Unity, Uniformity, and Violence
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
The Tower of Babel episode recorded in Parshat Noach, following the flood, is filled with mystery. The earthly inhabitants spoke one language and built a large central tower of unity in an attempt to maintain societal cohesion. God did not approve of their plans and intervenes by scattering them geographically and forcing upon them different languages. Are peace and unity not divine ideals? Why does God insist on fragmenting humanity?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes the comment of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893), head of the rabbinical seminary in Volozhin, “Since the views of human beings are not the same, [the builders of Babel] were concerned that no one should have a contrary opinion, They therefore took care that no one be allowed to leave their city, and those who expressed contrary views were condemned to death by fire, as they sought to do to Abraham. Their ‘shared words’ became a stumbling-block because they resolved to kill anyone who did not think as they did.” Rabbi Sacks comments ‘Utopian-sectarian communities pride themselves on their unity, but it is secured at too high a price: hostility to those who do not share their views.’
God created every human being with a unique soul and character. God celebrates this multiplicity and condemns efforts to create societies structured upon the kind of unity that demands uniformity. Such societies have no tolerance for other groups with different beliefs and ideals. Societies defining themselves as absolutely good, and others as absolutely evil, will dehumanize the ‘others.’ Violence and oppression then become justified in the name of God or the ultimate good. Unity is good and beautiful and certainly an ideal, but unity that demands the uniformity of ideas and ideals leads humanity away from the great biblical ideal of peace. Our challenge is to ensure that our unity is one that recognizes and respects the humanity of others.