28 Heshvan 5778
17 November 2017
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London School of Jewish Studies

The Torah of Bavel

  • Subject: Book of Genesis, Parsha
  • Date:
  • Teachers/Presenters: Yaacov Finn,

This was first written as a sermon. It has been edited to a small extent to increase its readability however there are no references provided in the text.


With drama of the flood story, the cataclysmic end brought to the world by God as punishment for the savagery of the ancient society- we often overlook what I believe to be one of the most engaging, intriguing and important events in world history.


The Story of Bavel.


This is the story told in just 11 very-vague verses at the beginning of Chapter 11. Set a few generations after the flood, we find the inhabitants of the earth deciding to build a great tower, a great city whose top should reach high into the heavens. At this point we are told that G-ds attention is drawn to this project and upon exploring it He decides that he needs to end it, and so he mbalbel, he mixes up, he changes the languages of all the inhabitants so that they can no longer work together.


Essentially, this is the story of the history of language, explaining how the world ended up with a multitude of languages. Furthermore, given that according to many psychologists, the way we think is constrained by the language we speak. The destruction of the Tower of Bavel is the moment in history that variety, diversity and different perspectives of the world entered humanity. It is the point in time at which each member of humanity no longer perceived the world in exactly the same way as each other, the moment at which they no longer saw things from the same view point, no longer shared the same cognitions. For me, the story of the tower of Bavel, is not only about the destruction of a great tower and the dispersion of the sounding inhabitants it is also another Creation story, this time charting the creation of diversity, of different perspectives on the world and on life.


It is because of this, I find myself, intuitively drawn to the opinions of a set of commentators including the Kli Yakar and Rabenu Bachaye who stray from the oft-quoted opinion that building of the tower was a crime against God (possibly an act of rebellion) and instead view the building of the tower as a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. You see unlike Rashi who views the building of the tower as an act of war, they view it as demonstrating the broken nature of the society. In their eyes the building of the tower itself was not the problem, rather it was the nature of the society that was wrong, that had to be changed.


But what was wrong with the society? How was it broken?


If you look at the beginning of the story, we are told that:  (Genesis 11,1)

וַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים: and the whole world was with one language and shared one thought.-

The whole world had one shared language, one shared vision, one shared cognition. And whilst this might seem utopic, a land without conflict by which I mean a land without disagreement and conflicting opinions, it is quite the opposite.

If we look throughout history, great mistakes, and, in some circumstances, great crimes have been committed due to a phenomena known as ‘groupthink’. Groupthink is the term first used Irving Janis in 1972 to explain why the American army ignored the obvious warnings that Japan were preparing to attack Pearl Harbour. It is the term that is used to explain how a group of highly intelligent people can make decisions that seem so blindingly obvious wrong, and has been used to explain poor group decisions throughout the generations.


Groupthink occurs where the nature of the group suppresses the room for dissent, where conflict is discouraged, where people become afraid to share their opinion for fear of being ridiculed, for fear of being pushed out.  It is more likely to occur when people are not encouraged to challenge the accepted ‘group view’ or the view of the leader. Where those who do dissent, are rubbished and threatened with expulsion, where only confirmatory evidence is sought.


Groupthink is essentially, when the whole group are acting

שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים, with one language and one voice, one idea, one vision. To prevent it, it is suggested that every group appoints a ‘devil’s advocate’, to bring a conflicting opinion into the discussion, to challenge and to scrutinise the perceptions of the group.


I think it is fair to suggest that the society in Bavel was suffering from an extreme case of groupthink – there was no conflict, no scrutiny, and no diversity of opinion. In truth, those who argue that the story of Bavel is essentially a story of crime and punishment would not disagree that the crime was enabled due to society succumbing to this weakness of groupthink, to there not being an element of diversity, an element of conflict.


But conflict, diversity, the presence of an opposing opinion  is not only necessary to prevent groups, to prevent societies from taking a wrong path, from making a bad decision but is also a necessary tool that enables growth and prosperity.


Conflict, disagreements, differing outlooks,  a divergence of opinion – whatever term you want to give it- makes for vibrant societies, innovative businesses,…. it encourages progression, development, growth and prosperity. The presence of conflict (and let me be clear, by conflict I don’t mean war or violence I mean a conflicting opinion), allows for the generation of new ideas, new methods, new approaches – when differences of opinion is encouraged, and allowed to flourish, so too will the fortunes of that society.


A society where ideas are openly shared, openly debated, where different opinions are allowed to surface, is a vibrant society. It is one that encourages the development of new ways of approaching old problems, new ways of generating wealth.  However, a society where new ideas are discouraged, where people must conform to the stated norms, with no room for the minority to influence the majority,  stagnates, fails to adapts, and descends into crisis.


The story of Bavel regardless of whether or not you want to view it as a story of crime and punishment, is also the story of the fixing of a failed society. A society that shared one langue, one thought pattern. A society, where individualism was suppressed, where dissent was destroyed. A society where there could never be growth and progression. This society needed fixing, and on inspection, God obliged, introducing the element of difference (via different lanaguages) into a society suffering from groupthink.


The message seems to be clear, for societies, for groups, for business to truly be successful there need to be an element of disagreement, and element of dispute, and element of conflict.


Why was the Tower destroyed? Why was the multitude of languages created? What was the ‘crime’ that needed correcting?  There was no dissent, no disagreement, no one to challenge the accepted norm, to put decisions through the rigours of scrutiny. The whole world was of one language and therefore of one thought, there was no individual creativity, no uniqueness, no room for independent thinking, for a conflicting opinion – –to fix this, not only did God need to destroy the tower, but also the shared bond of language that shackled the inhabitants to the ignominy of a shared vision, of a shared cognitive outlook.



 An epilogue:

In truth there is one caveat to everything I have said. We must remember that not all conflict is good, not all conflict is something to be embraced. There have been many studies that have looked at why in business, some teams work well and some teams fail. Through this research it has become well established that there are two types of conflict. The first type is known as C-type or Cognitive-Type Conflict. This is the form of conflict that we have been discussing. The positive conflict that coexists with progress, the positive conflict that enables innovation, that is good for society and for business.


The other type is known as A-type or affective-type conflict. This is a conflict based not on ideas or ideals, not based on a difference of opinion, but based on personalities and egos. It is a disagreement that focuses on individual- or personally-oriented issues.  A conflict where one individual or one group aims to emerge victorious, superior. This conflict is seen not as helpful, but as destructive. Not as the sign of a vibrant society/group but of a dysfunctional unit. 


Whilst it is the sign of a healthy society if there is the space to argue over ideas, over positions, when it descends to an affective level, when it descends to personal attacks, to animosity, to the point where one seeks to discredit the other, to ‘defeat’ the other, to belittle the other, to destroy another. This type of conflict, reduces morale, breeds ill-feeling, and destroys communities.


So let’s conclude with the nuanced message. For societies, businesses and communities to adapt to evolve, they need to allow room for conflict, room for those with different approaches to have their say, air their opinion.  As we have seen throughout history – starting all the way back with the Tower of Bavel, The absence of disagreement, the absence of conflict at best leads to the suppression of innovation, at worst can lead to the crimes of groupthink. However, whilst saying this, we must ensure, that in our society, in our business in our community, that we only ever engage in C-type conflict, and not A-type conflict, only ever engage in the positive ideas based conflict not in the conflict that based on personality and egos


So lets talk, lets debate, lets air our difference of opinions, but only as long it remains constructive, not destructive, only long as the disagreements are kept to issues of policy, of programming, of direction. Let’s allow an element of conflict to exist in our professional lives, in our communal lives but only, as long as those on  the different ends of the argument can still sit down and enjoy lunch with one another, as long as they can still truly consider their ‘adversary’ to be their friend.