“On the eighth of Teves the Greek Torah was written, during the days of King Ptolemy, and there was darkness in the world for three days.”
-Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 580:2
The eighth-century Babylonian halakhist known as the Bahag transmits this history of translation. This “Greek Torah” — and, notice, not the Torah in Greek — is known as the Septuagint, written during Ptolemy II’s rule over Jerusalem from his Alexandrian court. While the fast of the 10th of Teves — this year on January 7 — most explicitly marks Nevuchadnetzar’s siege of Jerusalem, it also marks the three days of darkness that followed the Torah’s translation into Greek. But it is not the mere existence of Torah in a language other than lashon ha’kodesh, Hebrew, that appears the problem. It is its translation into a hegemonic (and Hellenizing) tongue. This translation makes the Torah transparent, accessible, and vulnerable. This transparency is darkness. Refusing a particular tongue’s opacity is darkness.
The Martinican poet and critic Edouard Glissant famously demanded the “right to opacity” for everyone. If such a demand provoked indignant responses several decades ago — “Now it’s back to barbarism! How can you communicate with what you don’t understand?” — today’s ultra-liquid modernity reduces nearly every cultural text or practice to a transparent object in constant consumption and exchange. The Google Translate camera, for example, promises to translate the world around you instantaneously. We might then return the indignant response to Glissant’s demand with another question: How can you communicate with yourself? How can you relate to that which is immediately reduced to the same? Perhaps this is why, in the aftermath of the proverbial Tower of Babel, the angels were sent to confuse the tongues of the nations, as represented in Liora Ostroff’s original painting.
The rabbinic tradition also teaches that, in the land of Moav, Moses translated the Torah into 70 languages, corresponding to the 70 primordial nations of the world. The Kedushas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) explains that this act of translation occurred outside the land of Israel so that even when in exile, surrounded by and immersed in foreign cultures and tongues, Jews could find a home in Torah. Translation can also make a home. It can invite you in, and it can make space for others.
The fact of assimilation in the modern West, the most salient proof of which is perhaps the loss of languages, has cut off countless people from their own archives, world-systems, and practices — Jews no less. The dynamics of transparency and opacity, of access and closure, are neither abstract nor universal but ever-shifting relations and emergent cleavages between and among real communities. Tongues can be sharp guards against surveillance and appropriation. They can reveal one’s location within hegemonic culture. And they can also be thick and soft channels for communing with one’s past and present, showing one how to enter lovingly.
Tongues, and their exchange, are then a site of intimacy — in more ways than one. They transmit, as in Jason Lipeles’s “Your Love is Like a River,” the pleasures of penetration and infection. They mark, as in Maor Oz’s “Oxcha, Oxcha,” marginalization and creativity. They sense, as in Molly Oringer’s conversation with Michael Rakowitz, not simply the taste of home but also the taste of one’s distance from it. They mediate, as in Jo Mrelli’s “Remember Passing,” a relation with different and past selves. And they trace, as in Leora Fridman’s “Diasporic Speech,” a simultaneous path toward assimilation and estrangement.
Tongues are organs for speech, organs for pleasure, and organs for disease. They give life to cultures, they root identities, and they create borders. Erotic and violent, wet and impenetrable, ancient and invented, tongues create a playful field for engaging the contradictions in which we live and the warm, dangerous openings to where we want to go.
“Let me be your parasite.”
-Tamir Amar Pettet, JEW BOY