Following the Great Flood in Noah’s time, all the people of the earth spoke one language, and had a common belief and purpose, as we see in Genesis, chapter 11. Their unity, however, was not the positive quality in the way that we think of unity today, when we strive so hard to overcome differences. In their unity, they sought an unnaturally high power, wishing to control even G-d. They were the architects and builders of the Tower of Babel, a tower that was intended to reach to the heavens and provide a vantage point from which to gain supreme superiority. If they could control G-d, then they would truly exert their homogeneity over the entire world.
However, when the Almighty viewed this Tower of Babel, he was displeased with what these people, blessed with the gift of a single language, and therefore unlimited possibility of collaborative effort, should choose to do with such a gift!
He scrambled their speech, making communication impossible. He scattered these construction entrepreneurs all over the planet into seventy nations. The Master of the Universe, not wishing to be upstaged, responded to the motley crew with the message that with variety, there is good; the world cannot be made better by enforcing one belief upon it. This was the seed of ethnocentrism.
The late Alex Thio, renowned professor of sociology, described ethnocentrism in his essay "A Global Analysis of Culture," as "…the attitude that one’s own culture is superior to that of other peoples." This means that one believes one’s own culture is the only one that holds the truth. Such people reject others, considering them inferior. Their high and mighty perspective is based on their own narcissistic analysis. Theirs is a "me" generation mentality. They do not want a division of different ethnicities, races, religions or languages. Is this unfair prejudice? Haughtiness? Does disliking someone lead to a false sense of superiority, and a rejection of others who are perceived as inferior?
In Jewish thought, there is only one G-d, but there are many kinds of creatures. In essence, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, do we see that our success individually and collectively is based on diversity? Does the power of the differences of faiths and cultures make us better? Does each group, race, culture, language have strengths which should be studied and respected? Does variety make us strong and add to the spice of life? Are we doomed to repeat these mistakes with intolerance by looking down on others? Shouldn’t we be proud of our individuality?
In last week’s Torah portion, we witnessed favoritism and sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel, with brother killing brother, a family destroyed. The next Torah portion is the Great Flood. Noah is building an Ark according to G-d’s directions. He invited others to join him inside the huge wooden boat. People arrogantly sneered and laughed at him. Only his immediate family and certain paired animals that he chose followed him indoors for shelter. This time, the stakes were higher than Abel’s death, because an entire population was wiped out.
As descendants of Noah, we learn the lesson that a key to survival is obedience to one G-d while simultaneously treasuring and tolerating cultural diversity. Preservation of self, of one’s heritage and values does not mean stepping on the heads of others, while trying to build oneself up. On the contrary, it includes caring for others and Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. The world of differences can be beautiful and make us stronger. We can learn different perspectives and not have the powerful force of ethnocentrism that was seen in recent years with Nazi Germany, Darfur, and even today with conflicts amongst different religious groups in Northern Ireland or between countries with the current Arab-Israeli conflict.
In the United States, known as a melting pot society, accepting and respecting individual differences and perspectives as one of the tenets of the foundation of this country, will hopefully create a harmonious and stronger nation and ultimately a better world. Moreover, while staying faithful to our heritage, appreciating others and remembering we are all created in the image of G-d, we will not "rock G-d’s boat."
Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum, PhD is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kneseth Israel, Annapolis, Maryland