It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I love words. I love languages. I love the nuance and grammar and all of those things that were so boring when we had to learn them in grade school. It’s this love that has dictated so many of my tattoos, and which brings me to this blog today. I mentioned in my first writing for Tattooed Jew that I believe tattoos can be holy conversations — that, like so many other things, we must begin to move past a reading of what they say to an understanding of what they mean.
Yesterday, I was working and, as usual, someone asked about the tattoo on my arm. He asked what it meant. It seems a little thing, and if you aren’t used to being asked daily what your tattoos say, it probably is a little thing. But he didn’t ask what it said. He asked what it meant.
It seems like semantics, and maybe to him it was. But to me it was a huge thing. There is such a large difference between what something says and what it means. To tell what something says is simple. It’s a matter of translation and literacy. But to say what something means – that is a matter of history and context, of the nuance of definition and the intention of the author.
This is why the Jewish tradition has the commentaries it has, why the Talmud was written and why Responsa are still being written. Meaning is variable. It is deeper than the definition of a given word. It changes with time and space and circumstance. To read Torah and take it for the surface meaning is only one level of understanding. One must go deeper to fully appreciate and understand the meaning of a word, much less the meaning of a whole passage. With language, I believe, what is said is only the bones, while what is meant is the heart and soul of the passage.
We live in a world in which holy texts are so often taken for what they say. We read literally. We find justification for our hatreds, our fears, and our fanaticism in the words on the page. We live our religions and our faiths playing only with the bones. It is an intimate thing to say what a passage, a tattoo, or a text means. Refusing to read beyond the bones of a text is a rejection of the few moments of intimacy we are granted with the Divine.