The Tower of Babel/Babble

October 12th: No’ach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The story of the Tower of Babel is simple yet potentially profound. On one level, it seeks to “explain” why there are many different languages. Perhaps this is necessary because of the Biblical simplicity that all humans come from the same family. While this origin of humanity is not what the archeological and anthropological records show, it is an important Biblical principle and one that leads to a certain morality: if we all come from the same ancestors, then no one should ever say that his/her ancestors are greater—or have bluer blood—than others.

 On another level, it is a kind of nationalistic slur, suggesting that the great tower of Babylon, the ziggurat that was called Esagilah: The House that Lifts Its Head to Heaven, was an act of hubris and insolence—and not the great architectural wonder the city claimed.

The Midrash enhances the story and slur and moves them to a third level. The Rabbis explained that the Babylonians were immoral: When a worker would fall from the tower and die, the people of Babel (Babylon) would pay no mind. However, if a brick fell, they would all lament the delay in their glorious project. This kind of materialism is not what God has in mind for us.

On a fourth level, the story reminds us of our own insignificance and transient nature. As the great Biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) and others explain, a first step in living in God’s world is realizing our own relative insignificance: humility is an important first step both mentally and spiritually. There is also the fact that our time here on earth is limited. We achieve greatness not by building towers but by participating in God’s project, tikkun olam.

 On a fifth level, this story brings up the curious phenomenon of human cultural variety. There are many different human cultures—with different ways of expressing common human experiences and different cultural values. Sometimes, getting along with each other can prove challenging. Are there universal values that should be common to all good cultures and religions? Or, are some things right and moral for some cultures and not so for others? Is it cultural colonialism or conquest to insist on universal standards of morality, or should each individual culture be considered moral when it determines its own standards?

 The Bible sort of addresses this in tracing our ancestry back to Noah and his sons—and the covenant God makes in Genesis 9. While the Torah’s 613 mitzvot apply to the Jews, the Noachide covenant is established with all humanity—all those who are descended from Noah’s family. Based on this simple narrative, the Rabbis cobble together—from several verses in Genesis 2 and Genesis 9—the notion of seven laws incumbent on all humans. Just as God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood, we people are enjoined to:
(1)   Set up courts that justly enforce social laws
(2)   Not to blaspheme—disrespect God or God’s worshippers
(3)   Not to worship idols
(4)   Not to practice sexual immorality
(5)   Not to murder
(6)   Not to steal
(7)   Not to eat the limbs/parts of live animals.

This was the Rabbinic approach to what Greek philosophers (and later Roman Catholic philosophers) called Natural Law, laws that are right and true based only on the nature of existence—and not necessarily on the basis of a Commander’s authority.

 We shall approach this subject again in a few weeks, in Parshat Va’yera, when we consider the parameters of God’s morality and the possibility of ascertaining natural law on our own.

 For now, let us just meditate on the balance of greatness and insignificance that is ours as humans. Our days are as a fleeting shadow, and yet God has made us little less than divine. What can we, in this curious intermediary position, do with our lives? How can we endow our fleeting days with abiding value?