Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Babel and Brexit

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Babel and Brexit

Article excerpt

June 2017

Why did God disperse the men who built the Tower of Babel? The ancient rabbinic texts uncovered several vices that justified their punishment: A tower intended to reach heaven manifests the ambition to challenge God, the desire to "make for ourselves a name" expresses the sin of pride, and so forth. Yet the text of Genesis 11 is not very explicit. In fact, the project is not actually called a sin, and the divine disposition toward it is critical but not outraged. The commentators had good reasons to ponder.

In the 1950s, religious Jews had not yet learned to revile the United Nations. Tennyson spoke of the "parliament of man" in a stanza of "Locksley Hall." Harry Truman copied it out and kept those lines in his wallet. It was an appealing idea in a world torn apart by a world war, though it proved to be an ineffectual one. In the immediate postwar years the U.N. seemed to foretell a new dawn of peace and cooperation. When rising Israeli religious authorities like Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli wrote papers about Jewish military ethics, they entertained the premise that international cooperation might make possible-and therefore necessary-more demanding ethical standards for the use of military means in resolving disputes between nations.

The 1975 "Zionism is racism" resolution that established the double standard for Israel and the secretary-generalship of the old Nazi Kurt Waldheim were all in the future. There was disappointment and mild cynicism but no glee at the Cold War superpower standoff that rendered the U.N. a disharmonious talking club. Nevertheless, in those days we cherished the harmless "fairy tales of utopia," and valued the quiet advances on less divisive fronts. It seemed fitting for religious Jews to endorse the promise of a "world made new," as Mary Ann Glendon put it in the title of her book on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Some were more skeptical. In 1956, my future mentor Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wondered why virtually the only major international conflict about which the United States and the Soviet Union had not blocked each other at the U.N. was the 1947 vote establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. As a child, I can remember my father referring to the Tower of Babel when he suggested that the beautiful visions of the hour were best taken with more than a grain of reservation. When I later discovered the sermons and commentary of the fourteenth-century Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, I learned that my father was not the first. R. Nissim took the tower to be the symbol of the royal seat of sovereignty, which made the builders of the tower advocates of world government run by human beings. This centralization of power, in Nissim's opinion, need not be a bad thing, as long as political power is held by the righteous. Alas, the dispersed descendants of Noah were ruled over by Nimrod. Under these circumstances, it is better that the wicked fall short of centralized power, so that the righteous will have a place of refuge. R. Nissim goes on to remind his Hebrew audience how often the lack of unity among the nations of the world has allowed Jews to escape persecution, going sometimes from Muslim countries to Christian ones, and vice versa. The desire for political unity is not inherently sinful, but its consequences in a corrupt world are deplorable. God was acting benevolently when he fragmented the human race into many languages and peoples. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.