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Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to P'shat-Part Three

Language is at once one of the greatest forms of human expression and one of its most limited. We humans experience and think stuff all the time and often we are quite anxious to let others know of our experience and thoughts. We search for the right words to express those thoughts. Sometimes we are successful in conveying those thoughts, other times less so. We like to read good authors be they masters of prose or poetry in large part because they are able to convey their thoughts in words so well.

But words are by nature limiting and limited. Those who write or speak publicly choose their words carefully in order to, at the very least, convey their basic intentions. Often, writers will attempt to convey a multiplicity of meaning using words sparingly.

This is especially true of poetry.

In Dylan Thomas' villanelle:  Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (one of my favorite poems) we read the first stanza:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

When we read the first line, do we think that Thomas is giving us advice about going out after dark? Would we think that's the plain meaning of this text?

Hopefully not.

The term 'that good night' here, as we understand from the rest of the poem, is referring to death. So why didn't Thomas just say: Put up a fight when it's your time to die?

Because it's a poem and the way he put it is more poetic—DUH!

Well, to be more precise, his particular use of language here evokes much more than even the 'plain meaning' would tell us. Night has its own associations and imagery. It is a common word laden with meaning being used here in an uncommon way.

In other words, it is a metaphor.

The reader will quickly understand that the 'plain meaning,' the author's intended meaning, is not at all the same as the literal meaning. Yet the literal understanding of the phrase 'that good night' is always lurking in the background of consciousness of the reader—it sets a mood and allows for the reader to make his/her own associations.

This use of language allows the writer to transcend certain limitations of particular words. By placing words in a certain context, the words are 'value added.'

Looking back at our explication of the word B'reishit (continued here) we understand that the word in question, b'reishit, has a certain literal meaning, namely 'in the beginning (of).' But what was the author's intent in using that particular word? Was it simply to give an indication of a time in history?

Maybe not.

Maybe the Torah's intent in choosing that particular word was to evoke myriad relationships and connections with that word as is used elsewhere.

If poets do this, why would we think that the Torah doesn't do it?

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to P'shat -- Part Two

Any thoughtful student of the Torah is confronted with myriad problems. Even if we can get through some sort of cursory reading of, say, the first chapter of B'reishit, we are then confronted with blatant contradictions to that narrative in the second chapter! One moment you think that male and female were created simultaneously into a world with a whole ecosystem and the next (chapter) you see that a male is created before any female or any trees, for that matter.

This is one screwy story, you might say.

Further perusal of the Torah will yield numerous anomalies including contradictions in the particulars of various commandments, many obscure passages and quite a bit of repetition.

In short, a rather messy book.

If you take the critical approach you'll say that these discrepancies reflect a multiplicity of authors whose stories and versions are stitched together over time. This basic approach leads to the Documentary Hypothesis—and a very fancy hypothesis it is!

Also, to my mind, somewhat dull.

But more than that, it doesn't do a very good job of explaining how we end up with this variegated text. It's all well and good to say that various texts got edited together but then why would anyone put together a text that is so full of problems sometimes even within the same paragraph?

This hypothesis seems to assume that if God had written a book it wouldn't be so messy.

This begs the question: If God wrote a book, what would it look like?

Let's step back a moment. Let's say that God created the Universe. I am not going to try to prove that – but accept if you will that premise for the moment.

Now let's look at the Universe. Is everything neat and tidy? Not quite. In fact, just as an example, physicists are still looking for a Theory for Everything because, in fact, lots of observable and theoretical phenomena don't really line up so well. Quantum physics doesn't abide by Newton's rules, for example (I say this as a physics layperson but relying on books like Dancing Wu-Li Masters, recommended by my late Uncle Bob who was a fully fledged and well recognized nuclear physicist).

When humans make stuff we like to think we can make everything 'perfect.' But does that really reflect the way God works? Of course, we can't know that for sure (She still ain't tellin'!) but my senses tell me that this universe is full of contradiction and inconsistency.

Back to the Flatlander's point of view. Recall that the toughest part of understanding the cube might be that the two lines which are farthest apart in the two dimensional representation are actually the same line in the three dimensional cube.

Maybe it is precisely those parts of the Torah which seemingly contradict or don't fit in with each other very well that point to deeper meanings on other planes?

This is essentially the rabbinic approach.

When one puts his or her mind to it, and struggles with the text, one can actually, albeit usually briefly, hold the contradictory passages simultaneously and see something beyond.

Next up: P'shat and D'rash

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to P'shat

I heard a story once about Picasso who once found himself accosted by a fellow guest at a cocktail party. The man in question confronted the cubist painter, fairly foaming at the mouth, saying to him, “You're no artist at all! Your paintings don't look like real people or real anything!” He removed a small photo from his wallet and brandished it in front of Picasso's face. “See this? This is a picture of my wife. That's what she really looks like. Why you can't paint like that?”

Picasso took the photo in his hand, examined it carefully and, handing it back to its owner declared, “Your wife must be very small, flat and gray.”

The point, of course, is that the photograph is not necessarily a better representation of a subject than a cubist projection. Both contain information which reflects a reality but neither one 'is' the reality as such. A cubist portrait, for example, chooses to recognize painting as an essentially two dimensional medium. Therefore, in order to present a three dimensional figure, it will lay out the various sides or aspects of that figure so that they are seen all at once on a flat surface.

Imagine for a moment that you meet a two dimensional being such as a Flatlander and you want to explain to him (or her!) what a cube is. You can give them all the information about the makeup of a cube by drawing out six squares in the shape of a cross which would represent the six sides of a cube. The only, but perhaps crucial, element they would be missing is the third dimension. In fact, the toughest concept to explain would be that the two lines which are furthest away from each other are, in fact, the same line!

In the last couple of postings I dealt with a midrash which says that God used the Torah to create the universe. Consider that the Torah mentioned in this context would not have been a Torah scroll written on parchment like the ones we have in the synagogue ark. How could it have been? Prior to the Creation there was no form, no matter.

So what was this Torah which God used?

Okay, I don't know. Nobody knows except God and She ain't tellin'. Or, more to the point, God couldn't possibly tell us just as a three dimensional person can't really tell a two dimensional person precisely what a cube is.

However, just as the three dimensional person can give (nearly) all the information of what makes a cube to the two dimensional person, so, too, God can give us (nearly) all the information which is the pristine, primal Torah.

And maybe, just maybe, if we work very hard at it, we too can glimpse the fully dimensional Torah. More about that in the next posting!