William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Facebook meet Babel

The Bible’s earliest anti-autocratic story is concerned with viral communication. Tower of Babel’s construction is halted at the end of this week’s portion of Torah by disrupting communicability. Fascinating. In a week when the fits and facts about social media platforms have been front and center, now is a good time for some lessons that date back to the dawn of civilization.

From the beginning, human beings have been highly social. Our tribal tendencies come with many benefits, including survival. But being socially needy can also be harmfully infectious. God makes the concern explicit. “Here, they’re one people, and they have one language, and this is what they’ve begun to do. And now nothing that they scheme to do (yaz-mu) will be precluded from them” (Gen. 11:6). The word for unhealthy plans with one’s mind is yaz-mu from the Hebrew root zamam, an ironic close-cousin to today’s omnipresent word zoom.

So much about online life has been positive, even lifesaving. It’s hard to imagine how we could have survived the pandemic without technology’s offerings. But one of our biggest problems with online influence is a lack of informed consent.

All tools extend human strengths. The carpenter’s hammer. The soldier’s binoculars. But, since our minds are plastic, some tools can also alter our strengths. Ever since the invention of the timepiece, we’ve haven’t measured or experienced time as we once did. What has the app waze done to our sense-of-direction? What have search engines done to our chance encounters with library books we didn’t know we were looking for? Nicolas Carr wrote a decade ago about the effect of the internet on our brains. Simply, the more we feed it with our attention, the hungrier it gets.

What’s at stake is more than a trillion-dollar Company’s responsibilities, although it includes them. It’s vital for all of us all to recall that the most human things about ourselves are what’s least computable about us: our first-hand experiences, our emotions, our self-doubt, our capacities to shiver and to surprise.

It’s about more than the worthiness of second opinions. As Tara Westover told graduates back in May of 2019, it’s about our core, un-instagrammable, irreplaceable, non-retweetable selves. Unlike the Tower of Babel whose contagiousness extended across the globe, the bleeding for us is internal.

Let’s learn one more lesson from Babel, from what happens there many millennia later. The soil on which the Tower never got built, became the region of the Babylonian Talmud. What made Babylonia’s towering academies generate the literature that shaped our people and our minds, involved, not the abandoning of a tool, but the retooling of it. They straightened out a misunderstanding concerning singulars and plurals. Instead of one opinion and many pagan gods, they reversed course, promoting a blend of Divine oneness with cognitive flexibility.

May we all come to retool in kind.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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