The NKVD – the Soviet secret police – invaded Isaac Babel’s vacation home on May 15, 1939 and arrested one of the great short story writers of the last century.
Babel was hauled off to Moscow’s Lubyanka prison: the NKVD tortured and interrogated Babel for six months.
He confessed to trumped-up charges of espionage but later recanted his confession. But it was too late. After a clandestine trial he was shot to death in January 1940 by a Stalinist firing squad. His final plea to the police state – “Let me finish my work.” The NKVD destroyed his papers. It was only with death of Stalin that Babel was “rehabilitated.”
Why did Stalin want Babel dead? Babel was a highly respected writer of genius who, while a supporter of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, presented a reality that the Soviet regime deemed secular heresy.
The Odessa-born Jew refused to adhere in his fiction to the tenets of “Socialist Realism.”
The USSR demanded of its creative minds to present the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise. No criticism of the regime was acceptable – the success of the latest five-year plan was solely the subject of the fiction of mediocrity (propaganda, really). Most Soviet writers sold out and followed Stalin’s cultural mandate to the letter. Babel refused and, after great success in penning such classics as The Red Cavalry, he eventually ceased writing and remained silent. After his protector Maxim Gorky died, Babel was doomed.
There is no paradise on earth.
The attempts to create political and religious utopias have been a failure that has led to the death of millions of people.
Where Eden stood, many revolutionaries have constructed a Tower of Babel that would invest them with the power of God.
The message of the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is that after eating from the Tree of Knowledge there is no going back to paradise. We live our lives as autonomous human beings who can make choices, good and bad. But we will never attain immortality though we possess the attribute of God to will good and evil.
Beware of those selling utopia.
Unlike Winston Smith in the last pages of George Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984 – “I hate Big Brother.”
For human beings to live and thrive there must be law and there must be government. But after Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot, and al-Qaeda, the Tehran mullahs, and the worshippers at the altar of the Almighty Algorithms the quest for messianic glory and the creation of paradise on earth is a delusion.
Uprooting paradise is not just the task of a government that allows its citizens to live in liberty, away from social control.
It is also an individual mandate.
As adults, we were not meant to live in an innocence in which all our needs are met by governing institutions or spiritual gurus. Life is tough.
We struggle. We face disappointments and failures. We have drives that we must control.
The state or the synagogue cannot do this for us.
The believer who, at 75, has a conception of God that he had as a 10 year old is a fool.
As we live, our relationship to God changes. We see the good suffer and the evil succeed. We ask of God, as did Job, why we are suffering? The Hebrew Bible is not afraid to ask questions of God’s justice. Those who never have a doubt about the reality of God’s justice are engaged in self-delusion. Eden was not a punishment for sin but a wakeup call. We were never meant to live in a political paradise or a personal paradise.
The state or God or the corporation is not Big Brother. We have to earn our keep, think for ourselves, and dare to question both authority and those rebels like the Jacobins who murdered in the name of creating a new Eden, whether secular or religious. Paradise is the ultimate safe space. We must, sometimes, take a leap of faith.
But I look before I leap.
God stationed cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword East of Eden to guard the Tree of Life.
This was done to prevent Adam and Eve from escaping from the realm of human reality.
The yearning to return to paradise is dangerous. The Garden of Eden should only be reserved for the dead.
For the living, self-reliance and personal responsibility negate the delusion that a great power will save us and spare us from thought that can be both enlightening and painful.
We believe in God and we trust democracies to formulate just laws and allow us to travel on a journey of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We neither need nor want Eden, except as an otherworldly ideal and a goal in this world to make the world a better place.
But utopia is never the answer. For where Eden stood, Babel is only waiting to be built.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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