Why Do We Speak Different Languages?

I love teaching Hebrew school because kids ask the best questions. Last year at JCP, I was tutoring 6th grader Jake Shufro in Hebrew to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah. As we started to compare Hebrew words to their English meanings, and even some of their Spanish meanings since that is the foreign language that Jake learns in school, he asked, “Why do we even have different languages!? It would be so much easier if we could all just understand each other!”

In our spiritual tradition, there once was a time when we all spoke the same language. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, after the story of Noah’s ark, we read “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). In the following eight verses, we read about the Tower of Babel: the generations following Noah all spoke the same language, settled in a land called Shinar (later known as Babylonia and currently as Iraq), and built a tower to the sky to make a name for themselves. God sees the tower, notes that this is what the people did with their ability to fully understand each other, and scatters them across the earth into different places with different languages.

When Jake and I took a look at these verses in response to his initial question, we were both puzzled. The Torah accounts for why humans have different languages, but we were left wondering why building a tower was such a crime and why dispersing the people was God’s answer.

To put it plainly, the people of Babel were hungry for power. “Let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” (Genesis 11:4). According to one rabbinic interpretation, the people wanted to challenge God’s authority by “placing an image on top (of the tower), and putting a sword on its hand, so it will seem that it is waging war against God” (Bereishit Rabbah 38:6). We learn here that the people of Shinar wanted to become as powerful, or if not moreso, over the heavens and the earth than God. The pursuit of power is in the very foundation of the Tower of Babel; the people wanted to make a name for themselves by usurping God’s power. They aspired to rule over all nearby cities who would see the intimidating tower loom large over them (HaEmek Davar on Genesis 11:4).

While linguistic anthropologists teach us that the Tower of Babel is myth and not social science, this episode still reflects insights about human nature as all great myths do.

Novelist Veronica Roth writes that “Power itself isn’t evil… (We have) the power to do evil and the power to do good.” And Peter Parker’s wise Uncle Ben, in a famous story from up in Queens, says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The issue with the people of Babel was not necessarily their desire for power, it was what they proposed to do with that power. In another rabbinic interpretation, we read that if a builder carrying bricks high up in the tower fell off, no one batted an eye. But if a brick fell, they stopped work and said “Woe unto us! When will another be brought up?” (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 24:6). The power these people were after wasn’t to do good or to look out for each other; they mourned their fallen bricks and not their fallen people. They worshipped the tower itself and the power they thought it would bring. Despite their unique ability to understand each other with one language, they cared more for their materials and their pursuit of power than their fellow human.

This simultaneous pursuit of power and callousness toward each other didn’t come out of nowhere. Noah’s great-grandson named Nimrod, the leader of the people in Shinar, is described as a “mighty hunter” (Genesis 10:9), admired by the people for his strength. One biblical commentator noted that he took advantage of his strength and the people’s admiration to convince them to rebel against God (Rashi on Genesis 10:9). The people of Shinar had chosen Nimrod to be their leader, a mighty hunter, strong, and persuasive, who ultimately leveraged his political power for an attempt to overthrow God and rule the world. One source says it was Nimrod himself who ordered the building of the Tower of Babel (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 24:5).

One people with one language and one leader built the Tower of Babel. They may have built an impressive structure, but they clearly missed the mark on building a society. They lost sight of each other in their pursuit of power and invested in a leader who ultimately used them for his own agenda to try and replace God. When God “comes down” to see what’s going on, God says “if this is how one people with one language act, by making a desecration, then nothing will keep them from plotting further” (Genesis 11:5-6). It is at this moment that God confounds their speech and scatters them all over the earth.

While the diversification of language is a punishment and preventive measure in the Book of Genesis, Jewish history shows that having various languages also brings us great blessing. As Judaism developed from Babel, we can also see the value, beauty, and diversity of expression that comes from having multiple languages. Many of our defining Jewish texts are written in Aramaic—such as the Mourner’s Prayer—from time in Babylonia in the first millennium CE. Critical Jewish philosophers in the medieval era wrote in Judeo-Arabic in order to reach the people living in the Middle East and North Africa. Ladino is a Hebrew-Spanish language that traces Sephardic Jewish roots back to 15th century Spain. And Yiddish, a Hebrew-German language, was the language of life where my great-grandmother and many others grew up on the Lower East Side, just a few blocks from JCP. Each of these languages, as do others, represent cultures within Judaism and weave together the tapestry of our shared history. In the most authoritative Jewish legal code that we have, it is even permitted to pray in any language that we desire—an acknowledgement of our diverse linguistic expressions as a people (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 101).

Now that we’ve journeyed through the Tower of Babel and much of Jewish linguistic history, let’s return to Jake’s original question. On one level, the Tower of Babel teaches us that we have different languages to serve as a timeless warning against devaluing human life and abusing power as Nimrod and his people did. And on another level, Jewish history teaches us that a diversity of languages can broaden our understanding of humanity as we appreciate contributions from many different languages and cultures. With both of these lessons in mind, I pray that our different languages encourage us to build a society that values human life, responsible use of power, and the blessings of diversity.