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The Marketplace of Ideas (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

  Wholesale and Retail Markets


            Countless ideals and lifestyles are displayed for sale throughout our world.  The  marketplace of ideologies teems with activity.  We have previously glimpsed one attempt to describe this bustling marketplace in "The Little Prince."  Each stall in the market was described as a separate planet where a particular philosophy of life was championed.

            Among works of Jewish philosophy, similar descriptions abound.  Rav Sa'adia Gaon defined the various options in the market in rigorous philosophical terms.  In the final chapter of his book Emunot VeDe'ot, he presents the reader with a copious and detailed summary of various moral approaches.  A similar existential synopsis can be found in lyric form in Rav Shem Tov ibn Falagera's work, Sefer HaMevakesh.  The book describes the wanderings of a young man in search of an ideology, who interrogates expert after expert in his arduous quest for truth.  This theme is similarly explored by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav in his parable "The Cantor."  All these works examine the existential phenomenon of man's often halting and aimless journey among the stalls of the marketplace, as he hesitantly makes his choices.

            Please note that our marketplace is composed of two distinct sections.  The individual shopping for himself can acquire ideals with relative ease.  His problem begins when he attempts to transfer those ideals from the theoretical to the practical sphere, from abstract philosophy to morality.  Reality informs us that although we may immerse ourselves in philosophy as individuals, we cannot thrive independent of any social structure.  Most human ideals cannot be fulfilled by a lone individual.  These goals can be achieved only within the confines of a community.  This distinction compels us to divide our marketplace in two.  Alongside the retail section stands a wholesale division.  In this section man may examine those ideologies which have profoundly affected history for the last two hundred years.


Three Civilizations:  Ideological Models


            The book of Genesis vividly describes the exploits of the generation of the dispersion.  Through the construction of the Tower of Babel, they attempted to pierce the heavens.  A biblically sanctioned alternative to this idolatrous ascent can be discovered in Jacob's ladder.  The ladder of Jacob's dream connected heaven and earth.  It is due to this connection that we, mortals, can possess a divine Torah.

            The conflict between ladder and tower is no coincidence.  The truths of Judaism are continually revealed against the backdrop of failed ideologies which attempt, each in its own way, to scale the heavens.  We accompany our forefathers as they journey through Ur Kasdim, Charan and Egypt, paving the way for the birth of a new civilization, a culture essentially different from that of the surrounding idolatrous nations.  Chazal (our Sages) viewed the initial chapters of Genesis as classic examples of the various ideologies, teaching us that Judaism presents us with a unique alternative among all the "ism"s of the world.

            The book of Genesis describes the civilizations which set the stage for the birth of Judaism.  These were the generation of the flood, the generation of the dispersion, and Sodom.  Let us examine these three ways of life through the eyes of Chazal.

            Our Rabbis characterize the generation of the flood as a culture in which corruption ruled.  Following Chazal's lead, we can view this generation as one which controlled science and technology - of people who saw themselves as "children of the gods," lifted above "ordinary" humanity.  In other words, this culture worshipped a racist ideal, using technological advancement to sanction immoral behavior.  Were we to permit ourselves a quick jump in time, we could say that the generation of the flood symbolizes the Nazi ideology.

            Sodom is described by Chazal as a law-abiding society.  However, the laws which governed this group focused entirely upon the rights of the individual.  To the citizens of Sodom, private property was the holiest of concepts.  In the words of Chazal, the motto of Sodom was "Mine is mine and yours is yours."  Chazal describe the behavior of Sodom as despicable, and teach us that Judaism staunchly opposes social and economical egoism.  Sodom, then, can be seen as a classic capitalistic civilization, in which the sanctity of personal property overrides impulses towards charity and kindness.  The poor and needy in this culture must be abandoned if economic success and advancement are to be achieved.

            A third civilization that we meet in Genesis is the generation of the dispersion.  We find a telling description of this period in the verse, "The entire earth had one language and uniform things."

            Surprisingly, the midrash interprets this statement as a description of economic partnership.  According to Chazal, the words "uniform things" imply that what was in one man's pocket was also in his neighbor's pocket.  A modern translation would term this a Communist society.  The Midrash claims that the generation of the dispersion desired to construct a tower in order to prevent a collapse of the sky.  This was, in fact, an essential component of the Communist vision.  Numerous disasters befell the capitalist world.  The Great Depression of 1929 is indelibly imprinted upon the world's memory, because during that period the power of Sodom held sway.  While people searched in vain for bread to satiate their empty bellies, pounds of coffee were being dumped into the ocean to maintain price stability.  In response, a new generation arose and attempted to construct a secure tower.  However, at the top of this tower they placed a statue brandishing an unsheathed axe in mute defiance of God.  Communism espoused the belief that man can triumph and inherit God's throne.

            The ideal man in Marxist philosophy is Prometheus, the mythological hero who stole fire from the heavens.  The Jewish attitude is starkly contrasting, for on Saturday nights, we recite the blessing over fire.  The fire of the havdala service is radically different from the candlelight of the Sabbath eve.  The candles of Friday evening bring joy and light into the household, but the fire of Saturday night is the flame of technology.  Our blessing is essentially anti-Prometheic.  Our God did not deny us the use of fire.  He entrusts it to us.  God is not jealous of man's accomplishments; rather, He blesses us.

            The modern expression of identification with Prometheus was revealed through the pride and arrogance which accompanied the launching of the first satellite in the Communist world.  The midrashic description of the builders of the tower is strikingly similar:

"It does not please us that He take the heavens for Himself and give us the earth.  Rather, let us place an idol at the top of the tower to reach the heavens, so that it appears to wage war upon Him."

            The Communist atheism of the builders of the tower is succinctly expressed through the sad joke, "We photographed every inch of space and discovered no God."  It is pointless to respond that a God who can be photographed is not worthy of our worship.  The central issue here is the foolish pride of men who believe that they have successfully erased the distance between themselves and God.  The catastrophe in the Chernobyl atomic reactor is proof that Prometheus has failed.  And a more poignant expression of this failure can be seen through the tragic image of a ship sunk in desert sands, which were covered by an ocean before the advent of man's "civilizing" revolution.

            The generation of the dispersion can teach us something else as well.  They wished to create a society that boasted "one language and uniform things."  In other words, they raised the flag of cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

            God punished their transgression through the creation of numerous languages.  To use the vivid midrashic description, "One said to another, 'Hand me your hammer,' and he gave him a sickle.  'Hand me your sickle,' and he gave him a hammer."

            What was their sin?  Chazal inform us that when a man would fall from this tower to his death, they simply termed it an unavoidable accident.  However, if a block of stone fall, they would lament, "Woe is us, when shall we find one like it? ... Woe to us, the building plans will be delayed!"  The construction of this society left no room for God, but neither was there room for man.  The rejection of one necessarily implies rejection of the other.  The centrality of the community grew to such proportions that the individual was entirely lost within it.

            And yet, this society espoused a number of seemingly beautiful social concepts.  Our Rabbis contrasted the generation of the flood, who were "flooded with robbery" with the generation of the dispersion, "who loved one another," or at the very least, claimed to do so.  The utopian vision expressed by the modern day generation of the dispersion presented a formidable challenge to religious loyalists.  As we witnessed the collapse of this contemporary generation of dispersion, we could discover its rotted core.  Various artists have chosen to depict the Tower of Babel deserted in mid-construction.  Similarly, the regimes which were symbolized by the Berlin Wall were abandoned, while mute testimony of the horrors remain in the scars that will never fade.


The Collapse of Ideologies


            The three cultures that we have been discussing can serve as a representative sample of all the various ideologies which promised the world salvation in the modern era.  Eventually, each of these ideologies collapsed, either in the fiery tempests of revolution, or through persistent rotting at the core, as we saw in the case of communism.

            How must we approach these ideologies?  Rav Kook explains that those positions have consistently led humanity astray because they did indeed possess some sparks of truth.  In Kabbalistic terms, these ideologies are "kelipot" (shells).  In other words, they parasitically hang onto the coattails of truth.  These ideologies are based upon ideals, the moral and the national. However, these ideals were corrupted by the attempt to construct entire belief systems upon minute sparks of truth, in order to usurp the place of religion.  We will elaborate on this in next week's lecture.


This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


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