Thursday, October 18, 2018

Lessons from the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder(1563)
This week we will be reading from parashat Noah. It is probably one of the most well-known portions in the entire Torah. This is in part because we love to teach it to our children. It involves cute animals, an ocean cruise, a raven and a dove, the redemption of humanity through Noah and his progeny, and Noah’s wife: Joan of Ark. Of course, we spend little time on the darker side of the story like the destruction of humanity, Noah’s predilection for drunkenness, and that unicorns completely failed to show up on time.
But in all seriousness, the Torah portion, though often dismissed as a metaphor or allegory at best and a fairytale at worst, there are some serious implications and lessons for us that can be found in this week’s parasha.
However, instead of looking at the story of Noah, we are going to take a deeper dive into another section of this Torah portion, the Tower of Babel. As we learn in Genesis chapter 11: “All the earth had the same language and the same words. As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. Then people said to one another: ‘Come let us make bricks and fire them hard.’ So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower (Migdal) that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!’ Then God came down to look at the city and tower the people had built. And God said, ‘Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings now, no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying. So it came about that God scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Bavel, because there God confused (ba’lal) the speech of all the earth and from there God scattered them over the face of the earth.”[1]
There is a lot going on in these nine verses. Upon initial examination one might think the pashatinterpretation is: The Migdal Bavelis a story to explain why people are scattered over all the earth and why we speak so many different languages. According to Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell…”[2]So in a way, the story of the Tower of Babel accidentally, unintentionally or perhaps deliberately supports current scientific thinking when it comes to the evolution of language in human beings. 
However, there is more at play in this story than just an explanation for the human condition. Like the story of Noah, the story of Babel is also a morality tale. According to ChumashEtz Hayim, the Conservative Movement’s Torah commentary, “Commanded to disperse and settle the earth, Noah’s descendants insist on clustering in one area. Commanded to submit to the will of God, they set out to make a name for themselves. The story of the Tower of Babel seems inspired by the Babylonian temple towers (ziggurats). Can we sense here the Torah’s ambivalence about large cities, with the anonymity, crime, and lack of neighborliness they represent? Or its suspicion that technology, the celebration of human ingenuity, will often lead to idolatry, people worshipping the work of their own hands. 
One writer distinguishes between ‘mountain cultures,’ which see the heart of the world in wilderness, revering nature and adapting to it, and ‘tower cultures,’ for whom the essence of the world is the city and the human-made environment, stripping the sense of awe from nature and attaching it to the social and technological order. Egypt, land of pyramids and treasure cities, will be a tower culture. Israel, from Mount Sinai to the Temple Mount, will be largely a mountain culture. The people of the Tower of Babel are a pre-eminent example of a tower culture. Although human beings have done many wonderful things to reshape their environment, there is always the danger of becoming so enamored of technology that human values are lost.”[3]
Or to put it another way, according to this interpretation, the story is reminding us of how the Torah is gravely concerned about the implications of becoming a settled society. This is why the wilderness is idealized in our tradition over and over again. And even today, we often talk about returning to nature or becoming one with nature. That there is something inherently evil or at least distressing or dangerous about societies. 
As was mentioned by Harari, in another sermon, “The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks (meaning agriculture). It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”[4]
So perhaps the story is a cautionary tale against domestication. That by becoming settled, we are paying a physical price.
Another possibility is there is a different moral element at play. According to Etz Hayim, “A rabbinic legend relates that people paid no mind if a worker on the tower fell to his death. If a brick fell, however, they lamented the delay in their building project.”[5]It’s not just about becoming enamored with the work of our hands but becoming so focused on our endeavors that we forget or overlook the human cost. 
A way to translate this to our modern situation is that though we have much greater concerns and regulations for safety in our country today, there are human costs to our economic endeavors. In her book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, author Ellen Shell explains through scientific and economic inquiry the tremendous impact on our landscapes, environment, and people paid for the pursuit of low prices. As is stated, “It has fueled an excess of consumerism that blights our landscapes, raises personal debt, lowers our standard of living and even skews our concept of time.”[6]Perhaps the story of the Tower of Bavelis a cautionary tale to remind us to pay close attention to the cost and impacts of human endeavors. Everything we do and everything we pursue for our own glory impacts ourselves, those around us, the environment, and countless peoples we may never know. We need to strive to be more cognizant of the price we pay for the choices we make.
However, the interpretation I find most fascinating comes to us from the WRJ’s – The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Here the authors wrote, “contrary to some expectations, God prefers diversity to unity and uniformity and, in this story, actively promotes it.”[7]
“According to Ethnologue.com, there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken across the world today. Only a fraction of these languages (359) are truly global, spoken by millions of people. These include Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Hindi. The remaining 6,550 languages have a much more limited scope, and many are in danger of being lost entirely. To put the dichotomy in perspective, 94% of the world's population speaks 6% of its languages, while 6% of the world's population speaks 94% of its languages.”[8]
What this means is that even if the Tower of Babel is a metaphor or a myth, it does remind us that we, as human beings, are an incredibly diverse group of people, especially when it comes to communication. But this makes sense, because communicating via the spoken language is at the heart of the human endeavor. And according to our ancient author or authors, this diversity of language is something to be celebrated rather than condemned. 
It reminds me of the old joke: Two guys decide to try out a new Jewish deli in their neighborhood. A Chinese waiter approaches their table and takes their order in perfect Yiddish. The two men are utterly amazed that this Chinese waiter can speak to them in absolutely impeccable Yiddish. 
The waiter returns with their food and bids them a hearty appetite, in Yiddish of course. The men eat their meal as they continue to discuss this unbelievable Chinese waiter. Finally, they call the waiter over and ask him for their check. The waiter gives it to them and in Yiddish bids them farewell. As they are paying for their meal, one of the men asks the owner, “where did you find this incredible Chinese waiter?”
The owner looks around to make sure no one else is listening and he says to them, “Sha, he thinks I’m teaching him English!!!”
According to Shlomo Weber, an economics professor in Russia, “Religion and language [are the] two most important factors in identifying, people identify their selves. People’s attachment to the language is a symbol of their identity and a desire for independence. Everywhere and every case the importance of the language, attachment to language, and importance of education of language of your own children and this language is very difficult to overestimate.”[9]
This means that to try to remove one’s language for another may very well have the unintended consequence of destroying their sense of self and community. Which doesn’t mean people should be encouraged to learn other languages, but it should not be at the expense of their primary language.
Perhaps then, one of the primary lessons of the Tower of Babel, where humanity all spoke the same language and engaged in a building process to celebrate their own hubris, we are being reminded instead that diversity of language and thought celebrates not only a wide variety of cultures but also of differing perspectives. If we were all uniform, it would make it that much more difficult for the human endeavor to be creative and dynamic. Or to put it another way, the Torah is teaching us that diversity and diversity of language, as God said about creation, is good. 
Needless to say, this is a lot to digest out of a mere nine verses of Torah. Whether we look at the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel as an explanation for the multiplicity of languages, a cautionary tale about urbanization and domestication, a reminder of the costs to human endeavors, or a celebration of the diversity of language, all of it is Torah. So rather than simply dismissparashatNoah as simply a fairy tale, we can see that there is a lot to be reflected upon when it comes to the human condition. Through the study of Torah, we can learn a lot about ourselves. And isn’t that one of the greatest journeys we can take?
Shabbat Shalom


[1]Genesis 11:1-9
[2]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins, 2015, pg. 21
[3]Lieber, David L., ed., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 1999, pg. 58
[4]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins, 2015, pgs. 80-81
[5]Lieber, David L., ed., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 1999, pg. 59
[6]Shell, Ellen Ruppel, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Penguin Books, 2009.
[7]Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Adrea L. Weiss, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Women of Reform Judaism, New York, 2008, pg. 49
[8]https://www.nationalgeographic.org/maps/language-diversity-index/
[9]http://freakonomics.com/podcast/why-dont-we-speak-language/

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