"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Tower of Babel: What is gained and lost in translation?

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.


Genesis 6:9–11:32

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a curious story about the confusion that arises when people speak different languages. The Torah reports that a group of people came together to build a city and a tall tower to avoid being scattered across the world. However, God disapproved of their plans — for reasons not explicitly stated in the Hebrew text. In order to stop them, God mixed up their language so that they could no longer communicate well enough to finish their building project.

How exactly did God mix up their language?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leader of the Jewish community in Frankfurt during the second half of the 19th century, proposed an intriguing explanation. He suggested that all these people in the story were actually speaking the same language. However, they could not agree on the meanings of words, and the ensuing strife caused their society to break up and their actual languages to slowly drift away from one another.

This concern about disputes over the meaning of words goes back deeper into the Jewish tradition. The Talmud relates that the translation of the Torah into Aramaic by Yonatan ben Uzziel (Targum Yonatan) was composed to prevent disputes about the meaning of words in the Torah. This ancient Aramaic translation, and the similar Targum Jerusalem, are better described as interpretive translations that sometimes depart from the plain meaning of the text.

There is a long Jewish tradition of translating the Torah. The Talmud relates that one of the Aramaic translations of the Torah, attributed to the convert Onkelos, was actually given to the Jewish people in very ancient times. Although scholars date this translation to the end of the Second Temple period (1st century C.E.), it is nevertheless the most important translation of the Torah for understanding the plain meaning of the text.

Indeed, the act of translation is not merely the act of transposing words from one language to another. It requires interpretation of the author’s intentions and anticipation of the reader’s understanding. It requires a loyalty to the text being translated and the willingness to make decisions about what is to be preserved in translation and what is invariably lost.

Back to the story about the mixing of languages in this week’s parashah: The three major Aramaic translations of the Torah each render this story in different ways. The Targum Onkelos renders the Hebrew nearly literally. However, both the Targum Yonatan and the Targum Jerusalem insert a surprising twist into the story. At the top of the tower, there is to be some kind of object of worship, perhaps a statue, with a sword in its hand. This statue will then be able to make war, perhaps against God, or perhaps against other unspecified enemies.

In light of this interpretive translation, God’s displeasure becomes much more understandable. Instead of building a city and tower to simply aggrandize themselves, these people were actually trying to fight against God.

In his commentary on this story, Rabbi Hirsch alludes to a very real dispute that had engulfed the Jewish community of Germany in the 19th century. He was the leader of the Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft, a break-away group in Frankfurt that rejected the changes to Jewish tradition that had been embraced by reformers, who made up a majority of the community at that time.

Rabbi Hirsch wrote that that builders of the city and the tower in the Torah were like someone who “would no longer accept or submit to any point of view other than his own, even if it came traditionally from God.” He then launched into an extended discussion of the correctness of rejecting the will of the larger community if that community has, like builders of the tower, committed themselves solely to their own aggrandizement.

He implied that the cause of the language confusion in the Torah and the split in the community in Frankfurt are similar. It comes down to disagreements over how the world works: Once the basic assumptions of what it means to be committed to Torah are overturned, anything is possible.

The perfect antidote to this kind of communal rupture is the study of the Torah. Using the classical translations (Aramaic, English or otherwise) and major Jewish commentators, we can rebuild a common language to talk about Torah and mitzvot. And through reclaiming a common understanding of these foundational texts, our Jewish community in the Bay Area may be able to bridge some of the ruptures that originated in Frankfurt so long ago.

Rabbi Joel Landau
Rabbi Joel Landau

Rabbi Joel Landau is the spiritual leader of Adath Israel in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].