“English Only” and the Tower of Babel

Sermon given October 31, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Sometimes, a coincidence is just a coincidence.

This week, from Wednesday until Sunday, leaders of Reform Temples throughout North America are gathered in Dallas for the Biennial Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Rabbi and Lynn Stahl are there, together with our President, Bobi Stern, my colleagues of our Temple professional staff, and quite a few of our officers and Board members. My own stay at the Convention was brief. I flew to Dallas because I was invited to present a workshop on Wednesday, and I returned yesterday. Unable to reserve a room at the principal Convention hotel, I stayed at another one across the street. Now here’s the coincidence: Rabbi and Lynn Stahl are at the Anatole, in Room 524. I stayed at the Sheraton Suites, in Room 524.

Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.

At other times, a coincidence is a sign of something deeper.

At the Convention, Temple representatives are asked to approve several resolutions, staking Reform Jewish positions on great issues of the day. One of these motions voices a strong opposition to the “English-Only” movement. This group proposes legislation that would declare English to be the sole official language of the United States and forbid the publication of some government documents in any other language.

Now here’s the coincidence: This Shabbat, we read Parashat Noah, including the story of the Tower of Babel. God decrees that different peoples shall speak separate languages. Something tells me that the leadership of our Reform movement was mindful of that this Torah portion would be read during the Convention when they proposed their resolution opposing “English-Only.”

Sometimes, a coincidence is not just a coincidence.

Curiously, though, the resolution brought to the Convention floor does not explicitly mention the Tower of Babel. In fact, little is said to justify opposition to “English-Only” as a specifically Jewish position. We are reminded that Jews have always been committed to the causes of civil rights. We are told that “English-Only” presents a threat to the civil rights of language-minority citizens. Many of us agree with these assertions, but something is still missing. What does the Torah say that can guide us to a legitimately Jewish position on the “English-Only” movement.

Only one Torah text is mentioned in the Convention resolution. We are reminded that God rewarded our ancestors in Egypt, slaves for four hundred years, because they “did not alter their way of life, their convictions, their names, their heritage, their faith or their language.” Through generations of enslavement and centuries of exile, Jews have proudly and steadfastly maintained our distinct identity. We have preserved our sacred Hebrew language in every land and age. We would wish no less for Hispanic Americans, or for any other American minority group that maintains its own language and culture.

Unfortunately, this analogy can not stand up to close scrutiny. Sure, we prioritize the study of Hebrew, pray in the language of our people and study sacred Hebrew texts. On the other hand, American Jews have embraced English as our vernacular. Moreover, foreign-language-speaking immigrants have come to these American shores seeking freedom and opportunity. None is enslaved here, awaiting Divine liberation like our Hebrew-speaking ancestors in ancient Egypt.

Let us look, then, to the Tower of Babel, in search of a more cogent Jewish reason for opposing “English-Only.”

Since God is the One who ordains a variety of languages, we could say that it’s God’s will that different peoples speak different tongues. How dare we, then, legislate only one language for America? Can our laws overturn God’s will?

This argument also has faults. First, God disperses the distinct peoples with various languages to different lands. Therefore, the Tower of Babel story may actually give added ammunition to the “English-Only” movement, if the conclusion is that people who speak separate languages should not be living in the same country at all.

A second problem is even deeper. God’s imposition of divergent languages at Babel is a punishment. We may conclude that, in an ideal world, everybody would speak the same language. Perhaps imposing a single official language in each country is a first step toward achieving God’s vision of a messianic age.

What, then, is the true moral of the Tower of Babel story? Is it an endorsement of multiculturalism, of many peoples with many languages living together? Or is the Bible trying to tell us that a single language is preferable, at least in any one land?

If we are truly to understand this story, we must grapple with one key question about the Tower of Babel. What exactly is the crime that God seeks to punish by confounding the people’s languages? Only if we comprehend God’s intended lesson can we draw appropriate conclusions for our own lives.

Looking at the story closely, we find that the wicked tower builders say to one another, hava nivneh lanu, “let us build the tower for ourselves.” My friend Rabbi Amy Schwartzman explains that the crime is the builders’ desire to work only on their own behalf. They make no provision for guests, for wayfarers, for the homeless. They care only for their own needs, and not for the needs of others. Selfishness is the crime of the Tower of Babel.

Now the builders begin to sound like the proponents of “English-Only.” They speak and read English, and are unwilling to share even in the infinitesimally small cost of printing some government documents in the languages of other Americans. The tower of public life, they insist, is or should be, lanu, for us, only for we who fit our definition of being real Americans, only for we who speak English.

“Another error of the Babel-building project is not found in the biblical story itself, but in a midrash,” also pointed out to me by Rabbi Schwartzman. “‘As the tower grew in height, it took more than a year to get bricks from the base to the top. Thus, bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell, the people wept. But when a person fell and died, no one took notice.’”

The proponents of “English-Only” care not for the individual human beings whose ability to participate in American life would be restricted by “English-Only” laws.

The proponents of “English-Only” are indifferent to the injury to human souls whose mother tongues would be branded “un-American.”

The proponents of “English-Only” care more about words than about people, just as Babel’s tower-builders weep for bricks, but not for men and women.

Yes, the Tower of Babel story does suggest that, in an ideal world, everybody would speak a single tongue. In a perfect America, all would speak English as our common tongue and, at the same time, celebrate the language of their own heritage. In the meantime, while working toward the ideal, shall we assure that all can participate in our shared public life, or shall we brand people as non-Americans until English is their tongue, too? At Babel as elsewhere, the Torah teaches us to concern ourselves first with the needs of other human beings, especially those who may be strangers in a strange land. We, too were strangers, speaking Hebrew and halting Egyptian, no doubt, in the land of Egypt.

We can still dream of perfection. Would that the builders of Babel had considered the needs of others. Would that they had valued human life above material things. Would that every successive generation after them had used the power of words for positive, selfless purposes and not for greedy, self-centered causes. Then, perhaps, we would all be speaking the single tongue of God today. We would indeed be living in a messianic world.

But uniting our tongues will not bring about redemption. Only unifying our purpose will bring all human beings together, initiating a messianic age, including harmony of speech.

The false prophets of “English-Only” have a narrow and short-sighted goal. They would have us pass a law to revoke God’s decree of a multitude of languages. Doing so, they would compound the sin that provoked God in the first place, for they would legislate selfishness.

Let us not restrict our nation’s official speech to any one language. Let us instead improve our communication in every native tongue.

Let us not tell language-minority Americans that they must conform to our ways. Let us affirm that all Americans are real Americans.

Let us not learn the selfish ways of Babel. Let us teach that working together and caring for all is the path of God.

Amen.