Commentary Magazine


The Use of Hebrew

To the Editor:

In his answer to my letter, Robert Alter makes the following parenthetical statement: “Both Mai-monides and Ibn Gabirol, by the way, wrote their philosophical work in Arabic, but I would hardly expect a reader of Mr. Hurwitz's ilk to bother with historical facts” [“Letters from Readers,” March].

The historical facts are, of course, that both authors wrote on philosophical issues also in Hebrew. I refer to Gabirol's Keter Malkhut and to Book I of Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, whose Hebrew style, incidentally, was considered for generations a model of discursive writing and retains its lucidity, precision, and beauty to this day. Both works, I believe, are available in English translation; at any rate, a description of their content can easily be found in any reference work. It should be added that Keter Malkhut's poetic form does not detract from its philosophical content; De Rerum Natura is also a poem.

Mr. Alter then makes the very odd pronouncement: “there is no adequate Hebrew equivalent for the abstraction, ‘pattern.’” This is simply wrong. The word, “pattern,” has various meanings, depending on the context, and for each, as well as for the term itself, there are several synonyms in Hebrew, some recently coined or applied, others dating back to biblical times. The old Mishnaic term, defus . . . has now acquired the added sense of the abstraction “pattern” in certain contexts, where it means precisely that, and cannot be translated otherwise. . . .

Uri Hurwitz
New York City

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Mr. Alter writes:

In both cases, Mr. Hurwitz stretches the historical evidence considerably further than it will go in order to cover his position: (1) Keter Malkhut is a great visionary and confessional poem rich in neo-Platonic imagery, but it is hardly a vehicle for philosophical analysis, and it certainly played no role in the development of philosophical prose in Hebrew. Gabirol's major philosophical work, The Source of Life, was written in Arabic. (2) Maimonides does make an important attempt to use Hebrew for philosophical analysis in the first two sections of the Mishneh Torah, Book I, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah and Hilkhot De'ot. But these comprise only a small part of a work whose language and subject are legal, not philosophical, and it is in his legal style that Maimonides is a model of lucidity. His major philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed, was, of course, written in Arabic.

As for “pattern,” I chose that example because last summer I spent a quarter of an hour with two young Israeli critics unsuccessfully trying to think how one might say “patterns of imagery” in Hebrew. Defus covers some senses of “pattern” but not this sense, and as Mr. Hurwitz seems to concede by his silence on the matter, Hebrew offers no means for moving from “images” to the abstraction, “imagery.”

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