Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning

 
Torah
Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

During the three years I was at Wynberg school, I attended afternoon Kheder (Cheder/Cheider) “Hebrew School” (literally “room”) where we studied for our Bar Mitzvah. I remember the classes well. Reverend Gordon (in the 1950s a rabbi was called “Reverend”) of the Wynberg Synagogue was our teacher. He was a small man in his sixties with a husky voice, a wide-brimmed perennial black hat engulfing his pasty wrinkled face. We had to learn long bits of the Tanakh by heart. No one in the class understood what they were reading.This mindless recitation is common among non-Israeli Jews.

”When I was called to the bima, relates Avram Yehoshua, who hails from the US,  to read the haftara portion (the portion of Scripture from the Prophets that the bar Mitzva boy reads), I chanted it melodically and without mistake. The only problem was that I had no idea what the Hebrew words meant or what I was doing, except that today I would ‘become a man.’”
Back to Stuppel in Wynberg, South Africa. Stuppel was the star of the show in the chaider class: he vomitted large chunks of discourse at full speed, without dropping a single fiery letter. I was stuppelfired. His feat consigned the best fire-eaters to the flames.

Hebrew is a phonetic language with a very simple stress system like Italian and Afrikaans. It is possible, therefore, to read fluently but only understand effluently. There may indeed be an emotional bond with the letters filling the eyes and the sounds rattling off the tongue. How many Jews will tell you that they have this warm feeling when they look at or mouth Hebrew letters? But what about what it means? I do not mean that the structure of a language (the language code) has no value. What I mean is that the structure without the meaning is just an empty shell. If all you do is throw egg shells around, people might think you’re cracked. On the other hand, a Kabbalist will probably tell me that I’m a שמאָק (shmok) because I don’t understand that the ש and מ and אָ and ק each have meaning in themselves, and that the mindless(?) recitation of these letters influences the mind and heart in ways that the goyim and ignorant Jew fail to grasp. Islam says the same thing about Muslims who recite the Arabic Qur’an without understanding it, which comprises the majority of Muslims. The Arabic word qur`ān means “recitation”, which is related to the Hebrew kara “read, call, call out, name”.

The emotional bond with Hebrew (-looking-sounding words) is no different from the feelings that different sense impressions evoke – sights, smells, sounds, textures. Yesterday I bought a roll mop

(Philo "Judaeus") von Alexandreia/Ph...

(Philo “Judaeus”) von Alexandreia/Philo(n) of Alexandria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(a strip of herring wrapped around pickle and onion rings impaled on a toothpick) because it reminded me of all the lovely pickled herring my mother used to make. It felt so heimish (like home).   [mop – German for “bulldog face”. Roll mop – slimy silvery skin of a bulldog’s mug].  I place the roll mop on a plate, go sit under the tree in the small lush garden, unwrap the slab of herring, peel the loathsome silvery grey skin off the back, tear off little slabs, which I deftly deposit  in my mouth. Lots of things can make an old Jew feel heimish: when it comes to food – chicken soup, chopped liver, kiegelech, teigelech; or when it comes to music – Sophie Tucker and Kol Nidre.

Barry Freundel, in his “Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s response to modernity” (pp. 11-12) says:

“The revelatory character of the material in the Bible serves as a rationale and multiple[level analysis of these texts that one finds in the rabbinic literature called the oral law. The Bible represents miraculous information. As such, while it can and should be read on its most idiomatically understandable level (what we call peshat) other levels of interpretation are also available because of the very nature of the origin of the text. These other levels are called derash, or deeper analysis, remez, or hints, which includes such things as gematria (numerological parallels and notarikon (words whose deeper meaning is revealed by the abbreviations hidden behind the letters); and sod, or secret analysis, meaning esoteric or mystical interpretation. All of these, even at the most basic level of peshat, can and do involved a great deal of intellectual effort and debate before one arrives at a final conclusion.”

So, each occasion Moses imparted to the Hebrews what God revealed, they applied a great deal of intellectual effort and debate before they arrived at a final conclusion. Is that perhaps the reason why they spent 40 years in the desert walking round in circles? Take, for example, the many occurrences of “Thus says the LORD (YHWH)” כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, in Exodus 8:1: “And the LORD spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exodus 8:1).
How did Pharoah react? Did he enter into an intellectual and linguistic debate with Moses on the deeper levels of meaning in the sentence “Let my people go” and in the letters of L-E-T? But then Pharoah wasn’t Jewish. (See my “Thus says the Lord in the Torah. And in the Prophets?”

In his “Approbation” of “Philistine and Palestinian” (1995) by Matityahu Glazerson (originally published in Hebrew a year earlier), the Johannesburg Rabbi J. Zalzer states:
“Rabbi Glazerson disproves the tale that it makes no difference in which translation language you happen to read the “Bible” (Zalzer’s inverted commas). He demonstrates that the Hebrew language possesses certain values which you hardly find elsewhere: a simple word expresses, in fact, deep ideas which the real meaning of the word includes. The Torah is not reading material for leisure, but needs much effort in order to be able to penetrate its real meaning and discover its real beauty beneath the surface.”

These deep ideas are, according to the Kabbalah, in the letters themselves. In the Preface (which contains an excerpt from “Letters of Fire”), Glazerson says:

“The deeper significance of the letters and words is discussed extensively in the literature of Kabbalah. It is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence (italics added) of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world.” Glazerson draws from “this store of knowledge regarding the varied significance of the Hebrew letters and words.”

( “Effluence’ is not a felicitous translation of the original. The word has three meanings: sewer water, waste water, and outpouring. The author obviously meant the third meaning. Unhappily, “effluence” is never used – this is the first time I have seen it used in such a manner – to mean “outpouring.” When I used “effluently” earlier on, I would assume that readers would get the sewer pun).

Glazerson has a chapter “On the unique status of Hebrew, the Holy Tongue” (from Rabbi

Moshe Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim, Sha’ar Ha-Ottiot, Chapter 1).   (Pardes Rimonim  פרדס רימונים “Garden [of] Pomegranates” of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 16th century. Sha’ar Ha-Ottiot – “Gate of letters”). Here is an excerpt:

“Many have supposed that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are a matter of symbolic convention, that the Sages decided and agreed among themselves that certain signs would represent the sounds of speech….In the same way, other peoples also have symbolic representations for the sounds in other languages. According to this view, there is no difference between the Hebrew letters and the alphabets of other nations. The Hebrew letters are the conventional symbols used by the Israelite nation on the advice of Moshe through his prophetic inspiration, and the other alphabets are the conventional symbols of the other nations.”

Who but the ignorant would think that Hebrew is the product of Moses? Was there no Hebrew before Moses? But I don’t want to get my linguistic knickers caught up in that particular bramble of a ramble. So let’s move on to the nub of Rabbi Moshe’s argument, which I paraphrase:

There are words and there are meanings. For example, if you’ve got a headache and swallow the instructions in your painkiller box, you’ll end up with two aches, one in your head and one in your stomach. Moral of the story, don’t swallow instructions, especially written ones – even if you can stomach them; swallow only what you’re meant to swallow: the painkillers. Once you have understood the instructions on the pamphlet, you can throw it away. You can do that because it has no intrinsic importance in curing you of your headache. On the other hand, if you don’t ensure that you understand the instructions, you could do yourself untold harm.

According to those who hold this pragmatic view of language – I’m still paraphrasing Rabbi Moshe Cordovero – as a vehicle that conveys ideas (that is, a form that expresses content), the Torah is to them like that pamphlet in the painkiller box, or like any medical textbook: “its purpose is to reveal the inner meanings and processes necessary for the perfection of the soul and if one does not master the required knowledge, he gains no benefit from his studies.” But Rabbi Moshe says that this pragmatic theory cannot be true because the “Halachah obligates the reader to read the weekly portion, twice in the original Hebrew and once in the Aramaic translation, and this includes even seemingly meaningless place names (underlining added) such as Atarot and Divon (Bamidbar 32:3 “Numbers” 32:3)…The spiritual concept of each and every letter contains a glorious light, derived from the essence of the sefirot…each letter is like a splendid palace, containing and corresponding to its spiritual concept. When one of the letters is pronounced aloud, the corresponding spiritual force is necessarily evoked…these spiritual forces inhere not only in [the vocalized letters] but also in their written forms.”

So even when Glazerson says the words “seemingly meaningless”, the letters themselves (the phonemes and graphemes) in reality exude, Glazerson says, a “glorious light.” My view of the Bible (Tanakh and Newer Testament) is more prosaic and for all that more glorious, that is, it gives more glory to God. My view is that God reveals meanings through sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes), which are the building blocks of spoken and written words. The Bible is at bottom about repentance and how God reconciles the sinner to Himself. Simple but not simple-minded at all. The Jews of old looked for miraculous signs, the Greeks of old for wisdom. The Kabbalist looks for both: miraculous letters and the wisdom of the spheres. The grapheme by itself is no more meaningful than a rapheme is to Raphy (that’s me). Jews should not be ”spellbound” by names, nor by letters; many Jews, however, certainly are. Here is a useful summary of the issue:

“Interpreting Scripture from the method of PaRDeS often robs the Bible from its straightforward meaning, because the sod or hidden level is considered the ultimate as it is mystical and enables us to understand the so-called secrets of God. While so-called sod level interpretations have been able to tickle the ears of many in the Messianic movement, they often subtract the value of the Biblical text and its practical application for modern life. No longer do we have people examining the Tanach for what it is as narrative, history, prophecy, and wisdom literature, but people are searching it for hidden meanings. This means that when David struck down Goliath with a sling and five smooth stones, we cannot accept the text as meaning what it says, as there has to be a hidden, esoteric meaning behind it. Even worse, PaRDeS has been applied to parts of the Apostolic Scriptures by some Messianics, for which it has no remote context. Messianics who employ PaRDeS often fail to look at the New Testament for what it is as Gospels, history, and epistles. When Yeshua and His Disciples walk down a road together, it can no longer be treated as them walking down a road. What this does to us in the long run is reveal our inadequacy for using standardized hermenutics which examine literary structures in a Biblical text, taking into examination texts as a whole and its source language(s), in addition to required historical background information. Author Tim Hegg makes the following valid remarks in his workbook Interpreting the Bible: “It is therefore a mistake to think that such a hermeneutic was in place in the 1st Century, or somehow that Yeshua and His Apostles would have interpreted the Scriptures from this vantage point. To postulate such a scenario would be entirely anachronistic.”

Is it possible to be a Torah Jew without holding this “letters of fire” view of Hebrew? Very possible; indeed, you don’t have to know any Hebrew at all and still be a good Torah Jew. This applies not to the modern Jew but to Jews as early as the first century A.D. For example, while Josephus, who grew up in an Aramaic-Hebrew enviromment, was proficient in Hebrew, Philo, his predecessor, in contrast, probably knew, at best, a smidgen of pidgin.

“Philo’s writings imply several things about the kind of teaching he and other children had in the synagogues of Alexandria. The first is that the Alexandrian synagogues primarily, if not exclusively, used the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Tanakh) as the basis of instruction rather than the Hebrew Bible. While Philo knew some standardized meanings for Hebrew words, his interpretations reflect a significant ignorance of the Hebrew language. His citations always come from a Greek translation”  (“A brief guide to Philo” By Kenneth Schenck, 2005, p.11).

Having said that, the form of words (in the Septuagint) were very important to Philo; for example, peculiarities in the singular or the plural, the verb tense, noun gender,  the presence or omission of the article.

Hegel uses the term aufhebung (“sublation”) to describe the dual nature of language – structure and meaning. In order to grasp the meaning, you need to let go (in your mind) of the structure. The structure must “die” to your consciousness so that the meaning may live. Yet without the structure, there would be no meaning. Language is like music: you have to learn the notes, but iof you want to play well you have to forget the notes. The notes are still there lurking in the subconscious. if you want to play fluently, you have to leave the notes behind you. If they pop back into the forefround while you’re playing, you could fudge it. I believe that the truth lies in the music of the Cross, not in the music of the spheres (sephirot).

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians, 1:18-25).

is it possible to be a Torah Jew without holding this “letters of fire” view of Hebrew? I think it is very possible; indeed, you don’t have to know any Hebrew at all and still be a good Torah Jew. This applies not to the modern Jew but to Jews as early as the first century A.D. For example, while Josephus, who grew up in an Aramaic-Hebrew enviromment, Philo, his predecessor probably knew at best little Hebrew.”Philo’s writings imply several things about the kind of teaching he and other children had in the synagogues of Alexandria. The first is that the Alexandrian synagoues primarily, if not exclusively, used the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Tanakh) as the basis of instruction for instruction rather than the Hebrew Bible. While Philo knew some standardized meanings for Hebrew words, his interpretations reflect a signifcant ignorance of the Hebrew language. His citations alsways come from a Greek translation”  (“A brief guide to Philo” By Kenneth Schenck, 2005, p.11).