Wednesday, 17 Oct 2012

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer

I’ve always been fascinated by tall buildings. I go to the top of them whenever I can – there’s something wonderful about seeing a whole city laid out far below. From where I live in north London, you can see the top half of the Shard, the tallest building in Europe – well, until the next new tallest one gets built. At least the available technology means that new buildings aren’t just solid, architecturally-uninteresting massive square blocks plonked on the landscape more a testimony to size being everything rather than possessing any architectural merit.
Hence my ongoing fascination with the Tower of Babel – just nine short verses, tagged on to the end of sidra Noah – almost as if the editor had no idea quite where to put this episode and plonked it here.

It’s by no means clear why it’s in the Torah at all. Some scholars say it’s there to explain why human beings live all over the world and speak so many languages. Others say the core of the story is the bit about making bricks and mortar –they take raw material, apply human ingenuity to it and make something useful from it. Others argue that the Tower is modelled on Babylonian ziggurats, tall helter-skelter-looking sorts of tower. But why bother including a myth about ziggurats in the Bible?

It’s one of the few episodes, maybe the only one, where there are no named, individual human beings. Everything is done by an anonymous, collective mass. “Come, say the people, let us build a tower, so that we make a name for ourselves and so we won’t be scattered.” A sort of herd instinct at work. Yet they had no cause to think they might be scattered; quite the opposite, they lived a unified existence, speaking the same words, the same language.

Nor is it clear just what was wrong with wanting to build the tower in the first place. They wanted to make a name for themselves. Possibly a somewhat vain and empty pursuit, a waste of time and resources, but surely not, prima facie, anything inherently evil in the idea of the tower, nothing that could apparently justify ending the building project and sowing confusion among the people.

Of course, there never was a Tower of Babel. It’s a myth. ‘Myth,’ though, isn’t just another word for ‘fairy story’ but often a powerful way of saying something about human beings and the human condition, about the relationship between us and God and so on.

One of the amazing sights in the Far East is seeing how very tall buildings are still being built using bamboo, rather than steel, scaffolding, with people laboriously schlepping material up to the building level. In the west, timber would have been the only scaffolding used for any high building, primarily cathedrals. These days, cranes rise up alongside the building as it goes up and hoist men and materials quickly and easily to the building level.

A wonderful midrash develops that idea and draws a powerful moral.

As the Tower got higher and higher, it took longer and longer to get the materials to the top. There must have been accidents, people would have fallen off the increasingly rickety scaffolding. What happened? If somebody fell, few people even batted an eyelid. Labour was cheap and plentiful. But if the person also dropped the load of bricks they were carrying, then everybody cried, wailed and lamented, “how will we ever finish our building?” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer #24)

That midrash was written some 1500 years ago, but it is spot-on in warning about the dangers of technology. If mishandled, human beings can easily become less important than objects and human life comes to be measured in terms of usefulness.

It suggests the people had become so focussed on building the tower that everything else – including human life – paled into insignificance. A  nightmare world where individuals are unimportant, are made subservient to some purpose which they might or might not be aware of, have little sense of who they are or of why the things that happen to them, happen to them.

In its worst sense, ‘Babel’ is synonymous with ‘the city,’ with the worst dimensions of the modern city, one where individuals no longer feel an integral part. It is a world built on animal instinct and hedonistic pleasure.

‘Babel’ becomes the sort of society where people are judged on the basis on their utility to that society. In the Shoah, the Nazis judged the Jews, gypsies, the mentally-ill, the physically-handicapped on the criterion of their usefulness. For them, anybody who is ‘use-less’ can be destroyed using the most-modern technology available. In Babel, it is no longer mutual responsibility that connects people but pure utility. How long you lived in the camps depended on what the system could get out of you.

The ‘bizarre focus on the bricks,’ as one writer put it, sounds eerily post-modern. If modernity is about technological progress leading to moral progress, maybe the purpose of the story is to suggest we slow down, technology can be our making but equally our undoing.

Is there a connection between that and the absence of a single, named individual in the story? Misuse of technology can go hand in hand with the loss of individuality. Tattooing a number on somebody’s arm is doing just that.

Maybe that’s what the story is about – the dangers of excessive reliance on technology and the loss of individuality that came about because of the building project. People get forgotten in that sort of world.

I recently finished reading Vassily Grossman’s Everything Flows, an amazing outcry against, and indictment of the Gulag system in the former Soviet Union which destroyed not just human lives but hope, love, passion, creativity. It’s what can happen when ideology and technology work hand-in-hand and end up diminishing human worth, quality and life itself.

If this curious little story of the Tower of Babel, done and dusted in those 9 brief verses, reminds us of those dangers it will have served its purpose. As one writer put it, if we don’t, “we begin climbing a tower so tall that we might just run out of oxygen before we get anywhere close to Heaven.” (David Hazony)

Rabbi Colin Eimer
Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue
Lecturer in Codes and Responsa, Leo Baeck College

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.