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Building Unity through Diversity – Parshat Noach 5775

For a Printable PDF version click here: Parshat Noach- Unity Through Diversity

The Threat of Universalism:

As I scanned the newspaper over Shabbat I noticed that familiar feeling of dread creeping up on me again. As of late I find reading and listening the news fills me with a foreboding that I can’t shake.  ISIS is gaining popularity if not by consensus then by force, the world and in particular Europe, is becoming ever more hostile towards Israel and increasingly anti-Semitic.  In Israel itself, though there was a brief lull during operation Cast lead, there are seemingly insolvable rifts between so many different groups and sects.  I keep hearing the innocent voice of my eight year old daughter during the summer war asking ‘Ima why does the world hate us’, and I remember answering in my head ‘ I really have no idea’. Though upon reflection I wonder if many of the problems mentioned above stem in essence from a deep fear and intolerance towards difference of the other.  When someone is different to us we fear they will try and change us, or we simply cannot tolerate the choice they make to think, live or be different.  We like to think of ourselves as right, justified, living the truth and hence believe deep down that everybody should also follow suit.  It would be simple would it not to live in a homogenous world, for everyone to think look, feel and believe the same thing.  A world where we all strive for the same ideals, a world where there is no religion that makes us different, no nation that give us different identities, no Israel that presents a counter presence to Islam in the Middle East.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world wide web coupled with the globalised market economy managed to conquer our souls and minds, making the universalistic principles of technology, globalization and a shared language unanimously accepted by all? Surely then when I open the paper I wouldn’t be faced with the sinking feeling that we are moving towards the apocalypse.

And yet we know from history and the very times in which we live, that the project of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ will lead to catastrophic consequences. A world without religion, nations or states, leads very quickly to intolerance, disrespect for the identity of the individual and collapse of society as we know it.  One need only mention, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, Al Qaida, ISIS to name a few.  Universalism may sound  ideal in practise, but in reality it simply cannot work without coercion.  Because as humans we are built to be different, we are made to think differently, to live differently.  We are each of us made up of our own identity, experiences, memories and thoughts. We each have our individual narratives, stories and beliefs.  As individuals and as nations we have a language that both literally and metaphorically is made up of our history, our cultural experiences, our complex identity, and though we must find a shared language with those around us, we cannot and we must not allow our language to become universal in every sphere, for if we do we will have lost everything we stand for.

The Tower of Bavel: Language and Identity

This is the message we find in this week’s Parsha,. The Torah is as ancient as books come, yet it speaks to every generation, every person at every time. Its message is as old as time, but as young as the people who hear it and read it.  The message inherent in the Bavel narrative is particularly relevant today, it could even be argued that God wrote this just for our generation.  The story is enigmatic, and of course by being so leaves the reader to unravel the message through careful and thoughtful dissection.

It begins with men in the plain of Shinar attempting to build a tower towards heaven. They are united with one language and a common goal.  They are innovative becoming the first builders, creating bricks and mortar and they are determined.  And yet God comes down to see what they are doing and decides they need to be scattered and given different languages.  At face value, like the world I described above, these people seem to be pursuing a worthy dream.  A world where everyone is in pursuit of the same goal.  The greatest question on the text is what exactly do the people do wrong?  Why does God punish them for being united? The text is ambiguous, there is no definitive answer.  I bring the narrative below to allow us to study its language carefully.

Bereshit chapter 11

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים.  ב וַיְהִי, בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם; וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.  ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ, הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים, וְנִשְׂרְפָה, לִשְׂרֵפָה; וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה, לְאָבֶן, וְהַחֵמָר, הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר.  ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם:  פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.  ה וַיֵּרֶד ה, לִרְאֹת אֶת-הָעִיר וְאֶת-הַמִּגְדָּל, אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ, בְּנֵי הָאָדָם.  ו וַיֹּאמֶר ה, הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם, וְזֶה, הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת; וְעַתָּה לֹא-יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.  ז הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם–אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ.  ח וַיָּפֶץ ה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיַּחְדְּלוּ, לִבְנֹת הָעִיר.  ט עַל-כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ, בָּבֶל, כִּי-שָׁם בָּלַל ה, שְׂפַת כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם ה, עַל-פְּנֵי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.

1 And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

The story begins with the words ‘the land was of one language and ‘דברים אחדים’ which could translate in a number of ways though is generally translated as ‘one speech’. Already the scene is being set.  The conformity of language hints to a conformity of ideas.  The  דברים אחדים is exactly that – things that are the same. In the valley of Shinar an oppressive conformity is emerging, and with it the loss of identity.  It begins as unity, universalism of ideas, a shared language and project, but it ends in sameness, oneness and an oppressive submission of differentiation.

As I have discussed before[1] the notion of language represents my inner world, my identity.  When I express myself I do it from the point of my own subjective references.  Though I may try at times to objectify my thoughts, as have mathematicians, physicists and philosophers over the years, ultimately any thinking and expression of thought will reflect even in a very minimal way, my own subjective experiences.  When Adam names the animals in the Garden of Eden, he is beginning the human project of language development.  Through ‘naming’ he confers meaning to an abstract entity.  Language is about conferring our own humanly constructed vision to the world around us.  In this way language becomes partial, speech becomes a reflection of human interests, sentiments, ideas and perceptions.  Speech by its very nature is dependent on the identity and partiality of its speaker.  Speech is God’s gift to man.  It is a tool for his creative capacity, it is his ability to conceptualise ideas and hence find meaning in the given world.  It separates us from animals, and hence emphasises man’s differences.  It is a means by which we  can simultaneously articulate our individuality and express our commonality with the other.  It is what makes us human, and hence what makes us different from others.  Language is also the expression of development.  Every language has a particular history, comes with a specific culture and develops over time.  It reflects the identity of its beholder but becomes a part of a future objective means to impart information.  Thus far in Bereshit we have read several lists of lineage.  Common to them all is the list of names of each person.  A name tells us the story of man, his search for meaning and identity.  It is the trademark of humanity, it is the essence of individuality.  When man no longer possess a name tragedy has struck.

The Danger of Conformity and the threat of Extinction:

Thus when the Torah tells us that the ‘whole land was of one language and one speech’, our ears should be attuned to the ominous tone inherent in that phrase. There is a danger in ‘one language’ and a ‘oneness of things’.  As soon as language becomes the same, it loses its fluidity, its ability to develop.  When we find a universal language, and that language becomes THE language, we have lost the richness of our subjective cultures, history, narratives and hence we have lost the essence of humanity.  The people are without names, except for the universal שם name they hope to achieve in creating their tower (verse 4). The language of the narrative emphasises this uniformity.

The text is only nine verses long. Within these nine verses there are several roots of words that are employed repetitively, creating a conformity within the text itself. In a subtle but brilliant way the text uses linguistic tools to convey a message about language and its inherent danger.

The same roots are employed multiple times throughout the text (בנה 7 x, כל הארץ 5x, שפה 5 x, שם 7x, אחד/ת 5x, כל הארץ  5x), and shows how the repetition of the words is not an absence of style but a style in itself.[2]  There is order, sequence, repetitiveness in the language of the text, but because of that there is no growth, development, lucidity or complexity.  The text is one unified narrative; it is words repeated and language drained of its richness but exactly because of this anomaly it has left itself open to being questioned.  In an ironic and profound development Torah Shebaal Peh – the oral law, has provided us with a plethora of interpretations to these nine verses, that demonstrate the need for a multiplicity of approaches to one idea/narrative.  The very project of Bavel has been destroyed through the language and interpretation of God’s Torah.

In a modern scholarly book by Leon R. Kass he observes an interesting point in the story of Bavel:

Second among their failings, the men refuse to look not only up but down. They seem wilfully to forget and deny their own mortality.  Unlike Cain, who named hi city for his son, the men of Babel want  a name for themselves here and now (‘let us make a name for ourselves’), and give no thought for their offspring. Rational, but proudly unreasonable, these self made makers forget their animality and the need for procreation.  Though called to be fruitful and multiply, they fly from procreation and pour all their energies into a constructed civic heroism.  Mind and craft, they implicitly believe, can thoroughly triumph over necessity and mortality.

(Leon R .Kass: The beginning of Wisdom; Reading Genesis p219)

The people have invested insurmountable energy and innovation into fighting against God’s decree to ‘multiply and fill the earth’. Instead they want to guarantee their unity and indivisibility by building not people or generations, but instead towers and a universal name.[3] The word used to describe God impeding their efforts in verse 8 – וַיָּפֶץ יְהוָה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיַּחְדְּלוּ, לִבְנֹת הָעִיר  – And God dispersed them from there across the whole earth and stopped them building the city – is the same  term used to describe the inability of women to conceive.[4]  The parrallel emphaises that as a consequnece to  the peoples  refusal to follow God’s plan for humanity to scatter the earth and multiply, they are scattered. They purposely prevent procreation, God ‘stops’ their plans and scatters them so they can rectify their actions.[5]

One final observation on the text. As a result of the people’s attempted universalising of humanity, God changes their language and scatters them across the face of earth – ‘ עַל-פְּנֵי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ’. This terms is used twice, once in verse 8 and once in verse 9. The word ‘panei’ – the face, I believe is utilized to bring contrast to the building project of the men of Shinar. In verse 5 we are told that the people built ‘ וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם’ a tower with its head in the heavens. There is a startling parallel here between man’s attempted endeavour and God’s response. The men here wanted to create a tower with a name but its essence was its head in the heavens.  If we look down on the ‘heads’ of people, we cannot identify them.  Most people’s heads will look the same.  There will be no identifying features, nothing that makes me different to the next person.  We become a universalised vision of man – a Platonic ideal of mankind through our sameness, our oneness, our universal name.[6]  In contrast God decision to scatter the people on the ‘face’ of the earth, is attesting to need for פנים – for seeing and appreciating the face of the other. As opposed to the head, the face embodies the facet of individuality.  No one face is the same.  Difference, essence, spirit is reflected in the face of the individual.  To rectify the ‘tower with its head in the clouds’ God had to hand humanity back its ‘face here on earth’.[7] Universalism seeks to return us to Plato’s heaven where we all emanate from the ‘ideal form of man’, where we are all the same.  God shows us the beauty of our differences, the need to diversity and the true nature of unity that emanates not from being the same but from being different and respecting the other in all of his/her diversity.[8]

This idea finds expression in the imagination of the Rabbis. In a brilliant and well know Midrash we read as follows:

There were no stones with which to build the city and the tower. What did they do? They made bricks and fired them like a potter, until they built it seven miles high… If a person fell and died, their hearts would not go out to him, but if a brick fell, they would sit, and weep, and say: When will another one go up in its place? Avraham Ben Terach passed by and saw them building the city and the tower, and he cursed them in the name of God. (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, 24)

The Midrash here, as with the many other classic commentators, comes to answer the perplexing question that is left unanswered in the peshat of what exactly the generation of the tower did wrong. In the minds of the Rabbis the people cared more for the goal than they did for the sanctity of human life.  Most idealistic movements and projects start out as a great act of unity and commonality with others, but in time become movements of oppression and dictatorship so as to keep in check any dissenting voices.  In this way unity gives way to autocracy and idealism to despotism and repression. They lead to worshipping false God’s that create a universal language of relativism – itself an oxymoron, but yet a phenomenon we are seeing today.

The Netziv, Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin, who wrote the Emek Hadevar, offers a fascinating insight into what he sees in the imagery of the tower.  Writing in the late nineteenth century, we can be sure that he is speaking from the perspective of one who either is living through or predicting what would be impending history:

It was not the content of the things that aroused God to oppose their plan, but the fact that they were unanimous. Since people’s deot are not identical, the builders of the tower feared that people would abandon their one view and consider alternative thoughts…. Hence they decided to kill anyone who had an idea different than theirs…So too they prohibited travel from one city to another… and they used the tower as a watchtower to observe and keep control all their residents… From there they sent out emissaries to maintain surveillance over all their domain and under them served military officers to punish all violators and throw them into the furnace. (Haemek Hadavr Bereshit 11)

It was not the unity that God found disagreeable, but rather the way in which they governed the people and the city that was not favourable.  The fact that they took initiative in building, developing and creating a city and tower was not the problem.   Rather that through the extreme centralisation of the goal, an ambivalence to change, dynamic interaction, creativity, human ideas and language (and through that human dialogue) was created.  Hence by scattering and changing their language to continue working unified towards their common goal they must listen to each other, learn to respect the other and find a common language without losing the beauty of each ones differences.

Uniting in all our Diversity:

There certainly exists a tension between unity and diversity, and we must address the question of how to create the appropriate balance between the two. Rav Kook’s commentary goes far in understanding how to reconcile the seeming inconsistency:

כי הבניין יבנה מחלקים שונים, והאמת של אור העולם תבנה מצדדים שונים, וכל השיטות יתבררו, ואלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים, מדרכי העבודה והחינוך השונים […] שבזה יתישרו הדברים ולא יהיו סותרים זה את זה. וריבוי הדעות שבא על ידי השתנות הנפשות. דווקא הוא מעשיר את החוכמה וגורם להרחבתה ויוכר שאי אפשר היה לבנין השלום שיבנה אלא על ידי כל אותן ההשפעות הנראות כמנצחות זו את זו .

The Temple will be built from many different parts and the truth of the worldly light will be built from different perspectives, and all the opinions will be made clear, and ‘these and these are the words of the Living God’, the differing paths of education and worship will come together, joining things that will not contradict each other. The multiplicity of opinions that come through the diversity of souls are what enriches wisdom and causes a broadening and understanding that without which we could not build peacefully, it will be built through the influences that seems to defeat each other.

(From the Siddur of Rav Kook ‘Olot Raaya’ page 330)

It would be easy to rid ourselves of our identity, if we did so our lives would certainly be easier, no demonization by our enemies, no wars, no fighting against injustice. If everyone was the same, there would be no arguments, death, wars or bloody conflicts.  And yet for everyone to be the same, would require the loss of all that makes us human; our passionate discourses, our ideological sentiments, our rich and varied cultural history.  We would lose the beauty of our diverse identities and individual experiences.  We would lose poetry and literature, art and music.  We would lose the goodness that religion offers, and the novelty of ideas.  In short we would become static, stagnant, unvaried motionless robots that acquiesce to the universal norms dictated by the builders of Bavel.  We would become the coerced and taunted humans marching under the black flag of ISIS or the self professed liberalists marching under their anti Israel banner.  And so we must today more than ever pay heed to the message of Bavel.  We must warn the world of the dire consequences of abandoning our individuality and our national identity.  We must awaken them to the difference between being a part of a head count and engaging with each other face to face.  We must remind them of the rainbow of Noach – separate colours standing in unity without losing their individuality. We must once again follow in the footsteps of our ancestor Avraham to fight against conformity, to listen to the word of God, to respect the voice of the other, and see in his face the light of the Divine.  The builders of Bavel have returned, the question we have to ask ourselves is are we going to allow them to stay?

Shabbat Shalom

[2] See Judy Klitsner book ‘Subversive Sequels in the Bible’ where she notes the repetitiveness of words in the narrative. She believes the book of Shemot and the story of the midwives act as a subversive sequel to this narrative, and as a kind of redemption.  By bringing parallels between the two, in particular the absence of names, she shows that the midwives and women in the book of Shemot come to rectify the project of the builders of Bavel by redeeming their lack of identity and making a mark on the future of mankind by saving Moshe and the people of Israel, instead of simply being swallowed by the machinery of Pharaoh’s totalitarian regime.

[3] See Rashbam commentary on verse 4 where he argues that the sin of this generation was that they did not comply with God’s command to fill the earth and multiply and instead found a place to settle so that they would not be scattered.

[4] See Bereshit 18:11

[5] Though she does not state this in her book this point would also work well with Klitsner’s interpretation. The builders refusal to procreate is rectified through the midwives, whose very role was that of procreation.

[6] The renowned Greek philosopher Plato believed that the world in which live is simply a shadow of the true world existing in another realm called the world of ideas. In that world exists the prototype and true essence of all things from inanimate objects such as trees and tables to Man and ideas such as truth and justice.  What we experience here is simply a shadow of that true idea of the thing.  In Plato’s system the particularities that we experience here in this world that make us different are not real and hence not ideal.  The ideal resides in the universal vision of the ‘ideal’ man that exists in the world of ideas.  It is a philosophy where universalism trumps particularism.

[7] I am indebted to my class of women in Zichron Yaakov, with whom i learnt this text and who helped me think about and develop new ideas on this narrative, especially this idea of the head and the face.

[8] Rabbi Prof Jonathan Sacks in his book The Dignity of Difference shows how the events of 9/11 are predicated on Plato’s vision of universalism. Using the narrative of Bavel he shows how God comes to teach man the dignity of difference. The bible teaches man that unity must come out of respect for man’s diversity and not the opposite.

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