Lessons in learning

Rabbi Scott Slarskey is Director of Jewish Life at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.

By Rabbi Scott Slarskey

My own religious experiences and work as a learner-educator, tend to nudge me towards seeing the Holy Blessed One less as a judge or parent and more as the Artful Holy Pedagogue. In that spirit I never cease to be gobsmacked by the radical and profound beauty of the Tower of Bavel story we blessedly encounter once again in this week’s parasha.  

You know the story (Genesis11:1-9) — the whole world, being of one language, chooses to build a city with a tower, lest they be scattered all across the land.  G*d stops in to see what’s going on and remarks, “This is what they do as one people with one language and this is how they start to act, and now there will be no barrier for them in all they scheme to do.” So G*d steps in to teach them a lesson–diversifying their language and spreading them across the face of the earth.  

But what exactly is disturbing G*d here?  The Netziv, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi of Berlin suggests that their sin — of suppressing diverse voices and ideologies —is rooted in fear reflected in the language of Gen. 11:4, that they build this city, “lest we be scattered over the face of all the earth”:

And since the opinions of people are not identical, they feared that people might abandon this philosophy and adopt another. Therefore they sought to ensure that no one would leave their society.  

Senior faculty member of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Judy Klitsner, explains this sentiment: “Since God wishes for human autonomy, any attempts to suppress the divine spark of individuality, such as the collective action of the tower builders, constitutes a rebellion against God.”  If we take these teaching seriously, perhaps G*d expects all of conscious creation to play nicely together — to engage productively across our differences for the sake of enriching each others’ diverse, authentic, creative and co-elevating understandings of the world.  

Engaging in an effort to galvanize an entire society into a single, fear-driven, action which is designed to quash the ideological diversity and perspectives of this monolinguistic, monoethnic society cannot pass muster with a The Holy Teaching One supremely dedicated to the full liberation and actualization of all living things. The words of prominent, Earthly liberation educator, Paolo Freire put a sharp point on this sentiment:

Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision making is to change them into objects.

Pharaohs and the forepeople onsite for Bavel construction stand behind the same violent barricade as managers who struggle to hear and to integrate the diverse perspectives of their teams, teachers who quash student curiosity, and those who proliferate and promulgate misinformation — whether through ignorance or through active obfuscation. When we act — whether out of fear or reason–to alienate people from their own processes of inquiry, we do violence to the divine image.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

The Master of Learning sees this, and — according to the Netziv — G*d thinks: 

If they finish the tower they will come to a second thought, to prevent by force other thoughts than this one (of spreading out across the land). 

And this is a killing thing, and violent, complete destruction of the settlement, and it does not help that at this moment they are together with one opinion. 

So — the deft Holy Blessed Liberating Learning-Teacher recalibrates.  G*d blesses all of the people of the land with a new problem — one that simultaneously rehumanizes them and gives them the opportunity to function in relationship with G*d as partners in co-creation of our world.  Freire suggests that this is precisely the work of a master educator working for the liberation of their students:

Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of [people] as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation … Problem-posing education affirms people as beings in the process of becoming—as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality.

Yes!  Our G*d values human intellect, creativity, and heart SO MUCH as to “reset” the educational environment and give us a more sophisticated, that doesn’t have to dehumanize other human beings.  

Diverse languages and geographic difference challenge us to play and pursue learning in ways that explicitly acknowledge our different geographies of origin and languages of expression, perhaps even to recon with how these connect with and inform our diverse perspectives and understandings of reality.  Thanks for the educational scaffolding, G*d, and thanks for giving us a differentiated challenge that re-focuses us on empathy and creativity and re-introduces you into the mix! That’s brilliant education!