Saturday, 19 October 2013

PARDES: an interpreter's toolkit

Of the many impressions I leave people whom I've met, the one impression I'd hope stick is that I'm a reader, a connoisseur of ideas. Clearly (if one would indulge me), I'm not a casual reader: as a lover of books I think the notion of a library is a self-defeating concept because the very idea of "returning" a book I've read and enjoyed is morally reprehensible to me...

Nothing is ever simple, but to a person of letters a book is (ideally) a record, a testament of humanity's glimpse into the divine so rarely manifest in our everyday experience. The oldest "books" aren't merely for entertainment purposes but contrary-wise intended to edify us (the readers, the audience) morally, philosophically, and scientifically (ie, to impart technical knowledge and/or insights). In fact, it is only when printing became economical that books for entertainment became possible.

There is, in the Jewish tradition, a formalized method of interpretation called, PARDES - an acronym for a four-fold system of interpreting the Holy scriptures and its commentaries:

(after making a basic distinction between "open-ended" and "closed" interpretation) Traditional Jewish generally relies on closed questions to focus on the literal reading of the text and open-ended questions to explore various types of implications derived from the text. Thus the plain, historical meaning (called the p'sat) is used as a baseline for other ways of interpretation, which traditionally include the alluded meaning (ie, remez), the moral or homiletical meaning (ie, d'rash), and the esoteric (ie, sod). This four-fold system is sometimes called "Pardes"...as a general principle, the extended meaning of the text will never contradict the plain meaning. (http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Interpretation_and_Tradition/interpretation_and_tradition.html)

As an interpreter/translator of text, there is an additional concept that I think is worth mentioning and illustrating here: namely, whether a "positive" or "negative" construction is more effective in conveying an idea.

CS Lewis, one of the Christian writers I have admire a long time, puts the practical issue thus:

I would prefer to combat the ‘I’m special’ feeling not by the thought ‘I’m no more special than anyone else’ but by the feeling ‘Everyone is as special as me.’ In one way there is no difference, I grant, for both remove the speciality. But there is a difference in another way. The first might lead you to think, ‘I’m only one of the crowd like anyone else’. But the second leads to the truth that there isn’t any crowd. No one is like anyone else. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III)

Of course, this is not intended to be some sort of prescribed way of reading or translating a given text. As John J. Parsons makes the distinction immediately in the article first quoted here: "An effective teacher [or reader] understands when to ask 'closed questions' and when to ask 'open-ended questions" a proficient reader (or learning how to be a proficient reader) has this background understanding that reading is not just a mechanical process but an engagement in comprehension, a process of meditation.

This way of doing things is not limited to reading and writing but touches upon everything that has to do with "problem-solving", being able to play around with ideas and principles to obtain original insights. It is the difference between accepting what is told and attaining an "aha!" moment.

I think I've mentioned this before: my best friend once remarked how loopy quantum physics really is in that it "allows" stuff to be both particle-like and wave-like at the same time. And my response was: without this fact, we'd live in a world without colour because the stuff around us is made of particulate stuff and we can perceive colour (wave lengths) at the same time.

Psalm 19 contains one of my favourite passages in the Bible because it speaks most succinctly of the participatory nature of Creation and the infinite wisdom (and righteous coolness) of G*d:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

I know I repeat many things here...

Jay

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