for the future of Israel, the Palestinians, and all the Middle East.





A Menorah of Spears?

With their military victory over the Hellenistic Syrians, the Maccabees entered the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the worship of God. According to Jewish tradition, they found one jar of pure oil with enough to last for one day. They lit the Menorah and the oil miraculously burnt for eight days, enough time to produce a new batch of pure oil.

When we tell this story year after year, we tend to imagine that the Maccabees found the beautiful gold Menorah of the Temple in its place, and they simply added the pure oil to it.

Yet, this would be truly remarkable. The Syrians had control of the Temple for a long stretch of time and they surely would have plundered all the valuable items within it. It would have been very unlikely for them to have left an impressive gold candelabrum in its place.

A midrash suggests that when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they indeed did not find the Menorah there. It had already been stolen by the enemies of the Jews. So the Maccabees improvised by putting together a make-shift Menorah made of spears. The midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 2:1) surmises that the spears had been left behind by the Syrian soldiers who fled in haste during their defeat.

So the Menorah of the original Hanukkah was made of the spears of our enemies!

This midrash is teaching a profound lesson. The very weapons with which our enemies sought to destroy us—those very weapons were used to spread the light of Judaism! The Maccabees were demonstrating that their victory was not merely successful in a military sense. Rather, it was also—and pre-eminently—a spiritual victory. The enemy’s spears were transformed into branches of the Menorah, bringing light into the Temple, restoring worship of the One true God.

The Haftarah that we read on Shabbat Hanukkah includes the famous words of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).

Not by spears, not by guns, not by missiles, not by terrorism, not by political intimidation: these weapons of our enemies will not prevail. We will transform their weapons into sources of light and peace. We will create a Menorah of righteousness that will inspire the world to a loftier and more spiritual vision.

To quote from the Passover Haggadah, “in each generation they arise to destroy us and the Almighty saves us from their hands.” The Jews seem always to have been the conscience of the nations—and many people do not like a conscience, especially a guilty conscience. They attack us because they are afraid of what we symbolize: a nation dedicated to One God, to an elevated morality, to social justice.

But the ongoing flourishing of Jews and Judaism is our unflinching testimony that the spirit of God will ultimately prevail among humanity. The spears of enmity and warfare will one day be transformed into branches of a Menorah, bringing light and hope to all human beings. May it be soon and in our days!

Thoughts for Thanksgiving 2023

Thoughts for Thanksgiving 2023

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Israel is at war. Anti-Jewish words and deeds have skyrocketed throughout the world. In the United States, we witness anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred on the streets, on college campuses, and in the media.

Yes, there are many things that concern us. The “American Dream” isn’t as peaceful and optimistic as it was last year. 

But we are thankful for America. We are thankful to the Almighty for the many blessings showered upon our country.

We are thankful that the nation’s President has stood with Israel and the Jewish People at this time of crisis. We are grateful for the overwhelming support of Israel and American Jewry by the American Congress and political leaders on all levels of government. We are grateful for the many millions of Americans who stand with Israel and the Jewish People.

For Jews, as for so many others, America has been—and continues to be—a land of opportunity and freedom. The ideas and ideals of America continue to inspire and to give hope. Without ignoring or belittling the many problems facing the country, we must be grateful for its positive values, its commitment to democracy, and its strong opposition to tyrannical nations.

It is difficult to get into a celebratory mood this Thanksgiving. Our hearts are heavy with so many losses, with so much pain, with so much needless suffering. 

We pray that those who hate Israel and the Jewish People will overcome their hatred…and reach out sincerely for peaceful co-existence. We pray that Israel and the Jewish People will remain strong, idealistic and humane. We pray for peace in Israel, throughout the Middle East and throughout the world. We pray that all good people everywhere will foster love, not hatred; mutual respect, not enmity; kindness, not cruelty.

Realism demands that we see things as they are. Idealism demands that we see things as they can and should be. We must never let realism block out our idealism. We dream of—and work for—better days.

There are worrying trends in American life. Yet we celebrate Thanksgiving with the faith that the American Dream has the power to maintain our country as a bastion of freedom and democracy. The American Jewish community has made—and continues to make—monumental contributions to American life in so many areas. We are grateful for the blessings of America.

In his famous letter to the Jewish community of Newport in 1790, President George Washington wrote: "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants--while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid." These are words, expressive of the American spirit at its best, for which we can be thankful.

On April 17, 1818, Mordecai Manuel Noah--one of the great American Jews of his time--delivered an address at the dedication ceremony of Shearith Israel's second synagogue building on Mill Street in lower Manhattan. He closed his talk with a prayer that we invoke this Thanksgiving:  "May we prove ever worthy of God's blessing; may He look down from His heavenly abode, and send us peace and comfort; may He instill in our minds a love of country, of friends, and of all mankind.  Be just, therefore, and fear not.  That God who brought us out of the land of Egypt, who walked before us like 'a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night,' will never desert His people Israel."

Happy Thanksgiving.


Faith as Protest




Learn to do good,

Seek justice,

Aid the oppressed.

Uphold the rights of the orphan,

Defend the cause of the widow.

(Isaiah 1:17)


Since this book is about religious ethics, we ought to confront at the outset the most compelling argument that religion is not a force for good. In one of the more famous passages of modern times, Karl Marx in 1844 delivered his verdict. Religion is, he said: ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ Religious faith, Marx believed, was what reconciled people to their condition their poverty, their disease and death, their ‘station in life’, their subjection to tyrannical rulers, the sheer bleakness of existence for most people most of the time.


Faith anaesthetized. It made the otherwise unbearable bearable. Things are as they are because that is the will of God. God made some people rich and others poor; some people rulers and the others ruled. Religion was the most powerful means ever devised for keeping people in their place and preserving the status quo. It robed their lives with ritual. It dignified their tears into prayer. It gave the social order metaphysical inevitability. So, if the world is to be changed, Marx concluded, religion must go:


The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is at the same time the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusions. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chains so that man may throw off the chains and pluck real flowers. Religion is only the illusory sun around which man revolves so long as he does not revolve around himself.


A century and a half later, we know what Marx himself could not, that the earthly paradise he envisaged turned, under Stalin, into one of the most brutal, repressive regimes in the history of humankind. The dream of utopia ended in a nightmare of hell.

Marx’s family background was Jewish: his grandfather had been a rabbi. His relationship tojudaism was, however, hostile, and his descrip tion of religion fails as a description of the Hebrew Bible. Judaism is not a religion that reconciles us to the world. It was born as an act of defiance against the great empires of the ancient world, Mesopotamia and Egypt, which did what he accused all religions of doing— sanctifying hierarchy, justifying the rule of the strong over the weak, glorifying kings and pharaohs and keeping the masses in place. In the Bible God removes the chains of slavery from his people; he does not impose them. The religion of Israel emerged out of the most paradigm-shifting experience of the ancient world: that the supreme power intervened in history to liberate the powerless. It was in and as the voice of social protest that the biblical imagination took shape.



There is a scene that, in 4,000 years, has not lost its capacity to take us by surprise. God has just sent messengers, in the guise of three strangers passing by, to Abraham and Sarah to give them the news that Sarah will have a child. Sarah, by then ageing and post-menopausal, laughs in dis belief, but God assures her that it is true. The strangers take their leave, and at that point the scene should end. But it does not. What happens next is the birth of a new drama in the relationship between heaven and earth, quite literally a world-changing event:


 The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him so that he may instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham, what He has promised him’.

Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to Me; and if not, I will know’. (Gen. 18:17—21)


It is a strange passage. Is God speaking to Abraham or not? If so, why? does he expect Abraham to have anything to say about the cities of the plain? Could there be anything Abraham might know that God himself does not know? There cannot be. God knows and sees all, including things we can never know: the private thoughts of others, their intentions and motives, the impact of their actions on the moral ecology of the world. Yet Abraham overhears these words and responds with an astonishing address:


Then Abraham came near and said: ‘Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city: will You then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth dojustice?’ (Gen. 18:23—5)


God accedes. If there are 50 righteous people in the city, he will not destroy it. Abraham does not let the matter rest. Calling himself ‘dust and ashes’ he none the less continues the argument relentlessly. What if there are 45, 40, 30, 20? Is there a precise calculus ofjustice? Eventually God and Abraham agree. If there are even ten righteous individuals (ten form a quorum; their virtue is public, not private), God will save the city. The dialogue ends.

The conversation has a sequel. Two of Abraham’s visitors, by now iden tified as angels, arrive at Sodom where they are greeted and given hospitality by Abraham’s nephew Lot: ‘But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house, and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may know them”’ (Gen. 19:4—5). The text leaves us in no doubt that what they have in mind is a crime. They are intenton homosexual rape. Many evils are implicit in their threat: physical assault, sexual impropriety, an abuse of hospitality and a belief that strangers have no rights and may be mis treated at will. The narrative is pointedly telling us something else as well. The curiously reiterated phrases, ‘young and old’, ‘all the people’, ‘to the last man’, are intended to show us that as a matter of fact Abraham’s con jecture was false. There were not ten righteous people in the city. There was not one. So the city and its surrounding towns are destroyed. Lot and his family alone are rescued, evidently by virtue of Abraham’s merit. Abraham’s prayer failed. Why then did he make it?


The answer is given at the beginning of the story, when God as it were thinks aloud in Abraham’s hearing. There can be only one reason. God wants Abraham to respond. His very act of communication is an invitation to Abraham to pray. Nor is this all: he gives Abraham guidance as to the terms in which he is to pray. He says, ‘For I have chosen him so that he may instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice [mishpat]’. God wants Abraham to live by these values, and it is these two words that form the heart of Abraham’s prayer The word tzaddik, ‘righteous’, appears seven times in the course of Abraham’s appeal (a sevenfold repetition is the bible’s way of signaling a key theme). The word mishpat forms the beginning and end of the most important sentence: ‘Shall not the judge [of all the earth do justice [ Abraham has precisely followed God’s cues.


But this only deepens the mystery. Why does God invite Abraham to pray? Why does he in effect teach him how to pray? It cannot be that Abraham knows anything that God does not know. Nor can it be that God expects him to raise any moral consideration he has neglected. For God is just and righteous. If he were not, he would not have told Abraham to live by justice and righteousness. Whichever way we look at it, the episode seems unintelligible — not just within our categories but within the narrative logic of the text itself.


Yet it is clearly not intended to be unintelligible. It is written in simple, lucid prose. It does not look or read like a riddle, a metaphysical conundrum. In fact, the story conveys a proposition at once simple yet utterly unexpected. It turns all conventional understandings of religion upside down. In Judaism, faith is a revolutionary gesture—the precise opposite of what Karl Marx took religion to be.


With monotheism a question was born. Why do the righteous suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Or, as the prophetJeremiah later asked, ‘Why does the way of the wicked prosper?’ (Jer. 12:1). In polythe istic or secular cultures, the question does not arise. There is no single force governing the universe, Instead there are many conflicting powers. In ancient times, they were the sun, the sea, the storm, the wind, the god of rain and the goddess of the earth, the pantheon of greater and lesser deities. Today we would speak of the global economy, terror, technologi cal progress, the international arena, the media and the biosphere. They control our lives but cannot be controlled. They are not the work of a single mind but the unpredictable outcome of billions of decisions. They clash, sometimes producing order, at others chaos, leaving human beings as victims or spectators of forces at best indifferent, at worst hostile to humankind. In such a world — or rather, in such a way of seeing the world — there is no justice because there is no supreme Judge.


The single greatest protest against such a universe is monotheism. It was born in the faith that the world that gave birth to us is not indifferent to our existence. Nor is it accidental that we alone of all life-forms ask questions There is something at the heart of being — something that is the heart of being — that responds to us as persons and teaches us to ask questions. We are here because someone wanted us to be. Nor are we condemned to ignorance as to who or what that someone is. For in its most radically humanizing gesture, the Hebrew Bible tells us that God speaks. The universe is not silent. And with those words from the One-who-speaks, a question takes shape in the mind of the one-who-listens.


Its classic expression takes the form of an apparent contradiction God is all powerful and all good. But there is injustice in the world. One or other of these statements must, it seems, be false. Either God cannot prevent injustice or he can but chooses not to. If he cannot, he is not all powerful. If he chooses not to, he is not all good. The alternative is that there is no injustice and what seems to be wrong from our limited perspective is in fact right if looked at from a wider or more long-term point of view. These or so it seems — are the only alternatives: to deny the power or goodness of God or to deny the existence of unjustified evil.


The first view, that of Karl Marx, says simply that there is no God. There is therefore no reason to expect that history will be anything other than the tyranny of the strong over the weak, of might over right, of the ‘will to power’ over the will to good. Justice is (as Plato’s Thrasymachus argued in The Republic) whatever serves the interests of the most powerful. This is a world of Darwinian natural selection. The strong survive. The weak perish. Homino homini lupus est, ‘Man is wolf to man’. Nietzsche was its greatest exponent. For him, words like kindness, compassion and sympathy were either disingenuous or naive. There is nothing in nature nor in the untutored human heart to lead us to confer on others a moral dignity equal to our own. We do what is in our interest and what we can get away with. All else is an illusion, wishful thinking. There is no justice because there is no Judge.


Against this, the second voice says No. God exists. There is a judge, therefore there is justice and what seems to us injustice is not ultimately so. Those who suffer do so because they are being punished for their sins. In one version, they may be suffering for Adam’s sin, which still stains humankind. It may be that suffering is not punishment for past vice but preparation for future virtue. It cures us of our pride. It teaches us strength and courage. It gives us sympathy with those who suffer, a sympathy we could not have, had we not suffered ourselves. The world, said Keats, is a ‘vale of soul-making’ (‘Do you not see’, he added, ‘how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?’). God exists, therefore injustice does not exist.


These are the conventional alternatives and there seems to be n’ other The first is the road taken by all ancient polytheistic and modern secular cultures. The second is most associated with the two great mono theisms that separated from Judaism and went into independent orbit: Christianity and Islam. Judaism rejects both. But there seems to be no logical space for it to occupy, for there is apparently no third option. That is why it is a faith hard to understand and often misunderstood. Its answer is not difficult, but it is revolutionary. It is that in creating humanity, God empowers humanity. He grants dignity — radical, ontological dignity — to the fact that human beings are not gods. Infinity confers a blessing on finitude by recognizing that it is finite, and loving it because it is. God not only speaks, he also listens, and in listening gives humankind a voice — Abraham’s voice.


God exists, therefore there isjustice. But it is divinejustice —justice from the perspective of one who knows all, sees all, and considers all: the uni verse as a whole, and time as a whole, which is to say, eternity. But we who live in space and time cannot see from this perspective, and if we did, it would not make us better human beings but worse.


To be a parent is to be moved by the cry of a child. But if the child is ill and needs medicine, we administer it, making ourselves temporarily deaf to its cry. A surgeon, to do his job competently and well, must to a certain extent desensitize himself to the patient’s fears and pains and regard him, however briefly, as a body rather than as a person. A statesman, to do his best for the country, must weigh long-term consequences and make tough, even brutal decisions: for soldiers to die in war if war is necessary; for people to be thrown out of jobs if economic stringency is needed. Parents, surgeons and politicians have human feelings, but the very roles they occupy mean that at times they must override them if they are to do the best for those for whom they are responsible. To do the best for others needs a measure of detachment, a silencing of sympathy, an anaesthetizing of compassion, for the road to happiness or health or peace sometimes runs through the landscape of pain and suffering and death.


If we were able to see how evil today leads to good tomorrow — if we were able to see from the point of view of God, creator of all — we would understand justice but at the cost of ceasing to be human. We would accept all, vindicate all, and become deaf to the cries of those in pain. God does not want us to cease to be human, for if he did, he would not have created us. We are not God. We will never see things from his perspective. The attempt to do so is an abdication of the human situation. My teacher, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, taught me that this is how to understand the moment when Moses first encountered God at the burning bush. ‘Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God’ (Ex. 3:6). Why was he afraid? Because if he were fully to understand God he would have no choice but to be reconciled to the slavery and oppression of the world. From the vantage point of eternity, he would see that the bad is a necessary stage on the journey to the good. He would understand God but he would cease to be Moses, the fighter against injustice who intervened whenever he saw wrong being done. ‘He was afraid’ that seeing heaven would desensitize him to earth, that coming close to infinity would mean losing his humanity. That is why God chose Moses, and why he taught Abraham to pray.


A Holocaust historian was once interviewing a survivor of the extermination camps. He was a hassidic rebbe (the name given by hassidim Jewish mystics, to their leader). Astonishingly, he seemed to have passed through the valley of the shadow of death, his faith intact. He could still smile. ‘Seeing what you saw, did you have no questions about God?’ she asked.


‘Yes’, he said, ‘Of course I had questions. So powerful were those questions, I had no doubt that were I to ask them, God would personally invite me to heaven to tell me the answers. And I prefer to be down here on earth with the questions than up in heaven with the answers’. He too belonged to this ancient Jewish tradition.


There is divine justice, and sometimes, looking back at the past from a distance in time, we can see it. But we do not live by looking back at the past. More than other faiths, the religion of the Hebrew Bible is written in the future tense. Ancient Israel was the only civilization to set its golden age in not-yet-realized time, because a free human being lives toward the future. There is divine justice, but God wants us to strive for human justice — in the short term, not just the long term; in this world, not the next; from the perspective of time and space, not infinity and eternity. God creates divine justice, but only we can create human justice, acting on behalf of God but never aspiring to be other than human. That is why he created us. It is why God not only speaks but listens, why he wants to hear Abraham’s voice, not just his own. Creation is empowerment. That is the radical proposition at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. God did not create humankind to demand of it absolute submission to his all-powerful will. In revelation, creation speaks. What it says is a call to responsibility.


There is an aspect of Genesis 18, the text with which I began, which has not been adequately understood, yet it is fundamental not only to the encounter between Abraham and God, but to the whole message of the Hebrew Bible and its distinctive tone of voice.


The conversation about the cities of the plain does not take place in a vacuum. It is preceded by another episode. We recall that the purpose of the three visitors was to tell Abraham and Sarah that they were about to have a child. The two events seem to have nothing to do with one another. What does the prospect of a child have to do with the fate of Sodom or an argument about justice?


Yet this will not do. These are not two episodes but one. The text is explicit on this point. Between the first half and the second we read this verse: ‘The men turned away and went towards Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before God’ (Gen. 18:22). ‘Remained standing’ tells us that this is not a new scene but a continuation of what has gone before. The Hebrew Bible always announces a break in the narrative. ‘And it came to pass that. . .‘ which means, in effect, the end of one scene and the beginning of the next. There is no such direction here. To the contrary the text goes out of its way to signal a seamless transition, an unbroken conversation

To make doubly certain we do not miss the point, the narrative explicitly links the two subjects. In the course of disclosing his plans for Sodom, God makes reference to the fact that Abraham is about to have a child: ‘For I have chosen him so that he may instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice’. Abraham’s role, the task for which he has been chosen, is to be a father. That is what his name means: ‘You shall be called Abraham for I will make you the father of many nations’. The second half of the chapter is thus intimately related to the first half. In inviting him to enter into a dialogue about the fate of Sodom, God is about to teach Abraham what it is to be a father.


All talk of God in the Bible is by way of metaphor. God, the prophets tell us, is a king, a judge, a shepherd, a husband, and many other images, each of which captures a fragment of the relationship between heaven and earth while none expresses all. Undoubtedly, though, the most powerful and consistent metaphor in the Bible is of God as a father. ‘My child, my firstborn, Israel’ (Ex. ), says God when he is about to rescue his people from slavery. Sometimes the prophets, Isaiah especially, speak of God as a mother: ‘Like one whom his mother comforts, so shall I comfort you’(Is. 66:13). Either way, however, though it is highly anthropomorphic, the entire biblical tradition tells us that if we seek to understand God — something we can never fully do by any act of the imagination — the best way to do so is to reflect on what it is to be a parent, bringing new life into being through an act of love, caring for it, protecting it while it is young, and then gradually withdrawing so that it can learn to walk, speak and exercise responsibility.


The use of a metaphor, however, may at times change the meaning of the metaphor itself, and that is the case here. Alongside a revolutionary concept of God, Judaism gave rise to an equally revisionary understanding of what it is to be a parent. In the ancient world, children were the property of their parents without an independent dignity of their own. That gave rise to the form of idolatry most repugnant to the Bible, child sacrifice (against which the story of the binding of Isaac is directed: God wants Abraham not to sacrifice his child). It also set in motion the tragic conflict between sons and fathers dramatized in the myth of Oedipus, which Freud, wrongly I believe, saw as endemic to human culture.


The Hebrew Bible tells the long and often tense story of the childhood of humanity under the parenthood of God. But God does not want humankind to remain in childhood. He wants them to become adults, exe responsibility in freedom. In Jewish law, the obligations of children to parents begin only when they cease to be children (at the age of 12 for girls, 13 for boys). Before then they have no obligations at all. Paradoxically, it is only when we become parents that we understand our parents — which is why the first recorded command in the Bible is that of parenthood (Be fruitful and multiply’). A weak parent seeks to control his children. A true parent seeks to relinquish control, which is why God never intervenes to protect us from ourselves. That means that we will stumble and fall, but only by so doing does a child learn to walk. God does not ask his children not to make mistakes. To the contrary, he accepts that, in the Bible’s own words, ‘There is none on earth so righteous as to do only good and never to sin’ (Eccl. ). God asks us only to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. Forgiveness is written into the structure of the universe.


The connection between the two halves of the chapter lies in an utterly new understanding of what it is to be a parent. Abraham, about to become father to the first child of the covenant, is being taught by God what it means to raise a child. To be a father— implies the Bible — is to teach a child to question, challenge, confront, dispute. God invites Abraham to do these things because he wants him to be the parent of a nation that will do these things. He does not want the people of the covenant to be one

•that accepts the evils and injustices of the world as the will of God. He wants the people of the covenant to be human, neither more nor less. He wants them to hear the cry of the oppressed, the paln of the afflicted and the plaint of the lonely. He wants them not to accept the world that is, because it is not the world that ought to be. He is giving Abraham a tutorial in what it is to teach a child to grow by challenging the existing scheme of things. Only through such challenges does a child learn to accept responsibility; only by accepting responsibility does a child grow to become an adult; and only an adult can understand the parenthood of God.


To be a Jewish child is to learn how to question. Four times the Mosaic books refer to children asking questions (the ‘four sons’ of the Haggadah) 8 The most significant family ritual, the seder service of Passover, begins with the questions asked by a child. Against cultures that see unquestioning obedience as the ideal behaviour of a child, Jewish tradition, in the Haggadah, regards the ‘child who has not learned to ask’ as the lowest, not the highest, stage of development (Solomon ibn Gabirol said, ‘A wise question already contains half the answer’). A famous verse in Judaism’s holiest prayer, the Shema, is usually translated as ‘You shall teach these things diligently to your children’ (Deut. 6:7). The great eleventh-century commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), however, translates the verb not as ‘you shall teach diligently’ but as ‘you shall sharpen’. Education, in Judaism, is active, not passive. It is about honing the mind, sharpening the intellect, through question and answer, challenge and response.


Judaism is God’s perennial question-mark against the condition of the world. That things are as they are is a fact, not a value. Should it be so? Why should it be so? Only one who asks whether the world should be as it is, is capable of changing what it is. That is why Marx was wrong. Biblical faith is not a conservative force. It does not conceal the scars of the human condition under the robes of sanctity and inevitability. There may be — there is — divine justice in or beyond history, but God does not ask us to live by the standards of divine justice for if we could understand divine justice we would no longer be human. We are God’s children, not God. By teaching Abraham how to be a child, challenging, questioning, defending even the wicked in the name of human solidarity, God was instructing him in what it is to be human, keeping ‘the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice’.


God exists, therefore the universe is just. But we are merely human, and God has empowered us to seek the justice that is human — not justice from the point of view of the universe and eternity but from the point of view of the fallible, frail, ephemeral, vulnerable beings that we are. We who live in space and time cannot but see injustice. We cannot know the rewards of a life beyond the grave. We cannot judge the remote consequences of an event all too vividly present in the here and now. Our pain is not made less by the belief that it is necessary for the good of the whole. Still less is it made bearable by the belief that it is justified as punishment for sin. That — as Job’s comforters belatedly discovered — is not a form of comfort but a double affliction. In the book ofJob, the comforters who defend the justice of God are condemned by God himself, because He asks of us not to take his part but to be human, the essence of which is acknowledging that we are not God.


God in making humanity conferred on us the right and duty to see things from a human point of view. If evil exists within our horizons, then it is real no matter how limited those horizons are. Making us human, not divine, God calls on us to judge and act within the terms of our humanity. ‘The Torah was not given to ministering angels’, said the sages. It was given to human beings, and the justice it asks us to fight for is human justice. That is why God empowered Abraham to challenge him on the fate of Sodom and the cities of the plain.


God knew that there were no righteous in the city. But Abraham did not and could not know. Had he said nothing — had he accepted the divine decree —justice would have been done, but not seen to be done, not at any rate in a way intelligible to us on earth. There had to be a fair trial, an advocate for the defence, a plea in mitigation. That was

Abraham’s role and his courage — the courage God invited him to show. For the faith Abraham was being asked to initiate would be one that in every generation strove for justice in human terms. It is not a faith that accepts the status quo as God’s will. On the contrary, it is a faith in which God invites human beings to become his partners in the work of redemption; to build a society on the basis of a justice that people understand as such; a human world, without hubris (the attempt to be more than human) or nemesis (a descent into the less-than-human).


‘The Torah speaks in the language of human beings’, said Rabbi Ishmael, meaning, it is addressed to us within the parameters of our understanding. ‘It is not in heaven’, said Moses at the end of his life, ‘nor is it beyond the sea’ (Deut. 30:12—13). There is plenary truth in heaven; on earth, we live among its reflections and refractions. We could not understand God’s justice without being gods ourselves. God does not ask

us to be anything other than we are, finite beings whose knowledge is limited, whose life-span is all too short, and whose horizons are circumscribed. It is within those limits that God asks us to create a justice we can understand: a human justice that may and must fall short of the divine but which is no less significant for that. For God, in creating us, gave our lives significance. We may be no more than an image, a faint reflection, of God himself, but we are no less.


Opium of the people? Nothing was ever less an opiate than this religion of sacred discontent, of dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was Abraham, then Moses, Amos, and Isaiah, who fought on behalf of justice and human dignity — confronting priests and kings, even arguing with God Himself. That note, first sounded by Abraham, never died. It was given its most powerful expression in the book of Job, surely the most dissident book ever to be included in a canon of sacred scriptures. It echoes again and again in rabbinic midrash, in the kinot (laments) of the Middle Ages, in hassidic tales and the literature of the Holocaust. In Judaism, faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be. Faith lies not in the answer but the question — and the greater the human being, the more intense the question. The Bible is not metaphysical opium but its opposite. Its aim is not to transport the believer to a private heaven. Instead, its impassioned, sustained desire is to bring heaven down to earth. Until we have done this, there is work still to do.


There are cultures that relieve humankind of responsibility, lifting us beyond the world of pain to bliss, ecstasy, meditative rapture. They teach us to accept the world as it is and ourselves as we are. They bring peace of mind, and that is no small thing. Judaism is not peace of mind. ‘The righteous have no rest, neither in this world nor the next’, says the Talmud.’ I remain in awe at the challenge God has set us: to be different, iconoclasts of the politically correct, to be God’s question-mark against the conventional wisdom of the age, to build, to change, to ‘mend’ the world until it becomes a place worthy of the divine presence because we have learned to honour the image of God that is humankind.


Biblical faith demands courage. It is not for the faint-hearted. Its vision of the universe is anything but comfortable. However free or affluent we are, on Passover we eat the bread of the affliction and taste the bitter herbs of slavery. On Sukkot (Tabernacles) we sit in shacks and know what it is to be homeless. On the Sabbath we make our living protest against a society driven by ceaseless production and consumption. Every day in our prayers (Psalm 146) we speak of God who ‘brings justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry, who sets captives free and opens the eyes of the blind, who straightens the backs of those who are bent down . . . who watches over the stranger and gives heart to the orphan and the widow’. To imitate God is to be alert to the poverty suffering and loneliness of others. Opium desensitizes us to pain. The Bible sensitizes us to it.


It is impossible to be moved by the prophets and not have a social con science. Their message, delivered in the name of God, is: accept responsibility. The world will not get better of its own accord. Nor will we make it a more human place by leaving it to others — politicians, columnists, protestors, campaigners — making them our agents to bring redemption on our behalf. The Hebrew Bible begins not with man’s cry to God, but with God’s cry to us, each of us, here where we are. ‘If you are silent at this time’, says Mordekhai to Esther, ‘relief and deliverance will come from elsewhere . . . but who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you have attained royalty?’ (Esth. 4:14). That is the question God poses to us. Yes, if we do not do it, someone else may. But we will then have failed to understand why we are here and what we are summoned to do. The Bible is God’s call to human responsibility.




1. Karl Marx, ‘Towards a critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right: introduction’. Quoted in Don Cupitt, The Sea of Faith (London: BBC, 1984), p.

2. Ibid.

3. George Steiner, in his In Bluebeard’s Castle: some notes towards the redefinition of culture (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), pp. 29—48, argues that the socialism of Marx, Trotsky and Ernst Bloch has its roots in biblical messianism. There is, however, a difference in kind between religious and secular On the latter, see J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Penguin, 1986).

4. See Sander L. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: anti-Semitism and the hidden language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp.


5. The Republi6 338c; C. R. E Ferrari (ed.), trans. Tom Griffith (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 15.

6. John Keats, ‘Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 14 February—3 May,

1819’, in The Letters of John Keats, 1814—1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

7. Nahum Rabinovitch, Darkah shel Torah [ (Jerusalem: Maaliyot,1999), pp. 185—91.

8. Ex. 12:26; 13:8, 14; Deut. 6:20.

9. Rashi, Commentary to Deut. 6:7. to. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 25b.

11. Ibid., 31b.

12. Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 29a.




The Tower of Babel: A Case Study in Combining Traditional and Academic Bible Methodologies


The growing popularity of what Rabbi Shalom Carmy calls the “literary-theological” approach to Tanakh study has been transforming the way we approach our most sacred texts. This methodology demands a finely tuned text reading, along with a focus on the religious significance of the passage. The premises of this methodology include the following:

  1. The words of our Sages and later classical commentators are central to the way we understand the revealed word of God; and
  2. It is vital to study biblical passages in their literary and historical context.[1]


This article on the Tower of Babel offers a “textbook lesson” in combining traditional rabbinic commentary with contemporary academic Bible scholarship. These two approaches begin with different sets of assumptions, but each gives us access to greater meaning in the Torah. Taken together, we emerge with a fuller picture than with either one by itself.


Text Analysis

We will first explore the basic text issues, and we then will turn to layers of interpretation—both traditional and literary-historical.


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 us 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. (Gen. 11:1–9)


Our narrative begins with a united humanity living together. Yehudah Kiel notes that Shinar is likely the Torah’s way of saying Sumer. Kiel also argues that the story need not refer literally to all humanity; it may refer simply to the people living in that region.[2]

The protagonists in this text migrate eastward until they reach a bikah, translated by Ibn Ezra and Yehudah Kiel as a plain. The Babylonians depended on brick-making for their building projects, since they did not have an adequate stone supply. While historically accurate, we may ask why the Torah places such emphasis on this seemingly trivial detail.

                        Verse 4 contains the crux of the builders’ intent: “Come, let us build us 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.” “A tower with its top in the sky” appears lexically similar to our term “skyscraper.” Similar terminology appears in Deuteronomy in reference to the high walls surrounding Canaanite cities (Deut. 1:28; 9:1). The builders of the Tower wanted to be remembered for having built this monumental structure (Ibn Ezra, Radak). On the surface, there does not appear to be anything unusually sinful about their intent. They were interested in holding their growing community together with the help of the Tower, and being remembered by later generations.

            However, God thwarts them. God’s “descent” does not reflect some primitive notion of God’s being “up” and needing to come down to earth to figure out what is happening. To the contrary, God knows that the people are building the Tower. Rashi therefore explains that God is teaching the notion that judges must investigate cases thoroughly.

            It is not evident why God should feel threatened, or what the builders of the Tower were doing wrong that God needed to intervene. It also is remarkable that the Torah states that Babylonia was named after linguistic confusion, given that the Babylonians themselves referred to their city as Babel. We turn now to rabbinic commentary to explore these questions.


Rabbinic Interpretation

One classical explanation of the Tower of Babel is found in the Talmud:

R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: They split up into three parties. One said, ‘Let us ascend and dwell there;’ the second, ‘Let us ascend and serve idols;’ and the third said, ‘Let us ascend and wage war [with God].’...It has been taught. R. Nathan said: They were all bent on idolatry. (Sanhedrin 109a)


These Sages explain that the Tower reflects idolatry and rebellion against God. Rashi adopts their analysis, as well. The advantage of this interpretation is that God’s strong reaction makes sense. God felt threatened and therefore intervened to thwart their plans. This interpretation also gains credibility insofar as this narrative is the only one spanning from Noah to Abraham and his family. It is reasonable to surmise that this story must be significant beyond its teaching of how people speak many languages.

            However, one may ask whether this reading fits the text. Where is there mention of a rebellion against God or idolatry in this passage? Ibn Ezra summarily dismisses this interpretation:


The builders of the tower were not so foolish as to think that they could go to the heavens…The text reveals their intent—to build a large city for their settlement, and the Tower would be a sign of their glory and also their location for shepherds who ventured away. They would also preserve their name all the days of the Tower…The builders hoped that they would never scatter, but this was not God’s plan, and they did not realize that. (Ibn Ezra on Gen. 11:3)



However, commentators seeking the plain sense of the text (pashtanim) also struggle to determine the meaning of this narrative. Ibn Ezra argues that the people did not do anything sinful. God opposed the project since He had blessed them to multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28; 9:1). God scattered them to fulfill His blessing to humanity. In a similar vein, Ralbag maintains that the people did not sin, but God desires human diversity rather than conformity and therefore scattered them.

            Several later commentators assume that the builders of the Tower must have done something sinful, as God appears threatened. They modify the views of Ibn Ezra or Ralbag and insist that the people deliberately wanted to thwart God’s blessing to fill the earth (Radak, Joseph Bekhor Shor) or to create a conformist, totalitarian regime (Yitzhak Arama, Samson Rafael Hirsch, Netziv).

Abarbanel submits a surprising thesis. Brick-making symbolizes human creativity, and he argues that technology ultimately causes problems. Of course, God does not outright forbid technology, but it is not the ideal course for humanity. Unlike the other interpretations we have seen, Abarbanel addresses the textual element of brick-making.

            Although the talmudic interpretation of idolatry appears to read a lot into the text, the interpretations of the later pashtanim also do not appear evident in the text. Other than Abarbanel’s anti-technology reading, the other interpretations do not explain the Torah’s emphasis on brick-making. Moreover, none of the above interpretations explains why the Babylonians would refer to their own city as “confusion.” The cryptic nine verses of this narrative pose difficulties in arriving at a compelling reading.


Ancient Near Eastern Context


Over the past century, scholarship has progressed significantly with the archaeological discovery of many artifacts and written documents from the ancient Near East. Much of this section summarizes the groundbreaking work of Moshe David (Umberto) Cassuto, and the subsequent discussions of Nahum Sarna and Elhanan Samet.[3] They argue that the Tower of Babel narrative is a polemic against the worldview of the nations, in particular Babylonia. In every ancient Babylonian city, there were temples, always accompanied with a tower called a ziqqurat. This term derives from the Akkadian zaqaru, “to rise up high,” or “step pyramid.” In Babylonia, the great ziqqurat was the Temple of Marduk—the patron deity of Babylonia. The Temple was called E-sag-ila (“the house with a raised head”), and its tower was called etemen-an-ki (“the house of the foundation of the heavens and earth”). It appears that this temple originally was built in Hammurabi’s time (18th–17th centuries b.c.e.), approximately the same time as Abraham. The Babylonians took such great pride in their temple that they composed myths that attributed its building to the gods:


Marduk, the king of the gods divided all the Anunnaki (=various gods) above and below...The Anunnaki opened their mouths and said to Marduk, their lord: “Now, o lord, you who have caused our deliverance, what shall be our homage to you? Let us build a shrine”;...When Marduk heard this, brightly glowed his features, like the day: “Construct Babylon, whose building you have requested, let its brickwork be fashioned...” the Anunnaki applied the implement; for one whole year they molded bricks. When the second year arrived, they raised high the head of Esagila equalling Apsu (=corresponded to the depths of the ocean. Apsu was one of the original two gods in world, according to this myth.)...(Akkadian Creation Epic, Tablet VI, lines 39–62)[4]


The ruins of the Temple of Marduk were found between 1889 and 1917 by German archaeologists. It was gigantic, about 300 feet high, rising from a square base of equal size. There is little question that the Torah is discussing this temple. Archaeologists have unearthed the biblical Tower of Babel and other documents that describe what the Babylonians thought of their prized temple.

            A ziqqurat was built as a surrogate mountain, designed as a meeting place between the gods and people. Priests could ascend to the top on elaborate staircases in order to encounter the gods. Phrases such as “its top in the sky” and “to make a name for oneself” appear regularly on Akkadian building inscriptions.[5] E-sag-ila, the house with a raised head, now appears strikingly similar to the Torah’s quoting the Tower’s builders as wanting “a tower with its top in the sky” (Gen. 11:4).

            Additionally, the Babylonian Creation Epic cited above marvels at the brick-making required for the Tower. In this myth, it took the gods one year to make enough bricks to build the Temple of Marduk! The Torah mocks this claim, noting that the Tower and its bricks were built by people. This detail in the Babylonian epic helps explain why the Torah focuses on the brick-making aspect of the project.

God’s “descent” in the Torah narrative also speaks against the idea of a ziqqurat. The physical height of a mountain or structure does not bring anyone closer to God. God descended to thwart the Tower before it was completed.

In this reading of the Torah narrative, Babylonian society was guilty of the ultimate arrogance. They were excessively proud of the Temple of Marduk, and claimed that their gods built it. They also built the Tower to make for themselves a name, usurping a supposedly religious structure for self-aggrandizement.

We now can understand the Torah’s explanation for the city name, Bavel, confusion. The Babylonians called their city Babel, from the Akkadian bab-ilim, “the gate of the god.” They considered their city to be the religious center of the world. The Hebrew etymology, then, is a “midrash” of the Torah to mock the Babylonians. You think you are the gate of the god, but in fact you are completely confused!

To summarize, the sin of the Tower of Babel was supreme arrogance of a polytheistic, idolatrous society. This interpretation also is the view of the talmudic Sages (Sanhedrin 109a) quoted earlier. Living in Babylonia, the Sages well understood what the Torah was teaching. With our knowledge of the ancient setting, their interpretation is closely wedded to the text of the Torah, and is the most convincing of all the suggestions cited above.


The Significance of the Narrative

Following this interpretation, Yehezkel Kaufmann observed that until this point in the Book of Genesis, all people are assumed to be monotheists. The Tower of Babel represents the moment when idolatry entered human culture. As a result, Abraham was chosen to leave Babylonia and to teach humanity about its original vision of monotheism.[6]

As in the Tower of Babel, the Garden of Eden narrative also revolves around people overstepping their human boundaries and God appearing to feel threatened by human actions:

And the Lord God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” (Gen. 3:22)


Both narratives also have God using the unusual plural “we” form when referring to Himself. Lyle Eslinger explains that this unusual form is used specifically when establishing boundaries between the divine and human realms.[7] Ramban (on 11:2) notes further that Eden and Babel were similar sins, and therefore the protagonists were exiled each time.

The Talmud poignantly casts God and human arrogance as diametrically opposed, to the point where God’s presence in this world is threatened by arrogance:


If one walks with a stiff bearing [i.e., with arrogance] even for four cubits, it is as if he pushed against the heels of the Divine Presence, since it is written, The whole earth is full of His glory (Isa. 6:3). (Berakhot 43b)


Monotheism is not simply a matter of the number of deities one serves. Rather, it promotes humility. God’s Presence is invited in through that humility, as exemplified by Moses who was the humblest of all people (Num. 12:3) and the greatest prophet (Num. 12:6–8). The Tower of Babel narrative teaches that idolatry is rooted in the ultimate human arrogance.

            Yehudah Elitzur further observes that the term sulam (ladder) appears only in Jacob’s dream with the angels ascending and descending. More significantly, the term sha’ar ha-Shamayim, the gateway to heaven, appears only here:

Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven (sha’ar ha-Shamayim).” (Gen. 28:17)


Elitzur argues that this narrative is the Torah’s response to the Tower of Babel. The Babylonians called themselves bab-ilim, the gate of the god, similar to sha’ar ha-Shamayim. God descended to the Tower of Babel, mocking its builders for thinking that they had connected heaven and earth with their ziqqurat. In reality, they were arrogant and confused. In contrast, Jacob’s ladder effectively connects the heavens and earth, as angels freely ascend and descend.[8]

            Finally, Zephaniah prophesied that in the ideal future, arrogance shall be replaced by all humanity again being pure of speech, i.e., being God-fearing.


For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve Him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush, My suppliants shall bring offerings to Me in Fair Puzai…For then I will remove the proud and exultant within you, and you will be haughty no more on My sacred mount. But I will leave within you a poor, humble folk, and they shall find refuge in the name of the Lord. (Zeph. 3:9–12)


This prophecy is the antidote to the Tower of Babel, which represents the arrogance and idolatry that led to people speaking many languages. In those medieval communities where the triennial cycle was used for Torah readings, this passage in Zephaniah fittingly was selected as the Haftarah for the reading of the Tower of Babel.[9]

            To summarize, the Tower of Babel is of central importance to the early Genesis narratives. The Babylonians arrogantly presumed to establish the place where the heavens meet earth and that they could bring the gods down to earth by building high temples. They were self-aggrandizing by building a temple to make a name for themselves, and in their mythology they ascribed this monumental building project to the gods.

This is the moment in the Torah where idolatry is introduced. God shifts from focusing on all humanity to Abraham and his descendants, who were entrusted to teach the world about ethical monotheism. Humility brings God’s presence closer. Arrogance is linked to idolatry and threatens God’s presence.



            In this article, we briefly explored facets of how to analyze the Tower of Babel narrative. We began with the basic text, pinpointing the major issues that need to be addressed. We then surveyed talmudic and later rabbinic commentary. Although insightful and illuminating, none of these sources fully addressed the various details of the text. A consideration of the ancient Near Eastern setting, coupled with the talmudic reading in Tractate Sanhedrin, provided a more satisfactory reading of the details of the narrative in a vacuum and in its surrounding context. This reading highlights a vital detail in the spiritual history of the world as presented by the Torah.

            To round out the analysis, we considered other biblical reference that shed additional light on the theme that the Tower of Babel narrative teaches. The Garden of Eden narrative and the Tower of Babel both explore how people sometimes exceed their boundaries and this threatens their relationship with God, leading to exile. Jacob’s humility and God’s revelation are linked as the ideal connection between the heavens and the earth. Zephaniah prophetically anticipates a future era when the damage of the Tower of Babel is undone and the world unites again in humility and in serving God.

            By the conclusion of the analysis, we can see how the rabbinic interpretations and ancient Near Eastern scholarship complement each other, enabling us to unlock a brief but powerful narrative that lies at the heart of the Torah’s values.





[1] See Shalom Carmy, “A Room with a View, but a Room of Our Own,” in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. Shalom Carmy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996), pp. 1–38.

[2] Yehudah Kiel, Da’at Mikra: Bereshit vol. 1 (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1997), pp. 279–280.

[3] Moshe David (Umberto) Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1987), pp. 154–169; Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1966), pp. 63–80; Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Parashot ha-Shavua (first series) vol. 1 (Hebrew) ed. Ayal Fishler (Ma’aleh Adumim: Ma’aliyot Press, 2002), pp. 21–30. Modified English version at

[4] Translation from James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 68–69.

[5] Ada Feyerick, Genesis: World of Myths and Patriarchs (New York: New York University Press, 1996), p. 53.

[6] For further discussion of the subject of the Chosen People, see Hayyim Angel, “‘The Chosen People’: An Ethical Challenge,” Conversations 8 (Fall 2010), pp. 52–60; reprinted in Angel, Creating Space between Peshat and Derash: A Collection of Studies on Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV-Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2011), pp. 25-34. For a different approach, see Zvi Grumet, “The Revolution of Terah and Avraham,” in this issue.

[7] Lyle Eslinger, “The Enigmatic Plurals Like ‘One of Us’ (Genesis I 26, III 22, and XI 7) in Hyperchronic Perspective,” VT 56 (2006), pp. 171–184.

[8] Yehudah Elitzur, “The Tower of Babel and Jacob’s Ladder” (Hebrew), in Yisrael ve-ha-Mikra: Mehkarim Geografiyim Historiyim ve-Hagotiyim, Yoel Elitzur and Amos Frisch (eds.), (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1999), pp. 46–48.

[9] See listing of the triennial Haftarot at the end of Yosef Ofer, “The Sections of the Prophets and Writings” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 58 (1989), pp. 155–189.

The "Fear of Isaac"--Thoughts for Parashat Vayetsei

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Vayetsei

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

This is the only Torah portion where God is referred to as Pahad Yitzhak, Fear of Isaac.  Jacob uses this expression twice as he negotiates his separation from Laban, his father-in-law.

Commentators have suggested various interpretations of Pahad Yitzhak, often connecting it to the Akeida where Yitzhak literally faced death at the hands of his own father. God—who commanded the Akeida—would likely have been a source of fear to Isaac.

Yet, the question remains: why did Jacob only use this term in his dealings with Laban? He generally referred to the God of Abraham and Isaac without referring to God as Pahad Yitzhak.

Jacob’s relationship with Laban had deteriorated so much that Jacob and family fled Laban without even saying goodbye. When Laban learned that Jacob’s entourage had left, he pursued them and confronted Jacob. Why did you leave without even allowing me to kiss my children and grandchildren? Jacob replied: “I was afraid lest you should take your daughters from me by force” (31:31). Jacob complained to Laban: “These twenty years I have been in your household; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flock; and you have changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side you would have sent me away empty…” (31:41-42).

After a hostile exchange between Jacob and Laban, the two agreed to make a covenant so that neither would hurt the other in the future. Jacob confirmed the covenant in the name of the Fear of Isaac his father (31.53).

Jacob realized that Laban was a unique type of opponent. Laban was deceitful in the extreme. His word could never be trusted.  Even a covenant with him was of dubious value, because Laban would not hesitate to violate it. How could Jacob be sure that Laban would leave him and his family alone in the future?

Jacob concluded: Laban will understand only one thing: fear of harsh retribution if he would renege on this treaty. Jacob

invoked the Fear of Isaac, being sure to underscore the element of fear. He was making it clear to Laban that the Fear of Isaac was a mighty and fearsome God.

While Jacob’s other adversaries in life posed threats to him, he at least knew what he was up against. He knew their strengths and intentions and could plan accordingly. But when it came to Laban, he was dealing with a slippery liar who thrived on deceit and deception. Unless Laban felt genuine fear, he would behave ruthlessly.

It is difficult to deal with enemies who are inveterate liars and cheaters, who claim your property as theirs, who have no compunction about committing acts of violence and terror. Such enemies need to be reminded that Pahad Yitzhak—the Fear of Isaac—is a fearsome God who will wreak vengeance on those who seek our harm.


Sephardic Reflections: Present and Future Tense

Do you feel that Sephardic and other non-Ashkenazic traditions (halakhot, customs, prayer, history, religious worldview, etc.) should be better represented in Jewish Day Schools and high schools?

I firmly believe that the ideal curriculum in any Jewish Day School or high school is one that reflects the complete picture of Jewish traditions, customs, prayers, history and philosophy—Sephardic and Ashkenazic. It’s not about “representation” or “inclusion,” nor is it about “Sephardic Heritage Week” or “Electives for Sephardic Students.” It’s about every school offering every single student—Sephardic and Ashkenazic together—a daily curriculum that studies both of these beautiful traditions equally, thus exposing the entire student body to the multiplicity of religious books, customs, rabbis, and philosophies that both traditions have to offer. Adopting such an approach would produce better educated and more well-rounded Jewish students who would graduate our schools with a deeper and more complete understanding of the historical experiences, practices, and ideas of the entire Jewish people. Schools are in the business of educating, and as educators, it’s our responsibility to present our students with a complete picture of their collective history and traditions. If we really believe in slogans like “Jewish Unity” and “Am Echad” (One People), then that starts in the classroom. 


Do you have specific suggestions to increase the wholeness and inclusiveness of Jewish education?

Building on my answer to the first question, I will offer a sampling of specific suggestions in select areas that I feel can create the complete curriculum that reflects both Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.

Halakha: People often ask me “Rabbi, what’s the best available book that includes both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic halakhic rulings?” My answer: The Shulhan Arukh. On every page of Judaism’s most authoritative halakhic code, you have the rulings of two of Judaism’s greatest masters of halakha: the Sephardic Rav Yosef Karo and the Ashkenazic Rav Moshe Isserles. This should serve as a model for how we teach our students halakha. If we can open the Shulhan Arukh and see both traditions printed before us on every page, then when we study other works of halakha, such as contemporary responsa, we can teach our students Rav Benzion Uziel’s Mishpetei Uziel and Rav Ovadia Yosef’s Yehaveh Da’at—both Sephardic—alongside Rav Eliezer Waldenberg’s Tzitz Eliezer and Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Iggerot Moshe—both Ashkenazic. How wonderful it would be to see all of our students, regardless of their family backgrounds, conversant in the multiplicity of halakhic opinions and traditions.

Customs: It’s very tricky for schools to teach customs—minhagim—because customs often reflect what individual families do at home. It’s a myth to talk about “Ashkenazic Customs” vs. “Sephardic Customs,” because within each of these traditions there are multiple customs that reflect different countries of origin or family traditions. Customs are best learned by practicing them at home. Having said that, I recognize that not every student comes from a home where customs and traditions are observed, so what is the best approach to teaching this multicultural aspect of Judaism? By making sure to create a curriculum that exposes all students to the large tapestry of customs of the Jewish people. Again, this is not about “inclusion” or “Sephardic Heritage Week,” nor should this ever be presented as what’s “normative” vs. what’s “different.” Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions should have an equal seat at the classroom table, all year round.

Prayer: So often in my life, I’ve heard Ashkenazic Jews say they cannot follow a Sephardic service, and the same with Sephardic Jews in an Ashkenazic service. What surprises them is that when you actually compare the text of the Siddur and find that 90–95 percent of the order and words are identical. Students should have a tefillah class where they learn both siddurim and see the actual differences. This would not even take a year to learn. The bigger question and challenge is not in the classroom, but in actual prayer services. Will the daily services be Sephardic or Ashkenazic? I know this sounds bold and definitely out of the box, but the daily service can and should be both. I don’t love the idea of schools that take pride in saying, “We also offer a Sephardic minyan for our Sephardic students.” I believe in what Rabbi Uziel taught, that Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews should unite as one in prayer. We can easily teach our students a variety of Ashkenazic and Sephardic tunes. How inspirational it would be to see a morning minyan of students that blend the beautiful melodies of both traditions, switches between one tradition and the other with Torah reading te’amim (tropes) every Monday and Thursday, and sings Hallel on Rosh Hodesh with both tunes. Talk about a model of Jewish unity.

History: If we are to teach “Jewish history” in our schools, then it cannot be an exclusively Eurocentric-Ashkenazic narrative, and once a year we invite “an expert in Sephardic history” to teach a few sessions. That practice must go away, as it is intellectually dishonest. The medieval and modern Jewish historical experiences must be taught in their entirety. What about the Holocaust? Again, students must be taught the complete picture, the one that comprises the history and stories of the persecution, discrimination and tragedies that befell the Jews of Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa. The Holocaust is neither Ashkenazic or Sephardic. It was directed at all Jews, and that’s how it should be taught.

Philosophy: I picture a Jewish philosophy class where the guest lecturers are Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, Rav Yehuda Halevy, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Uziel, Hassidic Rebbes, and Sephardic Kabbalists.  No tradition has a monopoly on Jewish thinkers, and we will produce better students if they are exposed to the full gamut of Jewish philosophy and thought. All of these imaginary guest speakers, and many others, left us a treasure chest of ideas on how to think about God, science, human nature, prayer, and our deep connection to Israel. These thinkers were not expressing “Sephardic ideas” or “Ashkenazic ideas.” They all equally belong to every single Jew, and therefore every single Jewish student should hear what each one of these thinkers has to say.     

3. What resources would you suggest for rabbis and educators to give them an entry to Sephardic tradition in a way they can incorporate these materials into their synagogues and classrooms?

There are so many new books coming out every year that explain the customs, history, prayers, and traditions of Sephardic Judaism. The challenge is teaching rabbis and educators how to make use of these books in their respective settings. The best “resources” I have seen are the educator’s conferences that have been convened in the past few years, conferences whose purpose is to teach educators and rabbis how to incorporate Sephardic materials in their classrooms.

I was privileged to have my organization, the Sephardic Educational Center, partner with The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, in what we called “The Sephardic Initiative.” Our main goal was to convene conferences for Jewish Day School and high school educators, and “teach them how to teach” Sephardic Judaism to their students. We ran several such conferences, both on the East Coast and West Coast, and we succeeded in reaching a large and diverse number of educators, empowering them with books, curricular materials, and methods on how to best bring all of this into their classrooms. I hope we will do many more such programs.

I am also an annual lecturer in the “Journey to the Mizrach” conferences convened by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa). They are a Sephardic-Mizrahi organization based in Northern California, and their conferences reached many Jewish educators from that region. The goal is the same as the “Sephardic Initiative”—empowering educators with Sephardic knowledge and materials. Speaking of Sephardic materials, JIMENA is undertaking the task to author a full Sephardic-Mizrahi curriculum. They have reached out to a wide range of rabbis, scholars, and educators, and I trust the final product will serve as a tremendous primary Sephardic resource for Jewish schools. 

One of the main challenges is that many of the writings of Sephardic rabbis from the past 200 years are not accessible to the larger world, either because there are out of print, or because they are written in a Hebrew dialect that is challenging to the modern student. Until we have many works republished in attractively printed editions, and then translated into English (and other languages), I would suggest the “HeHacham Hayomi” (Daily Sage) website built and maintained by Kol Yisrael Haverim (The Israeli branch of the Alliance Israelite Universelle). This website—both in Hebrew and in English—offers a large database of the biographies and teachings of “Sephardic Sages” from all over the Sephardic diaspora. It’s a wonderful resource and an easy way to bring the inspirational teachings of otherwise unknown Sephardic rabbis into the classroom.

The Sephardic community must take the responsibility to initiate, support, and fund Sephardic conferences, publications, and curricular materials, making this wisdom available to the entire Jewish world. Such initiatives can help our present tense situation, where most Jewish schools run an “Ashkenormative” curriculum.

As to the “future tense,” I still maintain that the blended and complete curriculum—not the resources for “including” Sephardic materials—is the ultimate ideal and goal.

4. Do you sense that inter-group ethnic discrimination is a growing problem, a diminishing problem, or no problem at all?

Keeping our focus on Jewish schools, I think it is definitely a diminishing problem. While we still have a long way to go in achieving the blended curriculum I laid out above, I think the Jewish Day Schools and high schools my kids attended fostered a much deeper feeling of “Jewish Unity” and “We Are One People” than the Jewish schools I attended. I want to keep things positive here, so I prefer not to cite the many instances of ethnic discrimination I experienced as a Sephardic Jew in my classes, from my rabbis and even at times from the administration. We’ve thankfully come a long way with all of this, and I think that working towards the blended “Sephardic-Ashkenazic” curriculum will help remove any ethnic differences, because the school will be “both,” or rather, it will be “one.”

5. Do you think Jews 100 years from now will identify as Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Teimanim, etc., or will they simply see themselves as Jews with multiple ethnic backgrounds?

I don’t think we need to wait 100 years. My two children, whose father is Sephardic and mother is Ashkenazic, see themselves as “Jews with multiple ethnic backgrounds.” That holds true for many members of the younger generation that I deal with. This does not negate their “ethnic identity” or their desire to celebrate Judaism in a particularly Sephardic or Ashkenazic mode, but I think more and more are identifying as proud Jews who feel privileged to come from this or that—or multiple—backgrounds.

To cap off this question about the future, I will go back to 1911, when Rabbi Benzion Meir Hai Uziel delivered his inaugural address as Haham Bashi—Sephardic Chief Rabbiof Tel Aviv-Jaffa: 

It is my tremendous desire to unify all of the divisions that the diaspora tore us into, the separate communities of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Temanim (Yemenites), etc. This should not be a difficult task, for unity is in our nature and our national character as a people. These divisions amongst us are not natural. The particular linguistic and communal divisions that exist amongst us were created due to our dispersion throughout the diaspora. As we now return to our natural homeland, there is absolutely no reason to continue living by these communal and linguistic divisions imported from the diaspora. Instead, we will be one unified community.”


That was Rabbi Uziel—a Sephardic rabbi—delivering his unifying and visionary “I have a dream” speech. 

            One hundred and twelve years later, we have the opportunity to work toward unifying our Jewish communities and celebrating the beauty of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Judaism.

For me, that challenge starts in the classroom.

The Plight of Rebecca: Thoughts for Parashat Toledot

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Toledot

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

“And Isaac sent away Jacob; and he went to Paddan-aram to Laban, son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebeccah, mother of Jacob and Esau” (Bereishith 28:5).

The verse identifies Rebeccah as mother of Jacob and Esau, a fact we already knew. The great commentator, Rashi, is puzzled by the redundancy and writes: “I don’t know what this teaches us.” Many have noted the intellectual honesty and humility of Rashi to publicly record that he didn’t understand a phrase in the Torah. He didn’t have to make any comment at all; after all, he didn’t comment on many passages in the Torah.

It is intriguing to try to come up with an explanation for why the Torah once again reports that Rebeccah is the mother of Jacob and Esau. Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, in his commentary Eim LeMikra, (cited by Nehama Leibowitz in her commentary) suggests that this passage is connected to a previous verse in which Rebeccah expresses fear lest Esau murder Jacob, “why should I be bereaved of both of you in one day?”  Rabbi Benamozegh explains that she feared that the two brothers would fight, one murdering the other.  She then would be bereaved of both: the murdered son is dead, and the murderer son would become hateful in her eyes. The Torah reminds us: she is the mother of both of them, she is concerned about both of them.

Interestingly, the problematic passage refers to Rebeccah as mother of Jacob and Esau…putting Jacob first even though he was the younger son. If we look at the literary structure of the entire Torah portion, we find a poignant circular pattern. Here is part one, at the beginning of the Parasha:

Rebeccah is childless

She gives birth to twins, Esau is first born

Jacob is second born

But in part two, at the end of the Torah portion, the details are reversed:

Jacob is listed first

Esau is listed second

Rebeccah is “childless” again

Rebeccah’s son Jacob leaves home and she has no clear expectation of when, if ever, she will ever see him again. But she not only has lost Jacob’s presence, she also has totally alienated herself from Esau. He certainly realizes that she conspired to get Isaac’s blessing transferred to Jacob rather than to him. Rebeccah’s relationship with Esau is irreparably damaged, exacerbated by the fact that Esau took wives who caused her (and Isaac) much bitterness.

According to this analysis, the Torah reminds us that Rebeccah is mother of both Jacob and Esau, but that she is now “childless” again. She is a mother isolated from her favored son, Jacob, but also from Esau. She is very much alone. Isaac is an old, blind man who had preferred Esau to Jacob and whose wife deceived him into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. Rebeccah fades away; we hear no more about her after this story.

The Torah presents a sad story of a troubled family…parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, marital discord, deception, lack of communication. These negative examples are vivid reminders to us of problematic behaviors that we should avoid. 

The Torah often teaches by overt prescription and commandment. But it also teaches by presenting problematic individuals and circumstances. In this week's Parasha, the Torah's literary imagery speaks louder than words.


Reflections on the Current Rise in Anti-Israel and Anti-Jewish Manifestations

The following is a note I received from a friend who is a professor at Columbia University:


“Campus is indeed very difficult; no dialogue is possible, no conversations, and absolutely zero knowledge of history prevails among the loudest voices. We only have fear and sadness in abundance (along with terrifying yelling and cheering--for loss of life. It is unthinkable). I think the majority of students are oblivious but those who are affected are very affected. Many of my students are having a very hard time. One student told me he is scared to wear a kippah (I suggested he talk with his parents and hometown rabbi for advice). I wish I could help my students more. I've reached out and let them know I am available to speak with them individually and have been doing so…I worry especially about my students studying Arabic language. It's not a safe space. Do you have any advice on any of these matters--articles, advice to give students, etc.?

My thanks and wishes for peace.”


Here was my response:


“I wish we could wave a magic wand and get people to become more reasonable, understanding, kind. Unfortunately, when hatred runs so deep all other humane qualities seem to vanish. Unfortunately, this isn't the first time (and won't be the last time, I'm afraid) that Jews are targeted with hatred and violence. We American Jews had thought that we were basically living in a fairly safe environment (and to a large extent it is still so), but current events have reminded us of our eternal vulnerability. Fortunately, the government on all levels is taking a strong stand against hate crimes, working against anti-Semitism in society and campuses...but this will be a prolonged battle.  Remind your Jewish students that we are all ambassadors and soldiers of the Jewish tradition, that our people have stood strong for over 3000 years, that in spite of our enemies we have found ways to thrive, to foster humane values. Rabbi Nahman of Breslav has a famous line, which I think of often: All the world is a very narrow bridge (precarious), but the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all. Kol haOlam kulo, gesher tsar me'od, ve ha'ikar lo lefahed, lo lefahed kelal.


We have always been aware of an under-current of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes, but things today seem qualitatively and quantitatively different. We witness throngs of people throughout the United States and throughout the world who brazenly and unabashedly call for the annihilation of Israel and the murder of Jews. The public display of raw hatred is alarming.


Hamas is a terror organization that openly calls for the destruction of Israel and murder of Jews. It has shown time and again that it will commit acts of terror to promote its goals. On October 7, Hamas launched a heinous attack on Israelis, killing hundreds and taking hundreds as hostages. Israel has responded to this brutality by launching a war with the intention of ending Hamas rule in Gaza.


Hamas and its sympathizers deny Jewish history, Jewish rights to its own homeland. They deny Jews the right to live in peace. The Gazans keep describing themselves as “refugees” although I suspect that most or all of them were born and raised in Gaza. They refer to their towns as “refugee camps.”  What they are really saying is that they are the rightful owners of the land of Israel and as long as Jews control Israel the Gazans are “refugees” from a land they never ruled and to which they have no legitimate historic claim.


Hatred is an ugly thing. Saturating a society with hatred is especially pernicious. It not only promotes hatred of the perceived enemy, but it distorts the lives of the haters themselves. Energy and resources that could be utilized to build humane societies are instead diverted to hatred, weaponry, death and destruction. 


The media report on college students (and faculty) who support Hamas, who call for the annihilation of Israel. Hateful voices are raised calling for murder of Jews.I suspect that almost all of those spewing hatred of Israel and Jews don’t even know Israelis or Jews in person. They actually hate stereotypes of Jews. They are indoctrinated with propaganda that dehumanizes Jews. They are fed a stream of lies about Israel and about Jews. 


The real enemy is dehumanization. The haters are so steeped in their hateful ideology and narratives that they perpetrate lies and violence against individual Jews that they don’t even know. The haters think that by killing anonymous Jews or Israelis, they are somehow doing something constructive. They don’t think of themselves as liars or murderers, even though that is exactly what they are.

When societies allow hatred to flourish, they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. When universities, media and political forums condone blatantly anti-Jewish intimidation and violence, the infection spreads well beyond Jews. Civil discourse is threatened. Respectful dialogue is quashed. Hopes for peace diminish.

The Jewish community, and all those who stand up for Israel, are a source of strength to humanity. We will not be intimidated by the haters, bullies and supporters of terrorism. 

As Rav Nahman of Braslav wisely reminded us: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge (precarious); but the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all.”




Thoughts on the Teachings of Martin Buber

       Martin Buber (1878-1965), born in Vienna, was one of the great Jewish philosophers of his time. In 1938, with the rise of Nazism, Buber relocated to Jerusalem where he became a brilliant Israeli voice for a wiser and more understanding humanity.

     In his famous book, I and Thou, Buber pointed out that human relationships, at their best, involve mutual knowledge and respect, treating self and others as valuable human beings. An I-Thou relationship is based on understanding, sympathy, love. Its goal is to experience the “other” as a meaningful and valuable person. In contrast, an I-It relationship treats the “other” as an object to be manipulated, controlled, or exploited. If I-Thou relationships are based on mutuality, I-It relationships are based on the desire to gain functional benefit from the other.

     Buber wrote: “When a culture is no longer centered in a living and continually renewed relational process, it freezes into the It-world, which is broken only intermittently by the eruptive, glowing deeds of solitary spirits” (I and Thou, p. 103). As we dehumanize others, we also engage in the process of dehumanizing ourselves. We make our peace with living in an It-world, using others as things, and in turn being used by them for their purposes.

     The line between I-Thou and I-It relationships is not always clear. Sometimes, people appear to be our friends, solicitous of our well-being; yet, their real goal is to manipulate us into buying their product, accepting their viewpoint, controlling us in various ways. Their goal isn’t mutual friendship and understanding; rather, they want to exert power and control, and they feign friendship as a tactic to achieve their goals.

     Dehumanization is poisonous to proper human interactions and relationships. It is not only destructive to the victim, but equally or even more destructive to the one who does the dehumanizing. The dehumanizer becomes blinded by egotism and power-grabbing at any cost. Such a person may appear “successful” based on superficial standards but is really an immense failure as a human being.

     I-It relationships are based on functionality. Once the function no longer yields results, the relationship breaks. I-Thou relationships are based on human understanding, loyalty and love. These relationships are the great joy of life. Buber is fully cognizant of the fact that human beings live with I-Thou and I-It realities. “No human being is pure person, and none is pure ego; none is entirely actual, none entirely lacking in actuality. Each lives in a twofold I. But some men are so person-oriented that one may call them persons, while others are so ego-oriented that one may call them egos. Between these and those true history takes place” (Ibid., p. 114).

     Buber speaks of another relationship beyond I-Thou and I-It: the I-Eternal Thou.  Human beings not only stand in relationship to each other, but to God. “One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek. Of course, God is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I” (Ibid., p. 127).

     Buber views the relationship with God as a human yearning, an imperfect search for ultimate Perfection. Faith is a process; it fluctuates; it is not something that, once attained, can be safely deposited in the back of one’s mind. “Woe unto the possessed who fancy that they possess God!” (Ibid., p. 155). Elsewhere, Buber elaborates on this point: “All religious expression is only an intimation of its attainment….The meaning is found through the engagement of one’s own person; it only reveals itself as one takes part in its revelation” (The Way of Response, p. 64).

     Buber was attracted to the spiritual lessons of the Hassidic masters who refused to draw a line of separation between the sacred and the profane. Religion at its best encompasses all of life and cannot be confined to a temple or set of rituals. “What is of greatest importance in Hasidism, today as then, is the powerful tendency, preserved in personal as well as in communal existence, to overcome the fundamental separation between the sacred and the profane” (Hasidism and Modern Man, p. 28).  The goal of religion is to make us better, deeper human beings, to be cognizant of the presence of God at all times. “Man cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human; he can approach Him through becoming human. To become human is what he, this individual man, has been created for. This, so it seems to me, is the eternal core of Hasidic life and of Hasidic teaching” (Ibid., pp. 42-43).

     Buber finds inspiration in the Jewish religious tradition. The biblical heroes “do not dare confine God to a circumscribed space of division of life, to ‘religion.’ They have not the insolence to draw boundaries around God’s commandments and say to Him: ‘up to this point, You are sovereign, but beyond these bounds begins the sovereignty of science or society or the state’” (The Way of Response, p. 68). Israel’s genius was not simply in teaching that there is one God, “but that this God can be addressed by man in reality, that man can say Thou to Him, that he can stand face to face with Him….Only Israel has understood, or rather actually lives, life as being addressed and answering, addressing and receiving answer….It taught, it showed, that the real God is the God who can be addressed because He is the God who addresses” (Ibid., p. 179).

     A central goal of religion is to place a human being in relationship with the Eternal Thou. Yet, Buber notes with disappointment: “The historical religions have the tendency to become ends in themselves and, as it were, to put themselves in God’s place, and, in fact, there is nothing that is so apt to obscure the face of God as a religion” (A Believing Humanism, p. 115). The “establishment” has become so engaged in perpetuating its institutional existence that it has lost its central focus on God. “Real faith…begins when the dictionary is put down, when you are done with it” (The Way of Response, p. 61). The call of faith must be a call for immediacy. When faith is reduced to a set of formulae and rituals, it moves further from face to face relationship with God.

     People are greatly in need of a liberating religious message. We yearn for relationship with our fellow human beings; we reach out for a spiritual direction to the Eternal Thou. Our dialogues are too often superficial, inauthentic. It is not easy to be a strong, whole and self-confident I; it is not easy to relate to others as genuine Thous; it is a challenge to reach out to the Eternal Thou. Yet, without these proper relationships, neither we nor our society can flourish properly.

     Buber’s writings had a powerful impact on many thousands of readers, including the Swedish diplomat, Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961), who served as the second Secretary General of the United Nations, from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. These two remarkable men met at the United Nations not long after Buber had given a guest lecture at Princeton University in 1958. Hammarskjold had written to tell Buber “how strongly I have responded to what you write about our age of distrust.”

     Buber described his meeting with the Secretary General of the U.N. where both men shared a deep concern about the future of humanity. Will the nations of the world actually unite in mutual respect and understanding? Or will they sink into a quagmire of antagonisms, political infighting…and ultimately, the possible destruction of humanity through catastrophic wars?

     Buber noted: “We were both pained in the same way by the pseudo-speaking of representatives of states and groups of states who, permeated by a fundamental reciprocal mistrust, talked past one another out the windows. We both hoped, we both believed that….faithful representatives of the people, faithful to their mission, would enter into a genuine dialogue, a genuine dealing with one another out of which would emerge in all clarity the fact that the common interests of the peoples were stronger still than those which kept them in opposition to one another” (A Believing Humanism, pp. 57-59).

     It was this dream that linked Buber and Hammarskjold—a dream that diplomats would focus on the needs of humanity as a whole, and not simply hew to their own self-serving agendas. Indeed, this was the founding dream of the United Nations: to be an organization that would bring together the nations of the world to work in common cause for the greater good of humanity.

     In January 1959, Hammarskjold visited Buber in Jerusalem. Again, their conversation focused on the failure of world diplomacy to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual cooperation. There were some steps forward, to be sure; but by and large, the harmony of the nations had not come to pass. “Pseudo-speaking” and “fundamental reciprocal mistrust” continued unabated. The representatives continued to “talk past one another out the windows.”

     Hammarskjold believed that Buber’s teachings on the importance of dialogue needed as wide a following as possible. After Hammarskjold was killed in a plane accident, Buber was informed that the Secretary General of the U. N. was working on a Swedish translation of I and Thou on the plane. His last thoughts were about dialogue, mutual understanding, sympathetic interrelationships among human beings.

     Hammarskjold died in 1961. Buber died in 1965. Did their dreams for the United Nations and for humanity also die with them? Has the United Nations become a beacon of hope for genuine human dialogue? Do the diplomats work harmoniously for the good of humanity? It would appear that instead of being a bastion of human idealism, the United Nations has become a political battleground where the fires of hatred and bigotry burn brightly.

     We justly lament the viciously unfair treatment of Israel at the U.N. We justly deplore the anti-Americanism that festers within the United Nations.  But these ugly manifestations of anti-Israel and anti-American venom are symptoms of the real problem: the United Nations has become a central agency for hatred, political maneuvering, and international discord. It has not lived up to the ideals of its founders; it has betrayed the dreams of Buber and Hammarskjold; it has become a symbol of so much that is wrong in our world.