Two Languages and the Chasm Between Them

While there are many different languages in the world, at base there are only two main forms of speech, each diametrically opposed to the other: the scientific and the poetic.

One way to define the difference between them would be to say that science takes a myriad of phenomena and gives them one name, while poetry takes one phenomenon and gives it many names.

The language of science is precise and well-defined, while the language of poetry is open and boundless. One can discuss the same topic in both languages, but these will be two very different discussions. For instance, a man who wants to praise his beloved’s beautiful eyes will not say that they are about an inch in size and their color is 1523 Angstrom; he might use instead an expression like “your eyes are like doves”. This is surely a much less precise description, but one that gives great pleasure to the listener. On the other hand, woe to whoever uses poetic language when intending to mend shoes or build a bridge: the shoes will not be mended, and the bridge will not be a bridge.

In everyday life, both languages intermingle; a poet who wants to buy bread will not ask for that which “sustains man’s heart” (Psalms 104:15), while a scientist who wants to express his ideas may use images. In our time, scientific language plays an ever more central role. The world is now using, both directly and indirectly, the language of precise facts, while poetry (which, incidentally, is not always very high poetry, in both contents and language) is being pushed aside and confined to the sphere of poetry alone.

But while scientific language is so much more widely used, even its users often feel its limitations. For indeed, how wonderful it is that the world is so full of dreams and beauty and other such magnificent things, and how sad it is when poetic ideas are pushed to the limits and limitations of the world and buried there.

Our overdose on scientific language has caused a general sense of fatigue, which has created a yearning, manifest or hidden, to return to the other language, to that realm of grand, enticing and gripping sayings. Our world is turning to more emotional statements, to stronger and more daring expression. This poetic language is no longer confined to certain places, such as anthologies of poetry or outpourings of the soul. Instead, it infiltrates into the precise language, exists alongside it, and often is not even differentiated and defined as such. Indeed, poetic language clings to other ideas and ways of expression, and influences them.

There is, however, one major problem with poetic language: it has no boundaries. It can point to general directions, and express aspirations and dreams, but it does not define what is permitted and what is forbidden, what is possible and what is impossible. It is a language of high words, in which what matters most is the intention. When used in religious, philosophical, personal or national discussions, poetic discourse will usually be vague. Help for the suffering and the needy is an important and great idea, but someone needs to ask: what exactly do we mean by that? How much money is involved? Where will it come from? How much more income tax are you willing to pay in order to eradicate poverty? Worse, many who express lofty intentions and speak pretentious words about supremely important issues are not just vague about the facts; often they do not care about facts at all, but forget or even suppress them.

When this phenomenon reaches universal proportions, it can even become extremely dangerous. The great wars of our times are no longer waged over territory or booty; rather, they are wars of dreams and poetry, and this is precisely what makes them so terrible. They rage in a world that operates according to rules that cannot adapt to those of the language of dreams, a world that is incapable of dealing with all the grand and magnificent intentions that human beings have.

One salient example is Islamic State. In traditional Islam, religious rulings fulfill a central role. For instance, Islamic religious law has very clear definitions regarding not only what is permitted in jihad but also what is forbidden — such as hurting women and children. Extremist Islam, however, takes ideas found in religious Islamic books and uproots them from any kind of definition and limitation, for no one cares any more what Mohammed said, what is written in the Koran, or what the religious rulings actually are. The extremists are not necessarily inherently wicked; they live in a limitless world, motivated by the very impractical desire to conquer the entire world — immediately. When the laws of poetry are forced upon reality — in love, war, or any other sphere — so many things get trampled, laws are breached, havoc reigns and blood is spilled — lots of blood.

This phenomenon is evident in many places, times and arenas. History tells us about nations that had great dreams that eventually caused much suffering and torment. The Communist Revolution, for one, was based on some great and marvelous ideas: to build a society in which every citizen gets just what he needs and can develop his potential to the utmost. However, no one really gave too much thought to the actual viability of those ideas or to how much they would cost — not only in money, but also in pain and suffering. Another example is the American and European aspiration to democratize countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan — a commendable poetic desire that has caused much bloodshed and failed dismally.

If such things happen in Israel as well, it is for the very same reason. The holiness of the Temple and the Temple Mount, the people of Israel’s right to rule over the Land of Israel, or our deserving a life of peace and security — all these are good and proper notions, but they all belong in the poetic sphere. The books of the Prophets contain many verses that may be cited, and there is also the Halakha. In the Shemoneh Esre prayer, we pray that evil be uprooted, smashed and destroyed, and that the Temple be rebuilt. Yet once we finish praying and go out into the real world there are halakhic definitions of what is permitted and what is forbidden. Whoever tries to bring the Messiah now, and wishes to do it with blood, fire and billows of smoke, actually delays his coming.

Another example is the collapse of the family, largely due to an excess of poetry, which stresses romanticism at the expense of the binding contractual aspects of marriage and parenthood. Indeed, the Jewish marriage ceremony contains both ingredients. Alongside the beautiful and poetic “seven blessings”, there is also the Ketuba, a legal and rather prosaic contract defining the obligations of both parties.

In Judaism, these two “languages” are called Halakha and Aggada. Halakha defines and determines right and wrong, what is permitted and what is forbidden in all aspects of our lives, ideologies, intentions and actions. Alongside Halakha there is the world of Aggada, which deals with ideas and theologies, with our will and the things we strive for in life, with poetry, imagination and creativity. When it comes to content, there is no contradiction between these two worlds. Quite the contrary: their contents are the same. They only use different languages. A person will not ask God for bounty according to the rulings of this or that rabbi, just as someone feeding a child will not tell it: “Now open your mouth 1.5 centimeters wider.” This is not because God would not hear, or the child would not understand, but because this is not how one talks to God, this is not how one speaks to a child.

Religious leaders worldwide ought to restrain the poetic vein of their sermons, because it opens uncontrollable floodgates and is liable to become truly destructive. And instead of an occasional, feeble bleat, Islamic religious leaders must vehemently and vigorously affirm that there are rules in Islam and that the extremists among them are actually breaking Islamic law.

Both languages exist because they are both needed, but only the balance between them will ensure existence and continuity. We, as Jews, are also called upon to stress this point: poetry and prayer must be given their proper place, while keeping in mind what can and should be done today and tomorrow.

When they are not properly calibrated, the languages of poetry and science can turn their discrepancies into chasms — areas emptied of all thought, and the tragedy of humans robbed of their very lives. We must take care that all those poetic dreams that are directed heavenwards will not cause death here, down below. Even when we follow our dreams, we ought to aspire to building a better life in reality.


This essay first appeared in Standpoint Magazine, Issue 81 in April 2016.

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