4.0300 Hypersatire (1/108)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 18 Jul 90 18:09:33 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0300. Wednesday, 18 Jul 1990.

Date: Wed, 18 Jul 90 11:38:50 -0500
From: Alan D Corre <corre@csd4.csd.uwm.edu>
Subject: Hypersatire

Before responding to Ephraim Nissan's rather astonishing convulsion,
there is one general point I should like to make. Jewish and Islamic
culture share the feature of having sacred texts at the heart of their
cultural experience. These texts are cultivated and fondled, and above
all, learned by heart. If you go at 4 a.m. of a Saturday morning to the
synagogue of the Bukharan Jews in Jerusalem, you will find them singing
lustily their religious hymns written in their obscure, allusive
language. Not a book is open. The little kids with a faraway look in
their eyes, brought on by the hypnotic nature of the chant, join in, the
words and melody welling up from deep down inside. When I visited Tunis
some years ago, I was invited to come and hear "les psaulmistes" in the
afternoon. A group of old men sit round a table and chant the entire
150 psalms in Hebrew from beginning to end. When one tires, another
takes over, while the others mouthe the words. A marathon effort in
itself--but it is all done by heart! These men can recite the book of
Psalms without a slip. Mishnayot, on their surface dry, legalistic
texts, are lovingly memorized in traditional circles. One of my
teachers asserted that as a child he enjoyed closing his eyes and
summoning up a vision of a page of the Babylonian Talmud, complete with
all the commentaries on the margin. Muslim boys commonly commit the
entire Koran to memory, and are reinforced by the pleasure their elders
express when they have, so to speak, adsorbed to their very being the
eternal uncreated word. The medieval sage Moses Maimonides explicated
the process very well. He declared that initially one says to a child,
learn such and such a mishna, and I will give you a candy. And the
child learns because children like candy. Later you offer nice
clothing, because teens are typically concerned about their physical
appearance. Then you say: learn so and so many pages of the Talmud, and
people will do you honor, and stand when you enter the room. But the
ultimate goal is to learn the truth, simply because it is the truth, and
for no other reason, and the truth resides somehow in these texts.
Similar situations exist in other cultures, and have a profound effect
on their adherents. They have an intellectual and spiritual heritage
shared with their fellows, and it only takes a hint, a word, a turn of
phrase to summon up recollections of this heritage and how and when
various elements of it were acquired. Gifted poets and writers like
Immanuel of Rome or ibn Zabara could use this feature even for comic
effect. For example, there is a statement in the Mishna that the hand
that explores among women is praiseworthy, while the hand that explores
among men deserves to be cut off. This opaque statement means that the
woman should constantly piously check that she is not menstruous to
avoid her husband's unknowingly falling into transgression, whereas the
man must scrupulously avoid self-stimulation. Along comes a wag who
says that *he* had the "hand that explores among women"--the same kind
of theme that Robert Herrick revels in, but with the added spice of
allusion to a religious text dealing with holiness. The establishment
often disapproved of such liberties--Joseph Karo proscribes the reading
of such books, especially on the sabbath--but the situation was there to
be used for good or ill.

It seems to me that Christian Europe lacked this feature. The
literature of the classical world was the best candidate for this kind
of treatment, but the players were pagans, with all their nasty
self-indulgences, and Christians were never quite comfortable with them.
Virgil was coopted into the Christian heaven, and even given retroactive
prophet's privileges, but he must have stuck out like a sore thumb amid
all those haloes. And the New Testament may or may not be a necessary
ingredient in man's eternal salvation, but it is dreadfully unquotable.

Most of us have our illusions, but Ephraim has his allusions. I wish
him luck in being understood.

Ephraim might be able to use productively the Iris software which has,
I believe, already been mentioned in these pa--screens. I have not had
a chance to look at it in detail, but it claims that the virtual books
it creates can "ask questions and respond with the answers (sounds like
a schoolteacher!), readers can jump from one topic to another, and
windows...can be accompanied by pleasant tones." It would enable the
layering of materials in the way he seems to need. They even offer to
distribute the virtual books you create, although I do not know how
far their net is spread. This effusion now gets more technical, and
some of you may wish to tickle you know what.

A few miscellaneous points. lehem huqqenu does not mean "our
lawful bread" but rather the bread of our portion, the bread of our
rizq, to use the Arabic expression. Needless to say, although Ephraim
wrote this, he has no dibs on what it means, especially as it is
allusive (Proverbs I think). Zeembezoom I should prefer to connect
with the Zamzumim of the Ammonites. The be is just "leshaper et
haqeriah" to ease the passage betwen m and z (am I playing the game
according to the rules?) On the model of qambaz, I would propose
hashbez, which means "to absorb occupied territory quickly." I admit
that it is fun to read Hava's dictionary and see the astounding
combinations to which Arabic words can correspond: for example, sajara
which means "to prolong her groans" (of a she-camel); afhasha meaning
to hold unseemly, obscene talks against someone, or nafaja which means
either to spring up (but only as a hare does) or to come forth (but
only as a chicken does.) So the next time you see a chicken come
forth, be aware that she is nafijatun, engaging in that special
chickeny-rich coming forth which only the magnificent Arabic language
can properly capture.

And now a comment on shedra. I noted in the Israel Brodie festschrift
that the segol is subphonemic. You never get a three-way a/i/e
contrast in classical Hebrew. e occupies middle ground, sometimes
representing the a phoneme, and sometimes the i, possibly because
Hebrew was being heard through Aramaic ears (why should anyone ever
have thought that the phonemic inventories of the two languages are
identical or even similar?) In the Sephardic tradition many i-words
are e-words, and why not? I-efshar (impossible) is e-efshar; midrash
is medrash. (In the London Portuguese Jewish community the members of
the congregational academy were called "medrasistas".)

Ephraim at this point must be the doruran who takes the prize for a
contribution directed to an in-group, in this instance to students of
classical Hebrew. The Sanskritists will doubtless take a nirvanistic
revenge, but a commentary in nothing more outlandish than late Latin
will be appreciated.