Truth and translatability
A Jewish Theology of the Other: Humanitas Lecture 2
In February 2012, the Chief Rabbi was the Visiting Professor in Interfaith Studies at Oxford University. As part of this Humanitas Programme, the Chief Rabbi delivered a series of evening lectures on the subject of ‘Making Space: A Jewish Theology of the Other’.
Johannes, thank you so much. Today I’m just the tiniest bit more relaxed than yesterday. So can I begin by telling you a story? I mean, if you wouldn’t mind. It’s an enormous privilege to be here at Oxford. I studied here in the early ’70s at New College, but I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. It was there in Cambridge when I was chairing the Jewish Society that I had the privilege of inviting over to Cambridge to address us, a great Oxford scholar the late Professor David Daube, I don’t know if any of you knew of him or knew him. Professor Daube was an extraordinary renaissance man who on his 60th birthday received Festschriften in three different subjects, Roman Law of which he was Regus Professor here, Old Testament studies and New Testament studies. He had a wonderful and mischievous sense of humour.
He asked me what I was studying, and I said I was studying Philosophy. He immediately said, “Oh, terrible, terrible thing, Philosophy. Give it up immediately. Philosophers are so ethereal and they never know what day of the week it is. No, you must give it up. I will illustrate this with a story.” He said, “Who is your favourite philosopher, Wittgenstein? I suppose.” Now you understand if you were studying Philosophy in Cambridge, in the late ’60s, as I was, your hero had to be Wittgenstein.
So he told me the following story. He said, “Wittgenstein was standing at the Oxford station, awaiting the London train and was immersed in metaphysical conversation with two of his colleagues, Professor H.L.A. Hart, and Elizabeth Anscombe. So immersed were they, in their philosophical speculations, that they entirely failed to notice the train as it drew into the station. They were still talking as people were getting on and off, and finally they looked up just as the train was about to leave.” I don’t know if you remember, those of you who remember Professor Hart will remember he had a rather strong Germanic accent. He said, “Professor Hart ran and heaved himself on board, and Elizabeth Anscombe, an enormous woman, ran and heaved herself on board, and Wittgenstein ran, but could not catch up with the train and was left standing at the station, watching it as it left for London. So disconsolate did he appear that a woman felt moved to come up to him and say, ‘Don’t worry, there will be another train in an hour’s time.’ He turned to her and said, ‘But you don’t understand. They came to see me off.’”
So always pause and think where you were going. Now. I think I didn’t pause yesterday and I was going at a great rate of knots and therefore, probably rather too fast. So today I’m going to slow the pace a little bit. I want us to pause today to think about an extremely fundamental issue. Which if we become clear about it, and I hope you will have a little of the sense of revelation and discovery that I had, then we will think about the interfaith encounter in a different way. Yesterday, I argued that there is inner biblical evidence that God loves diversity. He loves biodiversity, which He creates at the beginning of time and He loves human diversity. That, I argued was the meaning of the story of the Tower of Babel. If we read it, not as an enclosed narrative, but in the wider context of Genesis 10 and the total context of Genesis 1 to 12.
However, had I been sitting where you are sitting yesterday, I would have raised a fundamental objection to what I have been saying. This on simple logical grounds. Let us limit ourselves for the duration of this lecture series to the Abrahamic monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Now two things are pretty obvious. Judaism, Christianity and Islam disagree on fundamental issues. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a Judaism, a Christianity and an Islam. So they disagree. It follows, therefore, that at most only one of them can be correct. Therefore, how can I possibly argue as I did yesterday, that God loves religious diversity. If truth is not diverse, if truth is singular.
I alluded yesterday to the oldest of all Jewish jokes, the rabbi who is mediating a family dispute, and he sits in with one of his disciples present, and he hears the husband’s story for an hour, all about his complaints about his wife. He concludes, “You are right.” The next day, he spends an hour listening to the wife’s complaint about the husband. And he at the end, turns to the wife and says, “You are right.” When the wife has left, the disciple turns to the Rabbi and says, “How can the husband be right and the wife be right?” And the Rabbi looks at the student and says, “You’re also right.”
Now, that is a joke. Reality is not like that, and therefore, how can I confront the obvious objection that, God may love diversity, but surely God also loves truth. God is not a relativist. At least not the way you and I read the Bible. But one way or another, how can we, as it were, rise beyond the challenge that this relativises religious truth. That is the obvious objection any believer, a Jew would say, “How can I say that there is validity in Christianity, Islam, and the same if I were a Christian or if I were a Muslim?”
However, that is the lesser of two objections, because a similar objection could be made much more sharply. I remember I never met the man. There was a Professor Sir Hermann Bondi. I didn’t know him. I don’t know if any of you did. He was an Austrian Jewish mathematician who came to Britain just before the war. Had a chair at King’s College London, later Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, and President of the British Humanist Society. I mentioned the name because I remember years ago, decades ago, he wrote a letter to The Times, which I recall went something like this, “Judaism, Christianity and Islam all make different and incompatible claims. Therefore, only one of the three can be true, but we don’t know which one. Therefore, logically, if two of the three are definitely false, it would be logical to conclude of each of them, that it is false.” This was his QED that religion is self-refuting.
So at most one of the three can be true and maybe goes the sceptical suggestion that in terms of probability, if two of the three are false then for any one of the three, the probability is that it is false. Now that is a pretty impressive challenge. Obviously I regard neither of these challenges as valid, but I want in this lecture to say why. Obviously the immediate superficial onset is to say, who says that your concept of truth, which may be very workable for science and may be workable for mathematics is the same concept of truth that we can apply to matters of the spirit? That would be a nice, easy, simple way. But I want us to investigate a little more deeply.
So let me begin here with another little story. 16 years ago, I was privileged with others to receive something called the Jerusalem Prize, which is given in Jerusalem on Jerusalem day. After the prize is given, the President of the State of Israel invites the prize winners to a reception at the president’s house. The President of Israel at the time was a rather assertive secularist. He, in his little words of congratulation to me, which he luckily spoke in Hebrew so that my friends who were there didn’t understand what he was saying, said something like this, “I see Rabbi Sacks has been given his award for his contributions to religious education. Now religious education” he said in Hebrew, “it’s better than nothing, but,” and proceeded to say how, what we really needed is lots of secular Jewish schools, which teach people to speak Hebrew and forget about all the religion nonsense. Now I came back and had one of my regular breakfast with the Israeli Ambassador. I said to him, “Mr. Ambassador, now I understand why, how it is that after 4,000 years, the Hebrew language does still not contain a word that means tact.”
Am I right Professor Stroumsa? , if you speak to an Israeli and you say, “Now what’s the Hebrew for tact?” They say, “Tact, ze tact.” That’s it. They have to use the English word because there is no Hebrew word. So from this, I think we can see that not every language slices up reality in the same way. It’s a long time since I studied Aristotle. But at the very heart of Aristotle’s ethics is a virtue or a type of human being that he called the megalopsychia. I don’t know how you translate that into English. But I always felt that the megalopsychia was somebody like, do you remember there was a writer of short stories in the Edwardian era, H. H Munro, who wrote short stories under the name of Saki? There were two Edwardian gentlemen in one of his stories who have half an hour to spare in which they’re not quite sure what to do. And one says to the other let’s stroll around looking effortlessly superior.
I think that’s what the megalopsychia did. I mean very gracefully, but effortlessly superior. How do you translate that concept as a virtue into a Judeo Christian ethic or the other way around? How do you translate a central virtue in the Judeo Christian ethic, namely humility? How do you translate that into the ethical world of Aristotle? Those things just don’t go. They are not translatable into one another. The Rabbis themselves in the third or fourth century seem to have been aware of this.
I’m sure it isn’t quite as simple as this, but the Talmud in the Tractate of Megillah refers to a famous document, the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into another language. The translation done in the days of Ptolemy II that we call the Shivim the Septuagint because of the 70 or 72 scholars who put it together. According to the Talmud, the Rabbis deliberately mistranslated certain verses because they felt that, were they to translate them literally they would be unintelligible to a Greek readership. One of the examples it gives is the opening line of Genesis two Vechal Elokim bayom hashevi melachto asher asa God finished on the seventh day, the work that he had made. They translated that into Greek to read and God finished on the sixth day.
What was it that the Talmud is assuming the translators thought the Greeks would not understand? The answer is very simple, that it is not difficult to understand divine creativity in terms of a six day period in which God brings the universe into being, that is creative. But how is the seventh day when God does nothing? How can that be part of the process of creation? How can rest, cessation of work be creative? The Rabbis felt that a Greek could not understand that idea. Indeed, if you read the Hellenistic writers on Judaism, both in Greek and Latin, none of them understands the Sabbath. They thought Jews rested on the seventh day because they were lazy. Not because there was something creative about ceasing from work and whatever it is that we do on the Sabbath. So there are words that are not translatable from one language to another. That is extremely important for us to understand.
I want us to stay with this idea and see how deeply it goes. If you read the Hebrew Bible or you read Jewish history, there is a fair amount of suffering in it. One wit once suggested that you could give a simple three sentence definition of every Jewish festival, which goes as follows, “They tried to destroy us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
So there’s a lot of suffering going on. You’ve got slavery in Egypt. You have the destruction of the temple. You have the book of Lamentations. You have Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon. We sat and wept as we remembered Zion.” You even have a verse hit at both Judaism and Christianity, Psalm 22, “keli keli lama asavtani” “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” There are human disasters, suffering and a sense of forsakenness. Therefore, I ask very simple question. What is the Hebrew word for tragedy?
And there is none. And that is odd because that’s a word that you might’ve thought the biblical writers had a certain amount of use for, but there is no Hebrew word for tragedy. There are words for bad things happening, asson for instance, misfortune, catastrophe, but tragedy, no, and so when Hebrew was revived as a spoken language in the 19th century, it simply had to borrow the Greek word, I mean, or the Latin word. The Hebrew for tragedy is tragedia. It had to be lifted from the Greek. Why is it that biblical Judaism has no word for tragedy? Tragedy is a central concept in the Greece of Athens. Sophocles and Aeschylus are the world’s great masters in tragedy. It is absolutely fundamental to Greek worldview, but Hebrew does not have a word for it. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story called Averroës’s Search in which Averroes is translating Aristotle’s Rhetoric. And he comes across these two words, tragedy and comedy and try as he might and he searches the world and the world’s literature and he can’t work out what these words mean.
So here is a central concept in Greek culture, which does not exist in biblical Hebrew. Let me give you an even more surprising example, which I was completely unaware of until some of my books had to be translated into Hebrew. And my goodness, me, we hit problems that I never thought about.
How would we describe the God of Abraham? You know, Judah Halevi the 11th century, a Jewish philosopher or anti philosopher talks about the God of Abraham and the God of Aristotle. Martin Buba talks about “I vow” as against “I eat”. The God of Aristotle, of Spinoza even of Einstein is an impersonal God whereas a first call, as a prime mover, et cetera, et cetera. But the God of Abraham, the God who listens to prayer, the God who speaks is what we would call a personal God. That’s what every theologian calls him.
Now I had no idea that that simple, basic phrase, a personal God is actually untranslatable into Hebrew. Because Hebrew has no word for person. That really is extraordinary. If you think about it, I mean here we are, we are created in the image of God. God speaks to us as persons. And in terms of personal relationship. B’ni b’chori Yisrael God says to Moses to say to Pharaoh, “my child, my first born Israel”. I mean these interpersonal relationships, “v’erastich li l’olam” God says to Israel through the prophet Hosea, “I will betroth you to me forever”. These are personal relationships. And yet there is no word for person in biblical Hebrew.
So we have to go back and ask, what is the word person? What is the etymology of that word? And of course the etymology of the word is from the Latin persona, which refers to the mask worn by an actor in a play. And hence, the role that is played when we see life as the audience in a theatre, watching a play and watching the actors wearing masks.
Now In Judaism, there can be no metaphor which involves theatre because that doesn’t exist in Judaism. The very idea that we’re defined by our mask and the role we play on a stage is cut through directly. When you remember, God says to Samuel, when Samuel thinks he’s found one of Jesse’s sons who looks the part of the King, and God says, God does not see as human beings see. Human beings look at appearances, whereas God sees the heart?
So the idea that we play roles on a stage and we wear masks, it doesn’t make any sense at all in a culture in which God knows us from the inside and hence masks and playing roles belong to a different universe. Lionel Trilling has a very interesting passage on this, in his book, Sincerity and Authenticity on why the Rabbis had no idea of the heroic. Because the hero is somebody who lives his life as if an actor upon a stage. And in Judaism, you don’t live life as an actor on a stage, you live life in proximity to God who knows you better than you know yourself.
And let us take this a little further still. And I am taking you along a journey for a reason. There is a metaphor that dominates our concepts of knowledge, what metaphor do we use whenever we use phrases or sayings for knowledge or truth. They are all, if you think about it, visual metaphors. We talk about foresight, insight, hindsight, somebody makes an observation. There is a person with vision. The very word idea comes from the same Greek root as the word video. Truth is something that is seen. In fact, if you finally work out what your lecturer is trying to say to you, you will say, ah, I see. So systemically through English and through Greek, where this metaphor comes from, our concept of knowledge is based on the metaphor of site.
Now, if you look in the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, and the Zohar, the classic of Jewish mysticism use a different metaphor. But if you look at the Babylonian Talmud, for instance, and certainly if you think about the Bible, you will see that the metaphor is completely different. What is the Hebrew for, to understand. Shema – hear, to listen. When the Talmud wants to say, infer this from that, it says “shema mina” hear from this. When it wants to bring a proof, it says”ka shema” come and hear. If somebody doesn’t agree with your logic, “Lo sh’mia ley” he couldn’t hear it. When we say that X implies Y “koma sh’malon” this lets us hear the following. And when we talk about the received wisdom, we call it mipi Hashmua that which has been heard.
So we have here a completely and systemically different metaphor, a metaphor of hearing. And you will understand that this is what made Greece of antiquity and Israel of antiquity. What Isaiah Berlin used to call incommensurable. They belong to different non intersecting universes. Athens was a supremely visual culture, whose high achievements, lay in art and architecture and theatre and spectacle. And it was through and through a visual culture. Judaism actually on principle reject a visual culture because it believes in a God who cannot be seen. A God who therefore can only be known by being heard. Hence all those emphatic statements in the Bible where Moses says it, Sinai lo reitem kol temunah . When the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai, you saw no form, just a voice and why the supreme declaration of faith in Judaism is Shema Yisrael, hear O Israel.
Indeed the word ‘hear’, the root sh-m-a in Hebrew, is as rich in its resonances, as the metaphor of sight is in its resonances. Shema in biblical Hebrew means to listen to hear, to strive to understand, to understand, to internalise and to respond in action. I once pointed out that it is extraordinary, in Judaism we’ve got a lot of commands in the mosaic books, 613 of them according to tradition. You would have thought that a culture that contains 613 commandments must contain what verb? To obey. You would’ve thought you can’t have a culture with that many commands that doesn’t have a word meaning to obey, but Biblical Hebrew has no verb that means to obey. And therefore, when again, Hebrew was being revived in the 19th century and you needed a word to obey, an Aramaic word was adopted letzayet which is not a Hebrew verb, but an Aramaic one. What is the word that means obey in Hebrew? Shema. But Shema doesn’t just mean to obey it means to hear, to understand and so on.
So you will see the concept of blind obedience – what Kant called heteronomy – cannot exist in Judaism. I mean, he takes Judaism as the paradigm case of heteronomous culture. And that just shows that Kant really did not understand the untranslatability or the in commensurability of Hebrew, because there can be no concept of blind obedience in Judaism, because there’s no verb that means just to obey.
So we have, I hope, now began to understand that the key concepts of major civilisations may not be translatable into one another and that Greece and Israel of antiquity, the world of Athens and the world of Jerusalem were two profoundly different cultures that were untranslatable into one another, and now comes, and here I’m speaking way, way outside my expertise so please correct me immediately if I’m wrong. But here comes what physicists call or cosmologists call a singularity and extraordinary unrepeatable event. And that extraordinary unrepeatable event is the birth of Christianity, which brings together the world of Greece and the world of Israel. We know what language, according to the New Testament, Jesus spoke.
Whenever we have his ipsissima verba he is speaking Aramaic. When he speaks about God, he uses the Aramaic word “aba” when he tells the young girl to get up he says “tallit akum“, when he is on the way to the crucifixion, and he is quoting Psalm 22 “eli eli lama zavachtani, he is quoting the Aramaic translation of Psalm 22, the Targum. Jesus speaks Aramaic the language spoken by Jews in the land of Israel in the first century, and would have read and understood the Bible in Hebrew and in its Aramaic translation.
Hence, the unique irony of the fact that all the early Christian texts were written in Greek, not only were all the early Christian texts written in Greek, the Bible that the early Christians read was in Greek. It was the Septuagint, not until Jerome that people start really going back to look at the Hebrew. Now there is, as I have been able to discover, and I may be quite wrong, there is no established scholarly consensus as to whether or not Jesus spoke Greek. I don’t mean a few words from everyday conversation of the kind that you might need in a multi-ethnic Israel, but whether he actually spoke Greek in the sense of being able to understand the sacred scriptures of the religion that he founded.
So here we have two fundamentally radically, profoundly different cultures, Athens and Jerusalem. And you have Christianity which mediates between them and creates a new synthesis of them. But the founder of Christianity belongs to one and the sacred scriptures of Christianity belong to the other. So we have now a problem that has not fully been recognised for the serious problem that it is, because of our illusion that languages are translatable into one another. Now I’m pretty sure you could do a reasonable translation into most languages of the world for a sentence like ‘pass the marmalade’ or whatever else you get Google Translate to translate. But whether you could translate from one language to another concepts as profound as truth, faith or knowledge. Whether, those are translatable from one culture to another seems to me to be an entirely open question. And now I have to ask you to do two little thought experiments here.
Let us think about thinking itself. Let us think about the pursuit of knowledge. Will this work as a metaphor? A lot of, I imagine a lot of, I don’t imagine you do, but a lot of people out there spend a fair number of hours each day, watching a television screen. That’s one way you come to know about the world and how does that happen? You’re in one domain, one bit of reality and you are looking at another bit of reality in a different dimension, as it were. You are not actually in the… unless you’re watching yourself on television, but you’re not actually in the world that you’re watching. So you can imagine the process of knowledge as a detached spectator watching stuff on a television screen. That is roughly what the Greeks believed Zeus was doing from the top of Mount Olympus.
He was watching the world’s greatest soap opera called Humanity. I mean, this is in the days before Simon Cowell was invented. And I think that’s one possible metaphor for knowledge, you are looking out at a world and you want to make sure that what you are seeing is actually there. What you are seeing on your screen is actually there.
And of course, this is the metaphor more or less. Plato didn’t have television, but that’s roughly the image he uses in that famous section of the Republic, his metaphor of the cave. People are sitting in the cave they’re chained, they’re prisoners, they’ve never been out in daylight. They’re watching the play of shadows on the wall and suddenly one of them is set free and he is able to go outside the cave. And he then realises that what he’s seeing on the wall, our sense perceptions, let us say are not actually real. The reality is out there in the sunlight so that we have to develop a special kind of sight to see the objective reality behind mere appearances. And that is obviously a visual metaphor.
You are observing and the fact of the things observed, what you have in here is all subjective. What’s out there is all objective. And the search for knowledge is to make sure that your subjective impression corresponds to objective reality out there. Does that make a reasonable way of describing one way? We are spectators of a world in which we do not directly participate. And we try to make sure that our subjective impression of the world corresponds to its objective reality. And that is the metaphor of knowledge is sight. Once I can check that the world really is as it seems to be on my television screen, then I have genuine knowledge. That is one way of thinking about knowledge, but I want you to think now about a different way of knowledge and see whether this makes sense to you.
Have you ever had the following situation? You’ve got a boss or a teacher or a… I don’t know, your local vicar or your local Rabbi. And you’ve known them for years, they’ve known you for years. You’ve seen them in action. You think you know them, and then something happens. I don’t know, you bump into one another unexpectedly. Let’s say on holiday, or they’re visiting you and you’re in crisis. You’re visiting them, they’re in crisis. Whatever it is, you sit together, you have a coffee, you have a whiskey, you talk into the small hours of the night. You talk and talk and talk and you suddenly realise, I never really knew that person before. Now I really think I know.
I always thought his aloofness was because he was a snob. Now I understand it’s because he was shy. Or I always thought his jokiness was because he was just not that serious. But now I realise that’s an act he puts on and really he feels things very intensely. Have you had an experience like that? If you do, then you might well come away from that deep encounter and say, I never really knew that person before. Now I think I do. Now, that’s another kind of way of thinking about knowing. Does that make sense to you? And that has much more to do with listening than with appearances. And I think we can begin to understand that there might be two different kinds of knowledge. One based on detached, one based on observation, another based on empathy. One based on distance and detachment, one based on intimacy. One based on a kind of impersonal stance, but the other utterly personal. And one form of knowledge is gained by observing and the other is by engaging, by communicating, by speaking and listening.
If you can keep those two very separate concepts of knowledge apart, then we can begin to see why Greek culture favoured that one, observing and the culture of ancient Israel favoured the other one, the knowledge that comes from speaking and listening. And they are different kinds of knowledge. And that is why, for instance… this is the famous knowing in the biblical sense. And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and she gave birth to a child. Tom Stoppard calls it at the beginning of Arcadia, carnal knowledge. But you understand. It says: “V’Adam yada et Chava ishto.” Adam knew. So clearly the word, da’at, the Hebrew for knowledge, the Hebrew that we translate as knowledge, doesn’t actually mean knowledge in that platonic sense, it means intimacy. When we read at the end of Exodus, chapter two, when the Israelites are enslaved and it says, God saw the Israelites, “vayeda Elokim.” And God knew. And what the word there means is not that He knew something He didn’t know before, God knew this all along, Rashi is right to translate the word know there as meaning God was moved to compassion.
So the Hebrew word that we translate likely as knowledge is something altogether different from what the Greeks would have understood as knowledge, namely the kind of thing they pursued in those two eminent disciplines… the disciplines in which Greece bequeathed the whole of humanity, namely science and philosophy. Those are Greek accomplishments and they are to this day. And clearly the kind of knowledge talked about in the Hebrew Bible is not that kind of knowledge at all.
And it follows therefore and to put this in slightly technical philosophical terms, Donald Davidson has written a book… the logician, has written a book with this title. The Greeks are interested in the subjective and the objective. But the Hebrews were interested in what philosophers call the intersubjective. What Martin Buber called the sephischen menlishkeit. Which I think would you translate as, the between, the intersubjectivity. In other words, what the Greeks were interested in knowing was truths and facts, what the Jews were interested in was relationships. And those are two very different spheres.
Now, what does a scientist want to discover? A scientist wants to discover universal laws, which allow us to identify regularities and hence arrive at predictabilities. That is essential to the scientific enterprise. We know roughly how it began. It began, as far as we can tell, in the Tigris Euphrates Valley of low lying, flat land, subject to periodic flooding. And all ancient cultures from that part of the world had a flood narrative. Now, I think it would help if you are an investment manager today to know exactly when the next stock exchange crash is about to happen. But more or less in parallel it helped if you were a farmer in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley to know when the next flood was going to happen. Somebody, some unknown genius, discovered that the sun rises at a different point of the horizon each day and there is a correlation between the sun being at a particular point in the horizon and the danger of inundation. And with that in Mesopotamia, the calendar was born. And we still have all the marks of that Mesopotamian hexadecimal system based on sixes. We still define the heavens in the circle. And in terms of 360 degrees. We still define the day in terms of six hours of each quadrant, the six hours before midday, after midday and et cetera, et cetera.
And all of this is done by observing. There is no way that the ancient Mesopotamian and astronomer first thought about the calendar could have affected the movement of the planets or the occurrence of floods. It’s not a matter of affecting. You are not a shaper of what happens but you can predict it because you have identified regularities. However, when it comes to the human domain, it is altogether different. Humans, even with the best will in the world, are not terribly predictable. And at least not as much as the movement of the sun and the stars.
Now, the unpredictability of humans is quite a difficult problem for humanity to solve. I mean, huge amounts of work being done on this. I don’t know if you’ve read Martin Novak’s new book, Super Cooperators? It’s an enormous fascination to evolutionary biologies. How did humans ever learn to cooperate? We are on the one hand independent. We are in the image of God, but we are interdependent. It is not good for man to be alone. So how do we create relationships of mutuality that are sufficiently predictable to be able to create order out of the potential chaos. That is the human condition that we are seeing in parts of the world today, that Hobbs called a state of nature, the war of all against all. How can you get people to be reliable?
I have a friend in Jerusalem who calls his plumber “The Messiah”. Sorry, this is a Jewish way of seeing things. We expect him daily but he never comes. So what can you do to create reliability and predictability within human affairs? And there are obviously two ways. You can either force people to act the way you want them to, or you can bribe people to act the way you want them to. The way of the state, the way of the market, power, wealth and so on.
But supposing you don’t want to resort to those two things because the use of force or the use of bribery, treats people as means instead of ends, it doesn’t respect them as having equal dignity with you. What do you do if your best friend wants to borrow a book that you actually want to see back again? What do you do? How do you create a relationship of trust? And two philosophers, not that many, only two as far as I can see, understood what you need. One of the philosophers was Nietzsche in a book of his called The Genealogy of Morals. The other was Hannah Arendt in a book she wrote called The Human Condition. Those two philosophers were unusual in seeing that human cooperation and our victory over the unpredictability of the human situation depends on a single institution, which is making promises. It is making promises, giving your word and honouring your word that allow free human beings to construct relationships of trust that allow us to create order out of the chaos of humanity. So just stay with that idea of a promise.
It was the Oxford philosopher, the next Wittgenstein, called J L Austin, who very famously pointed out that when we make a promise, we are using language in a highly specialised way. He called that a performative utterance. When you make a promise, you’re not using language to describe something, you are using language to create something. And what are you creating, an obligation?
When the judge says, or whoever says it, the court is now in session, he’s not describing something, he’s actually doing it. When a Jewish bridegroom says to his bride under the wedding canopy, “behold, you are betrothed to me according to the laws of Moses in Israel,” he’s not describing something, he’s doing it. He’s not describing a marriage, he is entering into a marriage. And that is what happens when we make promises, we use language to create. And that is how free moral agents cooperate and are able to rely on one another because they are capable of entering into obligations with one another, making promises to one another.
This now explains why Judaism, which is not interested in the predictability of the natural universe, the way scientists and philosophers were, but is interested in the human condition. Why the concept of promise is absolutely the key concept in Judaism, except that in Judaism, it is a mutual promise. A and B engage, enter into mutual promises towards one another. And that is what Hebrew calls a covenant, a brit. And that is the central theological concept around which biblical Judaism is constructed.
There’s something very interesting. I don’t know if you ever noticed this. I mentioned yesterday that we have two creations in Genesis. We have Genesis one or Genesis one to three, and then we have this world destroyed and then begun again in the days of Noah and the new terms and conditions for the human new universe in Genesis nine. Now we know from Buber Rosenzweig, Umberto Cassuto and various other people that when the Bible wants to signal a theme it uses a motif word, it uses a word a number of times, so that the Bible which is being heard, people hear those chimes, those repetitions. And a key word will usually be used three or five or seven times, seven in particular. And Genesis one has one key word that appears seven times.
Tov, [meaning] good. Genesis one has the word ‘good’ seven times. Genesis nine has one word that appears seven times. What is that word? Covenant, [meaning] brit. So this new world that God begins with Noah is different from the world He began in Genesis one, which is all about goodness as a property of things, because it turns out that most things are good, but human beings are only iffy on that score. So no longer is it a universe predicated on the natural goodness of the natural universe, this is predicated on covenant, on human beings being able to enter into obligations with God and God into obligations with them so that they give and honour their word.
And now we understand those key words in Judaism. Let us take the three key words. Knowledge, da’at, which in Hebrew doesn’t mean knowledge in a cognitive sense, but in the personal sense of intimacy and empathy. Now let us take the word, emunah, faith. It appears in aleph-mem-nun. Emunah, faith, those three letters mean a craftsman who is faithful to his materials. They mean a nurse who is faithful to the infant in her or his charge. The word emunah doesn’t mean faith. It means faithfulness. It means loyalty, fidelity, honouring your commitments.
The key covenantal institution is marriage. So being that emunah is clearly related to marriage. It means not committing adultery, not walking away from your partner when things get tough, it means hanging in there and being true to one another. That is what it is about. That’s what God means when He says “v’erastich li b’emunah, I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.” I will be faithful to you. Could you please try and be faithful to Me? That is what it’s all about. And now we come to the word emet, truth. When Jacob says, katonti mikol hachasadim umikol ha’emet I am too small. I feel small in the light God, of all the kindness and truth You have done to me. He doesn’t mean God never told him a lie. What he means is God did what He said He was going to do. He honoured His promise. He is emet. He is truthful, meaning He honours His promises. He keeps His word.
And so now we can see that the words, which in the West, which owes its whole cognitive stance to the world of ancient Greece, the words, knowledge, truth, and faith are all cognitive words. But in Hebrew they’re equivalents, da’at, emunah and emmet are not cognitive words at all. They are about morality, about relationships, about covenant, about the bonds we form with words.
And now we go back to the question with which I began. How can we say that Judaism, Christianity and Islam may each have their own integrity in the eyes of God if only one of them can be true. And to a believer, only one of them can be true. And to a sceptic, none of them is true, but they can’t all be true. Now that makes sense if you think about truth the way the Greeks thought about truth, the way a scientist thinks about truth. It can’t both be Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Although you know some Tuesdays that feel as if they are Wednesday and Thursday. We’d just come back from a trip to Australia. We were flying from Melbourne in Australia to Los Angeles in California. It’s a 14-hour flight. We leave Monday afternoon. We arrive Monday morning. We arrive before we leave. And, you think to yourself, this is not Monday morning, this is Tuesday morning. But, turns out to be, it can’t be both, and it is actually Monday morning.
But, now consider the following multiple choice questions. Tick box A or B or C, but only one. And, I’m doing this question for myself. Am I English? Or am I British? Or, am I European? Or, am I just a human being? Am I a son, or a husband, or a father, or for that matter, a grandfather? Am I Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth? Am I Humanitas Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford? Or, am I just somebody trying to make sense of it all? Tick only one box.
Well, I’m sorry, that’s nonsense, because anyone who can say that doesn’t understand the logic of those relationships. I am every one of those things. We all have multiple relationships. Sometimes they conflict. Last night they conflicted. My duties as visiting professor conflicted with my being Chief Rabbi because I am host of a rabbinical conference that’s happening down in Bournemouth. But, you can handle those conflicts. That’s okay, that’s life.
So, can we all be related to God? The answer is yes. Can God be related to all of us? The answer is yes. And, we only thought otherwise by using a criteria of truth, and knowledge, and epistemology that owes everything to Greece and nothing to the world of ancient Israel from which Abraham came, who is after all the common factor in the three Abrahamic monotheisms. If truth is factual then A and not A can’t both be true, but if it is relational, they can. I am a child of my parents, I am a husband to my wife, I am a father to my children, and to my grandchildren. I am Saba. And each relationship is different. I wouldn’t even think of comparing them. But, each of them is a relationship and each is true of me and them. There are bonds between me and each of them.
How did the confusion arise? I’ve tried to explain: Ancient Greece, one culture. Israel, another. And, the simple belief that they are translatable into one another. However, as Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” And religion is poetry. It is not prose.
Now, people didn’t realise this, as I say, because the first Christian was a Jew who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, but the first Christian documents were written in Greek. And the Hebrew Bible itself was read in translation in Greek. And, Hebrew into Greek, Greek into Hebrew, doesn’t go. So, Greece gave the world, as I say, philosophy and science, the greatest achievements of the human mind. Hebrew Bible gave the world the idea of covenant. The idea of inter-subjectivity. The idea that by giving and honouring our word, we can build a world based on fidelity and trust and love and forgiveness. So, these are two different things. Two different kinds of truth. And, thank heavens, we have both.
Thank you very much indeed.