web analytics
March 4, 2015 / 13 Adar , 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post


Home » Judaism » Parsha »

Babel’s Larger Theme


The Torah gives its own etymology for the word Babel, which literally meant “the gate of God.” The Torah relates it to the Hebrew root b-l-l, meaning “to confuse.” In the story, this refers to the confusion of languages that happens as a result of the hubris of the builders. But b-l-l also means “to mix, intermingle,” and this is what the Babylonians are deemed guilty of: mixing heaven and earth, that should always be kept separate. B-l-l is the opposite of b-d-l, the key verb of Bereishit 1, meaning “to distinguish, separate, keep distinct and apart.”

The third mistake was the builders’ desire not to be “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” In this they were attempting to frustrate God’s command to Adam, and later to Noah, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). This seems to be a generalized opposition to cities as such. There is no need, the Torah seems to be saying, for you to concentrate in urban environments. The patriarchs were shepherds. They moved from place to place. They lived in tents. They spent much of their time alone, far from the noise of the city, where they could be in communion with God.

So we have in Bereishit a tale of four cities: Enoch, Babel, Sodom and “Egypt.”

This is not a minor theme but a major one. What the Torah is implicitly telling us is how and why Abrahamic monotheism was born.

Hunter/gatherer societies were relatively egalitarian. It was only with the birth of agriculture and the division of labor, of trade and trading centers, and economic surplus and marked inequalities of wealth – concentrated in cities with their distinctive hierarchies of power – that a whole cluster of phenomena began to appear. And not just the benefits of civilization, but the downside as well.

This is how polytheism was born, as the heavenly justification of hierarchy on earth. It is how rulers came to be seen as semi-divine – another instance of b-l-l, the blurring of boundaries. It is where what mattered were wealth and power, where human beings were considered in the mass rather than as individuals. It is where whole groups were enslaved to build monumental architecture. Babel, in this respect, is the forerunner of the Egypt of the Pharaohs that we will encounter many chapters and centuries later.

The city is, in short, a dehumanizing environment and potentially a place where people worship symbolic representations of themselves.

Tanach is not opposed to cities as such. Their anti-type is Jerusalem, home of the Divine presence. But that, at this stage of history, lies long in the future.

Perhaps the most relevant distinction for us today is the one made by the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). Community is marked by face-to-face relationships in which people know, and accept responsibility for, one another. Society, in Tonnies’s analysis, is an impersonal environment where people come together for individual gain, but remain essentially strangers to one another.

In a sense, the Torah project is to sustain Gemeinschaft – strong face-to-face communities – even within cities. For it is only when we relate to one another as persons, as individuals bound together in shared covenant, that we avoid the sins of the city, which are today what they always were: sexual license, the worship of the false gods of wealth and power, the treatment of people as commodities, and the idea that some people are worth more than others.

That is Babel, then and now, and the result is confusion and the fracturing of the human family.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Babel’s Larger Theme”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
An anti-Semitic poster seen in Europe.
Combatting the Haman of Today
Latest Judaism Stories
wine

One can drink up to the Talmud’s criterion to confuse Mordechai and Haman-but not beyond.

Hur and Aharon holding up Moshe's hands as Joshua battled Amalek.

“The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav” gives great insight to Purim

Esther Denouncing Haman

Purim is the battleground of extremes, Amalek and Yisrael, with Zoroastrian Persia in between.

Niehaus-022715

One should not give the money before Purim morning or after sunset.

The mishloach manos of times gone by were sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate, but the main focus was on the preparation of the delicious food they contained.

Does Hashem ever go away and not pay attention to us?

In other words, the Torah is an expression of the Way that we must follow in order to live a divine-like life and to bond in the highest way possible with God or Being Itself.

The Chasam Sofer answers that one of only prohibited from wearing a garment that contains shatnez if he does so while wearing the garment for pleasure purposes.

The avodah (service) of the kohen gadol is vital and highly sensitive; the world’s very existence depends on it.

Moreover, even if the perpetrator of the capital offense is never actually executed, such as when the fatal act was unintentional, Kam Lei applies and the judge cannot award damages.

Forever After?
‘Obligated for Challahh and Not Terumah’
(Kesubos 25a)

Question: If Abraham was commanded to circumcise his descendants on the eighth day, why do Arabs – who claim to descend from Abraham through Yishmael – wait until their children are 13 to circumcise them? I am aware that this is a matter of little consequence to our people. Nevertheless, this inconsistency is one that piques my curiosity.

M. Goldman
(Via E-mail)

“We really appreciate your efforts in straightening the shul,” said Mr. Reiss. “How is it going?”

This was a spontaneous act of rest after the miracle of vanquishing their respective foes. The following year they celebrated on the same days as a minhag.

The way we must to relate to our young adult children is to communicate with genuine loving-kindness

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Sacks

Jewish prayer is a convergence of 2 modes of biblical spirituality, exemplified by Moses and Aaron

Rabbi Sacks

With the synagogue, “Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion”

By wisdom, we come to understand G-d via creation; By Torah we understand G-d through His revelation

Torah opposes slavery; G-d desires the free worship of free human beings, yet slavery’s permitted-?!

Pharaoh perverted symbols of life (the Nile and midwives) into agents of death.

The 5th cup is supported by a 5th expression of Deliverance: “And I will bring you to the land…”

The first recorded instance of civil disobedience is the story of Shifra and Puah, defying Pharaoh

Truthfulness is a fundamental value in Jewish yet truth isn’t its highest value. Peace is. Why so?

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/babels-larger-theme/2011/10/26/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: