Thursday, December 02, 2004

לשון בני אדם

So I was learning 1:12 הלכות יסודי התורה with Jose this morning and I was wondering why the Rambam invokes לשון בני אדם here. He could have said that the Torah is written in homily, or it is דרך סוד, but instead he uses this funny phrase, the "language of man". Jose and I came up with two explanations (although I don't think the Rambam would like either one, necessarily).
1. We, as people, are somehow fundimentally bound by language (see PI), all the concepts which we are given are restricted by the words we have to talk about them. The Author realizes that man is limitted and thus using phrases like "zroah netuya" are equivelent to something like "in an awesome manner". The same way "low table with a back" and "things that holds you when you are squatting" might be the same for someone who lives in a universe w/o chairs, they are both equadistantly wrong from the right formulation. (I am not happy with this example, I will try and fix it later)
2. Merely by talking about a chair in a universe without chairs you are already uttering blasphemy, so you might as well write in a form that the audience can understand. (As there is no formlessness that we are familiar with that is of the same kind of formlessness of G-d) Thus the chumash embrases a humanized prose in order to make it a work for humanity (eg the argument between Moshe and the Malachachim wrt for whom the Torah was written)
In any event there has to be understood that there is a qualitative difference between לשון בני אדם and the True לשון. That is only one of the many paradoxes about "scripture" (ie תורה שבכתב)
I am still left feeling empty because I don't think that the Rambam would buy either of these two answers. Maybe they are really one answer. Oh well.

8 comments:

Jose said...

So, I think the two explanations are essentially the same, but coming at it from a different angle. Here is how I read it:
לשון בני אדם = human language. You could read this both as a deteriminated and undeterminated statement, and in this case I think reading it as indeterminate (Ie. simply "Human Language") gets us further.

Wittgenstein discusses the limitations of language and understanding and how these two interact with one another. Namely, where there is a failure of language, there is a failure of understanding. Similarly, vocabularly is overwhelmingly practical: a word is created to name a concept. If there is no concept, there is no word. If no distinct word exists then the concept only exists as a compount of other ideas, if it exists at all.

It is a common enough trend to observe when two culturo-linguistic groups encounter eachother, there is usully some degree of word/idea exchange. For example, there is no word in spanish for "nice". We talk about weather and people being agreeable; people can be sympthetic, a movie can be pleasant. But the idea of an adjective describing things, people and situations that are inoffensive and overall pleasant, but not particularly notable for any other characteristic is not natively spanish. As a result, the word "nice" has entered Puerto Rican spanish as a way to describe this concept.

Now, if the concept of "nice" is foreign to Spanish-speaking society (I'll let you draw your own conclusions as to teh cultural implications, bigot) then how much more so is the experience of divinity foreign to human experience? How often do any of us encounter pure divinity? I would venture to say, perhaps never. If at all, it is incredibly rare. Thusly, we have not created any vocabulary to discuss this experience. Our language is limited by our own experiences as human.

It is not unreasonable that the author of scripture would be forced to use human-focused language if this was all that was available. Even supposing that, for example, the Angels have a language that allows them to discuss divnity, as they mayhaps encounter divinity in a way that we do not, using their vocabulary would be useless to us until we also posessed the concepts behind the vocabulary.

Zev, you mentioned, during our learnign today that you were skeptical of such a reading however because the RAMBAM doesn't seem to be very interested in language, certainly not in the way that the RAMBAN is concerned with parsing out stateents such as דיבור אחד. Well, as I responded before. Although Wittgenstein really formulated the conection between idea and language, this is a concept that every translator is failiar with, and becomes more acutely aware of the greater teh differenc ebtween teh two languages and also teh greater the differences between the cultures related by the languages. The RAMBAM knew and translated between Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. Furthermore, he was incredibly familiar with Averroës's translation of Aristotle from Greek to Arabic. Once he grokked the difficulty of translating between semitic and indo-european languages, it is not a huge stretch to imagine that there would be a difficulty crossing between the human meta-language and the language of divinity.

this was a much more productive use of my time than learnign Hindi, in any case.

Zev said...

If I understand you correctly your thesis is this: "It is not unreasonable that the author of scripture would be forced to use human-focused language if this was all that was available."
I feel that there is a deeper question though which is implicit. If G-d is the epitome of that which is formless, then why attach explicitly anatomic terms to Him? The thesis you prepose does not appear to address this question. I attempted (and possibly failed) to address this by 1. the equadistant answer 2. It is blasphemous already, so you might as well let them have a good read. The answers are not exclusive of one another, but they just focus on different aspects 1. the language gap 2. that the text has embraced humanization.

Jose said...

So, I think explicitly anatomic terms make sense, because its what we know best. After all, don't we anthropomorphize everything foreign in order to make it more accesible?
Also, I'm not sure that anthropomorphic language is necesarily what the RAMBAM is talking about here. I think he's more talking about references to G-d speaking, and then being quoted. This may not be the same thing that I said earlier. I'll think about this more and perhaps post tomorrow.

Back to Hindi.

me hindi bolta hu
aap hindi bolte hai
tum hindi bolte ho...

Anonymous said...

1- someone with time and resources needs to check where leshon benei adam is used in "chazal" in order to understand what it means - it's not the Rambam's turn of phrase.
2-
a thought, in some semblance of order:
Whereas leshon benei adam has some sort of right to claim a real correspondence with benei-adam-events, it doesn't have that right wrt divine things. the rambam (as far as i undersrand) thinks this about language in general - cf his dislike of ascribing positive attributes to God at all. the real question is, what (if anything) makes anthropomorphic language worse* than other (definitionally) non-accurate language?

Rambam does also say anthropomorpism is "mashal" (1:9). my guess is by metaphor he doesn't necessarily mean whatever we mean by metaphor (i know very little about all that theory) so much as an imagistic _super-natural_ perceptive experience.
Using a metaphor of "arms of steel" about, say, a human king, does not carry meaning the same way it would if you used it about God.
In the former case, the world to which arms are shayyach is also the world to which the king is shayyach. in the latter case, no.
So rambam may just be emphasizing that - metaphor wrt God is more disconnected than wrt worldly beings - it can never actually make sense, but at best it reflects some sort of super-conscious perception - mahazeh or mar'eh hanevuah. (a regular mashal makes sense without nevuah.) at worst, it represents a more polluted theology because it is so bound up n worldly experience - the more worldly the language, the more disconnected.
that's my thought, though i think i still need a sharper dsitinction between anthropomorphisms and general God-attribute-talk. [maybe: the former ascribes properties by invoking an image, which is more risky (b/c less quantifiable, analyzable) and only ok in the context of the super-humanly-rational prophetic experience. the latter is "just plain" attributive? - i don't necessarily think that's how language works, but rambam might have...]
that's what i think at 1:30 am. good shabbos. miriam

*a hasty reading of the chapter in question does suggest that at the very least Rambam treats anthropomorphism differnetly (eg, in different places)than other innacurate forms of God-talk, soeven if it's not "worse" the question of why it is considered different persists.

Oren Bassik said...

I'm proposing a simple answer to your question, Miriam: the Rambam spent a lot of his life battling those who took anthropomorphic language a little seriously; the first book of the Moreh Hanevuchim is just drashos on anthropomorphisms, showing how each could not possibly be taken in a literal sense, and revealing at least one possible non-literal meaning.

Also, I don't like your translation of "mashal" into metaphor.. a "mashal" is much closer to analogy. The point being, that some properties are transferable, but most are not; the difference being that this transference of properties is intended to be limited. When chazal make a "mashal" between G-d/servant and "melech bassar vedam"/"eved" they are doing this specifically to focus in on certain properties of the relationship, which might not be available in an anaology with "av/ben" - so that when the Rambam says anthroporphism is "mashal" he means that the torah is focusing in on certain properties, not necessarily to "come down to our level" as suggested by Zev above, but as part of the content of the passage. Your translation into "metaphor", makes it sound more like Zev's approach above, where the torah is tring to appeal to things we understand, and perhaps involve some emotional response, to get the message across. Metaphors are generally much harder to describe in logical terms, they "just work", whereas the word analogy sounds more to me like something that suggests discrete logical and semantic relationships of the sort the Rambam probably believed in, being a rugged Aristotelian. I absolutely must go to sleep now, more on this later perhaps.

Jose, you are not allowed to use the term "grok". Zev can, but would look foolish - you're just not allowed.

Yehuda said...

While "לשון בני אדם" was certainly used before the Rambam, it is likely, as with many of his expressions, that the Rambam intended his own meaning with these words. This "funny phrase" is used many many times in the מורה and it is at least possible that Rambam's conception of language is important for all of his works. After all, as Oren pointed out, the first book is a kind of dictionary of biblical language.
Although Wittgenstein undoubtedly made many important contributions to our understanding of language, it would be hard to argue that he contributed to *Rambam's* understanding of language. Perhaps it would be better to look at Aristotle's idea of language -- or, as he called it, "logos". In this regard I recommend an essay of Jacob Klein entitled "Aristotle, an Introduction" (from *Lectures and Essays By Jacob Klein.* St. Johns Press, 1986. 175-6). Klein says of Aristotle's "logos":

"The principle and inextinguishable meaning of this word is speech. We mean by speech . . . a sequence of sounds uttered by somebody in such a way as to be understandable to others. The verb 'to understand' refers primarily, if not uniquely, to speech. Hearing somebody speak we may say, "I understand what you are saying." We may, in fact, misunderstand, but even misunderstanding involves understanding. But *what* do we understand in hearing somebody speak? Not the sounds in themselves, the audible and articulated, low and high-pitched noises issuing from somebody's mouth (or some machine, for that matter). We *hear* these noises. But hearing is not understanding. That is why we do not understand speech in a foreign tongue. In a manner which, itself, is hardly or not at all understandable, the sounds carry with them -- or embody or represent -- something else, precisely that which *makes* us understand, whenever we understand. This source and target of our understanding consists of units to which single words correspond, as well as combinations of those units to which whole sequences of words correspond. The speaker and the hearer share -- or, at least, intend to share -- the understanding of those units and of those combinations of units. . . . The intended meaning is what the Greeks call *to nohton*; its single units are the *nohta*. . . . Speech and understanding are inseperable. *Logos* means inseperably both speech and that which can be and is being understood *in* speech. It is in *man* and through *man* (*anthropos*) that *logos* manifests itself conspicuously, so much so that Aristotle is able to say: 'Man is a living being possessing specch,' and that means possessing the ability to *understand* the spoken word."

To return to the Rambam, we must remember that for him too speech is a defining characteristic of man. In מורה הנבוחים I.34 he says that the mysteries of the Torah "have been hidden because . . . the [human] intellect is incapable of receiving them; only flashes of them are made to appear so that the perfect man should know them." Further he claims that this character (or defect) of the human intellect is "the cause of the fact that the *Torah speaketh in the language of the sons of man*" (Maimonides, Moses, *The Guide of the Perplexed*, Shlomo Pines trans. U of Chicago Press, 1963. 71).
Since the Torah speaks to all Jews, it must speak with a logos that everyone can understand. Logos, however, may not be the best way of communicating the secrets of the Torah. We must keep in mind though that logos used by the Torah must be intended to convey unerstanding through speech. When we talk about parables, we speak about a case where nohta of the story convey a meaning that is not directly in them. With regard to those parables that describe the secrets of the Torah, the understanding conveyed by those parables is beyond our comprehension. The perfect man gets that understanding (or perhaps some part of it) in flashes, but cannot hold on to it because of the limits of his use of logos.

Yehuda said...

On second thought, the name of Rambam's famous and contreversial treatise is probably best spelled: מורה הנבוכים.

גוט שבת

miriam said...

Oren,
1- I thought of the historical explanation (really I did, I'm not just saying that!) and I think it may be accurate, but I also think there is room for a more comprehensive, and interesting, answer.
(agav, i'm not sure it's really a good idea to get into the business of interpreting quasi-canonical texts too much wrt to specific historical circumstances...)
2- re: mashal as analogy: point well taken.