Multiple Layers of Meaning–Guest Article by David Minor

(Ideally, I’d study daily with David Minor, a top-level computer expert, amazingly gifted guitarist, incisive thinker, Torah scholar and a good friend.  As it is, we’re only able to remotely (via Skype) meet several days a week.  I hope you’ll find his thoughts and analysis as intriguing as I do — RHZ)

Multiple Layers of Meaning

 We all use the internet these days, whether on purpose or not, much of human communication and content passes through the internet. Those who have studied it technically know that the internet is based on a seven layer model. Each layer has a different technology which interfaces with the layers above and below it. These layers start from the electrical and optical wires all the way up to the highest layer, which is what our browsers and devices use to communicate. But of these seven layers, one layer is blatantly missing. The layer of content, or meaning. Without this layer, all of the other technical layers are worthless. Who cares how fast your internet connection is if it can’t transmit any meaningful information! This attitude of focusing on the medium and ignoring the message is endemic to our society. In fact, the entire “modern” world view is based on the predicate that the laws of physics, evolution and life are fundamentally “random” and meaningless. We study the syntax of the book of life (DNA) in every detail, we learn how to write valid sentences in this syntax (genetic engineering), but we never ask “what’s the content of the message”, what is the purpose and meaning behind all of this amazing living literature! The simple fact, that yes, life could, after all, have a purpose, a meaning, a message is essentially a forbidden topic in the modern world.

To return to our 7 layer internet model. If we included the content as another layer we would then have 8 layers. This eighth layer would then consist of the science and art of communicating meaningfully with others. In our current world, much of the eight layer consists in various types of manipulative communication designed to extract money or other power tokens from the consumers. Only a small portion of the communication bandwidth is taken up with meaningful communication (pornography, spam, propaganda and advertising utilize by far the largest portion of the communication bandwidth).

The sages of the Torah, on the other hand, had a multi-level view of reality which placed, meaning, purpose and content at the highest level of the hierarchy. They even described another multi-level hierarchy of meaning starting from the “simple” meaning and reaching through the human concepts of “will” and “wisdom” into higher levels of meaning far beyond the ability of humans to grasp directly. These levels can only be discussed in rare metaphors, but always keeping in mind that the essence of the discussion is beyond our understanding! They understood that life has syntax (1), but also semantics as well, evolution has a purpose (2), there is a message, a communication being sent over this fantastic infrastructure of the universe which we are called to try and understand. The Torah speaks  of this symbolically as the “eight day”, for which there was numerous examples of special celebrations and rituals. For example:

“וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי קָרָא מֹשֶׁה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו וּלְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.”

And it was on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel…  Leviticus 9:1

“וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ.”

…and on the eight day you will circumcise his flesh. Leviticus 12:3

“וְהֵבִיא אֹתָם בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי לְטָהֳרָתוֹ אֶל הַכֹּהֵן אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.”

…and when you have brought them to be purified on the eighth day… Leviticus 14:23

…and many more like this.

The Meaning of Ritual

All cultures have rituals, they may be very elaborate, like the coming of age rituals in remote tribes in Africa, or they may be simple, like getting drunk and going to a dance, as is done in some communities in America. For us, however, our rituals are pregnant with meaning and purpose, from the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah, the fast of Yom Kippur, or the waving of the 4 species in the six directions under the Succah.  But where did these rituals and their meaning come from, and why are they different from the “secular”, “fun” rituals so common in the western world, or the magical rituals of the third world?  The Rambam (Maimonides) in “The Guide for the Perplexed”, says that Jewish ritual didn’t come from nowhere.  It wasn’t that Moses had this revelation and then said, “from now on guys, we’re doing it like this”. The rituals of Judaism have their root in the distant past and were once similar in meaning and purpose to the “magical” rituals of pagan society.

The revelation at Sinai didn’t necessarily create new rituals. The Israelites, like all peoples in the region already practiced animal sacrifice. The probably also practiced something like the Shabbat and other holidays that we know. The revelation at Sinai was actually a dramatic re-purposing of these “magical” rituals to another purpose. They were no longer magical “technology” for manipulating the forces of nature, they were now directed activities dedicated to establishing human beings in a partnership (ברית) with The Creator. If the result of this was better crops and good rain, it wasn’t a direct result of the ritual, it was instead just the natural consequence of being more “in tune” with creation. In fact, Maimonides goes on to say, many of the more difficult to understand and “strange” rituals in the Torah can be understood as directly contradicting the rituals of pagan society and showing the people that good harvests did not depend upon the precise enactment of a particular ritual. He then brings many examples from pre-Judaic literature to back up this statement (3).

This act, of taking something mundane and upgrading it to something supreme is called “sanctification”. An act, that before Sinai, was simply a technical matter of insuring a good harvest, was transformed into an act of worship and a message through which we can glimpse the meaning and purpose of our lives.

The Lost Sanctification of the Arts

There is a famous Roman frieze that shows the soldiers of Titus bearing away the golden menorah from the destroyed temple. While the historical veracity of the picture is open to question and the Talmud tells us there were actually many “spare” menorah’s available, the artist understood very well the symbolism and implications of the destruction of Jewish nationhood. The menorah and the temple in general, with it’s orchestra’s, fine arts and poetry was the repository of the Jewish nations culture. The seven branches of the Menorah represent the seven essential arts and sciences, healing, math, music and so on (4). When we lost our nationhood we lost these as well, as stated in the Talmud all that was left for the Shechinah (5) was the 4 steps of the Law. This was all we would be able to preserve for the next 2000 years.

But now the exile has ended and we have returned to our land and need to find meaning in many activities that were strange to us during the exile, activities that we associated with other nations that still had their land. Cultural actives such as theatre, dance and music that went underground or were even prohibited in the exile, now have to be revived in order to give life and meaning to our nation. Rav Kook in his famous letter on the founding of the Betzalel school of art in Jerusalem 1908 wrote,

(6) אחד מסמני התחיה המובהקים היא הפעולה הנכבד.. התחיית האמנות והיופי העברי בא’י

One of the most outstanding signs of the resurrection is this honorable undertaking… the resurrection of Jewish art and beauty in the land of Israel.

If we simply create art for no reason other than entertainment, money or propaganda we will simply become a nation like other nations. What we must do is to engage fully in the arts and sciences, but “sanctify” our work for a higher purpose. This does not mean using the arts as propaganda for the Torah, but using the arts themselves as a means of coming closer to the creator. The true purpose of art is not the audience, the true purpose is the higher sensitivity awakened in the artist by his engagement in the artistic process (7). It is not the infrastructure that will bring redemption, it is the content and it’s transformation and it’s “sanctification” riding on this infrastructure that will eventually bring about the dream of ages.

David Minor

(1) Golden Doves with Silver Dots – Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition, Jose Faur 1999.
(2) Some would go as far as to say that it “is” the purpose of creation.
(3) “The Book of the Nebatean Agriculture” – Unfortunately available only in Arabic.
(4) There are various different enumerations of these arts so I won’t list them here.
(5) The presence of G-d in the world.
(6) אגרות הראיה א.
(7) Gustav Meyerink – “The Green Face”.

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3 Responses to Multiple Layers of Meaning–Guest Article by David Minor

  1. Mr. Cohen says:

    David Minor said:

    “The rituals of Judaism have their root in the distant past and were once similar in meaning and purpose to the magical rituals of pagan society.”

    I object very much to this comment because it is both false and heretical.

    With all due respect to David Minor Rabbi Zeitlin, I humbly suggest that they repent by deleting that remark, or G_d forbid risk losing their places in Olam HaBa.

    I apologize very much if anyone was offended by my remarks, but I feel compelled to speak the truth, as I understand it.

    • Dear Mr. Cohen,
      I assure you that I have no intent whatsoever to offend you or anyone else. The point that David Minor is making, I believe, is that Torah gives meaning to actions which, without Torah, would be at best meaningless.
      The Torah is filled with incidents where Bnei Yisrael has failed and fallen down on the job. We returned time and again to avoda zara. Avraham wasn’t startled by the command to sacrifice Yitzchak because it was consistent with the culture he grew up in. He didn’t even argue the point.
      We did not start out perfect and the giving of Torah provided a path for us to begin to perfect ourselves. Even though we learn that the Avot kept the entire Torah before it was given, we see lot’s of examples of when they fell short.
      One of the great features of Torah is that it doesn’t present any of us a perfect heroes, but, rather, as struggling humans. Just as each of us is constantly involved in tshuva, so we, as a people, need to be constantly involved with tshuva. The first step is to recognize and admit our failings.
      (by the way, I deleted the first comment because, as I sure you’ll agree, it was the same as this one but with a missing sentence–I didn’t do it to offend you)
      Shavua tov.

    • David Minor says:

      Hi Mr. Cohen,
      I can’t take credit for this remark. This is directly from the Rambaum’s “Guide to the Perplexed”. He says “among other things”, that the mitzvot cannot be fully understood without understanding avodah zarah and recommends (in several places) studying “The Book of the Nebatean Agriculture” as a source for pre-Judaic practices. That being said, there are those who considered the Rambaum’s works heretical and even though today he is mostly accepted, in some communities (Breslov for example) “The Guide” is considered a forbidden book.
      שולום וּברכה

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