Mike Stein’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Bar Mitzvah Speech

Shabbat shalom. Fifty years ago, I celebrated my bar mitzvah with this sedrah. I read the entire Torah – annual cycle, which I did not inflict on you today – and the haftarah. But I didn’t lead the service as well. And there’s one other thing I didn’t do. Because of the peculiarities of my preparation – we moved from Peoria to Milwaukee just a few months before my bar mitzvah – it never got explained to me that I was supposed to give a d’var Torah. Maybe that turned out for the best, because back then I didn’t have the experience and insight for what I’m about to say. So today I’m going to make up for that omission – in spades. Make yourselves comfortable, because I’m afraid this is going to rise to the level of an actual sermon.

In today’s reading, we have the famous story of the Tower of Bavel, or Babel as it’s more commonly known in English. Supposedly a bunch of people decided to build a city with a tower reaching to heaven. God took exception to this for some unexplainable reason – like they really were going to be able to reach heaven before the air got too thin to breathe, right? – and created all the different languages, so they couldn’t understand one another. And that’s why they stopped building the city and tower and scattered all over the world.

At the risk of being called a heretic, I don’t believe that story. There are many reasons to be skeptical. As I said, what did God have to be upset about? But to me, the main reason is this: people can misunderstand one another perfectly in the same language. Here’s the real story: some people thought the tower to heaven was symbolic, and some thought it was literal, and they got to arguing, and they completely unable to work together, so nothing got done. They split into red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods, and then ….

OK, maybe that’s not what happened either. But I think that’s a lot more likely than the story we read today.

In “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “Language is the source of misunderstanding”. That’s a clever turn of phrase, but I don’t believe that either. I think the biggest reason people misunderstand each other is because of the experiences, assumptions, and biases we bring to the conversation. People interpret the words – and the actions – of others through the lens of their own preconceptions.

People do this even when they are ignoring meanings that would be the immediate first choice for an independent newcomer who knew nothing about the speaker. The more we interpret according to our preconceptions, rather than actively listening and seeking the interpretation most favorable to the speaker, the more we build our own tower of Babel.

One reason for misunderstanding is different knowledge. Person A has facts that Person B doesn’t have. Think back – have you ever thought of a time when someone said something that didn’t make sense, until you found out a new piece of information – and then everything made sense? If someone misunderstands you, allow for the possibility that you know something they don’t – or that they know something you don’t. As Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people”. Be like Ben Zoma. And – a very important point – be willing to admit when you’re wrong. This will be on the test.

Unfortunately, nowadays we increasingly have the phenomenon of people knowing “facts” that aren’t so. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it also permits the unprecedented spread of misinformation. We assume that people are more often honest than dishonest, and we are particularly primed to believe things we are told by friends and family. So, another rule to follow is Abe Lincoln’s famous saying: don’t believe everything you see on the internet. Of course, Lincoln said it – I saw it on the internet! Before you spread the latest “send this to everyone you know” email, check it out. Google. Snopes.com. If you can’t find a reliable source for it, it probably is fake news. Don’t spread it. Each bit of misinformation is another brick in the modern Tower of Babel.

Perhaps the most pernicious destroyer of communication: people are
subject to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. We discount things
that don’t agree with our previous beliefs, but take anything that
agrees as further proof of the correctness of our beliefs. There’s a
saying: if you start with the assumption that someone is basically
good, they will probably prove you right. And if you start with the
opposite assumption, that same person will probably also prove you
right. People also hear what they want to hear, and avoid hearing what
they don’t.

Just yesterday I had a perfect example of the combination of this and the problem with the internet. Discussing the allegations against Kavanaugh, a friend of mine on Facebook said that the entire school was talking about it within days of it. I thought she was talking about the Ramirez incident. She said no, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s said it was Ford.

I couldn’t believe this. Why wasn’t it all over the news? So, I did some searching. In a long post, mostly about a priest accused of homosexual misconduct, someone said almost as an afterthought that in his four years at Georgetown Prep, he heard the story Ford was telling repeated dozens of times.

In a later clarification, it turned out that he was there twenty years after Kavanaugh, and all he meant was that he heard stories just like it. But someone heard what they wanted to hear, even though there was plenty of reason to doubt that interpretation. And then it got spread on the internet. And then people start accusing people of lying, and it goes downhill from there.

There’s a saying: never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. I’m going to give you a rather extreme example.

About twenty years ago, websites were not what they are now. There was something called Usenet, a distributed bulletin board. One discussion group was called alt.revisionism. It was a group almost entirely devoted to Holocaust denial.

I was fascinated by this from a sociological perspective. How could these people believe that there was not a deliberate effort by the Nazis to wipe out the Jews? So, I joined the discussions.

As you might expect, there was a lot of overt antisemitism. A lot of the exchanges boiled down to “You’re a liar – no, you’re a liar”. I joined in the discussions and refrained from name-calling. I just posted facts, with sources. I got to know some of the “revisionists”, as they styled themselves. And I saw there were differences among them – they were not all just anti-Semites looking for one more way to smear Jews. A lot were, don’t get me wrong, but not all.

Some were ethnic Germans who were psychologically in denial. They could not believe that Germans could do such a horrible thing. It threatened their sense of self as a civilized nation.

Another person never expressed any animus towards Jews. After I learned more of his background, I would say he had what I might call a Don Quixote complex. He had a thing for attaching himself to hopeless causes, the lonely seeker after truth.

One of the most surreal experiences of my life was having dinner with Robert Faurisson, a Frenchman who was one of the leading Holocaust deniers. Also, at that dinner was the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, as well as the Don Quixote type I mentioned previously, who had invited me. Faurisson and I got on OK until I contradicted him – with a statement made by a different Holocaust denier! At that point it’s as if I became a non-person to him.

But the reason I mention all of this is because of one final character, and what happened between us. He was an actual, self-professed Nazi. During one discussion, he said something rather garbled. It made no sense to me. I posted that it was crazy.
The next day, though, I reconsidered. I looked again at what he wrote and found an interpretation that wasn’t crazy.

I posted an apology. Yes, to a Nazi. I stated my new understanding of what he had said, and said that while I disagreed with it, I couldn’t call it crazy. I said, “I don’t know if this will make any difference to him, but it does to me.” To my surprise, he responded to my message. “Actually, it does.”

He is no longer a Nazi. No, it didn’t happen in a blinding flash because of that exchange. But I would like to think that that little unexpected understanding – and my willingness to admit publicly that I was wrong (told you it was going to be on the test) – might have opened a small chink in his mental armor, one that over time grew, and allowed his personal Tower of Babel to crumble.

We live in some pretty scary times. Towers of Babel are going up all around us. Please don’t help build them higher. There are certainly evil people in the world. But there are also misguided people in the world, or ignorant, or mistaken. Try to stay open to the difference. We say that God keeps open the gates of repentance. Let us always do what we can to keep open the gates of understanding. Shabbat shalom.