Against Authority - JTS Senior Sermon


The English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, is best known today for the fact that his mummified body is still on display today at University College London, bizarrely watching over his old stomping grounds. Yet, before he was a tacky tourist stop - prone to nearly two centuries of student pranks - Bentham was notable for proposing several inventive solutions to the social problems of the mid-19th century. One of those solutions was a creative plan for a new prison, which he termed the, ‘Panopticon.’ The panopticon, as its name entails, was a prison which would enable all the inmates to be watched, twenty-four hours a day, by a single individual sitting in a central tower. The cells would be built in a circular structure around this central point and would include a system of lights that would purposefully confuse the inmates - making them unable to discern when they were being observed by the central guard and when they weren’t. Bentham believed this would make for more efficient discipline, and described his project as, a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

According to our tradition, Bentham wasn’t the first to propose such an artifice - used to observe and control mass amounts of people. Many Sages have read the story of the Tower of Babel in precisely the same spirit - they have read the motives of the tower’s builders as being the establishment of unquestioned authority of the few over the many. We read in the beginning of Genesis Chapter 11, that after the flood was over, after human society had regrouped, a group came together to build a massive tower, with its head in Heaven. This project apparently offends God, who steps in to destroy the tower and spread the people across the face of the Earth. The Torah gives this story as an etiology for why there are many languages, but perhaps more than a linguistics lesson lurks behind this story.

The episode of migdal Bavel is so commonly explained as being about creating one language, or trying to encourage a society in which all people would creatively cooperate in building a monument. We often tell ourselves that the sin of the tower’s builders was hubris vis-a-vis Heaven - that they attempted to reach God, prompting divine intervention - but we can read this misguided construction project just like Bentham’s Panopticon, in fact - many Sages have. As we will see, our tradition has repeatedly affirmed that the sin of the tower’s builders was to attempt to establish the control by a small group over the populace, through power and through surveillance.

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Genesis 11:4 tells us a bit about the builders’ motives:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם:  פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.

"And they said: Come, let’s build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in Heaven, and we’ll make ourselves a name - lest we be spread over the face of the Earth.”

It would seem from this that the motivation of the tower’s construction is to create communal unity - to gather all people together under the banner of a massive project. Yet, many of the commenters on this verse read the builders as having more nefarious plans in mind. Ovadia Seforno, in his comment on this verse says: that the builders sought not to create one language, but to install Nimrod as king over the entire human species. Seforno explains that Nimrod sought to “reign over all of humanity so that he could seek out all of them.”

A later commenter, the Netziv in his, haEmek haDavar, tells us that the purpose of the tower’s builders was to construct an edifice that would enable the rulers of it to observe all the people of the world, and to prevent them from moving to far away lands. Their project was one that would ensure that dissidents could not set up separate communities - by watching them from this great tower the builders would make themselves like God, able to see the hearts of every person, and thereby constrict their liberty. So, surveillance, basically.

Some are even more explicit, such as the modern R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He tells us what he believes the motives of the builders to be  “[They said:] It is upon us to arrange a new order for the world, it is upon us to control a new society. It is upon us to rule over the cosmos, and to organize new principles of the Heavenly kingdom. [They did this] in order to realize their ideal, the subjugation of the whole world; to command everyone how to live and what to do; to separate families; to destroy the freedom of the individual and all values by which people live.” He tells us, referencing a famous story in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (24) that, “the values by which people were measured were not their spiritual merit, but rather only the number of bricks which they could bring to construct the tower.” Then, in a surprisingly modern twist, Rav Soloveitchik says, “Those evil ones, the generation of the Tower, were like Mao Tse Tung or Krushchev...they wanted to show their ability to overpower the meaning of the individual.”

Arguably, Soloveitchik’s vision has come to life today. In many ways, we live in our own kind of Panopticon - security cameras, biotechnology, facial recognition software, and ubiquitous government surveillance mean that we are essentially faced with the same dilemma of Bentham’s inmates - we can assume we could be watched at any time, but we can’t tell when we are being observed and when we are not. Brave souls have stepped forward to expose the level of casual surveillance which has become commonplace in today’s society, and whistleblowers have fought to show the degree to which we are living victims of Bentham’s utilitarian designs.

Yet, long before contemporary society awoke to the severity of our own surveillance, our Torah and our tradition has warned us against the power of ‘mind over mind,’ which Bentham proposed. These readings of the Tower of Babel story should grab our attention -- could it be that this story which we so often attribute simply to human hubris, belies something much deeper.

Perhaps the tower which reached to Heaven had little to do with Heaven - but is instead a cautionary tale about the desire of the few to impose their will upon the many. Perhaps God intervened not because God’s liberty was threatened, but because human liberty was. Perhaps this tower of terror is a call to affirm individual freedom and spirituality, and to resist the authority of those who want to ‘overpower the meaning of the individual?’

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In my own struggles, I have often felt like Judaism cares little for the individual - that the needs and priorities of the community always usurp the private path to religion. I came to my faith, and to this building - on my own. Neither the family of my birth nor my community put me here - I walked the lonely path of the spiritual seeker. More than ever, we are faced with the reality that there are innumerable individuals who are seeking a religious life outside of the bounds of the ‘organized community.’ Chancellor Eisen has termed this the search for the ‘sovereign self,’ - something somewhat foreign to many Jewish organizations.

Moreover, rather than make room for them to find their way to God, more often than not we have only doubled down on our institutions, our dogmas, our doctrines, and our endless claims of authority.

Many of my colleagues, and many of you here, have been shocked to find that I don’t particularly care for hasidut. After learning that I study and teach Kabbalah, they often conclude that I must also love Hassidism. Actually, I don’t - and the reason is simple: the idea of the tsaddik, the idea of a person who has the right to dictate the beliefs of others, is utterly abhorrent to me. I do not want a human being to tell me what to do or what to believe - God has already done that. The hubris of believing that we can make ourselves authorities over one another - that we can set ourselves up like the guard in the center of Bentham’s Panopticon, is tearing us apart.

So, how can I be a rabbi who rejects the authority of one over the many - who reads the story of the Tower of Babel as a caution against authoritarianism and an affirmation of individualism? After all, I will leave here at the end of this year and go out and be a Mara deAtra, an authority for the community and people I serve. Yet I do so with the caution of migdal Bavel, with an awareness of the pitfalls and dangers of attempting to tell others how to live their lives. I do so knowing that I don’t wish my community to be a Panopticon, nor one which leaves out the spiritual path of the individual.

When I came for my admissions interview for JTS, I had the same anxieties and worries as most - fear that the Seminary would see how little skill I had, how little knowledge of Hebrew or Judaism I was coming in with, and of course ... the legendary fear that I would be asked to make a berakhah over the glass of water put in front of me. But amidst the fog of nervous memory from that day I remember one thing in particular, that Dahlia Bernstein was assigned to sit with me before I went in to meet with the committee - I think mostly to make sure I didn’t run away.

Dahlia asked me, ‘So, what kind of rabbi do you want to be?’ I answered, ‘Pulpit, I think,’ and she, who I was so lucky to have as a companion that day said, ‘No, I mean, what do you want your rabbinate to look like?’ I didn’t have an answer then. But two years ago just before Yom Kippur, when Dahlia made a Facebook post which asked her friends to describe themselves in only six words, I found what I had wanted to say years before, that I would be a, ‘Tour guide to the spiritual self.’

That is in fact what I wish to be. We talk a lot here at the Seminary about ‘pastoral authority,’ but to me - that phrase is largely a contradiction in-terms. Truly being a pastor, guiding the lost sheep and caring for the flock, does not depend on authority - it depends on our ability to make room for the individual in the midst of the community, to resist the pressures of peers, society, and even our own institutions in order to accept the radical independence of the individual.

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I take the caution of the Tower of Babel story to heart - it is too easy for us to make ourselves an authority, to use power and privilege to set ourselves up inside a Panopticon, proscribing others behavior and beliefs. I don’t know if I want to be a mara deAtra, I think I’d rather be a moreh derekh, to teach the path that I have walked to others - not to build towers but to build roads - to clear the overgrown trails which lead into the heart of Judaism and to show the solitary seeker the paths presented before them.