Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

About a month ago I was listening with mind half-cocked to an audio by a (North) American Christian scholar on “Ancient heresies.” I was sure I heard the words “play dough.” Owing to the fact that the discussion touched on Greek philosophy, I thought he was talking of Plato, pronounced by Americans as Plado. In fact, he was indeed talking about how some doctrines were handled like play dough. As I love preying and playing on language especially when the play helps to reveal reality, how I wished I could have used Plado(UGH) somewhere in my writing. Well today my wish is coming true. The occasion is my reading of David Stern’s  Midrash and Indeterminacy. Here is his opening paragraph:

“Literary theory, newly conscious of its own historicism, has recently turned its attention to the history of interpretation. For midrash, this attention has arrived none too soon. The activity of Biblical interpretation as practiced by the sages of early Rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, midrash has long been known to Western scholars, but mainly as either an exegetical curiosity or a source to be mined for facts about the Jewish background of early Christianity. The perspective of literary theory has placed midrash in a decidedly new light. The very nature of midrash (as recorded in the Talmud as well as in the more typical midrashic collections) has now come to epitomize precisely that order of literary discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired, a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash, critics have found especially attractive the sense of interpretation as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention.”

What’s the difference between Stern’s “interpretation as play rather than as explication” and my interpretation of Stern, which is: “interpretation as play dough rather than as explication.” Nothing. Stern hates arriving at final destinations and prefers, like a Derridaring Jew, shuttling from one departure lounge to another through the “dense space (read: playdough) between text and interpreter.”

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann (Photo credit: On Being)

 

And what about Walter Brueggemann, the “biblical theoligan?” For Brueggemann, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Derrida says to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus there should be an unrestricted interaction between suffering persons longing to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all post-modernists (who all believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only (human) beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. And if the Bible stories are able to buck – and back – them up, thank you God (See Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann).

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And then there’s Jacob Neusner, the most prolific writer on Judaism with about 950 publications. What does his life work come down to? I suggest to this excerpt from his writing:

“l wonder, however, whether in the context of faith-whether concerning Moses, Jesus,or Muhammad, such a thing as “critical history” in the nineteenth-century sense indeed can emerge. I ask myself whether, to begin with, the sources came into being with any such purpose in mind. And I question whether when we ask about history in the sense at hand, we address the right questions to sources of such a character. And, anyhow, what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love? (A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” in Jacob Neusner, “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity”, p. 88).

Indeed, “what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love?” (Neusner above). Why indeed do we need, as David Stern says, to dichotomize facts and interpretion? As the French symbolist poets loved to say – and Walter Brueggemann as poet would also love to have said, un poème est un prolongement, a poem is an extension. Extension of what? Why, the longings of the reader. Prolongement means “extension.” I am playing with “prolongement” and “longing” whose only connection is its “historical sedimentations,” as Derrida would say). In postmodern literary (pioneered by Derrida) there is no difference between “critical historical” facts (Neusner above) and a game of shuttlecock.

To return to Stern’s “shuttle” (above): [The] literary discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired [is] a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash, critics have found especially attractive the sense of interpretation as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention.” Authorial intention is out. Give me the reader’s intention instead.

Which reminds me of Rabbi Bronstein “crash course in Reconstructionist Judaism. In brief, he said it doesn’t matter whether the Torah is objectively true, as long as it is accepted as true – at a deeper level than objective truth, which is for Bronstein the “obvious” level. What can be less objective than The truth, and more objective than My truth. Recall Neusner’s “what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love?”

What, for Neusner, and everyone else here, can be more obvious than salvation, holiness, and especially pulsating joy. But doesn’t Jonah’s critical historical text say “salvation is of the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9). Shhh – do you want me to lose my tenure! Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) says it doesn’t matter whether all the Bible stories are just “stories,” myths, folklore; what’s important is that they are shared myths, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters, in Reconstructionist Judaism, is not the Book but the binding – of communal love and joy (Neusner).

Jacob Neusner

 

The Jews, “the people of the Book.” No, I’ve got it back to front: “The Torah, the book of the People.” That’s better.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a reconstructionist Jew, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom.” Fuchs-Kreimer – who is a reliable spokesperson for Reconstructionist Judaism says much more: “Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.” The weight of evidence, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, shows that religious experience cannot provide any new evidence – “knowledge and wisdom” – about the universe. But, according to Fuchs-Kreimer we can’t deny that we feel it in our bones that there is something else besides neurons and meat loaves. So, we tell one another stories about how those emotions emerged, but we don’t go overboard to the point of hysteria only to drown in historia. Meaning doesn’t have to be objective for “if there is nothing but matter, all the more do we need stories to make meaning” says Fuchs-Kreimer, and it’s stories – the more evocative the story the better – that make or break a religious civilisation. There’s no “core self” so we need to make up stories – based on authentic emotion, naturally – to “tell us who we are.” And that, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, is the basis of “tradition”, of Jewish tradition, of solid Jewish tradition (See The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism).

What have all these Jewish scholars have in common? (for all intents and purposes, Walter Brueggeman, a Gentile Lutheran, might as well be a Jew, a Lutheran Jew). Herein lies the genius of the Jew-Ish (Hebrew ish “man”): He rips the the text, the historical – read: “surface” – text, out of the hands of the Holy One of Israel and from his inwormings, he spawns and spins the Holy Israel of One. On earth or in (reconstructionist) heaven, there’s nothing like Israel.

Fellow Jews, if you love wallowing in the sediment of literary theory, then post-modernism, reconstructionism and deconstruction are for you. All I say to you is:

What advantage then hath (you) the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, “That thou might be justified in thy sayings, and might overcome when thou art judged” (from Psalm 51:4). Don’t play with God’s word; rather build your interpretations on a surer foundation, and what surer foundation is there than “let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:1-4).

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8 thoughts on “Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation

    • Dan, “Reconstructionist Kabbalah” can have two meanings:

      1. There is Kabbalah (the Zohar), which is divine revelation. Now comes along all these “liberal” theologians and reconstruct it, reducing it to a human construct).

      2. There is scripture, which is divine revelation. Then comes along Luria and his disciples and reconstructs it, turning it into a human construct but this time a Babylonian-Greek-Hindu confabulation).

      Which one do you mean? Or both?

  1. None.

    By Recinstructionist Kabbalah I mean stealing the ideas of the Kabbalists that esoteric experiences is what brings one to God.

    • Why call a thief a reconstructionist, unless in the sense that if I steal your TV from your house I would have reconstructed it, or rather, its interior.

      Second, you seem to imply that Kabbalsim created the idea that esoteric experiences brings one to God.

      And third, how does esoterism (esoterrorism) relate to the topic?

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