May 9, 2010

Maximum Meaning: Language as Encounter

Maximum Meaning: Language as Encounter
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

What did Abraham Joshua Heschel mean when he taught that "as a report about revelation, the Bible itself is midrash (Between God and Man, 77)." His suggestion that "literal meaning is but a minimum of meaning (ibid)" points toward the answer.

Our deepest question is: How can Infinity be encapsulated by language? 

It is not enough to assert, as does Rabbi Norman Lamm, that "to deny that God can make [God's] will clearly known is to impose upon [God] a limitation of dumbness that would insult the least of [God's] human creatures. (Condition of Jewish Belief)"  That is a defense of God's Ability, not the same as an exploration of God's Being

God's Will being worth communicating is a much easier assertion than God's Will becoming incarnate.  Language, as Lamm acknowledges, "though so faulty an instrument, is still the best means of communication to most human beings. (ibid)"  It may the best means of human communication, but what is the implication of God's limitlessness being communicated, ie, contained in words?  What does God become in this spiritual framework?  God becomes definite.  Manifest.  In other words: an idol.

No.  That is not God.

God is beyond language, beyond words.  As must therefore be the Encounter with God.  Any attempt at describing our relationship with God cannot but fall short.  But that very limitation, the inability to truly connect, draws us ever closer to the indescribable Divine.  We wish to understand God, to decipher the universe, to surpass language which cannot know what intuition suggests.

And that, I believe, is the source of Sacred Text.  As Wendy Lesser has written, "it is the crossing of a boundary, the alienation from the original tongue, which [makes a writer]. (The Genius of Language, 5)"  Since language itself is a faulty instrument   for communication the Torah's words must inherently be a false translation of God. 

But "translation" is not the point of Torah.  Scripture is Midrash, as Heschel taught, not "photographs but illustrations, not descriptions but songs" (Between God and Man, ibid)

It is an act of sacred emulsifying that leads an Encounter with the Divine to take form.  Words are vessels, not Content.  As Harold Kushner has written, "Sinai is not a geographic location.  It is a symbol of Israel's awareness of having stood in the presence of God and having come to understand what God requires of them. (Etz Hayim, p. 757, n. 34)

But this is, again, not the same as asserting that God's Will is definable.  Kushner continues, "Whenever a person hears the commanding voice of God and commits himself or herself to live by that voice, that person can be considered to be standing at Sinai."  Naomi Seidman has suggested similarly that "translation… becomes the very erasure of time and difference from the scene of writing. (Faithful Renderings, 3)

Heschel's notion of "Torah as Midrash" might be best understood through the prisms of Kushner and Seidman.  Sacred translators make effort to become invisible, to become conduits to an original experience, but we, critical spiritual readers, know they exist.  We know that translation is a best attempt at and not the same as history.

So: To what scene do we return through experiencing Torah?  Do we stand at Sinai as we struggle to communicate an Encounter with Infinity?  If the Torah's authors aimed at the erasure of time, the scene of writing for which their words serve as vehicle is, in fact, not Sinai. 

It is the intense and urgent attempt to translate Sinai which is our destination. 

Midrash.  A sacred sharing of the effort to encounter God.

We stand in God's Presence when we cannot help but sing.  

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to