Echo Chambers of Babel
by Jennifer Rubin Raskas
Jennifer (Rubin) Raskas, an alumna of Midreshet Lindenbaum (’01), is the Washington DC Manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute.
“And the whole earth was of one language and of common speech…and they said, ‘Come let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven and let us make us a name’” (Genesis 11:1-4).
Leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election I asked my then 4-year-old son if he was interested in learning about who was running for president. “Running for president?” he asked, and then yelled out, “I bet they can’t run as fast as this“ as he ran at full speed across the room.
Homonyms, like “run”, are just one example of how conveying meaning through speech can be confusing. This confusion is often magnified exponentially amidst people speaking different languages. One would think then, that in an ideal world, in which humanity has the best chance of cooperating and flourishing, people would all speak the same language. Yet, we see in the Migdal Bavel, Tower of Babel, narrative that unity and shared language led to such an egregious sin that God responded by mixing up humanity’s languages. How could it be that speaking the same language would more likely lead to sin than speaking multiple languages?
One metaphorical interpretation of this narrative is that when we are surrounded by people who all speak the same language, who all have the same thoughts, ideas and interpretations of events, we are apt to start believing that our way of thinking, or even that we ourselves, are not only right, but godly. We are then in grave danger of believing we can build towers that reach heaven. What is the solution? As God decreed – we need different languages. We need to be amidst people who speak differently than us, who have a diversity of perspectives and visions that challenge our way of thinking and keep us humble.
A careful reading of the text reveals numerous ways the Dor Haflaga, the Tower of Babel generation believed they were godly. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in Noach (5768) – A Story of Heaven and Earth, points out that God’s first act of creation was to create a separate heaven and earth. By building a tower on earth that would connect to heaven, the Tower of Babel generation believed they could improve on God’s creation by undoing this heaven and earth division. This fallacy of thought is perhaps best alluded to in the text when it states, “God came down to see the city and tower” (11:5). Humanity believed their tower could reach heaven, but God had to come down from heaven to see their earthly tower.
Rav Menachem Leibtag also uses textual analysis to show that the Tower of Babel generation believed they were godly. Rav Leibtag shows that throughout Tanakh man is charged with bringing God’s name into the world. This starts at the end of the Adam and Chava narrative when the text states, “then he (Enosh) began to call out in the name of the Lord” (4:26), and continues with Avraham who twice built a mizbeach, altar, to call out the name of God. The Jewish people ultimately are charged with building the Mishkan, Tabernacle, where God’s name will rest. In the Tower of Babel narrative, however, man builds a structure that will “let us make us a name”. They replace their sanctified theocentric mission of promoting God’s name with the anthropocentric promotion of their own.
On a psychological level this generation, living so soon after nearly the whole world was destroyed by a flood, may, out of fear, have instinctively wanted to build a structure as high as possible to evade any future treacherous waters. Here too, however, this generation would have believed they could outsmart God, and not have trusted God’s covenantal promise to not destroy the earth again through flooding waters.
Today, like the Tower of Babel generation, we find ourselves in a sea of uncertainty as we navigate the tumultuous waters of a global pandemic coupled with intense political polarization. Amidst so much instability it is tempting to seek certainty or higher ground by aligning ourselves exclusively with people who think just like us. With advancements in social media, the vastness of the Internet and an ever-growing wide array of news sources, it is increasingly easy and comfortable for us to only surround ourselves with, and educate ourselves through, people who think and speak our same language. If we do not expose ourselves to diverse perspectives, to multiple languages, however, we too may be at risk of thinking that our ideas are impenetrable, and transcendent, and that they can reach to the heavens.
The Talmud in Bava Metzia 84a tells the story of Rav Yochanan who fell into deep grief after the death of his study partner. The Rabbis placed before him the very learned Rav Eliezer ben Pedath as a new study partner. Every time Rav Yochanan stated a dictum, Rav Eliezer would bring a baraita, ancient source, to support Rav Yochanan. Rav Yochanan cried out, asking Rav Eliezer why he was not like his old study partner who “used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law.”
Seeking diverse ideas may change or expand our way of thinking, and at the very least, it may sharpen it. It allows us to build ideas that can help humanity thrive, while keeping our ideas, and most importantly ourselves, grounded.