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The Unity of the Human Race (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

The Dawn of Jewish History

            To sum up our discussion until this point, we must emphasize once more that in Rihal's view, the history of the human race has one unified beginning.  Let me give you an example.  The human race is comparable to leaves which sprout on the different branches of a single tree.  We cannot leave our place on the branch to search out our common source.  However the keen observation of our own development leads us to believe that our branches have a common root.  If we could but move backward, we would discover that all the branches are united in a shared tree trunk.  Similarly, by examining a number of basic characteristics common to different cultures, we can prove the unity of the human race.  We do not belong to parallel chains, but to a tree which has one root.  This is in fact the fundamental message which emerges from the story of Adam and Eve: there is one origin to all of humanity, and this origin is Adam; a concept which, according to Aristotle's worldview, is patently absurd.  Rihal endeavors to demonstrate this principle in various ways.  Perhaps some of his claims might be challenged today.  Such is the case, for example, regarding the division of the week into seven days or the use of the decimal system.  Yet despite these disputes, the thesis itself is worthy of discussion.  I would even go so far as to say that it arouses an intuitive trust within us.  Observation of history will teach us of a single, unified human race.  Thus the crime of racism becomes absurd as well as evil. 


            Language is a good illustration of the dead end which all other alternatives reach.  On the one hand, we cannot claim that language is as natural to man as his biological functions.  On the other hand we cannot say that language developed, because its artificiality and its conventionality prove that it could only have evolved after beginning at a particular point, a beginning which man can only imagine.  We can speak about development only after we have established the original basis of language, yet the appearance of this original basis arouses a question which we cannot answer.  Language constitutes a pitfall for the naturalistic interpretation of the world.  To a certain extent one could claim that language is a wonder by its very nature.


The Hebrew Language


            At the end of the second section [2:67-68], Rihal returns to  the problem of language.  Here he chooses to discuss the Hebrew language in particular.  The Chaver is asked whether there is truth in the claim that the Hebrew language is  superior to all other languages, particularly in light of the sorry state of the Hebrew language in the days of Rihal himself.  The comparison between languages is natural given the richness of Arabic, which caused the Arabs to see it as the holy language.  Rabbi Yehuda Halevi answers this question with the assertion that the Hebrew language went through a parallel process to the Jewish nation, becoming more meager and sparse through the exiles.  From a linguistic point of view, we must approach the scriptures as a mere representative sample of the great richness that existed then, a richness which was lost because exile distanced us from our sources.  However, despite our enduring exile, Hebrew has retained certain characteristics which unite to make it the noblest of languages. 


            This explanation is related to some interesting biographical facts about Rihal.  The Kuzari was written in Arabic, but Rihal's poetry was written zealously in Hebrew.  In fact, in the text before us Rihal accuses those poets who were captivated by esthetic techniques of Arabic poetry and imitated them blindly while disregarding the uniqueness of the Hebrew language.  These poets did not attempt to renew the esthetic technical possibilities of the Hebrew language, which differ from those of the Arabic.  Rihal distinguishes between the languages by differentiating between their objectives.  The Kuzari responds: "But where is this superiority which you mentioned?  On the contrary, the other languages are superior to it in the poetic meter which is suited to the music to which [these poems] are sung" [2:69].  The Kuzari raises the claim that the metric technique seemingly proves the superiority of Arabic to Hebrew.  In response to this, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi teaches us that language has two basic characteristics.


            The first aspect is form, which allows us to transform language into a musical instrument, to become part of a musical creation.  Rabbi Yehuda Halevi stresses the importance of music, the language of the soul.  This claim repeats itself over and over in the history of Jewish thought up until the Chassidic movement, which taught that melodies descend to our world from celestial chambers, chambers so exalted that words cannot reach them.  Rabbi Yehuda Halevi speaks, then, of the necessary connection between melody and word.  However, the affirmation of this relationship does not compel us to be bound by an artificial regime of meter or even of rhyme.  The scriptures chose to be free of all such constraints.


            However, the relationship between music and poetry is only one aspect of linguistic expression.  The other element is the primary one.  Can language express what is within man, can it serve as a link between man and his fellow man, while maintaining all the original meaning of the thought?  Here, Rihal describes a unique attribute of scriptural language, which has no counterpart in any other language: the "ta'amim."  I refer to the unique system of musical notes which accompany the text.  The ta'amim are not merely a musical addition.  They are signs of syntax, which assist us in understanding the full meaning of the text.  Our Sages explained how language alone can often remain obscure.  In human interaction we use many additional media, such as hand movements or facial expressions.  This is in fact one of the reasons why a Jewish court of law does not accept written testimony: "From their mouths and not from their writing" (Tractate Gittin 71b).  Similarly, it is forbidden to accept testimony through translation.  This is the source for the preference of oral testimony.  The ta'amim are a technique which help us write that which cannot be written.  The Hebrew language is composed of three levels: letters, vowels, and ta'amim.


            In the philosophy of modern language we must differentiate between three levels.  There is the level of syntax, which refers to those characteristics of the language which can be can be learned even without understanding, and which can even be "taught" to a computer.  Beyond this we find the level of semantics, which connects language with the world and presents us with the rules of governing the relations between the linguistic creations and the events and state of affairs in the world.  The third level is the pragmatic level, which completes the triangle, for here we add the third element, the speaker.  People do not speak with words alone.


            Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, once told me in conversation that one of the fundamental problems of language is that while it recognizes the question mark and the exclamation point, it does not recognize other necessary signs such as signs of amazement or of irony.  Various textual analyses have been constructed on such subtle differences in the reading of texts.  Without amazement and irony, language remains ambiguous, because the speaker is not present.  Borges responds to the problem of the ta'amim with the claim that modern writers tend to write poetry without punctuation, when actually they should doing the opposite - adding more punctuation to their poetry; instead they destroy what does exist. 


            The ta'amim are a completely different form of punctuation.  The structure of the Hebrew language is thus much richer than other languages, and grants us the opportunity to study the text in a unique way.  Rihal's position illustrates an important general principle.  We tend to judge language as well as values and other things according to standards which we acquired from other languages and foreign cultures.  We must return to the original Hebrew perception and to the true character of Jewish creativity.   



(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)

pyright (c)1997 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.



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