Common culture, friends and advice columns keep reminding us to “communicate.” But communication is much harder than it seems. After all, much of interpersonal communication is not even specifically in words themselves. Instead, when we talk to someone, we rely on a lifetime’s accumulated and internalized knowledge of facial expressions, rhythms, pauses, body language, and musical elements of speech. Even when using the same language and words, people from different cultures do not communicate easily – and certainly not as fully as if they shared the same culture.
In similar vein, central planners have often bemoaned the fact that ants work together to create amazing things – while people are much harder to organize and manage. Besides, people can be … resistant to being commanded about by those same central planners.
But we do have results from societies who are structured and function much more like ant hills. They have indeed built amazing things. Think of the Great Wall of China as one example. Or Ancient Egypt and its Pyramids. Or even the Red Army in 1944. There is no denying that societies that reject individualism often manage to achieve impressive results. It does not seem to matter much whether those societies are driven in service of the Leader/State, or The People or The Gods – the results can be impressive. And these monolithic states have something else in common: they are very good at communicating internally. They have a common culture, language, and words, with all the trappings needed for clear and thorough communications. The propaganda of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia was there for the express purpose of creating such an ant-like society, with each person having a role for the Greater Good.
But if we consider what is built by these monolithic societies, perhaps we might consider whether excellent communication is overrated? After all, while great walls and pyramids are undeniably large and impressive, they usually serve no higher purpose beyond feeding the egos of their central planners. (By way of contrast, we would not say the same about roads and bridges and transmission lines: all building projects with considerable benefits to mankind). Perhaps there is something to be said for the challenges of interaction, that there is a value to having to work hard not merely to inform someone, but to convince them?
The story of the Tower of Babel is about a centralized building project made possible because, “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” The people involved, proto-socialists, are precursors to the pyramid and wall-builders. And G-d has a definite opinion: he scrambles their languages, making them unable to understand each other. G-d seems opposed to a single nation, and a single language, because He is opposed to what they, with unity of language and peoplehood, chose to do.
And what did they choose to do? Contrary to popular understanding, G-d does not seem to be offended by the tower itself! The language of the people is not scrambled because they built a tower! Instead, He only acts in response to what might come next. “And G-d said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they zimah to do will be out of their reach.” The tower is merely a symptom of an underlying problem, an indication of some kind of societal dead end that was enabled by having a single language. What is the nature of that dead end?
The word the Torah uses for G-d’s criticism is zimah, which is usually translated as “plan,” or “goal.” What is wrong with planning? On its face, nothing. But the word is also found other places in the text, and when we look at it in the Torah, the meaning becomes clear: a ring (as in the gifts given to Rebekah), and sexual depravity – specifically incest and sleeping with a girl and her mother. The word zimah is about circularity, a closed loop or ring. Zimah is a feedback loop that has no external inputs! This is what incest is, and it is what a ring is. It is also what happens when there is excellent communication within a system, with no external inputs. Such a system is incapable of growing in response to external stimuli (because its insularity means that it can merely reject outside inputs).
And G-d does not like it, not one bit: he confounds (babels) them so they can no longer communicate with each other clearly.
Seen in this light, the facile reading of the story of the Tower of Babel as some historical account of how the world got different languages, misses the entire point. The real point of the story is that G-d recognizes that mankind must have communications challenges, or we become monolithic societies that can achieve big things – but never holy things. This is how Ancient Egypt and China turned inward, building for themselves, but opaque to the outside world. Both civilizations were stagnant in terms of overall development over time. To just take one example: Egypt’s system of corvée slavery started around 2613 BCE, and was only abolished in 1882!
The Mediterranean, by contrast, was a place where different peoples and cultures traded, interacted, and clashed, giving birth to Judaism and Christianity, as well as numerous Greek and Italian city-states. Diversity of thought and language and culture led to humanity moving forward and not merely living out our days the way China and Egypt did, riding the Wheel of Time around and around, with no spiritual growth to add to the occasional additions of physical structures like pyramids, walls, or towers. And I think it is clear the Torah, comparing Babel’s society to rings and familial incest, is telling us that static, insular cultures with self-reinforcing feedback loops are a dead end for human development and spiritual growth.
[an @iwe and @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]