For the week ending 10 March 2007 / 20 Adar I 5767

Jewish Gibberish? Babble On!

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Sarah J.

Dear Rabbi,

I have a question. I was born into a family with a religious Christian father and a not so religious Jewish mother. Of course my mother taught me to follow Judaism and to only “help” my father celebrate Christmas, etc. When they were still together, my dad would teach us about Jesus, but my mom told him to stop. Now that they are separated, my mother has no control over telling him to stop. This past weekend, my sister started to speak in tongues. My thought was, “Well I guess Jessica’s not Jewish anymore.” Can you please tell me what Jewish people think of praying in tongues? Do we believe in this language? Is it not acceptable for a Jewish person to pray in this language? Thank you.

Dear Sarah J.,

On the one hand, I empathize with the difficulties you must be going through as a result of your parents’ separation. On the other hand, as you know, Judaism prohibits intermarriage, and the situation you describe is an unfortunately all too common outcome where children are torn between two religions, torn between loyalty to two parents, and ultimately torn by the turmoil of separation and divorce.

Regarding the effect of speaking in tongues on your sister’s Judaism, you should know that a person born to a Jewish woman is always Jewish. No matter what they do or believe, and even if they outright convert to another religion, that person will always be Jewish in essence. You should find some way to convey this to your sister, and never give up hope that she will some day, some way return to following the ways of Judaism.

As far as the general question of Judaism’s approach to speaking in tongues is concerned, let’s first clarify what we’re talking about. There are two basic types: when a person speaks unintelligible sounds in a state of religious ecstasy, or when a person speaks a real language which he himself doesn’t understand, but which is understood by people who know that language. The first type is what is found among some segments of certain denominations of Christianity such as the Pentecostals.

While there seems to be references to speaking in tongues in Christian sources (although many are forced interpretations or outright additions not found in the ancient Greek version), there is no reference to speaking in tongues anywhere in Tanach, the Jewish Bible. There are only some remotely similar, but markedly different, instances.

For one, recall the well-known story of the Tower of Babel, where the people’s tongues were confused such that people spoke languages that others didn’t understand. However, this is not comparable because each spoke an actual language, not unintelligible sounds, where it was the speaker who understood and the listeners who did not. Also, far from expressing spiritual enlightenment, their “babel-ing” was a punishment for brazenly challenging G-d, which resulted in discord and dispersal.

In another instance, our sources teach that when G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people in Hebrew, he simultaneously gave it in the seventy languages of the ancient non-Jewish nations (listed in Gen. ch. 10). This was in order that the truth of the Torah be accessible to all mankind. But this is also different since here, G-d — who understands all languages — spoke intelligibly to those who understand that particular language. In fact, in Jewish sources, we always find that when G-d speaks through a pure and genuinely inspired person, the language and message is clear, for the benefit of both the speaker and listener alike — and not just gibberish understood by none.

So to answer the question: Does Judaism accept gibberish? Babel on!

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