Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation



The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.1563

A number of Biblical stories are intended to provide an etiology of how certain things came to be. Within Parashat Noach is such an etiology in the story of the Tower of Babel. We may wonder why it is that there is a profusion of languages within the human family. The story of the Tower of Babel provides a response which, even if fantasy-driven, is nonetheless compelling.

Genesis, Chapter 11

1] All the earth had the same language and the same words. 2] As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3] Then people said to one another: “Come, let us make bricks and fire them hard.” So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. 4] Then they said, “Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” 5] Then the Eternal came down to look at the city and tower and people had built, 6] and the Eternal One said, “Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! 7] Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.” 8] So it came about that the Eternal scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9] That is why it was called Babel, because there the Eternal confused the speech of all the earth; and from there the Eternal scattered them over the face of the earth.

The fundamental implication of the story is that, left to our own devices, we humans all too easily fall prey to our own worst instincts – arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, the narrative suggests, if we humans were prevented from understanding one another, our arrogance and self-aggrandizement would be thwarted.

Thus the story of the Tower of Babel provides an etiology for the profusion of languages. But if we were to stretch that notion a bit, we might also find in it an explanation of ethnic and cultural diversity in general, offering the commentary that this diversity is a good thing. When we are all the same, whether it is through language or anything else, we humans are prone to arrogance. Recognizing the benefits of diversity, however, will help us to acquire humility, as we recognize that other languages, ethnic backgrounds, and cultural surroundings, though different from our own, are equally as interesting, and need to be understood and celebrated.

To state the obvious, this is a time of profound concern and anxiety for us, as we face a national election of monumental consequence. One of the issues that has been discussed often during this campaign is diversity. One side has made significant efforts at celebrating our diversity as Americans, and as members of the human family. The other has portrayed our diversity as a threat to America. But the reality of our country is that it is not the same country as it used to be. The picture of a white Christian majority in America is no longer an accurate reflection of America. But, one might surmise, many of those who latch onto the slogan of making America “great” again are actually very much afraid that they will be left out of the new, more diverse America that already is our reality. This, of course, completely ignores the reality of all those people and groups who were left out before! But the fault in this thinking is the belief that the realization of the American dream has to be a zero-sum game. If we widen our tent to include other people, why does that have to mean that we lose our own place in the tent?

We can delude ourselves by building towers of self-aggrandizement. Or, we can plant our feet firmly on the ground, and work to create a fairer, more compassionate, more inclusive society in our own midst. But, as we all know, whatever our perspective on the direction our country ought to take, we won’t have any part in the decision making if we don’t get out on Tuesday and vote – and encourage everyone we know to vote as well. As Americans, we dare not squander this sacred right.