This year my clergy Torah study group is reading Judy Klitsner's Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other. We've begun with the chapter which links the Tower of Babel with the story of the Exodus. So far we're still working our way through the first half of the chapter, which explores the Babel story. (Need a refresher? Babel on Wikipedia; Genesis 11:1-9 at Mechon-Mamre.)
The primary thing which has struck me, as we've been reading this commentary, is the extent to which the Babel story can be read as a commentary on the dangers of groupthink. "And all the earth was of one language and of one set of words..."
The commentator Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, writes:
We must understand why they [the builders of Babel] feared some people leaving for another land. This was certainly related to the devarim ahadim, the "one speech" among them. They feared that since not all human thoughts are identical, if some would leave they might adopt different thoughts. And so they saw to it that no one left their enclave. Anyone who deviated from the devarim ahadim, the "one speech" that was among them would be sentenced to burning...What emerges is...they decided to kill anyone who did not think as they did.
It's easy to think of this mythical era when all the earth was of one language and one set of words as a time of peaceful agreement. But the Netziv is drawing out what's sinister here.
Expanding on this theme, Klitsner writes:
There is much literary evidence for Netziv's hypothesis that the sin at Babel was the creation of a coercively conformist society... The insistently repetitive rhythms of the text point to a generation's intellectual and ideological homogeneity, in which every element of culture is mandated, from language and thought to meter and melody. Through structure and sound, this passage informs us that the sin at Babel is the achievement of consensus at the expense of individuality.
This isn't a matter of people finding consensus and agreement. It's more like being assimilated into the Borg, or the creepy unison ball-bouncing of the children of Camazotz (A Wrinkle in Time.) I'd never thought of the beginning of the Babel story in this way. The notion that God is somehow threatened by the people's intention to build a tower reaching the heavens has always seemed a little bit overblown to me, but the notion that God is troubled by the suppression of individuality -- that's a powerful idea.
One aspect of the people's rebellion against God lies in their attempts at effacing the individual. Their attempts constitute a negation of God's plan for humanity to be unique as God is unique. But there is another facet to their mutiny. By quashing freedom of thought, the tower builders preclude any human-divine engagement...While religious behavior may be coerced or feigned, such acts by definition are meaningless. Religious worship has meaning only when the individual freely and sincerely chooses to submit to God's authority. By eroding the individual, the builders at Babel render impossible any hope of a human-divine covenant.
Without freedom of thought, no relationship with God is possible. I keep returning to that idea. We're called to live in relationship, in engagement, with the divine -- and we can't do that without choice and diversity and difference. Coercion and groupthink make connection with God impossible.
I resonate with the idea that in order for religious practice to have meaning, it has to be something we enter into willingly. Of course, I'm speaking in terms of practice and meaning, not in the terms she used (submission to divine authority). I think for many liberal Jews today, the language of practice and meaning is more accessible than the language of commandedness, much less the language of submission to something greater than ourselves. My question is always, how can I help open up the richness of the tradition such that more people will want to understand themselves as choosing to enter into relationship with God?
Anyway, I'm finding a lot of richness in this approach to the Babel story, and I'm looking forward to seeing how she reads Exodus as a commentary on, and/or a subversion of, the Babel narrative. If you've read Klitsner and want to share your response, or if you want to natter about these interpretations of the Babel story, feel free to chime in.