Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Four: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism


Genesis 1:26.
Part IV: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism.
There is a romantic story implicit in the way the words s’vara and its related grammatical forms came to be adopted in modern Hebrew.  The tale highlights another ray of influence of God’s Image in contemporary thought.  It is well known that ‘reason’ is a Hellenistic idea – generally absent from Hebrew thought.  This was evident in the drafting of the first criminal code ordinance in Israel/Palestine under the British mandate.  The drafts took a code developed by the nineteenth century scholar Fitzjames Stephen for all the British colonies. When it was translated into Hebrew, the drafters had particular difficulty the word omnipresent in English legal discourse – reasonableness.
The drafter opted for a different idiom in very context.  One of my favorites was: mitkabel al ha-daat – “It presents itself to the mind.”  When I presented a paper at the Hebrew University in the early 1970’s, I focused on this problem of translation.  I was aware that it was difficult to translate Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Hebrew, largely because of the same divide between Hellenism and Hebraism.  The translators choose the word tvunah which was apparently too sophisticated for use in drafting statutes.
After I presented the paper, my old friend and colleague Shalev Ginossar took me aside and told me of a meeting in the ministry of justice in which they discussed the problem of translation.  They decided at that time to take a word from the Talmud s’vara and introduce it into modern Hebrew.  The word does not exactly mean ‘reason’ but it is as close as you can get.  This is the word that subsequent drafters invoked to capture the English conception of reasonableness.
There was an implication for my own future work.  Fifteen years later, in cooperation between Columbia and the Hartman
Institute, I started a journal called S’vara.  We published four issues then apparently lacked the gumption to adapt to new circumstances.  Donniel Hartman commented to me not long ago that he thought it was one of the best things the Institute ever did.
The interesting question related to our passage is whether reason is implicit in the image of God.  Is that the sense in which we are created in the Image?  It would be a good basis for inferring the equality of all beings who exercise reason.  But what does it mean to possess reason?
The challenge here is not whether we are different from animals but whether we are distinguishable from computers who can master any programmed language.  There are two argument about why we have a kind of reason that computers do not possess.  One is the problem of context; the other, another version of the issue of infinity.
Here is a little piece of wisdom to illustrate the problem of context.  Some Russian scientists are programming a computer to translate the phrase: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  They get a translation into Russian and decide to confirm by feeding the Russian back in for a translation into English.  The best the computer can do is: The vodka is good but the meat stinks.
Deep Blue may be able to play chess like a grandmaster but it cannot get a joke unless it has heard it before.  Nor can it understand newly invented words as well as a three year old.
John Searle, my philosophy teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a clever argument about whether computers understand language.  In the Chinese Room experiment, he images someone inside a room with a table coordinating Chinese characters with phrases in English.  If you feed a character into the slot, the person inside sees it, checks the chart, and sends back a phrase in English.  This is essentially what a translator does.  The ability to do that does not imply that the guy in the room understands anything about Chinese.
Understanding language is an essentially human undertaking.  The text of Genesis clearly communicates this point.  In verse 22 before the creation of Adam, God says “Be fruitful and multiply.”  The Hebrew is so poetic it must be recited: Proo ooRvoo.  This is not a mode of communication but a way of changing reality as in the use of speech to create of light in verse 4. In verse 28, after the creation of Adam, God makes the same statement but this time as a command ‘to them.” This is a recognition that of the profound difference between animals and human beings.
The most innovative scholar of our time on the nature language is Noam Chomsky.  In Linguistic Structures (1957) he argues that any sentence can be made infinitely long by adding a recursive formula at the end, namely when you see this word repeat everything you read before.  This would be like trying to get a computer to give a numerical equivalent of Pi.  It would not stop at 3.14159 but go on forever.
Chomsky argues further that a universal grammar underlies all human language.  This is a remarkably humanistic claim.
Language is also inherently particular; it is learned in communities of speakers.  This we encounter the same union of the particular and the universal that encounter in the creation of Adam.  But note this is not reason but a product of living in communities.
Do we derive a clue, therefore, why the passage reads? Let us make Adam in our own image.  The use of the plural might be a suggestion that language – the power of creation – is inherently a feature of communities.
In this magnificent union of the particular and universal, all persons are created equal.
George P. Fletcher is the Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia University School of Law.
Read More: Learn More about the Network of Spiritual Progressives
“A Love Letter to our Community” by Sam Brammer-Shlay and Sam Jewler
“Dissent and Dissension: Approaching Ultra-Orthodoxy” by Roslyn Bernstein
“Authoritarian Politics in the Age of Manufactured Illiteracy” by Henry A. Giroux

3 thoughts on “Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Four: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism

  1. I loved this article…First it is not agenda driven… Yes. linguistics and translations mode how we view nature. We experiences through our senses…that are defined by our meaning of words within out linguistic concepts. Take Genesis $/7… In the Christian Bibles, it says, thou shell, most… triumph over sin… it’s command… In the Hebrew bible, it is … Thou may…
    Steinbeck used the word “temsel” in East of Eden…so I wrote the web curator of the Hebrew Bible and asked him abut this… he responded… that I was partially correct, but also implied, I assume coming from the scholars, it also implies Thou “shall” … a command… and also, thou “can”. I wrote back and said… yes, may, shall and can… like David, who did a terrible deed… (because thou “May”, but he overcame this with “Can” redeem himself if he “shall” follow the command of
    God. … and than he Rabbi said… That sums up the whole Bible… BTW, he said Temsel… was not really the correct term as in Steinbecks book… but something similar.

    • I might add, in the fifties… we were taught that Marx said, “religion is the opium of man.” implying a drug addiction… but when Marx said this, opium was the only use in medicine to sooth the pain … hence the meaning was completely different… Religion soothed the pain.

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