Parshat Noach: Toppling the Tower of Conformity

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” (Bereishit 11;4).

Last week, I posited that the Torah is a book that answers the question, “Who am I?” This week, with the story of Noach and the Tower of Bavel, the Torah comes to address a related question: who are we? No person is an island to themselves, and so when we talk about who we are as individuals, we also look at ourselves as a part of a greater whole, be it a family, a community, a nation, or even as a part of the human race. But what happens to my individual identity when I become part of a larger social group with its own identity? Does the “I” get lost in the “we”, or does one find their true expression in their broader circles of identity?

As humanity rebuilds after the flood, an ambitious and unprecedented initiative is announced: a tower that reaches to the heavens. The goal is part aspiration, part self-preservation. And though the text is extremely terse, one point is clear: this tower will serve as the symbol for the unified nature of humanity. So what’s the problem? Why does God skuttle these ambitious plans for unity?

At the beginning of Chapter 11 of Bereishit, we’re told that all humanity, i.e., the offspring of Noach’s three children Cham, Shem, and Yefet, shared a common language. They head east to start anew, and find a uniformly flat and wide-open plain in the land of Shinar perfect for settling. Building resources are abundant, and the conditions for starting anew all seem to be in place. From these plains the new world will sprout forth. 

But then a surprising new initiative is proposed: a building project of epic proportions. “Let us build a city and a tower which will reach up to the heavens.” This project carries an ideological motive as well: “We will make for ourselves a name, lest we become spread all over the Earth.”

But what does this cryptic statement mean? What is the goal of this tower that stretches towards the heavens, and how will that allow them to both make a name for themselves, and prevent themselves from being scattered?

Explains Rabbi Steinsaltz: humanity can spread out along the plain of Shinar, but the tower creates a natural border: the top of the tower must always stay in sight. And as long as they can live in sight of the tower, they will maintain their linguistic and ideological unity.

Additionally, their society will resemble their flat land and their building materials: absolute conformity, as symbolized by the great tower of bricks that never leaves their line of sight. 

“Let us make a name for ourselves,” they proclaim. We will make our name, our destiny for ourselves, and it will be one name, and one shared ideology for all. 

And what is God’s reaction to this bold initiative? 

“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” (Bereishit 11;6).

The tower, this grand physical structure, bears no mention by God. God is only concerned with the ideological objective behind the project: absolute conformity. And indeed, it seems to be of great concern. Why?

Here we call back to a theme we discussed in last week’s podcast: the great challenge of freewill. Humanity was blessed with freewill and made in the image of the Divine. Yet they are also susceptible to the seduction of evil. A world of conformity steered in the wrong direction could go wildly astray. 

G-d’s solution: confuse their language. By creating new modalities of expression, people will naturally break up into smaller tribes, and become dispersed throughout the world. And as a result, new cultures and new identities will be created.  According to Rav Steinsaltz, this creates a failsafe against evil ideologies penetrating the entirety of humanity. 

In other words, by deconstructing the world’s single unified identity, a system of checks and balances amongst the nations will emerge. 

There is another explanation that I’d like to explore. If ideological conformity is a recipe for chaos, then individual expression must be a part of the healthy evolution of humanity. Each of us must be given the space to explore and express our unique spiritual, emotional, and intellectual gifts. But if taken to the extreme, this too would have dangerous consequences. What significance does an individual have if they don’t exist within a broader framework?

Rabbi Avraham Kook, the father of the religious Zionist movement, discusses the importance of both developing a unique sense of self, as well as finding one’s self in the Jewish narrative. Indeed, he insisted that a Jew can never find their full individual expression without a connection to their broader national narrative. But he also understood the dangers of broader ideologies, and he offers an important caveat:

“Yet one must be careful to never allow one’s desire to improve the masses to undermine the perfection of one’s own individual character traits and actions,” (Ein Ayah, Brachot 1 pg. 47, translation by Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz).

First, explains Rav Kook, individuals must develop themselves. Only then can they find themselves in the greater national narrative, and eventually, in the greater narrative of humanity. The process must be from the inside-out. Only then can it express a healthy balance. The question, “Who am I” must precede “Who are we.”

The creation of smaller tribes allows for unique national identities, as well as a personal identity as both separate from yet intrinsically connected to one’s greater identity. As opposed to people becoming “just another brick in the wall,” a rich and diverse architecture of humanity can be created. So God separates the people and confuses their languages, not as a punishment, but as a rectification. It is a breaking down of the masses in order to build up the individual. Once the individual is aware of their strengths and weaknesses, they can truly contribute to their broader society, and the society will grow along with them.

True, this model of multiplicity of ideologies and identities also comes with tremendous challenges. Explicit in the existence of competing ideologies is competition. And competing narratives can quickly turn into warring narratives and then into war itself. But nevertheless, here the Torah stresses the importance of diversity of expression and identity. But there is an important caveat: as long as they are from the inside-out, then they will find a positive expression in the world. 

In loving memory of Rebbitzen Adele Derby.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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