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Communication: A Divine Feature of Humanity.


Most people of almost any religion, and many non-religious people, too, believe that in the course of life we interact with realities beyond the realm of science and that there is more to our existence than just the material world. Many things in our universe cannot be described within the laws of science. Perhaps this is a temporary situation, to be corrected gradually as science makes more and more progress and closes more and more gaps. Yet, even among people who are not religious, there is a strong sense that we interact with "the supernatural," that there is more to the world than meets the eye.

Things that are fundamentally (as opposed to temporarily) outside the realm of science can be called supernatural entities. Most humans believe that the world they inhabit is in some way open to interaction with supernatural entities. Preachers of spirituality, prophets true and false, mystics, clairvoyants, faith healers, fortune-tellers, horoscope experts, dream interpreters, telepathy proponents, charm vendors and many others owe their livelihood to the human search for that which is beyond the material. That sense, and that search, postulates our conviction that humans have a soul, a divine spark, a supernatural entity that can potentially interact with other supernatural entities and indeed seeks to do so.


The highest form of human interaction with a supernatural entity is with the A-lmighty. Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith (in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin) includes the fundamental principle that G-d communicates with humans, and this Divine communication differentiates humans from other created beings. This is not only indirect interaction, such as through intermediaries. G-d can communicate with us directly and explicitly. At Mount Sinai, the People of Israel said to Moses: "This day we have seen that G-d speaks with humankind and [we] remain alive." (Deuteronomy 5:21) However, since they were terrified by G-d's presence, "They said to Moses: speak you with us so that we may hear, and let not G-d speak with us lest we die." (Exodus 20:16) The fact that G-d can and does connect with us humans is due to something unique within us. Later sages, such as Ha'Ktav V'hakabalah on Parashat Lekh-Lekha, chapter 12; Alsheikh on Exodus, chapter 4; Rabbi Tsadok Ha'Kohen in Pri Tsadik on Parashat Sh'kalim, define our unique human consciousness as ruah memalelah (a speaking soul). The term ruah memalelah first appears in Onkelos' translation of Genesis 2:7.

The secular term for that which our sages have called ruah memalelah is the human mind. As defined by various leading dictionaries, the mind is the human faculty of consciousness and thought. It is the part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels, remembers, perceives, judges, desires, and imagines. Interestingly, our sages saw fit to emphasize the speech aspect of the human mind in characterizing its uniqueness by the divine gift of communication. In the ancient hymn L'Hai Olamim (attributed to Rabbi Meshulam ben Kalonymus of the tenth century, but appearing many centuries earlier in Heikhalot Rabbati 28a), this is expressed by:
[phrase omitted]

(Knowledge and speech are due to the Eternal One.)

This unique gift to humans to communicate with one another also enables us to communicate with G-d, through prayer and other forms of expression. Indeed, humans initiate communication with the A-lmighty primarily through prayer, and they have done so from Biblical times. Prayer usually consists of praise, request and gratitude. It may be vocal, as at the splitting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:10) or voiceless, as in the case of Hannah (Samuel I 1:12-13). The very essence of our religious life consists of spiritual growth through a continuing search for connection and communication with G-d, by means of the personal divine spirit within the mind of each and every one of us, a spark that we are instructed to nurture.

Our Torah requires us to communicate with G-d regularly through prayer. But it also requires us to do this directly. By praying we acknowledge our belief in G-d and in Him alone. We are prohibited to pray through any intermediary (the fifth of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith), whether that intermediary be an angel, an object, or a righteous person. This prohibition is not in contradiction to the fact that G-d may choose to speak to us through an intermediary, which is His own unquestionable privilege.


The opening chapter of Genesis emphasizes the creation of Adam "in G-d's image" (b'tselem Elokim). As mentioned above, the term ruah memalelah is an expression of our divine spark which, among other things, enables dialogue between us and our Maker. It refers to a higher form of communication that is fundamentally different from our ability to communicate as animal beings (nefesh hayyah) and with animal beings.

The initial form of this Divine communication as it appears in the second chapter of the Torah (Genesis 2:16-17) consisted of G-d's instruction to Adam to refrain from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I have explained the significance of this communication of G-d to Adam in detail in my article in volume 24 of B'Or Ha'Torah. Briefly restated, G-d's prohibition had no natural rationale whatsoever, and as such was limited to humankind only. Thereby Adam is caused to recognize that he alone among all G-d's creations is answerable to a Divine standard of right and wrong, having both freedom of choice and responsibility for his choices. Henceforth humankind becomes self-aware of its human conscience. The tree was not "a means for acquisition of knowledge," as Maimonides powerfully points out in the second chapter of The Guide for the Perplexed. Rather, it was "a means of bewareness." It was a tree which G-d prohibits Adam to eat from, for no apparent reason, other than that G-d has so commanded.

In contrast, the snake communicates with Eve using persuasive reasoning and arguments of a purely physical nature. Adam and Eve's transgression causes humans to become aware of our vulnerability, of the ease of our transgressing a supernatural command. It is in that sense that the tree gave humans an understanding of the distinction between good and evil. It makes us aware of the risk of becoming overpowered by the attractions of nature coupled with seemingly rational arguments. It makes us aware of the dangers of setting aside our divine spirituality in favor of physical gratification and fulfillment. As soon as Adam and Eve became aware of this inherent weakness, they became conscious of their nakedness, and they sought to protect themselves by covering themselves with clothing. Indeed G-d shows them that this very awareness gives them away as having eaten from the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:11). Finally, He gives them leather clothes, thus recognizing and legitimizing their need for protection from their weakness. G-d has a dialogue with them, but with the snake there is no dialogue, and there can be none, only a Divine dictate. The Torah teaches us here that dialogue of the A-lmighty with human beings is enabled by virtue of their divine spirit, to the exclusion of all other creatures who lack this unique feature. Throughout Scripture, there are many instances of Divine communication with Jews, and also with Gentiles, at various levels. Divine communication is possible with human beings, but not with any other creatures.

Our continuing search for connection and communication with G-d, through the personal divine spirit installed within us human beings, is the quintessential meaning of our religious life. We are required to recognize and to nurture the divine spark within our human mind.


Taking these ideas one step further, the Sages of the Talmud suggested that it is this same entity, our personal divine spirit, that enables us to uniquely dialogue with each other. Although animals and birds interact among themselves and communicate elementary messages, even among different species, that is at a basic level of signaling only. Human beings are able to dialogue with each other and exchange information in various meaningful ways, at a totally different level. It is communication among kindred spirits. It is also fundamentally different from man's communication with animals, which has no spiritual dimension. A pet is quite capable of expressing its needs, its pleasure and in some cases its feelings, but at a very elementary level.

Meaningful communication among humans is a powerful manifestation of our divine spirit and must be recognized as such. It is our ruah memalelah, our human mind, that enables meaningful interaction of humans with each other, whether through speech, poetry, music, graphic art or the performing arts; by voice, vision, sound, or by the digital technology versions of these.

Human communication arises from a fundamental characteristic of the human mind: our sense of self-awareness. Self-awareness enables us to interact and communicate in complex and meaningful ways with each other through speech or in writing, whether through words or sounds, by voice or by technological means including digital technology. It motivates us to create and to express ourselves and convey abstract ideas through the arts and sciences. It enables us to acquire knowledge and insight from other people. Self-awareness encourages us to express our moral consciousness. But it also gives us the moral responsibility for what we choose to communicate and how we communicate with each other.

We have included in this discussion forms of non-verbal communication. Visual art is a form of expression that communicates between artist and audience. Diversity of taste in aesthetics strongly reflects our spiritual essence itself, not only differences in educational and cultural background. These forms of expression demonstrate modes of communication in which our uniquely human divine spirit is heavily involved. For if they represent no more than animal expression--and they sometimes are just that--they leave us with a sense of deficiency.

The standard definition of human communication can be taken from the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary (www.learnersdictionary. com):
Communication: the act or process of using words, sounds, signs,
behaviors, to express or exchange information, ideas, thoughts and
feelings to someone else.

This somewhat technical definition can be criticized by an interpretation of Ludwig Wittgenstein that when a person communicates, very often the purpose is not simply to convey information, but to effect action, and if the desired action does not result, then it can be claimed that there has been no meaningful dialogue. (I am grateful to Professor Nathan Katz for making this point, based on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.) Clearly, however, common sense tells us that communication is not contingent upon effecting a desired action.

Most communication is for one or more of the following purposes: to exchange information, to obtain knowledge, to teach, to convey ideas and thoughts, to maintain social contact, to express personal feelings. Each of these can have either positive or negative intent, or be ambivalent, from the perspective of the communicator, but it may be seen entirely differently by the recipient. It also depends on whether the context of the communication is a demand, a request, a response, a quotation, or something else.

In conclusion, a word, or a sequence of words, does not necessarily effect any action per se. The only exception to this is the Word of the L-rd A-lmighty, as in the first chapter of Genesis.


Words are often used to achieve a certain reaction, but just as often they do not achieve the result expected by the speaker. This may be because of lack of transmission due to cognitive or lingual difficulties or deafness; total misinterpretation; partial comprehension (common in poetry, art, and music, where the artist's intentions often are not sufficiently clear); or non-compliance: Even if the recipient does comprehend fully what the speaker is trying to say, he may not comply with the speaker's expectation. Something similar happens in cases where the person spoken to disagrees with the speaker's argument. In the Babylonian Talmud (e.g., tractates Bava Batra 13a and 165b, Ketuvot 97a, and Hulin 53b) we find the expression Lo shmia li, klomar lo svira li ("I have not heard it, that is to say, I disagree with it").

The human brain is constantly analyzing the communication that flows in through its various sensor channels, processing and integrating it with other information, in order to derive comprehension of the communicated message. This process naturally involves selective filtering, amplification and attenuation of complex signals, so that often the registered message differs radically from the message that was actually sent.

The distortion of information in communication derives not only from processing in the recipient's mind. It is often caused by incomplete articulation of the speaker's position. Such miscommunication can easily occur when certain complex values are either assumed or taken for granted or not properly articulated. When humans communicate ideas or attitudes, they inherently and instinctively use a broad range of complex values, which can sometimes cause misunderstanding, especially among people of different cultures or backgrounds.

Finally, misunderstanding may be caused intentionally, either by dishonest representation calculated to mislead or to create a false impression, or by dishonest recipients intentionally misinterpreting what they have heard.


We have emphasized that the Jewish perspective views dialogue among humans as a divine feature of our humanity. The "tree of knowledge of good and evil" aspect of social communication is demonstrated by the severe prohibitions in halakhah (Jewish law) of lashon hara (slander), rehilut (evil gossip), and halbanat pnei adam (shaming). Halakhah urges us to recognize the negative potential of social communication and restrain ourselves accordingly.

The term communication is used here in the singular form. In modern discourse, the plural form of the word has evolved into something totally different. "Communications" is defined in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary (
Communications: ways of sending information to people by using

If we accept that communication was given to humankind to express our divine soul, then we need to consider whether modern communications and social networking devices are progress toward improving our divine gift of meaningful communication, or an aberration of that gift. This is not only a fundamental ethical question. The conclusions are relevant to the entire field of modern communications, emphatically including socio-technological tools such as the internet, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. In an age of relativism and subjectivity, we must not allow modern communications devices to distort the spiritual significance of meaningful communication, which elevates humanity above all other creatures.

The Sages of the Talmud say:
Three things can remove a person from this world: jealousy, lust, and
honor. (Mishnah Avot 4:21)

They recognized that the way we communicate with our fellow humans is a divine feature of our humanity and should not be debased by greed, bawdiness, or pride.

We may understand this in the spirit of the Maharal's observation that we were meant to connect with each other by means of speech, just as the kneading of dough forms a positive connectedness among its components (Maharal in Netsah Yisrael, chaps. 3 and 4, and in Netivot Olam, Path of "Love Thy Neighbor," chap. 2): When people misuse their social communication, what was intended to connect people can cause separation, conflict and strife, as in the story of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa (Talmud Gitin 55b, also see Maharal in Netivot Olam, Path of "Language").

Precisely for these reasons, unfiltered social communication is regarded by halakhic authorities as dangerous. Modern socio-technological means of communication have exposed us to previously unrecognized forms of vulnerability. We are challenged to devise means to protect ourselves and our children from the weaknesses of which we are rapidly becoming aware.


We believe that G-d communicates with us in our times as He did in the past. This may be more remote and indirect than it was for our prophets in biblical times, but G-d's communication with us does exist. Some people prefer to use the term hashgakhah (Providence). We are required to be attentive in order to read His messages to the best of our ability. Would the A-lmighty L-rd use modern communications technology to communicate with us? There is no fundamental reason why not.

Humans constantly attempt to communicate with G-d. Prayer is an important conduit, and we are commanded to pray to G-d alone, not through any intermediary, and not to any other entity. Torah study is a form of Divine communication unique to the Jewish people. Interestingly, it is not uncommon to see people using the latest communications technology for their Torah learning. We download a daily page of Talmud onto our laptops or cell phones; we remote-attend Torah classes with Skype; we look up references with Google; and we check forgotten details with Wikipedia. Habad uses networking extensively for Torah education. Why not?

Human ability to communicate meaningfully among ourselves is essentially a divine feature of the human mind, which gives us the power to express our ideas, thoughts and beliefs to each other, whether through speech, the arts, or digital technology. Communication thereby manifests our divine image, which gives us moral responsibility for what we choose to communicate. Communications technology has the potential to enhance and intensify this divine ability. But at the same time it carries the danger of destroying and distorting our spirituality.

The Torah teaches us that some communication has evil intent: The cunning communication of the snake in the Garden of Eden carried a message that was calculated to cause damage and sin. Nowadays, too, empowered by modern communications technology, communication that is essentially negative has the potential to cause immeasurable damage. Social networks are often misused to take evil advantage of the power of communications, as a vehicle for disinformation, incitement, slander, framing, shaming, humiliation, untruth, rudeness and other bad influences.

Innovative approaches are required to counter these sinful misuses, without blocking the positive benefits of networking.

The classical Jewish books of Musar were written well before the advent of modern communications. We need a modern version of the Hafets Haim's Shmirat Ha'Lashon (Guard Your Tongue) applicable to the challenges of our generation.

Communication is a gift from G-d, to be used appropriately, and that emphatically includes modern modes of communication.


Presented at the Eleventh Miami International Conference on Torah and Science at The Shul of Bal Harbour, Surfside, Florida, December 14, 2015


Editor-in-chief of B'Or Ha'Torah, JOSEPH S. BODENHEIMER is a full professor of electro-optics at the Jerusalem College of Technology--Lev Academic Center and president emeritus of this unique college. He received his PhD from the Hebrew University in physics. He did postdoctoral studies in laser spectrometry at King's College, London University, and discovered two previously unknown phase transitions and also developed a new spectrometric technique.

In 1982, Professor Bodenheimer was appointed head of the electro-optics department of the Jerusalem College of Technology. In 1989 he was elected rector and subsequently, until 2009, was president of JCT. Under his leadership, JCT expanded dynamically to become a world-class institute, supporting Israel's position as a global hi-tech superpower while combining Torah and academic studies. Professor Bodenheimer has endeavored to make Israel a world leader in the field of optical engineering through his students and applied research. Awarded substantial research grants from institutes and foundations throughout the world, he has published over eighty papers and holds eleven patents in a broad range of electro-optical devices and systems. He has served as consultant for numerous high-technology companies in Israel and the United States and as a member of several national scientific committees.

Professor Bodenheimer sets aside time for daily Talmud study and teaching on a regular basis. A founding member of the California chapter of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, he is a member of the Zomet Institute for Halacha and Technology, a member of the board of Nishmat Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women.

Fascinated by the combination of science and technology with Jewish studies and ethics, Joseph Bodenheimer is a life-long Zionist leader who loves working with young people, especially his own extensive family. He and his wife, Rachel, have eight children and many grandchildren.

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Author:Bodenheimer, Joseph S.
Publication:B'Or Ha'Torah
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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