Defending Babel

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This past Shabbat, I heard a friend of mine speak at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The general argument in his sermon was that we should try to make a better effort at giving people the benefit of the doubt.  His main example came from this past week’s parasha, Noah, where we read the story of the Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel was one of the first Biblical stories I had learned about as kid.  Basically, the people of the city of Babel tried to build a tower so tall that they could reach the heavens.

What is surprising about this story is that traditionally, we read the people of Babel as bad people. In the end of the story, the people are given different languages in order to make communication between all of them impossible.

But after hearing my friend speak, I have to say that this approach is wrong, especially for a modern Jewish thinker. We live in a world where we are taught to question everything, especially religion. As modern critical thinkers, we struggle with the notion of God every single day.

We have famous examples like, “why do bad things happen to good people,” but there are questions that come up every day. Why is it that God punished the people of Babel for being curious?

You can point to Midrash that explains the evil ways of the people, but really, that is just the rabbis trying to reason with the bad rap they got in the original text. The fact is that people always question the reality of God and the afterlife.  What is so wrong about the people of Babel trying to make their way up to Heaven?

Posted on November 3, 2008

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