A Common Language

The creation of many languages--and the confusion and miscommunication that ensued--raise questions about the nature of our communication today.

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--Adrienne Rich, "Origins and History of Consciousness" in The Dream of a Common Language

"Come, let us build us a city and a tower." Many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt her work of brickmaking when the hour of travail came upon her. Moulding bricks, she gave birth to her child, and tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on moulding bricks.

-- Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews

The Holy One, blessed is the One, mixed up their language so that one did not understand the other. R. Abba b. Kahana interpreted: Through their own lips I will bring them low. They desired to speak to one another in the holy tongue, but they no longer possessed a common language. Thus, when one asked his neighbor for an ax, the latter brought him a spade. In his anger, the former smote him and split his skull. Then every man took his sword, and they fought against one another. Half of the world fell by the sword. [As for the rest], "Adonai scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth" (Genesis 11:8).

-- Genesis Rabbah 37

We disagree with each other on matters of moral importance--matters like abortion, nuclear weapons, the treatment of dying patients, and the distribution of wealth--and these disagreements can be painful. At times, failure to resolve them rationally leads to bloodshed. We, therefore, have good reason to be concerned with obstacles to rational persuasion. Yet, all too often, we fail even to understand what others are saying to us. Our differences go deeper than mere disagreement over propositions. Their concepts strike us as foreign. We do not speak the same moral language. Our capacity to live peaceably with each other depends upon our ability to converse intelligibly and reason coherently. But this ability is weakened by the very differences that make it necessary. The more we need it, the weaker it becomes, and we need it very badly indeed.

-- Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents

Language promotes communication and understanding within the group, but it also accentuates the differences in traditions and beliefs between groups; it erects barriers between tribes, nations, regions, and social classes. The Tower of Babel is an archetypal symbol of the process that turns the blessing into a curse and prevents man from reaching into heaven. According to Margaret Mead, among the two million aborigines in New Guinea, 750 different languages are spoken in 750 villages, which are at permanent war with one another.

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Rabbi Leslie Bergson

Rabbi Leslie Bergson is the Jewish chaplain and Hillel director of The Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California.

Mary Baron is the Gabbai and Executive Vice President of Temple Sinai in Glendale, California, and the supervisor of a psychiatric crisis team. She received her M.A.J.C.S. from the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at HUC in Los Angeles, CA.