The Importance of Sacred Language

An especially compelling response to my piece, "Finding Language to Describe God," came from a person who asked to be identified only by his initials, BD. Dividing his response into three parts, he begins with a fundamental question: "Language to describe our most basic thoughts often eludes us; why should it be any easier when it comes to discussing our deepest beliefs? (Why should it be doable at all?)"

Continuing on, BD shares,

The Rabbi who can't describe his beliefs exactly as he'd like to is in good company with the portraitist who can't paint his pictures exactly as he'd like to, and the pianist who can't play his pieces exactly as he'd like to, and so forth. Even the mathematical logician who deduces with great clarity has his work motivated by underlying intuitions which he cannot describe with exact detail. In your particular case, the problem is compounded by both the limitations of your own linguistic abilities and the corresponding limitations of those of your readers/listeners. Maybe one direction you could explore is other types of (i.e. non-linguistic) limitations that you are experiencing. It sounds like there are certain limits to your own faith; for example: "I do not ascribe to the idea that the God can communicate with human beings in such a direct way, nor that God has such anthropomorphic a trait as speech." You also suggest more limits will be revealed in the near future: "My pursuit, in the coming weeks and months is to describe some theories I have developed about the Divine with the still-fresh eyes of a student. To some coming from more traditional religious orientations, these ideas may seem to be those of a non-believer."

I find BD's analogy particularly insightful because it affirms the distinction between the inability to fully articulate one's beliefs and the non-existence of that in which one believes. That the portraitist can't paint her pictures exactly as she'd like to does not imply the nonexistence of portraiture. That the pianist who can't play her pieces exactly as she'd like to does not mean that music was simply a figment of her imagination. That the mathematical logician was motivated by her intuitions does not mean that logic has ceased to exist -- or that it never existed in the first place.

It also suggests an approach that uses the limitations or boundaries of my beliefs to clarify that which I do believe. I find this approach quite helpful and look forward to using it in the future.

Nonetheless, I sense that BD understates the importance of language to describe the Divine -- and the need to hone my own. Language is one of the characteristics that defines us as human beings, distinguishing us from most other animals in kind, and in degree from the few other animals capable of such precise communication.

Rabbinic sages often referred to humans as 'creatures that speak.' While language that we find for sacred experience may be inadequate to convey the significance of that experience, it is upon us to search for those words.

In fact, I would suggest that the search for language to describe God and moments when we feel connection to God is itself a sacred pursuit. While that language may come to us in moments of silence, our ability to convey our experiences helps us enshrine them in our memories, to be accessed more readily at later points. Likewise, that search for language forces us to articulate the attributes of God (or the concepts of God in which we may not believe) with greater precision. Being able to describe our ideas and experiences enables us to gain a clearer understanding of them.

Moreover, I believe that we as human beings are ourselves sacred, marvelous, miraculous creatures. If God is an ordering force in the universe, then that Force is quite present in (or at least in the evolution that made possible) such sophisticated bodies and minds as we humans possess.

If an attribute that distinguishes us from the other animals with less sophisticated minds is speech, then the use of speech may itself be sacred and a result of God's presence. Drawing this idea to its natural conclusion, the search for language to describe God and all that we find sacred may be one of the holiest pursuits that a human can undertake.

Prayer is one manifestation of this search, providing language that quite literally sings throughout generations. But it is not the only one. So, too, in my religious orientation, is a machloket l'shem shamayim -- literally a debate for the sake of heaven -- over questions of belief and corresponding action.

This kind of debate or discussion is not intended to prove a point or achieve a particular outcome; it is done because the process of argumentation gives precision to language for human (and sacred) experience. It forces clarity on our understandings such that we can express them cogently in written or spoken word.

A debate for its own sake, about sacred topics and for the deeply human pursuit of understanding our world, actualizes so much of that which defines us as people. While our interlocutors may not be of the same set of beliefs -- and may inherently have to maintain other beliefs in order to push us to more effectively articulate our own -- such debate reveals how much we need language and partners with which to use it, even in the pursuit of a personal understanding of God. It is often together that we find personal meaning, and to deepen our communication while together, we often need language.

Perhaps we, in this moment, BD, are likewise engaged in such a machloket. You have, with great erudition and a strong command of logic, forced me to find language about language itself. You have pushed me to articulate my belief that humans are sacred and that language is one of their sacred attributes. While my search for a compelling understanding (and articulation) of God is in many ways personal, I do not think it can be conducted in isolation. Thank you for this sacred interchange.

This article represents only my own views and does not reflect the positions held by Hebrew College, the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, or any other organizations of which I am a part.