THE POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY NETWORK
VOLUME 5, NUMBER 2
Copyright 1996 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network.
All rights reserved.
Office of Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940
Peter Ochs, Editor
David Seidenberg, Managing Editor
Scott Wood, Drew System Manager
Patricia Glucksman, Network Manager
E-mail Addresses: email@example.com (subscriptions,membership);
Back issues are archived on worldwideweb:
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Roger Badham, Drew University: Postcritical Christian Philosophy and Judaism
S. Daniel Breslauer, U. of Kansas: Book Reviews
Aryeh Cohen, Brandeis University: Talmud and General Editor
Philip Culbertson, St. Johns U., Auckland: Christian Thought and Judaism
Robert Gibbs, Princeton University: Continental and Modern Jewish Philosophy
Susan Handelman, University of Maryland: Pedagogy
Steven Kepnes, Colgate University: Biblical Hermeneutics
Shaul Magid, Rice University: Kabbalah
Jacob Meskin, Rutgers University: General Editor
Vanessa Ochs, CLAL, Ritual, Ceremony and Material Culture
Ola Sigurdson, U. of Lund, Sweden:
Postcritical Christian Philosophy and Judaism
Rebecca Stern, Pardes: General Editor
Michael Zank: Book Reviews and General Editor
Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in this Network
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NEW MEMBERS INTRODUCTIONS
TALMUD AND TEXTUAL REASONING I:
The 1996 AAR Discussion Essay:
Jacob Meskin, Rutgers University:
"Critique and the Search for Connection: On Levinas' Talmudic Readings"
TALMUD AND TEXTUAL REASONING II:
Responses to the 1995 Princeton PMJPN Talmud Institute:
Aryeh Cohen, U of Judaism.
Aaron Mackler, Duquesne U.
PEDAGOGY AND TEXTUAL REASONING:
I. A Book Introduction: Michael Rosenak (Hebrew U) on his new book,
ROADS TO THE PALACE: Jewish Texts and Teaching
II. A Publication Note: "Jewish Studies in America Today."
KABBALAH AND TEXTUAL REASONING:
Kabbalistic Responses to Shaul Magid and Bernard Zelechow
Dear NETWORK Chevre,
It is motze tisha b'av, and these summer greetings come to you in a
spirit of change, hopeful yet sober. A complex day, is it not, for Jews
in the scribal/pharisaic/rabbinic tradition of textual reasoning? A day
of terrible loss, against a backdrop of ominous politics, that also became
a time "to do for the Lord" - eyt la'asot lashem." Our tradition of oral
Torah appears to have achieved cultural authority by way of suffering.
After this day, according to the mishnah in Berachot 40a, the pharisaic
sages recited "l'olam u'l'olam" after psalms once recited in the Temple,
one "forever" for this world, one for the world to come. But also one, so
it seems, for the present day of literal death, one for the day of life to
come; one for the literal House, one for the one rebuilt in our hearts;
and one for the literal Torah, one for the Torah she b'al peh. Does the
oral torah arise only out of the sufferings of the other one? Does
midrashic reasoning emerge only when and where the plain-sense is
You may note that there is a new name in the title of our journal:
Textual Reasoning. The label "Postmodern" may have fulfilled its strategic
usefulness. For reasons discussed in NETWORK 5.1, some of us think that
after the travails of modernity, including Jewish thought in modernity,
the reasoning that brings us into conversation may have refound its point
of origin within our text traditions, with oral Torah as its prototype.
The textual study that appears lately in this Network does not
terminate at the margins of the page or at the boundaries of a particular
reading community, but appears as well to
stimulate, sometimes predictably, sometimes not, forms of reasoning that
spread over margins and boundaries, at least some of them. This is
Reasoning: not merely emoting, but also not disconnected from the whole
range of human experience; not modernist reasoning, not medieval
reasoning, but, well, we'll see. As for the term "philosophy," textual
reasoners appear to be nourished by exposure to the traditions of Jewish
philosophy along with their attendant varieties of contemporary theoria.
But, as textual reasoning, our philosophy emerges from out of readings in
the classic sources, disciplined by traditions of theoretical refinement,
never irresponsible to the disciplines, but always placing them in the
service of that which speaks/writes through texts and communities of text
By the time we get to Volume 5.3, the new name should be matched by
a new team of editors. After five years, I am retiring as editor of the
Journal, to be replaced by the Editorial Team of Michael Zank, Boston U,
(Michael had also previously joined us an additional book review editor);
Jacob Meskin, Rutgers U; Rebecca Stern, (our 1995 Academy of Jewish
Philosophy undergraduate essay winner, now working in NYC for the Pardes
School); and Aryeh Cohen, U of Judaism (already our Talmud editor). We
look forward to exciting developments and expansions in the work of the
Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network! Vol 5.3 will include more detailed
introductions to the new Team, their interests and plans. For now just a
note of gratitude to you all for joining this Network and to the new
editors for offering us their energies and time: l'olam v'l'olam!
More changes, yet: the emergence of a larger institutional framework
for expanding the directions of our Network and of textural reasoning as a
focus of work in our various professions. We have founded a new umbrella
organization called The Society for Textual Reasoning. It will sponsor
four main activities:
A) this E-mail Journal;
B) a book annual (or bi-annual) in Textual Reasoning, with David
Novak as general editor. The first issue, to be published by
Westview/Harper Collins, will emerge out of next June's Conference on
C) the annual Network meeting at the American Academy of Religion.
This year, Sunday, November 24 at 9PM featuring discussion of Jacob
Meskin's essay on Levinas (in this issue); and
D) a new society called the Society for Scriptural Reasoning
-- promoting Jewish and Christian philosophic theology. Its director will
be Professor Robert Cathy of Monmouth College in Illinois, with assistant
directors Daniel Hardy and David Ford of Cambridge University, Elliot
Wolfson, and Peter Ochs. Its first meeting, taking place on 9 pm Monday
night, November 25th at the Academy of Religion gathering, will be on the
Unity of God.
Initially, I'll chair the Society for Textural Reasoning with the
editors of this Journal, the SSR, and the book annual, as associates. On
the one hand, we hope to promote our informal and much-deeper-than-
professional discussion and fellowship in textual reasoning. On the other
hand, we are also aware of the importance of professional influence to
protect and foster the kinds of work we want to do in our various
disciplines. Time to work for our common cause.
Among other changes we hear of, Robert Gibbs is happily in place in a
wonderful new position in the philosophy department of the University of
Toronto. David Novak will join him there in spring 1997 in a brand new
chair in Jewish Studies. Philosopher Ken Green is already there. Well
folks, guess where the new center for Postmodern Jewish Philosophy is?
Let's send them our congratulations, future graduate students, and, by way
of compensation, let's also find a way to get them to do most of our hard
NEW MEMBERS INTRODUCTIONS
Zachary Braiterman: "I am currently a Finkelstein Fellow at the University
of Judaism in LA. My current research looks at F. Rosenzweig within the
content of aesthetic modernism. My dissertation explored theological and
literary revision in post-Holocaust Jewish theology. I wrote it under
Arnold Eisen's supervision at Stanford. Van Harvey and David Biale sat on
Chava Halberstam: "My area is Tanakh; I have published one book on the
Song of Songs (Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song
of Songs, Almond: Sheffield, 1983), and have just published another, a
commentary on Hosea, as part of the Sheffield Readings series (simply
Stephen Hood: "I am currently a graduate student in religious studies at
Rice U. and an English teacher at Houston Community College. In 1994 I was
graduated from the U. of St. Thomas with a B.A. in philosophy.
Previously, I have worked as an electronics technician--tubes, not
chips--and a musician. I am 'enthused' by mysticism, continental
philosophy, Whorfian linguistics, cultural anthropology, and of course
Judaism. Also, I have interest in space, time, and body metaphors and
their relation to prepositions."
Inge Birgitte Siegumfeldt: "I am a Post Graduate Research Fellow at Odense
University, Denmark, about to complete my Ph.D. dissertation on
resemblances between postmodern and Jewish thought, provisionally entitled
'The Judaization of Postmodern Theory.' My focus is on the one hand on the
theories of Harold Bloom and Derrida, on the other on midrashic and
kabbalistic interpretative modes and concepts of text. I am also involved
in whatever frameworks of Jewish Studies we have in Denmark."
TALMUD AND TEXTUAL REASONING I
Critique and The Search for Connection
Jacob Meskin, Princeton U
[Ed. Note: Jacob Meskin's essay will be the centerpiece
of our 1996 Meeting at the American Academy of Religion
Now 24. The format will be the same one we enjoyed last
year with Shaul Magid's paper. We invite you to submit
responses to Jacob's paper in time for our early Fall
issues; submissions for the first one are due Sept.10 -
- but let us know in August if you plan something.
Responses may be from 1-6pp and may address either
Levinas's text, the Talmudic texts he cites, or Jacob's
paper. We'll set up the AAR session as a study of
Levinas,d of your responses.]
I.We read the authors who continue to annoy, intrigue, and inspire us.
Some do this by frustrating the somewhat reasonable desire to classify
their work. Levinas' texts, however, cut across a very basic and general
distinction we use to ascertain who, and what, we are reading. Modern
philosophy and Jewish tradition both infuse Levinas's work; his
sensibility somehow defies our readerly and critical insistence that his
work must, after all, be one thing or the other, "modern" or
Though classed together with Levinas' "Jewish" or "apologetic"
writings, the talmudic essays in fact display the same multifarious and
rich sensibility found in his philosophical writings (to say nothing of
his essays on literary, political, and cultural themes). Two genres--one
creative vision: Levinas moves beyond the standard dichotomies of modern
In one of his talmudic essays, Levinas identifies a prevalent modern
notion of history as one factor that prevents us from appreciating
tradition, and from possibly forging models of connection. Called "Model
of the West" (BTV, 13-33; "Modele de l'occident", ADV, 29-50), it comments
on slightly less than a page of BT Menachot, 99b-100a. In exploring
different paradigms of what Levinas calls "permanence" (or enduring
continuity) in contrast to "history", "Model of the West" (hereafter "MW",
and "MO") introduces new directions in the search for ways beyond our too
disjunctive modes of thinking. "MW" also links Jewish spiritual achievement
with ethics and with humility, defusing the risk of self-righteousness
that attends the religious quest.
II. The Critique and Some of its Levels
Before beginning to read "MW", it may be helpful to explain the claim
that Levinas' talmudic readings contain a critique of modern western
culture. The etymological echo matters here: "critique" comes from the
Greek krinein, to distinguish. Levinas' critique must never be confused
with wholesale condemnation or rejection. Levinas attempts, rather, to
discern those basic differences "which still perhaps distinguish the
fraternal humanities amongst which we rank Israel and the West" ("MW", 17,
translation slightly modified; "MO", 32). This critique is
multidimensional, addressing, inter alia, philosophy, and even
spirituality. I will however discuss only two of its levels here: 1) the
cultural, and 2) the methodological, or disciplinary.
1) Levinas challenges commonly accepted institutions, customs, or
practices. A classic example of this occurs in "Judaism and Revolution"
(NTR, 94-119; SAS, 11-53) on BT Baba Metzia, 83a-83b, where he reads the
famous story about Rabbi Eleazar catching thieves in taverns in terms of
the contemporary cafe.
The tavern, or the cafe, has become an integral and essential
part of modern life, which perhaps is an "open life,"especially
because of this aspect!... The cafe... is a place
of casual social intercourse, without mutual social
responsibility. One goes in not needing to. One sits down
without being tired. One drinks without being thirsty. All
because one does not want to stay in one's room. You know that
all evils occur as a result of our incapacity to stay alone in
our room. The cafe is not a place. It is a nonplace for a
non-society, for a society without solidarity, without tomorrow,
without commitment, without common interests, a game
society... without seriousness--distraction, dissolution... [I]t
is because it is possible to go and relax in a cafe that one
tolerates the horrors and injustices of a world without a soul.
The world as a game from which everyone can pull out and exist
only for himself, a place of forgetfulness--of forgetfulness of
the other--that is the cafe. (NTR, 111-112; SAS, 41-42)
Levinas adds that the cafe "realizes an ontological category" which may be
basic to western and eastern life, but not to Jewish life.
One might cite many other examples. Levinas mocks the
super-sophisticated, utterly au-courant readers and writers of Le Monde,
for whom the depths of complex Talmudic thought will be an occasion for
great hualism for its immersion in the private, interior life of
fascinating feelings and good intentions, attacking in particular its
devaluation of action and indifference to the other. He questions other
features of our modern western cultural life in the Talmudic readings:
notions of time, ways of reading texts, emphases on "correct" ways to
express youthful rebellion, the need to experience absolutely everything,
interest only in "results", impatient and superficial demands for
"immediate relevance", the dangerous tendency of "large", "generous"
(ideological ideas to pass unnoticed into their opposites ("intellectual
Stalinism"), and so on. Levinas may be making a virtue of necessity:
in making ancient tradition speak to moderns who claim the Enlightenment as
origin, he faces the timeless clash of age and youth. This may help
explain his pointed, sometimes playful, but always parental
2) The Talmudic readings locate and excavate that deep layer of
intellectual presupposition--the soil--out of which the disciplines of the
modern West grow. They offer a phenomenological critique, aimed at the
invisible background which pervasively shapes our normal, taken for
granted, disciplinary activities. Levinas would seem to be asking whether
certain values or options might be missing from this modern background.
Textual questions provide the most important instance of this
disciplinary level of critique. The Talmudic readings force us to ask
whether the methods of the disciplines suffice to fix, or even to delimit,
the meaning of inherited religious texts. Levinas does not question the
validity of the disciplines, nor does he invoke faith's immediate
certainties, yet he still manages to glimpse new, sophisticated, and
possibly "legitimate" meanings. Might the text really lead an exciting
life outside the disciplines and their well-lit, carefully patrolled
precincts? Or is this just an obscure attempt to forget the work of Max
Weber and the distinction between advocacy and scholarship? Levinas offers
what can only be called a manifesto on this issue in the course of
interpreting the Talmudic idea, found in BT Megillah 7a and Shabbat 14a,
that hands which touch the uncovered scroll of the Torah become impure.
...is the hand just a hand and not also a certain impudence
of spirit that seizes a text savagely, without preparation or
teacher, approaching the verse as a think or an allusion to
history in the instrumental nakedness of its vocables, without
regard for the new possibilities of their semantics, patiently
opened up by the religious life of tradition?... [a tradition]
which is the opening up of horizons through which alone the
ancient wisdom of the Scriptures reveals the secrets of a
renewed inspiration. Touched by the impatient, busy hand that is
supposedly objective and scientific, the Scriptures, cut off
from the breath that lives within them, become unctuous, false
or mediocre words, matter for doxographers, for linguists and
philologists.... One may indeed wonder whether the modern world,
in its moral disequilibrium, is not suffering the consequences
of that direct textual approach whose very scientific directness
strips and impoverishes the Scriptures.... It may sometimes be
necessary in today's world to "get one's hands dirty" and the
specific merits of "objective research" applied to the Holy
Scriptures must not belittled. But the Torah eludes the hand
that would hold it unveiled. ("For a Place in the Bible", ITN,
24-25; "Pour une place dans la Bible", HDN, 33)
Levinas equates the cover of the Torah scroll with the discipline,
preparation, and training provided by tradition. Touching the "uncovered
Torah scroll" comes to mean approaching the Torah de novo, without any of
this study and prior formation of mind and character (this is why it makes
the hands impure, "The impurity returns to and strikes back at the hand
from which it came").
In his remarks on the academic study of religious texts, I take
Levinas to be raising the surprisingly significant issue of "tone". Let me
explains what this means.
Levinas distinguishes academic text-scholarship from traditional
rabbinic study. This separation may seem to be nothing more than the
familiar "secular/religious" division, on the basis of which the academy
marks off and legitimates its own secular inquiry. Levinas goes on to make
the distinction "from the other side," so to speak. Not only must we not
confuse religious study with the rigorous methodology of secular academic
study (the familiar "secular/religious" division), but we must also not
confuse what we do in the academy with the "seriousness and high stakes"
of the religious quest (the less familiar "religious/secular" division).
After all, Levinas points out, religious study demands many subtly
transformative practiceThe academic text scholar, as such, is not after
such "big game": arguing about how to emend a text is one thing, arguing
about how to emend a life another.
This differentiation between realms makes, as it were, the negative
case--"x is not y" (said from x's side) and "y is not x" (said from y's
side). When Levinas exhibits the revealing and poignant power of
tradition, then, far from deriding academic text scholarship, he is rather
going on to make the positive case. Tradition is not merely the avoided
negative, it is also something of great value, even and especially
relative to the academy's intellectual standards. Holding modernity and
tradition together in a peculiarly fecund way, Levinas can demarcate the
valuable work academic text scholars perform on religious texts from the
unfortunate intellectual myopia that may sometimes accompany it.
Here we come to the problem of "tone". Academic text scholars seem to
believe at time they can objectively define all "legitimate" meanings
available in a text. The tone involved here is both sweeping and oddly
foundationalist, as if all the creativity that has sprouted up around a
text may be dismissed as mere fancy once a scientific edition, and its
compositional history, have been established as the "real foundation" for
any and all respectable consideration of the text in question. Levinas
touches on this when he says in the above citation,
...approaching the verse as a thing or an allusion to history
in the instrumental nakedness of its vocables, without
regard for the new possibilities of their semantics,
patiently opened up by the religious life of tradition...
The positivist/scientistic dream of complete control of a text, and
especially of its possibilities, dies hard. Once, perhaps, such inflated
rhetoric was strategically necessary to legitimate secular text
scholarship. Now, though, it is brittle and rigid. Better now to
celebrate twin richness: the academy's methodological profession and
rigor, and tradition's stirring creativity and ingenious insight into the
The Talmudic essays remind us of the historically and culturally
constituted character of our work as academics. So reminded, perhaps we
could begin to move beyond our oppositional thinking; even with their
profound and in some ways unbridgeable differences, the academic and
traditional approaches continue to complement one another. After all, the
Constitutional separation of church and state was intended to secure for
us the benefits of both religious community and a free public forum; it
was not intended as a celebration of the rich religious, communal, and
soteriological content of the Constitution!
As we will see shortly below in "MW", Levinas also feels that modern
western historicism has contributed to academic hostility to tradition. He
holds that uncompromising dismissal of tradition easily becomes just as
intellectually limited and limiting as its unthinking embrace.
III. "History" Versus "Continuity": An Analysis of the "Model of the West"
"MW" comments on a page of the Talmud devoted to the lechem
ha-panim, or shewbread, set out every shabbat on a special, gold-overlaid
table in the mishkhan or tabernacle (and the Temple), and left there until
the following shabbat: all in fulfillment of the commandment that the
bread be "set in order before the Lord continually", lifnei Adonai tamid
(see Ex. 25:23-30, Lev. 24:5-9; on the question of the number of the
tables in the Temple, see BT Menachot 98b, and Tosefta Menachot, 11:6).
From the outset of "MW", there can be no question that Levinas intends to
contrast the various paradigms of permanence ("before the Lord
continually") he finds in the Talmudic discussion with one pervasive
modern western conception of history.
Faced with the 'historical meaning' which dominates modernity,
with the meaning of becoming which, for the Westerner, certainly
carries the real to its conclusion, but a conclusion which is
unceasingly deferred to the false Messianisms (times, however,
which are defined as times of conclusions); faced with the
'historical meaning' which thus calls into
question, relativizes and devalues every moment or which,
envisioning a supra-temporal eternity of ideal relations that
remain, in reality, unattainable, lends itself to a
mathematically perfect science in a badly made or un-made world;
faced with all this historicism, does not Israel attach itself
to an 'always'--in other words, to a permanence in time, to a
time held by moments of holiness, by moments which have a
meaning or are "so close to the goal'--and where not one such
moment is lost, or to be lost, but are all to be deepened, that
is to say, sublimated? ("MW", 17, I have altered Mole's
translation; "MO", 33)
Relativizing each moment to its volatile place in a flux of change, the
historicism of the modern West reduces reality to nothing more than
momentarily identifiable patterns of coherence endlessly giving way to new
patterns. Yet the modern western psyche insists that this continuous flux
of old moments dying into new ones carries great significance, precisely
because it brings us closer to some goal.
Here the paradoxical character of historicism emerges, for the actual
arrival of any such endpoint has, in fact, been constantly deferred--as it
must, given the basic claim that reality is nothing more than an unending
historical progression. However, an impersonal process of historical
succession is meaningful only if it leads to some conclusion (otherwise we
have Henry Ford's account of history, "one damn thing after another").
Even in the midst of this paradox, we continue to regard modernity as the
era of conclusions, of getting right all that our ancestors got wrong and
in augurating the new age. This paradox, as "MW" will make clear,
accounts for historicism's strange and untenable alternation between
relativism and triumphalism.
Might there be something more than this naked sequence of moments,
each one of which must succeed and obliterate its predecessor? Levinas
contrasts history's relativized concatenation of moments with "holiness,"
moments none of which are lost, only deepened by future moments. This
would be a form of persistence, or an "always". How might this come
And instead of remaining word, a purely theoretical view or
doctrinal affirmation, or some sort of coexistence of moments of
time passing, do not this predilection and this signification
of the always call for a whole structuring of concrete human
reality and a whole orientation of social and intellectual
life--perhaps justice itself--which would render only such a
signification possible and significant? ("MW", 17; "MO", 33)
A whole society, carefully articulated and pursuing justice would seem to
be the practical condition through which permanence in time might become
thinkable. Perhaps such concrete forms of interconnection between people
across generations are the vehicle of a non-historicist temporal
Aside from its pre-conditions, Levinas must now begin to specify the
form of this non-historicist continuity among moments: what might it look
life? He starts with a reading of the details of the mishna.
There were two tables inside the porch at the entrance of the
House, the one of marble and the other of gold. On the table of
marble they laid the Shewbread [sic] when it was brought in, and
on the table of gold they laid the Shewbread when it was brought
out, since what is holy we must raise (in honor) but not bring
down. And within (the Sanctuary) was a table of gold whereon
the Shewbread lay continually. (BT Menachot 99b, "MW",20;
The new showbread is first placed on the marble table, which stands next
to a gold table outside the sanctuary. Then two sets of four kohanim
(priests) entered the sanctuary. The first set enters, standing near (and
to the South of) the gold table inside the sanctuary on which the old
showbread rests. The second set takes the new showbread from the marble
table and enters the sanctuary, standing near (and to the North of) the
gold table. Two of the first set of four kohanim then removed the old
bread, as two of the second set of four kohanim set down the new bread
right next to where the old had been. The old bread was then placed on
the gold table outside the sanctuary, and was later eaten by the kohanim.
Levinas remarks that the essential point here is to raise and not
lower the showbread in honor, from marble table to gold table for the new,
and at least from gold to gold for the old. He sees here an insistence
that even if "true values must change, the principle of this change must
be one of elevation". The ritual reminds us to exalt aging values, to
espy elevation in succession. Here is the form of a non-historicist
temporal progression: a value changes by being enriched, it endures in a
new, deeper version of its earlier self, and this generates an endless
movement toward ever greater profundity and scope. This would be
The striving of the holy toward the holier... there is a
distinction to be made between relative value and holy
values which are defined precisely by this exaltation... not
only the discovery of history... but a certain elevation of his
everything is not a moment. Hence the Jewish independence
concerning events others take for history. The West professes
the historical relativity of values and their questioning, but
perhaps it takes every moment seriously, calls them all
historical too quickly, and leaves this history the right both
to judge the values and to sink into relativity. Hence the
incessant re-evaluation of values, an incessant collapse of
values, an incessant genealogy of values. A history without
permanence or a history without holiness.... this possibility
of judging history... this 'eternity' of Israel is not a
privilege but a human possibility. ("MW", 21, emphasis added;
Whatever we may make of this Levinasian declaration, it reminds us that
contemporary historicism makes it very difficult to defend certain values.
With nothing but an unending temporal succession (and the paradoxical
dream of some sort of "endpoint"), it is hard to view our values as
anything but the most recent flotsam washed up on the beach, soon to be
replaced by whatever the next wave may bring ashore. If we raise some
values above history, in order to use them to judge and evaluate other
moments of history, then why those values and not some others? Indeed,
why our moment of history now, and not that moment then?
From the mishna, Levinas would seem to have determined an appropriate
form for a non-historicist continuity, a tradition of values ceaselessly
enhanced and preserved over time. (This conception escapes the charge of
"putting a beard and payot on Hegel" because while it is determinate, it
is hardly negation: Jewish tradition never "overcomes" earlier versions of
values, it rather endlessly returns to them, as if they were the seeds out
of which one might constantly grow ever more--and new--trees.) Levinas now
explores the nature of this continuity: how might it work? what efforts
and conditions keep it functioning?
The showbread is called lechem ha-panim, "the bread of faces." The
twelve loaves were placed in facing columns, so that they "gazed" at each
other as they sat on the table. More, the old loaves and the new ones
"looked at one another" as the transition took place: intergenerational
collaboration and fidelity between youth and age. Here Levinas finds his
first understanding of the nature of this continuity or permanence: it
takes place only within the "small society" of interpersonal relations,
where one is present to another face-to-face, and the two work in
solidarity, unlike the impersonality of society at large.
Yet R. Jose introduces an important qualification to this model in
the mishna, asserting that even if there is a gap between the removal of
the old and the depositing of the new bread, this still satisfies the
requirement of continuity. Levinas feels that this suggests an
alternative understanding of perdurance: such continuity occurs within
shared communal work dedicated to one task, even without interpersonal
relations at each moment. In the baraita the gemara brings (from BT
Megilla, 21a; Tosefta Menachot, 11:7) R. Jose goes further, stating that
even if they take the old bread away in the morning and fail to replace it
with the new until evening, the commandment "before the Lord continually"
is still fulfilled--so long as the table does not remain empty overnight.
Levinas reads this worry about the night as reflecting a legitimate danger
to the communal, but not necessarily face-to-face, work mentioned in the
last understanding of continuity. In the evening, all return to their own
private homes, to their personal, individual lives, and this might
threaten the community"s continuity.
At this point the gemara introduces a new direction which will
preoccupy Levinas for the rest of "MW".
R. Am mi said, From these words of R. Jose we learn that
even though a man learns but one chapter in the morning and
one chapter in the evening he has thereby fulfilled the
precept of "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy
mouth" (Joshua 1:8). (BT Menachot 99b; "MW", 24; "MO", 40)
R. Ammi constructs an analogy based on the words of R. Jose: just as R.
Jose rules that we may allow a temporal gap from morning to evening and
still fulfill a commandment that requires permanence, so R. Ammi rules
that we may similarly allow such a temporal gap and still fulfill our
obligation to Torah study and its commanded permanence or continuity.
Levinas seizes upon the arresting resonance of R. Ammi"s words.
But in daily regularity which suffices for the study of
the Torah, is not this "always" of study similar to the
"always" of the cult, of the virtue of daily liturgical
obligation...We are at the point in which liturgy and
study are merged, the unique characteristic trait of
Israel where intellectual life can become cult and the
supreme form of spiritual life.... [The Shema] is
through daily ritual and truth regularly repeated, a
ritual rooted in truth, that the somniferous course of
natural life is shaken up.... It is through the regular
return of these sovereign moments--the crown of the Torah
being added to the crown of the liturgy--that the
dispersion of time is brought back together and retied
into a permanence. ("MW", 24-25; "MO", 40-42)
Levinas sees great meaning in R. Ammi"s analogy. The permanence
associated with Torah brings together both intellectual study and the
disciplined regularity of liturgy (ritual): it synthesizes them into a
rigorous kind of intellectual/spiritual life (one whose mental and
physical discipline, incidentally, is quite similar to certain Buddhist
and Hindu textual/meditational practices.) In this conception of Torah,
where religious life becomes a constantly maintained interaction of
intellectual and ritual devotion, Levinas finds another understanding of
the nature of non-historicist continuity. The community makes possible an
individual's structured and spontaneous perseverance in his or her
continuous religious relationship with the Torah.
Yet Levinas will now discover in the gemara a challenge to this
powerful understanding of the nature of continuity. Might "Greek wisdom"
offer a different and seemingly alien model of continuity, to which one
might go on after studying "the whole Torah"?
Ben Damah the son of R. Ishmael"s sister once asked R.
Ishmael, May one such as I who have studied the whole of
the Torah learn Greek wisdom? He (R. Ishmael) thereupon
read to him the following verse, "This book of the law
shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate
therein day and night" (Joshua 1:8). Go then and find a
time that is neither day nor night and learn then Greek
wisdom. (BT Menachot 99b; "MW", 26; "MO", 42) *
Levinas first considers whether R. Ishmael means in this citation
to ban Greek wisdom, or rather to point specifically to those uncertain
"hours of dusk", times of hesitation and lack of Jewish self-confidence,
when Israel may need Greek wisdom and its ability to "reduce
multidimensional questions to the disjunction of yes or no" (as opposed to
the more fluid pluralism of Torah).
Levinas goes on to examine how the gemara generally uses the term
"Greek wisdom", for the gemara does not seem to be condemning Greek
science, or art, or clarity of reasoning. Rather, he says, when the gemara
attacks "Greek wisdom," it
would concern a certain language (of)... courtesy and
diplomacy... flattery and charm... rhetoric, the "virtue" of
illusion that a certain language possesses... it perhaps
concerns what today we call, with distrust, humanism, in
its powers to abuse and betray. It concerns the Greek
wisdom open to humanist eloquence... Greek wisdom, inasmuch
as it is enveloped by ambiguity in a certain language, is
thus a weapon of ruse and domination. In philosophy, it is
the fact that it is open to sophistry; in science, that it
places itself in the service of strength and politics.
There would exist in purely human wisdom the power to
invert itself into lie and ideology... in purely human
knowledge without Torah, in pure humanism, this deviation
already slips toward rhetoric... Perhaps the Talmudic style
whose interpretation is causing us so much difficulty is
also precisely this struggle with rhetoric. ("MW", 27-28;
Here Levinas follows the distinction introduced in BT Sotah 49b and Baba
Kamma 83a between Greek wisdom and Greek language: to the degree that one
can isolate Greek language, this language becomes suitable for use--say in
translating scripture. Yet Greek language, joined as it most usually is
to Greek wisdom, cannot but become rhetorical and mislead. In a later
Talmudic reading, "The Translation of the Scripture", Levinas will
celebrate the indispensability of Greek language--even for denouncing the
limitations of Greek language--because Greek is the "language of
deciphering". One demystifies, depoeticizes, and demythicizes in "Greek".
One demetaphorizes in "Greek", even if one must then demetaphorize the
metaphors used in the prior demetaphorization, and so on (ITN, 53-54; "La
traduction de l'ecriture", HDN, 64-65).
At this point the status of Greek wisdom remains unclear. Yet Levinas
now seizes on a radical turn in the gemara, bringing "MW" to its deepest
insight. R. Samuel ben Nachmani reinterprets the pasuk from Joshua:
instead of reading "this book of the law shall not depart out of thy
mouth" as a commandment, R. Samuel reads it rather as a blessing that God
grants to Joshua because the latter so loves the Torah. This move does
far more than remove the sanction against learning Greek wisdom; for
Levinas, it suggests a new and ultimate model of continuity.
The idea of a blessing sketches a new form of continuity, one that
can no longer be considered temporal. A blessing represents something
that adds to, that crowns, that increases its recipient. Torah then
becomes that which blesses all that comes from outside, it crowns what is
not Torah, elevating it. A life of Torah represents a kind of ultimate
home, the place in which one resides and into which one may bring the
outside world. The world, and Greek wisdom, find their highest realization
in the open life of the student of Torah; he or she becomes a container, a
home, a self with such secure boundaries as to be able to welcome all else
within. All becomes "continuous" with the Torah that blesses it.
Levinas pushes even further. This kind of continuity--that of the
life of torah--is "dynamic", it endlessly overflows, increasing itself.
The committed study of torah is a debt which can never be repaid: it only
grows everytime you "pay." It is infinite: no one ever masters it, and
its limitless extension both requires--and eventually compels--humility,
transforming the life of its student both in learning, and in
interpersonal commerce. Yet just such humility also marks great wealth.
The overabundant, endless fecundation of Torah creates a "Divine
organicism" growing, breathing, and "embodied" in those who devote
themselves to it.**
This challenging vision of ultimate continuity discloses one of the
profound human possibilities contained in tradition. It also advances the
search for inclusive--for hospitable, generous--ways to forge connection
where there is all too often only enmity.
* The gemara raises this question for reasons of considerable interest
which I cannot discuss here.
** These ideas put one in mind of many sources. I will cite three: the
Ramban on Ex. 25:30 (a very rich, kabbalistic Ramban on the lechem
ha-panim); Peyrush ha-GRA on Mishlei 10:22, and (of course) Nefesh
ha-Chaim, sha`ar bet, esp. p'rakim bet through hey.
NTR: Nine Talmudic Readings, Aronowicz, A., trans., Indiana, 1990
HDN: A l'heure des nations, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1988
ADV: L'au-dela du verset, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1982
SAS: Du sacre au saint, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1977
ITN: In the Hour of the Nations, Smith, M., trans., Indiana, 1994
BTV: Beyond the Verse, Mole, G., trans., Indiana, 1994
TALMUD AND TEXTUAL REASONING II
Towards an Erotics of Martydom
(A Second Response to The 1995 Princeton PMJP Talmud Institute)
Aryeh Cohen, U of Judaism
This paper continues the discussions that took place in the summer of
1995 at our Talmud Institute in Princeton. To expand the circle of
discussants, I present here my reading of the sugya that formed the basis
of the first day of study at the conference: Bavli Sanhedrin 74a-75a.
This paper is a work in progress, emerging out of reactions to my
presentation at the conference. I hope that in future issues of the
Network, we will be able to circulate responses to this reading. In the
paper, I set aside any notion of kiddush hashem as a stable concept, and
interrogate its functions within this one sugya. Employing a reading
method which emphasizes the poetics of the sugya and tarries at the places
at which the sugya is most conflicted, I examine the ways that b
Sandhedrin 74a-75a (one of the central halakhic or legal discussions of
kiddush hashem in the Bavli) thematizes desire, power, pleasure, love and
sex. This will move my discussion towards an erotics of kiddush hashem,
according to which the constructed meaning of the act of submitting to
death, rather than worshiping idols, is embedded in an economy of
fidelity, rape and adultery. The relationship of the "sanctifier of God's
name" to God is understood along a spectrum of love and sex, licit and
illicit. One of the tools/consequences of this discussion is a rereading
of Esther's role--and an erasure of her agency--in the rescue of the Jews
in the Book of Esther.
1. "But one who runs after an animal..." (M San. 8:7)
2. It has been taught [in a Tannaitic source]: R. Simeon b. Yohai said:
An idolater may be saved [from sin] at the cost of his own life,
3. by [reasoning] from the minor to the major: If [in the case of] the
damaging of a common person, [the violater] may be saved [from sin] at the
cost of his own life, how much more so the damaging of the All-Highest.
4. But can we punish as a result of an ad majus conclusion? He
maintains that we can.
5. It has been taught: R. Eliezer, son of R. Simeon, said: He who
desecrates the Sabbath may be saved [from sin] at the cost of his own
6. He agrees with his father, that we punish as a result of an ad majus
conclusion, and then he deduces the Sabbath from idolatry by [a gezerah
shawah based on the use of] "profanation" [in connection with the Sabbath
The unique locution "damaging of the All-Highest" (p'gam gavo'ah)
serves to frame this sugya. The sugya ends with the suggestion that
damage to her family (p'gam mishpachah: "R Pap said: Because of damage to
her family,"70) is a possible reason that we let the man sickened by lust
not sleep with the unmarried woman that he lusts after. The sugya begins
with the statement attributed to R. Shimon bar Yochai that onewho worships
idols should be "saved with his life." This is justified by an argument a
fortiori hinging on the idea that idolatry is a damaging of the
All-Highest. The argument is that if one who is about to commit a crime,
which is considered the damaging of a common person (p'gam hedyot) (i.e.
rape) might be "saved with his life," all the more so in the case of a
damaging of the All-Highest.
The phrase p'gam is used on the previous folio (b San. 73a-b) to
explain the unique qualities of the rape of a young girl (na'arah) as
opposed to a young boy. The stam (anonymous, editorial voice in the
Talmud) claims that the reason the Torah (Deut. 22:26) needed to
explicitly state na'arah was "because he has damaged [pagim] her." The
meaning of pagim there is sexual damage (her hymen is torn) which leads to
embarrassment. As Rashi says: "He damages her [pagim lah] in her
virginity and makes her despicable to her husband." The phrase "damage to
her family," which comes at the end of the sugya, also has connotations of
embarrassment as a result of sexual damage.
These sexual connotations of the p'gam are present in the phrase
p'gam gavo'ah ("damaging of the All-Highest"). Moreover, the framing of
the sugya between the two instances of sexual damage, or sexually caused
damage, highlights the fact that the sugya thematizes sex, pleasure, and
death. Further, it is the question of pleasure which informs the decision
of whether one need die--or be put to death. While the two ends of the
sugya are p'gam, the middle of the sugya is pleasure, or perhaps lack of
it. The middle section of the sugya is the suggestion that Queen Esther
needn't have let herself be killed--rather than submitting to sex with
Ahaseurus--because she was as "ownerless property" (karka 'olam). This
statement generates further discussion of the importance of pleasure in
determining whether an action is actually transgressive to the point where
dying is called for.
While the phrase "karka 'olam" means, in this context, that (as Rashi
explains) she is totally passive, it also carries other important
connotations. Land which is karka 'olam is not considered as tainted by
idolator, even if the idol was attached to the land (b San. 47b). Nor can
karka 'olam become impure. All this informs the way that Esther's role in
the Purim story is being reread in this context: emblematic of the way
that kiddush hashem is dealt with in this sugya. But we get ahead of
The sugya continues with the introduction, by way of a statement
attributed to R. Yochanan, of the decisions reached at the conclave of bet
7. R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Jehozadak: By a majority
vote, it was resolved in the upper chambers of the house of Nathza in
8. Every [other] law of the Torah, if a man is commanded: "Transgress and
be not killed" he should transgress and not be killed,
9. excepting idolatry, incest [which includes adultery], and murder.
This statement introduces a completely new facet to the discussion. Until
now, the sugya was dealing with a situation where a person was him/herself
going to commit a transgression. The bet nathza decision moves the sugya
in a different direction. The potential transgressor is no longer active
as in R. Shimon ben Yochai's statement (An idolater ) or as in R.
Elazar bar Shimon's statement (He who desecrates ). The potential
transgressor is passive. The whole point of the bet Nathza statement is
the coercion. While the role of the outside observer/participant in the
first two cases is to stop the potential transgressor, the role of the
outside participant in this last case is to coerce the transgressor to
commit the transgression. It is the transgressor here who must bring the
death penalty down upon himself--at the hands of the coercive outsider--
as opposed to the first case where it is the outsider who executes the
death penalty (thereby saving the transgressor by killing him).
This reversal is immediately problematized. The stammaitic question
of line 10, and the baraita (extra-Mishnaic text) that is introduced in
line 11 make clear that this group of three is not as "natural" as it
might seem. We have already seen Sabbath observance accorded the role of
capital offense in line 5. This is reinforced by R. Ishmael's statement
which questions the status of idolatry as one of the three. Moreover, the
stammaitic statement in line 20 groups incest and murder over against
idolatry. There is a brief discussion of the basis of these latter two as
capital offenses (21-28), and then the sugya reverts to a discussion of
how the "kiddush hashem" status of these prohibitions and others is
affected by "the time of decree."(29-41) The discussion of incest and
murder (21-28) serves to distinguish them from idolatry and from each
other, while at the same time conflating all three. It is to this
discussion that we now turn our attention.
20. Incest and murder [may not be practiced to save one's life], - even as
21. For it has been taught [in a Tannaitic source]: Rabbi said, "For as
when a man riseth against his neighbor, and slayeth him, even so is this
22. But what do we learn from this [comparison with] the murderer?
23. Thus, that this comes to throw light and is itself illumined.
24. The murderer is compared to a betrothed maiden: just as a betrothed
maiden--[where the ravisher's soul] must be saved at the cost of his life,
so in the case of a murderer, he [the victim] must be saved at the cost of
his [the attacker's] life.
25. And a betrothed maiden is compared to a murderer: just as [in
relation to] a murderer-one must rather be slain than transgress; so also
must she [i.e.the betrothed maiden] rather be slain than allow her
Rabbi's dictum, in illuminating the case of the raped betrothed
maiden and her rapist from the case of the murderer, and vice versa, ends
in a paradoxical or at least problematic statement. This statement,
however, has the ability to shed light on the sugya as a whole. Line 25
is the claim by analogy that the maiden must allow herself to be slain,
rather than to allow herself to be raped. This is problematic for a
number of reasons. First, there is no basis for it. She is assumed to be
a powerless (if not, Biblically, passive) victim. She is not doing
anything. Her case is much more akin to the case (cited by the Tosafot) of
a person who is thrown on top of a child to kill the child. In that case
the rationale that is cited in the next few lines of our sugya
(28)--namely: "He answered him: Let him rather slay you than that you
should commit murder; Who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his
blood is redder"--doesn't apply. As it is not the person being flung atop
the child who is deciding, the opposite reasoning might equally hold:
"Who knows that the child's blood is redder?" Similarly with the
betrothed maiden: she is not involved in the decision to be raped, why
should she force her own death rather than rape? How would she engineer
it anyway (as the rape itself is against her will)? Second, this is not
at all analogous to the case of murder to which it is compared. There, it
is a case where the murderer has the ability to decide whether he kills or
is killed. The maiden is not given the choice. She is violated either way.
Third, in the first part of the analogy (24: "The murderer is compared to
a betrothed maiden..."), the perpetrators are compared one to the other.
What is the logic now to compare the perpetrator in one case (the
murderer) to the victim in the other case (the maiden)?
In fact, most manuscripts and most of the early commentators
(including the She'iltot of R. Achai which is not in the conventional
sense a commentary) have the reading:
25. ...so also must he be slain rather than allow the violation
[of the betrothed maiden].
In the original this is not such a large orthographic switch ("tehareg
ve'al ta`avor" to "yehareg ve'al ya`avor"), but it should not be put down
to merely a scribal error. There is evidence of the version in "our"
printed text (Venice 1527 edition leading to the Vilna edition) as early
as the Tosafot. While the Tosafot (b. San. 74b s.v. veha Esther) dismiss
the reading "so also must the betrothed maiden rather be slain than allow
her violation," they still proffer a rationale for that reading. R.
Menahem Hame'iri, after articulating some of the problems with the reading
"so also must he be slain rather than allow the violation [of the
betrothed maiden]," states that because of these difficulties there are
some who prefer the reading "so also must the betrothed maiden be slain
rather than allow her violation."
Rather than attempt to adjudicate these conflicting interpretive
strategies, I would like to pursue the textual/cultural logic that led
this line into being a sustained site of conflicting interpretation. That
is, why did this alternate reading persist, to the point that it became
the "accepted" reading of the Venice and Vilna editions-despite the many
problems with it? The first thing to answer is: what is the difficulty
with reading the line as it is in the MSS and the Sheiltot, etc. "so also
must he be slain rather than transgress [i.e. rape the betrothed maiden]?"
There is an important intertext which I think sheds light on the problem
with this line. This is part of a sugya in b. Yebamoth (53b) generated by
the mishnah which states that a levirate marriage is efficacious even if
the sexual act which consummates it is performed under duress ('ones). The
stam asks: what could it mean that the man is forced? What is the case of
"one who was under duress" of the mishnah? If you would say that idolators
forced him and he had sex with her, Did not Raba say, There is no coercion
in the case of incest since a man cannot have an erection against his
will? Raba's statement that there can be no forced intercourse for a man,
since a man cannot have an erection against his will, seems to supply the
cultural grounding for the difficulties with reading of a man forced to
rape a woman. According to this line of thinking, sexual intercourse is
deployed by a man at will. Therefore a man cannot be forced into raping a
woman. The only other possibility is the culturally (though not textually)
more amenable one: that it is the woman who is being raped, and it is she
who should submit to death rather than allow her violation. It is
culturally easier to picture a woman being violated, than picturing a man
being forced to deploy his sexuality against his will, since the latter is
a cultural oxymoron.
Reading the lines with our printed editions ("tehareg ve'al ta`avor")
additionally eases the reading of the exchange about Esther. (42-44)
42. But did not Esther transgress publicly?
43. Abaye answered; Esther was merely natural soil.
44. Raba said: Their personal pleasure is different.
What does this question mean? Is this a continuation of the general
discussion of kiddush hashem--that in a time of oppression even a small
act necessitates dying (as one might assume based on a knowledge of the
Esther story)--or a continuation of the discussion of gilui `arayot
[incest/adultery]? This question is complicated by a further one. To what
act of Esther's does this question refer? Some commentators and the
translations seem to understand it as referring to Esther's marriage to
Ahaseurus. This is untenable for two reasons. First, this wasn't in any
sense "public." Essential to the story line is that no one knew that she
was Jewish. This must have included most of the Jews also, or else the
king would have ended up knowing it too. Second, this was not at a time
of shmad (oppressive religious decrees). The decrees against the Jews are
broached in Chapter 3, while Esther is married in Chapter 2. Third, there
is no transgression involved in sleeping with an idolator not during the
time of shmad (see Tosafot s.v. Veha 74b). In the time of shmad, it is
akin to tying shoe laces differently (i.e. even a small transgression for
which in time of persecution one must give up their life.) Therefore, it
seems to be referring to Esther's manipulations in the time of the decree
If we read line 25 with the printed editions: "so also must the
betrothed maiden be slain rather than allow her violation," this question
about Esther seems to have a stronger foundation. When read in the light
of the fact that the betrothed maiden must somehow have herself killed
rather than be raped, Esther's sexual manipulations are seen as
questionable. That this line is "unreadable" is obvious from the
discussions in the medieval commentators, who have extreme difficulty in
adducing the basis of the question. (It is for this reason that Tosafot
profer the reading "tehareg ve'al ta`avor"). What the question does is
introduce the strong idea that Esther was actually radically passive or,
according to Raba, merely an object of pleasure and not an agent.
Lest we think that, when faced with "problematic" sexual
manipulations, the sugya had no choice but to interpret them into
neutrality, we cite the following (b Nazir 23b). This is a discussion of
another case of sexual manipulations for the good of the people of Israel,
where the agency of the woman--Yael--is strengthened and affirmed, rather
than played down:
Said R. Nahman b Yitzhak, Greater is a transgression to good
purpose than a commandment [done] not for good intentions.
But did not R. Yehudah say in the name of Rab: A person
should always engage himself with [studying] Torah and
[performing] commandments-even without good intentions; for
by [performing the commandments] without good intentions
[he] comes to [performing them] for good intentions?
Say rather that it is like a a commandment [done] not for
good intentions, since it is written: "Most blessed of women
be Yael wife of Hever the Kenite, most blessed of women in
tents." (Judges 5:24) Who are the "women in tents?" Sarah,
Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Said R. Yochanan: Seven intercourses
did that evil man have at that time. As it says, At her feet
he sank, lay outstretched, etc. (Judges 5:27)
But did she not have pleasure from the sexual acts?
Said R. Yochanan: All the good of evildoers is merely evil
to righteous. As it says, Beware of attempting anything with
Jacob, good or bad. The [warning against attempting] bad is
justified. But why not "good?" But rather, learn from here
that his [Laban's] good is evil.
Yael, it will be remembered, invites Sisra--who is running from the
Israelite army--into her tent, gives him water and milk, and then lets him
fall asleep. When he is fast asleep, she slays him thus assuring victory
for the Israelites. By reading this story midrashically through the lens
of Deborah's song (Judges 5), the Bavli ascribes to Yael the seduction of
Sisra. In fact, according to the story in the Bavli, it is the seduction
that ultimately tires him out and puts him to sleep. This act is seen by
the Bavli as an act of bravery. Although it is a transgression, it is one
on par with the acts of the matriarchs who wheeled and dealed in order to
get the patriarchs to sleep with them, thereby creating the people Israel
(see Rashi to b Nazir 23b). In contrast, Esther's act of bravery is seen
in the sugya of b San. as not even an act.
Lest we suppose that the difference lies in the acts themselves, we
need remember that the same strictures which make Esther's sexual
manipulation of Achaseurus problematic, make Yael's equally problematic.
(All the problems are hashed out and unresolved in the Rishonim to b San
74b). The question remains, why is the possibility of Esther's agency
repressed here? While the reading "tehareg ve'al ta`avor" leads to
Esther's passivity, the reading "yehareg ve'al ya`avor" leads to the end
of the sugya. The final part of the sugya is a ma'aseh attributed by R.
Yehudah to Rab. (ll. 62-77)
Said R. Yehudah said Rab: A ma`aseh: A man once conceived a passion
for a certain woman, and his heart was consumed by his burning
desire [his life being endangered thereby]. They came and consulted
the doctors. They [the doctors] said, 'His has no cure until she
submit to him.' Sages said: 'Let him die rather than that she should
submit.' [Said the doctors] 'Let her stand nude before him;' [they
answered] 'Let him die, and she should not stand nude before him.'
[Said the doctors] `let her converse with him from behind a fence'.
`Let him die and she should not converse with him from behind a
fence.' Now R. Jacob b. Idi and R. Samuel b. Nahmani dispute
therein. One said that she was a married woman; the other that she
was unmarried. Now, this is justified according to the one who said
that she was a married woman, But according to the one who said that
she was unmarried, why such severity? R. Papa said: Because of the
damage to her family. R. Acha the son of R. Ika said: That the
daughters of Israel may not be immorally dissolute. Then why not
marry her? - Marriage would not assuage his passion, according to R.
Isaac. For R. Isaac said: Since the destruction of the Temple,
sexual pleasure has been taken [from those who practice it lawfully]
and given to transgressors, as it is written, "Stolen waters are
sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant" (Proverbs 9:17)
This story provides the culturally amenable way in which a man might
be forced to have sex against his will. A man might have sex against his
will if he is under the spell of a woman, or if he is lust-sick. The
interesting thing here is that the woman is totally passive, yet the man
is so taken with her that he must have some sexual contact with her or
die. This "woman-as-dangerous-seductress" trope is also tied in
interesting ways to the Esther story. (Without saying anything explicit,
Esther has both Haman and Ahaseurus doing her bidding, and then she
destroys Haman at least partially through Ahaseurus' jealousy: Esther
7:8.) It also might explain how Esther could have been completely passive
and yet active. I will not indulge in a complete analysis of this ma'aseh
but just make a number of suggestive remarks.
This ma'aseh is tied back into the rest of the sugyah in two
important ways. First, the sexual pleasure that is taken away is given to
"`ovrei `aveirah" (transgressors). This explicit connection of sexual
pleasure to transgression uses the same word as "yehareg ve'al ya`avor",
thereby reinforcing the notion of the sexual overtones of transgression.
Second, the phrase "stolen waters" in Hebrew is lechem STaRim, which ties
back to eSTheR. (This connection is made explicit in many midrashim,
though not with this verse.) These remarks allow us ask the question that
troubles the whole sugya. Why is there so much interweaving of lust,
pleasure and sexual coercion in a discussion of kiddush hashem?
As we remarked above, the sugya starts with the idea of idolatry as
[sexual] damage to God. I bracket "sexual" since it is, of course, not
the surface meaning. However, damage--"p'gam"--in this sugya, as we saw,
is sexual damage. This is connected to R. Eliezer's midrash. A person is
obligated to sacrifice that which is beloved to him, as a sign of love of
God. "And you shall love the Lord your God." As Rashi comments in our
sugya on this midrash, "this implies that you will not exchange Him for
idolatry." On the continuation of the midrash (ll. 16-19) Rashi comments,
"That is to say, His love should be more dear to you than all that is dear
to you." I suggest that, reading with Rashi, idolatry is constructed in
this sugya as adultery, sexual infidelity. Resisting this adultery, not
transgressing, not "tasting pleasure" is sanctifying God's name.
The sanctification of God's name, as constructed in this sugya, is
only passive. Not engaging in adultery/idolatry is kiddush hashem. There
is no way of active kiddush hashem since the sanctifier is constructed as
Esther is: if he has no pleasure he has sanctified God's name. If he is
like "natural soil," he resists the impurity of idolatry/adultery. The
idea of an active sanctification of God's name is foreign, since that
pleasure (of actively sanctifying God's name), like the pleasure of sexual
intercourse, is given only to transgressors.
[There is no room here to reproduce Cohen's translation of
the entire sugya from Bavli Sanhedrin 74a-75a. Readers who
would like a copy of the translation should email a request
to him at: "email@example.com"]
1. This according to the MSS and early textual witnesses (i.e. Gaonic
literature). The printed editions (and the Soncino translation) has "so
also must she [i.e.the betrothed maiden] rather be slain than allow her
violation." But see the discussion in the article.
VALUING INTERPRETATIONS AND INTERPRETIVE VALUES
Aaron L. Mackler, Duquesne University
The 1995 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Talmud Workshop provided a
wonderful opportunity both to immerse in textual study for three days, and
to reflect a bit on concerns of texts, interpretations, and communities.
The following represents an initial development of one of my reflections
on evaluating interpretations, given what I take to be a plurality of
An interpretation of a text can have value in different ways. One
criterion of excellence is fit with the text; what in traditional Jewish
hermeneutics is termed peshat. Yet texts also have value for their
communities of readers, in inspiring, explaining, amusing, and so forth.
The most helpful reading for the community may not be the reading that
most tightly fits the text, and the reading with greatest textual value
may not be useful for the community.(1) Some interpreters would anoint
one criterion of value as definitive. Other criteria would be subordinate
at best, irrelevant at worst. Thus, for example, a Wissenschaft scholar
might seek the reading that best fits the text in itself. The value or
lack of it for a current community of readers is irrelevant (at least
officially). Conversely, an ideologue, for example, might evaluate a text
solely on the basis of its contemporary usefulness.
Many readers (myself among them) reject both monistic extremes, and
opt for an approach that is richer, if messier. Concern with both text and
community is appropriate, given a view such as Gadamer's fusion of
horizons, or Ricoeur's hermeneutic circle. Such an approach fits the
model of living dialogue between a text and its readers. It also enhances
the ability of a text to say something both new and relevant.
Philosophically sophisticated ways to attend to both text and
community have been developed by Peter Ochs, among others. An approach he
suggested at the Talmud workshop would be to include criteria of peshat
and community value by invoking them sequentially.(2) Thus, one might
have an initial screen for an interpretation, determining that it meets a
minimum standard of fit with the text, or peshat, to qualify as a
legitimate reading. Among readings qualifying, the one with the greatest
value for the community would be the selected reading. It might not be
the best peshat in absolute terms, but would be, of the peshat-adequate
readings, the best for my community.
Such a strategy is reasonably clear (at least at a schematized
level), and has the virtue of attending to both criteria. In confining
attention to one criterion at a time, however, such an approach may not
yield the "best" reading. Imagine a graphic representation of readings with
textual value along the y-axis, value for a community along the x-axis.
(3) Three readings are candidates. Reading A has some value for the
community, and meets a basic peshat level (12, 10). Reading B has
slightly less value for the community, but excels as peshat (11, 20).
Reading C does not quite make it as peshat-adequate, but would be of
tremendous value for the community (30,9). Perhaps it is the type of
interpretation suggested by Rashi's statement that his commentary attends
not only to peshat, but also to aggadah that fits well with the text
("aggadah hameyashevet divrei hamikra davar davur al ofnav", to Gen. 3:8).
In the sequential approach, C would be eliminated in the playoffs,
its value to the community being irrelevant; and B would lose out to A in
the finals, its textual value now irrelevant. But it is far from obvious
that A is the best reading. Perhaps, since the loss of immediate
community value is small, it is worth retaining B for its strong
peshat--for its own sake, or perhaps in the hope that the vigorous peshat
will challenge the community, provoke other new readings, or in other ways
now unforeseen produce value for the community in the long run. Or
perhaps the issue is of such importance to the community, and C such a
substantial contribution, that peshat can be stretched on this occasion.
Or perhaps all readings should be maintained, as the traditional Rabbinic
Bible (Mikraot Gedolot) retains Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and Rashi together on
the same page. Given a plurality of interpretive concerns, a plurality of
interpretations may provide the best reading/s.
value | B
(1) This essay uses the term 'peshat' loosely to indicate plain sense,
literal meaning, or intratextual integrity, without pressing distinctions
among these. Cf. Peter Ochs, "Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation in
Judaism," in Interpreting Judaism in A Postmodern Age, ed. Steven Kepnes
(New York: New York University Press, 1996), 55-81. My discussion of two
criteria of value, text and community, represents a simplification; a
similar analysis would work for any number of criteria.
(2) Ochs's model is likely familiar to readers of this journal; one good
source is the above-cited essay. The specific approach mentioned at the
conference seems to fit generally with his presentation of David Weiss
Halivni and Michael Fishbane in that essay (pp. 69, 71).
(3) This model draws on discussions of pluralism of values in ethics and
other fields. Thomas Nagel, for example, addresses "problems created by a
disparity between the fragmentation of value and the singleness of
decision" in "The Fragmentation of Value," in his Mortal Questions
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 128-41. While his essay
focuses on ethical action, analogous problems arise in interpretation.
Relevant issues are also discussed by economist Amartya Sen in numerous
works, including Inequality Reexamined (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1992), 130-37.
PEDAGOGY AND TEXTUAL REASONING
I. A Book Introduction:
Michel Rosenak (Hebrew U) discusses his new book,
ROADS TO THE PALACE, JEWISH TEXTS AND TEACHING
(Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995)
This is the second volume of a project in which I have been engaged
for a decade: to delineate what "Philosophy of Jewish Education" is and
how it can be made to work. There are several problems that characterize
this project. To begin with, philosophers and educators have notoriously
scant regard for Philosophy of Education. On the basis of their
experience, they think of it as a mere medley of edifying ideas, the stuff
of after-dinner speeches, exhortation and vaguely "enriching," but
signifying nothing. Teachers know it to be not really practical;
theoreticians, as not really serious. When such philosophy is presented
as normative, it tends to sound preachy and apologetic; when it is
analytic, pretentious. In any case, someone will invariably come along
and ask why a midrashic tradition is comprehensible only when
(mis?)translated into the idiom of the Greeks, and someone else will ask
why a field that is alien to Western philosophy, being "only a midrashic
(i.e., homiletic) area of concern," deserves translation into "Greek,"
i.e., REAL Thought.
Hence, the problem of translation is central: How shall the Jewish
educational tradition be made widely communicable and comprehensible with
regard to fundamental principles and to social and individual ideals? How
may one arrive at a "Jewish Paideia" and yet do so without reductionism?
Peter Berger has described the translation of religious tradition as its
reformulation "in terms appropriate to (a) ...new frame of reference." He
finds this to be a form of "cognitive surrender," as a largely futile
attempt to rehabilitate religious traditions and to salvage their
relevance. I argue for the plausibility of partial translation: one that
expresses a specific cultural and religious world-view in varied literary
and philosophical modes without sacrificing its character and authenticity
and that midrashically insists that a particular translation is merely
"one way of looking at it."
Roads to the Palace continues my project of building frameworks for
philosophy of Jewish education, as begun in my earlier work, Commandment
and Concern (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 1987). In that
book, I treated religious education philosophically by distinguishing
between "explicit" religion and "implicit" religiosity, representing
normative and existential and heuristic features of religious life and
teaching, respectively; I also showed what moves were required to
translate theological orientations into theoretical-educational ones. In
this book my central working concepts are "language" and "literature."
LANGUAGE represents the basic assumptions, aspirations and modes of
understanding of a culture. It establishes its forms of rhetoric, its
symbolic "key words," its paradigms of order, coherence, and norm.
LANGUAGE bestows a collective identity on those who "speak" it (i.e., are
inside it). It exposes to view the culture's stores of what is "self-
understood" among its participants, its forms of communication and
articulation. In the world of Judaism, the central term for Language is
TORAH. Those who know it to be a supremely worthwhile language, declare
that it is "from Heaven." But in a PARTIAL TRANSLATION, that is not all
Language enables those who know it to show its power to shape reality
and to provide a home within reality for those who speak it. As ever new
"literature" is created within the "language", its funds of potential
meaning are explored and broadened. In the world of Judaism, the terms
MIDRASH and PARUSH express what "literature" is. To illustrate:
"Language" includes value-concepts like Eretz Yisrael; the pre-dominant
"literature" of Eretz Yisrael in the contemporary world is Zionism.
Mitzvot are language; TA'AMAI HA-MITZVOT, literature. I suggest that the
aim of education is to teach young people the language, to bring them into
literature through initiating them into ways that their community "does
literature," to expose them to varieties of exemplary literature, past and
present, and to enable them to "do" literature, wtihin the language of
Judaism, in their own lives.
Roads to the Palace elaborates and comments on "language" and what
the possibilities of "literature" are for Jewish education by examining
(a) How can "Philosophy of Judaism" be translated into educational
philosophy? The philosopher chosen for this exercise in translation is
(b) What is the significance, as an educational ideal, of YIR'AT
SHAMAYIM, Fear of Heaven? Here, the exercise consists of moral and
existential translation from the midrashic level to a
(c) How can we distinguish between two levels of "value education,"
that which distinguishes between values and "anti- values" on the one
hand, and that which requires deliberative decision-making in the presence
of cogent yet irreconcilable values in a specific situation, on the other?
The neglect of either set of opposites, I argue, creates a forced and
false choice between dogmatism and vacuous "value clarification."
(d) What is the normatively grounded yet morally defensible
relationship between commitment and openness? Talmudic insights are here
drawn into confrontation with modern philosophical ones.
Finally: (e) I suggest theoretical guidelines for a modern Jewish
curriculum. My assumption is that it will be based on dialectical
relationships between authenticity and relevance, commitment and openness,
"language" and "literature." I also suggest that YIRAT SHAMAYAIM does,
despite modernity and within it, represent a sublime character ideal for
Jewish education, of obedience and autonomy, wisdom and humility,
responsibility and human decency.
I shall be happy to hear comments.
II. A Publication Note: "Jewish Studies in America Today"
Network readers may be interested in the feature article of the
latest issue of WELLSPRINGS No. 44, Summer 1996. WELLSPRINGS is the
quarterly journal of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. The article is
"Sacred Studies in Secular Settings: Jewish Studies in America Today": a
roundtable discussion with Yaakov Elman, Peter Ochs, Lawrence H.
Schiffman, and discussion facilitator Susan Handelman. The topic is "What
are the implications of the multi-cultural phenomenon for Jewish Studies
in the secular university?" For Network readers, the focal issue is: how
does postmodern Judaism change the role of religious study--or indigenous
study?--in the university classroom? Our thanks to Susan Handelman for
inventing and facilitating this roundtable, and to Baila Olidort for very
patient and talented editing. For reprints contact Wellsprings Editor
Baila Olidort, c/o Student Affairs Office, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn,
NY, NY 11213.
KABBALAH AND TEXTUAL REASONING
Kabbalistic Responses to Postmodern Jewish Philosophy
Barry Hammer, Orono, Me.
[Ed. Note: Dr. Hammer has made a challenging contribution to
the NETWORK: responding in a kabbalistic voice to previous
NETWORK articles by Shaul Magid and Bernard Zelechow. Here
is a performative argument against the potentially reductive
and secularizing effects of postmodern theory in Judaism, on
behalf of a form of inquiry readers may label, variously,
kabbalistic, spiritual, theosophic, Torah-true, or, is there
here also a form of postmodern intratextuality, whose text
may be, in Magid's terms, meta-textual? Readers are welcome
to respond. This issue of the NETWORK leaves room for only
part of Hammer's text; with his indulgence, we offer
I.The Living Torah vs The Conceptual Torah
Response to Magid's "Kabbalah and Postmodern Philosophy: Rereading as
Rewriting in Lurianic Scriptural Exegesis," PMJN 4.2: June, 1995, pp.
Shaul Magid offers a significant suggestion: that Lurianic scriptural
exegesis took as its starting point not the written Torah, but rather a
"predetermined meta-text," supposedly the esoteric Torah "revealed at
Sinai along with the exoteric Torah." In order to clarify this issue and
address its implications for Postmodern Jewish Philosophy, I am restating
the issue as follows: For purposes of enhancing the soul's holiness and
enlightenment.., is it better for it to focus exclusively on the written
Torah--WHICH I IDENTIFY WITH THE "CONCEPTUAL" TORAH - or to move away
from the conceptual Torah in order to achieve direct, non-conceptually
mediated contact with the Living Torah, i.e., the living Spirit of God,
the fully radiant spiritual Light or Glory of God's absolute Being, to
which the written texts of the Holy Scriptures only point symbolically?
Although Magid subtly suggests that these are two mutually exclusive
approaches, I will argue that the conceptual Torah and the Living Torah
are both necessary for enhancing the soul's enlightenment...
The Scriptures tell us that the written, conceptual Torah can be a
tree of life, but only for those who grasp it (Prov. 3:18), meaning that
the soul must come to a deep understanding of the essential truth of the
Scriptures if the soul is to awaken as a branch of the tree of everlasting
spiritual Life.... The great truth of the conceptual Torah is that only
God IS, which means that He alone is the absolute Reality.... As Abraham
Heschel put it, "God is one means He alone is truly real." (1) That is the
message of God's pronouncement that He is the I AM (Ex. 3:14).... The
implication of this truth is that there can be no other reality presence,
power, goodness, intelligence, being, or voice for the soul to know or to
be ...(Isa. 43:10,12,21; 44:8): "So God created man in his own image, in
the image of God created he him"(Gen 1); "Though has made him little less
than God" (Ps.8:5). The soul, that is, is of the same nature as God's
spiritual Substance, but of a lesser magnitude, like the flame of a match
when compared to the sun's fire. As suggested by Deut. 32:4, God's work is
as perfect as He is, without any finite good and evil.... If, in His Holy
Spirit there is no evil (He is of "purer eyes than to behold evil" (Hab.
1:13), then there can truly be no finite good and evil in his world,
either: the entire creation was "very good" (Gen. 1:31), meaning with no
wrongness or evil of any kind in it. All of this suggests that the soul
can never actually be separate from, or fall from, God's spiritual
Presence into a world of finite good and evil. The early Hasidic
tzaddikim taught that if it were possible for the soul to become separate
from God's all-pervading Presence, then the soul would cease to exist. (2)
Although the soul cannot truly separate itself from God's infinite
Substance, the soul's consciousness can fall or become immersed in the
personal-life-story daydream [we call]... an ego: constructed out of
finite self-concepts and self-images, relatively positive and negative,or
what Scripture refers to as the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Gen.
2:17), the consciousness of which provides the soul an illusory experience
of separation from God's substance. In the words of Mikhal of Zlotchov,
"What stands between you and God like a wall is your Ego. This I, this
consciousness of a separate existence, is a wall between you and the
Divinity."(3) Constructing a self-image, the soul constructs a
psychological graven image, bearing witness to itself, which is a means of
self-worship. That is why God says of such soul in Isa. 44:9, "They are
their own witnesses," i.e., they are not bearing witness to His Glory....
The Hasidic master Shneur Zalman noted, "The essence and root of idolatry
is that (the individuality) is regarded as a thing in itself, sundered
from the Divine holiness."(4) The soul's projection of concepts ... onto
the world produces appearances of finite good and evil [in place of God's]
absolute Goodness. As Shakespeare noted, "There is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so" (Hamlet, Act 2, Sc.2). In Arthur Green's
words, the soul may "pretend that God does not pervade all... but the
ultimate truth of realizing our oneness with that all-embracing Being can
only be postponed, not denied."(5) Redemption is therefore merely a
matter of undoing the soul's identification with its false sense of
[As intimated in the written or conceptual Torah,] God's covenant
with the Jewish people displays the interrelatedness and interdependence
in function of God and His community of soul forms. As the Hasidic master
Menahem Nahum asserted, God and the community of souls within spiritual
Israel comprise a unitary "single whole": "(God) is unwhole without us.
Surely we (the spiritual community of Israel) without Him are also
incomplete...."(6) This community of souls is God's means of self-
knowledge; His divine images reflect back to Him unfolding potentials of
His spiritual Being. God's part of the covenant is to shine into the soul
ever higher levels of His Perfect Being, to give the soul ever higher
levels of spiritual blessing. In return, the soul's function is to
reflect [them] back to God.... In other words, the soul's part of the
covenant is that it must undo the cause of its presumed fall....
This covenant is [revealed] in various ways in the Torah, for
example, "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct they paths"
(Prov. 3:6); and the statement of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:34,
"Know the Lord." Likewise, the soul is told to acknowledge no other voice
but God's: "Obey my voice indeed, and deep my covenant.... and ye shall be
unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Ex. 19:5-6); "hearken
diligently unto me... and I will make an everlasting covenant with you"
My view is that the conceptual Torah and the Living Torah are both
required to redeem the soul.... By Living Torah, I mean the living Spirit
of God, which is the immanent spiritual Presence of God ... to which, at
best, the finite written word of the Holy Scriptures metaphorically
points. Although the conceptual Torah can be very useful..., it is not
sufficient by itself to redeem the soul. As Magid suggests, abandoning
the written Torah as one's starting point can lead one away from the truth
of the Torah, as suggeted by the "bizarre" aspects of Lurianic exegesis
(pp. 12, 15).... The conceptual Torah helps the soul to recognize the
infinite Being of God, and thus its true identity as a divine image of
God.... [However,]... holding exclusively to the conceptual, written
Torah will limit the soul's consciousness to the conceptually conditioned
mind and thereby maintain the soul's dualistic sense of separation from
God's infinite Spirit. Acquiring ... more conceptual information about
the nature of God and the soul's relationship to God obstructs the soul's
receiving higher levels of enlightenment and holiness. To attain spiritual
redemption, one must [therefore] turn away from all conceptual knowledge,
..to directly experience the infinite spiritual Presence of God immanent
within the soul.... Thus, the Psalmist tells the soul, "Be still, and know
that I am God" (Ps. 46:10, cf. I Kings 19:12)...
Just as reading a menu cannot satisfy the stomach's hunger, the
conceptual Torah along cannot satisfy the soul's hunger for direct
spiritual experience. That is why Scriptures tell the soul, "O taste and
see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8), and "Truly the light is sweet"
(Eccles. 11:7).... Thus Heschel notes that silence is the only real praise
1. Abraham J. Heschel, Man is not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (NY:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951), 117-18.
2. See, e.g., Dov Baer, Maggid Devarav l'Yaaqov, Rivka Schatz-
Uffenheimer, ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press of the Hebrew University, 1976),
124, and 197-198. Cf. Shneur Zalman, "Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah," Chapter
3 in Tanya (New York: Kehot Publishers, 1981), 293. Cf. Levi Yitzhaq of
Berdichev, Qedushat Levi (Bnei Brak: Heikhal ha-Sefer, no date), 47B-48A
3. Arthur Green, "Judaism for the Post-Modern Era," The Samuel H.
Goldenson Lecture (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion, Dec. 12, 1994), 12.
4. Lewis Newman, Hasidic Anthology, 427, quoting Mikhal of Zlotchov in
Chaim Bloch, Priester der Liebe (Vienna, 1930), 84.
5. Green, "Judaism," 12.
6. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, Upright Practices, The Light of the Eyes,
Arthur Green, trans. (New York: Paulist Press, 1982),
7. Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, (New
York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1955). 123.
I. Jewish Relationality vs. Derridean Individuality
[Responses to Zelechow's "Derrida and Postmodern Jewish Philosophy:
Revelations/Derrida," PMJPN 4.2,pp.19ff.]
Inherent in Deconstructionism's view of the exclusivity of personal
experience and hence "the undecidability of textual meaning," is the
presumption that human beings are independent of one another.... However,
if human life is inherently relational, then that would enable
individuals, even of diverse personal backgrounds, to emphatically
understand one another's experience of reality, and agree upon the message
intended by the author of a particular text.
The prevalence of relational views of reality in Jewish thought
suggests that Derrida's Deconstructionism [is not happily situated in
Judaism]. Prominent Jewish philosophers have expressed the view that all
individual souls are inherently related to one another because they share
in the same macrocosmic soul.(1) Along similar lines, the Kabbalah
portrays all individuals as being rooted in the same soul, Adam Qadmon,
joined to one another like cells within His unitary spiritual body, which
serves as the one Divine Image of the one Creator God.(2) According to the
Kabbalist Moses Cordovero, as well as Hasidic teachers such as Schmelke of
Nikolsburg and Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, the commandment to "Love thy
neighbor as thyself" (Lev 19:18) means to love thy neighbor not as
something separate from oneself, but (in Schmelke's words), "as something
that thou art thyself, for all souls are one. Each is a spark from the
original soul, and that original soul is in each of you."(3)
[If souls are united in this way, then] agreement in regard to text
interpretation is truly possible. By entering into a state of
one-mindedness with an author's experience, as reflected in the text, a
reader may empathically understand the meaning intended by its author.
Hasidic teachers maintain that one's ability to understand a message by
another individual is enhanced if one's conscious attention is fully
invested in that other's message rather than in one's own conceptual
self-consciousness.(4)... No reliable agreement in text interpretation
will be possible as long as readers project their own conceptually derived
personal beliefs onto the text.... Some Hasidic teachings suggest that the
spiritually-illumined creative understanding of a text, or of another
individual, is a form of spiritual blessing that God bestows upon those
who reflect His Holy Oneness. (5) There is no way to bring God's blessing
into the world without engaging in loving connection, or consciously
acknowledged relatedness, with the world. Individuals who overly identify
with the ego's sense of independent individuality thereby separate
themselves from God's Holy Oneness of Being and do not receive the
blessing of God that,in the form of spiritual Light, creatively illumines
a given text. When consciousness is fully invested in direct,
non-conceptually mediated contact with some objective reality, then one may
experience this from the inside, as if it were a related part of one's own
Creative insight therefore comes directly from "seeing into" the
nature of reality, rather than from projecting one's own biased
interpretations onto it. The greater the degree of empathic relatedness
between reader and text, the deeper the reader's consciousness will
penetrate beyond the surface appearance of the text into more essential
levels of the author's psyche, bringing profounder insight into the basic
meaning, or message, of the text. For many centuries, students in
yeshivas have studied Jewish religious texts in hevrutas, or collaborative
learning partnerships. These are based upon the understanding that
empathic dialogue, in the context of collaborative relationship, produces
spiritually illuminated understandings of the texts being studied.
Until we learn how to live in loving communion with other
individuals in the world, we will not be able to live in communion with
God's much more subtle spiritual Presence. Since that spiritual Presence
is the basic source of divinely inspired writings such as the Torah, only
it can provide individuals with an optimal understanding of those texts.
It creatively imparts this understanding to individuals who lovingly
commune with it, by way of its visible expression in the written text [and
by way of communion with learning partners.]
1. For example, Howard Kreisel, "Imitatio Dei in Maimonides' Guide of the
Perplexed" AJS Review 19(4) (1994), 187. cf. Moses Maimonides, The Guide
of the Perplexed, Volume I, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1963), 184, 187, 190, 192; Alexander Altmann, "The
Ladder of Ascension" in Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to
Gershom G. Scholem on his Seventieth Birthday (Jerusalem: Magnes Press of
the Hebrew University, 1967), 9, 16, 24; Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Dialogical
Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Buber, trans. Arnold A. Gerstein (Albany,
New York: State University of New York Press, 1991), 196.
2. Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York, New American Library, 1974), 162
and cf., idem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books,
3. See, for example, Scholem, Major Trends, 279; and also Louis Newman,
Hasidic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), 222, quoting Schmelke
of Nikolsburg from Reflex, May 1929, 65, and from Spiegel 120, 147, v.s;
Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, Qedushat Levi (Bnei Brak: Heikhal ha-Sefer,
Among Jewish philosophers with related views are Heschel, Man is not
Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951), 117, 120; Martin
Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1970), 62 and passim; Bergman, Dialogical Philosophy, 196; Arthur
Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name, (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson
Inc, 1991), 9, 26.
4. The Maggid Dov Baer of Mezritch, Maggid Devarav le-Ya`aqov, ed. Rivka
Schatz-Uffenheimer (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1976), 224, 230. cf.
Elimelekh of Lizhensk, No`am Elimelech, ed. Gidaliah Nigal (Jerusalem:
Rabbi Kook Institute, 1978), 252.
5. See, for example, Dov Baer of Mezritch, op cit., 46, 171, 224, 305;
Elimelekh of Lizhensk, op cit, 252, 379- 380, 452-53; Levi Yitzhaq of
Berdichev, op cit, 141; Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya (New York: Kehot,
1981), 145-46. In Newman, op cit, see 229, quoting Rabbi Ezekiel of Kozmir
from S. Rapaport, Vayakhel Shelomo (Piotrkov, 1908), 45; ibid., 499,
quoting Raphael of Bershad in Midrash Pinchas (Warsaw: 1876), 43-44; In
Wolf Zeev Rabinowitz, Lithuanian Hasidim (New York: Schocken Books, 1971),
29, quoting Shlomo of Karlin.
TALMUD, PHILOSOPHY, AND TEXTUAL REASONING: Please join us for the annual
gathering of the Network, Sunday November 24, 9-11pm, at the New Orleans
Marriott. Jacob Meskin will lead the discussion.
TEXTUALITIES: AN INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON JEWISH TEXTUAL REASONING:
The Dates are set now: June 15-17, 1997, at Drew University, Madison, NJ.