Last month, while in the Brussels airport on my way back from Israel, I found myself behind an elderly bearded Jew. While waiting for our flights, we began chatting and I asked him — in Yiddish — if he spoke Yiddish. Though we had already spoken in two other languages, Hebrew and English, the transformation that came over him on hearing this third language was amazing. Yiddish created a link between us that the other languages had not been able to do. It wasn’t that he spoke Yiddish better than the other two — in fact he didn’t and had to revert to English at times — but it was Yiddish that took our relationship to the next level. Yiddish signaled to him not just that I was a fellow Jew, but that I was one of unzere. Taken together with my trailing tzitzit and yarmulke, it showed him that he shared with me a similar conception and experience of Judaism.
Yiddish has, for a long time, served such a function. Given the spread of Eastern European Jews over several continents in the 19th and 20th centuries, Yiddish served, for its interlocutors, as a means of communication the world over and as a means of sharing a common past, if not a present.
But it is not only Yiddish that serves such a function. All Jewish languages do, to a greater or less extent. So what is the story with Jewish languages? The key is the extent to which the language is not shared with non-Jews.
The shared knowledge of a Jewish language between Jews seems to establish kinship and trust in a way that shared knowledge of another language does not seem to. Jewish language acquisition functions as a signal in the sense in which economists use the term. The essence of this argument is that acquisition of a Jewish language is much costlier to acquire for a non-Jew than for a Jew; the structure and vocabulary of a Jewish language make much more sense for somebody who identifies as a Jew, and often only for a practicing Jew. Furthermore, a Jew often learns a Jewish language in childhood, which is a lot easier than acquiring it later on, as a non-Jew typically needs to do. As a result, the ability to speak a Jewish language has, historically, been taken to be a reliable marker of Jewish identity.
An example from Yiddish — the particle aay — which today has found its way into Yeshivish, as well. In Yiddish, it is used to introduce a counterargument as in “Most Jews in Brooklyn can understand Yiddish. Aay, there are a lot of Hungarian Jews who don’t know Yiddish; well, they are an exception!” When I first started learning Yiddish, I couldn’t understand how this particle worked. However, for a bokher in yeshiva, this is part and parcel of his daily life because he uses it all the time in his learning. Another example comes from Jewish Malayalam, where the term shalom ayi or “became shalom” (or “entered the state of peace”) has the meaning of “died.” Yet another, which exists in many Jewish languages, is the term “pareve” to refer to something that is in between, something that’s not so “hot,” something that is a compromise.
Of course, such linguistic signals are not peculiarly Jewish. Certain dialects spoken only by people of a given subsect can also help to identify members of that subsect. For example, I could probably tell a Palghat Brahmin by the nature of his Tamil. If that is the case, is there anything more to a Jewish language than a signal of community identity? To answer this question, we need two more concepts. The first concept was postulated by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in the early 20th century. In Whorf’s words, “(w)e dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language … (T)he world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds.” In other words, language mediates reality.
A second concept is related to the core principle in Judaism that God is one. What exactly is this oneness? According to the Rambam, in his “Guide to the Perplexed,” this oneness is not what we ordinarily mean by the notion of one. “None of the things existing in the universe to which the term one is applied is like unto His oneness.” Furthermore, since God created the world, the world, must in some sense be a reflection of God. And the world is certainly characterized by multiplicity. Hence we are led to the conclusion that God’s oneness requires multiple notions for its understanding. Vedanta, a Hindu spiritual tradition concerned with self-realization, similarly, teaches that Reality is simultaneously attributeless and possessed of attributes, depending on one’s point of view.
What I take from the conjunction of these two notions is that different languages give us different ways of understanding God’s reality, that is, the reality that is God. Of course, Jews think of Hebrew language as the Holy Tongue, or the linguistic expression of the Holy. But I would say that this connection with Jewish divinity is not restricted to Hebrew: all Jewish languages have, at their core, a common Jewish way of perceiving the world. Thus, the notion of a benevolent reality is reflected in the notion of God as father: tate zise in Yiddish or padre bendicho in Ladino. Many Jews intuitively have a similar idea of the uniqueness of Jewish languages when they say that such and such a (Yiddish or Ladino or Judaeo-Arabic) word cannot be translated into any other language. This uniqueness of Jewish languages has to do with something inherently Jewish, a Jewish understanding of the Divine Reality. However, the understanding of this reality through Jewish language is an ongoing activity for every individual Jew.
So, should we as Jews only speak Jewish languages? Keep close to the Source, as it were? Much as I believe that all Jews should speak a Jewish language, or at least know one, I would argue against the notion of speaking only Jewish languages. And my proof for this comes from the story of the Tower of Babel.
In this story, a group of people settle in the valley of Shinar and decide to build a tower reaching up to the sky. God descends to see what they have built, is unhappy and decides that all of this had to do with their sharing a common language. He confuses their speech so that they do not understand each other and then disperses them all over the earth.
Now if we understand this story at face value, it seems to imply a fearful God; I therefore reject this surface interpretation. If the God of the Bible is all powerful, then something else must be happening. My take is that the people in Shinar were vouchsafed a glimpse of the nature of God by being provided a Jewish language that reflected the Jewish aspect of His reality. The people wanted more of this. They wanted to get closer to this reality (a tower whose top shall reach the sky), and they mistakenly thought that the way to get this was to build on this language and keep it pure of non-Jewish influences. The metaphor of the city that the story uses is apt, because a city has walls that keep out interlopers and allow inhabitants to focus on essential internal matters. The people of Shinar did not want different languages to intrude into their nation and so they shut themselves up — to keep all their people in one spot together with nothing but the one perfect language of their nation.
But God spread out the Shinarites, He scattered them, so they would not speak a single language, so that they would all acquire other languages, learn the other facets of the truth. The people of Shinar were still left with Jewish languages so that they retained that special understanding of God, but with their dispersal and their acquisition of other languages, they were saved from mistakenly believing that God only had a Jewish/Semitic nature; they were given knowledge of the multi-valency of His reality. And we, as descendants of those original Semites should take this lesson to heart. While we should keep our particular Jewish languages and that special closeness to God, we also need to learn and speak the other languages of the universe.
Meylekh (P.V.) Viswanath is a professor of finance at Pace University and director of its Global Portfolio Analysis Center. He speaks English, Tamil, Hindi/Urdu, French, Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew; manages Malayalam, Bengali, Italian and German; and has studied Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Mandarin, Armenian, Aramaic, Syriac, Czech, Welsh, Irish and Dutch.
PQ: ‘Different languages give us different ways of understanding God’s reality, that is, the reality that is God.’