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Torah Language: A Hidden Barrier

One newton is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram of mass at the rate of one metre per second squared. F=M*A

or

The Einstein force is the apparent force acting on a particle of mass m in the S ‘ frame, and is defined by

Both of these definitions of “force” are useful, in their own way. Neither is necessarily “true” in any absolute sense, but they can certainly be “true” in the sense of coming from within a self-consistent set of mathematics.

But what is most amazing – and relevant for this post – is that the words for “Force” do not cleanly translate from Newtonian to Einsteinian Mechanics. They are two different languages. And so any conversion from one to the next is kludgy and imprecise, which is useless for anyone trying to seek some kind of absolute meaning.

We have this problem when reading the Torah. The underlying words are all in Hebrew – but have been translated into other languages that come with their own extensive baggage.

I have written before on the notion of Perfection, as well as on so-called Objective Reality. Neither concept is found in the Torah, and so those who believe in Perfection and Reality are imposing Greek ideals on a different text, language, and – at least with respect to Judaism – religion. (I have also, in other posts, shown that the same is true with the concepts of Peace, Humility and, most controversially, Love. The common understandings of what those mean are not found in the Torah, and are instead superimpositions of alien concepts that are added by the inherent limitations of translation.)

So naturally, when a Jonathan Sacks says, as quoted in a recent Member Feed post, that in the Torah, Peace trumps Truth, I take issue with both sides of the equation. In the Torah, positive relationships are more important than words and actions that cause pain and embarrassment. But Sacks, by taking the Greek understandings of these concepts, manages to reach conclusions that sound warm and fuzzy, but are in fact not at all supported by the text.

It would be analogous to calculating the velocity and mass using Newtownian mechanics, and concluding that the result is “force” as defined by Einstein. The language matters.

If we search for the word that we translate as “truth” in the Torah (the word is, in Hebrew, E-M-T, pronounced “Emet” – here is a tool that does it for you), the result is incredibly illustrative. For starters, the word is first used to describe a maidservant – a loyal maidservant. In the text, Hagar does everything that her master and mistress ask of her; she is loyal.

The word is also used to describe nations – people bound by common loyalties. Jacob thanks G-d for G-d’s Emet, His loyalty or consistent refusal to abandon Jacob. If you reread the Torah and substitute “Loyalty” for “Truth”, it makes a lot more sense.

And this usage is consistent in the text. With almost no exceptions (see below), nowhere in the Torah does the word that is usually translated as “truth” actually mean “truth” in the Greek and English definition of the word, to wit: “conformity with fact or reality; verity:” Which, if you think about it is not so crazy. If the Torah has no notion of objective reality, how could it have a notion of conformance to that reality?

When we strip out the superimposed meanings that came from translations into other languages and cultures, the text can shine out. Closely reading the Torah shows us that Judaism is not a religion interested in truly conforming to an objective reality; it is about growing relationships of all kinds, between our bodies and soul, between people, and between people and G-d.

P.S. There are three possible exception: Deut. 13:15, 17:4. If you read them, note the following word, “nachon” paired with the “emes.”The former translates more as “correct” or “certain” – a word which is closer to the Greek Truth, than Emet. So the combination means “loyal to the established/certain understanding.” You can search for how this much rarer word is used in the text at this link.

I would argue that the combination of “Emet” and “Nachon” (meaning “correct”) form a compound meaning: “And behold, if it be loyally correct that such abomination…”

The only real exception to the argument that “Emet” does not mean “Truth” the way we understand it, is a single usage: Deut. 22:20. “But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the damsel;” is an argument from inference: there is no evidence of virginity, so we have to conclude that the woman was not a virgin. Even this is a logical argument leading to a conclusion, not an assertion of an underlying real truth about her virginity. Nevertheless of the 53 instances of they three-word root word Emet in the Torah, this is the only one that can be read using the meaning that we now take for granted as being, somehow, a Judaic invention.

Comments are welcome!