By Rabbi Lewis John Eron
The Psalmist declares, “How manifold are Your works, Eternal One! With wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your creatures” (Psalms 104:25). In our tradition, the diversity within nature and human culture testifies to God’s greatness. It evokes a sense of awe and celebration.
An ancient midrash, an interpretive story, illustrates this insight by contrasting God with a human king. In it, the rabbis of old addressed the question of why God created one primordial couple to be the progenitors of humanity. When a human king wishes to demonstrate his wealth and power, they argued, he mints coins with his image. They all look alike. However, when God, the King of Kings, wished to show God’s wealth and power, God created a world full of unique individuals, although each one of us were minted, as it were, from the same die — our biblical grandparents, Eve and Adam (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a).
Our God is a God who creates and sustains a diverse world. Our task, therefore, is not to destroy this diversity but to hallow it as a sign of God’s power and glory. Humanity’s purpose is not to create one faith, one people or one nation. Our goal is to create a world in which the diversity of the creation is cherished.
Our tradition teaches us this lesson from the negative example — the story of the Tower of Babel — the story of the confusion of tongues and the dispersion of humanity. The biblical story and its rabbinic interpretation teach us to treasure the range of human experiences — the variety of peoples and cultures — because the gateway to God is found through diversity. The builders of the Tower of Babel held the false belief that through the unity that results from forced homogeneity, people could be at peace, could have access to heaven and could approach God.
The rabbis interpret the Tower of Babel story to alert us to the practical dangers of this mindset. They describe the city of Babel as the first and archetypical authoritarian state. Its ruler, Nimrod, exemplifies the despot, strongman, dictator or monarch — who rules his domain as if it were the expression of his singular rule. Although the rabbis had not experienced the tyranny of modern colonial empires, communist regimes and fascist dictatorships, their experience of life under Roman domination taught them well the dangers of totalitarian rule.
The rabbis also picture Babel as the model for corporate enterprise in which the product is more important than the worker, in which profit for the few takes precedence over prosperity for the many, and “teamwork” means loss of self. According to our sages, the builders of the tower valued a brick more than a person. Although the rabbis did not experience the excesses of modern industrial concerns, the thoughtlessness of corporate oligopolies and the bottom line mentality of corporate managers, their experience of premodern industry, ancient mining techniques and agricultural enterprises exposed them to the dangers of the
For our sages, Babel modeled an attempt to assert ideological or religious uniformity. At Babel, they argued there was but one faith, one belief and one way. The medieval Italian Jewish Bible scholar Sforno held, “The real crime of the builders was that they tried to impose one religion on humanity. God prevented this and by dispersing the people, kept alive a variety of beliefs. God knew that out of this diversity recognition of the Supreme Ruler would eventually arise.”
Our rabbis teach us that homogeneity does not lead to the gateway of God. We will never arrive if we commit ourselves to only one city, one project, or one ideology.
For Jews, the goal of human life is that each one of us can reach fulfillment according to our unique needs. We hope for the time in which all people can live in peace and security under their own fig trees, beneath their own vines (Micah 4:4). We believe like the prophet of old that the Divine will for each and every one of us is to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with his or her God (Micah 6:8).
Only by accepting our differences and learning to work together will we find strength. The name Babel is a multilingual pun, which shows the cultural sophistication of our ancient ancestors who wrote and read the Bible. In Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia, the name of the city, known as Hebrew as “Bavel” (Babel) or in English as “Babylon,” was Bab-illa — God’s Gate. Our biblical author plays with this by telling us the story of, about the people of Babylon who thought that through uniformity and homogeneity they had built a city in which they could have access to God’s own Gate.
But they were wrong. What they thought was God’s Gate, Bab-illa, was in reality only babel — only confusion. We come to God’s Gate only when we open up to experience of God’s full glory in the incomprehensible diversity of God’s creation and celebrate the pluralism inherent in the fullness of the varicolored nature of human life.
Rabbi Lewis John Eron is the rabbi emeritus of Lions Gate CCRC in Voorhees, N.J. He is the author of the newly published I AM: A Journey in Jewish Faith: A Spiritual/Theological Reflection on the Shema. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.