Ancient Religion in a Modern World

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What’s wrong with ambition and pride?

In a revealing Mosaic Magazine article titled “Homeric and Biblical Nobodies,” Professor Jacob Howland compares the idea of ​​pride in Jewish tradition and in Greek scripture. The Bible, in Genesis, describes in detail two major building projects: Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel.

The story of Babel tells of a people interested in building a great edifice to reach the heavens in order to “make a name for themselves”. Similarly, in Greek mythology, Odysseus defies the gods and suffers greatly. Howland’s thesis is that when Greek civilization and early biblical figures challenged their deities for supremacy, it resulted in chaos and disaster. It is with Abraham that the Hebrew notion of monotheism is introduced and the world transformed.

Thus began a key shift in which Greek personalities fight for personal glory while Jewish heroes, like David, prevail in the name of God. In fact, David attributes his victory over Goliath not to his own ability, but to “the Lord who delivered me from the lion and the bear”.

The builders of the Tower of Babel, however, were not like David. Their goal was to rival the Heavens, a group dedicated to what Howland calls “total self-reliance…collective self-divinization.” The implicit and fundamental question of the text is: which values ​​will prevail? Those of God or of Man?

The 20th century saw breathtaking advances in science, medicine, technology and communication, but also witnessed war after war, including two world wars responsible for deaths on an industrial scale unknown to previous generations.

The presumption, arrogance and excessive pride of humans dominated world affairs, as rulers and countries sought to make a name for themselves. Self-glorification replaced all considerations of transcendent values, compassion, or concern for others.

Howland cites Nietzsche who warned that he who fights monsters must be careful not to become one himself. He was referring to Odysseus, but the idea applies universally. It reminds us of Golda Meir’s statement that one day Jews may forgive Arabs for killing Jews, but they will never forgive them for turning us into killers. Conflict and war turn us all into monsters, while universal religious values ​​forge a sense of communion among all of creation.

In the final analysis, we are all dependent, limited, fragile and mortal beings. It is the sublime values ​​of Judaism that humanize us. Without these sublime values, not only are we not rivals for Heaven, but we are also less than human.

It is the sublime values ​​of Judaism that humanize us.

Jewish sources suggest that destruction and chaos result from the human urge to be arrogant, and the textual emphasis on God is meant to prevent the anarchy that results from a limited, self-centered perspective.

The Tractate Pesachim of the Talmud says of anyone who acts haughtily, “If he is a scholar of Torah, his wisdom departs from him; and if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. Maimonides asserts that vanity is repugnant to God “even in a king”. Either way, vanity is seen as diminishing rather than elevating a person, and undermining his potential for true greatness.

Religion was dismissed as primitive and useless, even harmful, unrelated to a technologically sophisticated society. However, this kind of disdain betrays a form of vanity that has proven destructive throughout history.

Despite all the moral flaws of institutional religion, the values ​​of understanding, compassion, human dignity and human rights that are central to the moral ethos of religious teachings are still needed.

The late Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, wrote: “Long ago we were called upon to show the world that religion and morality go hand in hand. This has never been more necessary than in an era torn by religiously motivated violence in some countries, endemic secularism in others. To be a Jew is to dedicate oneself to the proposition that to love God means to love his image, humanity.

In the babble of divisive discourse today, let us listen again to the wise counsel of our ancestors and let it guide us to the highest expression of our humanity.


Dr. Paul Socken is Emeritus Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.

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