Shabbat Noah: Tower of Babel

October 27, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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The Biblical narrative about the Tower of Babel was based on or inspired by the Mesopotamian Ziggurats, huge, step-like pyramids built initially some four thousand years ago. It seems that they were temples of some sort. But, as always, I look for the message behind the text and try to see the context.

What was so wrong with people coming together and deciding to build these huge edifices? The range of interpretations that traditional commentators have offered over the generations is amazing. Was it the birth of idolatry, not a challenge to God as much as an exploration? Was it the beginning of industrialization through the manufacture of bricks? Was the rivalry between urban and rural cultures? Was it the beginning of slavery and or demagoguery? Was it about the nature of authority? Or, indeed was it the story of how language spreads and multiculturalism?

The text gives some clues. The men of Babel wanted to make a name. It says nothing about challenging God, only making a name for themselves and sticking together. R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: They split up into three parties. One said, ‘Let us ascend and dwell there;’ the second, ‘Let us ascend and serve idols;’ and the third said, ‘Let us ascend and wage war [with God].’…It has been taught. R. Nathan said: They were all bent on idolatry. (Sanhedrin 109a)

But God is not happy. Why not? Ibn Ezra says it was because God wanted them to spread out around the world and develop different voices, not just stay in one place. More modern commentators such as the Netziv and Hirsch say that they wanted to create a totalitarian regime. Ramban says they were arrogant and that they treated each other inhumanely.

And yet all of these ideas are projections of our own experiences. My preferred explanation is this. We tend to think that togetherness, unity, and everyone agreeing with each other is a good thing. But think of how Naziism persuaded a whole nation to become evil. It was democracy, but to what end? Under demagogic leadership, rulers become arrogant and brutal. They dehumanize, whether they are political dictators or religious dictators. The Torah is saying that agreement and unanimity are not always good. It can suppress individuality, difference, or disagreement. When other opinions are excluded, that is brainwashing to use a modern term.

The tradition of the Torah and the Talmud is to respect differences and to debate but come to a majority decision. Which is why the Talmud includes dissenting voices. Unanimity in itself is not necessarily good. Encouraging and respecting variety created a richer and more humane society.  The Torah starts by describing the ingredients of the world and then it goes on to illustrate the evolution of human behaviour. Humans matter more than buildings or ideologies.

Genesis 6-11

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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