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Sublimating Strife

Sublimating Strife

The fighting in Fallujah may have deep biblical roots


Hershel Shanks, editor emeritus of Moment Magazine, recently raised the tantalizing possibility that the Iraqi city of Fallujah may be identical to the Babylonian Talmudic center known as Pumbeditha.

Citing a 19th century scholar, Jacob Obermeyer, he suggests that the two names (by way of the Syriac rendering, Pallughtha) are linguistic equivalents. Babylonia, of course, overlaps largely with contemporary Iraq, and Pumbeditha in fact lay on the banks of the Euphrates River, as does Fallujah.

Pumbeditha was for centuries a center of Jewish religious/intellectual activity. It hosted one of the major academies when the Babylonian Talmud was completed at the beginning of the 6th century of the common era, and continued to be a center of Jewish study throughout most of what is known as the Geonic period.

Today Fallujah is widely considered one of the most violence-prone areas in Iraq. A hotbed of Wahabi tribal emotions, it has a long history of bloodshed, and it was there that four American contractors were brutally murdered earlier this year. Not a pretty or peaceful place. Even its Syriac name, Pallughtha, implies strife; while some see the word refering to a "split" there in the river's flow in ancient times, it can just as easily be translated as "dispute."

Yet, if Fallujah is indeed Pumbeditha, it certainly seems to have been quite hospitable to Jews -- as was Babylonia in general -- 1500 years ago. It was there, and in other Babylonian cities like Sura and Neherda'ah, that Jewish scholars recorded much of the Oral Law that Jews had studied and transmitted from generation to generation since Biblical times; and there where subtle points of the Torah's law were studied and taught, examined, contemplated and debated.

The famed psychiatrist Carl Jung put forth the intriguing idea that places have power, that lands have effects on their inhabitants. "The soil of every country," he wrote in Civilization in Transition (1918), "holds some such mystery... just as there is a relationship between mind to body, so there is a relationship of body to earth."

Whatever the merit of Jung's notion, Babylonia's conflict-roots do in fact run deep. One of the Torah's first narratives is about the Tower of Bavel, identified with the capital of what would become Babylonia. When, in early human history, the populace there joined to build a structure whose top would "reach to the heavens" in order to "make for ourselves a name" -- to in some way challenge the Creator, as the rabbinic commentaries explain -- seeds of discord were divinely sown among them, in the form of different languages, and the diverse perceptions of things they reflect. The people, until then unified in their undertaking, came to disagree, to argue, to fight, and eventually to disperse to lands far and wide.

Could Jung have been right? Might Babylonia, so deeply unsettled a place to this day, have some power to evoke fractiousness?

If so, it is interesting that when Jews made Babylonia their home, they too engaged in disputes - holy, sublime ones, over the fine points of Jewish religious law. Such discussion is even referred to in rabbinic literature as "milchamta shel Torah" - "the war of Torah."

In fact, that is precisely what goes on in every contemporary yeshiva beit medrash, or study hall. The din in such places can be overwhelming, as students lock mental horns, fighting to the finish with their minds. When it is time for lunch, though, the battle ceases, and the disputants resemble the amiable partners they were all along; their "fighting" was never personal but rather a joint venture in the cause of a higher truth. As the Talmud puts it: "[Torah scholars] become like enemies to one another [when they engage in dialectic] but then become beloved friends" (Kiddushin, 30b).

It has been suggested that the effect of the Jewish people on history has been to tame the barbarism that is part of the human condition, that Judaism has helped to civilize the world. No less a thinker about Jews, and barbarian, than Hitler captured it well when he expressed contempt for what he characterized as the "effeminate ethics" of the Jew.

Perhaps the ancient Jewish academies in Babylonia were a reflection of that very civilizing effect, of how true holiness can mediate, sublimate, strife.


August 14, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) JASON, February 9, 2006 12:00 AM


Why would Mr Dayan in 1967 hand over the Temple Mount to the Muslims. I am reading a book by meron benvenisti called "jerusalem the torn city".
I can't understand why the Minister of religous affairs( a jewish person) agreen to do such a disgracefull thing. Tell me Rabbi is your whole country full of moderates. Why would any nation agree to allow theives to steal there most precious posession. Signing it over to them in my view means absolutely nothing. How can any person give away whar G.. has given to them. It rightfully belongs to the rightfull owner. Voting in the moderates for the sake of percieved peace has certainly come with a price tag.
And also, why would any jewish person agree to allow your own government to remove jewish people from their own land. Thank goodness G.. will
restore to the jewish nation what is rightfully theirs because without HIM
it seems everything would be given away even the kitchen sink.
What has happened to the idea of being watchfull and guarding that which is held most Holy. The robbers and thieves will take and take and take. They will Lie and Lie and Lie to aquire all. Not neccessarily because it belongs to them but to perpetuate hate
towards a nation. This seems to be their sole purpose.When G.. is on your side "certain nation's opinions mean nothing".
Do the jewish people believe that G.. is all powerfull or not?

(4) Bewildered Jew, September 7, 2004 12:00 AM

Places of Power - The Temple Mount - Forgotten?

Why are the Jews so complacent about the destruction of the Temple Mount. Nothing is ever said about it in the Jewish - let a lone mainstream press.
From I read today: "High Court of Justice in Jerusalem issues temporary injunction prohibiting Muslim Waqf from removing from Temple Mount at least 12,000 tons of debris rich in archeological artifacts including remnants of Jewish Temples. Area was bulldozed to construct portals for underground mosque without archeological supervision"

This destruction has been going on for years in an attempt to make Jewish claims to the site more difficult.

Your fascination for the roots of where the Jews studied in ancient Babylon is interesting. However, this bewilders me.

(3) Do Lern Hwei, August 22, 2004 12:00 AM

There should be a clear distinction between constructive debate and dysfunctional dispute.
In no way should the intellectual discussion and debate of the beit medrash be like the bloody strife at Fajullah.
The incident of Bavel ,I think, shows that the motive of people were not correct before the Almighty. It is OK to
reach up to the heavens but building just to make a name for oneself is questionable.

(2) Ed, August 18, 2004 12:00 AM


I'm not quite sure what the point
is of this interesting article. Is he saying that without the Jewish history,
Fallujah would be even more violent?
Or is the violence supposed to be because Jews disputed there
amicably 1500 years ago? Either way,
it's a fascinating concept.

(1) Harold Sowerby, August 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Great article regarding a true spiritual principle.

In George Otis Jr's book, The Last Of The Giants, he skilfully reveals the connection between events and the places they occur. He speaks at length of the area of Iraq/Iran and the on going, centuries long, strife of the region. Much has been written on the subject and the truth about it helps us understand the reasons for continual problems over the centuries. He suggest actions that can change the area thus bringing about permanent change.

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