October 19, 2012: Unity versus Uniformity (Noach)

Unity, not Uniformity

The opening episodes of the Book of Genesis are conventionally viewed as illustrations of human waywardness and divine punishment. I consider them otherwise. In my view, these stories, though not historically accurate, nevertheless portray profound truths about the human condition. For example, the salient lesson of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden is not that God punishes disobedience, but that planted within the human psyche is a longing for a paradise lost. Similarly, the outcome of the Tower of Babel story is conventionally interpreted as punishment for human hubris and idolatry. All the people of the earth come together to build a tower “whose top reaches to heaven, lest they be scattered throughout the world,” (Genesis 11:4) and in response, measure for measure, God does precisely that: He scatters them throughout the world.

The key to my understanding derives from a close reading of the first line: vayehi kol ha’aretz safah achat u-devarim achadim, “all the earth had the same language and the same words.” The superfluous phrasing begs the question, which in turn spawns a multitude of explanations: if the Torah says that everyone has the same language, why does it need to add that they have the same words? To the commentator Radak, the redundancy indicates that the ancient dwellers of the earth speak the same language both literally and figuratively, as we might say idiomatically in English to illustrate our like minds: “you and I speak the same language.” “They were,” says Radak, “of one accord.” Come to think of it, the very multiplicity of Rabbinic opinions on the phrase u-devarim achadim ironically illustrates the discordant world of human society, as we now know it. Once again, the narrative taps into deep human longing to return to an original harmonious age when “all the earth had the same language and the same words.”

The Tower of Babel story illustrates another facet of human nature as well: our desire to surround ourselves with likeminded people. We want to be settled; we don’t want to be challenged or disturbed. “The Torah says that the people settled in Shinar. (Genesis 11:2) This expression implies social criticism. Whenever the Torah uses the term yashav, settled, it means that people are overly at ease.” (Plaut, page 85) However, that’s not what God wants. God does not want human beings to be too comfortable. God does not want people to create uniform societies. Uniformity breeds complacency and arrogance, or worse, mob thinking and tyranny. “Behold,” says Adonai, “they all speak the same language and the same words, and if this is what they have begun to do, then there will be no stopping them from doing anything that they [wish to] undertake.” (Genesis 11:6) Instead, God wants us to speak different words. God wants us to be confronted by opposing viewpoints, almost as a system of checks and balances. More positively, God wants us to disperse throughout the world and create a kaleidoscope of rich societies, in fulfillment of the first commandment God issued to the first human being: “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Every community is a world in microcosm. How we relate to one another at Beth Shalom represents, or could represent, how nations interact on the global scale. In the wake of the High Holidays, when we all gathered in one sanctuary and worshipped together as one community, I have been contemplating the difference between uniformity and unity. Our support for each other in times of crisis, as well as our concerted response to external needs in the wider community, such as the call to social and environmental action, amply attest to our underlying cohesion. At the same time, we should not seek to homogenize our different practices and our different perspectives. Our strength lies precisely in rich diversity of our individual heritages, and not despite them. By the type of community we exemplify here, at Beth Shalom, we have the opportunity to model how Jews of different persuasions—indeed, how people of different persuasions— can live together harmoniously throughout the world.

It saddens me to imagine that if Bloomington were a city of 800,000, instead of 80,000, we all might splinter and form our separate synagogues. In the past, if a religious group clashed within the prevailing culture, it could pick up, leave, and carve out a separate domain where its adherents could operate free from outside interference. Thus, the Puritans set out for the New World in search of freedom, and more recently, the Mormons headed West to found their own society. The world has diminished to the point where we can no longer endlessly segregate to get out from under each other. As a species, we have, indeed, been fruitful, and multiplied, and filled the earth. We lack the luxury of establishing separate colonies on separate planets, like the characters in St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Even if, on a small scale, it is still possible for members of a congregation to leave and start a synagogue across town, on a global scale, we must find a way to coexist on the piece of real estate that we all share.

One of my favorite definitions of idolatry is the substitution of that which is finite for that which is infinite. Worshipping graven images, or—for that matter—money, power, people, institutions, or ideals, are all examples of idolatry, because in each case, one finite part of existence replaces the totality; one pursuit becomes the be-all and end-all of experience. In this respect, the Tower of Babel epitomizes ultimate idolatry, because its builders begin to view their way of thinking as the only way of thinking. The commentator Sforno writes: “[if they had been allowed to continue, they would have] completed their intention by imposing their idolatry universally on all of humankind. But God prevented this outcome. By dispersing them throughout the world, a variety of religions remained alive.” (Plaut, p.86) Sforno concludes with a remarkable assertion: “through the diverse mix of religious outlooks, God knew that one day universal acknowledgement of the Supreme Ruler would eventually arise in the natural progression of reality, in accordance with the Prophet Malachi: “from the rising of the sun to its going down, My Name is great among the nations.” (Malachi 1:11) In the end, the scattering of the earth’s inhabitants into a kaleidoscope of rich societies throughout the world constitutes not divine punishment, but an act of supreme lovingkindness. It is only through diversity that humanity will achieve redemption.

For a small community like Beth Shalom and for the entire world at large, the lesson of the Tower of Babel is the same. Our spiritual health is tied to the rich diversity of our individual heritages. Thank God we don’t all speak the same language. Thank God we don’t all have the same words. May we continue to grow more, not less, complex as a community and as a species, more, not less, variegated in our opinions, and more, not less, spirited in our debates. Above all, may our Beth Shalom, our House of Peace, and our planet Earth, grow ever stronger in our ability to contain and integrate our differences.