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May 25, 2009



Words are more abstract than pictures. Are you concerned that it could be cognitively limiting to concretize the words of Torah, especially those describing prophetic experiences, in visual forms?
It seems to me that for those with enough knowledge to maintain awareness that such images fall far short of the import of the words, that's fine. But for the unlearned, the images might be misleading.


I agree. However, in our own time and place, images surround us so much and we are so used to manipulation of images and their inherent unstrustworthiness that I do not see much danger in it. Things have changed. We are at a greater risk of "hagshama" now from words than from images.


How are we at greater risk of concretizing words than images?


Because we have learned not to trust images but we still believe in words.


Yes, but it seems to me that our belief in words is under serious threat today; that is, our belief that they signify actual realities that precede and transcend language. The pagan project is in essence an attempt to subvert the authority of language; when one makes words over in one's preferred image, words are cut off from their transcendent roots. Language becomes a weapon against G-d, and one can deny the transcendental altogether. Judaism has always opposed this project, instead acknowledging the validity of words, their roots in the transcendental, and hence their utility in connecting us with the transcendental. "...And these words that I command to you this day shall be upon your heart..."


You are unquestionably correct. However, we must ask why describing G-d in words is OK and is not "verbal idolatry" whereas describing him in images is incorrect; also why representation of Keruvim is permitted in the Mishkan but nowhere else. I addressed some of these issues here: http://www.avakesh.com/2007/11/moshe-halbertal.html

"In People of the Book, Halbertal offers an interesting and encompassing perspective on the views of various rishionim on the subject of mesora, here and here

In Idolatry (ch.2), he discusses, to restate it simply, the three types of representation: linguistic, as the word dog represents dogs by convention, having no "dogginess" in it at all; substitution, where the image substitutes for its object, as a photograph corresponds in its details to the object photographed; and metonomyc, in which the symbol corresponds in some detail or feature to its representation. An example of this would be how a scented kerchief of a loved one can stand in for her, or how an eagle ensign can represent a country. Linguistic representation is always permitted, substitutive representation is idolatry and always forbidden - metonomyic representation is only permitted in very controlled settings. With this classification drawn from modern philosophy, Halbertal is able to explain why verbal representations of God are permitted in language, statues are forbidden and cherubim are permitted in the Temple but nowhere else."

Your point about the video is well taken and I did consider it before posting. We have been repeatedly warned about "hagshama" by classical sources. The video is of potential dangers to those not experienced in the study of Kabbala and mysticism but I do not think that it REALLY is, for reasons I expressed above. Our generation is different and our challenges are more in the area of gashmius than of hagshama. However, I am thinking of removing it and I thank you for your input.


Actually I now agree with you and I don't think the video is likely to mislead any of your readers. The general public, maybe.

This issue of the representational value of images and words is of central importance, though. How can we use a name for G-d? There is inherent in that the risk for idolatry. But there is the same type of risk in using a word for anything, really. A Chareidi teacher of mine in a kollel once told me that the word is the thing itself. The word kisei "is" the chair, he said, pointing at a chair. However, that never sat quite right with me (no pun intended). It seemed to downplay the existence of physical chair in front of us. Was he not proposing a kind of idolatry of language?

The Leshem Shvo VeAchlamah, Sefer HaKadosh, goes into great length about whether G-d's Name "is" G-d, presenting both sides of the argument. He does not resolve the issue.

Thanks for pointing out Halberstam's book. I will plan to read it.

Chag Sameach.

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