Parsha Phil

Parshat Noach: Harmony, not conformity 

In Short

Children do not need to conform to their parents' philanthropic interests, but to have a greater sense of harmony, they should assess how to honor the work their parents have already done and to integrate what was meaningful to the previous generation into their own contemporary work.

I am blessed to know second- and third-generation philanthropists. As parents age, families are sometimes faced with the question of remaining loyal to their parents’ and grandparents’ philanthropic interests or prioritizing new and innovative projects. Should children follow their parents’ direction, or is divergence acceptable? 

Conformity, where everyone ascribes to a shared mission and vision, was the operating ethic in the world after the Flood, a state described in chapter 11 of parshat Noach: “The whole world was of one language and of one common purpose.” 

It is a wonderful image of unity and togetherness. The story of the Tower of Babel continues: “Let us make bricks. Let us build a city and a tower with its tops in heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves” (11:3). 

At first glance, the Torah seems to be describing a utopian community where everyone is united around a common purpose. Emphasizing the plurality — the “us” — creates an image of a society that seamlessly moves together, in one large mass, with one voice. 

And yet, God severely punishes the people of Babel. In one fell swoop, God destroys their unity and scatters them all over the earth.

God lashes out against conformity. But why is sameness so bad? The problem with Bavel is that the people didn’t actually care about unity, oneness and togetherness. They used their unity to build walls, not relationships.

The Pirkei D’rabbi Eliezer, an aggadic-midrashic work on Genesis, ascribed to R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus in the ninth century (chapter 24), describes that the people loved their tower more than people. “It had seven steps from the east and seven steps from the west. Bricks were hauled up from one side, and the descent would be from the other. If one man fell down and died, no attention was paid to him, but if one brick fell down, they would sit and weep…” This was not a society that cared about one another. A united society that is built on prioritizing material wealth — bricks and mortar — over human life and well-being is not a sustainable community. 

Perhaps then, God’s so-called punishment — the demand for diversity — was not meant to reprimand the people, but to teach them to rebuild their world placing harmony, not conformity, at the center of their world. Our rabbis teach that when God created the world, God had intended for people to occupy most of the earth; the ultimate divine plan was not to gather in one section of the world, but to be fruitful and multiply throughout the land. 

And thus, God spreads the people throughout the world to develop our sense of harmony. “Harmony,” by definition, includes different sounding elements, and when they play together the sound is richer. Now that the world was made up of people with diverse languages and cultures, everyone needed to work that much harder to bring down their personal walls, and learn to live with and love one another. Harmony is an ethic that can live between those who are the same as well as those who are different.  

That same notion can be applied to generational philanthropy. Here too, I believe that it’s possible for children to honor their family’s legacy without doing exactly the same things. I would even venture to guess that parents’ greatest joys are seeing their children carve their own unique path, navigating their own unique interests. Children do not need to conform to their parents’ philanthropic interests, but to have a greater sense of harmony, they should assess how to honor the work their parents have already done and to integrate what was meaningful to the previous generation into their own contemporary work.

Conformity “being of one language with one common purpose” at first seems compelling. But the Tower of Babel shows us that conformity leads to selfishness, to prioritizing things over people. So God introduced us to diversity. The challenge with diversity is to reject the tendency towards running away from conflict. For when we are willing to confront one another with healthy debate, from that conflict, tolerance is born. Conformity based on selfishness is not an ideal, but neither is diversity, unless coupled with respect and tolerance. 

In our philanthropy, and in our community, let us strive not for conformity or siloed difference, but for the richness and diversity of harmony.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, co-founder and president of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, also serves on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.