Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Chukkat Selah

In Numbers on June 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

SeAlah Bible #1

“Human beings are meaning seeking creatures.
Language is mysterious.
When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh.
Language has an inherent inadequacy. There is always something left unsaid…”

Karen Armstrong

Can we not say that the entire Torah is a Tower of Babel?

Think about the parallels between the two.  In the beginning, there was darkness.  Then God said, and we had darkness and light.  Then God said again, and we had water above and water beneath.  Then God said again, and we had lands in their midst.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, all people gathered together with the common purpose of building a stairway to Heaven.  The story goes that God came down and confounded their speech, and they broke up and went their separate ways.  This is the birth of nations.

Does seeking meaning begin “in the beginning?” After? Before?

Today, millions of years later, has the internet become a modern Tower of Babel?  Computers help us bridge the language gap, and the world is become a plane, where the distance between me and Timbuktu a pane of glass.

Yet for all this, are we any closer to tikkun?  Or are we farther apart than ever?

Was it language that was confounded? Or the meaning behind language?

Is the red calf less a lesson in ritual purification and more a lesson in being confused?  What do people do when they’re confused?

What can confusion do for us?


  1. This reminds me of when Anne & I used to visit the Jewish Renewal synagogue in Philadelphia. (The Rabbi and our synoptic gospels class teacher were close friends.) The way they studied Torah was very similar to the way our classes were conducted (“Use the religious language most natural to you, and when someone else says something in their own language, translate.”) Anyway, I hope you’ll like my take on that ‘Tower’ story:

    I found my way here while searching for new people for a Quakerish [Christian Bible] study blog. I don’t want to risk automatically relegating this comment to ‘spam’ … but you can find the link on my own blog. (I don’t know if you’d be interested, but your presence would be extremely helpful!)
    —- —- —- —-

    “The eye is the chief obstacle to seeing.” Trying to nail down meaning via language is like that. If someone is sure his habitual words are conveying the reality, probably they aren’t. But the effort to word a meaning is like taking a new, unveiled look.

    [Recognized] confusion is the hunger of the mind. Like a healthy appetite!

    • Funny how that works! I agree with you. I find when I’m sure of what I’m talking about, I actually have little or no idea. When I question, I get closer to reality, and the reality is…I’ve grown convinced…more questions. 🙂

      I think its important to come up with our own answers to these questions, but its equally important (if not moreso) to respect others’ answers, so long as those answers are conducive to harmony.

      It’s all part of the process of reading between the lines, all part of the process of seeking meaning, and in (what should be) a deeply personal way, of seeking legitimacy. Unfortunately, I think this has begun to manifest itself in rather ugly ways. I think we need to ask ourselves, what is legitimacy? There is a lot of history there.

      Is that why Scripture is meant to be chanted? I don’t know.

      • Since I’ve agreed so far as I understand you, I’m glad you agree with me! (It would have been so confusing otherwise!)

        ‘To respect others’ answers.’ Hard to look at them if we don’t. When people don’t, they just keep seeing their own disrespect. Such an ugly view!

        I’m not sure I’m seeing what you mean by ‘legitimacy’. “Do I have a right to think ___?” Is that what this ‘legitimacy’ is about?

        Maybe it needs to be phrased more like: “Will thinking ___ take me off a cliff?” If __ is not true, that’s certainly a possibility.

        Thinking that “I must think ___!” will almost certainly run people into odd & inconvenient surprises, just from the strain of maintaining something they aren’t at all sure of.

        —- —- —- —-

        Something about chanting those (much simplified) liturgies in the synagogue, in a language I don’t know (but with translation, in case I’d wonder was I affirming anything I wouldn’t) felt utterly right. Hard to do in English, or at least one would need true inspiration to design such a service.

        Part of the power of this was that, within a very traditional frame, the group was ‘winging it’ very freely each Sabbath.

        Of course the original scriptures were chanted: probably not much writing going on. & so, when these chants were finally written down, it was like producing a libretto — a guide to performance — rather than the kind of book we now read silently.

        —– —– —–
        Starting to get what you were saying re: Was the meaning behind language confounded?

        When people’s conversations start to be ‘talk about unexamined words’, then the meanings simply get bypassed!

        But this Divine interference with our communications — is a means of compassionately protecting us from projects that seem good to us, but would bring disaster in some subtle form. (Projects like nuclear reactors may be less dangerous — or — ‘~If you people don’t have sense enough not to make those, I throw up My Hands!’ ?)

        That interference could be overcome — if its purpose ceased to apply.

        One purpose of having different languages — is that they …. (Okay, I’m overheating a little. Seeing too many purposes– even to produce ‘Differences that make talk-across-the-differences fruitful!’)

        Vertebrates have split brains. Examining all kinds of creatures, one finds differences between the function of one half and the other. In humans, most of the communication between hemispheres — works to impede interference between their activities. The halves are supposed to work independently. The right side looks at a ‘task’; decides ‘This one is for me’ and briefly shuts up the left. Or sends the problem to the left side & then largely shuts down while the left side does its work. We’ve got continual interaction, activity shifting back-&-forth all the time, but at any one moment it tends to be one mode of perception happening on whichever side is specialized that way!

        I’m sure there’s some kind of parable in that — but it’s bigger than I can see all at once!

      • By legitimacy I mean the tendency of people to justify their own positions and “right to exist” at the expense of others. This happens every day in casual conversation, but the religious variety has taken on disturbing fervor in recent years. That being said, its nothing new, and has been going on since the priests, who justified their existence with the covenants of Aaron, Pinchas and Zadok and the book of Leviticus, and the proto-Rabbis, who justified their existence as the new religious class of Israel in diaspora (Babylonian Captivity) and as the interpreters and transmitters of the Written and Oral Law, which were both given at Sinai (“Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances which the LORD your God commanded to teach you…”). Because the culture at the time viewed legitimacy in terms of their sacred and cultural constitution (i.e. the Torah) all groups that came and went struggled to justify themselves in light of this sacred and cultural constitution. So this creative activity of seeking legitimacy is nothing new and, as you pointed out on your blog, produced some enlightening ways of not understanding things. Its when this happens at the expense of others that it gets problematic and disturbing (e.g. “such-and-such religion is dead: ditch the zero and get yourself a hero,” or “they’re wrong and have no right to exist…..literally.”).

        In a culture that’s become obsessed with “what things mean”, it grows important to sing the Scriptures again to get a sense of …well… their meaning. Whether intentionally or not, emotion has been excised from this most emotional of texts. Its part of our ‘talk about unexamined words.’ Song marries textual “meaning” with emotional intent front and center, and makes it much more problematic to deny alternative meanings and interpretations.

        I like your point about the divine interference being a mode of compassionate protection. NOT thinking “Will thinking ___ take me off a cliff?” is dangerous! What if, under similar circumstances, we’d decided to perform mass suicide? Let’s take it another step and propose that it’s been for our mutual enrichment. How boring the world would be with a single point of view! Made in a single image! What would be the point of creation in that case? Would we have any need of museums, art or literature? Would we have any need for loving our spouses, beyond procreation? Would we have any motivation to cultivate nature and stroll in the park, any motivation to beautify the land and make Earth into Eden?

    • I read your blog, and I really like what your approach. I would like to posit a connection. I’ve posted here because I don’t have a membership on QuakerQuaker yet.


      In the case of the Tower of Babel, “the whole world was of one language and one speech.” What does it mean to be of one language and one speech? Isn’t one part and parcel of the other? This gets at what we were both pointing to: the difference between speech and understanding. But back then, was there a difference between speech and understanding? Everyone understood what each other was saying, and everyone understood what each other meant. Is it possible, then, that they were all of one mind? “And the whole earth was one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed…they found a plain…and they dwelt there…and they said…and they said.” They. They. They. They. No conversation. No mental process. No opinion. No dissent. It is God who plays commentator and says “one people”, “am echad.” There is a special label. Furthermore, they misunderstood (as many people do) the gift of “dominion” of the earth as a gift of “domination” of the earth. And now they’re trying to dominate the earth “lest we be scattered,” or so that we may survive, by building a stairway to heaven? Is earth not enough? I disagree with Alan Lew’s assertion that the world was perfectly harmonious; if this was so, why worry about legacy or building a bridge to somewhere else? But Rabbi Lew does make a point when he says we were taking our fate into our own hands. Should we have spent our time trying to extend our “dominion” into heaven (i.e. domination)? Or should we have spent our time as caretakers of our trust and rediscovering the earthly Eden (i.e. dominion)?

      Here’s something from Kafka on this point.

      There are two main human sins from which all the others derive: impatience and indolence. It was because of impatience that they were expelled from Paradise; it is because of indolence that they do not return. Yet perhaps there is only one major sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return. (Zarau Aphorisms. Refections No. 3)

      Remembering that I’m coming from a Jewish perspective, is the statement “We have found the Messiah” truly the point? What does being a messiah entail? I like how you point out the mistranslation between Messiah and King, the word Christos being used for Moshiach in the Septuagint, but although king and moshiach are two different things, the two are not mutually exclusive. A king can be anointed. A priest can be anointed. Someone could anoint me by tossing olive oil out the window of a speeding car! Some of the kings and priests in our history certainly weren’t the best kind of people; what difference did being anointed make? Is the statement “We have found the Messiah” an exclamation, or a declaration? Is messiah status described or attributed?

      R. Johanan ben Zakkai taught “if you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.”

      Is “the messiah” what we truly needed to find? Do we know what we should be looking for?

      Are we any closer to understanding each other’s speech, or is our language more confounded than before?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: