After Babel: A Jewish theology of interfaith

A Jewish Theology of the Other: Lecture 1

In February 2012, the Chief Rabbi was the Visiting Professor in Interfaith Studies at Oxford University. As part of this Humanitas Programme, the Chief Rabbi delivered a series of evening lectures on the subject of ‘Making Space: A Jewish Theology of the Other’. This first Lecture was titled, 'After Babel'.

Principal, Professor Stroumsa, and Frances. It is an enormous privilege for me to be with you here this evening, to be privileged to sit in the same room as Dr. Frances Lannon, principal of Lady Margaret Hall and pro-vice-chancellor of Oxford University.

Professor Lannon, it’s very humbling for me to be here. I thank you for the invitation. I thank Professor Stroumsa and the Humanitas lectureship and Oxford University, and the Institute for Strategic Studies. In particular, I thank Lord Weidenfeld. I’ll just share with you a little snippet that I caught in The Times a couple of months ago. Do you know The Times has this little thing where it lists everyone who has a birthday today? It profiles one of the people who have a birthday that day. Three months ago, it profiled Lord Weidenfeld, who was just celebrating his 92nd birthday. They asked him, “Lord Weidenfeld, most people, as they reached the age of 92, think of slowing down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?”

He replied, “When you get to be 92, you can see the door beginning to shut.” He said, “I have so much to do before the door shuts that the older I get, the harder I have to work.” Now, we should all be like that at the age of 92. For the irrepressible and effervescent Lord Weidenfeld, I thank him for the whole concept of these lectures.

Let me kick-off as it were with the first of three on ‘Making Space for the Other’. Because I have so much ground that we have to cover in this first lecture, I’m going to do so really in shorthand. But let me begin by sketching out the road that I want to travel. Now, I take it for granted that every single sentence I say for the next 50 minutes can be challenged, and there are counter-arguments. But I find that it sometimes helps when you’re short of time to be challenging and provocative. That’s the way you start a conversation.

I know it would be ideal to be so intellectually sophisticated that you haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, but I just don’t have the brains to do so. I’m going to be very blunt. If you disagree with everything I say, I will accept that as absolutely appropriate and right and something, in any case, I’m used to, working within the Jewish community.

Let us begin. Proposition one: the good news about religion is that it’s about God. The bad news about religion is it has to be lived by us, frail and fallible human beings. Though we are made in God’s image, sometimes we forget that other people are as well. The result is, as I have had occasion to say in the House of Lords recently, that there have been occasions when religion has led people to hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the name of the God of peace, practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion, and murder in the name of the God of life.

What is remarkable about the Hebrew Bible is that it candidly acknowledges this from almost the very beginning of the human story. Genesis chapter 4 talks about the first recorded act of religious worship, undertaken by the first two human children, Cain and Abel. The result of that first act of religious worship is violence, murder, fratricide, and so far from being what God had in mind. That, we read in Genesis 5, a mere one chapter later, possibly the most poignant words in the whole of religious literature. God saw that the inclination of man was only evil from his youth, and God regretted that He had created mankind, vayitatsev el libo. It pained Him to his very core.

There is nothing in the nature of religion, as such, that is proof against humanity’s ability to distort it in directions that God never intended, and to do harm instead of good. Indeed, something much stronger is at stake because as the text of the Bible makes clear, in Genesis 4, Cain just before he murders Abel, God realises that he is on the brink of a terrible crime and warns him against doing so. He says, “halo im titev s’ait”. If you do well, will it not be accepted? But if you do not, then sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you can prevail over it.”

God knows that a terrible crime is on Cain’s mind, but He neither intervenes to prevent Cain nor does His warning to Cain have the desired effect. Cain goes ahead and murders Abel anyway, which led me to the following statement, which I made in the context of the Holocaust. I said it in these words. “If God speaks and human beings don’t listen, then even God Himself is powerless because of God’s self-denying ordinance that God places on Himself not to intervene, to prevent human beings from the consequences of their actions; the terms and conditions of the free world that he grants us as beings in his image.”

Sorry, I’m dealing with people of my age here. But in the late 1970s, there used to be an advertisement for some motorcar, I can’t remember which, which said, “Designed by robots, driven by idiots.” In the spirit of that remark, human beings were designed as the image of God, but they do not always act by the word of God. Religion is a dangerous phenomenon. The Bible candidly acknowledges that and says so explicitly at the beginning of the human story. That’s number one.

Number two, what does it take for religions to pull back from violence? Again, I’m going to be very brief, and cryptic and controversial. But it seems, to me, that for religions to go through that soul searching that leads them to pull back from violence, something has to happen. It is not enough for religions to wage war against its perceived enemies. To that process, there is no natural end – except disastrous defeat or total exhaustion. The thing that tends to pull religions back from the brink is when they find themselves killing, not their enemies, but their friends.

The centuries of war between Christianity and Islam, in the age of the Crusades, did not lead to a fundamental rethink within either Christianity or Islam. What led to change was the sight of Catholics and Protestants at war across Europe, from the Reformation to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. That is the thing that made the difference. It is only when Jew kills Jew, Christian kills Christian, Muslim kills Muslim, that there is a profound soul searching within religion, and something new emerges, and that something new is a new and forceful separation of religion from power.

Let me state that second point in a slightly different way. What led to secularisation, which began in Europe in the 17th century, was not that people lost faith in God. The intellectual heroes of the 17th century, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, believed in God very much indeed. What led to secularisation was not people losing faith in God, but people losing faith in the ability of people of God to live peaceably together.

And thus the search began. In the 17th century in Europe, first for a basis of power, then for a basis of knowledge, then for a basis of civil rights and eventually for a basis of culture that did not rest on dogmatic foundations. And thus could be shared by anyone regardless of the religious dogma. So that is point two. Religions pull back from the brink of violence through inner schism and sinat chinam internecine war.

Number three, point number three. What then happened, by the 18th century and the 19th century was the emergence of an intellectual consensus with fateful consequences. And that consensus was that religion was going to disappear. It was deprived of its power. It would therefore forfeit its influence and one way or another religion was in intensive care and would not pull out. You heard that in every self-respecting intellectual of the 18th and 19th century, Laplace: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse”, Voltaire: “Écrasez l’infâme”. Matthew Arnold hears the lonely, long melancholy roar of the retreating tide of faith. Nietzsche talks about the death of God. Every self-respecting intellectual regarded religion as on its last legs. In other words, the cure of religion would be its demise.

Now, I want to say something about that. And this is my intellectual difference of opinion with Richard Dawkins. I believe that there is such a thing as bad religion, and I believe there is such a thing as bad science. Somebody wrote a book called Bad Science last year. There is such a big thing as bad science. What is the cure for bad science? Good science. It is not, no science. So there is such a thing as bad religion. The cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion. And that is where I dare to disagree with Richard Dawkins and his American counterpart, Sam Harris.

However, the truth is, that nobody did that work. Nobody did that work because they thought we don’t need a cure for bad religion, it’s going to die. The cure is going to be no religion. I don’t want to go at length into what I define as bad religion. I have a chapter on that in my new book called The Great Partnership. Simply, religion contains things called hard texts that we have to wrestle with. I think religion… and this is Professor Stroumsa’s specialty, the occupational hazard of monotheism is neither atheism nor polytheism, it is dualism. I think dualism is a profoundly dangerous doctrine. I think messianic politics, the attempt to bring the end of time in the middle of time is a profoundly dangerous doctrine. I believe the association of religion with power is a dangerous doctrine. So there are four or five markers of bad religion, but that I write about in the book so I don’t need to talk about it today.

But by and large, the people who were critical of religion did not see the solution in good religion, they saw the solution in no religion. And by and large, those many theologians who dealt with the issues arising out of the 18th and 19th century thought, did so in relation to religion and science. Now, religion and science, really not very interesting subjects. I even wrote a whole book on it, as I say, it’s called The Great Partnership, but it’s not a really interesting subject. What they did not deal with is the serious question, which is religion and the other. Whether that is the other within my own faith or the other outside my own faith. And such work as has been done on religion and the other, has mainly been done since the Holocaust. That and Endlösung, the final solution, the horrors of the Holocaust, was what provided the impetus for interfaith, and it is a profoundly important development.

But as I say, for the most part, the great religious thinkers of the modern age were confronting the age of enlightenment by looking at religion and scientific truth and various other issues, but not dealing with religion and the other. So point three, the assumption was that we didn’t need to look for good religion because there would be no religion. Point four, religion didn’t die. And that is the extraordinary phenomenon. Already in 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville, after his visit to America wrote the following words. “18th century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs. Religious zeal, they said, was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread. It is tiresome that the facts do not fit this theory at all.” What Tocqueville expected to find in America, a land with the first amendment separation of church and state, was that if religion was deprived of power, it would be deprived of influence.

Instead, he discovered that having been deprived of power, religion had a very great deal of influence indeed. He called it the first of America’s political institutions. The even odder fact is that 180 years later it still is. Did you know that a higher percentage of Americans go to a place of worship once a week than they do in the theocratic state of Iran? 40% of Americans go to the house of worship once a week, only 39% of Iranians do. And one way or another religion didn’t die and that is really extraordinary. The fastest growth of Christianity is today in China. In China, the land that Chairman Mao declared religion free, there are more people in church on Sunday than there are members of the communist party. So religion didn’t die. That is the extraordinary fact.

It is even more extraordinary, if you think about it, every task once done by religion is now done by something else. To explain the world you don’t need Genesis, you have science. To control the world you don’t need prayer, you have technology. To prosper you don’t need God’s blessing, you have economists. Maybe I should reframe that. Maybe you do still need God’s blessing. To control power you don’t need profits, you have democratic elections. If you’re ill you don’t need a priest, you go to a doctor. If you’re guilty you don’t need to confess, you need to go to a psychotherapist who will tell you that everyone else is guilty instead. If you’re depressed you don’t need faith, you can take a pill. And if you are in search of salvation, you can visit today’s cathedrals, which are shopping centres, or as somebody rather handsomely called them, weapons of mass consumption.

So, here we are with religion, superfluous, redundant and de trop and yet it survives. And there is surely no doubt that the 21st century is going to be a more religious century than the 20th was. Why is this so? Again, to be very brief, before great institutions of modernity, science, technology, the liberal democratic state, and the market economy, all four of them are incapable of answering, indeed do not answer and will not answer, the three fundamental questions that any self-reflective individual will ask him or herself. Namely, number one, who am I? Number two, why am I here? And number three, how then shall I live? Those are questions we are almost bound to ask. And there is nothing in science, technology, the liberal democratic state, or the market economy that will answer them for us. Religion remains because homo sapiens is the meaning seeking animal. And as I put it very simply in the Great Partnership, science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean. Religion is not our only source of meaning, but it is our most rich repository of meanings.

That is not to say that everyone is convinced that life has a meaning, but nonetheless, the great prophets of meaninglessness, whether they be Nietzsche or Sartre or Camus or my own doctoral supervisor, whom I admire enormously, the late Sir Bernard Williams. These people, these profits of meaninglessness have not proved as compelling an account of the human situation as religious accounts of meaning have. So, if my point three was, religion was expected to die, my fourth point is, religion didn’t die and has returned with full force in the 21st century. Meanwhile, the other great ideologies of the 20th century have come and gone. Fascism has come and gone. Communism has come and gone. Secular nationalism has come and gone. Religion has come and stayed, and that is an eventuality no one contemplated.

So number five, we need new thinking. Specifically in relation to one question, what does faith tell me about the other, the radical other? That is the one who does not share my faith, my way of life, my culture, my creed, or my code. And it is now clear I think, that this is quite a difficult problem for religion. Let me explain why. Do we find it problematic that different cultures should co-exist? The answer is no, we don’t. I enjoy French landscape painting, German symphonic music, Japanese design. I’m sure you all do. The fact that we have multiple cultural allegiances is not problematic. Cultures can co-exist and none threatens the other. Just as a person can speak many languages without suffering an identity crisis.

It is equally clear that some truth claims cannot co-exist. Either there was steady state or there was big bang, et cetera. But somehow you can’t imagine people resorting to violence to solve that conflict. I mean, did anyone ever fight anyone over whether Aristotle was right in his critique of Plato’s theory of forms? I mean, I suspect not. It’s just not the thing you fight wars about. So truth can clash or truth assertions can clash, but that’s not the kind of thing over which you go to war. What do you go to war over? Liverpool versus Manchester United? I mean, obviously.

What generates wars? Answer, anything that calls for and evokes loyalty. That is the key issue. Loyalty addresses what might pejoratively be called, the tribal instinct. And it is that that creates violent clashes. But the truth is we all, or almost all, seek identity and identity is found first and foremost in our group. And the nature of a group is that it’s bigger than anyone, but it’s smaller than everyone. That’s the nature of a group. And religion is the most powerful expression we have of a belief that calls for loyalty. That is why religions unite and divide. They unite as they divide and they divide as they unite. How do I mean this? Religion has the power of turning a lot of mes into a collective us. It unites. But for every us, there is a them – the people not like us – and therefore it divides. As it unites it divides. It creates a group, but that group is partially defined against other groups. And religion evokes very powerful group loyalty. And therefore that is why religion has become, has always been a source of conflict in the world.

Now, there are two critiques of what I would call loyalty. Number one, there is the cosmopolitan alternative, which says, no, we’re not loyal to anything, but we dabble in this and dabble in that from Pilgrim to tourist as Zygmunt Bauman calls it.   A little bit of this and a little bit of that. My grandmother’s recipe for chicken soup. That’s the cosmopolitan alternative, or you have the universalist alternative that there is one truth for all of us. Now, cosmopolitans, for whom I have an enormous, I mean, Amartya Sen has written a book on that recently. Anthony Appiah has written a book on it recently. There are lots of books advocating cosmopolitanism, but the trouble is cosmopolitans do tend to congregate in the company of like-minded cosmopolitans. So they are not exactly as cosmopolitan as they really believe, they are also a group of their own. It is the universalists who offer the other real challenge. That there is not a group, there is simply humanity. And that is going to be our issue over these three lectures. So point 3 then is the question of questions is, can there be loyalty without violence?

So now let me let we move on to the next point. How do we answer the question how can we live with difference in the 21st century? And that answer will vary from religion to religion. In Christianity, it may well be that you answer that question by doing theology. I don’t know, I’m not a Christian, but that may be the Christian way you do it. In Judaism, the way you do it is through biblical interpretation. That’s how we’ve done everything in Judaism. Jews spent a thousand years in real time, compiling the books known as the Hebrew Bible. From, let’s say 13th century BCE to the third century, last of the prophets, a thousand years.

They then spend a thousand years from the third century BCE to the seventh century CE writing a commentary to that book, which they called the oral law Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara. And they then spent another a thousand years writing commentaries to the commentary. So in Judaism, when you want to face a challenge, that is a challenge of self-definition, you can only successfully do it by biblical interpretation. And that is what I’m going to be doing. Now again, let me explain very briefly what I mean by this. To cut a long story stories short, Greek thought tends to see truth as system. Jewish thought tends to see truth as story.

And the Book of Genesis, which I think has very rarely been accurately interpreted, if ever. I mean, very rarely. The Book of Genesis is, in fact, a book of philosophy and theology in the narrative mode. And therefore, whatever new insight we seek into Jewish views of the other, we will find it in the Hebrew Bible and we will almost certainly find it in the Book of Genesis. And that is where we have to look. And that is what I’m going to do.

So let me tell you my starting point. We have really significant work to do by looking at the Book of Genesis. And as soon as we open the book, we see exactly what the problem is. Genesis 1-9, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Babel and its builders, are about humanity as a whole. Genesis 12 stops talking about humanity as a whole and focuses on not archetypes of the human condition, but one particular individual. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, and their children, and their family who become a nation, who are not archetypes of humanity at all, but are in some sense, examples, role models.

Genesis moves from the universality of the first 11 chapters to the particularity of the Abrahamic covenant. And if you look at those chapters very carefully, you will see something very remarkable. That they are framed fundamentally by Genesis 1 and Genesis 9. In Genesis 1, we are told that God created man in the image of God. In Genesis 9, we are told that God created man in the image of God. Those two chapters frame the human story.

How does it work? Genesis 1 tells us how God created the Universe. Genesis 2-3 tells us how God created humanity. Genesis 4-6 tells us how humanity, well, as my grandmother used to say, if we hadn’t phoned her up in the week, bin ich disappointed. And that’s about God’s value judgement on humanity – bin ich disappointed. So humanity is a great disappointment to God, and the result is chapters is 6 and 7. The Flood, the Universe so created is de-created. And we are left at the end of the flood with the world as it was in the opening chapter, in the opening verses of Genesis 1, with the earth waste and void and the spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters. And with Genesis 9, God begins a new human era, a new creation. That whole symmetrical chiastic structure is framed by the phrase of God created man in His image in Genesis 1:27 and in Genesis 9:6.

But there is a difference. In Genesis 1, God says, “Let us create man in our image, after our likeness, that he may…” what does it say? “Have dominion over the fish of the sea.” Genesis 1 is a statement of power. In Genesis 9, it is a statement of restraint in the use of power. What does it say? “He who sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. For in the image of God created man.” So whereas humanity being created in God’s image in Genesis 1 is a statement of human capacity, human power to dominate, in Genesis 9, becomes a restraint on the human capacity to dominate, particularly dominating others by the use of violence and murder.

So we have Genesis 12 with a new beginning. This time not with Noah, but with Abraham. And therefore the problem we have to face is what is the link between the human story, which begins with Adam and culminates in Noah and the particular story which begins with Abraham? What is the linkage? What is the explanation of the change? And the answer to that must somehow lie in Genesis 10 and 11. So we have to take a magnifying glass to Genesis 10 and 11 if we are to get the answer.

Now I don’t know if you noticed this, but Genesis 10 and 11 stand in the same relationship as Genesis 1 and 2 and 3. Genesis 1 and 2 and 3 are two ways of telling the same story. They are the story about creation, but they tell it in ways that are radically different. Genesis 1, God said, “Let there be and there was.” Genesis 2, God plants a garden in Eden and then fashions man out of dust of the earth. And those two creation stories side-by-side at the beginning of the Bible are from completely different perspectives and conflict in many respects.

In the first narrative, man’s created in God’s image and in the second narrative he’s created out of dust of the earth. In the first image, man and woman are created simultaneously, in the second narrative, first man then woman, a different name of God is used in the two chapters. So you have two pictures standing side by side, but very different. If you now read Genesis 10 and 11, you will find they use exactly the same literary technique. They tell the same story, but very differently. And what is the story? How one humanity came to be divided into many different nations, cultures, languages.

Genesis 10 tells us how humanity naturally divided into 70 nations each with their own language. In Genesis 11, we are told the opposite story. Begins with, “And all the earth was of one language and shared speech.” And then they wanted to build the Tower of Babel and then God came and confused the languages. If you read Genesis 10 and 11, you will see they tell the same story, but they tell it very, very differently.

This incidentally is telling us that Jewish thought doesn’t function the way Greek thought does. The fundamental principle of Greek thought is the law of contradiction, either P or not P. Whereas Jewish thought is P, not P, this is the statement is true, it’s also false. And you come along and you say, “How can the statement be true and false at the same time?” And then the Rabbi says, “You’re also right.” Jewish law doesn’t operate on the law of contradiction. Jews have arguments, but they don’t have contradictions. The literary technique of the Bible does not work by creating a consistent and self-consistent system. Jewish thought or biblical thought proceeds by carefully constructing a field of tensions.

Now, let us step back and look very carefully at the story of the Tower of Babel. The story of the Tower of Babel is a very sophisticated literary artefact. I don’t know if you’ve read the work at J.P. Fokkelman, he was the first person to show exactly the literary structure of that narrative. It’s chiastic, begins and ends with the same words. And all the earth was one language, from there they were scattered through all the earth. In the middle comes the word heaven. There’s a lot of assonance, Sham shem Shomayim. There are a lot of word plays and so on and so forth. So you read that very brief story of the Tower of Babel, and it looks like a literary artefact. The odd thing is that historically it is extraordinarily well-grounded in historical fact.

The Tower of Babel is a ziggurat. There were 31 Babylonian Mesopotamian city-states that had ziggurats. Most of them carried the inscription ‘this is the gate of heaven’ or ‘the top reaches to heaven’. The tallest of them was in Babel and it reached over 300 feet. It was in seven stories and not just for centuries, for millennia, it was the tallest man-made structure. For millennia. Most people don’t realise when they read the Bible, that God has a sense of humour. And there’s a wonderful use of Divine humour in the Babel story, and one we’ve only been able to understand since the use of aeroplanes. Because the makers of the tower say, “Let us build a city and a tower that reaches heaven.” So there it is, it actually reaches heaven. And then the verse says, “vayered Hashem Lirot”. God had to come down to see it.” Where is this, this tiny little thing.”

And of course only now travelling at 30,000 feet and looking down at thousand foot high buildings, do you realise, yes, what seems so huge to us, doesn’t seem so huge to God. So it’s a wonderful piece of irony. There’s only one thing that makes God laugh, which is human beings taking themselves seriously. So despite this fact, as I say, this is deeply grounded in historical realia. And one major fact shines through, which is that Mesopotamia becomes the first environment in which empires appear. The first environment in which powers conquer other powers and impose their culture on the defeated. And both Sargon and Ashurbanipal II, proudly say in triumphal inscriptions, “We imposed our language on.” So that everyone, anyone under that rule spoke whatever they spoke.

So this was imposed by the imperial conquest and these early kings, Neo Assyrian kings, boasted this. And suddenly we realise that is what the statement of the first verse of Genesis 11 is about. This fact “Vayehi kol ha’aretz sepha achat udevarim achadim” The whole land, not the whole earth. The whole land was of one speech and a shared vocabulary, is of an enforced shared speech by imperial conquest. In other words, an attempt to frustrate the natural process which has already been described in the previous chapter, which talked about the emergence of seventy languages and human diversity. So Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel, is a story rooted in the fact that the one language is not some utopian harmony and some golden age. It is in fact what the 19th century Jewish commentator, the Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin), intuited, when he said that Babel is the first totalitarianism. This is not an ideal harmony, it is an imposed uniformity. Babel is cosmopolis.

And we now see that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are constructed on an extremely precise pattern. They are A-B, B-A, it’s a chiasmic pattern. It begins with Adam and Eve whose sin is that they transgress a boundary. They eat the forbidden fruit. They transgressed the boundary between permitted and forbidden. It proceeds to violence, murder, Cain and Abel. And then the same sequence in inverse order is then applied from the individual to the collective so that we have collective violence in the generation before the flood. And then finally the Tower of Babel, which transgresses a boundary. It does so in three different ways.

Number one, when they say, “We will build a city and a tower that reaches heaven,” they are transgressing the first boundary. The first words. “In the beginning, God created heaven and the earth.” As the book of Psalm says, “The heavens are the heavens of God. The earth he has given to man.” So man’s domain is earth. God’s domain is heaven. And the builders of Babel, by seeking to reach heaven, are transgressing the Divine-human boundary.

Secondly, they are attempting to frustrate God’s command in Genesis One, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” They attempt to concentrate in a city. And we have this critique throughout the Bible of urban civilisation.

But thirdly, it attempts to transgress the natural boundaries that God has created when he creates diversity. Read Genesis 1, and the key recurring word is Ieminayhem, lemino, lemina. He created plants, animals, birds, fish leminayhem, according to their different kinds. The essence, of Genesis 1 is ordered diversity. Hence, you get, in Leviticus 19, the prohibition of mixing wool and linen. We know the prohibition of mixing milk and meat. Sewing a field with different kinds of grain and so on. This is the priestly ontology – ordered diversity. And by attempting to suppress the individuality of those nations they conquer, and their distinct languages, the Mesopotamians, the builders of Babel, transgressed that boundary, which God has created. In other words, biodiversity in Genesis 1, human diversity in Genesis 10.

It then follows that Babel is the first of the Bible’s two meta-narratives. One takes place immediately prior to the birth of the covenantal family with Abraham. The other takes place immediately prior to the birth of the covenantal nation in the days of Moses. And both of them are critiques of empire. Genesis 11, with its critique of Mesopotamia, Babylon, the Assyrians and so on. And number two, the critique of Egypt, the two great empires of the ancient world. And we can now define the programmatic theology, political theology of the Bible, the Mosaic books, and Genesis and Exodus in particular. They are critiques of empire and imperialism.

We sometimes forget, because Judaism is quite old, that the Bible presents Judaism or Abrahamic faith as a late comer, not as the original faith of humanity. By the time Abraham appears, Mesopotamia is already old. By the time Moses appears, Egypt is already old. Jews are portrayed as late comers and the Judaic project is a critique of empires and imperialism. And I can now define imperialism in the same words that I define religious fundamentalism today. Imperialism, like fundamentalism, is the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world.

If this is true, then we do not have to search far for a theology of the other in Judaism. Judaism itself begins with a theology of the other. It is the radical otherness of God that is expected to lead us to respect the radical otherness of different languages, nations, and cultures. As the Mishna in Sanhedrin puts it just about 18 centuries ago, when a human being makes many coins in one mint, they all come out the same. God makes every human being in the same mint in the same image, his image. And we all come out different.

The miracle of monotheism as I read the opening of the Hebrew Bible is not one God, one truth one way, but that unity in heaven creates diversity on earth. The principle that I call the dignity of difference. And it is the attempt of the builders of Babel to suppress that diversity, by imposing the language of empire on conquered peoples, that leads God to abandon the whole project of a universal human narrative and turn to the particularity of one person in one story, as an example, and signal that we all have our story.

So I hope that is a good starter for some angry or anguished questions, but there it is. I have begun at least by showing how the Bible, in Babel, sets the tone for the dignity of difference. What the implication of that is for the nature of truth, please join us tomorrow. Thank you very much indeed.