The Dream of a Common Language
October 13, 2004
I'm studying parashat Noach in preparation for reading and teaching Torah this upcoming Saturday. These are fun weeks to be subbing for the rabbi; the first two parashiyot in the Torah are laden with interpretations and stories. The specific part of the parashah that we're reading this week is Genesis 11:1-9: the story of the Tower of Babel. (Find it here, here, and here.) To me, the big question is, what was so bad about the people wanting to build a tower to make a name for themselves? Why did this bother God so much that God scattered them and confounded their speech?
Here are two midrashim on the Babel story, one old and one new. The old one suggests the traditional interpretation, that God destroyed the tower of Babel (and destroyed our linguistic commonality, and scattered us over the face of the earth) because building the tower became a form of idolatry, and because the people intended to attack God in the heavens. (None of this is in the source text; it's all extrapolation from "to make a name for ourselves, else we shall be scattered all over the world." I love midrash.) Of course, there's an irony in that "else we shall be scattered," since we readers know that they will be scattered over the face of the earth.
Here is another terrific collection of texts on the theme of a common language (and our post-Babel lack thereof). I like the Ginzburg midrash which suggests that the people became so obsessed with building the tower that they stopped making time even for childbirth. That goes a long way toward explaining why the tower was a bad idea: because the obsession with construction came to supercede the rhythms and cycles of life. (Also, that Adrienne Rich quote, from which the title of this blog post is drawn, has been one of my favorites since college.)
Most interpretations read "tower with its top in the sky" as "tower reaching toward God," since "the sky" is a frequent metonym for "God." In antiquity this may have clearly implied hubris, since traditional interpretations held that the reach toward God was inappropriate. Commentators have argued that God didn't want the people to be able to "make a name for themselves." Presumably they were supposed to act with the priority of sanctifying the Great Name, rather than magnifying their own.
But to the modern eye, God's unease at the people's common-language aspirations may seem oddly defensive. Surely if we had a common language today -- "language" being shorthand for language, culture, frametale, perspective -- the world would be in better shape. And what could be better than coming together to reach toward our common Source?
Personally, I like Rabbi Leslie Bergson's interpretation: that perhaps "a common language is not something that should be granted to us by God but rather something that we must achieve on our own so that we may say, in our common language, 'Come, let us build a city of peace.'" Maybe the lesson is that we should, indeed, strive to build structures in our lives which unite us and bring us closer to God...but those structures should be internal, not external. We reach God is by working together on healing what's broken in the world, not by building the tallest tower we can muster.