Bonding over Babel at inter-congregational kibitzing in Oakland

It was complicated enough for me growing up a Jew. If you threw in the different types of Judaism, you totally lost me. I didn’t know how a Conservative congregation differed from Reform, or Conservative from Orthodox.

I still wonder: When you get down to reading the Torah, what unites us across the different streams?

We’re clever. We’re perceptive. We know how to fan the fire in a good debate without snuffing out the opinions of others.

I happily reached this conclusion at an extraordinary event. Three Oakland congregations gathered to study the word of God, together.

Congregants from Beth Abraham, Sinai and Beth Jacob met recently to talk Torah — the Tower of Babel section of Genesis.

I didn’t realize until I got there just how appropriate this passage was for an inter-synagogue gathering. After all, the story of Babel is about the limits of unity and division.

This was a diverse crowd. Hats on heads with huge beards, clean-shaven folks wearing Pixar baseball caps. Jeans and floor-length skirts.

I made an important observation. Every Bay Area synagogue I’ve attended has outstanding nosh. This fact alone unites the Jews regardless of affiliation. Armed with a plate of sweets and hot tea, I joined the crowd at the round tables in Beth Jacob’s reception hall.

Just sitting there, I tried to guess who belonged to which congregation. I was wrong on almost every count — a sign of things to come.

The format of the evening was as follows: study with a partner, talk as a table, listen to the rabbis from each congregation and then open the floor for general discussion.

This plan went off almost too well.

My study partner and I reached similar conclusions in reading over the passage. The Babel story was a cautionary tale about groupthink, about what happens when a people neglects the individual and lose sight of their ability to think critically.

I am a so-called unaffiliated Jew. The person I studied with was an Orthodox member of Beth Jacob. We talked easily and seemed to be coming from the same place regarding Babel.

As we talked as a table, we engaged in feisty discourse. Some people were cerebral. Others were more emotional. Some were reading the Hebrew, finding subtleties in the translation, but again, people’s conclusions didn’t seem to be based on any kind of dogma associated with Reform, Conservative or Orthodox positions.

We focused on the question of balance between individual and collective responsibility. Several people brought up the film “Hotel Rwanda” and asked when the individual should take responsibility for collective action.

Someone in my group raised the question: After God makes it so that different peoples no longer speak the same language, what is the responsibility of those insular groups to try to communicate with those who don’t speak their language? The topic of Hebrew day school education came up, and people at the table wondered if a day school education, as opposed to public school, cuts off Jewish kids from exposure to a wider, non-Jewish world.

We were having such a lively discussion that when the rabbis started talking, we continued until we were shooshed by someone from the next table.

The three rabbis who spoke, Mark Bloom, Judah Dardik and Andrea Berlin, all illuminated interesting aspects of the passage — why it appears where it does in the Torah, aspects that the Hebrew revealed, the fine line between morality and idolatry.

But I must confess that, listening to the rabbis and the questions that followed, I wanted to keep talking with the group at my table. We had formed a warm bond over something that had often been cold for me — the interpretation of Torah. We were speaking a unifying language that was open to questioning despite our local allegiances.

I didn’t know who prayed at which synagogue, and I didn’t care.

I propose spontaneous, mixed Torah study at rotating synagogues around the Bay Area. If the sessions are half as good as the Babel talk in Oakland, I’ll be there.

Jay Schwartz lives with his wife and small dog in San Francisco. He hopes to one day visit the ruins of the uncompleted Tower of Babel. He can be reached at [email protected].