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Responding to Signs with Words

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

Signs are everywhere. We move through the myriads of signs that envelop our lives, carelessly, with what has to be a partially ignorant nonchalance, a cognitive impurity we carry around since the Fall. In a cosmos filled with signs, man has enforced upon himself this blinding ignorance, and has then yearned, in a sense of embarrassed nudity, clad in desire, to attain what the Italian writer Stefano Benni would called “the grammar of God.” Yet, with all the maps and diagrams tracing the cosmic trajectories of signs, man is somewhat blind, and cannot understand most what he can see, while, alas, he cannot accept the fact that not everything has a meaning. Creation revolves around man, with an incomprehensible plenum of signs, which man does not see, does not understand. The space between him and those signs is bridged with interpretation, with a meaning man himself fashions – but when signs are impregnated with man-made meaning, and then uplifted to vestiges of God-given utterances, that is when man loses himself in a chaos of lies.

Signs were in ancient Greek culture the traces left by the gods, vestiges of meaning which men were required to interpret through divination. Homer was one of the first to use the expression identifying divination as the knowledge “of things that are, of things that will be and of things which have been in the past”:

“Kalchas, Nestor’s son, far the best of the bird interpreters, who knew all things that were, the things to come and the things past, (hòs eide* tá t’eónta tá t’essómena pró t’eónta) who guided into the land of Ilion the ships of the Achaians through the seercraft of his own that Phoibos Apollo gave him.
(Iliad, I, 6972)

Divination is, for Homer, the source of what is presented here as a total knowledge of things. The sign (which is the means through which this knowledge is acquired) belongs not to the human sphere but comes from the higher, more numinous, sphere of the divine. The sign is the instrument of mediation between the total knowledge of the gods and the more limited knowledge of humankind. The sign is, in Greek divination, the locus where divine knowledge erupts into the human sphere.

The Divine words of the gods are unlike the words of mortals, and for this reason the words contained in the oracular response were to be considered as human only insofar as they had human sounds: yet they failed to produce meaning when the code of human verbal language is applied to them. This lack of equivalence in the expression of knowledge content separates humanity from the gods.

Nevertheless, there was a more radical difference between the Greek conception of the human and the divine, based on the very modality of the knowledge. “Gods rule time by means of a simultaneous “sight” of past, present and future; divine omniscience stems precisely from the possession of panoptic vision. Apollo, according to Pindar’s expression, has “the glance that knows all things” (Pyth., III, 29).” Mortals, on the other hand, perceive only the present, while the other dimensions of time remain inaccessible to them, except through the mediation of the gods. Access may be achieved through visions which must then be translated into words, for mortals gain knowledge only through hearing. Soothsayers reveal the future to their fellow mortals by translating into words the “visions” communicated by the god, and decode the signs left by the gods in nature for men to use as the path towards fate. But the divinatory sign is enigmatic, obscure and practically incomprehensible, and in order to decipher it, an interpreter is necessary.

Plato, in his Timaeus, addressed the matter of divination thus:
“A sufficient token that God gave unto humanity’s foolishness the gift of divination is that no one achieves true and inspired divination when in their rational mind, but only when the power of their intelligence is fettered in sleep or when it is overcome by disease or by reason of some divine inspiration. But it belongs to an individual when in their right mind to recollect and ponder both the things said (tà rhethénta) in dream or waking vision by the divine and inspired nature, and all the visions (tà phásmata ) that were seen, and by the means of reasoning to discern about them all how they are significant and for whom they indicate (semaínei ) evil or good in the future, the past, or the present. But it is not the task of the person who has been in a state of frenzy, and still continues so, to judge the apparitions and voices which they saw or uttered; for it was well said of old that to do and to know one’s own and oneself belongs only to those who are sound of mind. It is therefore customary to set up the tribe of prophets to pass judgement upon these inspired divinations; and indeed, these are sometimes named “diviners” by those who are wholly ignorant of the truth, that they are but interpreters of the mysterious words pronounced by means of enigmas and of those visions, but by no means diviners. The most just thing is to call them prophets, that is interpreters of what has been divined.”
(Plato, Timaeus, 71e72a)

The verb semaíno indicates the revelation of the god. It is the god who is seen as the true producer, through the inspired human individual, of the divinatory text. The force responsible for the production of signs is “divine and inspired nature”, that is, the god who erupts into the human individual by possession (as indicated by the etymology of the second term, which is linked to theós ). The human individual here is a channel of transmission or a mouthpiece.

There is a well-known fragment attributed to Heraclitus, which confirms the use of the verb semaíno , signs, in this sense in divinatory contexts:
“The lord, who has the oracle in Delphi / neither discloses nor hides his thought, / but indicates it through signs (semaínei* )”

This passage presents an opposition between two antithetical types of language. On one side there is human language, transparent and decipherable while also dissimulating and hiding intention (human individuals reveal their thoughts completely by using language or hide them completely by not expressing them externally in words). On the other side there is the kind of language attributed directly to the gods, whose obscurity makes decipherment literally impossible. By means of the oracular sign, the gods provide a base for inference on which humanity must work to reach a conclusion.
Divination in Greek culture was deeply rooted – in rabbinical Judaism that culture of divination was meant to be uprooted. Signs were still left by God, but this time their interpretation was a matter of intruding into the realm of Divine intentions, and weaving illusory narratives which had nothing to do with the unknowable truth. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 59a, within the framework of a broader discussion on how the human individual must praise God for all that he experiences, good and bad, with all his might and faith, the Gemara brings the story of Rav Ketina, and his tackling of the question of how one must react / interpret catastrophes:
“And we learned in the mishna that over zeva’ot one recites the blessing: Whose strength and power fill the world. The Gemara asks: What are zeva’ot? Rav Ketina said: An earthquake. The Gemara relates: Rav Ketina was once walking along the road when he came to the entrance of the house of a necromancer and an earthquake rumbled. He said: Does this necromancer know what is this earthquake? The necromancer raised his voice and said: Ketina, Ketina, why would I not know? Certainly this earthquake occurred because when the Holy One, Blessed be He, remembers His children who are suffering among the nations of the world, He sheds two tears into the great sea. The sound of their reverberation is heard from one end of the earth to the other. And that is an earthquake.
Rav Ketina said: The necromancer is a liar and his statements are lies. If so, it would necessitate an earthquake followed by another earthquake, one for each tear. The Gemara remarks: That is not so, as it indeed causes an earthquake followed by another earthquake; and the fact that Rav Ketina did not admit that the necromancer was correct was so that everyone would not mistakenly follow him.

Rav Ketina also stated his own explanation for the earthquake: Because God claps His hands together in anger, as it is stated: “I will also smite My hands together and I will satisfy My fury; I, the Lord, have spoken it” (Ezekiel 21:22). Rabbi Natan says: The earthquake is caused because God sighs over the dire straits in which Israel finds itself, as it is stated: “Thus shall My anger spend itself, and I will satisfy My fury upon them, and I will be eased” (Ezekiel 5:13). And the Rabbis say: An earthquake is caused when God kicks the firmament, causing a rumbling, as it is stated: “The Lord roars from on high, from His holy dwelling He makes His voice heard. He roars mightily over His dwelling place, He cries out like those who tread grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth” (Jeremiah 25:30). Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: An earthquake is caused when God forces His feet beneath the throne of glory and the world quakes, as it is stated: “The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool” (Isaiah 66:1).”

Rav Ketina and the necromancer stand at the two poles of a dichotomous opposition – one perceives (or is supposed to perceive) the cosmos through the eyes of the Scriptures, and uses catastrophic events as signs of Divine ire, moments for teshuva and introspection; the other one sees the natural event as a clear sign of God’s state of mind. While one perceives reality through the texts of the Scriptures, and thus engages events with the tools of tradition, and creates a textual buffer through which he can interpret the signs of God (things filtered through words, res through verba ), the other cognizes the event, penetrates it and unpacks the meaning for whomever is willing to pay. The tension between the two, which eventually leads Rav Ketina to admit that there is some truth in the necromancer’s words and that he could not support his version of facts for the sake of those who would then follow him, sheds light on the natural tendency we have to interpret events in our lives as signs of Divine origin, and the dictum to avoid such a temptation and perceive those events through the word of God. Catastrophes are not tokens of divine meaning, provided to men for their interpretation – they are the chance for the individual to return to the Scriptures, and to strengthen the filtered perception of natural events through the written words of God. The latter, in stark opposition to the Greek tradition, is not an imperfect rendering of Divine meaning (as in the case of the verbal responses from the oracles), but is rather the human means to digest the incomprehensibleness of history.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.