Sunday, October 14, 2012



 Only when G-d is G-d can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct.



The story of a Tower rising in the valley of Shinar is central to the Biblical vision of what can go wrong in society. The story itself, told in a mere nine verses, is a compact masterpiece of literary and philosophical virtuosity. The first thing to note is that its historical background is exceptionally precise. The tower or ziggurat was the great symbol of the ancient Mesopotamian city states. It was here that human beings first settled, established agriculture, built cities, and invented (along with the wheel, the arch and the calendar) the ability to manufacture building materials, especially bricks. This made possible the construction of buildings on a larger scale, which came to have a profound religious significance.                                       

Essentially these towers, of which the remains of at least thirty have been discovered, were man-made “holy mountains,” the mountain being the place where heaven and earth most visibly met. Inscriptions on several of these buildings refer, as does the Torah, to the idea that their top “reaches heaven.”                     

Not only is the story of Babel historically accurate. It is also shot through with literary devices. One of the most masterly is that the two key words, לבן-brick, and נבל-confuse, are precise inversions of one another. As so often in the Torah, literary technique is closely related to a deeper message. In this case it is the phenomenon of inversion itself; the results of human behavior are often the opposite of what was intended. The builders wanted to concentrate humanity in one place, “And not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” The result was that, “The L-rd scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”               

Their pride lay in their newfound technological ability to construct buildings of unprecedented grandeur. They did not realize that the greatest creative power is language (“And G-d said . . . and there was”). Thus it was not a technical problem that caused them to abandon the project, but the loss of the ability to communicate. What is holy for the Torah is not power but the use to which it is put, the medium in which we frame our ideals, construct imaginative possibilities, and call others to join us in realizing them. The word is prior to the work.

What though was the builder’s sin? To understand we must return to Genesis and its description of creation. Two words in that account are decisive. The first is טוב/tov-good, which appears seven times. G-d says, “Let there be,” and G-d sees, “That it is good.” Creation is not about the power of G-d but about the goodness He provided in the universe. This is an extraordinary statement. For the ancients saw the world as a dangerous and threatening place, full of dangers, disasters, famines and floods, a result of clashing gods. Against this, Judaism made the astonishing assertion that the world is good. It is the result not of blind collisions or random mutations, but of a single creative Will. This alone set Judaism apart as the most hopeful of the world’s faiths.        

There is another key word הבדיל/hivdil-to separate, which appears five times in Creation (light & dark, upper & lower waters, etc), signifying that the goodness of the universe is due to order and boundaries.  So important was this idea that we have a special ceremony, havdalah, to mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of each week. Like G-d, we begin our creative weekdays by havdalah: consecrating distinctions.

Creation itself is seen as the slow emergence of order from chaos. An ordered universe is a peaceable universe in which every being has its proper place. Violence, injustice and conflict are forms of disorder, a failure to respect the integrity of others. The pagan world of old was one in which boundaries were not observed. There were human beings who were like gods and gods who were like human beings. There were strange mythological hybrids, like the sphinx, half human, half animal. Religious ecstasy was often accompanied by a ceremonial breaking of boundaries in various ways. So while G-d created order, man created chaos.                                                                                   

That was the sin of the builders of the tower. Their aspiration to “reach heaven” was laughable, and indeed the Torah makes a joke of it. They imagined that their edifice had reached heaven, whereas G-d had to, “Come down.”  However it was worse than laughable. The Tower was the world’s first construct into totalitarianism in order to control the masses. Intoxicated by their technological prowess, the builders of Babel believed they had become like gods and could now construct their own Cosmo polis, their man-made miniature universe. Not content with earth, they wanted to build an abode in heaven.                               

When human beings try to become more than human, they quickly become less than human. Only when G-d is G-d can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organizing the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many on the altar of the State which sees itself above the law (after all, the State has reached Heaven).

Babel was the first civilization, but sadly not the last, to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell. A world of tov-good is a world of havdalah-limits. Those who cross those boundaries make a name for themselves, but they name they make is Babel-confusion.

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