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The Many Languages of Religion

  • The Many Languages of Religion

    Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D'var Torah By: 

Parashat Noach is filled with intense drama. We witness the flood, the survival of Noah and his family, and God's promise to never again destroy humanity. Tucked into the end of the parashah is another seminal event: the attempted construction of the Tower of Babel. "All the earth had the same language and the same words," (Genesis 11:1) we are told, and they gathered in the land of Shinar and said, "Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!" (11:4). This building project is made possible by the discovery of the process for making bricks by drying clay. It also piques God's interest and concern. To disrupt their plans, God decides to confound their language. As we read, "'Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.' So it came about that the Eternal scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city" (11:7–9).

Much is notable about this story. What strikes me, however, is a variation on a theme we saw last week—the power of language. What gives the people the ability to band together to begin constructing a tower to heaven? A shared language. By what means does God stop their plans? Through a disruption of language. A p'shat ("literal") reading of the text would seem to indicate that God's actions are punitive. The tower builders sought to eliminate the boundary between heaven and earth that God established during creation. They were also, according to later Rabbinic commentators, bloodthirsty and greedy. They sought to storm the heavens (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a), and were callous toward human life, ignoring the death of tower builders who fell during construction but mourning greatly whenever a brick was dropped (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 24).

By confounding their common language, God punished their hubris and greed and eliminated their chance of success. Thus, we might interpret God's act as a necessary evil. In the beginning, God had hoped that humanity could speak and live as one, sharing a common language and way of life, as did Adam and Eve. Yet, since human beings had consistently sought to overstep the boundaries of human existence (by eating of the Tree of All Knowledge and trying to build a tower to heaven), the original hope of a common humanity had to be set aside. God had no choice but to divide human beings into different groups with particular languages, cultures, and ways of life.

While this interpretation is set forth by many later Jewish commentators, I think we can also see God's actions in a more benign light. We can see a plurality of language and culture not as a punishment but as a blessing. It is an affirmation of diversity and a rejoinder to destructive imperialist ambitions. It is also a beautiful illustration in which we can understand religious pluralism as part of the fabric of humanity.

This interpretation rests on an understanding of language as a key factor in shaping culture. The nineteenth century Rabbi Naftali Zvi Y'hudah Berlin (the Netziv) provides a compelling case for this understanding, seeing a causal connection between the tower builders' shared language and their dangerous hubris in building a tower to heaven. Uniformity of language, he taught, portended uniformity of thought. A common language implied a lack of diversity of opinion (Ha-emek Davar on Genesis 11:4). A colloquial expression in modern English illustrates his point. When everyone agrees with a point of view, we say, "We're speaking the same language!"

Modern science is also beginning to echo the Netziv's observation. A recent study at Stanford University concluded that language plays a critical role in shaping the way we think and see the world. Consciously and unconsciously, the language we use helps determine the way we perceive and describe events and process thoughts. A variety of languages gives rise to a variety of cultures and ways of life.

Diversity of language also gives us a useful model for describing religious pluralism. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, "Religion is the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith. In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims." (Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference [London/New York: Continuum, 2002], p. 55). By creating different languages, God created and sanctified cultural and religious pluralism. Just as our language conveys thoughts and truths that cannot be captured in another, so each faith communicates and embodies unique traditions. Particularity does not imply superiority. Rather, it reflects our global world of enduring and enriching diversity.

At the time of this writing in 2009, Rabbi Evan Moffic was senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.

Even a Common Language and the Same Words Can Be a Barrier
Davar Acher By: 
Aaron M. Petuchowski

How distressing it must have been when God confused the speech of those engaged in building the Tower of Babel! The common language of our early biblical generation, as Rabbi Evan Moffic eloquently points out, was a threat not to God, per se, but to the self-perception of those who wanted to build. The dispersion of humanity all over the earth eliminated the immediate concern.

Yet even for those who do "speak the same language," a common language can also itself be a barrier when we attempt to place religious concepts into human words. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in our attempts to talk about God. As explained by my late father, Dr. Jakob J. Petuchowski, “The ancient rabbis . . . when they talked about God . . . frequently prefaced their remarks with the word kibheyakhol. This is shorthand for: 'If one could possibly say so. But you and I know that one cannot really say so. However, if we do not say so, then we cannot communicate at all. This is why I am expressing myself in an image, in a metaphor—with confidence that you will understand that what I am about to say is not to be taken literally,' " ("Speaking of God," in Jakob Petuchowski, Studies in Modern Theology and Prayer, Elizabeth Petuchowski and Aaron Petuchowski, eds., [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998], p. 80).

How often we hear that God-language is a barrier, not a conduit, to deepening our understanding of the Divine! This is especially during the High Holy Days when our liturgy is replete with images and metaphors that, alas, are prone to be taken too literally. Yet to grow as individuals and as a people, we need to wrestle within the confines of human language. Here we need remind ourselves: kibheyakhol. The Divine is beyond the limitations of human language, but it is our language that we must employ to speak with one another. Just think how much more difficult it would be if we did not, at times, speak the same language.

At the time of this writing in 2009, Rabbi Aaron M. Petuchowski, D.D. was senior rabbi of Temple Sholom in Chicago, Illinois.

Reference Materials: 

Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57–91; Revised Edition, pp. 57–83
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 35–58
Haftarah, Isaiah 54:1–55:5
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 326–329; Revised Edition, pp.85–87