sarah.pessin@du.edu

On the Fragility of Speechless Speaking

Excerpt from my essay “Self-knowledge & the Horizon of Humility in Jewish Thought,” for Ax:son Johnson Foundation volume on Self Knowledge (Stolpe Publishing: Sweden, forthcoming):

We turn in like spirit to Moses, the giver of the Law. First, we find the Torah’s primary depiction of Moses:

And the man Moses was very humble—indeed, he was the humblest of all humans upon the face of the earth.”

-Numbers 12:3

In this classic Jewish Biblical description of the Jewish Lawgiver it is clear that the spirit of humility once again emerges at the heart of Jewish Law. Indeed, we further learn of Moses—the divine spokesman, the appointed speaker of the Law—that he is not just humble, but muted in imperfection; he is in this regard described in particular as

Heavy (or: slow) of mouth and tongue.”

-Exodus 4:10

Note the precarity at play in a tradition that describes its greatest Lawgiver—its greatest giver of the word of God—as unable to speak with clarity or ease. The Jewish tradition resides in a moment of rupture—a broken, imperfect speaking—in which the word of God is conveyed always and only in the humility, uncertainty, precarity—and we might even say, impossibility— of a speaking that can barely be spoken.

The Jewish speaking of the Law—and with it the Jewish act of self-knowledge—is “heavy of mouth” and “slow of tongue.” It issues in starts and stops in imperfection. This is the heart of the Jewish approach to self-knowledge on a horizon of humility, uncertainty, precarity—itself tied to a deep grounding sense of self in vulnerability and even imperfection.

As a speaker, I know myself to be heavy of tongue; as a thinker, I know my thoughts to be imperfect; as a human, I know my conclusions to have always already been incomplete and failing.

Indeed, in what is one of my own favorite moments in Jewish tradition, the Rabbis give a rather elaborate analysis of how Moses’ speech was impeded by an angel pushing the infant Moses to put fiery coals into his mouth in the court of the Pharaoh in an attempt to save him from being killed at the hands of the king’s astrologers.[1] The details aside, we have here an astonishing emphasis on the root of divine lawspeaking in a divine/angelic moment of non- speaking—a burning of lips issuing in a silence followed only and always by starts and stops.

Here, the root of the Law, as the root of the self, is found in the moment of precarious disrepair; it is only in the humility of imperfection that we are invited, in Jewish tradition, to make our entry into the world. And with this humility we turn in humble servitude to our neighbors as the fount of all life and wisdom: In ruptured tongue, my speech is found only in my neighbor’s voice; in my own imperfect and uncertain starts and stops, I seek guidance from the call of my neighbors far and near to whom I am bound in service. This is the heart of Jewish Law, and this is the heart of the Jewish vision of self-knowledge.


[1] Midrash Rabbah: Exodus Rabbah 1:26 (which also references the Exodus 4:10 verse); see Midrash Rabbah: Exodus Rabbah 1:26 (Shemoth) in Harry Freedman and Maurice Simon (eds.), Midrash Rabbah, vol. 3 (Exodus), trans. S. M. Lehrman, London, Soncino Press, 1983, pp. 33-34.

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