For the week ending 24 December 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777

Chanuka: Word Wars

by Rabbi Richard Jacobs
Does language affect the way we think, and if so what are the consequences?
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The clash between the ancient Greek civilization and that of the Jews is a conflict of epic proportions, of diametrically opposing viewpoints and philosophies. The Greeks were polytheistic, the Jews monotheistic. The Greeks glorified the physical and sports, and worshipped at the temple of the human body; the Jews prized the soul and the synthesis between body and soul. The Greeks valued literature, drama and poetry, and pioneered the world of mathematics and philosophy; the Jews cherished morality.

Hellenism was the infusion of Greek values into the cultures that had been conquered and brought under Greek rule. Large numbers of Jews began to combine elements of religious Jewish tradition with Greek culture. These Jewish Hellenists sought to seduce the traditional Jews away from their way of life, and convert them to the Hellenist and Greek way of thinking.

On Chanuka we celebrate both our military victory over the Greeks, and the miracle of the oil. And we won. To quote Mark Twain from his essay "Concerning the Jews": "If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind."

The time of Greek rule was tremendously challenging for the Jews. Persecution, fear, and decrees prevented even the basic observance of Jewish Law — Shabbat, brit mila and Rosh Chodesh.

One of the greatest tragedies from the time of the Greeks (occurring around 90 years before the Maccabean victory) was the translation of the Torah into Greek. We still commemorate this tragedy in our prayers on the Fast of Tevet. What was so terrible about translating the Torah into Greek? Surely this made the Torah more accessible to many more Hellenized Jews. Compare this to the many languages that we find Torah publications available today. Furthermore, we see that Moshe commands the Jewish People that one of the first actions they should take when they enter the Land of Israel is to inscribe the words of the Torah into 70 languages.

So what was the tragedy?

On a simple level, translating the Torah into Greek not only made the Torah accessible to the non-Jewish world (the emperor Ptolemy II was a bibliophile who was interested in different cultures and literature), but it also taught the Jews Greek, exposing them more readily to Greek culture and ideas.

Slightly deeper, we know that there are many different facets to the Torah, and explanations of the text. Translating from lashon hakodesh (“the holy language”) to a foreign language limits the potential interpretations, restricting our understanding.

Probing further, we find that the consequences were far reaching indeed.

Language sets Mankind apart from the rest of Creation. The ability to convey complex thoughts and emotions from one to the other, to communicate strategy and to develop meaningful relationships are only some of the major benefits of language. And that's just verbal communication. The invention of the alphabet and writing enabled concepts to transcend time; surpassing human lifespan and ensuring the immortality of many ideas. However, there is a growing body of evidence that language affects not just the way we communicate, but also the way that we actually think, shaping our thoughts without either our knowledge or consent. When given a series of pictures which show temporal progressions and asked to lay them out in chronological order, a native English-speaker will lay them out from left to right, with the first picture in the story on the far left; a native Hebrew-speaker will lay them out from right to left, with the first picture in the story on the far right; and an aborigine from Pormpuraaw in Australia will lay them out from east to west — i.e., depending on which direction he is facing. If he is facing east, the first picture in the sequence is placed directly in front of him but furthest from where he is sitting, the last picture in front of and adjacent to the person; if he is facing south the pictures are ordered from left to right; if he is facing west the pictures are ordered from closest to the aborigine in a straight line directly away from him; and if he is facing north, then the pictures are ordered from right to left.

In English we mark a verb for tense. In French we add gender to this. In Russian we need to note whether the event was completed or not. In Turkish the verb would include how we acquired the information. Did we see the event ourselves? Or did we read about it or hear about it from others?

Language also shapes how we understand causality. Ask anyone who has married someone who speaks a different native language. They are sure to be able to recount entertaining tales of miscommunication. English describes accidental events in terms of the agents carrying out an action, Spanish from the perspective of the thing being acted upon. This can lead to such profound consequences, such as how the speakers understand events, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

If people learn another language they learn a new way to think. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently.

Let’s return to the translation of the Torah to Greek. Lashon hakodesh is written from right to left. In a written Torah scroll there are no vowels and no punctuation. The only way to tell the meaning of a word or sentence is from context, or because there is an accompanying oral tradition. Greek, on the other hand, reads from left to right, the words have written vowels, and what is written is what it says. The Greek way of thinking is very different from ours.

Three thoughts to ponder:

How much is our different ways of thinking a function of language?

If our way of thinking is indeed a function of language, once the Torah was translated to Greek it was this translation that formed the basis of Western civilization’s understanding of religion, and the subsequent development of religious thought progressed with thought processes foreign to Torah. The amifications of this are enormous. When we encounter a clash between Western thought and religion, there may not be a genuine clash, because the clash is only between Western thought and the wrongly understood translation of monotheism.

How important it is for us to know lashon hakodesh, and to be able to understand our holy texts in their original form, because anything less cannot lead to a true understanding. On Chanuka we celebrate both our military victory over the Greeks and the miracle of the oil. We won the battle, but have we won the war?

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