Seventy Faces of Torah Rabbi Jim Morgan

Poetry and the Blessings of Misunderstanding

 58198468170000b5045bb22aParshat Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32

There are utterances — their meaning

Is obscure or negligible,

But to attend to them

Without agitation is impossible.

Mikhail Lermontov, 1840

As we come to the close of a bitter election season, in which the use and misuse of language has loomed so large, this week’s Torah portion, Noach, gives us an opportunity to ponder both the importance and the challenges of linguistic diversity.

Parts of this campaign have effectively channeled the fear and resentments of a large portion of the electorate through what gets characterized as “plain speech,” unadulterated by “political correctness.” Whether a given instance of so-called “plain speech” is meaningful or meaningless, factually correct or plain wrong, it can foster an extreme emotional response. Such speech also fosters divisiveness, across regional, ethnic, gender, religious, and class differences, among others—in a way that makes it difficult for people with different views or positions to communicate with one another.

From this perspective, it might be tempting to suggest that we have reached a Tower of Babel moment— we can’t even talk with one another anymore, so we lament the loss of the unity and clear communication that we had until… well, when? Isn’t linguistic diversity (even if we’re all speaking the same language) simply a fact of life?

This question lurks behind the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), in which God confounds the generation after the Flood by confusing their language and scattering them across the earth. Traditional commentators see this loss of linguistic and geographic unity as a punishment for some sort of rebellion, though the text never specifies any hostile motive—only a desire to make a name (shem, most likely a monument, as in “yad vashem” from Isaiah 56:5) and to avoid dispersal.

But the biggest objection to this reading is the fact that Genesis 10:5 reports that “[f]rom these [descendents of Japheth] the maritime nations branched out by their lands—each with its language—their clans and their nations.” Migration and linguistic diversity here appear to be uncontroversial facts of human life, so it seems unlikely that they would become punishments a mere chapter later.

To understand what is at play here, it’s worth noting that the Hebrew text of the story is unusually rich in verbal play: the similarity of sounds—for instance of nivleh (let’s confuse) and bavel (Babylon); and word repetition—safah (language) and kol ha-aretz (all the earth) each appear five times. This word play is explicitly poetic, carrying an emotional resonance beyond the words’ plain meaning.

The story also carries verbal and thematic echoes of the story of Creation and the expulsion from Eden. When God says, “Let us go down there and confound their speech…” (hava nerda, in 11:7), the phrase echoes another instance of surprisingly plural divine language in Genesis 1:26—“let us make a person in our likeness and image”—as well as God’s “going down” into Eden to confront Adam and Eve after they realize their nakedness in Genesis 3:8. These verbal echoes—God’s use of the first-person plural (to whom is God speaking?) and God’s descent to both confront and confound—connect the story of the Tower of Babel to the blessing of creation and the trauma of expulsion, carrying an emotional resonance beyond the plain meaning of the text.

That resonance is what Lermontov identifies as the surplus content of otherwise obscure utterances, which Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (in citing Lermontov’s poem) characterizes as poetic language, “language of pure transcendence without correlative.” For Levinas, poetry transforms words into signs without any objective meaning, undoing any simple correlation between a word and what it is supposed to mean. “No novel, no poem… has thus perhaps done anything else [but] undo the structure of language. Without this, the world would know only the meanings which inspire official records or the minutes of…board meetings…” Poetic language may at times be difficult to understand, but its meaning is ultimately far greater than what we can fully express in our usual, every-day language.

In Genesis, such poetic resonance in the narrative contrasts with the apparent uniformity of the language used by the Tower Builders themselves: “All the earth had the same language and the same words.” This sameness suggests not only that everyone spoke the same language, but that everyone was in agreement about the meaning of words. In the Garden of Eden, the absence of death also meant the absence of growth and development; here, the absence of misunderstanding, which allows for the construction of towers, means the absence of poetry, of the struggle to understand another person that lends meaning to our existence.

In this reading, the confounding of languages is not a punishment, but a corrective; and what prompts this corrective is not the building of the tower, but the triumph of linguistic uniformity in the face of diversity. Although diversity is necessary and even desirable, the challenges it poses are real—and can lead to conflict. One midrash imagines the murderous rage that will result from that loss of mutual understanding: “Thus one said to his colleague, ‘Bring me water,’ whereupon he would give him earth, at which he struck him and split his skull.” Such violence, however, results not so much from the initial misunderstanding as from the failure of the interlocutors to strive for understanding across the linguistic divide. They decided, or at least one of them did, to forgo communication in favor of violence.

For Levinas, poetic speech carries an ethical dimension: our fundamental responsibility to go beyond ourself towards the Other and to recognize the irreducible diversity of individuals. In this ethical imperative, we see the contrast with demagogic speech. The demagogue not only denies this responsibility to the Other; their language also imagines and longs for a pre-Babel world devoid of diversity with its challenges and blessings.

Diversity, like poetry, can be difficult—but it is far superior to the alternatives: a fantasy of “plain speech,” or a uniformity enforced by violence.

Rabbi Jim Morgan was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and serves as Rabbi/Chaplain for Center Communities of Brookline, a division of Hebrew SeniorLife, and as the Rabbinic Advisor for the Worship and Study Minyan at Harvard Hillel.

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