October 23, 2014

In this weeks Sedra we read the story of the Tower of Babel.

The Netziv follows the school of thought (see Ibn Ezra and Ralbag) that identifies the basic motive of the people of Bavel as being a fear of dispersion. This is explicitly stated in verse 4 – “lest we be dispersed on the face of the earth.” This in itself is not a sin, but it is opposed to God’s will and purpose in creating man, to whom was given the blessing of “Peru u-revu u-mil’u et ha-aretz” – to conquer and settle the entire earth. Hence God arranged that they be dispersed, not as a punishment, but simply as a device to further the plan of creation.

The reason why they wanted to live together, the Netziv claims, was because of the “one speech” explicated by the midrash. Their ultimate plans, unimportant in themselves, required unity, and they knew that if people spread out, they would develop independent ideas which would detract from the fulfillment of the grand project. Furthermore, in order to maintain this unity, they would need police and strict totalitarian social control, which is how the Netziv explains “and make for us a name.” The “name” means people in charge, supervisors. The outcome would be oppression, as exemplified by the story of Avraham and the furnace of Ur Kasdim. (The Netziv explains that the sentence about making bricks rather than using stone is a hint to this midrash – they needed a great furnace to produce the bricks). The “project” leads to the need for social unity, which leads to social repression. To prevent this, God disperses them.

(The idea of Bavel as a totalitarian state, based on the stories of Nimrod and Avraham, is also quoted by the Abrabanel in the name of the Ran).

The tower is, as the Netziv claims, a unifying symbol, a center of gravity, as it were, for all mankind who rally around it.

The Netziv explains that the Midrash is telling us the consequences rather that the causes of the totalitarian state.

The psychological need for unity, the social pressure involved, the strength and power that result from this unity, all will result in the monolithically totalitarian state, which will result in both civil repression (as in the furnace of Avraham) and spiritual hubris (as in the idolatry reaching up to heaven with a sword).

The Torah describes the following progression:

1. Cultural unity – one language and one speech (verse 1);

2. Social cohesiveness – living together (verse 2);

3. Industrial advance – the brick factory (verse 3);

4. What does one do with one’s newfound power – monumental construction (verse 4), leading to centralization, pride and rebellion, and totalitarianism.

The midrashim describe in detail various potential developments of the centralized totalitarian state based on technological man – the expulsion of God, ideological dictatorship, social repression. Organized idolatry, ascribed by the midrash to Nimrod king of Bavel, is a means of ideological control, giving everyone a central figure of authority easily manipulated by the ruling class.

The basis of total unitary society for all mankind will of necessity tend towards physical symbols, a tower, or an idol, and will of necessity be intolerant and compulsive. Because there is no other basis for unitary society other than the shared industrial projects, there will always be a need to invent new projects and force every part of society to take part in order to provide the strength and power inherent in organized mass society.

God’s solution to this tendency of man is first of all forced cultural diversity – different languages – and secondly, physical dispersion. This will hardly prevent tyranny in the future, but it does ensure that each people and culture will develop individually. It may seem strange that cultural development requires inhibited communication, but the midrashim are spelling out the alternative. Total unification of humanity is not desirable, if humanity is to develop, because diversity and pluralism are necessary components of freedom, and human development requires freedom. In this case, freedom is protected by a counterweight to the human desire for the security of unity – the counterweight is, paradoxically, lack of communication.

This explains why this story is here, in this location in the Torah. We are perched on the verge of the creation of the Jewish people. Avraham will be asked shortly to separate himself from his father’s house, his country, his birthplace, and create an individual unit of spiritual perfection. The question is why, why is the truth of the Torah not offered to all of humanity? Is not Judaism and its message a universal one? Why is Judaism a national religion? Why is the Torah given in a way that makes it incomprehensible to most of mankind? The Torah explains to us that even though the universal mass society of Bavel included pious individuals (Shem, Ever, even Noach are still alive), the service of God cannot arise out of such a society. It is too repressive, too dedicated to maintaining its own existence. Man must be dispersed in order to develop individually. There is a real spiritual basis for the need for cultural pluralism, including different and somewhat mutually incomprehensible languages. In this context, one nation can arise slowly, over a long period of education, trial, and redemption, which will carry on God’s message for humanity. Within Nimrod’s Bavel, Judaism is impossible. Within any world order, world empire, Judaism cannot arise. Mankind is dispersed to develop individual character, cultural diversity. In one corner, without having to worry about the destiny of all mankind, a small family will build the kingdom of God. Cross-cultural dissonance is the price that must be paid for spiritual development. In Avraham’s case, that dissonance will be even more extreme. Only through lonely separation can true spiritual greatness be achieved. The unity of the Jewish people will be achieved through that spiritual development, slowly over many generations, with the Torah and Eretz Yisrael at its center. Having broken up the totalitarian unitary state, the Torah is ready to embark on the adventure of Avraham Ha-Ivri, the man from across the river, a stranger in a strange land.

Shabbat shalom


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