Dr. Ari Ackerman, Lecturer for Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education, examines the “Tower of Babel” story found in Parashat Noach. He explores what was the sin of building a new city with a tower that reached the heavens and why this angered God so much. From there, he reveals a relevant message about the importance of striving for more pluralistic and unorthodox societies where different members embrace different views.
At the end of chapter 11 of the book of Genesis, in Parashat Noach, is the episode of dor haflaga, or the generation of dispersion. This is the generation of human beings that tried to build a city and in the midst of the city, they built a great skyscraper that ascended to the heavens. We are told that this act greatly angered God and consequently He dispersed all of humanity throughout the world. What we’re not told, what is the sin? What so angered God as a result of their actions?
One suggestion is made by the famous 19th century Torah Scholar, biblical commentator, and Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Berlin, or Netziv for short. In his commentary, Emek ha Davar, he focuses on the first verse, which tells us that they shared ‘common views’ or even identical views. He argues in contrast to earlier commentaries, particularly Rashi’s, that the sin does not relate to the content of their views and the Torah does not tell us what the content of their views was. Their sin was that they held conformed views and they all shared the very same views with each other.
For the Netziv, this social situation where there’s a certain orthodoxy shared by all members of the society is highly detrimental and eventually leads to violence and even murder. He points to the case of Abraham. For him, Abraham was an iconoclast who embraced unorthodox views. As a result, Abraham was jailed and the king attempted to kill him. The Netziv writes that this is exactly what was done in this dor haflaga. They tried to build a tower in an attempt to police society. The tower was high enough so that they could check that everyone held the same views.
The Netziv said the message of the story, and it obviously has deep contemporary relevance, is that we should strive for a pluralistic society where different members embrace different views. A society where we don’t attempt to bring about other members of the society to share our views, certainly not our violent ways and not in coercive manners, where we have a free society where there’s a multiplicity of views, in essence, an unorthodox society.
Ari Ackerman is the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer where he teaches courses in the areas of Jewish philosophy and education. He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University. His most recent book is a critical edition of the sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Dr. Ackerman is currently working on a monograph on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas.