Parashat Noah

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

The Pluralism of Language

According to the end of this week’s parashah, at one time in history there was a uniformity of human language.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” (Gen. 11:1-3, NRSV trans.)

A few verses later we read about the destructive nature of this uniformity of language.

“The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. ” (Genesis 11:5-9)

What was so problematic about the uniformity of humanity’s language that it was the catalyst for God confusing “the language of all the earth” and scattering the people “abroard over the face of all the earth?”

In his book on the weekly parashah, Dr. Aviad Hacohen, the Dean of the Sha’arei Mishpat Academic College in Israel, brings a very interesting explanation of the negative attitude towards a uniformity of language in the name of Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv, 19th century). The Netziv, in his commentary Ha’amek Davar, wrote that:

Whomever deviated from the “same words (devarim ahadim)” among them was sentenced to death by burning, just as they did to Abraham. (see Genesis Rabbah 38) We find that the “same words” among them became an obstacle, since they decided to kill anyone who didn’t think like them. This means to say: the disqualification of the “other” just because he thought differently is most definitely invalid and eventually leads to murder.

According to the Netziv, in the end the enforcement of uniformity in language leads to murder. Forcing people to talk the same way and to believe the same thing leads to a society that is unable to make room for difference of opinion, behavior, and belief. The enforcement of this uniformity inevitably leads to oppression and eventually murder.

Throughout history there have been periods when societies and governments have attempted to enforce uniformity among their citizens, preventing people from thinking and behaving differently from one another. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to the murder that the Netziv feared. Pluralism is not only an important concept from a philosophical perspective, but it is also essential for a healthy and vibrant society.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator at AJR and teaches Talmud, Halakhic Codes, and History.