This week’s parasha, VaYetze, is a single story about Jacob and his uncle and father-in-law Laban. The story, which involves marital and financial deception on both sides, ends when Laban pursues a fleeing Jacob and the two agree to make peace. They solidify their peace by erecting a mound of stones marking the line of their territories. Each names the mound, although the names mean the same, but each is in the namers native tongue. Laban the Aramean calls the mound, “Y’gar Sahaduta,” and Jacob, “Gal-ed.” Both names mean, “mound of testimony.” With this stroke, the Torah introduces the language of Aramaic, a language which will take up large portions of some later books in Tanakh, will serve as a court language in the later Persian Empire, and will be the main language of Jews in Israel and Babylonia from the end of the Second Temple until the middle ages. This sudden introduction of Aramaic into Torah is striking; until now we might have assumed that Laban and Jacob spoke the same language. Ironically, in erecting a physical and linguistic barrier, the Torah breaks down the barrier of being a Hebrew-only text.
Unsurprisingly, some of our texts show nervousness around Aramaic and especially its introduction to the Torah. Rav Yehuda of the Talmud suggests that one should not make requests of God in Aramaic. In his view, the ministering angels do not recognize Aramaic, and will not be able to attend to our prayers or carry them to God (Talmud Shabbat 12b). The Rosh Teomim (18th Century Poland) explains that this is because the angels consider Aramaic an improper language, presumably because it is other and, specifically, not Hebrew. In fact, the Talmud may be claiming that not just Aramaic, but any non-Hebrew language is unacceptable to the ministering angels. This rejection of outside culture is made poignant by later texts such as the 15th century Spanish Galya Raza, which claims that the Israelite descent into Egyptian slavery is punishment for Jacob permitting Laban to introduce Aramaic into the Torah. As uncomfortable as this might sound, it is understandable. After all, the Israelites are a small group trying to hold on to their uniqueness. By being a Hebrew, an Ivri, one from the other side of the river, we, as inheritors of the Israelite tradition, express ourselves in our differences. One major avenue for doing so is by holding fast to our language.
In the Talmud of the land of Israel, Rabbi Yonatan takes a different approach to foreign languages. Using five languages as examples (Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Assyrian), he associates each language with its own strength (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:2). Each language, and thereby, one can assume, culture, is unique in its strengths, but none is necessarily better than another. Yet there is also no need for any of these languages or cultures to give up their individual identity. Our identity as a culture is maintained by taking pride in its unique strengths, but we are compelled to appreciate other cultures for their strengths as well. Each culture and language, though, may maintain its identity without any mixing.
There is a third Rabbinic approach to the inclusion of Aramaic in the Torah (and other books of the Bible) which transforms Aramaic from the language of the other into something holy to be embraced. In this approach, no language or culture is inherently bad; its integration within one’s own culture transforms the outside culture into a part of the inside culture, making it desirable. A midrash in Genesis Rabbah (72) explains that, since God included Aramaic in the Bible, like Hebrew, it must be a holy language. The inclusion of outside culture into ours can be seen not as a takeover of our culture, but rather an enhancement; in becoming part of our culture and language, it gains a new meaning particularly to us, in the context of our own uniqueness.
We see three approaches to the inclusion Aramaic into the Torah: disgust, appreciation at a distance, and open embrace. Of these three, Jacob seems to accept take at least two of them. On the one hand, he sets up a strong boundary between him and Laban, similar to the approach that sees the inclusion of Aramaic in the Torah as unquestionably negative. In doing so, he solidifies his own culture as different. At the same time, he willingly allows Laban to name the boundary first, knowing that the name will be in Aramaic. And on the boundary, he shares a meal with Laban, the ultimate in cultural exchange and mutual hospitality. He even chooses a Hebrew name for the boundary that is merely a translation of Laban’s, thus giving Aramaic a prominent place in Hebrew culture. Whether or not he also takes the third approach--appreciating Aramaic at a distance--is not clear to me, but seems likely, considering the years he spent in Laban’s household and his marriage to Laban’s daughters.
When we figure out how to interact with other cultures while maintaining our own, I think that all three approaches are necessary. We would also do well to take seriously the opinion of the Tosafot (medieval French commentators). They challenge the opinion of Rav Yehuda in the Talmud, that angels do not speak Aramaic. How can it be, they ask, that angels understand the hearts of people but do not understand a particular language? Their question is more than just a challenge of logic; it is a challenge about what culture and language are fundamentally. Culture and language are expressions of something deeper which is shared among all people. While the expressions are different and important, there is always something more fundamental that is shared by us all as part of the human experience.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום