Accessing God in a Man-Made World

There is no need to ascend to heaven--or build a tower--to find God.

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Yet none of this ingenious speculation has any textual basis in the Torah. But it does give us a lens through which to look again at theTower of Babel. Several features of the story are noteworthy. It is a tale of estrangement. Whatever intimacy Noah may have enjoyed with God seems gone. The emphasis is on material matters. The inhabitants of Shinar take pride in their ability to compensate for their lack of natural resources. Well-made bricks were just as good as hewn stone, with which they could build an indestructible city and its temple. At the center of their world was the almighty self.

But God is less accessible in a man-made world. Surrounded by monuments of our own ingenuity, we grow deaf to the echoes of eternity. In the biblical tale, God's voice is conspicuously absent. In the face of human arrogance, God withdraws to the most remote corner of the cosmos. Hence the desire to storm the heavens. The breakdown in communication can be restored by human effort.

Achieving Self-Mastery

The story mocks the very idea. To reach God there is no need to ascend to heaven. Twice the narrative stresses that God easily descends from on high. Not construction but contrition is what unites the human and divine;our inner state rather than a vast sacred precinct is what bridges the chasm.

The building of the tower then was an act of rebellion born of prosperity. In the phrase "and they settled there" ( Genesis11:2), the Rabbis felt a tone of finality. The migrants from the east ended their wanderings because they had come upon a land bursting with blessings. Yet what God had intended for good quickly became the source of their downfall. Self-satisfaction fed their arrogance (Tosefta Sotah 3:10), or as the Rabbis observed elsewhere, "A full stomach is the source of muchevil" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 32a).

As an instance of rebellion, the Tower of Babel fits the dominant theme of the Torah's prelude to Abraham. Human evil endangers God's creation. Without restraint, man remains an undomesticated animal in the wild.The Rabbis speak of the Torah's mitzvot as a yoke, a system of laws meant to harness human talent for good. As mere earthlings, we are prone to abuse our autonomy. The yoke of the divine helps us gain self-mastery. Polytheism is but a subset of the deviations which constitute human depravity. To move from one to many languages implies the move from one to many Gods. Mired in things material we lose sight of the spiritual. Rebellion against God subverts the destiny envisioned for us at the beginning as partners in the sustaining of creation.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.