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September 8 2014 16:30 | Thomas More, Campus Carolus, Room 109


Jaron Engelmayer

Rabbi, Israel

The city – Place of estrangement from God and faith?

First of all I have to admit that my thoughts were prepared to a different title: “Believers and Cities” – but the new title is also very nice and interesting, and luckily there is a connection between what I prepared and the new title…

In exactly a month, we Jews are going to begin the Sukkot festival. For a week, we are going to leave our comfortable apartments and houses to eat in huts made of foliage almost in the open air and even, weather permitting, to sleep there. The festival is meant to give us a sense of our closeness to God by being especially close to Nature. Decorated with leaves, branches and fruits, the leaf hut provides a natural surrounding, in the open air, you are, so to speak, exposed to rain, cold and God’s mercy.

The Sukkot festival concludes the series of the three Jewish festivals of pilgrimage which are all agricultural in character – from sowing until harvesting. At these festivals, prayers are also held for rain and a rainy winter, although we city dwellers do not particularly appreciate rain. It therefore seems almost paradoxical that we should pray for rain in the Synagogue while hoping to get home without getting wet – especially so in Cologne where there’s even more rainfall than in London. This is so because we city dwellers do not even perceive the needs of agriculture. For us, fruit grows in the supermarket, vegetables come from the freezer. We hardly know what it feels like for farmers and all countryside inhabitants to be exposed to nature and its forces.

It reminds us of the story about two friends being shipwrecked and floating on a small boat through the deep and endless waters of the ocean. The one starts to pray: “Dear God, if you save us from this situation, I will donate a fifth of my fortune to good needs.” The hours pass and nothing happens, so he starts again: “Dear God, if you save us I will donate a third of my fortune!” Again the hours pass and nothing happens, so he continues: “Dear God, if you save us I will donate…” In this very moment he was interrupted by his friend: “Stop the offers immediately! I can see land on the horizon…”  

In the landscape we feel sometimes lost, delivered to the powers of nature and to God. The cities however spite the powers of nature and collectively resist them. This begins with solid houses which – all year long - are dry and comfortably warm but not too hot, and of course without wind and it goes on in the streets, where the night is made into day, when darkness is neutralized by electric light. We therefore need to ask ourselves: Do we actually still perceive G- d? Has He, and has faith in Him, still got any direct meaning and impact on us, or do we first have to go outside into leave shelters to experience God’s closeness through closeness to Nature?

The beginning of the city – the beginning of human coexistence

However, by analysing the origins of the cities, I would like to explain two reasons why cities are a place where ways to God can be found and indeed that it is by life in cities that these ways to God were taught in the first place. The Torah, the five books of Moses, talks about how the first city of all was built. Surprisingly, this already took place in a time when we can assume that hardly any humans lived on earth. In fact, the first builder of cities was Qayin / Cain, the son of the first humans, Adam and Chavah / Eve. It is said about him in the first book of Moses chapter 4 verse 17 that he was a city builder and built a city for his son Enoch/Chanokh. We may assume that at that time there were neither enough people nor a real need for a city to be built, as the Torah does not yet talk, at that point, about the existence of other people at that time than Adam, Eve, Qayin, his wife and his son. So why then did Qayin build a city of all things?

Qayin is not really very well known for building a city but much more so for killing his brother Hevel / Abel. The Torah does not describe the exact reasons why he did this, but our wise men add this information based on hints that can be read between the lines of the written text. The first manslaughter and fratricide of history, they say, took place against a backdrop of competition between two brothers. This competition already took place in their offering to God. From the two offerings, only Hevel’s was accepted because it was the more beautiful one, but this competition continued with the distribution of interests when the two brothers split up the world between the two of them so that the conflict between the two of them eventually led to manslaughter. There is a known Jewish curse describing this deep human characteristic problem, wishing the one who should be cursed: “May you be rich! But the only one in your whole family…” 

Qayin was rebuked and punished by God. After his initial denial, he had to acknowledge that he had made a terrible mistake and had forever lost his brother with his own hands. According to our wise men, Qayin regretted his act, atoned and changed his ways. In Jewish faith, Changing one’s ways means desisting from one’s previous mistakes and actively perform an about-turn to a different behaviour. This has a special significance in this present month of the Jewish calendar, the month of Elul, when, before the Jewish New Year, be are especially concerned with changing our ways and repenting. For Qayin to change his ways also meant the insight that people have to be able to live with one another without seeing one another as competitors. Quite to the contrary, they are to recognize that they enrich, help and complement one another and should therefore appreciate one another. What is needed for a successful coexistence in a city is not only tolerance but appreciation of the others, and this appreciation is indeed the greatest advantage one can get from this coexistence.

These values lead to a deep insight into God. The Mishna – the oral teachings – in tractate Sanhedrin (4,5) teaches us that God consciously created Man from one person into very different beings which are all completely different one from another. This allows us a conclusion about God’s greatness. A teacher asked once in a religions class what is the task of human kind after the creation of the world. Little Moritz` answer was: “To make advertisement for it!” But in fact God did this not only because He alone is capable of this – in fact, He does not only want to show off with His creation ? - but first and foremost because it is a trait of God’s greatness to allow for there to be other beings in His world. It is only from the diversity of species, the incredible number of creatures in the world of plants, animals and humans, that we can begin to really see the beauty of the world. Although God is one and unique, he leaves space for this diversity! The D-vine uniqueness of this world lies in its harmony and complementarity, just like the beauty of the rainbow – the symbol of the Community of Sant’Egidio – lies in the variety of colours that complement each other.

Together – in what direction? The construction of the tower of Babel

“Together we’re strong” could therefore be the motto of the city. But in this, there is also the danger of wanting to spite God and of thinking one is able to spite Him. This can be seen from the second passage in the Torah that talks about a city – the construction of the Tower of Babel. In fact, when the whole of humanity was a unity, they decided to take advantage from this unity and from technological progress (namely making bricks from clay) to build a city, and in its middle a tower reaching up to heaven – “to make themselves a name”. It can’t be seen clearly from the story why God disliked this project and considered it right to subsequently disperse humanity. Yet, the aforementioned approach gives us a hint: Due to technological progress and common achievements, mankind felt so strong, self-sufficient and independent that they felt they could rebel against God and deny His omnipotence. They wanted to make themselves a name of their own and no longer bear, but reject, God’s name.

See how History repeats itself! In fact, today, in the age of scientific discoveries and progress, we live in this spirit of our almost unlimited omnipotence. See how easy it is then to deny God’s existence, as we no longer depend on Him neither to understand the world nor to dominate it. The epitomes of this independence can be found in the city, just like back then, when the Tower of Babel was built.

The Torah acknowledges this attitude, but surprisingly, the antithesis it gives is not to take our distances from this process and develop backwards. If we want to be close to God, are not meant to and do not need to renounce civilization and live a primitive natural state. Quite to the contrary. What is missing is only the fundamental insight of recognizing a d-vine perspective in progress. Thus, the Torah warns not to succumb to pride by saying: “It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity.” (5th Book of Moses 8, 17-18) Instead, Man is to remember that „it is God your Lord who gives you the power to become prosperous.“ This means that Man needs not deny that his hands have created and achieved something but he should always remember that it is from God that he has received the capability, the possibility and the means. It is only in this way that Man lives up to the task in this world that God has given him, namely to settle it and to develop it further. To say it with the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “He created it not a waste, He formed it to be inhabited.” (Isaiah 45,18)

The city as a place of faith – Jerusalem

According to Judaism, the epitome of God’s revelation can be found in a city, in Jerusalem. It is there that we see precisely the qualities that we have talked about. On the one hand, the different people and cultures connect here, as the Psalmist describes it (Psalm 122): „as a city that is compact together; Whither the tribes went up,… to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.“ On the other hand, we find in it a strength that has its origin directly in God (125): “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the LORD is round about His people.“ The city is surrounded by strong walls, but it still always depends on God’s mercy as well as on the following insight (127): „ Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.“ This shows us that cities are meant to bring us closer to God – but it is up to its inhabitants to recognize this. With this insight, having spent seven days in foliage huts, we are then to return to our houses, right into the middle of the city.




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