Derrida and Sacks at the Tower of Babel 

Miriam Feldmann Kaye Tradition Online | October 27, 2022

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel” (c. 1563)

The French-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida’s interpretation of the Tower of Babel offfers a typically postmodern elucidation of the enigmatic and mysterious parable narrative, from which an important understanding of the idea of deconstructionism can be gleaned. The subject of Babel signifies themes at the crux of postmodern discussion itself: breakage, collapse, and renewal. The major themes of construction and subsequent destruction of the tower allow for a glimpse into Derrida’s philosophy of deconstructionism. The story is one whose relevance is different for each generation, and for diverse religions, mirroring the confusion sensed today with the multitude of truth claims, narratives, and meanings. Whilst this thinking is manifested in diverse interpretations of the story of Babel, in this context, it presents an example of one of the more creative elements of postmodern thinking – textual play and language games, with interpretative rules which are contextual and ever-changing. Accordingly, objective ways of understanding texts are destabilized, and thus singular meanings are “deconstructed.” This at once connects textual play to Jewish methods of interpretation, which are based on historical, contextual, and theological layers over the generations. Deconstructionism – destroying meaning – does not necessarily result in an absence of meaning, as some critics argue. It is coupled with a deeper aspect of deconstructionism which is the dissemination of new meanings, and this explanation is allegorized and highlighted in Derrida’s reading on Babel: “This story recounts, among other things, the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation.”

The word bavel itself is noted for its signification of confusion, and describes the location of an event of confusion, which is based on confusion between different languages. The interplay and puns in the Hebrew letters have long evoked exegetical inquiry. In our generation, R. Jonathan Sacks zt”l pointed to the “etymology for the word Babel, which literally meant ‘the gate of God.’ The Torah relates it to the Hebrew root b-l-l, meaning ‘to confuse.’ In the story, this refers to the confusion of languages that happens as a result of the hubris of the builders. But b-l-l also means ‘to mix, intermingle.’” In some ways, these themes of confusion and language resemble ideas found in the rich and varied interpretations in Rabbinic literature which offer a multiplicity of ways of understanding the passage. The meaning of the text is offered multiple interpretations – historical, ethical, geographical, theological, and philological. Theologically-speaking, there is a quest to understand the nature of the divine will, and the meaning of human existence. This quest is expressed through the many questions and responses arising in different midrashim as to understanding the cause for the construction of the tower. 

Miriam Feldmann Kaye helps us make sense of the confusion wrought through the bilbul at Bavel in her “Multiple Truths and the Towers of Babel: Deconstructionism in Jewish Philosophy” (TRADITION, Fall 2020).

Next week in TraditionOnline: Yoel Finkelman asks, “Who’s afraid of postmodernism?

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