If all the seas were ink, reeds pens, the heavens parchment and all men writers, they would not suffice to write down the Torah I have learned and the Torah itself would be diminished only by the amount drawn out of it by the tip of a paintbrush dipped into the sea.
As I recover from surgery, I have taken on a project to learn more about how to think in Jewish. Much of my life was devoted to thinking like a philosopher, or thinking in Greek; engaged in rational thought arising from a particular method of thinking that, in the West became the privileged mode for thinking clearly. There is, however, another way to approach the same problems that originates not in Greece but in Jerusalem. While I cannot argue that these are the only ways of approaching a problem, I do argue that these contemporary thought processes are so different, one from the other, that it is worthy of understanding the differences. So for the next few paragraphs I want to deconstruct Greek and Jewish attitudes toward writing, attempting to make sense of them as they impact my current thinking as a cancer survivor.
The quote from Rabbi Eliezer focuses on writing, on the scope or potential of the written word. Before I explore the approach suggested by Eliezer, I first think it important to explore Greek thought about writing. To do so I turn to Plato and his dialogue Phaedrus. Plato argues that writing is absent the writer; the writer is effectively hidden from the reader because the writer cannot be interrogated by an active reader. The writing must, therefore, stand on its own two feet, frozen as an artifact of thought that remains exterior to the text itself. Further, the text cannot represent the totality of the writer’s thought but merely represents a trace of that thought within the text itself. On this view, interrogating unclear text is a critique, a game of gotcha, of pointing fingers, finding flaws, an exploration of the text without the benefit of the totality of thought hidden from the reader by the absence of the author.
Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, is arguing that the task of understanding is not bound to either the author or the totality of the author’s thinking. Rather, active interrogation of text provides one with the capacity for understanding that opens up entirely new possibilities. Text is not diminished by the active recorded discussion of the sages, rather it is enhanced, expanded, made clearer because of the commentary.
Put in other terms, thinking in Greek privileges the said over the saying while Rabbi Eliezer, thinking in Jewish privileges the saying over the said. Thinking in Jewish, it seems to me, acknowledges the always already impossibility of understanding the complexities of textual representation without contributing to the development of that text through contemporary symbolic representation while, at the same time, not diminishing the value of the text being interrogated. The said, represented in the text is but a trace of the writer’s saying or thought that went into construction of the text. The interrogation of that text, a new saying is then recorded as the said of commentary. The two cannot be read separately but taken together provide an insight into the totality of saying, of a living text.
Plato’s main point is that writing is absent of direct interrogation because of the absence of the author. Rabbi Eliezer’s point is the direct opposite; that because writing/text itself is subject to interrogation which draws directly from textual references, the interrogation allows for probing the saying embedded in the text as a trace of the author’s thought process thereby opening the text itself to commentary. For Plato, text is an artifact, a trace of the totality of thought. For Rabbi Eliezer, text is a living, breathing, functional discourse that is as fresh as the day it was committed to the parchment upon which it was written. Because it is “alive” the text can never be completed but only expanded upon.
Much of my life to this very moment was spent thinking in Greek, not so much a rejection of my Jewish roots but rather as a result of my training as a scholar. A good deal of my training and the work I engaged in post graduate school revolved around trying to understand the world in terms of rational thought, of philosophy. For the past fifteen or so years, I worked to correct that by reading Jewish texts along with other philosophical texts. I have done this as an amateur, on my own, for the most part without a teacher. As I came face to face with my own mortality over the past several months, I came to the conclusion that I needed to know more about the method for thinking in Jewish. Just when I thought about a teacher, I discovered the Chabad of Elgin and Hoffman Estates and the engaging Rabbi Mendel. I look forward to working with him as I expand my own methodological base and learn to now think in Jewish. I expect it to be quite a ride.