On names, pictures, and souls

The Hebrew bible has over 19 different names for G_d. Although somewhat surprising to modern Jewish sensibility in which the professed “oneness” of G_d is ardently expressed by the ancient words of the Shema:

Hear, O Israel              Shema Yisra’el

The Lord is our God    Adonai Eloheinu

The Lord is one!          Adonai ehad!

The different verbal descriptions of G_d in the Hebrew bible are entirely consistent with the contextual linguistic distinction noted in the languages of so-called “primitive peoples” by Levy-Bruhl (How Natives Think) Lilien Clare translation 1966 .

“In the Bismarck Archipelago ‘there are no names for colours.  Colour is always indicated in the following way.  The object in question is always compared with another, the colour of which has been accepted as a kind of standard.  For instance, they will say: ‘This looks like, or has the colour of a crow.’  In the course of time, the substantive alone has been used in adjectival sense.” p. 148. (This is followed by all the different ways of saying “black”).

Applying his idea of “collective representation” to the concept of gods and G_d, the meaning of the words when applied to objects (Baal and Ashtherot) would have been much more than semantics, and although linguistically distinct labels for the Jewish G_d would be present and used with context, the “collective representation” would have been clear. One of the most common words for G_d is Elohim, itself a plural noun.  Some Christians have assumed this to be the trinity. Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish rabbi, philosopher, and author of the 14 books of Mishneh Torah, an exposition and interpretation of Jewish law, wrote on this subject in his philosophical treatise Guide for the Perplexed Ch. 2 p.86 :

“…I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries…”

Ambiguity and vagueness are present in this word: Elohim is cognitively represented as perhaps governance and power subject to appeal.

If it is permissible to paint G_d 19 different ways with words, why is the prohibition so strong against painting G_d with a picture? How important is it to remain faithful to the original collective representation of G_d, as opposed to a perhaps more developed abstract and generally inclusive name that might be other than the original collective representation?

There are in fact 2 different word pairs that are used for the likeness/image distinction. The first pair, demut/tselem occurs twice in Genesis: once when G_d makes Adam, and the second time when Seth is born.

Gen 1:26 “And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness;”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ;

Gen 5:3 “And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.”

וַיְחִי אָדָם, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ, כְּצַלְמוֹ; וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, שֵׁת.

Between the 2 translations, the words are interchanged, as if equivalent.  In the second word pair (fesel/temunah), we have one concomitant usage of the 2 words:

Exodus 20:3 “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;”

לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל, וְכָל-תְּמוּנָה, אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת–וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם, מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ

This is followed by several independent occurrences of the 2 words.

The rules are different for names and pictures. Levy-Bruhl talks about being unable to distinguish between image and reality in the “law of participation” and in “collective representation”. This was a time when mirrors did not exist. Images were hard to come by. But paintings did exist (Egypt), and even representations of G_d (or Elijah) were seen on ancient coins: as in honor one’s financial obligation to one another, as if one were using G_d’s name.

When the Torah speaks of man being made in G_d’s likeness, and Maimonides explains this to be “form” in an almost Platonic sense, one might think of “soul” – although this distinction might have been more clearly developed by Plotinus in neoPlatonism, a precursor to Christian thought.  If the likeness does refer to soul, as Levy-Bruhl points out in his quote from Tylor, the distinction is very clear – it is of the very origin of the concept:

“It is the representation of the “soul”, the starting point of the doctrine known as animism, the principles of which Tylor formulates thus: ‘It seems as though thinking men, as yet at a low level of culture, were deeply impressed by two groups of biological problems. In the first place, what is it that makes the difference between the living body and the dead one? What causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, death? In the second place, what are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions? Looking at these two groups of phenomena, the ancient savage philosophers probably made their first step to the obvious inference that every man has two things belonging to him, namely, his life and his phantom. These two are evidently in close connection with the body, the life as enabling him to feel and think and act, the phantom as being his image or second self; both, also, are perceived to be things separable from the body, the life as able to go away and leave it insensible or dead, the phantom as appearing to people at a distance from it. The second step…merely the combining the life and the phantom. As both belong to the body, why should they not also belong to one another, and be manifestations of one and the same soul?…”

There is some room for argument on the Jewish conception of the soul in the Torah, and how it develops over the course of the Tanakh.  But the Modeh Ani (a prayer initially found in a 1599 siddur but recited every morning by Jews worldwide retains this idea pretty clearly:

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

Modeh anee lefanecha melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bee nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha. (Click here for audio of a Modeh Ani song.)

I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully returned my soul to me; Your faithfulness is great.

If the primitive mind (and pardon the lack of political correctness here – simply Levy-Brown’s noting of a differential with modern sensibility in collective representation) is able to distinguish between physical body and soul, then how is it not able to distinguish between a carved image and G_d?  It is within the very history of Judaism, that our understanding of G_d develops, from a family G_d of Abraham, to a nation G_d of the 12 tribes of Israel, to an even more abstract and general concept.  The idea of a specific G_d that could be rendered object with power was gradually replaced by the not fully knowable G_d, whose current conception, if not omnipresent and omnipotent, is potent.

The nature of the problem might be linguistic, or the language reflecting the evolution of concept:  there is no present tense in Hebrew – as Levy-Bruhl points out, this is true with many primitive languages.  There is no word for is.  There are only descriptive adjectival participles (no person, just gender and number).  “I walk.” translates literally to “I walking”.  “G_d IS not an image.”  translates literally to “G_d no image.”  Identity operations are not linguistically present in the Hebrew present tense, only associations.

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