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The great confusion of miscommunication

After the flood, all of humanity joined together to build a tower to the sky and revealed that unity isn't all it's cracked up to be (Noah)
I have no idea what you're talking about. From Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Tower of Babel (circa 1563)
From 'The Tower of Babel,' by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1563.

And the whole earth was of one language and of common speech…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” (Genesis 11:1-4).

Leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election, I asked my then 4-year-old son if he was interested in learning about who was running for president. “Running for president?” he asked, and then yelled out, “I bet they can’t run as fast as this“ as he ran at full speed across the room.

Homonyms, like “run,” are just one example of how conveying meaning through speech can be confusing. This confusion is often magnified exponentially amidst people speaking different languages. One would think then, that in an ideal world, in which humanity has the best chance of cooperating and flourishing, people would all speak the same language. Yet, we see in the Tower of Babel narrative that unity and shared language led to such an egregious sin that God responded by mixing up humanity’s languages. How could it be that speaking the same language would more likely lead to sin than speaking multiple languages?

One metaphorical interpretation of this narrative is that when we are surrounded by people who all speak the same language, who all have the same thoughts, ideas, and interpretations of events, we are apt to start believing that our way of thinking, or even that we ourselves, are not only right, but godly. We are then in grave danger of believing we can build towers that reach heaven. What is the solution? As God decreed: we need different languages. We need to be amid people who speak differently than we do, who have a diversity of perspectives and visions that challenge our ways of thinking and keep us humble.[1]

A careful reading of the text reveals numerous ways the Tower of Babel generation believed it was godly. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that one of the first acts God performed in creation was to separate heaven from earth. By building a tower on earth that would connect to heaven, the Tower of Babel generation believed it could improve on God’s creation by undoing this division of heaven and earth. This fallacy of thought is perhaps best alluded to in the text when it states, “God came down to see the city and tower” (11:5). Humanity believed its tower could reach heaven, but God had to come down from heaven to see its earthly tower.

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag also uses textual analysis to show that the generation that built the Tower of Babel believed it was godly. Rabbi Leibtag shows that throughout the Bible, man is charged with bringing God’s name into the world. This starts at the end of the Adam and Eve narrative when the text states, “Then he began to call out in the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26), and continues with Abraham, who twice built an altar to call out the name of God. The Jewish people ultimately are charged with building the Tabernacle where God’s name will dwell. In the Tower of Babel narrative, however, man builds a structure that will “make us a name.” The people of that era replaced their sanctified theocentric mission of promoting God’s name with the anthropocentric promotion of their own.

On a psychological level, this generation, living soon after the world was nearly destroyed by a flood, may, out of fear, have instinctively wanted to build a structure as high as possible to evade any future treacherous waters. Here too, however, the people would have believed that they could outsmart God, and not trusted that God would keep His covenant not to destroy all of humanity again.

We, like the Tower of Babel generation, often find ourselves in a sea of uncertainty. Amid this instability, it is tempting to seek certainty or higher ground by aligning ourselves exclusively with people who think just like us. With advancements of social media, the vastness of the Internet and an ever-growing wide array of news sources, it is increasingly easy for us to surround ourselves with and educate ourselves through people who think and speak our same language. If we do not expose ourselves to diverse perspectives, to multiple languages, however, we too may begin to think our ideas are impenetrable, and transcendent, and that they can reach to the heavens.

The Talmud in Bava Metzia 84a tells the story of Rav Yochanan, who fell into deep grief after the death of his study partner. The Rabbis placed before him the very learned Rav Eliezer ben Pedat as a new study partner. Every time Rav Yochanan stated a dictum, Rav Eliezer would bring a baraita (a tannaitic source) to support Rav Yochanan. Rav Yochanan cried out, asking Rav Eliezer why he was not like his old study partner, who “used to raise 24 objections, to which I gave 24 answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law.” Rav Yochanan continued, “while you say, ‘A baraita has been taught which supports you.’ Do I not know myself that my dicta are right?”

Seeking diverse ideas may change or expand our way of thinking, or at the very least may sharpen it. It allows us to build ideas that can help humanity thrive, while keeping our ideas, and most importantly ourselves, grounded.

[1] Thank you to Becca Sendor-Israel from whom I first heard this interpretation.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a trained facilitator through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across difference. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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