"Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech" (Genesis 11). Thus ended humanity's first attempt at globalization.
What was the sin of Babel? What so disturbed God? The Torah doesn't say. So the Midrash answers: The sin, one Midrash teaches, was the intention of the builders to construct a Tower, ascend to heaven and displace God as ruler of the universe. According to another teaching, as the tower climbed into the sky, the worth of the human being declined. When a brick fell, the workers stopped to mourn. When a human being fell, he was ignored.
Today, Babel is being built again. You've been there. You phone an airline to check a reservation, and the person at the other end is in Manila. The computer help line connects to a technician in Bangalore. Our clothing is made in China, our cars in Japan, our appliances in Singapore. Fresh fruit is no longer seasonal -- in winter, we eat peaches from Chile. Your ATM card works as well in Amsterdam and Bangkok as it does here. No bar mitzvah is kosher unless sushi is served.
With global commerce and communications, the boundaries of nations and cultures are dissolving. In the Bible's words, we are of the one language and one speech. In the words of journalist Tom Friedman, "the world is flat." Globalization means people, products, ideas and capital flow freely across the planet. National sovereignty, cultural identity, and economic boundaries give way before multinational corporations and communication. You can go anywhere in the world today and eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken, shop at Wal-Mart and watch "Sex and the City."
We find this astonishing. It enriches our lives and opens limitless business and cultural opportunities. It binds us together. According to Friedman, no two countries that have McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other.
But as at Babel, there are dark sides to globalization. What we so readily invite into our lives is experienced elsewhere as invasion. Like the Midrash, many perceive the tower as an assault on God -- an attempt to displace God. Globalization destroys boundaries, obliterates local cultures, and dissolves identity. Globalization makes people feel powerless and invisible. If they fall from the tower, does anyone notice?
People who feel that way can be dangerous. They may turn inward and reassert the loyalties of the tribe, the verities of ancient faith. Or they may fight back in desperation. The more invisible and powerless they feel, the less they have to lose, the more aggressive and reckless their response is likely to be.
Can we avoid the sins of Babel? In the history of human cultures, e-mail, CNN, MTV, and Starbucks, are all very new. Globalization is not new. Twenty-seven centuries ago, the world's first great global empire came to power. In 722 B.C.E., the Assyrian empire swept across the Fertile Crescent, destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, and enslaved Jerusalem. Witness to this cataclysm was the world's first critic of globalization, a prophet named Isaiah.
In Isaiah's global vision, history is not about power. In history, the powerful come and go. History is about the justice we bring to humanity. It is justice that determines whether a civilization, even a powerful global civilization, thrives or vanishes. Justice is God's stake in human history. Therefore, the globalization of commerce and culture demands a globalization of justice and responsibility.
At Babel, humanity began as one, but exploited unity for conquest and viciousness. So God divided and scattered us across the globe. Suppose, Isaiah imagined, the powers of globalization were instead directed to the pursuit of justice and securing human dignity. Then we would witness Babel in reverse: Not scattering, but uniting; not conquering, but nurturing; not demeaning the human being, but upholding human dignity; not displacing God, but seeking and revering God; not the globalization of our power, but the globalization of redemption. Isaiah foresaw a Babel in reverse:
The many peoples shall go and say:
"Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the House of the God of Jacob;
That He may instruct us in His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths."
For instruction shall come from Zion,
The word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus He will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples,
And they shall beat their swords
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2)
May globalization bring this vision to life.
Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, and author of "Tough Questions Jews Ask" (Jewish Lights, 2003).
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