“They Spoke the Same Words” – Uniformity is not unity!

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the most famous and in my opinion misinterpreted stories in the bible.


Genesis 11:1-9

וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “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.”

But Adonai came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. Adonai said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So God scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Bible commentators wonder what was the thing that triggered God’s decision… The most common assumption is that those that were involved in building the tower were arrogant and thought that the height of the tower would equate their might to God’s.

However rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, also known as the Netziv, commentedFOOTNOTE: Footnote on the first sentence of the story: “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words”.

He says: “The text did not explain what those words were… it just tells us that they were the same words, to teach us that it wasn’t because of the content of the words themselves that the Holy One of Blessing was distressed. … here what happened is that all thought the same thing, and this came to be the problem of the settlement.”

What the Natziv remarks as the main issue that arises from this story is the lack of variety. They spoke the same words, they thought alike and they wished to remain in the same place….

In the next Torah portion, we will be introduced to Abraham and through his figure to monotheism, and the idea of the oneness of God. But as we see in our current Torah portion the idea of oneness does not mean uniformity.

In a study by psycholinguist Shiri Lev-AriFOOTNOTE: Footnote of Royal Holloway University of London, non-native English speakers from various countries were asked to record banal statements like “ants don’t sleep” in English. When native English speakers rated the recordings for their veracity, they rated the speakers with the heaviest accents as least true, while native speakers were rated most true. Interestingly, we are apparently less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent. Lev-Ari explains that negative judgments are the result of the additional effort that our brains must make to process foreign speech. Our brains then shift the blame for this effort onto the veracity of the speaker.
Yet, this is not a set condition. In as little as four minutes, a person can improve how much they understand of speech with a foreign accent. The more we’re exposed to foreign accents, the more our brains train themselves to process speech in general more efficiently. 

There are two ideas that are key in order to understand the deep meaning of our tale. The first one is “B’tzelem Elohim”, which means that we, humans, were created in the image of God. This notion implies that we all share a common denominator, but at the same time this commonality encompasses the endless variety of human-kind. And here it is again, unity but not uniformity.
The second idea is פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ “Pru u’rvu umal’u et ha’aretz”, commonly read as multiply yourselves and spread over the land. But the word “r’vu” also means variety. So we are called to participate in the creative action, to spread over the land and also to increase human variety.

Rambam teaches in “the Guide for the Perplexed” that the first of the ten commandments is to get to know God. We could even say that one of the purposes of our existence is to get to know the divine presence.

So, if the divine presence is represented by the diversity and multiplicity of humanity, now we can understand why God saw an existential threat in the situation where Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words, and in all these humans wanting to remain at the same place. It was like compromising the endless potential of human creativity by adopting the comfort of uniformity.

The creation of languages is understood by many torah commentators and even by modern research as a challenge to our ability to relate to each other. But we could also say that it is the key to unlocking the gates of wonder and deeper relationships . Diversity is coded as a difficulty and challenges our brains however for example in the business world multicultural -diverse teams tend to be more creative and effectiveFOOTNOTE: Footnote.

Making small efforts to overcome these difficulties will help us to better understand this world and to uncover another layer of the divine presence. The ultimate message of the story of the Tower of Babel is that rather than seeking unity by similarity, we should seek unity by embracing diversity.

In his book “the Star of Redemption”, Frank Rosenzweig presents the idea that one day, in a redemptive future, we will all speak the same language again. However, he understands language as a tool of unification that does not reduce different individuals to that which is the same: speech only unites those who recognize or understand each otherFOOTNOTE: Footnote.

Now let’s be honest, this is not limited to accents. Very often when we struggle to understand the other side we say “he’s speaking in a different language” or if it is a political difference we say “she lives in a different world”, if it is about our children or our aging parents we will say “he lives in a different galaxy”…

How much easier it would be if we just spoke “the same language” and thought in the same words… It is like sometimes we wish we could just build that tower of uniformity, in which we eliminate the challenging diversity. But “thank God” we have languages, we are in different places, and we sound different.

May we internalize the profound meaning of our Torah portion and when we experience difficulties in understanding others, may we also savor the opportunity of getting to know our world more deeply.

One comment

  • Beautiful, as always, Nico. There was a woman in my congregation who came to the US from Brazil. She spoke no English when she arrived. She said it felt like she was deaf and dumb. Shabbat shalom!

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