Friday, October 23, 2009

The blessing of babel

ba·bel also Ba·bel (băb'əl, bā'bəl) n.
A confusion of sounds or voices

From the very begining its been the habit of Jewish commenters to project ideas onto scripture. One famous example is found in a Midrash about the Book of Ruth. The verse (2:3) tells us that Ruth gleaned with the male reapers [וַתְּלַקֵּט בַּשָּׂדֶה, אַחֲרֵי הַקֹּצְרִים] and further (2:5) tells us that this breach of modesty scandalized Boaz [לְמִי הַנַּעֲרָה הַזֹּאת]. After the male reapers pin Ruth's blunder (2:6) on her foreign birth [וַיֹּאמַר: נַעֲרָה מוֹאֲבִיָּה הִיא] Boaz diplomatically (2:8) tries to encourage her to glean with the women instead [וְכֹה תִדְבָּקִין, עִם-נַעֲרֹתָי] She doesn't get the hint (2:21) [ גַּם כִּי-אָמַר אֵלַי, עִם-הַנְּעָרִים אֲשֶׁר-לִי תִּדְבָּקִין] and it needs to be reinforced by her mother-in-law (2:22) [טוֹב בִּתִּי, כִּי תֵצְאִי עִם-נַעֲרוֹתָיו] However, despite this clear textual evidence that Ruth was unaware of ancient Judean ideas about modesty, the lesson the Midrash shoehorns into the text is that Ruth demonstrated exemplary modesty by bending her knees to glean, and not her back, thus exposing less of her legs. (!)

The other night I opened Accepting the Yoke of Heaven by Yeshayahu Leibowitz and realized at once that the famous professor is guilty of the same offense. Like almost all darshanim before him, he sees what he wishes to see in the text, treating it like something of a projection screen. A point worth mentioning though, is that what Leibowitz wishes to see in the text is magnificent (and modern!). As an example, consider the argument for pluralism he attributes to the story of the Tower of Babel
It appears to me that the root of the error, or sin, of the generation of the separation was not the building of a city and tower, but the aim to use these artificial means to ensure a situation of “one language and one speech”-of centralization, which, in modern parlance, would be known as totalitarianism. One language and one speech is, according to many naive people in our days, a description of an ideal situation: all of humanity a single bloc, without differentiation, and, as a result, without conflicts. But one who truly understands will know that there is nothing which is more threatening than this artificial conformism: a city and tower as the symbol of the concentration of all of mankind about a single topic-where there will not be differences of opinion and there will not be a struggle over different viewpoints and over different values. One cannot imagine greater tyranny than that, one cannot imagine a greater mental and moral sterility than that-that there should be no exceptions and that there should be no deviations from what is accepted and agreed upon, and this being maintained by the artificial means of a city and a tower. In His mercy and compassion for mankind, God prevented this from occurring, and He made a humanity where a totalitarianism of complete unity cannot be.
There are echoes here of famous arguments, arguments Leibowitz no doubt knew cold, that were made in defense of pluralism by another Yeshayahu - the great Isaiah Berlin  Or, to boil it all down to an easily digested sound bite: The folly of absolutism (and OJ, alas, has absolutist tendencies, tendencies that run afoul of so much of the mesorah) is not that there is no Absolute. The folly is that no doctrine or belief system perfectly and completely contains the Absolute.[*]

Thus, pluralism.

[*] The words " The folly of absolutism is not that there is no Absolute. The folly is that no doctrine or belief system perfectly and completely contains the Absolute" aren't my original thought. I do not recall where I saw it first.

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