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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Digging Deeper

I am reading a book on interpreting the Jewish Bible. It is fascinating because of the emphasis on letters. For example, the first letter in the Bible is bet. The letter is also a word (sort of like the letter 'B' or 'T' sound like be, bee, tea) and it means house. This leads to some wonderful and amazing connections by these ancient theologians and exegetes. In addition, each letter doubles as a number. So literally each word can also be read as a series of numbers. The numerical value of a word can be related to other words with the same value! Hebrew words are based on roots, so shared roots impact the meaning as well. The deeper meaning found in the Hebrew letters is not something which we Americans are familiar with. It is easy to overlook the amount of effort it took to write in ancient times. We also forget how few could read. Did they project greater importance to words, or have we become so familiar with them that we are blind to something greater?

One of the limits of the knowledge of "science" is positivism. When we think that the 'real' is only the measurable, and mock everything else as fairy tales, we may feel quite grown up and rational, but if we ignore the deeper meaning of things are we not being less than we could be? Science is great and wonderful, but it is still limited. (Just as math, grammar and music are limited.)

For anyone who cannot read, words on a page are indecipherable and meaningless. I am reminded of a scholar spending the night at a Greek Orthodox monastery in the 19th century. The rooms were heated with small fires, and a pile of paper sat ready to be burned. Fortunately, he looked at the writing on the paper and figured out it was the lost writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. As a transition figure after the apostles, Ignatius' writings provide a rare glimpse into the church of the late first century. By the measure of keeping rooms warm, he was basically wasting fodder for fire. In a sense, what he did was unreasonable and irrational. (We can imagine a cold monk complaining, "What are you doing???It is freezing!!!) However, by understanding that the marks and scratches on the paper were an important literary find, he went to a deeper level and actually did something worthwhile. For those of us who believe in Jesus, it is more than an historic value. It is insight into our Lord and a model of faithful living (Ignatius was a martyr and early bishop). It is life giving and life shaping material.

The ancient skill of looking beyond the veil of measurable and observable data into deeper, spiritual realms is a welcome corrective to the positivism of the materialist. The materialist leads a "soul-less" existence. There are only biological processes and a cold, empty physical universe. Going deeper is limited to spinning theories about atoms and sub-atomic particles, which are also interesting, but end up being meaningless in any real sense...

The word mysticism of the ancient rabbis was a function of their world view, a world where seeking the Names of God meant encountering God. They believed that because He was the Author then He was to be found in His word. Torah means teaching or instruction (not 'Law"). God's instruction is also His Self revelation. The approach of Kabbalah shares much in common with the spiritual interpretation of the Fathers. As Brian Lancaster writes on page 30 of his book on Kabbalah: the concern of kabbalah is with truth. It seeks to inculcate an awareness of  the true meaning of Torah, understood as it concealed meaning.

Certainly there is a general meaning, available to a simple reading. Yet, the surface of a lake is hardly all that there is. To claim the real lake is what we can see from above is only partially true. It is real, but there is more to the reality than meets the eyes. And the eyes must be supplemented with other tools. Temperature, for example, is unavailable to visual observation. It requires a different tool, a thermometer. And ten thermometers could never measure the mineral content of the water, or determine its safety for swimming. We know that this is so, there are many angles and measures needed to understand the lake. But none of the scientific tools can discover that  the lake is a metaphor for life or love or the human soul. None of them can open our eyes to see that swimming in a lake is like praying as we are immersed in something (metaphor alert: Someone) much larger than we.

So perhaps the interplay of Hebrew letters is a lost level of meaning for us all---a task made all the harder because we do not read Hebrew, do we? Yet, on the shoulders of those that do, we can take a peak into the beauty and deeper truth, the majesty of revelation! We have to rely on physicists and biologists to explain to us the amazing physical realities, and we have to trust their expertise because it far exceeds our own. As a microscope shows us that our skin is a thriving garden of unseen creatures, so the spiritual reading of Biblical texts can also reveal life and Life, beyond our imagining! There are pitfalls to such things, but pitfalls are everywhere. We can exercise caution and do the mental labor. We can also just enjoy the scenery of the  beautiful world of deeper reading!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Sorry Michael, you still are not being respectful in stating disagreement.

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