Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Η Εβραϊκή Γλώσσα & η Ερμηνευτική της μορφή /
Hebrew Language & its Interpretative form

«The very logistics of reading and writing Hebrew foster interpretation: Since the vowel formats of Hebrew are relatively fixed, Hebrew can be written without vowel signs. Vowel signs, in fact, are absent from Hebrew texts, ancient and modern. Vowel signs were devised only in the 8th Century to preserve the proper Hebrew pronunciation of sacred texts, and they are used today only in poetry or in teaching texts, or when needed to dispel ambiguity. To read, the mature Hebrew reader inserts the vowels mentally into the text, on the fly. But how does the reader know which vowels to insert when he or she sees an otherwise unpronounceable set of consonants? A particular set of consonants could have different meanings with different sets of vowels. Some ancillary consonants are used to indicate certain vowels in Hebrew words, but for the most part, the reader’s mind chooses the right vowels by reading the context of the whole phrase, sentence or subject matter. Let me furnish you with a hypothetical example from English: consider the consonants RD; how would you know whether the word should be read as ReaD, RiD, ReeD, ReD, RoDe, RaiD, RuDe, RiDe? You could do it, but you would have to know more about the context; RD instruments are never colored RD; you RD the horse; you RD the book. I’m sure you had no problem with the foregoing. A closer analogy to reading Hebrew would look like this: RD NSTRMNTS R NVR CLRD RD; Y RD TH HRS; Y RD TH BK.
Now note this: The meanings of any word in any language are colored by the context in which the word is used. But in Hebrew (and Aramaic), even the phonetics of a word depend on its context. You can say an isolated English word, but you cannot voice a naked Hebrew word without perceiving or inventing some context that suggests which vowels to use. You can read English thoughtlessly without interpreting it. Reading Hebrew, in contrast, is interpreting Hebrew. A Hebrew text must be interpreted to be read. Any Hebrew text engages the mind, even at first glance. Maybe that’s why many Hebrew texts became sacred.

The room for interpretation provided by Hebrew can be better appreciated when we consider what the Greeks did to the Hebrew (Phoenician) alphabet when they imported it into Europe. The early Greek alphabet was a modification of the original Semitic alphabet used by the Hebrews and Phoenicians (ancient Phoenician was very close to Biblical Hebrew). Now this original Semitic alphabet contained the twenty-two letters present in modern Hebrew, all consonants; none of the letters were vowels. The Greek alphabet (and the Latin and other alphabets derived from the Greek alphabet) all contain vowels; where did they come from? Well, it seems that the Greeks created the vowel signs A, E and O by converting three letters that originally represented Semitic guttural consonants not present in Greek. I and U were converted into vowels from other Semitic consonants. In essence then, the Greeks made the alphabet completely phonetic by doing away with the ambiguity inherent in written Hebrew. You could then read Greek—and so can now read English—without having to interpret the context of the words, as you must do to this very day when you read Hebrew. The Greeks thus added a significant level of clarity to the Semitic alphabet, on its way to becoming a Greek alphabet. How classically Greek to endow writing and reading with transparent meaning at the phonetic level. Greek logic only had room for true and false; mathematics, for Plato, was the only true language. The Greek philosophers did not leave any corners of reality in darkness; all was illuminated. (Obviously, I have oversimplified Greek culture, but only to make a contrasting point about the Hebrew and Talmudic views of reality; Sophocles and other Greek poets, like poets in every culture, were quite familiar with the ambiguity of human language and with the dark mystery of human desires. Despite the running commentary provided by the Chorus, Greek plays do leave room for interpretation.)

But of course, there is no free lunch. In dispelling the ambiguity of the written word, the Greeks destroyed some of the mystery of context and much of the need for primary interpretation. Reading became more a technology and less an art of the reader. Auerbach, in comparing Homer with Genesis, emphasizes the unambiguous surface clarity of the Greek text compared to the mystery of the Hebrew text that invites, even demands interpretation—see Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, cited above [§3]. Thus, the Greek quest for clarity (and distaste for dark interpretation) included even the symbolic domain of the alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet had to be clarified and completed by Greek vowel signs.
The Rabbis, by way of contrast to the Greeks, loved to unleash the literal words of the Torah for new interpretations by proposing alternative vowel readings at key points in the text. By changing the vowels, the Rabbis could change the meaning of the words; in Hebrew you can easily exchange children and builders [banim versus bonim] by fiddling with the unwritten vowels. Thus the context of a Hebrew sentence not only determines the vowels of a word, the vowels of a single Hebrew word can determine the contextual meaning of a whole Hebrew sentence. To provide an opening for an apt interpretation, the Rabbis, albeit rarely, will even switch root consonants. How un-Greek; how Talmudic. [...]
Indeed, Hebrew reality is essentially linked to spoken language. Examples abound. The Hebrew word for Scripture is miqra; miqra does not mean writing (script=scripture), but reading, speaking, calling. The English word book derives from a writing tablet; a book in English is physical. The Hebrew word for book is sefer; the root of sefer, S-F/P-R, denotes telling or saying , and not the physical document. Thus the essence of theHebrew book is not to write it or to read it, but to tell it and to hear it. Hebrew understanding too is verbal: A command to hear is shma, and a command to understand is also shma. The Hebrew word for meaning (mashmaut: literally, it makes us hear) is derived from this same shma that denotes both hearing and understanding».

* Irun R. Cohen & Eleanor Rubin,
Rain and Resurrection: How the Talmud and Science Read the World
[Βροχή και Ανάσταση: Πώς το Ταλμούδ και η Επιστήμη Διαβάζουν τον Κόσμο],
Landes Bioscience 2010, pp./σσ. 9-11.

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