Wednesday, August 29, 2018

How can a language be Holy?

Interview with a rational mystic

OK so you wanted to talk... about language... about Hebrew and holiness?

I wanted to spend some time on language.  Without being a mystic, I can sit here and read the words that the Alter Rebbe, or any other tzadik, wrote, and they are transported across time.  Well, of course, that's the Torah itself, too.  But what got me thinking about it was the opening chapters of Shaar Hayichud VeHaemunah.  The Alter Rebbe talks about God's speech.  He talks about God's speech in the Baal Shem Tov's thinking, as sustaining the universe, existence itself.  But then he brings down the Ari, and he says something that I think, if we are generous, if we are humble, and don't besmirch the Ari's description of what seems to be, on face value, a sort of scientific -- or at least a technical process, one that describes Creation and its diversity as having been achieved through permutations of Hebrew letters, spoken by God into existence -- we can learn a lot.
What we see in the opening chapter of Shaar Hayichud Vehemuna is how language, God's language, expresses a Natural Law, the methodology of Creation. But since that language, God's language, is expressed to us in Hebrew letters, the mystical here actually points towards control, towards some sort of process akin to technological innovation.  It's not too different to what we try and do today, to control the world through science and through technology, which is applied science.

I think this got a bit confusing.  Try to say it again.

OK, I'll try and give an intuitive example.  A lot of people will guffaw, will trash the idea that there's some kind of inherent holiness to the Hebrew letters.  In Hebrew words.  But take this statement from the Alter Rebbe, quoting the Arizal:
וז"ש האר"י ז"ל, שגם בדומם ממש כמו אבנים ועפר ומים יש בחי' נפש וחיות רוחנית, דהיינו בחי' התלבשות אותיות הדבור מעשרה מאמרו' המחיות ומהוות את הדומם להיות יש מאין ואפס שלפני ששת ימי בראשית  
This thought was expressed by the AriZal, when he said that even within that which appears to be utterly inanimate matter, such as stones or earth or water, there is a soul and spiritual life-force.  That is, i.e, although they evince no demonstrable form of animation, [within them] are nevertheless enclothed the letters of speech from the Ten Utterances which give life and existence to inanimate matter, enabling it to come into being out of the naught and nothingness that preceded the Six Days of Creation.

let me just interupt you here -- do you think that's something specific to Hebrew, or language in general? 

I think that as a Jew, as Rozensweig said, I need to reach for the objective, for the universal, from my own subjective experience.  So I'll limit my approach to the language of my Holy Book.  But if a Budhist, or another non-Hebrew based religion had a hard time elevating Hebrew to this cosmic level, I might by sympathetic with them.  But for me, my language is Hebrew, so I am OK to stick with the Arizal and the Alter Rebbe, who are talking about Hebrew here.

You were quoting the Alter Rebbe when I interupted.

I wanted the diversion.  But if we go back to these words, I guess we see how language, God's language, brings Existence into Being from Nothing.

Well, we don't see it, so to speak, we hear of it, from the text.

Right, we hear of it from the text.  We hear of how God brings Existence into Being through speech.  We don't see it.  We hear of it. 

It's a pretty wild idea, though, that God speaks.

It is.  And as the Torah progresses past God's speech as the tool of Creation, God's speech is the tool for Law-giving.  

Again, its not something we see, but something we hear of.  And God told Moses... And God told Abraham.  We hear, from the text, of this event of God's speech.  It's a painted picture which the Torah is asking you to accept.

Right.  And if I am going to go a bit ethical, it's like the Law, which is spoken by God, is based on being good, on ethics, on obeying those words, those Commands, those Mitzvot we now have.  But, from the way the Torah first has speech by God used to Create, and then speech by God used to give Law, well there's a connection between Creation and Law.  They both come from God's speech, they both come from the same place.  The Law comes from the same place as Existence itself comes from.

Again, not to be cynical, but this is all something we hear of, not something that the Torah shows, or proves.  It tells us of it.  It's a paradigm that we are asked to accept.

Yes, I mean, there's no Authority anymore, we are post-religious authority now.  Now authority comes with power I guess.  I think we can only read this connection between the Torah's description of Creation, and the Mitzvot, the Commandments, or the Connections (Tzavta) as a paradigm which ultimately we choose to accept or not.  But this idea, that the Mitzvot come from the same Pre-Existent place that Creation itself comes from.  Well I think that's a powerful idea.  That's the secret to how the help you reach beyond.  And that Midrash about how God looked into the Torah to see how to make the world.  It links up so well to this idea.  There is another side we can't access with our rational minds.  But a Mitzva comes from beyond, just like Creation itself does.

But back to the Arizal.

Well, the Arizal carries on and explains that each name, like אבן, stone, for example, is a particular permutation of letters, that result in the form it finally takes.  From Nothing, to its final form.

What of names that aren't in the Torah though?  How are they formed?  By names not yet Given, or given by man?

Well, what we are seeing, what I think the Arizal is telling us, or maybe the Sefer Yetzira, but I think more the Arizal at least as far as I don't understand, is that language, Hebrew language, is a way to connect with God.  Today we know that two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom make a molecule of water.  The word for water in the Torah is מים.  

The process the Arizal describes, of permutations of letters, giving name, and final form, to the thing, in this case water - it needs to incorporate the understanding we now have of the internal structure of water.  It's like that T-shirt with the formula on it that says - "And God said.... And there was light":

So how do you see the Arizal's words sitting with the body of scientific understanding we now have?

Look. You take the medicine, you do the vaccines, you don't rely on God alone when He has granted us deeper Knowledge.  You can't ignore science, God Forbid.

But then what of the holiness of Hebrew?

I honestly think this might be connected to why Man gets expelled from the Garden of Eden.  The pasuk implies some kind of fear that man will reach a level of understanding, a secret will be disclosed, which for a reason we don't know would be bad.  But its the technical approach Vs the meaningful approach.  Our psyche has a side which can calculate infinities, even if they are just the space between two knowns (Calculus), but we have another deeper, non-calculating side, non calculating but still truth-seeking, which also needs to understand.  Not just to understand.  But to understand better.

Not sure what you mean by that, "to understand better"..

Well let me try and explain better.  If we accept that we do have a fundamental duality inside our minds, a duality that arises because of the structure of our brain, with two hemispheres, each supporting different modes of attention, of perceiving reality.  We have the calculator, the left hemisphere, the technocrat, that wants to know the parts, doesn't care much for the whole, or the context, understands that two hydrogens and one oxygen make up water, and is happy and content at just that.  But what of its source?  Where does it come from?  Where does water come from, ultimately?  Now that's a right-hem question, it's contextual, and its meaningful, not technical.  So the Arizal's approach is entirely dependent on the source.  It's deficient on the level of detail but superior on the level context.  Maybe the Arizal is happy to somehow connect the permutations of letters to science.  But I think he is most concerned about the idea of the permutation per se, its origin more important than its particular method.

But does that mean there's an equality, or at least an attempted equality, between the permutations of letters, in Arizal's writings, and science?  That the permutations of letters are science taking place?

Look, one day they might discover that there is an amazing convergence between the number of mystical gates and the structure of reality.  But we don't have that kind of knowledge, or any evidence that that can be pointed to that that would be the case.  So I don't think we can draw an equivalence between the permutations of letters, and science itself.  But I'm saying that the Kabbalistic system and the Scientific method differ fundamentally in that science cares only for the question - How?  And Kaballa cares for the question - Who?

OK, then but still, how are we to understand the permutations of letters?  Why would they cause Hebrew to be Holy?

Well, the Arizal's permutations form different words.  Different words spoken by God.  And those words, God's Speech, are described, are told to us, in a form that we can grasp.  They are told to us in our human language, in Hebrew.  So there is suddenly, created by the Torah, a middle ground, a shared ground.  We have God's speech, made intelligible to us by the Torah.  And the opportunity to study God's speech, and come close God's Words.  Hebrew, then, creates a meeting ground between man and God.  And that opportunity to meet God through language, is what can be seen to give Hebrew its holiness.