Saturday, January 17, 2009

babble from Babel 7

Here is the story of the tower from Julia Smith's Bible. HT Kurk I love the rhythm and minimalism. Its transparent to the Hebrew for the most part.

    1. And all the earth shall be one lip, and the same words.
    2. And it shall be in their removing from the east they shall find a valley in the land of Shinar; and they shall dwell there.
    3. And they shall say a man to his neighbour, Come, we will make bricks, and we will burn to a burning, and brick shall be to them for stone, and potter's clay shall be to them for potter's clay.
    4. And they will say, Come, we will build to us a city, and a tower, its head to the heavens; and we will make to us a name, lest we shall be dispensed over the face of the earth.
    5. And Jehovah will come down to see the city, and the tower which the sons of men built.
    6. And Jehovan will say, Behold, the people one, and one lip to them all and this they begin to do; and now it will not be restrained from them all which they shall imagine to do.
    7. Come, we will come down and mix their lip that they shall not hear a man the lip of his neighbor.
    8. And Jehovah will disperse them from thence over the face of all the earth; and they will cease to build the city.
    9. Therefore its name was called confusion, for there Jehovah confounded the lip of all the earth; and from thence Jehovah dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
Its right and proper that a woman would translate the Hebrew word for lip with the English one. While lip in Hebrew is one common way to talk about language, along with tongue, it does not usually appear in English. The lip came to represent the feminine, receptivity and passivity.

It is a very odd thing, but in one of the additions to the Sefer Yetsira, the Book of Creation, which is a treatise on language and creation, the five places of articulation are described. One would expect that the lip would appear as one of the places. But in this masculinist text, all the places of articuation are represented by the tongue. The lip is not mentioned. Clearly from other parts of the text, the tongue was related to circumcision - it was a parallel organ of generation.

Here is the passage from Peter Hayman's translation, page 93,

    The twenty-two letters are the foundation: three primary letters, seven double (letters), and twelve simple (letters). They are carved out by the voice, hewn out in the air, fixed in the mouth in five positions: Aleph, Het, He, Ayin, Bet, Waw, Mem, Pe, Gimel, Yod, Kaph, Qof, Dalet, Tet, Lamed, Nun, Taw, Zayin, Samek, Sade, Resh, Shin, They are bound to the tip of the tongue as the flame to the burning coal.

    Aleph, He, Het, Ayin are pronounced at the back of tongue and in the throat.

    Bet, Waw, Mem, Pe are pronounced between the teeth and by the tip of the tongue.

    Gimel, Yod, Kaph, Qof, are cut off a third of the way up the tongue.

    Dalet, Tet, Lamed, Nun, Taw, are pronounced by tip of the tongue with the voice.

    Zayin, Samech, Sade, Resh, Shin (are pronounced) between the teeth with the tongue relaxed.
Notice the complete lack of any reference to the lips and the assignment of all articulation to the tongue. While the circumcised organ has agency in creating new life; the tongue, or language, has agency in the creation of the world. In this book the world is created by language, a masculine form of energy having agency. Only the tongue articulates language and not the lips.

And why does the lip not appear in the Sefer Yetsira? I don't know, but its absence is peculiar. Is the feminine imagery absent on purpose?

The point is that the lips are a necessary location of articulation for language. The lips are no more passive than the tongue. Just as the tongue has agency, so do the lips. The lips are a different, complementary point of articulation. They are not a passive receptacle. Nor is the womb.

The feminine image of vessels for sefirot, now prevalent in Kabalah, does not appear in the Sefer Yetsira. It is a book which morphed over time, both in Hebrew and in its many interpretations. While the masculine imagery is deliberate in at least one of the additions to this book, it may be absent in other versions. I offer only some remarks on the oddity of the absence of the lips from this book.

We need a world which accepts and lauds the agency and creativity of women alongside the agency and creativity of men. We need both the masculine and the feminine voice to create our world in the image of God. This is the meaning of the Sefer Yetsira, for this reader, that as we articulate language we create meaning, we create the world we live in. It is the language given us by God, to both men and women, to people of all races. If we listen only to one voice, we lack a full understanding of what is being said. It is as if we were listening to someone talk with only the tongue and no lips, or only the lips and no tongue.

1 comment:

J. K. Gayle said...

Thank you for your wonderful, intelligent post! What insight into the gender of generative language. You've inspired me to post once again:

Mothers of Moses