The story of the Tower of Babel is short, just nine verses, and at first reading deeply unsettling.
Surely, having a common project for humankind – in this case building a tower with “its top in heaven” – is a good thing?
All too often we regret the absence of common good in our societies. I sometimes think that if only we had a modern Tower of Babel it would unify us all and lead us to forget what divides us.
But Torah warns us against such an enterprise.
It seems to suggest that we would forget the true Creator of the world by trying to attain heaven – the builders proclaiming “let’s make a name for ourselves, or we will be scattered all over the earth”.
Upon seeing what they were about to achieve, God decided to do what they had feared – dispersing them and making them speak many different languages.
Further Jewish thinking, however, shows that the problem is not the tower itself, but how they engaged with it.
“The project produced jealousy and mean competition, a misuse of technology and a cruel disregard for the worth of each individual life,” wrote Rabbi Harvey Fields.
In his Pantagruel (1532), the French writer François Rabelais concluded: “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul”.
The people in Babel mastered the art of brick making, of moulding and heating the clay, but they did not use these technological advances to improve the peoples’ life, to build houses for the poor or hospitals for the ill and aging.
Instead they used all these resources to build the highest tower in the world – an act of hubris without any concern for the most fragile.
What we Progressive Jews can take from this story is that, as grandiose as it may be, any project without a strong ethical grounding is doomed.
Rabbi René Pfertzel is rabbi at Kingston Liberal Synagogue