Thursday, October 11, 2007

Of Towers and Totalitarianism

This is an abridged version of an article I wrote in November 2001 for a Bnei Akiva magazine (should I have admitted that?) on the topic of Pluralism. It is based on the Netziv’s commentary on the story of the tower of Bavel, that appears in the end of this week’s sedrah.

Once upon a time, in a beautiful land far, far away called Babylon, a group of ingenious people grouped together in a valley and decided to build a huge tower. This tower would be higher than anything else in the world. Having just discovered the revolutionary secret of making cement they decided to put their new found knowledge to constructive use.

The king of the people lived in a big palace full of gold and jewels. He was a very wicked man, whom nobody liked and was known to decree very harsh rules, that all his subjects were forced to obey or risk death! One fine day the ruler decided that every one in the village had to think exactly like him. No one was allowed to think differently. Anyone who dared give a dissenting opinion or who strayed from the norm was to be burnt! The people were not too happy about this but had to obey. From then on, there were no arguments amongst the people as everyone thought the same and the tower continued to be built at a faster pace than ever. This pleased the king greatly and he congratulated himself on the unity (a rare thing) which was apparent in his subjects.

God looked down at the people diligently working on their masterpiece and was both upset and worried. "they are one, and this is what they attempt to do....if things go on like this then anything is possible!!" He didn't fear the fact they were building a tower to fight Him, after all, everyone knows that God can look after Himself. Man throughout the ages has always wished to do battle with the Divine, attempting to replace God as the ultimate being with himself.

God was worried because in a society where there is no room for other opinions or opposition, tragedies can happen. He saw that where individuals do not have the inherent right to disagree, where no one can be a conscientious observer, atrocities can and will take place with no one to prevent them. Individuality is something to be embraced, not restricted. When it is, and people lose their innate uniqueness, they are replaced in importance by bricks. He looked through His books that spanned the whole of time and saw that in the future, there would be systems in the twentieth century that denied the individual his freedom of thought, and also saw that it often led to mass murder in the name of progress.

In his great mercy God therefore decided that it would be much better if there was a diversity of opinion. After all, without argument and discussion, how could these people ever hope to refine their beliefs, He thought. As Nietzsche commented many years later, "rather than making oneself uniform, we may find greater value for the enrichment of knowledge by listening to that soft voice of different life situations, each brings its own views with it. Thus we acknowledge and share the life and nature of many by not treating ourselves like rigid invariable, single individuals."

God concluded that each person has much to learn from the other's unique experience and that it was therefore a positive thing to be open to others' opinions, even if one believes them to be wrong or misplaced. He decreed a Bracha to be made on seeing 600,000 Jews together, because 'just as everyone made in the image of God is unique and no two people look the same, similarly their views are unique and this is something to be thankful for'. He agreed that with Moshe's plea that a leader of the Jewish people should be tolerant towards all the different sets of people in Am Yisrael, talking to each one according to their understanding. He remembered that no two humans see the same event in the same way, and to force them into a rigid framework of belief would be ultimately self defeating, after all ‘only an autonomous morality is worthwhile for a person.’

God therefore decided, in the best interests of the people building the tower, to separate them by changing their language, thus making it impossible for one to understand his neighbour. It is true that never again were they so united as in those early days, but uniformity of thought and action was seen as an even greater evil than the potential divisiveness that their separation caused.

In this way, the people separated, thus destroying the king's evil decree and they began to build individual lives for themselves in different places in the world and all lived happily ever after.


Nina said...

I enjoyed that. It'll hopefully give me what to think about when reading over this weeks sedra. - shabbat shalom.

Ginrod Isus said...

I love this post. Absolutely Love it!