Think Different: A Sermon on the Tower of Babel

Toward the end of Parashat Noah we encounter an intriguing but perplexing story: After the flood, Noah’s descendants multiplied and began to settle in the land of Shinar, otherwise known as Babylon. There, they decide to build a great city with a tall tower. God sees what the people are building and becomes upset over the tower. So God confounds the peoples’ speech, rendering them unable to communicate with each other, and scatters them across the earth.

What was so bad about a bunch of people trying to build a tower? Many of the classical commentators understood this passage as an allegory about human hubris. Perhaps, when the people state that they want to build a “tower that reaches to heaven,” they were implying that they desired to reach the realm of the divine, or to become godlike, or, perhaps, even to challenge God’s sovereignty, to wage war against God. Their arrogance required God to put them in their place.

I have always found this interpretation deeply unsatisfying. Building a tower in an attempt to become godlike may be folly, but it hardly seems criminal, or even immoral. The narrative begs a crucial question: Is it possible for human beings to literally build a stairway to heaven, or to become like gods, or to wage war against God? Interestingly, God’s rationale for punishing the people and stopping them from finishing the tower is “if this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach” (Gen. 11:6). Does God really feel threatened by humanity? Does God really mean that literally anything is possible for we human beings, including physically entering heaven, attaining godlike status, assuming godlike powers, or successfully waging a war against God? That if we put our minds to it and work really hard at it, we, too, can literally become gods? Most of us know enough about the Bible and Jewish tradition to presume that the answer to those questions must be no.

But if those actions are impossible, then God’s response seems both strange and harsh. Why does the building of the tower so anger God? And what does God mean when God says that nothing that [human beings] may propose to do will be out of their reach?” Why punish the people, rather than, say, by teaching them the error of their ways? And why choose the specific punishments of confusing their speech and scattering them across the world?

Let’s look closely for a moment at the whole narrative. It begins like this:

[And so it was] that 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 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.’ The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

The first piece of information that the text gives us is that “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” This is important. After all, God justifies punishing them for building the tower because they are “one people with one language for all,” a reality that apparently makes it possible for the people to do just about anything they desire. And, of course, the punishment God chooses, confounding them linguistically and scattering them geographically, is directly connected to this initial fact. The terminology used here, however, is interesting. Why does the Torah need to say both that the people “had the same language” and that they had “the same words.”

The rabbinic tradition frequently notes that, typically, the Torah is a terse document; it tries to say what it needs to say in as few words as possible. So when the Torah uses two words in a verse when it could just have easily used one to express the same sentiment, it must be making a different point with each phrase. According to Rashi, “the same language” refers to the Holy Tongue, or Hebrew. And “the same words” means that the people held the same beliefs. In other words, not only did they speak the same language; they used that language to arrive at a uniformity of thought and opinion.

When God expresses fear over what humanity could accomplish when everyone had the same language, we should understand God’s concern to be more directly about the dangers inherent in a universal language, namely, that a common language can lead inexorably and irredeemably to common beliefs.

A major problem with commonly held beliefs is that they are often wrong. Consider this: according to Jewish law, if the judges in a capital case unanimously find a defendant guilty, then the defendant must be acquitted. At first blush, this seems counterintuitive. Indeed, our own American judicial system requires unanimity in order to convict in a capital case. And yet the rabbis of the Talmud observed that unanimous agreement often indicated the presence of some systemic error in the judicial process. They didn’t always know what the error was — perhaps a prestigious and respected judge had some sort of unconscious bias about the defendant that caused him to misinterpret the facts, but given his status, his colleagues were more readily influenced by his opinion — but they intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, it most likely is. It’s somewhat paradoxical, but it turns out that the things that everyone knows are true more often than not turn out to be false, whereas when some people believe something but not others, there is a higher probability that one of the divergent groups will be correct.

This is a meaningful point when it comes to the Tower of Babel story, because – and let’s be honest here – the beliefs that everyone agreed upon were nonsensical. According to Rashi, the people either universally agreed that they should wage war on God, or that they should build some kind of scaffolding that would prevent another flood. The midrash adds that the people’s desire “to make a name for ourselves” and to avoid being “scattered all over the world” were rooted in the same anxiety, that they wanted to build the tower to challenge God so that God would not destroy them as God had destroyed the generation of the Flood. As Professor Frink says in The Simpsons, these are ideas so ridiculous they make me “want to laugh out loud and chortle.”

But the fact that universally held opinions are often wrong does not inherently make them morally problematic. The larger problem is that when something is unanimously agreed upon, people become extremely reticent to change their minds. When people are certain about something, and feel emboldened in their certainty about their belief because everyone else thinks similarly, they become all the more willing to harm themselves or others — indeed, even to kill or be killed — for their beliefs. This, according to legend, is precisely what happened with the Tower of Babel, and why it elicited such a forceful response from God. One midrash holds that the people were so passionate about building the tower, so convinced were they of its utter necessity, that they paid no mind if a worker on the tower fell to his death; whereas if a brick fell, they would wail and mourn and lament the setback. The peoples’ conviction of the justness of their cause, aided and abetted by the universality of their belief, diminished their humanity and their concern for the welfare of their fellow human beings.

This, I think, is part of God’s problem with the building of the Tower of Babel. It’s not simply that the peoples’ rationale for building it was foolish. It’s that universally held beliefs, however foolish they may be, can result in monstrously immoral behavior.

And there is yet a deeper danger lurking in uniform belief. If people can convince each other of nonsense like the need to build scaffolding that will prevent the sky from falling, or the plausibility of physically attacking and defeating God, then there is literally nothing that people couldn’t be convinced of; not only no matter how wrong, but also how dangerous.

That’s where the relationship between uniform language and uniform belief factors in, and why God panics when God observes the people building the tower. Recall that when God sees the building, God says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” The Hebrew word for “propose” is “yazmu,” which is a revealing word choice. Yazmu is better translated as they may conspire, as in the eidim zommemim, the conspiratorial witnesses of Deuteronomy chapter 19, who conspire with each other to give false testimony that will result in the conviction of an innocent person. God’s concern, then, is not merely that, with ease of communication, people could convince each other of nonsense. To put it back in the language of the text, it’s that if, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then there is literally nothing — no matter how dangerous — that people couldn’t conspire to convince each other of. When dangerous ideas are universally agreed upon, they can become extraordinarily deadly.

God’s response, then, to scatter the people and cause them to speak different languages, is less a punishment than a course-correction. God observes the dangers inherent in uniform thinking, seeing how groupthink can yield not only wrongheaded but harmful ideas, and can cause people to abandon their compassion in fealty to their beliefs, and reasons that by making interpersonal communication harder, both through language and proximity, uniformity of thought will be diminished.

God does not want us all to think or be alike. God made every human being different for a reason, to encourage freedom and independence of thought. We are called to be skeptics, to challenge commonly held ideas, to generate new concepts and theories, to confront orthodoxies and smash sacred cows. We are urged not to blindly follow the crowd or to acquiesce in our thinking simply because everyone else believes differently.

We are challenged to not avoid ideological conflict or controversy in order to maintain some superficial standard of civility or long-standing courtesies, despite what is being argued today in some quarters (just as it was in the eras of abolitionism, of women’s suffrage, and civil rights). We are beckoned by our tradition to seek truth and to advance justice, even if it makes us unpopular.

This is even true of our most deeply cherished beliefs. Remember that according to the midrash the language the people all spoke before the Tower of Babel was Hebrew, and that language is both an aspect of culture and a vessel for cultural norms and values. In other words, before the Tower of Babel, everyone was a Hebrew. Given the fact that the Torah and the Jewish tradition generally think that the Torah and the Jewish tradition are pretty swell, given the fact that we Jews like to see ourselves as having a special relationship with God, wouldn’t you expect to see the Torah express a desire for everyone to be Jewish? And yet here, in the Tower of Babel story, we see God confronting that very possibility and, instead, choosing to institute diversity. God made us different because God wants us to be different, and rejoices in the diversity of belief, thought, and culture in our world. Indeed, as the Mishnah puts it, human diversity is a reflection of God’s greatness, for when a human ruler mints coins, all the coins come out from the mold identical to one another. But not so with God: God created a mold in the first human beings, Adam and Eve; but when more human beings were made from that original mold, no two came out the same.

In our lives, we constantly face pressures to think and act like everyone else. As the world shrinks through modern communication technologies, and it becomes increasingly easy to communicate with one another across linguistic and geographic and cultural divides, it makes these pressures even stronger. But our parashah today reminds us that we must always beware of the towers that popular opinion can lure us to build. And the bigger the climb, the harder the fall.

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