Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Towers of Babel

The Jewish Week, October 19, 2001

One winter's day while I was attending rabbinical school in the early ‘80s I decided to make pilgrimage to the World Trade Center. I was mourning my father at the time and fulfilling one of his final requests: that I purchase my own set of the Talmud. My relatives had pooled together a few hundred dollars to make possible the purchase of those twenty huge volumes of transcribed academy discussions that took place in Babylonia almost twenty centuries ago.

The Talmud by way of the Twin Towers seemed the right way to go. From the financial district, it was walking distance to the Lower East Side, by way of Chinatown. The entire world and centuries of striving could be navigated within a few city blocks.

I had come to see New York as the world's greatest Tower of Babel; everyone striving, each on his own side of the tower, to do it bigger, better, best. It all seemed so Jewish. Everyone is Prometheus with guilt, shlepping that rock because Mom would have wanted us to, because Grandma made her do it. No matter the language, even the Syrian, Korean and Albanian meet over bagels while discussing how to make taller buildings, buy luckier lottery tickets, find cheaper bargains and wear snazzier clothes. Always bigger, better, best. New York is messianism’s primary port of call.

If we can beat God here, we can beat God anywhere.

If New York is to traditional culture a grand Temple of Audacity, the World Trade Center was its Holy of Holies. I rode to the top and was entranced by the view. Looking out, psalms appeared in my mind. The rivers were frozen gray, meandering ribbons, the Palisades looked like children's slides. The Catskills lay as panting dogs below me in the distance. There the jagged Chrysler, here the sharp-stepped Empire, and beyond, the mighty UN, a massive bookend holding the East River in its place. The rivers may have been clogged arteries, but the bridges glistened from the same snow, as trucks edged along them delivered life to the periphery. Directly ahead, the traffic copters skipped like rams from cloud to cloud.

The exhibit at the top was, appropriately, on the history and future of world trade. It boldly predicted a time not far off, around the year 2000, when nations would effectively give way to a new multinational order, where almighty capitalism would unite us all in the pursuit of happiness. It predicted major technological advancements in almost every realm. Communications would be instant and global. Leisure time would be increased exponentially. Disease would be defeated; cloning would be commonplace. In less than two centuries, a cure for death itself would be found. Immortality, at last, would be ours. God would be out of business.

I was shaken by these predictions. If God was going out of business, I feared, I was going into the wrong profession. I decided to leave the Wall Street region quickly, and bought a bagel on the ground floor to energize myself for the cold cross-town trek to the bookstore on Essex Street. First the faces changed, from the coifed and choreographed, moussed and nose-hair tweaked white shirted Wall Streeters, through the many shapes and smells of Chinatown, to the craggy, ancient, dusty black frock of the s'forim (holy book) salesman at H and M Skullcap. He too had to climb a tower…well, a ladder, to a creaky warehouse loft where the Vilna editions of the Talmud were kept. He showed me several varieties. I chose one with a yellow cover and on it the design of, incredibly, a tower. It looked like an ancient Roman ruin of some sort, with two roaring lions up front. Well, not exactly roaring. They were Jewish lions, more k'vetching than roaring.

But it was a tower nonetheless.

And I began to understand that, in spite of the yawning gap of time and milieu, a culture shock you get in New York every three blocks anyway, things were not that different after all. What was the Talmud but another Tower of Babel, another edifice intended not to usurp God, but to engage in an innocent and noble stretching of limits?
There is a classic Talmudic tale of a rabbi who overrules the voice of God in making a key legal decision. The other rabbis are compelled to agree, and God is heard to say, up in the heavens, with great pride, "My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!" This was hardly a hostile takeover. Hubris is only tragic when translated into Greek. We call it “chutzpah,” and God seems to love it.

Twenty years after this visit, I came to realize that the World Trade exhibit didn’t have it all wrong: Cloning was a reality, communications had become instantaneous, the Soviet Union was gone and national realignments were being based primarily on economic considerations. Yet the role of religious tradition was also strengthening.

No need to be threatened by the strivings of technology, I figured. Let them strive to defeat death in their way and me in mine, them with their edifice of exploration and me with my tower of tradition. All the towers can coexist in New York, only a few blocks apart.

I left the bookstore and crossed Essex Street for a fresh bialy at Kossars. At that point, standing amidst the babble of what seemed like a dozen immigrant cultures crammed into this one creaky corner of the Manhattan melting pot, I realized that no matter where I went, even up to the top of the world, the whole city smelled like bagels.

Now, in my grief, I’ve come to realize that in fact the Towers of the West Side were the bookends that kept my Lower East Side s’forim safely on the shelf. And I wonder, with great sadness, will we ever strive to climb that high again?

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