The opening of Parashat Lekh Lekha marks Abraham’s formal initiation as a follower of God. However, his personal journey began sometime earlier. The Torah itself is silent on the matter of Abraham’s origin, aside from cursory genealogical information. Instead, the Midrash eagerly fills this lacuna. According to Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (n. 24), the Tower of Babel tale contains the roots of the patriarch’s spiritual journey:
Rabbi Pinhas said: They had no stones to build the city and the tower. What did they do? They would bake bricks and fire them like making pottery, until they had built up seven mil high. It had stairs on the eastern and western flanks. Those who ascended would bring up bricks from its eastern flank, while those who descend would do so on its western flank. And if a person fell to their death no one would pay heed. But if a brick were to fall they would sit and weep, saying, “When will another one arise in its place!?” Abraham son of Terah passed and saw them building the city and the tower and cursed them in God’s name, as it says, “O Lord, confound their speech, confuse it!” (Psalms 55:10).
An examination informed by social theory reveals striking similarities between the biblical story and the social and spiritual revolutions of the 1960s. In particular, ideas shared in sociologist Theodore Roszak’s analysis of postwar counterculture offer a fresh perspective on the Tower of Babel and Abraham’s subsequent turn towards God.
Roszak’s Making of a Counter Culture examined the societal forces responsible for the fermenting counterculture that emerged over the course of the 1960s. According to him, trends such as rebellion against parental authority, a turn towards eastern religions and spirituality, and a general rejection of traditional societal values could be attributed to the dominant technocratic focus of American society up that point. Defining the term, Roszak wrote:
By the technocracy, I mean the social form in which an industrial society reaches the peak of its organization integration. It is the ideal men usually have in mind when they speak of modernizing, up-dating, rationalizing, planning. Drawing upon such unquestionable imperatives as the demand for efficiency, for social security, for large-scale co-ordination of men and resources, for even higher levels of affluence and ever more impressive manifestations of collective human power, the technocracy works to knit together the anachronistic gaps and fissures of the industrial society.
Such a description brings to mind the beginning of the story of the Tower of Babel. There, the Torah states:
Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar—And they said, “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 (Genesis 11:1-4).
The people of Babel appear to have strong technocratic tendencies. They appear overly concerned with “organizational integration,” “planning and efficiency,” share a common anxiety over “social security,” and are overwhelmed by “large-scale co-ordination of men and resources.” Most of all, they yearn for “ever more impressive manifestations of collective human power.”
There is a heavy price to be paid for such a single-minded focus on progress. Many social commentators understood that the twentieth century’s grand concern for large-scale construction projects and economic programs wrought considerable expense to the individual and his or her personal wellbeing. For Roszak, in the eyes of the technocratic society “it is necessary, then, that technique prevail over the human being. For technique, this is a matter of life and death.”
All this coheres with Rabbi Pinhas’s midrashic accounting of Abraham’s shock and horror at the sight of the evildoers and their tower. In the Midrash, Abraham emerges as a subversive rebel against the dehumanization of Babel. Of course this is not the only portrait of Abraham as a countercultural hero. Hermeneutically expressed in the linguistic structure of his name, the sages in Bereishit Rabbah (42:8) highlight what “was told to Abraham the Hebrew (‘ivri’)” (Genesis 14:13). Rabbi Yehuda remarked that “the entire world was on one side (‘ehver’) while [Abraham] was on the other side.
Hassidic sources draw upon this view of Abraham. Born into a technocratic society focused on collective advancement at the expense of the individual, Hassidic texts describe the Jewish forefather as a spiritual wanderer, reminiscent, to my mind, of the youthful seekers of the 1960s. One may compare the teachings of Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitza with the words of Hermann Hesse. Hesse, the early twentieth century German author, enjoyed enormous success in the 1960s with the younger generation who identified with his calls for meaning and authenticity. Published in 1960, the prologue of his novel, Demian, served as an apt manifesto for the antiauthoritarian youth:
I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me … Every person’s life is a journey toward himself, the attempt at a journey, the intimation of a path. No person has ever been completely himself, but each one strives to become so, some gropingly, others more lucidly, according to his abilities … We can understand one another, but each of us can only interpret himself.
Similar to Hesse’s description of his own past, Rabbi Leiner, in his Mei Ha-Shiloah, depicted Abraham as a disillusioned seeker, one who sought meaning in the life around him but ultimately resigned himself to despair before receiving further enlightenment. He wrote:
“And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go for yourself from your land’” (Genesis 12:1). It is written: “For I will pour water upon the thirsty land, and streams upon the dry ground” (Isaiah 44:3). As Abraham our blessed forefather began to seek and search after the roots of his life, he realized that all the delights of this world couldn’t possibly be called “True Living.” For all the delights of this world merely serve to lessen the troubles and hindrances [of life], and after such troubles are no more, what would be the essence of life for which the world was created? For this God said to him, “Go for yourself,” meaning “Go to yourself.” For in truth nothing in this world could be called life, rather, real life is to be found within yourself. “And you shall rejoice in the Lord, you shall glory in the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 41:16). That is life.
Abraham was a righteous rebel, in his own time, of course. He pushed back against the strong thrust of a technocratic society devoted entirely to efficiency and technological advancement. It was the same sort of environment that Roszak found in the United States, that society that featured such little regard for the individual and their experience. In that time, conditions led to youthful rebellions, championed by cultural descendants of Abraham, the spiritual seeking, and searchers for personal meaning. Abraham, too, was born into a society unified to an unhealthy degree. Opposed to all this, Abraham, depicted by the Midrash and then much later by the Hassidic masters, cast himself as a seeker, ultimately searching deep within himself and rejoicing in God.