In the Amidah for Yom Tov, we credit Hashem as the one who “lifted us from among the languages”. Importance is given not just to our nationhood (“You chose us from among the nations”) but also to our bond of common language.
George Orwell made our generation very aware of how language shapes thought. I was recently reminded of this idea when someone on the net asked the old question, “Is Judaism a race or a religion?”
On the one hand, your Jewishness is typically inherited from your mother. This would lead one to think of Jewish identity as racial. On the other hand, we accept converts, as would a religion.
As I see it, the problem is caused by the pigeon-holing. Why must it be one or the other? Because English has these two terms readily available, we — without even thinking — try to force this concept into one of these two categories. English, though, was created by Christians, and need not have a term that describes how Judaism views itself. We don’t even notice how the language channeled our thoughts.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to this week’s parashah makes a similar observation. Hebrew has no word for “religion”. It’s an alien concept. “Religion” connotes a belief system, rituals, ways of escaping the world into G-d’s comfort. But Judaism is about bringing G-d’s ways into how we act and react in the everyday world.
Another example he offers is “virtue”. In Latin languages the root is “vir”, manliness, virility. The German equivalent, “Tugend”, is from “taugen”, meaning useful. In Hebrew, the word is “mitzvah” a commandment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, pointed out how it had also had connotations of the root mem-tzadi-vuv, and could indicate “to aim” or “to focus”. There is no way for a Hebrew speaking person to talk about doing the right thing without some level of his mind getting vague hints that the “right thing” is “doing what G-d commanded so that we may achieve His goals for us”.
The Torah begins the story by telling us “The whole earth was of one language and uniform ideas (devarim)” (Breishis 11:1). The source of the problem was not only that their ability to communicate aided their plans, but it also lead them to being of like mind. One person was able to mislead an entire generation.
According to traditional histories, Avram was 48 when the Tower of Babel was built. He was an adult who consciously chose not to participate in the endeavor. And as a reward, when the other clans were given their own languages, causing them to spread out and become separate nations, Avram was not so punished, and still spoke and thought in Hebrew.
The gift of speaking Hebrew, then, is no small thing. It’s not just exposure to a holier mode of speech. Hebrew gives us the tools to organize our concepts in the way Hashem intended. Instead of asking whether Judaism is a race or a religion, with the connotation of those words, we can look at Am Yisrael, and Adas Yisrael, and the meaning given those terms by the Chumash.