Sunday, 25 June 2017

Language and symbols – as unique as the culture that they reflect

This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks

Languages and symbols are the defining edges and the shapers of a culture and its members. They determine their views and perspectives.  They affect how they interpret their reality, how they decide during adulthood and what their values are in the subtlest of ways. 

Both are also harsh, sometimes, and for a reason.

Ever since early days, mankind has been using, borrowing and adopting symbols and terms of cultures alien to their own. In many case, such usage has helped bridge over differences and mend divides that human nature has erected. Cultures and groups have been willingly sharing ideas, inventions and moral codes, all for the benefits of the many.

What is repeatedly forgotten, however, is that most often in history, words, languages, meanings and symbols are adopted by the dominant cultural group in order to reflect its frame of reference, its world view. When these are, therefore, assumed and used by others, meanings are likely to be changed, often to the disadvantage of the smaller, less numerous and less powerful group that holds those cultural parameters. 

These practices among cultures have been so widespread that, in many instances, it almost seems to us that the game of sharing has turned into Chinese whispers. People are either using terms in the wrong context, or using them in the right one but mispronouncing them.

That could be, at most, funny and entertaining. But not always.

As a result of such misuse, and in an effort to keep original meanings intact, the smaller less powerful culture must make an extra effort to maintain its identity and those cultural artifacts in symbols and language as originally intended,

Moreover, in many cases, people do not only use symbols and terms of other cultures in the wrong context, mispronounce them, misapply them, and sometimes use them as objects of ridicule. In many cases, they also, and worst of all, claim them as their own while trying to convince others that those had always been theirs.

For instance, many of us have heard the famous saying “Love thy neigbour as thyself.” It is being referred to as a “Christian idiom” and has, regrettably, been unquestionably accepted as such.  Those, however, who are familiar with the original Hebrew/Jewish Scriptures would know that not only is this verse taken from the Torah, it was also misinterpreted when translated into Greek and from Greek into other languages.

It first appears in ויקרא   (VaYikra, Leviticus) 9:18. The original Hebrew states "ואהבת לרעך כמוך."  Which translates “You should love your friend as yourself.” Surely not every friend is our neighbour and not every neighbour is our friend. 

Another and more important example of change might be in the popular translations of the 10 Commandments. Some popular versions in the West, while claiming authenticity, actually edit out portions that might be inconvenient to non-Jewish cultures, and mistranslate others while leaving them with the beliefs that were never intended by the original. This does not stop some from claiming with religious fervor that their versions are the word of G-d.  The example that comes to mind is when about 5 years ago, the wife of an Evangelical minister spoke on radio claiming that she believed every word of the Bible because she had read and studied it in the “original English” and knows what G-d commands us to believe.

Unlike language, Symbols, sometimes carry even a deeper cultural meaning. 

For Jews, for instance, Jewish symbols, from the Magen David to the Talit to the symbolism of the care taken when lifting and using the Sefer Torah, all have special meaning that distinguish our traditions, our struggles, or resistance, our identity and, therefore, make them unique to us. 
When Gentiles adopt those symbols because they believe it brings them closer to their Christ, that changes the meaning of those symbols, and, to be blunt, though some Jews mistakenly interpret that as being pro-Jewish, most of us see that as some sort of parody that distorts that which those things mean to us. This is akin to the sentiment of a Christian being insulted when witnessing a Muslim using the symbol of the Cross in some play or another context in a manner which is remote from the intentions of it creators. 

These are just a couple of examples as to why and where harsher and more crisp guidelines need to be adopted and applied by members of the culture whose essence is being hijacked, mistranslated and sometimes misused. It happened in the past albeit in a manner which cannot be repeated or affected, let alone enforced in today’s world.  One example where such measures were used is ancient Rome. There, laws and fines were in place against efforts to usurp that which belonged and was limited to one group.

And before anyone jumps at our throat and puts words in our mouths, let us reiterate that we do not advocate such an approach. We are merely stating a historical fact where members of one group, in this case, Jews, seek to defend, and justifiably so,  that which belongs to them against efforts to appropriate its essence, spiritual and other.

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