Saturday, October 30, 2010

Holy Means Whole: According to Its Hebrew Etymology (Sort of)

I have read that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) believed that holy means whole from a secondary source. Recently, I found another secondary source that takes me closer to what his view was on the meaning of holy and in another later blog, I will add to these comments from Hirsch's own primary sources, when I have more time for research. His definition in this secondary source is interpreted to be "to prepare." This is seen as in contrast to "sanctified" or "separate."

His principles tell me that his material is worthy of more research. I'll deal with two of his principles in this blog. In the Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the compiler, Rabbi Matityahu Clark, mentions in his introduction that "by using his etymological system, Hirsch provides unusual insights on common Biblical words and phrases" (p. xi). To quote him further, using holy as one example of unusual insights, he says:

The word [qadosh] is usually translated as `sanctified' or `separated.' But Hirsch explains (in his commentary to Num. 11:18) that the root [qadosh] means `to prepare'
or `to be at the very height of being absolutely ready for all that is good' (p. xii).

This is very close to my understanding of holy as whole, because this is a major implication from it. To further this argument, it fits well with the ideas of the 1800s scholar, Richard Trench, when he develops a group of Greek words that are related both to preparedness and to being whole. I can't develop this fully now, but after reading Hirsch's commentary and going back over Trench's insights, I hope to develop this further in a later blog.

At this point, what I find most fanscinating is the description of Hirsch's principles for understanding the meaning of Hebrew words. Clark says that Hirsch repeatedly said that one should not look to foreign languages to find the meanings of words in Torah (the Law in Hebrew). It is also said that he does not deny borrowing from other languages, but he insists that Hebrew is a "self-contained entity" (p. xii). He also believed Torah (the Law in Hebrew) contained clear and not obscure language.

When I studied LAMP (Language Acquistion Made Practical), one of the most important aspects of the course was the emphasis on connecting with others. Some succeeded at this while others failed, as primarily illustrated on the mission field and as outlined by Dr. Donald Larson, one of the key thinkers behind the LAMP method developed by the Brewsters.

Larson recognized five core principles toward success or failure in connecting: 1) connection and disconnection, 2) someone else and you, 3) insiders and outsiders, 4) ease and difficulty and 5) learning and studying. Each of the these five areas has two options and principles that were reflected by both those who succeeded and by those who failed.

Those who emphasized the former principle in each case, as in connection rather than disconnection, succeeded in connecting with others. Those who emphasized the latter principle in each case, as in disconnection rather than connection, failed in connecting with others. Now relevant to our purpose are two of these success principles. The principles of insiders and outsiders and the principles of ease and difficulty.

Rabbi Hirsch recognizes an insider or internal integrity in Hebrew. He recognizes the need to connect with the language from an insider's perspective on their language rather than relying too much on an outsider's perspective on their language. I think the advantages are perhaps best illustrated by the dangers of an outsider's interpretation.

For example, Moses Ibn Ezra is a significant interpreter of the Hebrew language especially preceding the Middle Ages and the state of Hebrew scholarship in his day. He clearly asserts at that time that the greatest breakthroughs in scholarship of Biblical Hebrew are attributable to Arabic influence. His method relies heavily on Arabic and Aramaic cognates. Some of this was likely due to Arabic being a living language at that time, while Hebrew was not a living language. That means Arabic had the advantage of being a language you can learn and not just study. This advantage according to Larson's principles may have resulted though in a distortion in violation of other principles of connecting. That may be why some say Moses Ibn Ezra overstated a shared Hebrew-Arabic cultural heritage. Hirsch is able to avoid this overstatement by taking more seriously an insider's perspective.

Rabbi Hirsch also reflects a commitment to the idea of ease in his idea that Scripture is clear rather than obscure in its language. This means that one understands that for the native speaker things are not as obscure as they seem to the foreigner. But the foreigner must maintain a firm belief that another person's language is an easy as their own, given the same circumstances. Otherwise motivation drops and a connection with another culture is compromised. That person who is failing in connecting then relies more and more on the ease of their own language while stressing also the difficulty of another's language. Hirsch is able to avoid this problem as well.

Through these twin commitments, Hirsch's work reflects more of an insider's view of Hebrew and an ease of working with the language itself rather than a commitment to other languages being easier or less obscure. I think that is why his etymological system and his commitment to the meaning of individual letters needs to be taken seriously. It has an ease about it in using the language. Hebrew's etymology may not be like our own, but instead easier to use for those who grew up with it.

In any case, his study of etymology opens a new door to understanding Hebrew that may move us from an obliviousness about what holy means, beyond controversy over what it means and finally to an obvious position on what it means. If the ease at which he arrives at some definitions is any indication, then an easy insider meaning of holy may be just around a near corner.

In Christ,