Confrontation and Babel

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים.

And the whole earth was of one speech and of one set of ideas.

Bereishis 11:1

I blogged in the past about the difference between thinking in Biblical Hebrew tenses and in the tenses one finds in most contemporary languages and how the Holy Language does not distinguish between “he is a builder” and “he is building”. But vocabulary is a more obvious area where speaking a different language will change which thoughts come more naturally.

Rav Herschel Schachter recently criticized the actions of other students of R’ JB Soloveitchik, who engaged in interfaith dialog, teach Torah to Christians, and encourage Christian activities in Israel. (One such article is available on TorahWeb, here). R’ Shelomo Riskin defended his Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel. I am not interested in whether the events since RJBS wrote Confrontation call for a new halachic ruling than the one given there. I don’t understand the relevence of the question of whether the church is still hostile to Judaism or Jews, or whether not. It might not be productive if they hate us either way. It might be more productive to specifically talk with those who hate you, if it means understanding can replace hatred. I don’t know which, but that’s a tactical question, not a halachic one. I also believe that the underlying theme of such conferences is the search for a common ground, which in turn pushes toward novel (if plausible) interpretations of Judaism which aren’t what we would normally believe. But I really want to simply focus on the issue of whether such dialog is really possible, rather than whether it’s permitted.

I think one of the points RJBS makes in Confrontation means something more fundamental along these lines. He opens that essay, as I did this blog post, with a quote about the Tower of Bavel. We can speak about simple miscommunication due to the difference in language in the literal sense — most Xian denominations mean something different by the word “conversion” than we do, as they have room for “witnessing” as a buzzword where we wouldn’t. But when RJBS speaks about lacking a common language, I believe he means this on a deeper level — a lack of one-to-one correspondance of concepts.

To quote:

Second, the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker. It reflects the numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences. The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.8 There, we all face a powerful antagonist, we all have to contend with a considerable number of matters of great concern. The relationship between two communities must be outer-directed and related to the secular orders with which men of faith come face to face. In the secular sphere, we may discuss positions to be taken, ideas to be evolved, and plans to be formulated. In these matters, religious communities may together recommend action to be developed and may seize the initiative to be implemented later by general society. However, our joint engagement in this kind of enterprise must not dull our sense of identity as a faith community. We must always remember that our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation. The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider – even to a brother of the same faith community. The divine message is incommunicable since it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories. If the powerful community of the many feels like remedying an embarrassing human situation or redressing an historic wrong, it should do so at the human ethical level. However, if the debate should revolve around matters of faith, then one of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent. This in itself would mean surrender of individuality and distinctiveness.

Words are pigeonholes for ideas. [Editorial comment: It seems I discussed this before in relation to Migdal Bavel the week of Noach, 1995. See here.] A community tends to refer to some concept, be it “ball”, “run” or “salvation”, and therefore their language has a word for it. If the idea rarely comes up, they would use an expression to define it. But if the idea isn’t part of their worldview altogether, one would have to start with the differences in givens and spend hours building up our worldview in order to explain the idea to them. And even then they only know the words in the abstract, absent the emotional attachments.

Ge’ulah” and “yeshu’ah” don’t really mean anything like “redemption” or “salvation”. Nor does “berakhah” have much to do with blessing, nor “qedushah” to holiness. To someone who thinks in English, fear and anxiety caused by danger, the unknown or the possibility of erring are all variants of the same thing. And we wouldn’t naturally compare awe to any of them. But in Biblical Hebrew, there is pachad in the face of danger, eimah of the unknown, and by calling both the fear of erring and awe “yir’ah”, one  does naturally see their common theme of dealing with something greater than myself.

The two religious groups’ worldview lend themselves to a different set of pigeonholes — we lack ground for common dialog. We not only lack a “safah achas”, we lack a “devarim achadim”.

I think this is what R’ Soloveitchik means when he speaks of an uncrossable abyss between faith communities, that we speak different languages that makes meaningful dialog simply impossible. Instead what happens is that the majority community’s language is used, and therefore the minority community ends up shoehorning ideas into a lexicon that doesn’t really describe them correctly. Judaism is bound to be misrepresented in these exchanges.

Race or Religion?
One often hears it asked and debated: Is Jewishness membership in a people (a race or ethnic group), or is it adherence to a religion? I think the question doesn’t even start; it’s an illusion created by the English language which coerces us to think in a false dichotomy.

English evolved in a culture that was primarily shaped by Christianity. So its words fit pigeonholes of types of community in categories that make sense to Christians (and people whose thought is of Christian heritage): co-religionists, ethnic groups, etc…

However, for example, Arabs are united by a shared language and the resultant culture. In the Sudan, the Arabs are Moslems who are genetically African. As are many of those who have faced such oppression in Darfur Moslems who are genetically African. They differ in language and resulting cultural elements. There is no word in English for the kind of peoplehood that is meant by “Arab”. But there is in Hebrew. Next Rosh haShanah, those of us using traditional liturgy will be thanking G-d for having “uplifted us above all other lashon — [people who are united by common] language”.

What kind of peoplehood is denoted by “Jew”? Neither the unity of coreligionists, as there are atheist Jews, Buddhist Jews, and Jews who believe in Christianity. Not the unity of genetics, as we accept converts. Nor that of culture — Ashkenazic food is very unlike Sepharadic, Yemenite music very different than that of German Jews. Similarly our art and poetry is as diverse as the cultures among which we have lived.

What are we? We are an am and an eidah, a kelal and a kehillah. Those are the words that emerged in Hebrew, the language in which we have done most of our thinking about who we are. The lack of clear English term to pigeonhole our self-identity into is a non-issue; it’s an attempt to define ourselves in someone else’s terms.

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  1. Yona says:

    I agree. But how do you understand the injunction to translate the Torah into 70 languages?

    • micha says:

      I don’t know how to fit that commandment with the notion that we mourn the day the Septuagint was completed and three days of darkness descended on the world. (This was on 8 Teves, and the commemoration was folded into the 10 beTeves fast.) (Tur OC 580: כתב בה”×’: אלו הימים שמתענין בהם מן התורה. והמתענה בהם לא יאכל בהן, ולא ישתה עד הערב…. בח’ בטבת ×”×™×” מעשה דתלמי המלך)

      Also, the stone on which those 70 translations were written were then covered in lime and turned into a monument in the middle of the Jordan and another as an altar atop Har Eival (Devarim 27:2-4) after the words are scraped off (c.f. Rashi, Yehoshua 8:32). It’s not like the translations were made to be read.

      Maybe (just thinking aloud in response to your question) the message is that those of us who do think in other languages should acknowledge the need to translate as a first step. “Crossing over into the holy land”, as it were. And then you should get past that level and not need them anymore. But when Ptolmey demands the LXX as an alternative to striving to understand the original, darkness descends.

      But all in all, a good question for which my first attempts to answer are insufficient.

  1. October 16, 2012 – ל׳ בתשרי תשע״ג

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