Noaĥ: John Lennon and the Tower of Babel

Imagine there is no countries
It is not hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
Living life in peace
You may say I am a dreamer
But I am not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one. – John Lennon, “Imagine”

Many of us are moved by this song. After all, who would not want to see a united humanity with nothing to fight over, a situation where wars were a thing of the past, where people had far more in common – including a shared language – and where peace reigned? The power of the song comes from the power of the dream, and the depth of our yearning to return to the beginning of the world, to a natural, pristine reality that precedes all mistakes and strife. For we all share a common father, and were birthed by a common mother. This idea can be found in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5): “Therefore man was created alone…for the sake of peace among people – that one might not say to his fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours.’” The fact that the Torah opens with the story of the creation of humanity undermines the basis for assertions of racial or national superiority. Yet, John Lennon’s song, which is rooted in the imaginary, is evidence of how far we have strayed from the awareness that all human beings are brothers and sisters. The world is engulfed in war and strife, separatism and hate. An examination of the Tower of Babel story can, perhaps, help us come to grips with the divided reality of humanity, and its consequences.

The Tower of Babel – Megalomania or Fear?

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech…. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1, 4)

The above verses describe the first adolescent rebellion in history: all of humanity gathers and decides to devote itself to the construction of a tower. But why a tower, and what do they intend to do with it?

Rashi describes the defiant energy as an expression of megalomania: “They came with one scheme and said, ‘…Let us ascend to the sky and wage war with Him’” (11:1). The people understand that the power of the individual is dwarfed by that of the Creator, and that they can only become powerful collectively, through teamwork. The purpose of the tower is to overrun the supernal world: “We will go up there and show Him who we are!” the people think. God, in response, scatters humanity to the four corners of the earth and muddles their language. Thus, the builders of the tower are prevented from realizing their scheme.

Rashbam (11:4) has a different take on this adolescent rebellion. He interprets the construction of the tower as an expression of humanity’s fear of its own power; not a no-holds-barred amplification of that power: “On the face of it, what was the sin of the generation of [the Tower of Babel]?…because the Lord enjoined them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it,’ and instead they chose a place to settle and said, ‘Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,’ He decreed that they be scattered.” God has big plans for humanity. He commands them to spread to all corners of the earth, to evolve national identities, cultures, and languages: from the Inuit who would learn to live in extreme cold to the desert dwellers and the farmers. Yet, people are afraid to fulfill their destiny; they refuse to accept their role. Instead, they assemble in one location, communicate in the same language, and focus their energy on building a single tower. In response, God puts them back on track: “So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth…. Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (11:8–9).

Rashbam’s reading of the story is diametrically opposed to Rashi’s. While Rashi posits a narrative in which God promotes human unity and people are to blame for discord, Rashbam offers an interpretation that is surprising, radical, and relevant to our day: the construction of the tower is frustrated not by man’s naked ambition and desire to conquer the heavens, but by human passivity and dread at the prospect of going out into the world and subduing the earth.

It emerges that demographic and geographic dispersal is not a punishment but rather a means for actualizing humanity’s potential, for generating a wealth of cultures and languages. The tower is called “Babel,” a word whose root denotes mixing and confusion, due to the cultural distance generated by the fragmentation of language – “that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7). The purpose of the confounding is to shatter national and cultural homogeneity: “And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do’” (11:6). Human beings try to live together, but God wants to divide them and scatter them throughout the earth. If history is any indication, there are profound disadvantages to the divisions between cultures and nations, including the hatred, strife, and suspicion that have often led to war. So what did God find so attractive in the prospect?

Down with Big Brother

A myth of Lurianic Kabbala can provide a fresh perspective on the story of the Tower of Babel. In the beginning, it says, the cosmos was whole – unified and harmonious – and the vessels, meaning the physical world, received the divine influx and were permeated by it. However, there came a stage where the vessels could no longer withstand the power of that light, and they shattered, scattering the divine light that indwelled within them. That light has remained embedded in reality in the form of sparks.

The myth of the raising of the sparks is a foundation of Kabbala and Hasidism. It says that every thing, and every action, in the reality of our lives contains a spark of holiness. Our mission is to uncover those sparks and redeem them from the husks that enclose them, thus raising them up. People’s purpose in the world is to repair the vessels, gather all of the scattered sparks and, by fusing them together, manifest unity in reality. The parallels to the Tower of Babel are clear: the initial unity of the nations corresponds to the primordial reality of the light-filled vessels, and the splintering of that unity – and subsequent dispersal of humanity throughout the land – recalls the shattering of the vessels. History, populated as it is with a rich cast of peoples, cultures, and languages, is like the sparks scattered throughout the cosmos in the aftermath of the shattering. The astonishing conclusion is that within every nation and culture is embedded a unique spark of holiness, waiting to be revealed and raised up, thus rectifying reality and restoring it to a state of oneness.

A century ago, this fundamental kabbalistic idea figured in Rav Kook’s characterization (Orot HaKodesh, pt. 2, 539–540) of social changes in the modern world as evidence of a major shift. He recognized the evolving consciousnesses of many nations as to their histories and their place in the world as part of a broader, pan-human story. In the past, he writes, “Each group and community was secluded in its own setting, individuals were overtly influenced only by their immediate surroundings, and, in their innocence, both individuals and communities thought the world did not extend beyond their own spiritual and physical environs.” In contrast, “The elect, who possess an expansive consciousness, always knew the secret of spiritual oneness; they knew that the human spirit is universal.” In the modern era, “The social consciousness has shifted and broadened; every individual feels that he is not alone, not sequestered in an utterly separate setting; that he acts upon and is in turn shaped by a profusion of groups, by a variety of often-alien settings.”

If that is the case, why did humanity have to endure the ordeal of the splintering and scattering of reality? What was the point of thousands of years of bloodshed among nations? What, indeed, was the purpose of the shattering of the vessels?

We can conclude, based on Rav Kook, that before the shattering, the world was not only unified, but uniform. It was only thanks to the dispersion and distance afforded by the shattering that each group could evolve in its unique way, ultimately yielding the immense cultural and human diversity that we see today. The shattering is the source of all variety in reality. The terror of a sameness devoid of all individuality is largely associated with totalitarian regimes. In his classic novel 1984, George Orwell describes in nightmarish terms the uniformity that Big Brother seeks to impose. The Netziv (Haamek Davar, Genesis 11:7) offers a similar reading of the story of the Tower of Babel. The verse, “And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech” (11:1), he writes, describes an attempt to build a watchtower, a Big Brother of sorts, that enforces uniformity of thought. From it, the tower’s builders can be surveilled and prevented from migrating to a land where they are free to think differently.

The deeper meaning of the Tower of Babel story is the understanding that God does not desire a world where everyone is alike. Rather, God expects us to reveal our inimitable selves, and revel in our unique identities as individuals and as communities. The grand challenge is to retain our individuality within the communal setting, to safeguard the self in a variegated society.[1]

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), deals at length with the challenge of preserving the individuality of every culture in the global era, based on the Tower of Babel story.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.
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