kosher bookworm

Tower of Babel and its totalitarianism tradition


With the world swirling around us with the turmoil of violence and murder, all at the behest of governments and their terrorist surrogates, it behooves us to take a close look at the biblical saga of the Tower of Babel and its role as the harbinger of the totalitarian rule that has become commonplace today. This week’s essay will be devoted to reviewing several works that deal with this theme from our religious perspective.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in “From Adam To Abraham” that appeared in “Abraham’s Journey” (Ktav, 2008, edited by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, Dr. David Shatz, and Dr. Joel Wolowelsky), goes into deep theological detail regarding the role that the Tower of Babel saga played in the development of totalitarianism in human history. The Rav noted the following concerning that generation:

“This society is ruled by power-hungry men who want to possess and own the individual — or rather to deprive the individual of his soul, to depersonalize him and convert him into a machine, into an object. It is out to organize and convert mankind into an army and to introduce uniformity. It does not believe that each individual has his own approach to life and his own unique talents.”

He notes further:

“The builders of the Tower of Babel depersonalized man so thoroughly that they would ignore a man who fell off the building, but would cry when a stone or a brick fell.”

Prof. Israel Laulicht of Bar Ilan University, in an essay titled, “The Generation of the Tower of Babel, A New Era in World Management,” observes:

“Let us pause for a moment to consider, what would have happened if all mankind had been under a proletarian dictatorship such as the communist regime in the former Soviet Union or in China. We may reasonably assume that such a regime would not have disintegrated so quickly; rather, it would have become more and more corrupt and rotten.

“The communists, like the generation of the Tower of Babel, truly worshipped materialism, technology, and public strength, while taking lightly the life of the individual and waging a battle of annihilation against faith in G-d. Both regimes were alike in that their ideological platform appeared benign and positive.”

In a footnote, the author adds:

“The parallels between the views on society and faith held by the generation of the flood and those held by the communist regime was noted some 25 years ago by Rabbi Menachem Ben-Zion Sacks in his book, ‘Menachem Zion’.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, in his work, “Torah Lights: Bereishis — Confronting Life, Love, and Family” (Maggid, 2009) makes note of this same brick falling incident by stating:

“Hence, the Almighty decides to ‘confuse their speech, so that one person will not understand the language of the other.’ Such a punishment perfectly fits the crime; after all, a totalitarian state, united in order to establish a collective name, has neither the energy nor the motivation to empathetically hear or sensitively internalize the individual needs of anyone else. … And such an inhuman and godless society must be stopped in its tracks before it does even greater damage.”

Rabbi Riskin gives an even more contemporary image to this incident quoting the following verse, and observing:

“And the earth was corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence.

“The picture which emerges is that of godlessness which leads to lawlessness, and anarchy which breeds giants, children of ‘the lords’ or ‘demi-gods,’ who seize whatever goods or good-looking people they wish, a situation of ‘whomever is more powerful, triumphs,’ a society of ‘might makes right.’

“The giants and demi-gods are reminiscent of the Aryan Ubermenschen, the Nazi ‘supermen’ who believed it was their right to rule the world. The ancient society evoked by the biblical text is remarkably similar to the society of Nazi Germany which — as a fascist, totalitarian state — enslaved and murdered those non-Aryans they considered inferior, especially the Jews.”

Rabbi Riskin’s teachings on this extends itself to other totalitarian ideologies, including Islamic fundamentalism, that have to be read completely in context to be fully appreciated. They foreshadow times that have yet to disclose their purpose. He truly demonstrates that the events at the tower surely serve as a harbinger for our own days, today, and in the many days to come.

I would like to conclude with the teachings of Rabbi Michael Hattin, who, in his essay “Rejecting Totalitarianism,” from his recent work, “Passages” (Urim, 2012) writes:

“The massive building projects that have always typified totalitarian regimes, whether ancient or modern, are all quite similar in program and in form to the ‘tower that reaches to the heavens.’ The awesome expenditures of human effort and capital used to realize these grandiose schemes have been matched only by a corresponding indifference to the value of individual human life and to its inviolability.

“In radical forms of totalitarianism, such as communism or Nazism, an individual is meaningless and his personal creativity is a crime. Value of the person is calculated solely according to collective needs and national goals. Obviously, under such a regime, the state-sponsored service of G-d, the gods or even the lack of gods, is going to be superficial, manipulative, and harsh.”

Rabbi Hattin cites in contrast:

“In the Torah’s vision, every person and every nation has a special role to play in the unfolding saga of human history, and each one is called upon to forge their unique relationship with G-d. We may not surrender our individual identities or national cultures in the name of an overwhelming unity which cannot save.”

Please re-read these words very carefully. Consider seriously their total relationship to the title of this week’s essay and consider the events around us, both domestic and foreign.

An ancient Chinese curse states, “May you live in interesting times.” We indeed live in interesting times. However, in our religious tradition, these times are not a curse, for they represent an opportunity and a foreshadowing of the salvation that awaits us all.

Originally published in 2012.