To fix our broken society, start with hard questions about biblical ruins—and today’s politics.
In a fractured society, how do we architect wholeness? It’s the question we turn to each year as we commemorate a Temple lost to baseless hatred. And it’s a question that, awfully, is urgently pressing today. If we’re to have a Temple again—or even if we want another go at real togetherness —we’ll need to dig deeper into that question. And the answer, I think, lies in biblical architecture.
The Torah describes two great building projects: the Tower of Babel and the Mishkan. One resulted in a shattered civilization, the other became the centerpiece of a thriving culture. In theory, the Temple was modeled after the Mishkan. In practice, the people of the Second Temple recreated Babel. To build the Third Temple, we need to discover the Mishkan once more.
Babel, Where Loftiness is a Threat
Let’s start with Babel. The Tower of Babel is a literal monolith, made to preserve a monolithic society. As I’ve written elsewhere, in sharp contrast to the rich family tree that comes just prior, the people of Babel are given no names whatsoever – and no parentage or children either. “All the people,” the Torah says simply, “were of one speech (Gen. 11:1).” Everyone is simply a face in the crowd.
To keep from being “scattered across the earth,” this anonymous, homogenous group sets about stacking mortar and bricks:
“They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the Heavens, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.’” (Genesis 11:3-4)
As scholars have troubled over for millennia, it isn’t clear what these people did that was so wrong. After all, what could be a loftier cause than staying united—to keep a community from being “scattered all over the world”? And yet for some reason, God descends and scatters them all.
Perhaps staying unified and utterly the same are exactly the problem. Consider Rashi’s telling of the horrific end to the whole ordeal. At the moment that language failed, Rashi says:
“One person asks for a brick, and the other, [misunderstanding] brings him lime. The former therefore attacks him and splits open his brains” (Rashi on Genesis 11:7).
It’s a shocking break from the unity that comes just before. All those people with one speech and one global project devolve into mayhem over a simple misunderstanding. Then again, this is a group of interchangeable people collecting interchangeable parts – bricks upon bricks—trying to stave off societal collapse and reach up to Heaven in the process. With so much riding on sameness, is it any surprise that even minor disagreements – lime or bricks – should be viewed as existential threats? Is it any surprise, either, that those disagreements lead to terror?
In Rashi’s midrash, the people of Babel seem to believe that there’s only one way up. Everyone must work toward this identical loftiness – or pay the price. Ultimately, it’s a price the whole civilization is unable to bear.
The Mishkan’s Flexible Diversity
If Babel is a structure built on sameness, the Mishkan is a celebration of diversity. Instead of identical bricks and pre-determined process, the Mishkan is made from many people’s unique donations and different skills:
“Men and women, all whose hearts moved them…came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants…and everyone who possessed blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them; everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them…and everyone who possessed acacia wood for any work of the service brought that.
“And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen. And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair” (Exodus 35:22 -26).
Diversity isn’t the only way the Mishkan is the Tower’s opposite. Instead of reaching toward Heaven, the Mishkan is designed from the start as a home for God to dwell in (shachen) down on earth. Instead of a fixed tower of bricks, the Mishkan is replete with flexible materials – fabrics and animal skins – and is designed to be dismantled and rebuilt throughout the desert journey. The Tower of Babel is an immobile pillar of homogeneity, aspiring toward Heaven. The Mishkan is a flexible patchwork designed to invite Heaven to the messy world where we actually live.
The results speak for themselves. The Tower leads to a broken society. Meanwhile the Mishkan stands at the center of the twelve different tribes of Israel, marching together to the Promised Land—with huge setbacks no doubt, but ultimately arriving together.
Which Architecture Do We Choose?
As many have pointed out, we’re headed toward a repeat of the Tower of Babel today. Zealots of the left and the right – of lime and bricks – are unable to speak to each other and are furious that we’re not building to heaven in just the right way. And it’s a time that’s reminiscent of the factionalism that destroyed the culture of the Temple over two millennia ago. To reunite society, we need to embrace the ethos of the Mishkan instead.
I mean this in two very specific ways. First, we need to realize that the Mishkan wasn’t merely a structure of coexistence. The jewels and embroidery and skins – and the craftspeople and laypeople building them – did not go towards separate structures. All the different pieces and ways of building didn’t just live side by side; they merged together toward a whole. We need to imagine today how the different warring voices might work together toward something holy.
Second, we need to rethink the holy things we’re fighting for. If you were to ask the zealots of the Second Temple what their Temple was modeled on, they would have told you immediately that it was based on the Mishkan. On one level that’s true: the Temple was an update on and expansion of the Mishkan of the Torah. But I think the zealots of the Temple days would have failed to notice that, in focusing on the Mishkan’s purity of purpose, they were ignoring the panoply of approaches that made the Mishkan what it was.
That, I think, is one of the crucial lessons of the Second Temple. It can be all too easy to start with a Mishkan and regress to a Tower of Babel. If we’re to build a Third Temple, we need to keep an eye on the Mishkan it is based on. We need to not just see value in difference, but actually seek out many different perspectives to build the future together as one. If we can do that, we might see another Temple where God can come dwell among us. If we won’t, we are just waiting for our whole foundation to burn.
This article builds on Rav Ezra Bick’s wonderful reading of Babel through the lens of unity versus diversity.
Translations based on Sefaria.