Why did God disperse the men who built the Tower of Babel? The ancient rabbinic texts uncovered several vices that justified their punishment: A tower intended to reach heaven manifests the ambition to challenge God, the desire to “make for ourselves a name” expresses the sin of pride, and so forth. Yet the text of Genesis 11 is not very explicit. In fact, the project is not actually called a sin, and the divine disposition toward it is critical but not outraged. The commentators had good reasons to ponder.
In the 1950s, religious Jews had not yet learned to revile the United Nations. Tennyson spoke of the “parliament of man” in a stanza of “Locksley Hall.” Harry Truman copied it out and kept those lines in his wallet. It was an appealing idea in a world torn apart by a world war, though it proved to be an ineffectual one. In the immediate postwar years the U.N. seemed to foretell a new dawn of peace and cooperation. When rising Israeli religious authorities like Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli wrote papers about Jewish military ethics, they entertained the premise that international cooperation might make possible—and therefore necessary—more demanding ethical standards for the use of military means in resolving disputes between nations.
The 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution that established the double standard for Israel and the secretary-generalship of the old Nazi Kurt Waldheim were all in the future. There was disappointment and mild cynicism but no glee at the Cold War superpower standoff that rendered the U.N. a disharmonious talking club. Nevertheless, in those days we cherished the harmless “fairy tales of utopia,” and valued the quiet advances on less divisive fronts. It seemed fitting for religious Jews to endorse the promise of a “world made new,” as Mary Ann Glendon put it in the title of her book on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Some were more skeptical. In 1956, my future mentor Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wondered why virtually the only major international conflict about which the United States and the Soviet Union had not blocked each other at the U.N. was the 1947 vote establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. As a child, I can remember my father referring to the Tower of Babel when he suggested that the beautiful visions of the hour were best taken with more than a grain of reservation. When I later discovered the sermons and commentary of the fourteenth-century Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, I learned that my father was not the first. R. Nissim took the tower to be the symbol of the royal seat of sovereignty, which made the builders of the tower advocates of world government run by human beings. This centralization of power, in Nissim’s opinion, need not be a bad thing, as long as political power is held by the righteous. Alas, the dispersed descendants of Noah were ruled over by Nimrod. Under these circumstances, it is better that the wicked fall short of centralized power, so that the righteous will have a place of refuge. R. Nissim goes on to remind his Hebrew audience how often the lack of unity among the nations of the world has allowed Jews to escape persecution, going sometimes from Muslim countries to Christian ones, and vice versa. The desire for political unity is not inherently sinful, but its consequences in a corrupt world are deplorable. God was acting benevolently when he fragmented the human race into many languages and peoples.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in nineteenth-century Lithuania, seems to have internalized Nissim’s approach. He differed in one significant way, however. According to R. Nissim, unity is dangerous because it closes off the exit options of righteous dissidents. For R. Berlin, the desire for unity is itself the cause of persecution. Universal government can’t permit individuals and groups to remove themselves from the collective. There can be no tolerance of loyalty to ideas at variance from those propagated by the central government. Thus the drive toward unity necessitates persecution and ultimately justifies murder.
In the decades since its founding, the United Nations has been more talk than action, and some of the action has been benign. In spite of my father’s skepticism, and in spite of its flaws (perhaps even thanks to its organizational weaknesses), the global body has not become an institution of practical oppression. But the impulse to build a Tower of Babel has found other, more potent expressions. In recent years we hear more and more about the intrusion of the European Union into the laws and social arrangements of its member nations.
Jews have particular reasons to be anxious. Animal rights advocates have pushed for restrictions on religiously required methods for slaughtering animals, and this threatens the observance of kosher laws for meat. Regulations have been proposed that outlaw infant circumcision. If passed, they would make the practice of Judaism illegal. As a small minority, we cannot prevent individual nations from adopting such policies, and in the 1930s, banning ritual slaughter was indeed advocated by Nazi Germany and other countries with strong anti-Semitic or xenophobic movements. But in the absence of centralized E.U. control, we can hope they will not become continent-wide. As R. Nissim recognized, a lack of political integration provides pathways of escape.
Then there is a broader worry. Progressivism has a strong universalistic trajectory. It also tends to be hostile to traditional religion. Here, R. Berlin’s worries come to the fore. It’s not hard to imagine a tightly knit European polity undertaking aggressive means to secure the universal triumph of progressive ideals. Jews and others whose religious practices are deemed “unprogressive” are likely to feel the pressure.
Do we need latter-day towers of Babel? We are told that European ideological conformity under the watchful eyes of liberal bureaucrats is necessary to prevent the renewal of wars between nations there. Many thought the Brexit vote an intolerable regression to saber-rattling nationalism. If this is true, it is a terrible verdict on the democratic experiment. Is the peaceful assertion of national sovereignty so dangerous that it must be imperiously suppressed from above by the governing class? If the threat of renewed war in Europe is not a clear and present danger, then let us ponder the wisdom of R. Nissim and R. Berlin and its application to our own times. Whatever the wisdom of the Brexit rebellion on economic grounds, it is a salutary reminder, before it’s too late, of the deep tendency of the imperialism that wears the mantle of humanitarianism.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.