Babel: The Biblical Imperative for Diversity


NOACH, Genesis 6:9-11:32

You know the story. The rabbi was especially erudite and scholarly, well-read and well-spoken. In fact, he spoke eight languages … all of them in Yiddish.

The reality is that we don't live in a world in which English is the universal language.

And running the risk of being accused of being an apikores, though Yiddish may be the mamaloshen, it is not the world's lingua franca. We live in a world percolating with 6,000 languages.

So let's learn a word and its origin, and reclaim an essential truth. The word is "babel," and, yes, it comes from this week's story of the Tower of Babel.

The late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna pointed out the linguistic relationship between babel and babble. The latter is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a confusion of sounds and voices."

First, let's peruse the salient part of the story just as the Torah describes it. "The whole world was of one language and one purpose … and they said: Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." The tower, as it were, was to be a launching pad for declaring war against God. And God's response was to "descend and confuse their language so that they should not understand one another's language."

How are we to understand this? Did "one language" mean that all humanity of that day literally spoke only one language? Clearly, this can't be the case because we learn that there were 70 nations that descended from Adam, "according to their families and according to their languages." What, then, is the meaning of speaking one language with its rectification being the dissemination and proliferation of all languages?

In The Warmth and the Light, Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik writes cogently that "the sin of the generation of the Tower of Babel was that they endeavored to be homogeneous. In other words, they built their tower to symbolize their unity, but it was the unity of totalitarianism and the unity of conformity. To counteract this, God confused and dispersed the people so that they could not succeed in their attempt."

Simply put, we live in a global society where 6,000 languages propagate.

And think about it: A world in which one language and one society reign supreme is not only a monolithic and boring world, it's a menacing and dangerous one. It's not just a colorless and odorless world, but a desensitized and dangerous one. In fact, it's a world that just doesn't denigrate the dignity of difference, but one that targets difference itself.

One Is the Loneliest Number
The 20th century has known two cataclysmic attempts at this radical rupture of diversity: fascism and communism. Both systems brought mayhem and murder, and wreaked havoc and horror. And tragically, both targeted the Jews first.

Today, there seems to be an emerging worldview reminiscent of this desire to build "one city" and "speak one language" — but this time, in a tragic twist, it does not wage war on God, per se, but in the name of God. And, as if conforming to the script, the Jews are again the front-line targets.

"Babel" reminds us that this original sin of radical homogenization and widespread conformity will not end well in any sense. Indeed, it is not desirable in God's world.

Interestingly enough, the other "babble" may not really be a bad thing if it also reminds us that we live in a world that's multicultural, a world where diversity dominates and pluralism percolates, a world in which each human being can declare his or her right "to sit under their vine and fig tree, where none shall make them afraid," in any of these 6,000 languages.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.


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