Tuesday, December 26, 2006

on language and lomdus: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, lashon kodesh, and the Brisker derech

I don’t want to take anything away from Baruch’s encouragement to avoid jargon and speak in plain English, but I think there is also something to be said for the value of jargon. One of the prominent theories debated in the field of linguistics is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity. The theory states that language is not just a medium through which we express our thinking, but language itself shapes our thoughts, experiences, and perception of reality. Sapir wrote, “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation…The words in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached.”

Based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it becomes easier to understand the importance of the Hebrew language and its designation as “lashon kodesh” (see Rambam, Shmos ch 30). Language has an influence on thought; only a holy language could be the vehicle that gives rise to holy thought. It is tempting to read Rashi in this week’s parsha in this light as well – when revealing himself to his brothers, Yosef stresses that it is “his mouth” which is addressing them, which Rashi takes to mean that Yosef spoke to them in lashon kodesh. Perhaps it was not the words themselves which were important in that dialogue, but Yosef's revelation that his worldview was one shaped by lashon kodesh and not a secular language.

Coming closer to our own time, every field has its jargon which shapes its contours, and I doubt that Torah learning is any different. The conceptual methodology of the Brisker derech would probably be difficult to convey without the specialized terminology of gavra and cheftza, sibah and siman, ma’aseh and chalos, tzvei dinim, etc. R’ Chaim brought about not just a revolution in analysis, but a revolution in language. A sefer like the Birchas Shmuel could only have been written after the proper terminology to express the conceptual distinctions of R’ Baruch Ber already existed, but would not have been possible in an earlier historical era.

While R’ Chaim Brisker’s derech has become a staple of the yeshivishe learning, the derech of the Rogatchover is almost neglected. R’ Menachem Kasher’s works elucidating the Rogatchover’s writings do not offer lengthy conceptual expositions; rather, they read like a lexicon of terms, with gemaras drawn from all over shas to illustrate the terminology. Our appreciation of the Rogatchover is lacking not because his conceptual insight was so far beyond R’ Baruch Ber's or other great achronim, but because we lack mastery of the language needed to properly think in his derech.

I have no problem with translations and elucidations as a means to grasp the basic texts of Torah. However, I think one’s development as a talmid chacham depends on a mastery of certain terms and jargon not just as a means to express ideas in shorthand form, but because the terminology one uses ultimately has an impact on one's thought processes. At the same time we should be wary of jargon stifling creativiy and pushing thinking into well established boxes - must every sugya find sits focus in a chakira with a two dinim resolution? In the hammer's world everything else is a nail; if our set of language tools consists only of verbal hammers, you can be sure all we will find is nails to strike and no other problems.

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