By David Ramírez
“Today I fight alone with a word. The word which belongs to me, and to which I belong: heads or tails? eagle or sun?”
— Octavio Paz, Eagle or Sun
Tuesday June 16, 2020
For most people, language is a given. We all grow in a particular set of cultural circumstances, which allow us to learn how to communicate with the immediate world around us. This changes radically when we go to another part of the globe, outside our linguistic community, and the other’s language becomes unintelligible to us. This is even noticeable for people sharing the same language, specially one which has spread widely. A visitor from England to the US will notice usages and phrases with which he is not familiar, even some of the same words may have entirely different meanings on both sides of the Atlantic. This at the empirical level can be evident to any native English speaker who has experienced the American version of the language, or vice versa, an American English speaker experiencing that of England. In what I think is Faur’s most watershed and important work of his career – and indeed in Jewish thought since Maimónides, Golden Doves with Silver Dots (Indiana University Press, 1986), he explains at a granular level how the Jewish and Western-Pagan mentality process reality through language, and provides a palimpsest which maps how a tradition of a specific linguistic community is the sole interpreter of its texts.
In the first chapter of this book, “Writing and Graffiti,” Faur explores the relationship of words as symbols (graffiti-semiotics) and how the combination of those symbols transforms in communication (writing-semantics). Words by themselves, though carrying their own meaning, lack significance independent of each other, but when put together in a sentence they recover a sense which are unique to their combination, but not equal to the sum of their parts. In other words, what we call semantics are simply the words obtaining value within the sentence through specific contexts. “Language,” he tells us, “functions as a kind of ‘conductor’ transmitting the ‘mind’ of the speaker.” (p.2)
However, during that transmission there is ambiguity. Although the intention is for the reader to understand the correct significance of the text, thus “knowing the mind of the author,” what actually goes on is an act of interpretation, whereby the reader makes a choice of the sense he recovers, thus making him a scribe/writer (écrivain) over the text that he reads. This is what creates “multiple meanings into a single significant text” (ibidem). Different readers can indeed recover different understandings from a single text.
Then he goes onto explain how the Toráh contains the “national crowd symbols” agreed mutually among the people of Israel, which require reading and interpretation. This Toráh was acquired in the desert, which in the Hebrew mind is the “blank space” where the ancient Israelites begin emancipating from slavery, and it too is essential to writing. With this last observation, it is quite remarkable to notice that through Jewish history the milestone moments of Israel’s literary creativity happened through exile, which is a form of desert, the blank space: Toráh being delivered in the desert, the Mishnah being formulated after the Roman destruction of Judea; the Mishnéh Toráh after Maimónides’ exile from Spain.
In contradistinction to the Hebraic experience, where the combination of graffiti-semiotics lend to writing-semantics, there is another form where both the symbol and that which it is supposed to communicate fuse together, “knowledge of the semiotic involves knowledge of the semantic” (p. 8). This Faur identifies with Greek thought in the tradition of Plato, whose logos is an all-self-encompassing, all-self-governing entity, thus lending to the universal, the ideal. In the rest of Faurian scholarship this is packaged as monolingualism, drawing attention to the fact that the Greeks never learned any other languages (p.7), they could always judge other nations in their own terms, but never let itself be judged by others.
The above renders two unique propositions and developments in each culture, which Faur uncannily describes many times over in different keys. The Hebraic experience allows a multiplicity of understandings departing from a single book, whereas the Greek platonic experience seeks a totality of meaning through a multiplicity of books.
«They differ in their direction. The Desert of the Book [for Israel] extends horizontally, that is, synchronically. It comes about when the man of the Book experiences the silence of books, of the “self-created desert” of Jabès and Canetti… The “vertical deserts of the books” [for the Greeks] extend diachronically from one generation to the other. Because these deserts owe their existence to the very books making up the “Total Library,”… the crisis is resolved in cremation.» (p. 9, my brackets)
Multiplicity unfolds horizontally, whereas Totality unfolds vertically.
This latter quote seems to point out to the oedipal propensity in Western civilization, where each succeeding ideology, philosophy, cultural or religious trend attempts to cancel (cremate) the preceding one out. It is always the “more advanced” (signaling verticality) proposition which will prevail, so it believes.
In Jewish tradition, through the reflexive reading of one book, nothing is lost, nothing is wasted.
A peculiarity of Hebrew is that it is a consonantal language – vowels are formally excluded in its script, which forces the reader to supply the vowels to the words. Again, this is how the Jewish reader of the Toráh becomes also its writer (écrivain). Second, in the act of reading “First, one ‘hears’ the word and ‘understands’ it and finally ‘reads’ it in the text.” (p. 12)
This reading contains two basic levels, the peshat – corresponding to the semiotic, and the derasháh – corresponding to the semantic.
What early on Faur would describe in Golden Doves as the “national crowd symbols” refers to the peshat, which much latter he would identify in Giambattista Vico designation of sensus communis, linking it to the way Maimónides describes it:
«For Maimonides the peshat is the linking sense of the Torá (=de-oraita) and as a consequence something that counts with the unanimous consent of the community of Israel. A synonymous expression of peshat prior to the Common Era is dabar she-ha-Tsadoqim modim bo, “something on which the Tsadoqites concur with;” in other words, that which is accepted by all, even the sectarians (Tsadoqites).» (Horizontal Society)
In Golden Doves, he continues:
«The purpose of peshat is to expound the mind of the author as expressed in the text. The derashah interprets the text independently of the intention of the author.» (p. 12)
As noted by R. Samuel de Uceda (16th c.) commenting on Mishna ‘Abot III 18, quoted by Faur, the Torah “was given to us as an unconditional gift — to explain and interpret as we wish.” (p. 13), thus reinforcing the initial basic exposition of this article that understanding belongs to a linguistic community alone, and no one else.
Therefore, to apply one’s linguistic values onto another different linguistic community becomes a violation to that community. In this light, it becomes clear that the interpretation of Scripture by any other community outside Judaism, even that of Jewish sectarians, is illegitimate.
«Without [Jewish] tradition it is impossible to penetrate a text at the semantic level; therefore this type of reader could never hope to be the Verus Israel. Since this type of interpretation involves violence, the morality of such reading is essential.» (p. 15, my brackets)
Within this chapter, there are further explanations how the Book (i.e. the Torah) is transmitted across generations, and the role the peshat-semiotic/derasháh-semantic grid play in this transmission. It avoids the imposition of a Totality, as in Western tradition, and allows variant readings of a single text, thus ensuring not only the survival of the Torah, but the people of Israel to which she provides identity.
More than highlighting important takeaways in this initial chapter, I want to call attention via the cadence of Faur’s writing style on how he masterfully creates these instruments of thought, which allow us to unfold how Jewish tradition is structured.
While the contribution of the Tannaím (10-220 C.E.) was to gather all the Oral traditions of Israel amid the Roman destruction, and Maimonides was to recover the proper sense of the legal decisions of the Talmudic sages in concise and terse language – as their respective worlds and epochs were meeting ominous ends; as the Sephardic world was collapsing during his lifetime, Faur’s equally or even greater gargantuan contribution to Judaism was to give us the very tools (his silver dots) by which to read the tradition (the Golden Doves) in proper ways as the Geoním and their predecessors understood it.
This collapse has provided the desert in which his creativity flourished, providing the light upon where to build a better future for Israel, and be an example to the world. It’s our decision to take on this torch.
En memoria, a una semana de su fallecimiento.
Que el Dio’bendicho console a los remanentes que lloran por Sión y Jerusalén.
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים