The Religious Meaning of Language in Judaic Culture

Shira Wolosky

Judaic cultures have a commitment to language that is exceptional. Language practices – the reading and writing of scrolls and books, their interpretation as commentaries on commentaries, engaged with the letter both of text and as act – is central to Judaic conduct, thought, study, worship, and spirituality. This positive status and decisive focus on language extends through Judaic praxis, interpretive methods, commentary, and philosophy. It is basic to Rabbinic as well as Jewish mystical trends, where language is embraced as the core means of relationship between the divine and the human, enacted both in study and its concrete performance. In a way pivotal to Judaic cultures, it is through linguistic engagement that humans are seen not only to understand but to participate in the emergence of religious meaning. This article traces the sacrality of language through a series of hermeneutic and philosophical topics, from Talmudic and Midrashic engagements, to Maimonides, and into modern philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Gershom Scholem.

1 The religious meaning of language in Judaic cultures

Language is at the centre of Jewish life in exceptional ways: as scrolls and books, and their inscription, recitation, and interpretation; in chains of commentaries, responsa, and learning practices. Recitation of Torah is the core experience of synagogue worship; Torah study is a fundamental praxis of individual and community. Language has sacred value as the dimension of relationship between human and divine, at once upholding their distinction yet opening address and response. This is the case in both Rabbinic and mystical trends, where language becomes the very substance of creation. The letter is embraced as text and as material praxis conducted in commandments, including study itself. Linguistic engagement is thus a vital sphere in which humans participate in the unfolding of spiritual and concrete meaning in the world.

2 Interpretive traditions: people of the letter

In the beginning was exegesis. Texts provide the foundational avenue between the divine and the human. But texts are, as in modern hermeneutics, always and already experienced through interpretation. That is, meaning emerges through participation in discourse exchanges. According to the sages, divine revelation included not only written but also oral Torah – first the Mishnah as commentary on Torah, then the Talmud as commentary on the Mishnah, followed by further commentaries on each of these and each other through the centuries: Midrash through sayings, stories, parables, legends, wordplay; responsa as ‘questions and answers’ to Halakhic and cultural inquiries and challenges. A series of Midrashim on Midrashim comment precisely on the centrality and sacrality of commentary itself. According to one, when Moses ascended to the heavens he was perplexed to see God sitting and tying crowns to the letters of the Torah, in honour of Rabbi Akiva, ‘who will find in every jot and tittle mounds of laws’ which will be said to have been ‘transmitted to Moses at Sinai’ (Menachot 29b; see

A core prooftext authorizing human interpretation is Deut 30:12, which says that the Torah is ‘not in heaven’, commented on in the much-discussed story of the ‘Oven of Akhnai’ (see Stern 1998: 30, 34–37; Scholem 1971: 291–292; Halivni 1991: 91; Rubenstein 2006: 457–478). There Rabbi Eliezer, ruling the oven to be pure, is overruled by the majority of rabbis even though a voice from heaven declares him to be correct: for ‘the law is not in heaven but according to him in every place’ (Halivni 1993: 125). David Hartman comments: ‘Revelation expresses God’s willingness to meet human beings in their finitude, in their particular historical and social situation, and to speak to them in their own language’ (1999: 50; see also 1999: 138, 149). Divine authority itself authorizes human participation. Rabbi Jeremiah parses Exod 23:2, in the characteristic mode of argument: ‘since Torah has been given already on Mount Sinai, we do not pay attention to a heavenly voice, for You have Written in your Torah, decide according to the majority’ (Exod 23:2). God, that is, is cited against himself. This is understood as God’s support of his overruling by humans, since his reaction in the commentary is to laugh and say: ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me’ (Bava Metzia 59b).

These Midrashim dramatize the elevation of commentary itself not only as engagement with revelation – the Torah as the revealed word of God – but also as the power of humans to do so through their interpretive actions. Commentary itself acquires a ‘metaphysical dimension’ (Fishbane 1986: 23) where in ‘communally studying Torah, sages and their students re-enact the process of the giving of Torah’ and ‘human comments transform divine words’ (Kepnes 1999: 62–63; cf. Gibbs 2001: 120; Fishbane 1991: 7). (Fishbane describes the scholar as the ‘central religious type’, even portraying God himself as ‘a scholar of his own Torah and as subordinate to the decisions made by the disciples of the wise’, such that ‘the original hierarchical relationship of revelation to exegetical tradition has been inverted for all practical purposes’ [1985: 1–2]). Commentary in language and on language becomes a dimension in which the sacred unfolds. Through interpretation humans not only understand but participate in the unfolding of both spiritual and concrete religious meaning. As David Novak puts it, revelation is the ‘voice of transcendence heard by us. Interpretation is revelational […] Torah is divine law that is given to be interpreted by humans’ (1997: 68, 76) David Weiss Halivni speaks of ‘human participation by divine command’ (1991: 142).

A number of cultural and religious principles follow. The first is the sacred status of language itself, reflected in both Midrashic legend and Halakhic practice, in which each letter is granted integrity and significance, even when redundant or of no cognitive significance. In the practice attributed to Rabbi Akiva, each word and letter is seen ‘as having its own unique function’, wherein ‘there is not subordination but interaction between words of equal value’. In this way, ‘words, even letters’ are treated almost as ‘ontological entities’, while ‘reasons must be devised humanly’ (Novak 1997: 67–68). Even letters with no ideational meaning must be preserved and can be the basis of interpretive meaning. As James Kugel explains:

meaning is generated through association among the letters themselves, individually, redundantly, and in myriad combinations in words and phrases. The basic unit of interpretation is the verse, even the word and letter, not narrative as a sequence unified by a predetermined end. (Kugel 1986: 93)

Interpretive grounds are found in letters not as they immediately translate into thoughts but, in Joseph Dan’s words, where additional ‘meaning of terms and words’ resides in the

sound, the shape of the letters, the vocalization points and their shapes and sounds, the te'amim […], the variety and number of divine names included in the text, the numerical value of letters, words, and whole verses, the possible changes of letters (etbash, temurah), the new words formed from the initial or final letters of a biblical section (notarikon) and the countless ways other than ideonic content and meaning by which scriptures transmit a semiotic message. (Dan 1986: 128)

Letters are the foundational elements out of whose inter-relationship meanings emerge. Interpretive procedures work in terms of the association among the letters themselves, individually, redundantly, and in myriad combinations of words and phrases.

This sacrality of the letter extends from interpretive response to concrete practices of Halakhah. For a Torah scroll to be valid there can be no mistake in inscription of a letter, no fading or damage to any single ot. Halakhah commands the writing of a scroll by each person, where even writing a letter counts. Extensive lore and praxis surround God as Name: that is, as letters, in Halakhah generating rules as to what to write and not erase, what to pronounce and not to pronounce. Rabbinic Midrash and especially mystical lore greatly expand on the meanings of the divine as lettristic, as names that connect God to the world. Even further, letters are figured as concrete ontological materials out of which creation itself was formed, and lettristic cosmologies recur throughout Midrashic and mystical literature (see Jaffee 1997: 527, ‘the notion of Torah as the principal structure of cosmic order appears already in Bereshit Rabbah 1:1’). Midrash Rabbah 1:10 recounts how, in the creation of the world, each letter proposed itself as the founding material, with the choice falling on ‘bet’ as the letter of blessing. Prayer is deeply structured through lettristic forms, as acrostics which not only order the sequence of verses but thereby also the very substance of praise. Language is itself praised as a core image mode threading through the prayer service, in declarations like ‘Baruch she-amar vehayah haolam’ (Blessed be He who Spoke and the world came into being) and the psalmic ‘the heavens declare divine greatness’.

A second principle, derived from the sacrality of language, is a multiplicity of meaning. Interpretation as a sacred act is ongoing, endless, and infinite. Each person is called to engage in it, with chidushim (new interpretations) as participation in creation itself (Soloveitchik 1983: 99). One Midrash describes the Torah as having seventy faces; in another account there are 600,000 meanings, according to the number of the children of Israel present at Sinai. In other words, there are myriad understandings. Each person throughout history interprets the texts in accordance with their own experience, although within the contexts of interpretive discourses and not only in personal, subjective terms. Judah Goldin writes: ‘studying Torah sages and their students re-enact the process of the giving of Torah’ (Goldin 1986: 65). The ideal, however, is not unanimity. David Weiss Halivni speaks of the ‘contradictions in the fabric of revelation’ as an assumption of Midrash, demonstrating that ‘God permits, even requires, human argumentation and adaptation which is thus not definitive and exhaustive’. This implies that the ‘Torah is not absolutely self-sufficient’, but ‘was purposefully inconclusive and indeterminate’ – that revelation is not a determinate ideational signified idea or creed, dictating its expression in signifiers that merely transmit pregiven fixed meanings (Halivni 1991: 97–98).

Commentary is always in the plural, at the very least involving text and interpretation, and then multiplying as further commentaries on commentaries. Each responds to the others, including arguments and disputes that multiply interpretations and further disagreements. Disagreement is both formal and substantive. Makhloket (unreconciled dispute) is how many Talmudic discussions are organized. When disputes involve practice, some conclusion as to which ruling to follow may be proposed. The Talmudic discussions, however, are not geared towards concluding decisions but rather to generating discussion. The multiplication of voices is confirmed in the much-quoted saying ‘[t]hese and these are the words of the living God’ (Eruvin 13b), although the saying continues that the decision goes according to Hillel (and practices vary from community to community). Minority opinions are preserved, acknowledging the validity of diverse ideas. It is permitted to teach even rulings that are not practiced (Halivni 1991: 93–94). Some argue that regulating customary practices precisely allows interpretive creativity rather than stifling it. David Weiss Halivni writes: ‘it is this very freedom from practice that frees Aggadah from restraints’, going so far as to say: ‘Consensus in communal practice […] may not be “true”!’ (Halivni 1991: 93–94, 90, 107–108). Support for argument takes the form of prooftexts – quotation of further verses and words. Rulings conflict, and even practice rises out of discussion rather than reflecting a pre-given truth. Moshe Halbertal sees discussion itself as the telos: the participation in learning and commentating and debating are themselves religious acts (Kramer 1990: 110–111). The recording and learning of ‘different and contradictory optional readings’, indicates the legitimacy of other arguments and opinions, even those not adopted. This gives rise to ‘self-reflection concerning truth and interpretation’, a ‘self-awareness that anticipates hermeneutics’ where ‘interpretation is not discovering but constituting meaning’ ().

Midrash is highly unstructured and variable. Different accounts are juxtaposed. The tie among them is their attachment to textual verse or letter, and they are brought into conjunction with other verses and letters rather than being connected through explicit logic. In being launched as response to language and indeed letters, Jewish interpretive practices resist theorization, although there are guidelines, such as Ishmael’s thirteen hermeneutical principles (Sifra 1). These, however, do not reduce to abstract principles or logical models, nor are they easily measured by philosophical or theological positions. As Steven Fraade observes, commentary is not ordered by logic, doctrine, or chronology, and ‘lacks overall a single subsuming narrative voice or hermeneutic mastercode’ (Fraade 1993: 162). ‘Hermeneutical multiplicity’, writes David Stern, tends to avoid ‘absolutist claims’ and does not observe a ‘hierarchy of meanings’ as do other systems, offering rather ‘a truly polysemous range of interpretations, each one separate from the others’ (Stern 1998: 25). Polysemy characterizes other exegetical modes; but Stern notes that Midrash lacks a ‘rule of faith’ or other clear dogmatic guides. There is no ‘systematic exposition of religious beliefs’, nor are there visible clear ‘institutional controls’. At most there is a kind of ‘tacit knowledge of the permitted range of sense’ (1998: 25). Stern also compares Midrash to anthologies, rather than theologically coherent wholes made out of their disparate articles of faith (1998: 22; cf. Stern 2014).

Marc Hirshman sees a ‘clear distinction’ in the varieties of genres in Christian discourses, not least systematic theology, whereas Jews confined themselves to scriptural commentary (1996: 10; cf. Talmage 1987). This evasion of dogma is a distinguishing feature of Judaic culture, explored by Martin Buber, Leo Strauss, Leo Beck, and others. Buber sees the Hebrew term Emunah as ‘trust’, as opposed to faith in dogma as truth (1951: 25). Strauss writes that ‘for the Christian the sacred doctrine is revealed theology. For the Jew and Muslim, the sacred doctrine is, at least primarily, the legal interpretation of divine law’ (Strauss 1988: 18–19). For Baeck, ‘trust or faith [as] Emunah has nothing of the dogmatic [as] knowledge of the beyond [as a] dogmatic system with an elaborate structure of thought seeking to reach to the heavens’ (1948: 118–119). For Raphael Loewe, ‘[r]ather than logic, Jewish speculation is based on source material of holy books as composed and transmitted by foregoing generations’ (1964: 152). Yet Stern distinguishes the polysemy of Midrash from radical indeterminacy (1998: 23–24, 31; cf. Bloom 1984: 13, who claims against typology that ‘no text ever fulfils another’).

Exact boundaries or regulative principles for interpretation have never been formulated, as is consistent with Judaism’s praxis orientation over theorization. Still, certain intrinsic implications and values can be seen to inhere in Judaic interpretive ventures. The status of the letter resonates through religious history, where the letter has been suspected as material as against a spirituality that reaches beyond the physicality and multiplicity of the temporal world. This indeed is how Augustine, citing St Paul, defines Judaism in On Christian Doctrine: in their attachment to the letter, Jews remain in ‘bondage to temporal things’. They pay ‘attention to the signs of spiritual realities – the letter – in place of the realities themselves, not knowing to what the signs referred’ (On Christian Doctrine III.6.10). But meaning and spirituality in Judaic culture inheres in the relationships between and within material temporal experience. They are enacted through interpretive relationality between textual and language elements, which are themselves foundational to the ordering of material reality in Judaic praxis. This is the sense of ‘letter as law’, or rather, Halakhah, the way of concrete practices, in which materiality itself is ordered and channelled. Levinas is quoted by Derrida as saying that ‘the spirit is free in the letter’ (Derrida 1978: 102). The notion of spiritual letters or lettristic spirit extends both to the interpretation of concrete material letters and to enactment within the material world. Both bespeak an acknowledgment of a Creator out of whom both language and world issue. The transcendence of the divine beyond creation is felt in the very mystery and infinity of meanings in both words and world, beyond any single final human grasp, inexhaustible and always generating further interpretation, in a multiplicity that invests experience with endless meaning.

3 Language philosophy in Maimonides

Judaic culture has leaned towards interpretive engagements, rather than philosophical or theological or theoretical ones. There are outstanding Jewish philosophers for whom language plays a prominent part, but largely in exegetical directions. Maimonides, perhaps more than any other medieval figure, pushed Judaism towards abstract philosophy. He, too, however, remained strongly exegetical, and alongside the metaphysics of his contemporary Islamic contexts and available Greek backgrounds he offered reflections on language that implicate and frame his philosophical assumptions. Modern language philosophy is illuminating here, as in other aspects of Judaic culture, offering terms for theorization not previously available.

Maimonides’ explicitly philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, opens with chapters devoted to exegesis. Their philosophical topic is how to represent God, that is, how not to do so, since Maimonides is firm that God is beyond representation. From the point of view of language, at issue are a range of linguistic terms, variously translated, with which the very first pages of the Guide open: univocal, equivocal, hybrid (Maimonides. 1956; cf. ). Analysed using modern sign-theory, these terms recast Maimonides’ discussion from metaphysics to language philosophy. Augustine in On Christian Doctrine already speaks in terms of signs as exegetical methods for interpreting the Old Testament as sign(ifier), pointing to the New Testament as its true signified. Ferdinand de Saussure at the turn of the twentieth century was the first to systematize a sign-theory into a structure of sign as at once signifier, pointing to what the sign represents, and signified, the reference so indicated (1959: 67). Saussure radically asserted that the two were inseparable, revising age-old assumptions in which the signified preceded any vehicle for its representation, corresponding to a Platonic system in which Ideas are what are signified, preceding both material reality and language, with signifiers conveying this prior meaning.

Maimonides’ terms are familiar to him from Arabic philosophy. These include a ‘univocal’ sense when a term has the same meaning when applied to two distinct cases. ‘Equivocal’ terms (homonyms) occur when one term is applied in cases that are distinct and not related in any way. Maimonides also speaks of ‘figurative’ or ‘derivative’ terms which include metaphor, analogy, and other likenesses, which, however, do not apply to the divine. Equivocal ‘homonyms’ correspond to catachresis in classical rhetoric: the use of a term when no other term is available but retaining altogether different senses. Any terms for the divine are catachreses. In univocal language, one term would apply equally to two signified references as if they are the same. Analogy would affirm shared participation of two terms in relation to one signified. Equivocal language projects a signifier used for two difference cases but does not mean in the same way.

Maimonides’ core language argument is that terms applied to God are not univocal; nor are they metaphorical, or analogical as Aquinas later argues, implying some ‘proportion’ of likeness. Rather they are equivocal. Words used in relation to God in himself do not mean in the same way when used in relation to the created world. Maimonides here is drawing on negative theology, but develops it in his own directions. Shlomo Pines distinguishes Maimonides’ negative theology from other mystical kinds, in that his ‘intention is not to recommend detachment from knowledge of things that are not God, but to further that kind of knowledge by teaching to avoid misplaced references to God’s essence’. Indeed, denying apprehension of God’s essence precisely directs attention not into divine being but to ‘knowledge of the workings in the universe’ (Maimonides. 1956: xcvi). Negative theology, in the tradition reaching from Plotinus through Proclus and into Christianity in Pseudo-Dionysius, is a mode which negates language as unable to represent the transcendence of the divine, whose silencing directs the spirit into a higher reality in ascent out of the materiality of world and of language itself. Maimonidean negative theology likewise asserts that language cannot represent the divine. But the goal of language is not such representation, nor is it ascent out of material, temporal reality into a transcendent union with divinity. Although for Maimonides, as in traditions of negative theology, negation of language is tied to the impossibility of knowledge of God, it is directed differently, and retains a positive engagement with language itself. God is beyond knowledge and hence is beyond language. But language’s limits are not due to a failure to represent or unite with the divine, which remains the ultimate goal in traditional negative theologies. In them, language takes its place in, and indeed reflects in its structure, a two-world metaphysics: a higher ontology and a lower one. Language, as unfolding in time and in parts, can never equal the unity and unchanging immateriality of the divine. Language is not unitary, but multiple and particular, working in time as unfolding units in a sequence. As Augustine writes in his Confessions, comparing time to language:

Not all the parts exist as once, but some must come as others go, and in this way together they make up the whole of which they are parts. Our speech follows the same rule, using sounds to signify a meaning. For a sentence is not complete unless each word, once its syllables have been pronounced, gives way to make room for the next. (Augustine, Confessions IV:10; 1981: 80)

Only when the sentence is completed and its parts can be integrated is meaning achieved and grasped.

Maimonides’ Guide Part I is in many ways a treatise on language. Its opening discussion of the misapplication of linguistic figures to the divine is already a problem of representation. Maimonides here insists on an absolute gap between the divine and any direct representation of it, which Maimonides calls idolatrous. This is radicalized in his negative theology as the impossibility of knowing God, which also, unlike most negative theologies, still positively situates language even as it is delimited. As Kenneth Seeskin writes, in Maimonides the uniqueness of God means ‘nothing resembles God’, who does not ‘occupy a position at the top of a metaphysical hierarchy’ but is instead ‘separate from the world and totally unlike it’ (2012: 44). Seeskin notes there is a distinction between ‘God is’ and ‘God is called’ (2012: 47), and that ‘imitation of God, who is utterly unlike, is then only through the attributes of action, not God himself (2012: 38). Language cannot represent the divine; but it does not set out to do so. Yet language does open relationship between human and divine, through scripture and commentaries, as well as enacting the ‘letter’. Language takes place within the world, as discourse and conduct, of study and praxis. The soul is unable to have any direct knowledge of God and, accordingly, does not devalue language in its inability to express that which can neither be known nor thought. But language is valued as human response to the transcendent divine as likewise revealed in language and creation (Benor 1995: 346).

The Guide’s chapters on negative theology outline the limits of language in reference to God. There, Maimonides pursues a distinction that Harry Wolfson traces back to Philo, between the divine in relation to the world as against the divine in itself (1973b: 66; cf. 117, ‘God’s existence is known only by his actions’). This is a distinction Maimonides resolutely sustains: ‘Every attribute found in the books of the Deity is therefore an attribute of His action and not of His essence’ (1956: 3:51). Even the equivocal language of catachresis only pertains to divine actions in relation to the world, not to the divine in itself, and is overridingly concerned with order and what he later in the Guide calls ‘governance’ of this world (Maimonides. 1956: 3:51). Wolfson declares Maimonides to be ‘the first and only one’ to interpret ‘divine attributes in what he himself describes in a purely equivocal sense’ (Wolfson 1977a: 514, 522, 524). Wolfson describes Maimonides’ translation of attributes into predicates – language constructions – with predicates seen as actions (1977a: 196), and implies catachresis when describing ‘equivocal terms which in meaning are absolutely unrelated to similarly sounding terms which are applied to other beings’ (1977a: 196). Maimonides denies any analogy, any likeness at all, between God and creation. Analogy is therefore not implied if the same term is predicated of God and creation in equivocal sense. Humanity’s relation to God inheres not in essential likeness but in action in the world, the effort to ‘make his acts similar to the acts of God’ (Maimonides. 1956: part 1, ch. 54; cf. Buijs 1988: 731, ‘we can know something of essence by analogy’; 1988: 736, ‘positive language attempts to describe God’s essence’). Maimonides, however, only describes action: ‘Maimonides’ concern to guard against any divine corporality’ distinguishes him from Aquinas, for whom ‘the very fact of incarnation and the Mass makes this not his concern, nor to deny the efficacy of all language in relation to God’ (Dobbs-Weinstein 1995: 187). There is ‘no knowledge of God above the physical world’, writes Shlomo Pines. ‘Resemblance […] is completely restrictive to fulfilment in that world’ (1979: 82–109). Imitatio dei (imitation of God) is in fact imitatio viarum dei, imitating not God in himself but the ways of God in relation to the world, where ‘ways’ evokes Halakhah (Shapiro 1978: 138). Shapiro comments, ‘although God as he is in his transcendence is indescribable, the Bible refers to attributes, not as imitation of God himself but of virtues by which his relation to the world and activity are described’ (1978: 139; cf. Guttman 1973: 176–177). In the Guide, Maimonides himself identifies the name and word of God with command: ‘The name of God, the word of God and the command of God are identical phrases’ (Maimonides. 1956: part 1, ch. 64). Of the divine in itself, only negative attributes can be predicated.

Maimonides inevitably uses the philosophical terms available to him, which remain deeply influenced by Greek philosophy as treated in Arabic philosophical tradition, including terms such as essence and existence. Yet Maimonides also says that the divine ‘has no essence’ (1956: part 1, ch. 58). He treats the term ‘existence’ as equivocal, having a different sense when applied to God (Stern 2000: 206). Maimonides’ negative theology in this pulls away from a metaphysics of essence towards a transcendence that is other than the world, and whose relation to it is through language and praxis.

This Maimonidean sense of the impossibility of knowledge of God culminates in the discussion of the divine names, with the Tetragrammaton as the ‘nomen proprium’, the proper name that has ‘no additional signification’ or signified ideation (Maimonides. 1956: part 1, ch. 61). Not pronounced except in the yearly priestly blessing, the Tetragrammaton is a negative theological name that, Maimonides writes, ‘denotes God Himself without including in its meaning any names of the things created by him’. All other names ‘are derived from his actions’, only indicating ‘the relation of certain actions’ to the world (1956: part 1, ch. 61). The proper name alone ‘exclusively indicates’ the divine, through letters which guard even as they display, in that it ‘can be written but not pronounced’.

Maimonidean negative theology can be described from the viewpoint of contemporary language theory as a departure from traditional sign-theory in which a signifier represents a signified meaning, which is defined metaphysically as an unchanging idea in a higher ontology. The divine in Maimonides is not a signified, not an abstract entity or ontology, but rather is a transcendence beyond all categories. No signifier can represent it. This, however, does not deny transcendence, nor the validity of signifiers in linguistic events. Rather, by blocking representation of the divine, more weight is granted to signifiers – the linguistic exchanges within the world, as these in turn unfold order and significance within time and materiality. There is a tension in the Guide as to whether intellectual life or practical life is superior – where praxis means Halakhah and its many concrete actions. But Maimonides confirms the Talmudic saying: ‘Great is study, for study leads to action’ (Kiddushin 40b; Halivni 1991: 117, notes that the Rabbis ‘never divorced study from practice […] study is itself a command; Halivni also notes that this goes back to Ezra 7:10, ‘to study so as to observe’, 1991: 121). The letter of text and the letter of law are inextricable and mutually confirming. Thus, Maimonides writes, of all commandments, ‘none is equal in importance to the study of the Torah […] for study leads to practice’ (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Book I: 3.3; cf. 1956: part 3, ch. 36).

4 Modern Judaic language theory: Gershom Scholem, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas

Philosophy after Friedrich Nietzsche, in its response to the crisis in metaphysics his work announces, importantly turned to questions of language. The attack on classical ontology calls into question how language means, its relationship to thought, the constitution of thought itself in relation to materiality, representation, knowledge, and indeed norms themselves as these had been seen to be grounded in eternal, unchanging higher reality. These changing philosophical orientations provide new frameworks for understanding and theorizing Judaic culture, especially the focal importance of language within it.

The emergence of language philosophy as a context for theorizing Judaic culture – and vice versa – is marked by a series of philosophers with various relationships to Judaism. Three central figures are Gershom Scholem, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida. Scholem is firmly situated within Judaic Studies; indeed, he reinvented Judaic studies to include Jewish mysticism. Levinas, born in Lithuania in 1906 and studying in Strasbourg, France, with Bergson, spent two years in Freiburg under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. His translations and writings were central to bringing phenomenology to France. Alongside his work in continental philosophy, he wrote on Jewish topics, exploring relationships between them, and served as director of the orthodox École normale Israélite orientale (Paris) before finally receiving an academic appointment. Derrida, whose relationships to Judaism are far more indirect, was born in Algeria and lived and worked in France, teaching post-structuralist philosophy. Although younger than Levinas, it was Derrida’s essay on Levinas, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ (1967, in Derrida 1978), that launched Levinas into greater recognition and prominence.

Scholem, born in Berlin in 1897 before emigrating to Palestine in 1923, recounts that his original thesis project was a dissertation on the linguistic theory of the Kabbalah. This linguistic interest runs through his work, and forms a distinct strand within his historical, theological, and intellectual studies of Jewish mysticism. The material from the thesis ultimately appeared in two long essays on ‘The Name of God and the Linguistic Theory of the Kabbalah’. Scholem repeatedly underscores that the ‘metaphysically positive attitude towards language as God’s own instrument’ distinguishes specifically Jewish mysticism (Scholem 1972). The ‘point of departure’ for the Kabbalists was language as ‘the medium in which the spiritual life of man is accomplished’; the Kabbalists held a ‘superabundantly positive delineation of language, as the “mystery revealed” of all things that exist’ (Scholem 1972: 60, 62):

The indissoluble link between the idea of the revealed truth and the notion of language […] is presumably one of the most important, if not the most important, legacies bequeathed by Judaism to the history of religions. (Scholem 1972: 60)

Language has a number of dimensions in Scholem’s theory. The first is ontological. Midrashim on the creation of the world through Torah and through letters are elaborated and radicalized in Kabbalah. Letters become the very substance of reality. The Sefer Yetzirah, one of the earliest mystical texts, whose date of origin is debated, opens by declaring in elaborate plays of letters and words that the world was created

[b]y thirty-two mysterious paths of wisdom Yah has engraved [all things…] whose Name is holy; having created His world by three [derivatives] of [the Hebrew root-word] sfr: namely, sefer (book), sefor (count) and sippur (story), along with ten calibrations of empty space, twenty-two letters [of the Hebrew alphabet], [of which] three are principal [letters] (i.e. א מ ש), seven are double-sounding [consonants] (i.e. בג"ד כפר"ת) and twelve are ordinary [letters] (i.e. ה ו ז ח ט י ל נ ס ע צ ק). (Qafih 1972: 35)

Kabbalah adopts light imagery with Neoplatonist backgrounds. But letters of creation, as the substance of world, are given a central role in ways that resonate through Judaic culture. Letters likewise play a foundational role in the relationship of creation to the divine. For the divine, too, is constituted as letters, as names which, in mystical lore, form the revelation of Torah as well as the creation through Torah letters. Letters bind revelation and creation. The letters of the names of God reveal the divine to the world, as well as creating the world – itself another mode of revelation. As creative language, the world becomes divine text, while conversely divine text becomes world. World and Torah are mutual reflections as well as extensions of each other; both are manifestations of the divine in linguistic terms. The relationship to both thus also takes place in a linguistic dimension, as commentary on Torah and on language itself as cosmogonic and revelatory. Since the divine is infinite, commentary is infinite, with multidimensional levels and implications, multiple through the experience of every self who is each an interpreter and commentator. For Scholem, to each one ‘will it be given to understand it in this special and individual way that is reserved to him’ (1965: 63):

The Torah turns a special face to every single Jew, meant only for him and apprehensible only by him, and a Jew therefore fulfils his true purpose only when he comes to see this face and is able to incorporate it into the tradition. (Scholem 1971: 297)

As Scholem puts it: ‘The gates of exegesis are never closed’ (1997: 106).

Each Jewish soul has its own unique mystical path by which to read Torah […] this allows a wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah, which reserves to itself the possibility of unique inspiration, which is only granted to a particular individual whose soul is hewn from the same source. (Scholem 1997: 15)

Relationship both to the divine and to the world follows pathways of language. Yet there is a limit, a break. While language issues from the divine, beyond language there ever remains an ultimate transcendence, called the Ein Sof, without end. Kabbalah in this way also offers a form of negative theology. The ultimate Name of God is unpronounceable and unknowable, a beyond as ongoing endlessness (in Levinas’ terms, infinity not totality). The multiplicity of signs, issuing from transcendence, then radiates through experience and history. But, as in Maimonides, the divine in itself remains beyond. Yet, as in Maimonides, the realm of response to the divine remains a linguistic one. No one can reach beyond into the divine Nothingness out of which the world was created and which it attests but does not enter into. The very names of God issuing from divine Nothingness give shape and order to the world, as ‘the elements of the actual name of God are also the seals which are affixed to the creation and which protect it from breaking asunder’ (Scholem 1972: 73).

Scholem refers to the Lurianic myth of tzimtzum to establish both revelation and retraction, with an absolute distinction between divinity and world. In tzimtzum, the divine, rather than emanating into world as in Neoplatonism, contracts in an ‘act of negation and limitation’ (Scholem 1997: 15). This distinction of transcendence ultimately works to retain and sustain the distinctions within creation, which itself unfolded in Genesis through separations: of light from darkness, water from land, all the multiplicity of the creatures. Such distinction is creative not only at the origin, but ongoingly within the created world and human experience of the world and of each other. ‘The imposition of limits and the correct determination of things [is] inherent in everything insofar as everything wishes to remain what it is, to stay within its boundaries’ as ‘the existence of individual things’ (Scholem 1974a: 98). Tzimtzum is then contraction, making room for what is other, not only as origin but as sustaining model (Scholem 1961: 263). It is ‘repeated at every stage of creation, therefore preventing the world from returning to its origins in the infinite’ (Scholem 1956: 117).

Jacques Derrida’s philosophical interests are remarkably wide ranging, and Judaic strands are only some among many others. His most powerful contribution to Judaic theory is in Of Grammatology, where he focuses on sign-theory, and in his later essays on Levinas. Of Grammatology’s polemic against the demotion of writing is directly addressed to the history in which letter has been suspected as beneath or betraying spirit.

Derrida conducts his defence of the letter through a critique of metaphysics that draws on Nietzsche and Heidegger, among others. Here the intercrossing between post-metaphysics and Judaic traditions comes to the fore. The Judaic devotion to the letter as material practice, in time and across difference, accords with the reorientation of post-modernity into materiality, multiplicity, and temporality, as against appeal to unchanging unitary truths.

Derrida revises Saussurean sign-theory, pressing it towards a more radical metaphysical critique than Saussure himself pursued. Saussure importantly claimed that any ‘signified’ meaning is indelibly connected to a ‘signifier’ representing it, such that change of the ‘signifier’ likewise changed the ‘signified’ meaning. The signifier was no longer mere vehicle. Derrida, however, considers the very term ‘signified’ too metaphysical in its implication, as if there were a pre-given idea or thought that preceded its signifiers which thus would remain secondary and ancillary to meaning. ‘The difference between the signified and the signifier is rooted in the history of metaphysics’ (Derrida 1974: 31). This metaphysical residue is visible in the privileging of spoken language as apparently immaterial and contained in the mind. Writing is then exterior and material, and secondary as a copy of the copy of the spoken signifier more immediate to the signified thought that precedes and determines it. Derrida proposes instead that signifiers actively shape meaning, making writing the better model than speech for how language works. Speech seems to share the immateriality of thought and thus to be closer to the privilege granted to ideas before language. Writing asserts the materiality, linearity, particularity, and multiplicity of signifiers.

It is out of such differential multiplicity that Derrida, following Saussure, sees meaning emerging as the inter-relationality of signifiers, each ‘diacritically’ distinct from yet in relation to other signifiers. Meaning emerges not out of reference to a prior ‘signified’ but through a chain of signifiers unfolding in terms of each other, articulating order in their sequential unfolding. Each signifier is distinct from all other inscribed signifiers, emerging through time, history, and context, articulated in ongoing orders to diverse interpreters. Meaning proceeds from this mutual positing of each such signifier by every other, unfolding in an articulate system. Although the model is linguistic, as Derrida puts it in ‘Signature, Event, Context’, meaning takes shape within ‘chains of differential marks’, which extend into ‘all “experience” in general’ (1974: 13). Because such emergence is ongoing, meaning is never fully ‘present’. It is not a unified idea prior to language, nor is it a finalized total idea ever fully formulated. As historical, temporal, and experienced within the material multiple world, meaning is never totally grasped. Derrida thus speaks of a ‘trace’ of meaning, as an ever-deferred, ever-differing significance that endlessly unfolds.

In introducing this term ‘trace’, Derrida in Of Grammatology refers to Levinas in a minor footnote. He proposes it as an alternative to the philosophical tradition he calls ‘presence’ in the unity, totality, unchangingness which defined ideas as both truth and a higher ontology. The trace is never fully present, not unified, not an attempt to represent through a signifier a signified above and outside language in pure thought, using words merely as its faulty instrument. Derrida places the notion of trace against a metaphysical and theological history. The metaphysical background of sign-theory opposes ‘letter and spirit, body and soul’, where spirit is ‘full presence’ is demoted as material and temporal multiplicity in ‘the humbling of writing beneath a speech dreaming its plenitude’. The desire and ultimate reality is ‘being as presence’ which, elevating unity, idealizes ‘life without difference’, while language – and especially writing – is mere copy and dispersion of an ideal unified thought (1974: 317, 318). ‘Trace’ accords with writing, as material signifiers that unfold in relational order of difference as well as connection to each other, in line and time, where meaning occurs through ongoing articulation that is never finalized.

In that ‘trace’ is not a ‘signified’, it is not a reference ‘to an entity created […] in the eternal present of the divine logos and specifically in its breath’. Thus it is not conveyed by a signifier ‘signans’, but most immediately as ‘speech’ and then secondarily as letter (Derrida 1974: 71). Therefore the trace is not a metaphysical concept and does not refer to higher being. In this it touches on discourses of negation and negative theology. The trace, as non-metaphysical, denies ultimate being as reference for truth and reality. ‘Contradictory and not acceptable within the logic of identity’, there is need to ‘wrench the concept of the trace from the classical scheme’, where meaning is grounded in ideal ontological Being (Derrida 1974: 61). What is transcended remains unreachable. Yet this negation works almost in reverse from traditional negative theologies. Instead of attempting to ascend beyond language and world into a higher reality and unity, the trace situates meaning within language, time, and materiality, not as access to a higher reality or the attempt to do so. Derrida does not intend or presume a ‘superessentiality’, which he ascribes to traditional negative theology. There, language itself is negated so that ‘God is refused the predicate of existence, only in order to acknowledge his superior, inconceivable and ineffable mode of being’ (Derrida 1974: 73). What Derrida says about Levinas in ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ applies also to himself: that he has ‘given up’ the classical position of ‘disdain of discourse’ in which ‘language [is] resigned to its own failure’ (Derrida 1978: 116).

Traditional negative theologies seek to ascend out of multiplicity and to transcend into a silence that absorbs language. Derrida instead is committed to multiplicity as intrinsic to and conducted in linguistic exchange. Even in negative theology, despite itself, ‘voice multiplies itself, dividing within itself from contrary to contrary but always within the forms of language’. Despite itself, negative theology confirms a ‘multiplicity of voices’. As Derrida writes in the opening of ‘Post-Scriptum’: ‘It is always necessary to be more than one in order to speak’ (1992: 323). In confirming the ‘infinite separation and of the unthinkable, unsayable transcendence of the other’, Derrida shifts value into the world of language as significant signifiers unfolding in material, temporal experience (1978: 153).

Derrida’s own relationships to Judaic tradition remain in many ways contingent. Nevertheless, his defences of writing and sign-theory provide theoretical terms for a philosophy of Judaic language. This is taken up in Levinas, whose Judaic involvement is clear in his own traditional practices and his long tenure as Director of the École Normale Israelite Orientale before at last attaining an academic appointment at the University of Poitiers in 1961. Levinas’ work is largely approached through the ethics he declared to be ‘first philosophy’, in a turn away from the traditional philosophical priorities of ontology, epistemology as knowledge of ontology, and ethics as the regimen for attaining such knowledge. Levinas’ philosophy is best known and most discussed as a philosophy of the Other. Yet language philosophy is a strong thread through his work, fundamental to his ethics and a link between his philosophical and Judaic interests, which he kept separate in his publications – even using different publishers for each sort of writing. Levinas also asserts that Judaic discourses are traditionally not directly theoretical, and are ‘an intellectual act of a different order to the philosophical thematization of God’. Nevertheless, ‘the mode of Talmudic thinking tolerates philosophical contact’ (Derrida 1995: 35–38). It ‘expresses a particular worldview but few works expound this philosophical aspect’ (Levinas 1994a: 118).

Levinas’ two core works, Totality and Infinity published in 1961, and Otherwise than Being published 1971, display significantly different idioms, which some see as due to Levinas’ own response to Derrida’s ‘Violence and Metaphysics’. Derrida criticized Levinas as continuing to use the language of metaphysics even as he critiqued it. Both Levinas’ books in fact deeply engage questions of language, discourse, and interchange, but Otherwise than Being goes further in formulating a language philosophy as well as altering the very language used.

Levinas proposes three language dimensions: the Said, as ‘what’ is being communicated, the references – what a statement is ‘about’, its ‘content’; Saying, as the performance of interchange of discourse between interlocutors – the performative act of address and response ‘to’; and Unsaying, a radical interruption to both Said and Saying. His first radical revision of traditional language philosophy is to place Saying before Said. Said carries the ideas in which truth had been seen to inhere in an unchanging metaphysics, as governing both knowledge and ethics. But Levinas argues that without interchange itself no communication is possible. This already places ethics before ontology and epistemology: interchange, address, and response precede whatever is exchanged, and require certain ethical conditions to take place at all. Language emerges as the model of such ethical interchange among humans as well as a mode of its conduct. Exactly what demoted language in traditional philosophy elevates it in Levinas: that is, the break from unity which language both represents and enacts. Language rests on difference: the difference between the interlocutors, which language does not overcome but both respects and regulates. Rather than idealizing a union of minds as reflection of truth beyond change and multiplicity, language occurs between distinct beings in time and material experience, a mode of their difference but also their interrelationship.

The philosophy of dialogue is oriented toward a concept of the ethical that is separated from the tradition that derives the ethical from knowledge and from reason […] and see in the ethical a layer superposed upon being. (Levinas 1989: 228–229)

There can be cognitive recognition, certainly, in a pragmatic sense of joint action and practical reference. But in ethical terms, recognizing that interlocutors never merge into unity is what makes interchange first possible and also ethical. Levinas’ philosophy is without doubt a reaction against Nazi totalitarianism and its drive to annihilate all difference, to impose a total unitary order. In response, Levinas offers an ethics of difference, sustaining each particular against a totalism that erases the unique self, to the extreme point of murder. Levinas dethrones unity as an ideal. In doing so he elevates language as the dimension of multiplicity, now not as a faulty attempt to reflect unitary truth and being but rather as the ethical sustention of distinct selves as they address and respond to each other in what he calls ‘Saying’.

The ‘Said’ in Levinas corresponds in some degree to the ‘signified’ of linguistics, not however as a pre-given meaning but as emerging out of the interchanges which first make discourse possible. This is to say that meaning in Levinas, as in Derrida, emerges through a chain of signifiers, not as a secondary reflection of a pre-given signified thought. But Levinas offers this language chain as a model and conduct of ethics more clearly than Derrida does, introducing a striking innovation. What in Derrida is a chain of language as structure (although in his later writings he moves closer to Levinas) in Levinas becomes interaction, address, and response, and the conditions of respect and sustenance that makes them possible. In Levinas, the ‘signifier’ comes alive, as not only units in a linguistic structure but actors who themselves enact Saying, who signal and signify to each other. Each speaker and responder is a signifier. Again the activity of exchange, the address and response of participants in it, has priority in the unfolding of meaning, certainly on an ethical level. This is what establishes and sustains the very possibility of exchange, of relationship, before any communication can even take place. Ethics is not correspondence to an eternal truth, but the possibility and conditions of addressing and responding to each other in the world.

What emerges as the normative element of ethics is difference, the very multiplicity which the Platonic tradition regards as mere reflection if not betrayal of the unity and unchangingness of truth. Levinas affirms this principle of difference as normative through Unsaying (1998b: 147). Unsaying opens to transcendence. It guards against the overwhelming of self and other that would erase their difference and distinctness. Levinas says of Unsaying, in his Preface to Totality and Infinity, that ‘it belongs to the very essence of language which consists in continually undoing its phrase by forward or exegesis, in unsaying the said’ (see Wolosky 2014: 78–105). Such unsaying ruptures unity, thus reaffirming each distinct, unique being and, while not defeating all relationship, constrains it. ‘The appearance in being of “ethical peculiarities” – the humanity of man – is a rupture of being’, Levinas remarks (1969: 30). Such a guard against unification is a condition of freedom, ‘the freedom of unsaying and resaying’ (Levinas 1985: 87). As an incursion into system, Unsaying reasserts what system cannot encompass, dislocating containment and full correspondences. Breaking into the drive to merging into one, Unsaying asserts a distance that is never fully bridged or overcome.

The Unsaying of language, at once limiting and opening it, Levinas associates with the Names of God. As does Maimonides, Levinas affirms God as beyond language, in utter transcendence of human reach. Yet he also opens a relation to God in linguistic terms. The question of God emerges not as a meditation on divine Being but as a question of divine Names – ‘letters traced on parchment’ (Levinas 1994a: 117). Levinas notes that there is no Hebrew word for God, who is called only by other names, or indeed as ‘the Name’. ‘The Name has a name!’ he exclaims (1994a: 121). The divine is hedged, removed through a linguistic series: in Derridean terms, through a chain of signifiers of signifiers without direct representation of any pure signified. Yet, more centrally than in Derrida, in Levinas what is underscored is transcendence; what is beyond – yet also and thereby – a term that endows with meaning. The divine is not the ‘God of metaphysics’ (1994a: 163; 2001: 117). It is a non-metaphysical ‘Ein Sof without correlate’ (1994b: 166), out of which creation has yet emerged.

Levinas introduces the term ‘trace’ to register the approach to the divine in terms of chains of signifiers, as names, text, and world as traces – but not immediate representation – of transcendence. First broached in the essay ‘The Trace of the Other’, the trace for Levinas is a trace of Exod 33:19–20, where God, responding to Moses’ request to witness divine ‘glory’, instead passes by (בעבר כבודי), showing only divine ‘afterness’ (את אחורי), which Levinas calls trace (Idel 2014: 76).

Levinas ties the trace to ‘signifyingness’ in language and signs. ‘In a trace’, Levinas writes, ‘the relationship between the signified and signification is not a correlation’ (1986: 359). It is not, as in traditional sign theory, a ‘disclosure which neutralizes transcendence’, that is, does not attempt directly to represent a signified. ‘Signifyingness of a trace is not immediately transformed into […] signs which reveal the signified absent and brings it into immanence’. Rather, ‘signifyingness of a trace consists in signifying without making appear’. The trace as sign defers through time and difference, marks ‘the infinity of the absolutely other which eludes ontology’ but, as other, does mark the world, not as presence, but as deferral and difference itself (Levinas 1986: 355).

It is as trace that names of God at once attest to and conceal divinity beyond being. The divine in itself remains in ‘reclusion’ and ‘holiness’ in the sense of kedushah, which – unlike senses of the mystical ecstatic unification – demarks separation from ordinary access. The names of God are a ‘glory, quite different from being and knowing’, which can be ‘pronounced without letting “divinity” be said as though “God were an essence’; while the Tetragrammaton cannot be pronounced almost at all (Levinas 1986: 356). God is thus not ‘essence’ but a ‘trace’ which is not the trace of any presence. The trace here emerges through pronouncing yet not making divinity into something ‘said’, not reducing it to ‘thematization’ about the divine within ‘the order of the said’ (1998b: 151). Divinity is beyond comprehension and beyond direct representation in language. But language, as name or text or law or commentary – ‘letters’ – neither seeks nor achieves unity with Being, or essence, nor direct knowledge of them. As Derrida writes, in Levinas ‘the essential experience of divinity and deity’ is ‘neither a concept nor a reality’ (1978: 87).

Language is not a means for entering into transcendence or representing it. Indeed, to enter into transcendence would be to undo its very transcendence – to absorb it or be absorbed into it, which would ‘cease to justify its transcendence’ (Levinas 1994a: 126). Language in Levinas instead is an avenue of relationship to transcendence while remaining apart from it. Language is ‘contact across a distance, relation with the non-touchable, across a void’ (1969: 172). Language marks ‘the difference and the relationship’ that ‘transcendence signifies’. It ‘transcends […] distance without suppressing or recuperating it’. Language marks ‘the breaking point, but also the binding place’ between self and other (Levinas 1998a: 12). As Levinas writes in his essay on ‘Dialogue’, ‘in dialogue is hollowed out an absolute distance’ between each interlocutor, ‘each one absolutely other in relation to the other, without common measure or domain available for some sort of coincidence’, crossing across ‘this distance without suppressing it or recuperating it’ (1998a: 162; cf. 1994a: 120).

Levinas is wary of mystical trends, as these characteristically drive to unification or ascent into transcendence. But one image he does embrace from Jewish mysticism is tzimtzum. Of tzimtzum Levinas writes: ‘In order to make room for creation, it contracted itself’ (1994a: 162). The divine ‘withdraws from the illuminated site’ to make each creation, and each self possible as separate being (1996: 77). The withdrawal and self-limitation of infinitude leaves room for what is other. Tzimtzum as contraction sustains the absolute distinction between creator and creation, even while opening relationship between them. Unlike the Aristotelian infinity, the divine does not ‘close in upon itself in a circle, but withdraws from the ontological extension so as to leave a place for a separated being’. But what looks like ‘diminution, where there was contraction’, flourishes in creativity through ‘the relations that are established between the separated being and Infinity’ (Levinas 1969: 104). Levinas extends tzimtzum to textual interpretation: the holding-back of full meaning to leave open creative response. And, very originally, for Levinas tzimtzum applies to ethical selfhood, as a contraction that does not negate the self or language but rather releases creativity and establishes an ethical model that allows and respects the other as distinct.

The terms, the interlocutors, absolve themselves from the relation, or remain absolute within relationship […] The incomprehensible nature of the presence of the Other […] is not to be described negatively. Better than comprehension, discourse relates with what remains essentially transcendent […] Language is a relation between separated terms. (Levinas 1969: 195)

Unsaying and tzimtzum offer a language model of ethics, as a ‘proximity’ which is a nearness without merging with the other, that at once affirms relationship and safeguards it against the erasure of unitary incorporation.

It seems to me extremely important that the relation of myself to the other not involve a collapsing together of the two, but that the two-ness, the non-unity, is actual in the ethical. Proximity is a value in and for itself. (Levinas 1996: 77)

This language model of ethics at once derives from and governs Levinas’ theory of interpretation. Interpretation emerges in response to ‘the marvellous contraction of the Infinite’ in text as in world (Levinas 1994a: x). Levinas emphasizes the multiplicity of interpretation. ‘The Torah is no longer in Heaven but in the discussions men have’, he writes, ‘[p]luralism is accepted for the interpretation of the same verse [through] the multiple personalities of the exegetes’ (1994a: 171). What makes this multiplication possible is precisely the unsaying and tzimtzum of the text, its resistance to full possession or final interpretation. There always remains in the text, as in the world, something hidden and mysterious, hence inexhaustible. In the text there is not only what is said but also ‘what is not said, inherent in the texture of the statement’ (Levinas 1994a: 110). ‘The glory of the Infinite shuts itself up in a word and becomes a being. But it already undoes its dwelling and unsays itself without vanishing into nothingness’ (Levinas 1998a: 151). It ‘undoes its dwelling’ in word or letters, ‘unsays itself’, yet not as a negative negation, ‘vanishing into nothingness’, but as positive beyondness that leaves room for other interpretations, for others. ‘The infinite richness of what it does not say, can be said; or that the meaning of what it does say can be “renewed”, to use the technical expression of the Rabbis’ (Levinas 1994a: 110). Meaning is ‘to be found in the gaps between utterances’, through ‘breaks in coherence’ that allow and invite ‘new interpretations to be discovered’ (Levinas 1998a: 151).

As throughout Judaic tradition, engagement with text in interpretation remains both central and exemplary, extending and intertwining between study and practice. ‘The Rabbinical reflection on God is never separated from the reflection on practice’ writes Levinas (1994a: 118). Echoing the Talmud and Maimonides, Levinas confirms:

the study of the Torah […] is equal in religious value to actually carrying them out […] The highest action of the practice of prescriptions, the prescription of prescriptions which equals them all, is the actual study of the written or oral Law. (Levinas 1994a: 141)

The letter stands not only for inscription as the basis of textual interpretive energy, but as concrete conduct that textual interpretation underwrites. It is both text and conduct. It is taken not only to generate textual meanings but as a model for meaningful conduct itself. The materiality of the letter becomes the materiality of practice, as a praxis of life whose attention centres on organizing into significant orders the concrete material of everyday life: food, sexuality, time. In this, language has a core status, marking, enacting, and interpreting worldly engagement in which material temporal life is the locus of significance. The material world is itself meaningfully ordered, rather than transcended into a world of ‘spirit’ distinct from and above it. This significant materiality is represented as letter, not in opposition against ‘spirit’ but as its concrete realization. As Levinas writes, then cited by Derrida: ‘the spirit is free in the letter’ (Derrida 1978: 102, citing Levinas 1990: 136).

Levinas describes the Torah as made up of ‘immutable letters’; while God is ‘lived in the letters in the lines and between the lines in the exchange of ideas between readers commenting where letters come alive’ (2001: 131). The multiplicity of ‘letters making up the word Torah’ are meaningful ‘not [as] a system justified uniquely by its coherence’ in an abstract order, but as it ‘institutes the order of life only because its transcendent source is personally asserted in it as word’ (Levinas 1994a: 210). Transcendence precisely asserts personal uniqueness among signifiers, both signs and the people who signal with them to each other in discourse and study, each particular and unique but connected in address and response.

Levinas sees such discourse relation ‘with what remains transcendent’ in the scenes of argument and interpretation of the Talmud and throughout the practices of Judaic commentary, as the ‘infinite renewal of the Word of God in commentary and commentary on commentary […] preceding theological considerations’ (1994b: 59). Interpretive engagement is a ‘pluralism of persons and generations’ based upon ‘the inestimable or absolute value of every self’, where ‘every person and every moment contribute[s] […] in the revelation which is non-transferable like a responsibility’, ‘incumbent afresh upon every person and every epoch’ (Levinas 1994a: xiii ).

5 Language congresses

Texts are foundational to Jewish life. This is the case on both the individual and the communal level. Or rather: texts are the foundational site binding individual and community to each other, where the individual is shaped by the community and the community is made up of individuals. Levinas critiques a total individualism that gives priority to each person as self-authorized. He likewise rejects a collectivism where priority of the group subsumes the individual. Rather, each self remains distinct, yet linked to others in history and responsibility, in a sociality between collective and individualist, which can be called ‘congressive’. This is Levinas’ ethical as well as social model, both reflecting and enacted in models of discourse: as argument and exchanges voiced, addressed, and responding to each other, entailing conditions for doing so. A general model for ethics, selfhood, and community, this discourse ethics of selves engaged with each other is, in Judaic terms, paradigmatically enacted through study and the practices it generates: the sharing of texts across generations and geographies as well as the activities of doing so.

The act of study constituted in itself the most direct communication with a transcendent, non-objectifiable God, whose word and will and commandments create an inexhaustible text which seems, with each new day, to present itself for the first time. (Levinas 1989: 228)

There is around the texts a community of language of interlocutors with each other and with the divine. This is founded in a divine ‘association with the world’, where association maintains ‘withdrawal contemporaneous with presence’, distinction and linkage at once, guarding the unique difference of each from the other (Levinas 1994a: 122), while sustaining their regard each for the other: ‘the epiphany of God is invoked in the human face. The face of the other, irreducible difference’ (1994a: 112). Divine language is itself realized in this human engagement, undertaken through textual interpretive devotion:

The human, therefore, would not be just a creature to whom revelation is made, but something through which the absolute of God reveals its meaning. This human impossibility of conceiving of the Infinite is also a new possibility of signifying. (Levinas 1994a: 165)

Levinas cites Isa 1:6: ‘And I have put my words in your mouth’ (1989: 232). ‘But’, Levinas asks, ‘is not this withdrawal, contemporaneous with presence maintained in the proximity of prayer?’ (1994a: 122). ‘The Word of God, to speak to God, to speak of God and of the Word of God’ are experienced both in ‘Holy Scripture, prayer’. A significant part of Jewish prayer is indeed citation from scripture, with the reading of the Torah as the centre of the synagogue service (synagogue in Hebrew is beit haknesset, the house of congress). In prayer, too, language is shared among the divine and the human, ‘as if God’s creative word had been entrusted to prayer without demand for him to dispose of as he liked, to let it ring out, or to interrupt it’ (Levinas 1989: 231). Along with, and as itself enacting, ‘fidelity to the Law’, prayer marks human participation in creation itself: ‘God needs prayer making his association with worlds possible […] in order to give life to the worlds, to sanctify them, illuminate them, and thereby bring them into existence’ (Levinas 1989: 233).

Prayer has a further dimension: it is address, precisely ‘to speak to God’. It is also not only to take part in but to perform human community. Levinas underscores that prayer is enacted in community. Certain prayers require that there be ten men (now in some services also women) – the minyan – signalling that ‘the proximity of the Divine is inconceivable for a Jew without the presence of the people of Israel’ (Levinas 1989: 268). Prayer is not a ‘formalist immobilism’, nor located as an ‘isolated person’ in a ‘windowless room’. It affirms and indeed enacts ‘the certainty of the durability of Israel, of the continuity of its history’, extending to a ‘solidarity, throughout this history, with the history of humanity’ (Levinas 1989: 268). In this sense, as with other religious language, prayer remains anchored in the human world even as it faces beyond it. ‘The terms of prayer, as discourse, refer to the world and to God's association with the world’ (Levinas 1994a: 165). This is not to reduce prayer to only the social or the secular. ‘It does not, for all that, represent a necessary collectivist substitute in the absence of any transcendent nourishment’ (Levinas 1989: 268). Scenes of prayer are performative. Praying does what it says; it draws people together, in space and time and into history past and future. In praying for strength, you are strengthened. In praying for meaning and goodness, you affirm them. Turning towards the divine, the divine turns towards you, orienting your experience to a transcendence that commands and orders relationships as both commitment and respect of uniqueness. ‘God is near to whoever invokes Him’ (Levinas 1989: 268). ‘To speak is to approach God’ (Levinas 1990: 145). The language of prayer is thus one mode in which the human joins with the divine, not in a supernal world, nor in union, but as upholding, precisely through a relationship with distinction, a meaningful, ethical order in this one. In his essay ‘Prayer without Demand’, Levinas writes:

Man’s acts, words and thoughts – following or departing from the commandments of the Torah – condition or disturb or block the association of God with the world. They determine, in this way, the being or nothingness of all creatures. God needed man in his fidelity to the Law in order to give life to the worlds, to sanctify them, illuminate them, and thereby bring them into existence. But, in consequence, each man becomes responsible for the life and death of all the other worlds and men. (Levinas 1989: 230)

Levinas is acutely aware of criticisms that have been raised in discussions of his work, echoing Aquinas’ critique of Maimonides and harking back to the foundational ontology of Greece. Levinas cites Plato’s Parmenides, asking how the absolute can be in relation to the temporal material world when the two are in ‘contradiction’. According to this view, the ‘One cannot be separated from Being’, in that the very act of language in which it is ‘named’ compromises its ‘absolute transcendence’ (1994a: 126). Language here attests the continuity of the One with the world precisely by betraying transcendence in describing it. ‘If’, Levinas asks,

between the soul and the Absolute, there can exist a relation different to thematization, does not the fact of speaking and thinking about it at this very moment […] mean that thought, language and dialectic have sovereign power over this Relation? (Levinas 1994a: 128)

Levinas’ very own discourse is repeatedly said to name and hence breach the absolute distinction that is the very meaning of transcendence. This, however, is to miss the activity of language in Levinas. Language precisely allows and conducts relationship across difference, self and other addressing and responding to each other without absorbing one into the other in an appropriating unity. This is his model for ethics at large. For Levinas, ethics accords with and draws upon the role of language in Judaic traditions, among humans and toward God. In the exchanges of address and response, the difficult liberty is opened that both addresses and respects the other:

The true paradox of the perfect being consisted in his desiring equals outside himself […] and consequently action outside himself. This is why God transcended creation […] He created someone to talk to. (Levinas 1990: 140)


Copyright Shira Wolosky (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Halivni, David Weiss. 1991. Peshat and Drash. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Hartman, Geoffrey, and Sanford Budick (eds). 1986. Midrash and Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
    • Kramer, David C. 1990. The Mind of the Talmud. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Levinas, Emmanuel. 1994a. Beyond the Verse. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
    • Scholem, Gershom. 1961. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books.
    • Stern, David. 1998. Midrash and Theory. Urbana, IL: Northwestern University Press.
    • Wolosky, Shira. 2023b. The Sacred Power of Language in Modern Jewish Thought. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Works cited

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    • Baeck, Leo. 1948. The Essence of Judaism. New York: Schocken Books.
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