The Challenge Of Thinking Semiotically

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The Torah is full of metaphor, and in some cases, a metaphor of itself (sounds meta, right?). Being able to see these metaphors and apply them is to go beyond the first level of Torah interpretation. There are four levels of interpreting Scripture: PaRDeS.

  • Pa (Pshat): the simple literal interpretation of the text.
  • R (Remez): the hinted interpretation of the text.
  • De (Derash): the developed idea from the text.
  • S (Sod): the secret interpretation of the text.

The Christian Bible has only the first level of understanding of Torah due to its reliance on the Greek Septuagint (Hebrew to Greek only has the basic level since it was not intended to be translated to Greek, which is a different conversation). English translations from the Hebrew are similarly handicapped but not as badly. One can read the English translation of the Torah (from the Hebrew) and see the literal, hinted, and developed ideas that the text is presenting. The last, the secret, is not for the faint of heart.

One example is the word beracha (ברכה). The simple translation of this word is “blessed” or “thanks.” The advanced translation of this world, Kabbalistically speaking, is “creates spiritual power to create.” It is by this notion that the Jew argues that it rains because one prayed for rain and if no one were to pray for rain then there would be no rain.

To learn the “secrets” of Torah, one must be pure and wise. Kabbalah is the definition and language of the spiritual world that is the parallel to our physical world. There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to Kabbalah. There are no secrets dangers or magical incantations that cause curses or blessings here. Yes, our words have power, but Kabbalah is nothing more than what It translates to: welcoming or connection. Kabbalah is the means by which a Jew connects with HaShem. It is by this that it is argued that Judaism is not a religion but rather a relationship (Christianity does the same thing, and to be sure, both are religions that focus on a relationship aspect).

So what am I getting to with this? Where is the bridge? What’s the point when this has already been covered in depth by so many before me? Here’s the connection…Kabbalah is living semiotically. Semiotics, crudely defined, is the “study of signs.” It is actually quite more than this. Those versed and trained in semiotics learn how to analyze culture and passages, connect the dots, and in some ways learn more about the spiritual secrets of the universe. Semiotics learns to bring the story to life and engage in its material. To read a text semiotically is to go from 0 to 60 by taking the Sod approach. This can often result in misunderstanding if one does not have a proper context and kevana (intent/focus/approach). The challenge of thinking semiotically is twofold: (i) having the proper context and all the information needed to read the signs in the metaphor and (ii) being ever-aware of the hidden signs in the text. Not only does not have to seemingly become an expert on the passage, but one must remove the OFF/ON switch to this method of existence and always be aware of the interconnectedness of existence. In many ways, semiotic thinking is a holistic thinking that goes beyond physical limitations.

Now the bridge: semiotically reading the text is both innately Jewish and Christian. Dr. Leonard Sweet is a Christian theologian of renown who is one of the foremost experts on semiotics. I should know – he is my lead mentor in my doctorate in semiotics. He is the one who got me to pay attention to this. My semiotic awareness of the Torah led me from being a messianic/evangelical to being an Orthodox Jew. One of the rabbis I study under, Rabbi Gadi Levy, discusses the PaRDeS concept at length. Additionally, numerous rabbinical commentaries have pointed to the metaphor of the Torah. When a metaphor is involved, it is a semiotic passage, plain and simple.

So here is one area where Jews and Christians can find common ground: we both believe in a relationship with our Creator, and we both believe the Torah given to us is laced with metaphor that requires a deeper level of understanding and interpretation (call it PaRDeS, call it Semiotics, call it metaphor).

What signs are you seeing signified / what are you learning in the garden?