Justice, Religion

Learning from Babel How to #OccupyTogether

This is a guest post by Leah Staub, who was recently flummoxed by the question of whether, in addition to reading torah/haftarah and leading services, she can “give sermons.” Apparently not everyone believes that we each have our own torah to share with each other.

“And all the earth was of one language and one set of words….The Lord confused the language of all the earth and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of all the earth.” –Genesis 11:9
“This statement is ours, and for anyone who will get behind it. Representing ourselves (not the movement as a whole), we bring this call for revolution. We want freedom for all, without regards for identity, because we are all people, and because no other reason should be needed.” –September 17 Call to Action
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Every Monday night, I join together with a group of folks, the DC Beit Midrash, to study Jewish texts. This week, we had the honor and privilege of studying with Virginia Spatz. Focusing on the story of the Tower of Babel, we spent much of the evening trying to discern what the people did wrong in the story—quickly dispensing of the notion that it had to do with trying to reach heaven—and the degree of wrongness, given that the people are not cursed or specifically punished. Their plan to fortify themselves in a single location is merely foiled.

In her Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, Judy Klitsner brings in midrash cited by R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a nineteenth-century rabbi also known as the Netziv, that discusses how the builders of Babel feared people developing thoughts different than the “one set of words” that was among them. They so feared this possibility that they decided to kill anyone who did not think as they did. This was their mistake. Klitsner writes:

the insistently repetitive rhythms of the text point to a generation’s intellectual and ideological homogeneity, in which every element of culture is mandated from language and thought to meter and melody….The text’s ambiguity on the question of whether the people sinned against God or against one another points to a complex truth: the people’s suppression of their unique selves lay at the root of their disengagement from God. In tyrannizing one another by extinguishing the divine spark of individuality, the tower builders made standing before God impossible.

According to this interpretation, the people were scattered so that they would learn to be their distinct selves, and thus find their distinct relation to God. This struck me powerfully, though one of my fellow studiers disagreed. How can the problem be that God wants people to act individually when God spends so much of the Torah mandating certain actions, he asked. I see it differently: people should not be blindly following commandments, but instead bringing their full selves to engaging in those actions. The way that each person observes mitzvot is unique, though it may seem otherwise to onlookers. We each have our own understanding of what we are doing and how we are living.
Still, both Umberto Cassuto and Nechama Leibowitz tie the people’s “one set of words” to a prophecy from Zephaniah: “For then I will turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent” (Zeph. 3:9). This creates some tension with Klitsner’s interpretation. How can the misdeed be singularity of focus if we are headed towards a messianic age when we will again be serving with a singular consent? Here it was Cassuto’s explanation that spoke to me: “in the future, all the peoples will once again have only one tongue, a pure speech understood by each one of them (it means, of course, ideas shared by all humanity).” I can get on board with the idea that we are striving towards an age when we can all speak to one another with understanding and the resultant respect.
As we continued to study, I noticed something very interesting. The God-entity that speaks of descending and confusing the people’s language is speaking from a place of multiplicity, in the plural. Havah nereda v’navla: Let us descend and confuse (Gen. 11:7). Thus we find another instance of tension between the single and the many—a God-entity who is crucially singular in our tradition, usually speaking from a singular place, but here identifying with multiplicity.
Another thought: when humans are created in the image of God, the God-entity also speaks from a place of multiplicity. Na’aseh adam b’tzalmenu kidemutenu: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26). I do not find God’s plural speech difficult to comprehend; who among us does not contain multitudes? Two Jews, three opinions, right? I can’t be the only one constantly trying to reconcile different pieces of myself. (Who else remembers that TV show Herman’s Head?) Perhaps the the people of Babel failed by having only one set of words, by shutting off of the multiplicity inside of and among them. Perhaps failing to affirm that multiplicity is an untenable rejection of the Divine—and multiple—image in which we are created.
Seeking comfort in an agreed-upon singular worldview is an easy trap to fall into, especially if, as Virginia noted some have suggested, this is a people still clinging to one another for support because of the trauma of the flood. Yet, that is not how God seems to want them to support each other. They must be scattered and find their own ways, according to their clans and their tongues, in their lands and their nations (Gen. 10:32). They can only come together (in the future that Zephaniah prophesizes) when they are coming together in their multiplicities.
Before we started to clean up, Virginia, who was very active in building and maintaining a Jewish presence at Occupy K Street during Sukkot, shared that some folks are trying to organize some ongoing Jewish learning in solidarity with the protest. I, personally, have not been involved in the K Street actions. I went down to the Occupy K Street Sukkah once, to participate in one of the Sukkot teach-ins in memory of my sister, who had a great activist spirit and would have been completely pumped up by the Occupy Together movement. I myself am watching from the sidelines, primarily via Facebook.
From that place, though, I think there is a lesson to be learned from the people of Babel. Many people seem to equate heterogeneity of purpose and inspiration with aimlessness and lack of focus. But I am among those who think it could be more representative of the real power of the actions. Unlike the effort in Babel to shore up a singular worldview, here we have people coming together in their glorious multiplicity. They are bringing their full selves to their attempts to move us towards a vision that differs from our current reality, and though those visions themselves may differ, the Occupy movement is unified in their fullness and possibility. And while I may not be physically present on K Street or Zuccotti Park or in Oakland or Atlanta or Chicago, my own visions of a better world are unified within that movement. For those of us who believe that our actions for justice are what will eventually herald a messianic age, perhaps this is indeed a real step forward.

3 thoughts on “Learning from Babel How to #OccupyTogether

  1. Yasher Koakh and kol ha Kavod..I’ll say something more substantive when I re-read on Shabbat..happy blogging

  2. I really appreciate this post. I think it speaks to the best in all of us whether we are in the streets or on the sidelines as you put it. In order for real change to come about it the world, the type of change God clearly dictates in the provision of languages, we need to do exactly what you are talking about. That is gather in our multiplicity and find ways to elevate our Oneness through our myriad of human dimensions.

  3. As individuated aspects of the cosmic unity, we have the power to affect the whole and push evolution, while we heal the places in ourselves that are out of integrity.

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