A Voice Cries Out in the Desert

— Henri Meschonnic–

Henri Meschonnici was a formidable polemicist, and even, in this respect, a « serial killer », according to Michel Deguy. Meschonnic proposed « that we leave the word ‘Shoah’ in the dustbin of history. »ii This word was, according to him, « intolerable », it would represent « a pollution of the mind » and would aggravate a « generalized misunderstanding ». For this Hebrew word, which appears thirteen times in the Bible, refers only to thunderstorm, « a natural phenomenon, simply ». « The scandal is first of all to use a word that designates a natural phenomenon to refer to a barbarity that is all human. » Another scandal would be that Claude Lanzmann appropriated the highly publicized use of the word ‘shoah’, while diverting its meaningiii: « The author of the Shoah is Hitler, Lanzmann is the author of Shoah. » iv

Henri Meschonnic also attacked the « idolatry » of the Kabbalah: « Language is no longer anywhere in the Kabbalah. It is only an illusion, a utopia. It is replaced by the letters of the script taken for hieroglyphics of the world. A cosmism. And a theism. Then, paradoxically, one must recognize the sacred, more than the divine. A form of idolatry. »v

In a similar way, he attacked Leon Askenazi (the famous Rabbi ‘Manitou’), for his word games in the Torah, – this « idolatry that passes for thought »vi.

Idolatry. Idolettrism. Quite a sharp point. But, on the other hand, he tempers a little, hinting that this « idolatry » is also a « utopia »: « Kabbalah is a utopia of language. A utopia of the Jew. Since its indefinite and self-referential allegorisation is supposed to have the following effect: ‘A particular link is thus established between the letter yod, the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which represents the ten Sefirot, and the Jewish people, the Yehudimviiviii

What is this « utopia of the Jew »? A fuse formula summarizes it: Hebrew is the « holy language » par excellence (lechon ha-qodech).

We are here in heavy, very heavy stuff. Meschonnic quotes in support the famous medieval cabalist, Aboulafia, and one of his current thurifer, Elliot Wolfson:

« The cabal will be the exclusive property of the Jewish people, (…) the only nation to have real access to the sacred language of creation, revelation and redemption.»ix

For the comparatist, this type of formula (« the only nation to… », the « sacred language of »,…) seems to be an old cliché, to be found in all latitudes, at all times, in most cultures, so much so that exceptionalism seems really not that exceptional…

More than a thousand years before Abraham, and long before the Torah had even begun to be written down, the Vedic tradition already considered Sanskrit as a « perfect » language. Sanskrit holds its name from the word ‘samskṛta‘ , which means « perfect » in Sanskrit). Moreover, the Vedic tradition considered the entire Vedic corpus as pure, divine revelation.

More recently, for hundreds of millions of believers, the Quran, too, is considered « descended » directly from the Divinity into the Arabic language, which is considered by its locutors a « clear » and « perfect » language.

There is, therefore, obviously on this planet, a certain abundance of « perfect languages » and « divine revelations », seemingly indifferent to their putative concurrents.

What should we conclude from this rush? That these revelations, and these languages, contradict and exclude each other? That only one of them is the true one, the only one « chosen »? Or, should we adopt a more diplomatic formulation, that they all contain some truth? Or, to be more pessimistic, should we suppose that they all somehow lack their intended purpose, whose transcendence escapes them?

What strikes one, in these immense religious and intellectual adventures, which often display, in theory and in practice, ambitions of universal scope, is the paradoxically provincial, navel-gazing, somewhat narrow-minded side of their later commentators. There is no shortage of late voices, coming, a few millennia after the founders, to set themselves up as self-proclaimed defenders, arrogating to themselves the monopoly of exception and election.

In the Babel of languages, Hebrew certainly does not escape the shocking statements about its absolute specificity and its intrinsic superiority over all other languages.

« Divine consonants, human vowels, is the high revelation of Hebrew. »x

The « sanctity » of the Hebrew language is contagious. It extends to the people who speak it.

Hence a sharp alternative:

« The truth that Hebrew is the holy language of a holy people, and the untruth that it is the spoken language of a people like all peoples, seem irreconcilable. » xi

Franz Rosenzweig asked a binary question. There is no way out.

On one side a « holy language » and a « holy people », and on the other side « all peoples » and all other languages, immersed in the no-man’s-land of « untruth » (and un-holiness). Faced with this alternative, what is the answer?

The issue deserves attention.

Franz Rosenzweig seems very sure of his fact: he provides some elements of idiosyncratic argumentation, the scathing lesson of which could perhaps also be of interest to speakers of English, German or Latin – and why not, for good measure, Greek, Arabic or Sanskrit?

« To read Hebrew means: to be ready to gather the entire heritage of the language; to read German, English or Latin, one reaps only the harvest given by the furrows of the language of one season: of one generation. »xii

Franz Rosenzweig does not seem to suspect that the few ‘languages of a season’ he quotes are only the most recent, among a large and immemorial ‘harvest’ of other Indo-European languages, much more original, and some of them with sophisticated grammars, and incidentally with a vocabulary twenty times richer than the biblicalxiii lexicon. Among these languages, Avestic and Sanskrit go back to several millennia before our era, and have both served to compose « sacred » texts (respectively the Avesta and the Veda), which testify to very ancient « revelations », certainly older than the revelation « mosaic ».

It may be argued that Avestic and Sanskrit are nowadays only « dead languages », and that the Avesta or Veda no longer irrigate living times, but only celebrate forgotten Gods…

In contrast, it should also be noted, biblical Hebrew has « risen » again with modern Hebrew, while the Torah continues to live on through the people who bear it and the religions that draw inspiration from it.

These are indeed crucial points.

One could however answer that the Veda religion has not completely disappeared from the world consciousness… or from the depths of the collective unconscious. The history of the Spirit has only just begun. The Vedanta, the Upanishads, Baghavad Gîta, – forever under a bushel? The future, the distant future, will tell.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that the « spirit » of Sanskrit is not really dead, but that it is still very much alive today, and that it is constantly regenerating itself in the vast body of Indo-European languages that are spoken throughout the world, and through their own genius.

The « spirit » of Sanskrit. The « spirit » of Indo-European languages…

Is there a « spirit » of languages? And what does it mean?

Franz Rosenzweig asked this question in a lecture on « the spirit of the Hebrew language ».

« What is the spirit of the German language? Does a language have a ‘spirit’? The answer is: only the language has a spirit. As many languages we know, as many times we are a man. Can you ‘know’ more than one language? Our ‘knowledge’ is just as flat as French ‘savoir‘ (knowledge). We live in one language.» xiv

The word ‘knowledge’, – a ‘flat’ word?

To live is to react…

The French word ‘savoir’ comes from the Latin sapio, sapere, « to have flavor », and figuratively « to have taste, sense, reason ». This Latin word gave in French the words ‘sapience’, ‘saveur’, ‘sève’, ‘sapide’ (and its antonym ‘insipide’). Its etymological origin goes back to the Sanskrit सबर् sabar, « nectar, sap, milk », from which the words Saft in German, sap inEnglish, sapor in Latin also derive.

There is an irony here, a sort of ‘meta-linguistic’ irony, to note that the words ‘flavor’, ‘taste’, are translated ta’am inHebrew, in the plural te’amim.

Now it just so happens that Henri Meschonnic advocated a close attention to the presence in the biblical language of the signs of cantillation, the טְעָמִים, te’amim, supposed to enlighten the deep meaning of the verses by giving them their true rhythm, their melody. « The word, already used by Rabbi Akiva, of te’amim, (…) is the plural of ta’am, which means the taste, in the gustatory sense, the taste of what one has in the mouth.xv In medieval Hebrew, the word also referred to the ratio. It is of capital importance that this word, which designates the junctions-disjunctions, groupings and ungroupings of discourse, with for each ‘accent’ a melodic line, be a word of the body and the mouth. The mouth is what speaks. »xvi

The irony, then, is that the French word ‘savoir’ (which Rosenzweig found ‘flat’) and the Hebrew word te’amim share the same connotations, associating ‘taste’, ‘flavor’ and ‘ratio’...

We quickly return to provincialism and navel-gazing, as we see. One must resolve to understand, once and for all, that outside of Hebrew, there is no salvation. Literally. The Hebrew language holds the divine in it…

Rosenzweig puts it this way:

« The spirit of the Hebrew language is ‘the spirit of God’. (Es ist Geist Gottes). » xvii

Difficult to make more synthetic and more exclusive.

In search of this ‘spirit’ (of the Hebrew language), and interested in the interpretative power attributed to the te’amim, I looked for some possible examples of reference in Meschonnic’s writings.

He particularly emphasizes a verse from Isaiah, usually translated, for centuries, in the Gospels:

« A voice cries out in the desert: prepare a way for the Lord. « (Is. 40:3)

Meschonnic says of this translation: « It is the ‘Christian way’, as James Kugel says. The identification with John the Baptist in Matthew (3:3), Mark (1:3) and John (1:23) depended on it. »

It is true that there is a discrepancy of interpretation between the passages of the Gospels quoted and what we read in the Jerusalem Bible, which gives the following translation:

« A voice cries out, ‘In the desert, make way for the LORD’. »

So? What is the rigjht reading?

 » A voice cries out in the desert »?

Or: « A voice cries out: ‘in the desert etc.' »?

Meschonnic notes that in the Hebrew original, there is a major disjunctive accent (zaqef qatan) after « a screaming voice » (qol qoré):

« So ‘in the desert’ is related to ‘make way’, not about the preceding verb. I translate: ‘A voice cries out in the desert make way for Adonaï’. This text is liked to the exile in Babylon, and calls for a return to Jerusalem. Its meaning is geographical and historical, according to its rhythm in Hebrew. But when cut after ‘desert’, it becomes the Christian and eschatological call. Quite another theology. It is the rhythm that makes, or undoes, the meaning.»xviii

Meschonnic concludes his development with a shock formula :

« Rhythm is not only the Jew of the sign, it is also the Jew of the Jew, and it shares the utopia of the poem by being the utopia of meaning. »xix

The rhythm, the ta’am, is the « Jew of the Jew ». Difficult to find a formulation less goy, and more irrefutable…

However, the rhythm is not enough.

If we place the same verse (Is 40:3) in the immediate context of the first ten verses of the « second » Isaiah (Is 40:1-10), we suddenly see a rich density of possible meanings, proliferating, allusive, elusive, carried by voices, words, utterances, cries, repetitions, variations, ellipses, obscurities and openings.

A textual criticism, aimed at semantics, syntax, allegories and anagogy, would encourage a multiplication of questions – far beyond what the ta’am ta’am is.

Why is God twice named « our God » (אלֹהֵינוּ Elohei-nou) xxin Is 40:3 and Is 40:8, and twice named « your God » (אֱלֹהֵיכֶם Elohei-khem)xxi in Is 40:1 and Is 40:9?

Is « ours » also « yours », or is it not?

Why is God named ‘YHVH’ five times in Isaiah 40:2, Isaiah 40:3, Isaiah 40:5 (twice), and Isaiah 40:7, but only once ‘YHVH Adonai’ in Isaiah 40:10xxii? In other words, why is God here named six times ‘YHVH’, and once ‘Adonai’?

In what way do the expression « all flesh » כָל-בָּשָׂר khol-bachar, in Is 40:5, and the expression « all flesh » כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר kol-ha-bachar, in Is 40:6, differ? xxiii

Why is the article defined in one case and not in the other?

Could it be that the expression « all flesh will see it » וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר vé-raou khol-bachar, implies a universality (total, inclusive) of the vision of the glory of YHVH, – « all flesh » then meaning « all creatures made of flesh »?

Whereas the expression « all flesh, – grass », כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר kol-ha-bachar ḥatsir, only implies that « everything » in the flesh is like « grass »?

Why do two voices, undefined, come from unnamed mouths (Is 40:3 and Is 40:6), – when the spoken word is from « the mouth of YHVH », כִּי פִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר, ki pi YHVH dibber (Is 40:5), and « the word of our God »,וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ devar Elohenou, (Is 40:8), are they duly and by name attributed to God?

Why does the first of these two (undefined) voices shout :

« A voice cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the wilderness, make a straight road for our God’. »(Isaiah 40:3)

Why does the second, undefined voice first say: ‘Cry out’, – before saying what to cry out?

« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « (Isaiah 40:6)

To whom does « your God » address himself when Isaiah says :

« Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,1)

Who is speaking here? Who ‘says’ what ‘your God’ says?

Who exactly is « my people »? Is « my people » the people of ‘your God’ or the people of ‘our God’?

In other words, is « my people » just « grass »? xxiv

Or is it only « the people », which is « grass »?

Last but not least, who is consoling whom, on whose behalf?


iHenri Meschonnic (1932-2009), essayist, linguist, poet, translator.

iiHenri Meschonnic. « Pour en finir avec le mot « Shoah » », Le Monde, dated February 20-21, 2005. cf. https://www.larevuedesressources.org/pour-en-finir-avec-le-mot-shoah,1193.html

iii: Henri Meschonnic. « Pour en finir avec le mot « Shoah » », Le Monde, dated February 20-21, 2005. cf. https://www.larevuedesressources.org/pour-en-finir-avec-le-mot-shoah,1193.html

iv Claude Lanzmann writes: « I fought to impose ‘Shoah’ without knowing that I was thus proceeding to a radical act of nomination, since almost immediately the title of the film became, in many languages, the very name of the event in its absolute singularity. The film was immediately eponymous, people everywhere began to say « the Shoah ». The identification between the film and what it represents goes so far that daring people speak of me as « the author of the Shoah, » to which I can only reply: « No, I’m « Shoah », the Shoah is Hitler. » Le Monde, February 26, 2005

vHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.127

viHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.132

viiH. Meschonnic quotes here Elliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, theosophy and theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p.123.

viiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.128

ixElliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, Theosophy and Theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p. 57, quoted by H. Meschonnic, op. cit. p. 128.

xRaymond Abelio. In a soul and a body. Gallimard, 1973, p.259. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.137

xiFranz Rosenzweig. New Hebrew ? On the occasion of the translation of Spinoza’s Ethics. Collected Writings III p. 725. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138

xiiFranz Rosenzweig. « Neo-Hebrew » in L’écriture, le verbe et autres essais. p.28. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138

xiiiTo get an idea of this, just compare the Sanskrit-English dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams and the Hebrew-English dictionary by Brown-Driver-Briggs, both considered as references in the study of Sanskrit and Biblical Hebrew.

xivFranz Rosenzweig. « On the Spirit of the Hebrew Language. – es a language have a ‘spirit’ ? The answer is: only the language has spirit. As many languages as one can, so much one can be human. Can one ‘know’ more than one language ? Our ‘can’ is as shallow as the French ‘savoir’. One lives in a language. « Collected Writings III p. 719. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.139-140

xvMeschonnic notes that in Arabic, mat’am means « resaturant ».

xviHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.147-148

xviiFranz Rosenzweig. « Vom Geist der hebräische Sprache. « Gesammelte Schriften III p. 721. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 140

xviiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 165

xixHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 171

xx« A way cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the steppe, smooth a road for our God. « קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַבַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ (Is 40,3)

« The grass withers, the flower withers, but the word of our God endures forever. « יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם (Is 40,8)

xxi« Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,1)

« Lift up your voice, fear not, say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!' » הָרִימִי, אַל-תִּירָאִי, אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה, הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,9)

xxii« הִנֵּה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה (Is 40:10)

xxiii« Then the glory of YHVH will be revealed and all flesh will see it, together, for the mouth of YHVH has spoken. »

וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר (Is 40,5)

« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה (Is 40,6)

xxiv« The grass withers, the flower withers, when the breath of YHVH passes over them; yes, the people are grass. »

יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ יְהוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם (Is 40,7)

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