Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Noah 5760/1999

The Generation of the Tower of Babel -- A New Era in World Management

Prof. Israel Laulicht

Dept. of Physics

Parshat Noah contains two narratives about the sins of the ancients: the generation of the flood and the generation of the Tower of Babel. The Sages observed that Scripture was explicit about the misdeeds of the generation of the flood, but not about the wrongdoings of the generation of the Tower of Babel (Midrash Rabbah on Genesis).

From the text we can deduce that this generation feared dispersal of the world's population: "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world" (Gen. 11:4). It seems they wanted the population to be clustered, living close together, and to this end they sought to build a city with a large tower in its midst. Most commentators noted that this does not mean they were so silly as to think the tower would actually reach the heavens, but that the tower would be very tall so that one could see afar from it. This being so, their actions should not be viewed as objectionable or as likely to arouse G-d's wrath.

Nonetheless, most commentators held that the generation of the Tower of Babel sinned by denying G-d and intending to rebel against Him, and that in this sense they were worse than the generation of the flood, who did not deny G-d. The reason their punishment was lighter, according to Rashi, was that "the generation of the Flood were violent robbers and there was strife among them, and therefore they were destroyed; but these [the generation of the Tower of Babel] conducted themselves in love and friendship, as it is said, 'They were one people and had one language.'" Hence their punishment was lightened, to teach us how hateful is strife and how great is peace.

In what sense, we may ask, did they deny G-d and try to fight against Him? What in this week's reading substantiates this charge of heresy?

We shall try to briefly summarize some of the views of Jewish commentators on the subject, adding several observations of our own that relate the subject at hand to modern science and contemporary life.

According to Rabbenu Bahya, the tower was intended to serve as a technical device to prevent being struck by fire from heaven, like a lightning rod in our day. This can be viewed as a natural and intelligent invention by the great scientists of the time, who feared that G-d would descend on them again, this time in a torrent of fire, just as He had descended on them in a torrent water. They intended to reach up to the heavens, where perhaps death would not reign, and thereby attain life eternal. Rabbi Jonathan Eivshitz, in Tiferet Yehonatan, suggested that the tower was like a launching pad for weapons (sort of like missiles), by the aid of which humans could reach the moon and there be protected from the ravages of nature. In Ha'amek Davar, the Natziv said that the generation of the Tower of Babel wished to establish a dictatorial regime to keep a close guard on the people and their actions, i.e., the tower was supposed to be a sort of control tower. Thus, "making ourselves a name" meant surveilling and controlling everything. Their fear of the population becoming dispersed ("else we shall be scattered") was essentially apprehension about a situation in which mankind would be unrestrained and unsupervised. But G-d wished for the happiness of mankind, and did not let them be driven like sheep. Therefore He confounded their speech and scattered them, foiling their plans: "Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city" (Gen. 11:8). After all, a surveillance tower is of little value if the people are scattered to the four winds, and one can not keep watch on their every step.

In Binah Ba-Mikra (p. 20) Rabbi Jacobson wrote:

A deep explanation, which also takes into account the consequences of the actions of the generation of the Tower of Babel, is presented by Sforno in his commentary. According to this explanation, they intended to impose uniformly on their entire generation the particular form of idolatry that they wished to publicize by means of the city and tower. Of especial interest is his commentary on Genesis 11:5: "The Lord came down to look at the city..." It is said of the Lord, blessed be He, that He came down to look (yarad) not because their behavior was immediately culpable, but because it would eventually lead to dereliction; as in the case of a rebellious and defiant son, of whom the Sages said that the Torah fathomed [yarda] his ultimate intentions.

We must ask ourselves, if the plans of the generation of the Tower of Babel had been realized, what negative result would have come about in the future? Herein lies Sforno's main point: if you see human beings setting about to realize a certain idea which is founded on a lie, using coercion and pressure to concentrate their power, i.e., using totalitarian means, you should know that in such cases there is no longer any room for righting the wrong. But as long as there are differences of opinion in the world, different languages and opposing views, there is hope that one day the one and only truth will emerge victorious.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted the reading in a similar vein. In his opinion, there was nothing intrinsically sinful in building the city and tower. The great danger lay in their intent.

"To make a name for ourselves" -- the tower was to be an everlasting testament to the might of the public and to its paramount importance over the individual. Herein lies the danger, however: if the community does not "call on the name of the Lord," if the individual is called upon to be the servant of the public and not to serve G-d, if the public presents itself as the goal and not merely the means, then the entire future morality of mankind would be lost. When man believes that the public is exempt from keeping the laws of morality, ... then specious goals, which do not bring blessing, become the object of worship.

The root of the problem, in the eyes of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, was the unbridled lust for glory which the ruler presented as the glory of the public but which was actually only the glory of the ruler himself. The punishment decreed on them -- confounding their speech and geographically dispersing them -- put an end to construction of the city, however , "the spirit that moved them to build the city remained in their hearts wherever they were dispersed."

It seems to me that all the commentators agree that the punishment decreed on them -- scattering them over the face of the earth and confounding their speech -- was for all generations, and that its intention was to prevent moral degeneration on a global scale. Idolization of the latest technological hit (in those days, the moon) and of the great worldwide project (building a city and tower) engendered a public atmosphere such that "if a person were to fall and die, no one would notice him; but if even a single brick were to fall, they would sit and cry, 'Woe unto us, for when will another brick be brought up in its stead'" (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 24). Let us pause for a moment to consider what would have happened if all of mankind had been under a proletarian dictatorship such as the communist regime[1] in the former Soviet Union or in China. We may reasonably assume that such a regime would not have disintegrated so quickly; rather, it would have become more and more corrupt and rotten. The communists, like the generation of the Tower of Babel, truly worshipped materialism, technology, and public strength, while taking lightly the life of the individual and waging a battle of annihilation against faith in G-d. Both regimes were alike in that their ideological platform appeared benign and positive.

Rationally it would appear that the divided world of our day, many generations after the Tower of Babel, is more proper and moral; there is no worldwide dictatorship and regimes are more democratic. Civil rights and liberties are better safeguarded, and there are stronger checks and control over gov. Nor do people believe nowadays that the strength of the public is unlimited, or that the might of science is unbounded.

Scientists today understand that there are limits that science can under no circumstances reach. One cannot even predict the weather more than a few days in advance, even if forecasting techniques improve immeasurably; many other examples could be cited from all fields of science, showing its intrinsic limitations.[2] At the end of the twentieth century scientists are far less presumptuous than their counterparts in the time of the Tower of Babel, and all understand today that the situation could not arise where "nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach" (Gen. 11:6). In other words, science and technology will never enable human being to realize all the scientific advancements of which they dream. Nevertheless, there is a very real and grave danger of a "flood" in the near future. This danger has to do with the second way in which the generation of the Tower of Babel sinned or went wrong, namely, in their obsession with technology. One must understand that notwithstanding the many limitations of science, it still has vast possibilities that offer hope on the one hand and arouse fear on the other, especially the dangers of nuclear and biological warfare and of genetic engineering.

Even the scientists who work closely in these areas are concerned. The physicist Richard Feynman expressed the feelings of contemporary scientists well when he wrote:[3]

"Once in Hawaii I was taken to see a Buddhist temple. In the temple a man said, 'I am going to tell you something that you will never forget'. And then he said, 'To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell'. And so it is with science. In a way it is a key to the gates of heaven, and the same key opens the gates of hell, and we do not have instructions as to which is which gate. Shall we throw away the key and never have a way to enter the gates of heaven? Or shall we struggle with the problem of which is the best way to use the key? That is, of course, a very serious question, but I think that we can not deny the value of the key to the gates of heaven."

Feynman was one of the physicists involved in developing the atom bomb; he surely had in mind the nuclear threat as well as the danger of biological warfare when he spoke of the key to hell.

From the religious standpoint there is a particular fear, insofar as the Lord's words, "nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done" (Gen. 8:21), are sometimes interpreted as assuring that total punishment such as happened in the flood will not come from Heaven, i.e., as a natural disaster, but not as promising that human beings will not totally destroy themselves. A measure of optimism can be derived from Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar's interpretation, in his book Or ha-Hayyim, of the remark in Genesis Rabbah concerning the covenant made with Noah: "This remark proves that He gave His word concerning any disaster, be it by water or by fire." In other words, there simply will never be another global catastrophe on the order of magnitude of the flood, and it matters not what its characteristics or what its "formal" cause, be it a natural disaster or the work of human hands. The generation of the Tower of Babel is particularly interesting because this is apparently the only context where the Bible explicitly states that the Lord took preventive measures on a worldwide scale. In my humble opinion, the story serves to teach us about "the tactics of world management" after the flood: nor more punishments involving annihilation of all living things, but subtle and sophisticated preventive measures, such as scattering the population and confounding their speech.

The claim that a global moral catastrophe can be avoided by subtle and sophisticated preventive measures might seem to be a purely mystical assertion, contrary to common sense. It is mystical in the sense that it says that this can only be accomplished by G-d, but the assertion has scientific reason to it, as well. In modern-day science we know that a delicate action may be used to control a situation where a mechanical or electronic system overflows from a state of stability to a state of chaos.[4] In the chaotic state the system "goes wild" so that one cannot predict how it will behave in the future. An expert in non-linear dynamics who is well acquainted with the features of the system can "calm it down" and restore it to a stable state by performing a delicate operation. Clearly, the more complex the system, the greater the necessary expertise and familiarity with the system and the secrets of its non-linear dynamics. Worldwide human society surely comprises a most intricate and complex system, but for thousands of years Judaism has known The genius expert who delicately controls the system, keeping it from overflowing into chaos.

[1] The parallels between the views on society and faith held by the generation of the flood and those held by the communist regime was noted some twenty-five years ago by Rabbi Menahem Ben-Zion Sacks in his book, Menahem Zion.

[2] Cf., for example, J. D. Barrow, Impossibility -- On the Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (Oxford University Press, 1998).

[3] Richard P. Feynman, The Meaning of it All (Penguin Press, 1998).

[4] Cf., for example, the articles in T. Kapitaniak, Controlling Chaos (Academic Press, 1996).

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.