The Semitic Perspective

In honor of Chanukah, I thought I would finally post my ideas on the differences between the Yefetic and Semitic perspectives. Yefes, and his son Yavan are the progenitors of western thought. Yavan, the Ionians, are the first Greeks to establish academies of art and philosophy, paving the way for the more famous Athenians. We, on the other hand, are descendents of Sheim, and our forefathers spent years studying his thoughts. Last year, I explored one consequence of Yavan’s gift of aesthetic (“yaft E-lokim leYefes — G-d’s beauty is for Yefes”) vs. Sheim’s focus on core value (“…veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim — and He will ‘dwell’ in the homes of Sheim.”) Teaser: “I think this is a very telling statement about Western Culture. Politeness is about perfecting the surface. It doesn’t demand a change of the self, but putting up the appropriate front for others. … Judaism looks to create ba’alei chessed, people who relate to this world primarily in terms of its opportunities to give and share with others. Not to simply be polite and act inoffensively, which doesn’t quite work…”

Another difference can be seen by contrasting the style of Aristotle with that of Rav Yehudah haNasi. Aristotle catalogues. He divides a subject into subtopics, and those subtopics even further, until one is down to the individual fact. Greek thought was focused on reductionism. To understand a phenomenon, break it down into smaller pieces, and try to understand each piece. This is typical of the Yefetic perspective.(I’ll try to use “perspective” only to refer to these basic ways of thinking that underlie many worldviews and schools of thought. Pretty much any western thinker works within Yefetic perspective. The issue is one more fundamental even than the differences between Socrates and Derrida. Socrates forces his opponent to make a distinction and show him how neither side really works — thereby forcing him to Socrates’ conclusion. Derrida also presumes that objective truth must be reducible into simple yes/no questions — and since the world doesn’t fit that, he focuses on the role of texts and social construct in how we see the world.)

As opposed to the way Rav Yehudah haNasi redacted the first mishnah. The beginning of the mishnah could have said that the time for evening shema is from sunset until 1/3 the night. But instead it uses referents involving kehunah, taharah and ashmores. This is not to confuse the issue, but because from the Semitic perspective the key to understanding one mitzvah is from its connections to everything else.

Yefes is reductionist, believing the world can be understood as the sum of its smallest pieces. Sheim is holistic, looking at the interconnections between those pieces, and the pieces only gaining meaning from the relationships in which they partake.

This is not only true statically, but also over the course of time. We get used to identifying “the cause” of something. Why did he hurt his foot? Because a can fell on it. Why did the can fall? Because someone else accidentally kicked it. And so on… However, it’s equally true that he hurt his foot because even though he usually wears iron toed hiking boot, he chose not to wear them that that day.

I would instead suggest that every event is like “the perfect storm”, every one has combinations of factors that come to a head at the same point. If we accept this proposal, then belief in modern science or even Newton’s deterministic physics does not rule out the existence of other perfectly valid causes. Saying that something happened because of a segulah, or nature, or mazal, or free will does not rule out that it’s happening because of the others — and Divine Providence.

Also, it means that identifying one cause of some tragedy does not mean that one is denying other causes. And not every cause need to be a source of blame, saying that the party is one of those “at fault” for what happened. Our being gathered in Eastern Europe in such density had much to do with the magnitude of the holocaust. But we weren’t at fault for being there.

(Even look at the difference between Western and Eastern idolatry: Semitic idolatry is not about polytheistic people-gods, reducing godhood to an easily understandable super-powerful “person” like Zeus. It’s about notions that seem to us far blurrier. Buddha nature in which everything is godly, but just isn’t aware of it. Hinduism’s single Divine that has 3.3 million expressions called “gods”. One fact, many perspectives. Is it avodah zarah or isn’t it? The cases in the gemara become difficult to apply. Christianity started on this road when it adopted trinitarianism, but at some point the church got too Westernized to be able to attempt to still retain it. Until you get to Tertullian, who insists that he believed it because it’s absurd [which in Latin primarily means self-contradictory].)

There is also a likelihood this issue played a role in the Maimonidian Controversy. For all his ties to mesorah, the Rambam’s project was from what we identified as a Yefetic perspective. Unlike the mishnah, his Mishneh Torah categories, divides and subdivides in Aristotilian style, with some connections overlaid, and far more often simply left implied.

While there is a historic debate whether there are 13 principles or three, I really don’t know what difference this makes except in semantics. Furthermore, according to the qabbalists there is no such thing a foundation principle in the Torah because every aspect of the Torah is a foundation principle without distinction one part from another…

Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 2:356; tr. R’ Daniel Eidensohn

The Rambam tried to establish basics, from which everything flows. The Chasam Sofer presents the opposing qabbalistic camp, in which any Torah idea can be seen as an equally place to start exploring a complex network of truths. The issue was never articulated, but perhaps because “perspective” is something so primary that it’s difficult to establish a common dialogue across its borders.

Des Cartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.” A true skeptic can’t be sure of much. Even “1 + 1 = 2″ might be a delusion caused by insanity or a malevelent deity. The only thing one can be sure of is that there is an “I” doing the thinking, being sure. He then tried to prove the existence of other things, including G-d, with just this one given.

But even the Cogito is subject to this distinction. Are we individuals who interact, or only defined as individuals by the set of interactions we have with others? Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-”, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

Even the “I” is not reductionist, but defined by its connections.


From this relation-based orientation comes a second distinction, a basically different approach to logic.The West never formalized the notion of reality having gray areas. For example, the question of whether a ball is red gets fuzzy around the edges of the notion of red. Add just an invisible tincture of blue, and it’s still red. Keep on adding blue, and at some point it’s clearly purple. But at some point in the middle, it’s “sort of red”. Classical logic has no way to describe that “sort of”.Since Aristotle’s day, western logic has had two basic rules:
The Law of Contradiction: Something can never be both true and false. From this law, we have the reductio ad absurdum; we can assume something is true if denying it leads to a contradiction.
The Law of Excluded Middle: Something is either true or false, not neither.
These seem so self-evident to us, one wonders how other positions could exist. However, had we grown up in the Far East, we wouldn’t be so Yefetic.

In a perspective that focuses on connections, there is no isolated fact. Therefore, many things Yefes would consider a single yes/no question are complex, shaded, and nuanced to Sheim. R’ Meir Levin uses this idea as a basis for understanding derashos. He suggests that the role of qal vachomer, gezeirah shavah, heqesh, kelal uperat, are to establish for us relationships. This is why they play a role that sevarah, which is more compatible with western logic, does not.

This subtlety beyond all-or-nothing of the Semitic perspective is also the reason for a number of other things:

1- There are many opinions which understand “eilu va’eilu, “These and those are the Words of the Living G-d, but the law is like Beis Hillel” to mean that both sides of a halachic debate are literally and fully true. See earlier essays about eilu va’eilu.

2- When someone wants to formally make a tenai, a conditional (e.g. This divorce is valid if… Or: I promise this calf as a qorban if…), ideally he must make it in both the positive and the negative. “… if I do not return, and it is not valid if I do.” Because we allow for antinomy and for middle values between yes and no, saying the condition in the positive form need not imply its truth in the negative.

This has consequence in the Yiddish practice of avoiding ayin hara by phrasing compliments in the negative. However, “He’s not stupid” doesn’t actually mean “He’s smart.” He could be average, a middle ground. If they actually were considered identical, would the circumlocution avoid ayin hara?

3- The logic of deciding uncertainty in halachic situations.

I think that to understand halakhah’s notion of logical connectives, equivalents to the boolean notions of “this AND this are true”, “this OR this is true”, “this is NOT true”, etc… one should explore the concept of sefeiq sefeiqa, how to resolve cases with multiple doubts, when there are two unknowns in the circumstance we need to rule upon. We seem to have 5 logical states:
mutar: permitted, including mi’uta demi’uta, a “minority of a minority, ie negligable chance of prohibition
mi’ut: minority, of significant size
safeiq: doubt
rov: majority, and
assur: prohibited, including ruba deruba, an overwhelming majority).

There are debated questions. “Mi’ut bemaqom safeiq”, does a minority chance on one doubt and more even second doubt combine to make a majority. “Sefeiq sefeiqa de’eina mis-hapeches”, a second doubt that only exists if you consider the other one first. E.g. a doubt whether wheat sprouted after Pesach in light of one about whether it was planted before Pesach. If the answer to the second question is “no”, then obviously so is the first. These are debates about the nature of our connectives. Does “mi’ut OR safeiq” equal rov or safeiq?

Not that these states exist in all situations. In cases of qavu’ah, where doubt arose after a ruling was once made, any doubt is like “half vs half”. It seems to be boolean, ie the classical true / false, and therefore if we can’t establish one or the other we can’t procede.

For more on this point, see this draft appendix as well as this devar Torah for parashas Shofetim. In these essays, particularly the second (and much shorter) one, I tie the use of multivalent logic on the idea that halakhah addresses the world as experienced rather than the world as it may exist objectively. Therefore, a ruling could be on an experienced reality of “unknown”. However, once the matter is qavu’ah, reality was once determined, and therefore the question has a boolean resolution.

However, in response to Rabbi Levin’s writings on Semitic vs Yefetic worldviews, I came up with this second theory, that we do not strive individuate facts, and therefore the whole concept of subject-predicate doesn’t map very well. But they are far from mutually exclusive. The Semitic worldview better describes the human condition. This is why Kant assumed that anything real must be free of paradox, and that since he could construct paradoxes about time and space, they must be perceptions imposed by the human mind onto reality, rather than actually “out there”. Or why everyone is used to a single event creating conflicting emotions. And used to seeing something that is “sort of red”, or a person who is “kind of tall”.

(Loosely related is the question whether logic is inherent in Truth, and therefore of G-d’s essence, or a created notion that Hashem can therefore violate at will. See the entry “Hashem and Logic“.)


Just now, in our lifetimes, this gap may be closing. Quantum Mechanics seems to require a logic in which something can be both up and down in a kind of combination called a “superposition of states”. And uncertainty is being modeled in numerous ways, from Fuzzy Logic to Bayesian probability, all of which involve states between “yes” and “no”. In Martin Gardner’s book on multivalent logics (logical systems that have values other than true or false), he shows that a system based on “true / false / neither” and one based on “true / false / both” produce identical definitions for AND and OR. In other words, the law of contradiction isn’t a given in any multivalent logic.Also, there is a growing science of emergent properties, involving notions like Chaos Theory. Models for networking have been built that work whether one is discussing the interactions of particles down on the quantum level, chemicals in a living cell, the neurons in the brain, people in an organization, or links between web sites. We are first now learning how to model connections rather than just the items being connected.But until these ideas leave academia and become the bedrock of how we view the world, we’re still tied to the Yefetic perspective.

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