What’s Said in What’s Left Unsaid

(An addendum to what I wrote in “Being a Mensch” and “Being a Mensch Part II”)

At the risk that you are already sick and tired of this topic I have one more thing to say about the middle path of the Rambam or more specifically how to understand what Rambam meant.

Without realizing it, my colleague was actually in agreement with Frankl’s assertion that “meaning” is “what is meant.” We have to ask: What is meant by the person who is speaking to me or the situation that implies a question and is waiting for my answer?

Since I didn’t want to read into it but be faithful to what Rambam was trying to say, I believe I went to the other extreme of saying I was all wrong in my interpretation.

Whether I was right or wrong does not matter. What bothered me was her underlying assumption of what the argument was about. She was in essence saying, “Batya, you are reading into the text what you feel like reading into it and I am reading only what the text is saying.”

I have a different take on it. The difference between the way the two of us understood the Rambam was that she was being literal and I was reading beyond his words to what I felt his words implied – not what I want him to be saying but what I think his words really mean.

She insisted that if the Rambam uses the word “upright” and we want to know what he meant, we would have to do a scholarly investigation to see if he uses this word anyplace else and what he means by it there.

I would claim that when Rambam uses the word “upright path” when he could have just as easily stuck only with the words “middle path” that tells me something. Rambam knew his Bible. I’m sure he knew about the verse in Ecclesiastes 7:29 that says a human being was created essentially good within. I’m sure he knew about the sources that refer to Genesis as the “book of the upright” and explain that it is called by this name because of the stories there of morally upright personalities whose lives we can learn from.

Instead of requiring me to prove what the Rambam meant by “upright” I think that the burden of proof is on the person who wants to claim Rambam is not using the word in that way.

(By the way my interpretation of the word “adding” is different. There I agree that I was stretching things. Even so, I wasn’t trying to read what I felt like reading into it but adding the implications of what a divine path would look like.)

The question is: How can we understand a text or a person (And a text is only a person whose words have been recorded. The only difference is he is not here in front of us for us to ask him what he meant.) when he leaves some things unsaid?

It’s really the same as having a client in front of you, where the meaning is hidden. He uncovers a bit and in the words he says we can hear that there is much more left unsaid.

There are nuances, there is body language, tone of voice, a context of what was said before and what after and there are hints to where the person felt meaning was crushed or trust was betrayed. We have to have the humility to know that we might be mistaken in our interpretation but we have to help him discover the meaning for himself. The meaning that comes through will not be our interpretation based on some theory we want to promote. It’s our interpretation of what he is actually trying to say but does not have the words or awareness to express.

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