This post is the eighth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.
The Name of God – Judaism and Hermeneutics: Structure and Meaning of Language (Inja Stracenski)
Inja is a gorgeous German woman living in Sydney and doing research on the ethics of Spinoza. She is a Consultant Philosopher, which is interesting in and of itself, and you can view her profile here: . This hour with Inja was a fabulous reminder of how language captures meaning, sometimes in a negative sense rather than a positive one. As discourse around the invisible and ‘inexpressible’ develops, major philosophical assumptions become embedded in the grammar and etymology of its terms which, ironically, become invisible to the speakers of that language.
Inja illustrated this in her paper by examining the words for God found in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. In Hebrew language, to name something is to describe it, as opposed to the Greek and Latin predisposition for using words to label. This is part of a more general dynamic of the Hebrew language to articulate the Hebrew way of relational thinking. Naming God in Hebrew can in itself be an act of worship, or at least the acknowledgement of who God is, as opposed to an impersonal identification of an object.
Of the different examples Inja gave, I was most intrigued by the Hebrew habit of naming one thing at a time about God. That is, there are many words employed throughout the Old Testament to (S)he who is beyond us, but only one aspect of God is referred to at any one time. God is known in the particular, in a great variety of ways. Western thinking would then seek to systematise this plurality into a single overarching term, but the Hebrew resists this. I like this way of talking about God. I can ‘know’ God in the particular, particularly through my experience of the divine, but I actually have no access to the universal – that is God’s domain.
Earlier in the conference program, Inja was sitting in front of me to listen to Tim Chappell’s second lecture on Varieties of Knowledge, at which I asked a question about the epistemology of love. At the close of the lecture, Inja leaned over her shoulder and quietly mentioned to me that in the shema – ‘love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself’ – the Hebrew word for love there might also be translated ‘knowledge’. Later in her own paper, she elaborated to say it could even, by extrapolation, mean ‘worship’. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Cool.