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).

When is an “ex-Jew” not a Jew? Once (your mother’s) a Jew Oiveys a Jew

The following letter appeared in the South African Sunday Times (October 11, 2009) in favour of the Goldstone Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict

Stop turning a blind eye

It came as no surprise that the Jewish community has its knives out for Justice Richard Goldstone, accusing him of betraying his people and his homeland. This laager mentality of the Orthodox Jewish sect is nothing new. If Orthodox Jews are challenged, they close ranks. How can a people who have been persecuted for centuries possibly turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed on both sides of this bloody conflict? The Jewish community needs to accept responsibility for the atrocities that it has committed against Palestinian civilians, as do Palestinians need to accept responsibility for Israeli civilian deaths.

Loren Ogin, ex-Jew, Edenglen

My interest in this letter – as well as in this bography – does not lie in Israeli politics. In my Prologue, my main interest for writing is clear: First, The sovereignty of God in all things, specifically His sovereignty in salvation, and second, God has not finished with the Jew – God forbid – for the Jew will be at the centre of history when Yeshua returns.”

Here is my reply to Loren Ogin, the ex-Jew.

“Stop turning a blind eye” by ex-Jew Loren Ogin (Sunday Times, October 11), which supports Judge Goldstone’s Gaza Report, says the following:

“This laager mentality of the Orthodox Jewish sect is nothing new. If Orthodox Jews are challenged, they close ranks.” In my understanding,  By “Orthodox Jewish sect” Ogin seems to refer to Jewish Zionists. There are at least three kinds of Jews: there are secular Jews, who don’t believe in the God of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh); there are Jews who believe some parts of the Tanakh; and there are Jews who believe all of the Tanakh. This last group also believes in the oral traditions (Talmud and Midrash) and are referred to as “Orthodox” Jews. The majority of Orthodox Jews do not observe all 613 core practices (mitzvoth). This group is referred to as “modern” Orthodox..The minority of orthodox jews is referred to as “traditional” or “ultra”-orthodox. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Jews should have no political control in “Zion” (modern Israel) or in any other part of the world, at least not until Moshiach (Messiah) comes. “The State of Israel, qua state,  (says Chaim Waxman in his “Dilemmas of modern orthodoxy”, p. 5) is a modern, essentially secular, political entity, and its only significance to the traditionalist as conceived herein lies in the fact that so many Jews live there. The modernist, on the other hand, ascribes religious significance to the State specifically as a political entity, and the modernist perceives the State of Israel as an inherent part of Messianic redemption.”

Ogin is right; ultra-Orthodox Jews do indeed have a “laager mentality”, they do “close ranks”; not against anti-Zionists, but against Zionists. The ultra-Orthodox Jew and the Zionist strongly disagree, and often, despise each other. Ultra-Orthodox or ultra-any belief evokes it’s sister concept – fundamentalism. Isms often carry a negative connotation.  Two examples: scientism is a thought system that reduces everything to the material world of science, and legalism is to make the law more than it was meant to be. In Judaism and other religions, one of the main issues is the degree of importance of the Law. For ultra-Orthodox Jews, all 613 laws (mitzvoth) are essential. In contrast, Conservative and Reform Jews are selective. Then there is a vast swathe of Jews who don’t believe in the Torah at all. The irony is that modern Conservative and Reform Jews, and Jews who don’t believe in the God of Israel at all are Zionists, whereas the Ultra-Orthodox Jews are anti-Zionists. The latter  say they are anti-Zionist because “Zionism” is a human, not a divine, creation, because Zionism gainsays the Word of God; Zionism is not built on Torah. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe with Rambam that every word of the Tanakh is breathed out by God.

“I believe in the words of the prophets. They are the truth.
I believe that the Bible was given to Moses.
I believe that the Bible cannot be changed.”

(Rambam – Moses Maimonides)

Loren Ogin identifies all Jews with the “Orthodox Jewish sect”, but Orthodox Jews are a minoirity within the large Jewish population. Though American Jews (says tend to define “Jew” as a religious term, they still – oddly, I would think – consider it as “an ethnic identity — a tribal matter of shared ancestry, inflections, foods, and fears.”   How do Orthodox Jews regard the Goldstone Report? They’re not directly concerned with the military conflicts in the Middle East, because these conflicts are only symptoms of an unacknowledged disease, namely, the rejection of God’s command that Jews should not be in political control of Israel in the first place. Of course, God’s prohibition of political control over the Holy land doesn’t mean that Jews should not live in Israel. What it does mean is that that God’s Word has forbidden them to “occupy” Israel – until Messiah comes. Reform rabbis thought likewise – until 1940. In 1897, a year after the publication of Herzl’s The Jewish State, the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis stated their vehement rejection of Zionism. They did so year after year until the Holocaust that began in 1940. The reason why Reform rabbis rejected Zionism for all those years had nothing to do with the will of God. Reform Jews did not believe in any kind of return to Zion. They were citizens of the world. There was no thought of  exile (galut) as the Orthodox Jews believed. Reform Jews believed – and many still do – that they were sent into the world to be a light to the nations. Why did these Reform Jews reject Herzl’s notion of a “Jewish State”? Herzl’s son, Hans explains why:

My father was a great man, whom I loved… But I’ve come to see that he made a great historical error in his attempt to rebuild the Jewish State…. My father did not realize the true mission of the Jewish people, which has proven that the living and fertilizing spirit does not need territorial boundaries, and that a people can live and exist even when fortifications and borders have disappeared. I would ask them not to attempt to add to the decadent civilizations but to remember their true identity and work for the cultural reconstruction of their homeland – and this homeland is the entire world. (Hans Herzl to Marcel Steinberger – 1929 – Princes Without A Home).

These Reform Jews were products of the Enlightenment that swept Europe, taking root in France and blossoming in Germany. For a Jew, to be a Jew was something special, but to be a German Jew was superlative. The enlightenment critically questioned tradition: traditional institutions, traditional customs and traditional morals. The Jewish enlightenment was called Haskalah ( השכלה‎; from sekhel “intellect”, “mind”).  In Jewish families,  the word sekhel is almost as commonplace as the word tsorres (troubles, sorrow). In Jewish families there’s no dearth of tsorres and always a shortage of sekhel: a maskil (an enlightened one) can never be enlightened enough.

Why did the Holocaust change the Reform rabbis’ negative attitude to Zionism? Because it offered the Jews a country of their own in which they would ensure that a Holocaust would never happen again. “Classical Reform is dead. A love of Israel has entered Reform hearts” (Harold M. Schulweis).

Most Orthodox Jews, in contrast, bow to the mystery of God’s – often painful – will, as did the Jews at the time of the first total destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (586 BC), where parents ate their children, and a second total destruction by Titus of Rome (70 AD). The underlying problem for the Orthodox Jew is not political, not social, not biological, not economic, but covenantal –  the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made at Sinai (the sinaitic/mosaic covenant), and the God’s promise of a new covenant where the law will no longer be written on stone but written on hearts – of flesh, not of stone:


“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

And Ezekiel (StrengthOfGod):

‘For I will take you out from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take out the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you shall keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be my people and I will be your God.’ (Ezekiel 36.24-28).

This description of a restored Israel is far removed from the gay parades of Jerusalem, the Holy City of Hashem (the Name).

So, for the Orthodox Jew, the problem is not with God, but with His people. How many of the “nation” of Israel (that is, Jews all around the world) believe that  “I will be their God”. Try getting that across to most Jews, especially the successful lawyer, businessman, physicist, journalist, musician, philanthropist. Tell them that the Land issue is mainly a God issue. They’ll laugh in your face: “you’ve lost the plot, and your marbles.” And if you persist, they’ll have you for breakfast.

Moses Hess in his “Rome and Jerusalem” (1862) is adamant that once a Jew always a Jew:

“Judaism as a nationality has a natural basis which cannot be set aside by mere conversion to another faith, as is the case in other religions. A Jew belongs to his race and consequently also to Judaism, in spite of the fact that he or his ancestors have become apostates. It may appear paradoxical, according to our modern religious opinions, but in life, at least, I have observed
this view to be true. The converted Jew remains a Jew no matter how much he objects to it. At present, there is but little difference between the enlightened and the converted Jew.”

Herzl was an “enlightened” Jew, as were Marx, Freud, Einstein, and Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786, father of the Jewish Enlightenment haskalah). There is also, among many others,  Felix Mendelsohn, the great music composer, who was the grandson of Moses Mendelsohn. Felix was brought up without religion, and later became a Lutheran. Luther was one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, hence the term “Reformed” church. I, like Felix (I like Felix), am also a Jewish “Reformed” Christian. Felix and Raphy – two happy peas in an aposotate pod. But then, is there no difference between Felix Mendelsohn and Moses Hess, as Moses Hess claims in the previous paragraph? There is indeed a difference – a vast difference. Having said that, are the apostates, Felix and Raphy, still Jews. Heavens, yes!

John Derbyshire in his article “DNA, Schmee-NA! The Genetic History Of The Jews” provides some biographical information on Jon Entine, the author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen people:

The author is of East-European Jewish ancestry, and was raised as a Reform Jew. He seems now to be an agnostic or atheist; but of course that gets you a mere few inches away from your Jewish identity. (“I’m an atheist,” pleads the Ulsterman under questioning by a terrorist gun squad. “All right,” snarl the gunmen, “but are ye a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

Now, if Derbyshire had to ask me whether I was a Protestant Jew or Catholic Jew, I would answer, and truthfully: “I am a Protestant Jew.” But hang on a bit – I am a Protestant Jew now but two decades ago I used to be a Catholic Jew. The Catholics will tell me that if I had become a Buddhist like Thomas Merton (according to, Buddhists are atheists1), that’s ok; but, if I turn Protestant, that deserves a papal anathema. Both Jews and Catholics will tell me: “Raphy, you may have turned Protestant, but you can never become a Protestant. Why, I ask? Because, they will reply, you can never stop being a Jew (says the Jew) or a Catholic (says the Catholic).

I have one more confession: I also used to be a Buddhist – who hasn’t? That, however, doesn’t matter to Jews and Catholics: Jews or Catholics can remain or unbe a Buddhist, if that is what they really want. What in Jewish, Catholic and Buddhist eyes – am I then? Not this, not that? I am a Jewish Catholic Protestant who used to be a Buddhist, I suppose.

Three paragraphs earlier, Derbyshire said that “Jon Entine seems now to be an agnostic or atheist; but of course that gets you a mere few inches away from your Jewish identity.” Entine, in his “Abraham’s children, explains the reason why only a mere few inches away from his Jewish identity. It’s because Jon Entine has got what it really takes to be Jewish – Jewish DNA. But be careful: most Jews (observant or atheist or Protestant) will just scoff “DNA Shmee-NA” or may even express shock – DNA OivaVey.

Loren Ogin says he’s an ex-Jew. Jews are Buddhists, Jews are Christians (the early Church, for example- et moi), Jews believe in UFOs; there’s an embarrassment of Jewish choices. Yet, none of these Jews would call themselves an ex-Jew. There’s no getting away from it, Loren, you’re a Jewish ex-Jew.

1 “There is no almighty God in Buddhism. There is no one to hand out rewards or punishments on a supposedly Judgement Day. Buddhism is strictly not a religion in the context of being a faith and worship owing allegiance to a supernatural being.” Tan Swee Eng, “A Basic Buddhism Guide.” (2004).

Classical Reform is dead. A love of Israel has entered Reform hearts.