Noach: From Babel to Google to A Life on Our Planet

by Benjamin Shribman

A few hours after reading about the Google anti-trust case, and then watching a television program about the doubtful prospects of an in-house advisory board at Facebook, I had the pleasure of coming upon the following:

“ … it brings to mind the world we live in today, a world that is becoming increasingly uniform, in which many languages are succumbing to one dominant language, where one type of dialogue and one set of aspirations rule. Such a powerful society does not allow anything different to develop within it, and therefore individuals cannot free themselves from its chains. In a homogeneous technological society, nothing new will grow. Only when it’s frameworks are broken will a few individuals be able to venture out, act, and influence others.”

Was this from a newspaper op-ed or an article in a news magazine? A text by Joseph Weizenbaum, or Jacques Ellul, or Yuval Harari? A government report, or the manifesto by the “Unabomber”? No. This was Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (May his memory be a shield unto us), from a commentary on this week’s parsha, Noach.* Steinsaltz is discussing the oft-debated question of what exactly had been the sin of those who built the so-called “Tower of Babel.” He continues:

“By forming a uniform pattern of life in society, these people were acting against God’s intentions that there should be a rich, multi-faceted world in which the differences between people lead to progress and blessing. God wanted the entire world to be settled and for people to construct productive societies. Therefore, he dispersed mankind across the entire Earth. For this reason, this generation is called the Generation of the Dispersion.” The Steinsaltz Humash, 2nd edition (Koren Publishers, 2018) pp. 59-60.

To claim that the moral of the Tower of Babel story is that God objects to monopolies (or to monopolies other than His own!) would of course be silly. But, the story and commentary help us to see that an interest in preventing monopolistic business practices, and the destruction of variety and heterogeneity in the world more generally, can be an expression of concerns far above the realms of business. In Rabbi Steinsaltz’ reading, the story of God’s reaction to the Tower is a reminder that what comes of allowing a single technological system or cultural structure to take over completely is not progress — no matter how clever, entertaining, fascinating, or otherwise attractive that system or structure may appear. If you need clearer arguments than Google and Facebook provide, consider the destruction of variety and heterogeneity in the natural world, documented so powerfully by Sir David Attenborough in his heart-wrenching new film (and book), A Life on Our Planet. In either case, a lesson of the Babel story, in light of the predicaments we face today, should be this: Without God to intervene, to confound the sort of destruction that comes with certain sorts of technical and technological domination, we ourselves need to avoid or dismantle such Towers as often and as quickly as possible.

Shabbat Shalom!

* from the wonderful Steinsaltz Humash, in English, published by Koren.

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