Revealment and Concealment in Language

Revealment And Concealment: Five Essays by Haim Nahman Bialik, translated and afterword by Zali Gurevitch (Ibis, 2000)

Haim Bialik was a leading Hebrew poet in pre-state Israel. The nation honors him with streets, stamps, schools, and cafes.  Bialik’s poems are memorized by schoolchildren.

These 5 essays, which are given a valuable overview by translator Zali Gurevitch, poet and professor at Hebrew U., range from abstract philosophy of language to Jewish ritual and Jewish history.  Fifteen years ago in a college course I was introduced to the thunderous, prophetic tone of Bialik’s Hebrew poetry. In an outstanding independent Georgetown bookstore (Bridge Street Books) five years ago I fortunately happened upon this collection in the Judaica section.  Altogether, the essays demonstrate the systematic and subtle brilliance of the late 19th/ early 20th Century Hebrew Renaissance leader.

Several images carry such power that I can describe them without having touched the book for several years.  In the title essay “Revealment and Concealment in Language” Bialik declares that words are brought into existence through necessity. A sound is filled with meaning, the word slowly gains power as it asserts itself and lives only if it adequately addresses the demands of the day. (Think of new phrases such as “people of color” or “human rights.”  They were born to wage a specific battle.)  As time passes and necessity changes, the meaning and vitality attached to the word diminishes. Bialik describes what remains, a hollow shell or husk.

Rather than view this decline tragically, Bialik the poet explains how these shells of once proud words allow the speaker to revitalize it. If words retained their fullness communication’s creative element would cease. We would merely exchange loaded symbols in our conversation.  The decay of the word’s original existence allows for unique comparison, context and other playful combinations.  Is there a greater description of the poet’s craft?

The image of growth, decay and rebirth of a word aids Bialik’s conceptual task.  A second heuristic derives from the speakers need to assume their words are saturated with clear, singular meaning while the words themselves are dying and being born anew. This denial of language’s constant change is the act of concealment.  Words pass back and forth from lips to ears as if we stand on firm ground. When communicating, Bialik suggests, the discussants are constantly taking steps upon the melting and cracking ice of a frozen river. By pretending the words we use have definite meaning we step over cracks in the ice, remaining on firm footing. This act of concealment temporarily takes our eyes off the great void of meaninglessness which threatens us through the widening cracks. The poet uniquely peers into the abyss and, by consciously revealing the death and rebirth of words, directs the reader’s gaze toward the abyss. In essence, “the meaning which you assume for your speech is gone. Watch as I explode the ice.”

According to Bialik we can only view the abyss for a moment, just as no one shall look upon the face of Lord and live (as Moses is told, Exodus 33:20). Therefore both concealment, standing on the solid ice of common usage, along with the revelation of the abyss in the ice cracks, are necessary for the death and rebirth of word’s meaning to occur, for the living spirit to hallow life in each new generation.

The dynamics of revealment and concealment is masterfully extended to explore Jewish ritual in the essay on “Halachah and Aggadah in Jewish History.” Bialik reminds us that halachah, or the Jewish law consisting of numerous mitzvot (ritual commandments), is a tangible sign of something else, and not of valuable in itself. Halachah is the external form of a deeper truth which aggadah explains. Aggadah is a rabbinical mode for creative exposition of a Torah text to explain apparent inconsistencies, such as supplying backstory. Bialik uses the term aggadah as a stand-in for all kavana (intention) behind rituals. For example, when one lights candles Friday evening at the start of the Sabbath, the words of the blessing and correct performance of the ritual are rightfully in the front of the mind. However, contained within the ritual and prayer at the cusp of Shabbat is a deeper meaning.  Our ability to act like our Creator and kindle light is highlighted at the moment when we also refrain from all such creating on the sabbath.   In effect, lighting Shabbat candles teaches us how to practice the relationship between God and Humanity, to honor the Creator who made us in the same likeness, having power to act as creator while recognizing limits on that power.  The ritual performance must continue, as the tangible form is essential to communicating the story, to ensure Israel’s eternal prayers to the Lord.

Many modern Jews would like eliminate the demands of halakha, mitzvot, Jewish ritual law. Bialik explains that the deeper truths of Jewish culture would have been lost long ago if the truth were passed on only from possessor to others in aggadah statements. Aggadah is too bulky to quickly offering wise teachings.  Truth, in his view, remains active through generations by passing from halakha to aggadah and back. We must appreciate these twin, apparently contradictory elements of Jewish life for the vitality which they extend.

Hopefully I have sketched a thread from Bialik’s philosophic examinations of language to the specific Jewish cultuaral dynamics of how language communicates both in apparent “concealment” – the full, hardened or ritualized word, and “revealment” – the poetically revitalized or inner kernal of meaning.

Permit me a moment of comparison.  Bialik’s expression of the sacred struggle of Jewish and human life between halakha and aggadah is similar to Mordechai Kaplan’s and Solomon Schechter’s incorporation of social scientific study to bolster modern Jewish thought.  For it is the social scientists who asks about the kavanna or practices, why they do or do not pass between generations.  However, Kaplan’s Reconstructionist identificaiton of Jewish customs as “folkways” risks reducing Jewish culture to merely anthropological data which can be passed on or discarded based on the preferences, especially aesthetics and ethics, of the present day. Note the changes to liturgy such as the Torah Blessings in which references to “God’s chosen people” or “the first chosen” (bachar banu) are altered to conform to the spirit of egalitarian democracy.  No Covenenat here!! In Bialik’s terms, the shell of “choseness” has been dispensed leaving the deeper meaning of the concept to dissipate altogether.

The Schechter project has taken an interesting turn recently. Historically, the Conservative movement maintained rabbinic scholars as interpreters of Jewish law and models for modern Jews. For the last 25 years the leader of the Conservative movement’s central institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, was a historian.  This past year, a social scientist who specializes in Jewish communal trends, was chosen as Chancellor.  It seems the historian served as a bridge between the talmudic scholar and social scientist.

In Reform and Renewal contexts, the liberal spiritual seeker generally lacks textual or halakhic familiarity.  Seekers are therefore more comfortable simply with aggadah than the psychological fraught turn to Jewish ritual.  Bialik’s work suggests a way into halakha as serious spiritual discipline and could bolster the efforts of all these movements.

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One Response to “Revealment and Concealment in Language”

  1. Vera Schwarcz Says:

    marvelous essay on Bialik–could NOT see Hebrew and English version of the poem cited.. please send me text

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