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Tower and Technology

Posted on ד׳ במרחשון ה׳תש״ע (October 22, 2009) | in Noach | by

The episode of the tower of Babel is a curious one.  It’s one of the 4 major stories preceding Abraham, together with Adam and Chava’s sin, Kayin’s murder of Hevel and the Flood.  Nevertheless, the entire story is very short – only 9 pasukim recount the entire sequence of events from beginning to end – and  although it’s clear that the builders of the tower sinned, it’s not clear exactly what their sin was.

Indeed, the Midrash (Bereshis Rabbah) elaborates on Ber. 11:1 “Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words”, and explains that “uniform words”,  (וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים) should be instead understood as “words which are kept isolated (i.e., made inaccessible)”.  Whereas the Torah revealed the sin of the generation of the deluge, it did not spell out the sin of the generation of the tower.

To fill that gap, mepharshim bring many explanations and suggestions of what the sin was.  A particularly interesting set of explanations is given by Rabbeinu Bachya.  He posits that the builders were very advanced in matters of philosophy and technology, but decided to use their great abilities in a sinful manner.  They constructed the tower in order to protect themselves against a deluge of fire (since G-d has already promised not to bring a deluge of water).  Towards this end, they tried to isolate and tame the power of fire in order to neutralize it so that if could not engulf their city.  This is the reason they made the tower with bricks which are made through baking in a kiln (See Ber. 11:3) and is fire-resistant.  In addition, although they were very powerful (See Ber 11:6), they knew that they were destined to die.  Therefore, they planned to scale heaven while alive in order to overcome the impediment of mortality that was imposed upon them.  Their aim was to overcome the decree issued against Adam.  In order to prevent this from happening, G-d confused their language and scattered them.

At a more spiritual level, Rabbeinu Bachya explains that in building the tower, man had tried to separate the role of the attribute of Judgment, as exemplified by the divine name of El-kim from the role of the attribute of Mercy, as exemplified by יְ־הֹוָ־ה  , and they wanted only “nature”, as represented by the attribute of Judgment (El-kim).

What does it mean that the generation of the tower wanted only “nature”, divorced from the attribute of Mercy?  Perhaps it means that the builders of the tower did not want a personal relationship with G-d, and did not want their destiny dependent on whether or not their attitudes and actions met with divine approval.  Being in a relationship is difficult – one always has to think about what the other party wants, whether that other party is a human being or G-d.  The attribute of Mercy is what makes a relationship possible.  On the other hand, the attribute of Justice, divorced from Mercy, is totally mechanical and no relationship can be formed with it.  The builders wanted to divorce themselves from a relationship with God because they had such success with their achievements in wielding the predictable system of nature, which is inert and has no personality for man to form a relationship with.

This attitude is exemplified by the particular sins R’ Bachya identifies.  By making the fireproof tower, the builders sought to themselves impervious to another flood or any other divine punishment that might come their way.  Attempting to cut off oneself from the possibility of divine punishment could be imagined to be liberating, but in reality, that same attempt severs the possibility of having a relationship with G-d.  After all, divine punishment is but one conduit of divine communication.  In addition, the builders of the tower wanted to achieve immortality by entering heaven directly, through their own power and technological prowess.  However, this is not what G-d wanted of man.  G-d wanted the people to achieve immortality through attaching themselves to Him.

It appears that R’ Bachya, even in his day, was aware that technological prowess and philosophical sophistication can go hand-in-hand with an attempt to diminish the idea of a personal G-d, and he leads the reader through the story of the tower as a warning and a guide for man’s proper moral development.

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One Response to “Tower and Technology”

  1. That is really interesting. R’ Shamshon Rephael Hirsch on the Tower of Bavel comments that the issue was that they were so focused on the value of the community that they lost sight of the value of the individual. One person on their own can’t change much, but the community as a whole has power. This meant each individual was actually totally expendable for the sake of the “greater good”. This communal focus turned the community into the be all and end all, causing the society as a whole to lose any sense of the value of a personal relationship to Hashem.

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