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Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

“The Lord descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man had built” (Genesis 11:5).

Parashat Noach closes with the Tower of Babel story. It is read both as a parable of the consequences of human arrogance as well as an anti-technology allegory. Rabbi Shai Held (1971- ; scholar, theologian and President of Machon Hadar) suggests it is a political polemic against totalitarianism.

After the flood, God’s plan is for Noah’s family to spread out and fill the world (Gen 9:1). Generations later, though, his descendants choose to cluster in one place only, the valley of Shinar. There, they decide to, “…build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered all over the world” (Gen. 11:2).

Held cites Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893; head of the great Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania) who says God is distressed at the thought, “Everyone on earth spoke the same language and the same words…” (Gen. 11:1) because total uniformity signifies totalitarian control. Berlin claims the inhabitants of Babel don’t let anyone leave the city lest they be exposed to other ideas.

Totalitarian societies leave no room for individual voices or thoughts; they enforce anonymity. The text makes this point, obliquely: the tower of Babel story is preceded by the names of Noah’s descendants, and followed by the names of Shem’s descendants, yet, while the tower builders desire to make a name for themselves, yet not a single name is mentioned! Totalitarianism fails.

To Held, the affront to God is the assault on individual identity, not the construction of a tall building. So God re-creates (and implicitly blesses) diversity in response.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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