Today I would like to speak about the Tower of Babel. The Aramaic word “Babel” has nothing to do with languages; it means gate or door and also refers to the first-born son who was called “Baba”, since he opened door for the rest of the children to follow. “Bab – El” means “the door or gate of God.” The rebuilding of civilization at Babel after the flood shows us that God was opening the door for humanity to begin again, this time on the right track.
Bereshit 11 describes the building of towers or ziggurat of great height from which they could see each other from long distances. This was possible because the valley of Shinar was flat. Today they have found archaeological remains in this area of (ancient Babylon) modern-day Iraq which is believed to be where the Garden of Eden was. It is an area of great conflict and destruction by religious fanatics who think that their god is the only true God. This has now caused horrible problems in Europe due to the mass migration of people from that area who continue to bring a great imbalance to the cultures of Europe.
With the story of the tower of Babel we can see how man continued in the wrong direction. The flood destroyed everything, but it didn’t cure the heart of man. As we examine the description of the construction of the tower, we see that it inflated man’s capabilities with the running theme: “we can do whatever we need to do without any outside help.” In other words, we don’t need to depend upon anyone greater since we are the pinnacle of creation. Our egos are so huge that our need for a supernatural being is viewed as mere superstition. This is how “Humanism”, the oldest religion in the world began. Humanism exalts creation above the Creator and is the root of our problems. We are convinced that we don’t need a supervisor; we can supervise ourselves. Thus, if we are united, we can confront this Super-being and let him know that we don’t need him. By confusing them through language, our Creator showed them that they were nothing. According to our sages, Hebrew was spoken before this time but now they could no longer communicate.
The United Nations is another picture of the Tower of Babel, pretending to “unite” the world all the while dividing it. They accuse Israel of crimes against humanity yet remain silent while so many other countries are guilty of gross human rights violations. Man is still trying to substitute the God of Creation with human gods, and we have replaced His values with human values. The great majority of people believe that humanity today is more just and advanced than those at the time of the giving of the Torah. They say we have better values today, are more enlightened, and accept everyone equally. However, the world’s values today are totally contrary to the Torah’s values. When the Torah says not to do something, humanity says to do it and vice versa. The world’s view of unity is that everyone needs to think like everyone else or to be uniform in thought under one leader. Most of these strong militaristic so-called civilized countries have one leader who is a dictator and who remains unchallenged under penalty of death. The people under a dictatorship live in atrocious conditions and still the world for the most part, remains silent. In contrast we will read how God would call Moshe to be the leader of our people. We never hear Moshe telling God what to do, rather he was simply God’s mouthpiece and we needed to be obedient to God not to Moshe.
Ten generations after Noach, Avinu Abraham was chosen, so that the world could return to the understanding that there is only one All-powerful Creator. Humanism is a very selfish religion in which the individual sets himself up as the center of the universe. We see how these strong leaders who place themselves at the center, force the people to become their slaves, governing them according to their will. The Torah teaches that we are responsible for the welfare of our neighbor and for our community. We no longer have communities; we only have cities, societies where people live together but have little to do with one another. We have become islands unto ourselves. The Torah teaches that the reason we were created was for the welfare of the community. Humanism teaches the opposite; the community exists to serve us for our personal betterment. This is the reason that the people were dispersed at Babel and could no longer enjoy unity. Many of us have come from countries where we suffered under the leadership of dictators. We came looking for freedom and found it here. Now that we are living in freedom, it doesn’t mean that we should forget that we are here for the sake of the country that gave us shelter and not for our own sakes.
We are living in perilous times; around the world we hear about wars and rumors of wars. One nation wants to swallow up another. Most people blame God for what is happening, but it is time for us to wake up. It is not in the name of God that people hurt others; it is in their own name that they do it—God is simply their excuse. These people don’t believe in anything but themselves. That is humanism. It has many particularities. There are atheist humanists who openly deny the existence of a Creator. The most deceitful humanism is religious humanism where the religious leader is enthroned as he convinces people to believe that they now have his version of the true God. These are incarnated gods with their own system of religion which puts them at the center of the universe. One extreme example is North Korea whose leader is worshipped as god incarnate.
The Torah was written in a holistic, Oriental mentality using simple myths and parables to teach. This western world has been conquered by a different mentality, Aristotelian, rationalistic which is completely opposite to the Torah. Neither view can ever understand the other. The value systems cannot be transferred, and the conclusions will never be the same. It is impossible for humans to define our Creator; we can only observe His actions and His creation. Religions have placed Him in a box, and this cannot be done. We cannot tell God what He wants to say. This is what we have been doing until today. We need to return to the mentality of the people at the time that the Torah was given to understand what He was telling us. We are all very rationalistic like one of my greatest teachers, Rambam, Maimonides who tried to bring Judaism into the modern age. He succeeded in certain areas, while others became quite confusing. If God created humans according to His likeness and image, the normal thing would be for us to continue in this direction by doing good, opening ourselves to others etc. What does the rationalistic, Hellenistic teaching tell us? God created me to be Him; therefore, I am God because the world revolves around me, the center, in other words, whatever happens around the world is for my sake. Judaism on the other hand is concerned with helping others. That is true Torah Judaism…to help the orphan, the widow, the poor and the foreigner among us. Both Capitalism and Communism teach the opposite; to serve the self. Our technology has so become so advanced that now we no longer have to worry about the division of languages; now we have Google, the salvation of the world. We as humans have made ourselves gods.
Let us be careful not to fall into that trap. God is not like us, and we cannot become gods. We are a creation, not the Creator. How many of us have doubted our relationship with the Creator from time to time? How many of us have struggled, wondering whether our relationship with Him is real or not? How many of us have questioned our set of beliefs? If so, be assured that God is with you. When God is with us, there is no total rest; we struggle because He wants us to be part of His creation. When we have been called for something special, He allows us to be pulled and prodded to move in a direction where we do not always want to go. Many of us like Moses are reluctant leaders yet there is nothing greater than serving the God of Adam and Eve, the God of Noach; He is the God of all humanity from the best to the worst of us. I as a former atheist let others know that it doesn’t matter how much we deny the existence of God, He is not waiting for our opinion. Are you a humanist with the desire to serve only yourself and use those around you to fulfill your goals or were you made to serve God and our community?
Ranebi (Rabbi Netanel ben Yochanan)
Adapted from from Ranebi’s message in 5776