The Meaning Behind Words

I have hesitated about how best to articulate this thought, but I guess the beauty of a blog is that if I don’t like it when it’s done, I can edit it or delete it altogether.  This is an idea that I found quite profound, though you will have to excuse me if it self-evident to you.  I started to pay real attention to it in my last few weeks at Pardes, and while it was not easy, I found it made a big different in my verbal communications with others.

The idea, as the title implies, is to search – and find – the meaning behind the words that you encounter all around you.  Words are by far the most common form of communication among humans today; the sheer number of ideas and thoughts that I either express verbally or are expressed to me verbally on a daily basis is staggering.  And so the task is to ‘peel away’ the sounds as they strike your ear and to strive to locate the meaning that is hopefully being imparted to you.  Of course, knowing this to be a helpful means of improving communication, one should then try to match their own words as much as possible to their intended meaning when communicating with others.  The problem that then arises is the inevitable subjectivity in how words are interpreted, but that is only a new problem if you somehow thought that without thinking of communication this way all of our verbal communications have been interpreted objectively, in the sense intended by the speaker/author.

While this, unsurprisingly, came up for me in a major way when interacting with ancient Jewish texts that were written in very different social and cultural realities, I think it speaks most loudly, outside the beit midrash (Jewish study hall) to the notion of Dialogue between groups that have trouble communicating and instead tend to speak over or past each other.  Two examples from things I read at around the same time I was thinking about this quite actively will hopefully illustrate what I mean more clearly:

“Hope sees in our enemies’ face our face” – Chris Hedges giving a speech in front of the White House, Dec. 16th 2010

“The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference.  Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine?  If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference

The first quote comes from a role model that I have found through the process of reading and branching out in my reading that I described in an earlier post, and continue to read avidly because I think that, politically if not in other spheres of belief, it is helpful to constantly expose yourself to a figure (or figures) both on the left of yourself and on the right of yourself that you respect.  This is important chiefly so that you can reaffirm why you stand where you do on a given issue and why you do not stand where either of these ‘guideposts’ do.  As such, Hedges has served as my ‘left guidepost’ (now I’m just creating terminology) since I came across his work last spring.

These two quotes actually speak to a similar point, namely ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha (Vayikra/Lev.19:18) [See also the article by R’ Donniel Hartman which I will post shortly].  However, the contexts, and the words used in those contexts, can be very off-putting to those who do not share the specific cultural backgrounds necessary to grasp the meaning immediately.  These examples both strike me as clearly saying similar things, but I think that is largely because I identify strongly with both Judaism and with the political left.  For many, however, especially the second quote can seem jarring and irrelevant to a modern world (for another example of traditional Jewish language being re-interpreted to fit my own context, see this New Voices post).

The more I write the more I think that this is actually not very deep, but that does not necessarily diminish its meaning, as regardless of how obvious it was it still struck me as profoundly important to incorporate into my life.  Feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts about the topic.



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