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CONFORMITY VS. DIVERSITY

by Micah Gimpel    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

At the end of this week's Torah portion we are told about the infamous Tower of Babel, the story of society gathering to build a monumental tower with its peak high in the sky.

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At the end of this week's Torah portion we are told about the infamous Tower of Babel, the story of society gathering to build a monumental tower with its peak high in the sky. Hashem, ostensibly upset, decides to foil their efforts by confusing their language so that they cannot understand each other, and by dispersing them across the world, hence leading to the formation of many different civilizations.

Traditionally, the people are understood to have been making an attempt to physically confront and challenge Hashem and His authority. However, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator on the Torah, cannot find reason to believe that the people of the time were stupid enough to think that their building a tall tower would enable them to encounter Hashem. Therefore, his understanding of the story is radically different. He explains that their intent was not to build a tower as a fortress, but rather as a headquarters. Their goal was to make a glorious name for themselves by establishing a center for all of civilization. This center was to be the heart of world society.

This philosophy appears to be noble and commendable. Unity is critically important for the development and success of any project. People naturally work together when there is a common goal or ultimate purpose; having societal direction promotes a single solid social unit. If that is correct, there is one significant problem with Ibn Ezra's explanation. Why does the text imply that the generation of the Tower of Babel was punished for its actions? It would appear that they should have been rewarded for their concern for everyone and their goal of unifying the world's population. If their intention was not to challenge Hashem but to create a center for Mankind, why would Hashem mix up their language and scatter them across the world?

Though this ideology of unifying society can be productive, it can also be limiting. Without exposure to other groups with different histories and philosophies, one loses perspective and objectivity. The problem that existed in the generation of the Tower of Babel was that they were intentionally trying to limit society's growth and development. The Rashbam, another classical medieval commentary, explains that the reason Hashem reacted to that generation by disrupting their efforts was because they were not fulfilling nor pursuing Hashem's purpose for the world. The first commandment given to Mankind was "to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land" (Genesis 1:28). If Man limits civilization to one center, the conquest of the world is also limited. Hashem's reaction was not a punishment but rather a correction. Hashem spread everyone across the globe and confused their language to make unification virtually impossible, effectively conquering the world for Man and ensuring diversity.

From this interpretation of the episode of the Tower of Babel, we discover that Hashem desires the diversification of Man. To have every person a mirror image of his neighbor would be a tragic loss to society, as it might stifle people's creative genius. The fact that society has so many differences of opinion can be viewed as a positive expression of Man's uniqueness. There is much to be learned from people who are different from us, and all that is required is an open mind and a desire to "fill the land".

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Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a senior at Yeshiva University in New York.

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