Parashat Noach 5777

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi, 4 November 2016

One of the highlights of our summer holiday in Cornwall a few years ago was a visit to Goonhilly Satellite station. This was one of the first satellite stations in the world, transmitting for the satellite Telstar, and now it received and transmitted signals from all over the world. We were amazed at the technology involved, which we take so much for granted in our day to day lives as we use our mobile phones, browse the internet and communicate in new ways.

In this communication from nation to nation, allowing far distant places to speak to each other, we might see the reversal of the process begun at the tower of Babel, when people began to speak different languages and were dispersed across the earth. But of course, satellite communication is not the solution. It does allow the transfer of an enormous amount of information, so that in a way the world is smaller. That information can be decoded – that is, an electronic signal can be translated into words and images. But educationalists also use ‘decoding’ to mean ‘reading without understanding.’ Too often, this is what happens. Two people can speak the same language, but it does not mean they will understand each other. We can receive information from the other side of the world, but we still do not understand what it really means, what its implications are and what it tells us about the people who live there.

This is all the more true when we talk about religion. We may use a shared language, but it does not mean we are talking about the same thing. Using the same language can lead to even more confusion because we assume we are talking about the same thing when we are not. Whilst Jews, Christians and Muslims may have common ideas when they talk about prayer, there are also some real and important differences. Salvation,similarly, means very different things to Jews and to Christians. And when we come to talk about God, that most complex of all ideas, every person surely has a different idea of what God means to them.

In our world today, talking to people of different faiths is vital. There are deep divisions in our society and our world and only by reaching across boundaries can we begin to heal the divisions and see beyond stereotypes. But talking to people of other faiths can be hard because it demands real listening. We have to pay attention not just to the words people use, but also to what they really mean. It demands honesty. We have to be able to say ‘I don’t understand’ when we are confused by what the other person is saying. We have to be open to a different understanding of words we take for granted. We have to be willing to explain what seems obvious to us. We also have to be willing to admit that a word we have been using for years is hard to define or explain, or even that we do not really understand it ourselves.

We also have to be aware of the challenge that Babel poses. The generation of the Tower of Babel believed in uniformity. They had one language and one way of doing things. Everyone was expected to conform. There is a temptation when we meet people of other faiths, especially at first, to concentrate on what we have in common and to look at similarities. But although we share much, all religions are not the same and it is important to understand and appreciate our differences. Our challenge is to come together and find a common language and yet respect difference and treasure our own and our neighbour’s unique language, culture and worldview.

After the generation of the Tower were scattered across the land, they went their own way and grew apart from each other. Today’s satellite technology is bringing people together again and we have the potential to heal some of the deep divisions in our world. So may we listen to each other and come to understand each other. And may the time come when all people on earth will learn to speak and understand each other again. Then, as the BBC motto says, ‘nation shall speak unto nation’ in understanding and friendship, so that the words of the prophet Isaiah will at last be fulfilled: ‘Then all your children shall be taught of the Eternal God and great shall be the peace of your children.’

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