Parashat Noah 5775 (on languages and understanding people who are different)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Shabbat shalom,

or pacan sabaton, as they say in Esperanto (feel free to correct my pronunciation later).

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים

The whole world had one language and one speech. (Gen. 11:1)

Thus opens the story of the migdal bavel, the Tower of Bavel. Though building project of the citizens of Bavel earns them God’s punishment, a unifying language for all the world does seem utopian. In pursuit of of peaceful coexistence between all peoples, L. L. Zamenhof, who grew up amongst the inter-ethnic strife of late 19th C Bialystok in Poland, created what came to be known as “Esperanto”, a universal language.

Indeed, one midrashic read of the odd and seemingly superfluous expression in that verse, דְבָרִים אֲחָדִים (literally, united utterances?), is that, amongst all the citizens of Bavel, i.e. the citizens of the entire world, there was love and fellowship. (Rashi on v.9 citing Bereshit Rabbah par. 38) The only reason that they were spared the annihilation with which the generation of the flood were punished, according to this midrash, was because of their genuine care for one another.

This is in contrast with an now-popular midrash that claims that the builders of the tower cared so little for each other, that they would grieve if a brick fell from the tower, but not if a human did. (Pirke Rabbi Eliezer 24:7)

This dispute as to the role that a single language plays in our story is explicit elsewhere in the midrash:

רבי יהודה ורבי נחמיה רבי יהודה אומר: הואיל והן עם אחד ושפה אחת, אם עושין הן תשובה אני מקבלן. רבי נחמיה אומר: מי גרם להם שימרדו בי? לא על ידי שהם עם אחד ושפה אחת

Rabbi Yehudah says: [God said] since they are a united people with a single language, if they repent, I will accept them, Rabbi Nehemiah says: [God said] what caused them to rebel against me? Isn’t it because they are a united people with a single language? (Bereshit Rabbah par. 38)

If having the unity that resulted from having one language was first and foremost the source of the problem, as Rabbi Nehemiah claimed, (rather than being a factor in their favor, as Rabbi Yehudah proposed) then we would conclude that the division of the people into different linguistic groups was a fundamental separation, and so all of us in the generations that followed are unequivocally cut off from those with whom we do not share a language.

Some modern scholars have suggested that there is indeed a vast chasm between speakers of different languages. The 20th Century linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, expanding on the work of his teacher Edward Sapir, proposed a theory of linguistic relativism, meaning that one’s understanding of the world is shaped by the language that one uses. He went so far as to claim that:

facts are unlike to speakers whose language background provides for unlike formulation of them (emphases added)

That is to say, facts can only ever truly be agreed upon by speakers of the same language, as one’s language determines one’s perception of reality. If Whorf is correct, then the only way to really understand people of other nations, how they think and how they see the world, is to share a language with them.

A language, perhaps, like Esperanto. In 1887, one year after the poem “Hatikvah” was published, L. L. Zamenhof’s first introduction and textbook for his new language came out, under the pseudonym Doktor Esperanto: Dr. Hopeful. The only hope for universal peace, it may have seemed to him, was a universal language.

(Of course, as I’ve been reminded many times especially over my last decade in America, having the same language does not guarantee that you always understand each other!)

Going back to the story, and picking up Rabbi Yehudah’s position, if Bavel’s universal language was a virtue, perhaps we should conclude that the division of humanity into different languages wasn’t as extreme a change, as God had no interest in eliminating it for its own sake.

Noam Chomsky, the MIT academic (and provocative public intellectual), vigorously opposed the approach of Sapir and Whorf, and revolutionised modern linguistics. Chomsky and his students established a theory of universal grammar: that infant humans innately have the same special ability to hear even small amounts of existing language and transform them into a fully-functional one. Though this is a simplification, in some ways, according to this view, all humans who have language, have the same language.

While Whorf believed that different linguistic groups had superior appreciations of the world thanks to their language — he apparently thought that Hopi speakers just understand time better than the rest of us, Chomsky, for whom each language is just a different fleshing out of an identical human instinct, is a proponent of radically egalitarian political positions, skeptical of hierarchy in general and Western paternalism in particular. It’s not too hard to see the correspondence between how Chomsky understands languages as fundamentally equivalent and his political worldview.

The question, then, for the generations after the builders of Bavel, is how divided we really are, not just from other linguistic groups, but also from other cultures or subcultures. Is the gap bridgable by our shared humanity, or can it only be done by in some way “going over to their side”: learning their language, or becoming fully acculturated into their society.

When we encounter people who seem to engage with the world differently, perhaps they are from another part of the world, perhaps they are in a different political camp, how do we go about understanding them? One way is to assume that our differences are really deep; that only by starting to live their life can we hope to understand them. This, however, sets the bar rather high.

Another approach is to remind ourselves that whatever else we may lack in common, they come from the same stock as we do: they are also bnei Noah, the children of Noah. All humans have a common core of instincts, and so we should be able to dig deep into ourselves and find that shared starting point. But if that point of commonaty is so deep, are we really understanding each other? And perhaps there is a shred of egocentrism in viewing another person as a variation on oneself.

Of course, the dichotomy need not be so stark. Neither of these perspectives is sufficient, but if both can accompany us through our travels and in our daily lives, we might be blessed with the humility to take difference seriously and the idealism to appreciate our common humanity.


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