Sadly, an entire planet had suffered total moral collapse and was tragically annihilated by the violent waters of the flood. Noach’s world disappears and humanity must be rebuilt from scratch. A few generations later, an ambitious company of people attempt to form a modern city punctuated by a tower. For some unspecified reason G-d intervenes and scatters this united and determined population. The sin of this “tower generation” isn’t obvious: Why did this generation suffer catastrophic population dispersal?
At first glance, the “tower generation” achieved remarkable feats. So much of human history – both before and after the tower – have been pockmarked by strife and contention, and somehow this generation achieved unity and fraternity! Working in unison, this generation migrated to a clement area in “Shin’ar” where they construct the first ‘designed’ city of human history. All this organized activity launched the first industrial revolution–bricks and mortar were manufactured in large-scale furnaces. Such industrial scale activity can only emerge from coordinated management and synchronized manufacturing.
Importantly, straw and mud construction was replaced by bricks and mortar- material which can support multi-storied homes and, ultimately, a colossal tower. Multi- level construction enabled larger populaces to inhabit relatively smaller areas- thereby producing the first urban habitat.
These accomplishments were groundbreaking and extremely beneficial to human progress. Why was this generation scattered across the planet? Unlike the morally stained generation of the flood, these urban planners advanced human society while fostering the spirit of unity which had been so elusive for close to two millennia of human history! Indeed, our Chazal portray this ‘tower’ generation as heretics who challenged Divine authority. Their true design was to ascend to Heaven and war with G-d. Where did this heresy stem from? The Torah profiles them as industrialist urban planners and not philosophical heretics.
Evidently, technological empowerment is a tricky proposition. Indeed, human ingenuity removed the curse of Kayin; no longer would humanity suffer a nomadic and wandering lifestyle – exposed to the elements and to the dangers of the natural kingdom. Technology produced a city and dramatically advanced civilization, but it also tested religious faith in G-d. As long as Man senses his inherent vulnerability, he looks to Heaven for redemption and for solutions to life’s challenges. When Man becomes more technologically advanced, he loses touch with his reliance upon a higher Being. Technology emboldens Man to look inward rather than Heavenward for solutions and answers. As Eric Hoffer, an American philosopher, once commented “Where there is the necessary technical skill to move mountains there is no need for the faith that moves mountains”. Sometimes it is material and financial luxury which deadens religious sensitivity and invites religious inattentiveness. For the “tower generation” is wasn’t material success but rather technological overconfidence which blinded them to their dependency upon a higher Being.
Interestingly, the midrash describes the principle goal of the tower: to fortify the foundations of heaven and prevent another potential flood. Technology had convinced Man that he was no longer susceptible to Divine intervention; with enough ingenuity Man could achieve invulnerability. Superman was alive in Bavel!
Over the past two centuries humanity has undergone a similar technological revolution. Rapid industrial and technological revolutions have completely altered the face of human experience. We live longer and more healthily, rapidly travel the globe, mechanize much of our labor, and feed our planet through large scale industrial agriculture. We possess a seemingly endless arsenal of technological solutions to conditions of life which overwhelmed our ancestors. More recently – over the past thirty years- the Internet revolution has galvanized communication; we share information more rapidly and with greater collaboration. Just as in Bavel, the land of universal language, the Internet revolution was enabled by the emergence of English as a universal language. Without a universally recognized language the Internet would never have materialized.
However, this 250-year technological revolution has produced a secular city in which G-d has no necessary or obvious role. Modern Man feels so empowered and has cleared so many barriers that he no longer looks to Heaven for assistance. Thousands of years ago G-d scattered the tower generation because they were too intoxicated with their own technological prowess to fully realize the fragility of the human condition and their dependence upon G-d. Every once in while Modern Man is reminded of the limits of technology while recovering a truer sense of reliance upon Heaven.
An additional crime of the “tower generation” was its attempt to emulsify the individualism. Human beings are created as unique individuals meant to express individual views and unique talents. In the pursuit of “conformity of purpose and common language” does Man abdicate his uniqueness and personal identity? In this city of common identity, differing languages and opinions were shunned (see the Neziv’s commentary on this story). Those who didn’t squarely agree with the common convention were dismissed. Ironically, it is “human speech” which best allows us to express our individualism. If we were all identical and conformed to the same interests, there would be no need for creative communication. Speech assists us in defining and expressing our individualism. Yet in the “tower generation” the homogenization of speech abolished human individualism. The tower people weren’t punished but were scattered – both geographically and linguistically- to restore diversity and individualism.
Our own age of ‘cyber-towers’ also threatens individual identity. The hyper-connected world of the Internet makes us vulnerable to mob mentality and less comfortable asserting non-conformist opinions. Social media creates echo chambers where we only engage with content we are already interested in, depriving us of exposure to contrary ideas. The naïve assumption that everyone should share common opinions, creates animosity toward those with differing opinions, and ultimately yields the jagged world of identity politics which has beleaguered modern democracies.
Of course, as religious Jews we are expected to conform to a common set of ideas and to perform common religious activities. However, individual expression, even within religion, insures that our religious experience remains profound and authentic. G-d scattered the tower generation both to restore a sense of human fragility as well as to protect human individualism.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.