Thursday, August 10, 2006

World's longest blog entry: See Fourth Paragraph for the Meat

THE JUNK: Well, hrm. There's too much going on in this cranium of mine, but it's my own fault. It isn't just job stuff (I'm flying to Riverside, Calif., on Monday to interview for a gig) or housing uncertainty or this cloud of general "what are you doing?" It's that I spent the past two days reading a lot.

I read an entire book, a fiction work called "Raymond + Hannah" by Stephen Marche. It was his first work and Heather gave it to me eons ago. I started reading it many moons ago, but didn't get but 30 pages in before putting it down. So I started over at the beginning and read the whole thing this evening at SoHo. All in all, I spent about 7 hours at SoHo today. Ridiculous? Perhaps. I enjoyed some blueberry and then some peach iced tea and I'm pretty sure the guy behind the counter thought I was crazy. I spent some time on Hebrew, going over some of the grammar rules. I also picked up the modern Hebrew CDs I had on reserve at the library (one of those "learn modern Hebrew in 8 easy lessons!" kind of things. We'll see how it goes.).

But then, then there was the reading on the meaning of olam and olamim in the Tanakh, not to mention reading up in Shaye J.D. Cohen's "The Beginnings of Jewishness" on when the whole idea of "conversion" was a normal thing. But one thing at a time, here. Here's the MEAT:

Olam: Part I
So I started off on the premise of irritation that the word olam once meant "eternity" and now means merely "world" as is popularized in the phrase tikkun olam, or "repair of the world." A friend presented me with the argument that there was never a point at which olam meant "eternity" and only that. Thus, I set off to learn a bit beyond what I learned in biblical Hebrew, which was that olam translated as "eternity" and that was that.

I read several documents, but focused mostly on a series of papers or chapters found here. I'll start by saying that my understanding of olam (I'm going to stop italicizing it because it's irritating) has changed, but has subsequently raised a lot of questions. However, I'm still without an answer on how the word came to represent "world" in our modern construct. I can't seem to find any explanation for how it, in my opinion, devolved into such a limited word.

First, we must acknowledge as fact that the word "eternal" means without end or beginning, as in, infite and always existing without placement of creation or finalization.
Second, we must acknowledge as fact that the word olam's root is "alam," which means "to hide" or "to obscure." It also can mean "to keep secret."
Thirdly, we must acknowledge as fact (for those of you who ascribe to Judaism/Christianity/Islam/Etc.) that the only eternal being/thing/person/etc. is G-d.
Fourthly, we must acknowledge that there are 448 instances of olam and its plural olamim in the Torah (or Old Testament) and that the meaning of the words are never explained in detail and all analysis come from contextual understanding and comparing passages that have similar attributes. One instance stands out from all others, and that is the instance of Jonah 2:6, which describes Jonah's time in the whale as "olam," though the writer also says it was three days. Thus, it can be assumed that olam must maintain a definition of obscurity.

Now, the first instance of olam in Torah is in Genesis 3:22, which talks of eating of the tree of life and living "le-olam." Now, this can't possibly mean "eternally" or "for eternity, mostly because it has a beginning -- we know that once you eat from the tree, something happens, thus there is a beginning with no defined end. The passage and common appearance of "le-olam" often is translated in instances like this as "for ever" ... but logic will note that "for ever" isn't really possible. The idea of forever is nice, but in reality, "le-olam" most likely would translate as "a really long time." Additionally, after the flood, it is said that there was now a "berit olam," or eternal convenant, as translations go. This also can't possibly mean eternal, as it has a beginning and just lacks a definite end.

But a question: In Gen. 13:15, G-d says "For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed" le-olam ( translation). Now, this also is not eternal and the translation actually says "to thy seed for ever." But as we've already discussed, there is a beginning and thus, "for ever" or "eternally" just don't cut it. But if we assume that the meaning of olam is that of an undetermined end with a defined beginning, then how do we know when we (Jews, the "seeded" as it were) are done having the land? Of course scholars assume it is at the end of days, but what if it isn't? Hrm? Really this passage says G-d is giving Avram and his seed the land for a "really, really long undeterminable amount of time." What if the land IS no longer ours? Is this radical? Sure, of course it is.

But olam -- for all practical, researched purposes -- doesn't mean forever, it doesn't mean for all time, it means "a hidden, obscure, undeterminable amount of time." Also for practical purposes, becuase the singular means so nebulous and undeterminable, olamim can best be understood as "ages" ... becuase "eternities" would be ridiculous and "forevers" also is ridiculous. "Ages" in this instance would best work as ... an example such as "It took her ages to try on the boots."

Now, as I'm writing this ... I'm reminded of something. Freshman year of college I saw the movie "Stigmata" and the two people I saw it with absolutely hated it, and I loved it. It was suggested by some random guy in the movie store who was there with his wife. He just walked up to me and said "you should really watch this" and I did. The main thing I got out of the movie was that G-d is in all things. Hashem is, in essence, everpresent in all things we do and see. I remember it changed my perspective of the type of G-d I believed in, and now that I think about this, I wonder ... if there is so much "le-olam" in Torah, what IF when it says that we "shall dwell in the land le-olam" it means very much that we shall dwell in the land of the eternal, who is eternal, thus it is for all eternity. Such that, we have always dwelled in the land, in a metaphysical sense, I guess.

To be more clear: HaShem is within everything, and the eternal nature of HaShem means that all is eternal. Ooo. Crazy, radical and needing more thought. That also would raise the question, though ... if that is so, and all is without beginning or end, then the whole creation story would be pretty bunk. I've got to think on this.

Thus, stay tuned for Olam: Part II, which hopefully will address WHY it is that we translate "olam" as such a tangible term as "world" that, while I understand can be more nebulous and all-encompassing than I give people credit for, often is used to mean "let's clean up the forest and solve starvation!" If I were to translate "tikkun olam" ... I would translate it as "changing the course of life" as we know it. I don't know that it's so much repairing as it is "changing." But that also would have more to do with the meaning of "tikkun." Oooo .. so much!

But that's just me. Lilah tov!