If you don’t like the idea of a rabbi disagreeing with the Torah, you might want to skip this blog post. I’m not sure it’s heresy, but I certainly break with tradition.
This week’s Torah portion has two stories about important construction projects, and the contrast between the stories of Noah’s ark and the Tower of Babel could not be more stark.
The ark was a directive to one man from God. The tower was dreamed up by humans without consulting God or even telling God what they were doing. As you know, the Torah condones one, punishes the other.
And here’s my problem. I like the idea of dreaming up new things that no one else has thought of. I seriously like the idea of people collaborating. And I like people who reach for the stars, whether figuratively or literally. Which puts me squarely at odds with the Torah.
In the first story, told over several chapters in Genesis, God told Noah what to do (build a big wooden boat and fill it with every kind of creature) and why (because lawlessness was rampant, so God decided to kill every living thing except those on the boat). Noah wordlessly complied and rescued every land creature that walks or flies or crawls, but the only humans onboard were his immediate family.
In the second story, told in a mere nine verses, people gathered in a valley and together figured out how to make bricks and mortar. They decided to build a city with a tower reaching into the sky. Their goal was to stay together, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:4)
On the surface, this sounds like a noble plan. They found a pleasant place to live and learned how to make strong homes to protect themselves from the elements. They wanted to stay together. The tower could presumably serve as a landmark for anyone who wandered and became lost, and a beacon for potential newcomers. And by reaching into the sky it enabled them to do the impossible – perhaps peek into heaven and see God.
This last, the impulse to reach out to God, seems to have been their downfall. The Torah gives us God’s internal dialogue; “Behold, the people are one and they have one language between them and they are doing this, and now nothing will be kept from them which they endeavor to do.” (Genesis 11:6)
Was God frightened? Worried that the people would achieve more than God had ever imagined for them? Afraid they would rule the world and the heavens above? What did God not like about humans getting along with each other?
Whatever God’s motivation, the solution was both simple and effective. God created languages.
The language barrier is just that – a wall between individuals and communities that hinders their ability to understand. To cross the barrier you must do much more than learn new words. You have to learn a new grammar, which is rooted in a community’s self-identity. Idioms, slang, new uses for old words, these all make it difficult to understand another language.
God didn’t have to destroy the tower, or turn people against one another. God simply removed the ability to understand each other. And sure enough, the people gave up on the tower and – tragically – the city itself, and wandered off in different directions.
A scientist might call this an elegant solution. Perhaps. But I think it is one of God’s cruelest acts. The language barrier quickly became a cultural and religious barrier. This single decision by a beleaguered God resulted in endless suffering through the millennia.
I will pause here and point out that I don’t believe the story accurately portrays God as I believe in God. In other words, I don’t believe in a God who does things, or who directly interacts with humankind. I don’t believe the story is factually true. But it’s not there to relate facts. It’s there to teach us something.
Paired with Noah’s saga, the tower story is meant to impart one of the Torah’s most important messages: God is in charge. Always.
Any human endeavor that is neither initiated nor condoned by God is unacceptable. Noah did the right thing by not standing up for his neighbors, by not questioning a God who would destroy humanity rather than redirect them. And the people of Babel were wrong to collaborate on an ambitious project.
A God who doesn’t want people to be creative, collaborative, and successful? This is a God that I cannot worship. A God that chooses destruction – either by literally killing everyone, or killing their ability to communicate – is not my God.
Does this mean that I don’t believe in God? Not at all. I am reminded of what Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l would say to people when they declared that they didn’t believe in God. First, he would ask them to describe God. And then he would solemnly tell them that he didn’t believe in that God either.
The God I believe in doesn’t penalize people for taking initiative, or for collaborating for the betterment of all. The God I believe in doesn’t punish, doesn’t try to force people to bend to God’s will, doesn’t want us to passively wait for God to take care of us.
What do I believe? I believe that the spark of creativity that resides within each of us is the Eternal working within and with us. It is the Invisible Force that motivates us to explore new things and new places, create art, write music, make the world a better place.
A world where the impossible can become possible by dint of human ingenuity. A world in which we can strive to understand other languages and other communities, collaborate on solving problems that plague us all, and work harmoniously to satisfy our curiosity and our ambition to reach for the stars.