Land of Confusion

Parashat Noach 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

The Land of Confusion 

Over a decade ago, I had a bit of a fight about Torah. It’s normal to have a discussion about a piece of text or an interpretation, but this got slightly more heated. A friend and I were reading Parashat Noach and we got to the story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. 

I read the story with fresh eyes, taking the text at its face-value. My ‘psh’at’ (literal) interpretation was that humanity was still unified. There was no war, no bloodshed, no racism and no national distinctions. (After all, humanity got a fresh start after the Flood just a few verses prior). It sounds like a model United Nations, avant-la-lettre. They settled and wanted to build a city with a citadel to prevent them from being scattered across the earth and to establish an honourable reputation for themselves as a united human community. 

I argued that the text betrayed God’s pettiness and judgment. Why decry that people are united and living in peace? In terms of urban development that the Book of Genesis describes, Migdal Bavel wasn’t so bad. (Compared to the unjust cities of Sedom and Amorrah, at least!) Why did God feel the compunction to break down their tower and scatter them, creating a land of confusion. Of division. Of distinctions, classes, races, creeds. Did God want to pit humanity against each other? Surely, we should be proud of our accomplishments. Of industry, science, architecture, culture. Of great political institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union? 

I had this discussion in a radically different time and political context. Only a few years after the coming down of the Twin Towers through the hand of a different type of religious fanaticism, I was loathe to let go of my social vision. Growing up in the relative peace, security and prosperity of the 1990’s, between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of what political thinker Samuel Huntington called ‘the Clash of Civilisations’, we were still in shock of how quickly political plate tectonics were shifting. 

My friend trashed my interpretation. Coming from an Orthodox background, he read the story of the Tower of Babel through the lens of the normative Jewish tradition. There was nothing virtuous about these people, he argued, who thwarted Divine design and exhibited great arrogance. They conspired against God, he argued, and built a tower not as a testimony to their civilisation and innovation, but to reach the gates of Heaven and overthrow the Creator. So soon after the sin of the first couple, so soon over the corruption of the generation in Noach’s days. Humanity was doomed to make the same mistakes again and again, railing against Divine will. They deserved to be scattered, isolated and confused. 

My friend followed the line of thinking in Bavli Sanhedrin 107b, which judges the generation of the Dispersion to be even worse than the generation of the Flood: at least the latter didn’t rebel against God, while the builders of Babel did. For this, they did not only die, the Talmud argues, but lost their share of the World to Come. I couldn’t have disagreed more and was left to brood on a textual tradition that I opposed, and sometimes still oppose. 

What do we do with such radically different interpretations? Between p’shat and d’rash? Can both interpretations be true? Over the years, I have come to appreciate the traditional reading. Not because of a desire to conform (although it is valuable to listen intently to the voice of the tradition) but because both readings tell us something powerful about the human condition. We as a species have built incredible monuments, ‘storming the gates of Heaven’. Sometimes, storming the gates of Heaven is a good thing. We as a species need the drive to innovate, to establish ourselves, to develop technologically and scientifically. I am in awe of what we can accomplish: sending spaceships to Mars and beyond, performing surgery in utero, composing art where the Divine touches the spirit of man. Even developing an Ebola vaccine in a scant few months if we put our minds to it (the World Health Organisation hopes to have a ‘safe for human’ vaccine ready by January 2015). 

Yet, we all know the dark side. Fritz Haber, the (Jewish!) scientist who invented chemical fertilisers in the 1920’s, saw his invention twisted into the production of Zyklon B. An invention that spared the lives of millions also murdered millions. This horrifying story stands as an example of the range of our possibilities, from great light to great darkness. The story of the Tower of Babel acknowledges both. The term ‘Bavel’, coming from the Hebrew ‘lebalbel’, to ‘babble’ (same etymology), doesn’t only refer to the scattering of nations and tongues. The denizens of Babel once spoke ‘the Holy Tongue’, Hebrew, Rashi explains. But even holy means can be used for nefarious ends. 

As the rock band Genesis (!) sang in the mid-eighties in the aptly-named song ‘Land of Confusion’: 

Ooh, Superman where are you now 
When everything's gone wrong somehow? 
The men of steel, the men of power 
Are losing control by the hour 
This is the time, this is the place 
So we look for the future 
But there's not much love to go round 
Tell me why, this is a land of confusion 

Perhaps the survivors of the Tower of Babel weren’t confused in a literal understanding. Perhaps it wasn’t about losing the actual ability to speak each other’s language. Maybe it was far deeper than that. Maybe they were existentially confused. Troubled by the new world they found themselves in, their thoughts scattered by a contradictory and cruel reality. Maybe they couldn’t relate to each other anymore. Maybe they learnt something of the inherent dangers in the project of human civilisation. And do we not find ourselves in the same position? 

The world is still a frightening place. The Bible does not wish to fill us with self-doubt and angst, though the Bible wants to warn us. Innovate and build, by all means. Take pride in your accomplishments. But do it ‘l’shem shamayim’, for the sake of Heaven. Do not conspire for riches or fame but come together for the common good. Humanity walks a tight-rope between a dream of meaning and worthiness and a nightmare of dust and ashes. Genesis tells us that we must hold both scenarios and contemplate them so we may find hope and redemption, through the spirit of the Divine and the work of our own hands. 

To close with the words of that other ‘Genesis’ quoted earlier: 

This is the world we live in 
And these are the hands we're given 
Use them and let's start trying 
To make it a place worth living in. 

 Shabbat shalom.

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