The website of Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

Bereshit-Chapter 11

The People of the Generation of Division

After the flood that destroyed the world, only Noah, his wife, his three sons, with their wives and representatives of the different genera of animals, survived. They all had been sheltering in the ark Noah built.


So, in the Biblical understanding of history, the whole world branched out from Noah’s three sons. Once they left where the ark rested, they journeyed to the east carrying the Divine mandate to “be fertile and increase and fill the earth.” Eventually, they found a suitable plain where to build a city.


They said to each other:

Let us build a city and a tower, with its summit touching the heavens. So, we will make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the earth. (Genesis chapter 11, verse 4) And the Lord said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach. (v. 6) Thus, the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; (v. 8)

It is somewhat difficult to understand what caused the divine anger. The narrative nowhere explicitly defines the nature of human transgression. The Torah never tells what they will do when they finish the tower, what is meant by “make ourselves a name,” and why they fear being scattered if they do not have this tower.


However, tradition (Jewish and Western) has had no difficulty seeing the “Tower of Babel” as a symbol of false unity, human vainglory, and rebellion against God.


            Counterintuitively the story of Babel questions the idea that one God entails one faith, one truth.


The Talmud- that magnificent repository of centuries of rabbinic wisdom- prescribes a special benediction on observing a Jewish audience: “Blessed is He who discern secrets, for the mind of each is different from the others, as is the face of each different from the other.” This is nothing else but a blessing over Jewish pluralism: A praise to God, who creates diversity in the world and rejoices in different minds, perceptions, and judgments.


            Another poignant example of the importance of different perspectives is the Talmudic rule that says that if the members of a judicial court unanimously agree about the guilt of an accused, he is set free. The idea is that an unquestioning agreement is considered suspect, as having possibly been influenced by strong feelings or by a general hysteria.

The underlying principle, in any event, is that without differences, there cannot be a free society.


             The Jewish people’s inability to recognize pluralism as the norm of modern Jewish life has produced new “unifying” idolatries.

" So strong were the outer pressures for unity and so tenacious were the bonds of dogma in ancient and medieval worlds, that down to modern times Judaism appeared to be a monolithic faith, frozen into immobility."

Biblical scholars have seen the city and tower of Babel as a means of concentrating political power legitimated by powerful religious symbols. Whether this was the tale’s objective or not, the fact is that Judaism has kept a healthy suspicion of orthodoxies and politics that seek the tyranny of one and majorities.

“The independence and freedom of thought and action that requires political mechanisms to resolve disputes and differences that are fundamentally inimical to dictatorial rule. This motive of dictatorial uniformity, of ideological control over society, was implicit in the statement, “Let us make a name” (Gen. 11: 4) – exactly, one name, one form, one formula, one religion, one political party, one ruler. The goal was to gain mastery over the entire human race. The tower, of course, was not just a symbol of the power of the centralized ruler, the focal point for everyone’s attention as the source of what to do and what not to do, what to think and what not to think, a seductive weapon to draw near, into this dictatorship over the masses, with one culture, one religion, one politics, one solution, for all. It was also a vehicle of observation and control over the masses from that central locus of power.”