Tuesday, December 21, 2010

'This is Israel!': Service Economy in the Jewish State


Not that the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem has ever been a pleasant experience (though better than the disco slum of Tel Aviv), but it is a place that I have managed over the years: security, more security, escalators, and then to that special part of the world which I call Waiting for the 400 bus - the frequent bus to the ultra-orthodox Bnai Brak that stops at Bar Ilan University where I work. Some people say that Atlantic City was created so that the large orthodox population in Lakewood would have available transportation; though perhaps I should not continue that thought, comparing Atlantic City with Bnai Brak (no boardwalk in the latter).

Anyway, as it turns out the bus that has been leaving from platform 22 - since the 'new' Central Bus Station opened about ten years ago - is now leaving from platform 4. And, oh wait: the times of the buses are not now on the hour, twenty-minutes-after, and twenty-minutes to, but on the half hour, ten-minutes-to, and ten-minute- after (write this down, fellow travelers). How did I know all of this? There was a sign - written in magic marker and pasted up with scotch-tape (apparently they did not have time to contact my ten year old daughter Channa to make a really nice one). It was, however, just the right size to be overlooked by one of my colleagues, who presented her ticket to the driver of the bus on platform 22, and was promptly yelled at for being on the wrong bus. Good thing he told her. She might have ended up in Afula. Or somewhere.

I was debating about sharing my complaints with the driver of the bus which I did finally find (which left a half hour late anyway), but after discussions with one of the other confused passengers, we found ourselves uttering, like I do too often: 'this is Israel!'

Right. This is Israel. So there's no point mentioning that in a city like London or New York ('achi, this is not London or New York; this is Israel'), there would have been signs of service shifts for the month prior, and maybe apologies for the inconvenience. Those cities also manage public transportation systems with transportation authorities watching out for the public interest. Egged takes care of 55% of the routes in the country - is that a monopoly? - but as far as I know there is no public body that monitors their service.

So put up a sign on the day, and then watch the frenetic dash of the passengers through the bus station; witness their confrontation with the sometimes surly (and certainly harassed) bus drivers; and then the resigned shrug of the shoulders when everyone shows up at work an hour late: 'This is Israel.'

But does it have to be this way?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Judaism and the Art of Conversation

Torah u'madda!

The phrase itself - a slogan for some and a signal-danger for others - has become a way of taking a stand, but in the process ending a conversation on what may be the most critical issue facing contemporary Jews. I can already see eyes rolling, and hear the accompanying 'he's an academic, he would say so!' But I'm not just talking about syllabi for high school students or whether a 15 year old should read Catcher in the Rye. But arguments about Torah u'madda where they do happen - and sometimes with a good deal of vehemence - are really about the question how do we relate to the culture in which we live. Since November, I have been a Fellow of the Atid Institute in Jerusalem, and I have been having conversations with Rabbi Jeffrey Saks on the importance of moving past the polemics and posturing that usually attaches to the issue. Torah u'madda as a both a term and a phenomena is probably a symptom of living with the conflicts of modernity - Maimonides did not do 'Torah u'madda,' he just read Aristotle - showing that we are conflicted, bifurcated. So that term, Saks suggests, may have to be pushed aside before new attitudes and approaches can be developed.

So I come back to David Hazony and his citation of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who studied 'constellations and calculations, the sayings of launderers and the saying of foxkeepers, the conversation of demons and the conversation of palm-trees, the conversation of the ministering angels, the great things and the little things.' Virgil in his eclogues was reluctant to compare great things with small, but Rabbi Yohanan is unapologetic about his course of study, and bringing the two together. He not only studies Torah, and science - constellations and calculations, but he is also alive to the mysteries of nature - the whispers among the palm trees - as well as those beyond nature, the conversation of ministering angels. There are all sorts of conversations going on in the universe, and Rabbi Yohanan wants to participate in them. We can imagine him even straining to
overhear the launderers at their washing pools, and paying attention to the foxkeepers as they work their trade. Rabbi Yohanan may be the inspiration for another sage, Ben Zoma, who to the question 'who is wise?' answers: 'the one who learns from all people.' We don't have to attribute a utilitarian agenda to Rabbi Yohanan - imagining him getting laundry tips or instructions for how to trap animals. He was fascinated by their conversations, their worlds, and wanted to listen and learn. Of Rabbi Yohanan, the Talmud says, 'he never engaged in frivolous conversations.' No matter what the subject, he was always engaged.

In a conversation with one of my most gifted graduate students, I learned of an essay by a Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who calls this 'listening' a religious act, part of an open-ended discussion that goes on through the generations. Before the trauma of the modern - when 'Torah u'madda' became a position paper, a defense mechanism in the battles about Jewish identity - it was just this listening that mattered. For the philosopher Levinas, God's Revelation to his people happens in History (with that big capital H), meaning not just the moment of the original revelation on Mount Sinai, but to each individual in her own historical time and place. Levinas does not mean that God speaks to individuals - that's the farthest thing from his mind - but that God speaks to individuals in the historical moment in which they live. In a wonderful phrasing, Levinas writes that a 'personal God' is not just a theological principle, but rather, it is the belief that God relates to persons, and such persons, Levinas affirms, must live in particular times and places. God does not only sustain me with a livelihood and bless me with the ability to learn His Torah, but he puts me in a specific time and place where I do such things. Levinas cites Exodus: 'The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be taken from it.’ So, Levinas writes,' the Torah carried by the Ark is always ready to be moved. It is not attached to a point in space and time, but is continuously transportable and ready to be transported.'

Torah comes to me in history - where I am now, the place where I was born. My history is not some kind of blemish that I must cover, or an error that I have to correct. God, as John Milton writes, is the 'Author of all Things,' including the history in which I find myself. I develop myself - like Rabbi Yohanan - through entering conversation. 'Be part of the conversation!' - so one of my teachers used to tell us in graduate school. Rabbi Yohanan, however, says 'be part of the conversations' - in the plural. Listen, and learn to speak.

But Rabbi Yohanan does not provide a normative teaching: if we were the wrong kind of students, the students who instead of really wanting to learn wanted to become like someone who seems to know something, we'd enroll in fox-catching courses or hang around in laundromats. Rabbi Yohanan's message is more simple: be present to what's around you. The Torah was not given in a vacuum, the person who you are, your background, your education, are part of your kabbalat haTorah, your receiving of the Torah.

Of course, we can't participate in every conversation. Part of education means attuning to the conversations that matter, otherwise we might spend all day updating facebook statuses or checking twitter accounts. The attitude of discerning openness is not an easy thing, but maybe that's what we should talk about instead of using a slogan from the past laden with meanings that just makes everyone defensive. 'I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed,' writes Milton in Areopagitica. Judaism has always been an impetus to action, a knowledge leading to practice. So perhaps, like Milton, we should focus on the importance of education as engagement, listening and talking. Something difficult enough - especially in an era when many of us are no longer proficient in the fine art of conversation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ten Commandments: I did not know that!


Well, I didn't think I could learn anything new about the Ten Commandments, but have been reading David Hazony's new The Ten Commandments, and looks like I was wrong. What's interesting - so far - about Hazony's book is that it goes in so many unexpected directions. So a chapter on the sabbath turns into a meditation on self-realization; 'Honor thy Father and Mother' a discussion of the nature of wisdom; and 'Thou Shalt not Murder' a set of reflections on permissible physical pleasures (apparently there are a lot of them) and the 'meaning of life.' What makes Hazony's approach so interesting is that what may look at first like digressions from the matter at hand leads - somehow, and in different ways each time - to the essence of each commandment.

One of the ways to the redeeming of the self - I'm currently reading Hazony's take on the sabbath - is Torah study. Where there has been so much discussion about Torah u'madda in the past generation - analysis, defense, advocacy of the importance of the relationship between Torah and secular wisdom - I found Hazony's approach disarmingly refreshing. We find the 'deepest truths' of ourselves through study; that study, in Hazony's read, can be wide-ranging. For him, one of the models is Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai who spent his sabbath afternoons studying texts that included 'constellations and calculations, the sayings of launderers and the saying of foxkeepers, the conversation of demons and the conversation of palm-trees, the conversation of the ministering angels, the great things and the little things.'

Great things and little things! Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai does not have a special syllabus. But rather he is engaged in the world, making himself present to the people and the world in which he lives. You can, it seems, learn a lot from the conversations of launderers (sometimes I feel the same about conversations with Jerusalem taxi drivers). As Hazony puts it, we free our spirits on the sabbath 'reading literature, walking through the woods alone with our thoughts, studying philosophy, meditating, analyzing poetry with a friend, attending a moving and enlightening lecture, or spending time with people we consider wise.' This is all a very far cry from the defensive rejection or polemical advocacy of Torah u'madda. That is, this is not Torah u'madda as an agenda or a stance, but a life lived. Put another way, it entails nurturing a discerning openness to the world, as well as a commitment to cultivating ourselves in relationship to the wisdom - we find it in strange places sometimes admittedly - of others. I think Hazony is on to something here.

I am looking forward to reading more.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Open Minded Poetry

And now...

Christoper Marlowe's 'The Passionate Shepherd to his Lover'

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The New Medievalism



When Thomas Browne in his idiosyncratic and bizarre Religio Medici asks that burning and old age philosophical question, 'how many eyes does a snail have?,' he does not heed the advice of what a philosophical contemporary Francis Bacon might suggest, 'Get a microscope and look!' Rather, he begins, 'Aristotle says...'; and then continues, 'Galen says...' Rather than just looking himself, he consults the ancient and medieval philosophers: what do they say?

Browne may be one of those thinkers, as Bacon says, 'interested in words not things,' inherited traditions of interpretation and not the world itself. Bacon thought that medieval philosophers were so engrossed in the picture of the world and the patterns that they believed it to have, that they failed to see the world as it is. Though we may understand - in our own post-Baconian world - that there is no such thing as the world 'as it is,' without perspective (or even traditions of interpretation). But we can understand Bacon's frustrations: 'look at the snail; will you?!?'

But what would we do? Are we closer to Browne or Bacon? A student stated the obvious: 'what would we do? we'd google it.'

As twitter and facebook become the prisms through which we see the world - newspapers I have been told only exist now to be cited on twitter - we have less in contact with a reality which is not virtual. Does this make us - post-modern as we think we are - akin not to Renaissance men such as Bacon, but closer to Thomas Browne and the medieval mindset he represents?

Are we inhabiting, despite our pretensions to the contrary, the New Medievalism? And are there some things - not only snails - at which we should be looking more closely? What are we missing?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Table of Contents for Open Minded Torah

Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love

Prologue: Velvel, Govorovo, Poland, 1944

I. Desire and Self

Making Exceptions

Do it Again Denzel: Fantasy and Second Chances

Caught in the Act: Torah and Desire

Swaying Towards Perfection: Torah, Worldliness and Perversion

The Big Game: Baseball, John Milton and Making Choices

Just Dreamin’: The Sages and the Interpretation of Dreams

Isaac’s Bad Rap

Identity is Out

Writing an Inspirational Story

Eros and Translation

Of Rabbis and Rotting Meat

Jacob’s Scar: Wounding and Identity

Cheeseburger: Torah, Swine and Desire

Torah and the Pleasure Principle

II. Community and Dispute

Oedipus in a Kippa

Open Minded Torah I: Judaism and Fundamentalism

Irony Uber Alles: An Episcopal Passover

The Dangers of Magic: Of Parenting and Idolatry

From Sinai to the Uzi: New and Old Zionisms

The Poetry of the World: God’s Place

Stepping Up

Open Minded Torah II: Judaism and Postmodernism

Lost and Found

Prayer and the People: A New Siddur

A Religion for Adults?

Modernity is Hell: Korach and Hobbes

Don’t Take Away My Mitzva!

Of Fundamentalists, Rabbis and Irony

Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem

Open Minded Torah III: Between Fundamentalism and Postmodernism

III. Time and Memory

Carpe Diem, Dude

The Antidote for Religion: Fear of God

Speech in Exile and the Voice of the Shofar

Back to the Future: Yom Kippur and Creative Repentance

Shades of Faith: My Sukka is Not Insured by AIG

A Special Conversation: Freud, the Maharal and Shabbos

Lighting Up: The Beauty of Hanuka

Whose Letter is it Anyway: Esther, Aristotle and the Art of Letter Writing

Cosmic Consciousness: The Beatles, Passover and the Power of Storytelling

Why I Gave Up Biblical Criticism and Just Learned to Love

Trauma’s Legacy: On Israel’s Memorial Day

Faceless: the Ninth of Av

Epilogue, Shmuel, Jerusalem, 2011

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Exclamation Point! Semi-Colon!

I was just reading over a chapter of Open Minded Torah, getting it ready for publication. There was something really annoying about the chapter - which I realized, after a while, was the presence of so many exclamation marks! Elmore Leanord in giving advice for writers advises that 'you are allowed only two or three exclamation marks for every 100,000 words of prose.' My piece was only 1500 words, and I had already used seven! I was way over the limit!

So what's wrong with exclamation marks?

They are the punctuation equivalent of the kinds of actions to which we might respond, quoting Hamlet, 'the Lady doth protest too much.' Someone writing with exclamation points in the earnestness of his strivings (and his desire to convince others) is hiding something, probably his own lack of convictions. Too many question marks can be mopey and cynical; too many exclamation points strident and overbearing. Exclamation points may be the enthusiastic cover story for beliefs that are insufficiently convincing - most of all to the one setting them forth.

So, yes, I revised the chapter.

What is your favorite form of punctuation? The mystic will like the ellipsis... The philosopher - the hyphen. My preference is for the semi-colon; and no, to the nay-sayers, it is not merely an exalted comma! Oops, am I being defensive about my punctuation preferences?

The Torah has no punctuation, but if it did, I'm sure that God would also have a preference for the semi-colon. The semi-colon is the punctuation for what Erich Auerbach called the style of 'parataxis' - the placing together of clauses without subordinating them. The juxtaposition of sentences and ideas, without subordination 'acknowledges the multiplicity of meaning and the demand for interpretation.' There is the space in between - the space guarded over by the semi-colon. The semi-colon is the punctuation that says 'darshaini' - interpret me. The semi-colon is the opening to midrash and creativity.

It's the most inviting and fertile form of punctuation; at least, that is what I think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Faceless: the Ninth of Av

‘And I will dwell upon you’ - so God says to the people of Israel, and He dwells among them, first in the sanctuary in the desert and then in the center of Jewish worship the Temple in Jerusalem. The ninth day of the month of Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple, the day to which future Jewish tragedies are linked –exile, pogrom and holocaust. ‘I will hide my face from them,’ and so God – Jews know this too well – withdraws his presence when He turns His face from His people. Not only is the face of God absent, Primo Levi writes out of Auschwitz, but also the human face. ‘I do not know who my neighbor is. I am not even sure that it is always the same person because I have never seen his face.’ Auschwitz - churban and destruction – is the faceless world without the presence of God or man.

The first Temple, built in the merit of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was destroyed on the ninth of Av because of the sins of the people of Israel, illicit relationships, idolatry and murder. Abraham’s hesed, the outward excess of generosity, turns into vulgar indulgence; Isaac’s subjugation of his will to God, bound on the altar by his father, turns to idolatrous ritual; the peace established by Jacob, through the tribes of Israel, transforms into murder. When the attributes of the patriarchs that had distinguished the Jewish inheritance are overturned – and turned into their opposite – says the Maharal, the first Temple falls. The temple is rebuilt, not because of the merits of the patriarchs – the first and second Temples are different – but because of the unity of the people of Israel. In the Purim story, Esther calls a day of fasting for the Jewish people: ‘go and gather all the Jews of Shushan.’ As a result of their heeding her call for unity – the story of Esther takes during the Babylonian exile – the Temple is rebuilt. As the Maharal writes, the sustenance for the first Temple came from Above, the relationship that God initiates with the patriarchs. That of the second Temple came from below, from the people of Israel. But when the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple hundreds of years later, also on the ninth of Av, the sages say that the people of Israel were engaged in Temple service, studying Torah, and performing acts of kindness – what Simon the Just later calls the ‘three pillars upon which the world stands.’ So what went wrong? There may have been scrupulous observance to the Torah, and even shows of care for others, but beneath it all, there was sinat chinam, baseless hatred. And so the second Temple fell.

'You shall not harbor hatred for your neighbor in your heart.’ So God commands the people of Israel in Leviticus. There is another command which must be fulfilled with all ‘your heart’ – ‘b’lavavcha.’ In the first verse of the ‘Sh’ma’ God commands a love of Him with all one’s heart – the doubling of the letter bet in the Hebrew word for heart means, the sages say, that one must love God with both good and bad inclinations. So in practice, I love God with the energies which I am happy to publicly own, and those about which I am less inclined to acknowledge. I love God even with the self which may seem a stranger to the self I proclaim to myself and others. One of the sixteenth-century sages of Safed, the Alshich, applies the words of the sages about love of God to the command to refrain from hating one’s neighbor – since both commands are incumbent on the heart. Just as I love God with both good and bad inclinations, I also hate with good and bad inclinations. To hate with my bad inclination is, paradoxically, ‘better.’ For after having been wronged or injured, and turning towards another with hatred, I may, in a moment of calm, come to my senses and experience regret. ‘It was a bad moment; I had a bad day: the part of me that hates is not the part of me that I want to be.’ And out of regret, repentance sometimes follows. But I can also hate with my yetzer tov, my good inclination, or with that part of my personality which I see as upright, and even moral. But from such hatred, repentance rarely follows. For as I hate the other, I tell myself that I am justified in my hatred. The hatred in fact is my duty, a sign of my moral rectitude. And if anyone questions me – I try my hardest not to condescend to them as I explain to them – ‘how could I do otherwise? how could anyone? don’t you know that it is a mitzva to hate?’ ‘We are obligated to hate evil!’ – I may even show you a verse in the Torah, as I prove that hatred is my religious obligation. But devotion to hatred or the strident adherence to any position, the psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear writes, usually has another function: to keep me ‘in the dark about who I am.’ My unconscious, the part of me that feels ambivalent about my own choices and actions, causing me to lash out at others, acts out not through my ‘evil inclination,’ but through my so-called ‘good inclination.’

This may explain why in our generation, we do not fulfill the mitzva of hating evil in our fellows. Not just because it is hard to distinguish good and evil – as Milton wrote, ‘good and evil grow up together almost inseparably’ – but also because our ‘good inclination’ is suspect. One of the great sages of the twentieth century, the Chafetz Chaim says, ‘if you are looking around for mitzvot to perform – hatred is not among them – you will have to find another.’ Not only is the hatred projected outwards likely doing psychic work for me about which I am not fully aware, masking my ambivalence about myself, but it is also a hatred from which I will never recover. I repent of what I acknowledge I did wrong. But I cannot repent of something which I consider to be a mitzva.

Already at the time of the second Temple, the people of Israel were doing hesed, performing acts of kindness with the wrong kind of ‘good inclination.’ They put a good face on things – the Temple service was flourishing, the houses of study were full, and the hesed organizations were thriving. But through these acts of kindness, their ‘good inclination,’ they showed what they were really about. ‘We are the genuinely God-fearing,’ each group boasted. And: ‘the way they serve God is not to my liking.’ ‘I don’t like the shul where he prays’; and ‘I don’t care for how she dresses.’ ‘They may look like Jews, but they are not,’ so each group claimed of the other. Acts of kindness directed only at a select group, and excluding others, did not serve as a way to come together, but to divide. Kindness becomes a way of expressing exclusivity; hesed, paradoxically, the way to show hatred for others. This baseless hatred is not just an external cause for the destruction of the Temple. Without the unity of the people of Israel, the Temple had, writes the Maharal, nothing to sustain its continued existence. The Jews may have been doing mitzvot, but they did not make themselves present to others in doing those mitzvot. Just the opposite: the performance of the mitzvot – hesed as a form of hatred – allowed them to be absent to others, because absent to themselves.

The sages say: ‘Any one who has da’at or knowledge,’ it as if the Temple is rebuilt in his days.’Man is like the Temple in the way that he brings together different worlds. Betzalel, who constructed the sanctuary in the wilderness through his da’at, the power to connect, brought the Torah and the divine presence or shechina, down to earth. So the individual brings together upper and lower worlds. The sages link knowledge and the face. For the individuality of a person is seen in his face; it is the place where neshama and guf, soul and body, upper and lower worlds come together. The sage Shammai’s injunction, ‘always show a good countenance, panim yafot,’ or literally ‘a beautiful face’ is not just a call for good manners. The beautiful face, the face that glows or shines, is like the Temple, which is called hod or beauty, where the physical yields to the spiritual, where God’s presence rests. The Second Temple was built in the merit of the people of Israel, in their making themselves present one to another. A person who has da’at, who is present to himself and present to others – his hesed is not a form of division but of connecting – participates in the Temple’s rebuilding. He joins higher and lower worlds in himself.

When God’s face is absent on the ninth of Av, it is not just a seeming absence; on that day we experience it as such. On other days – holidays and fast days like the ninth of Av all provide different lenses on experience – we may speak about happy endings and redemption, but on the ninth of Av evil is palpably, irredeemably real. And in the face of destruction, and trauma, man’s face is also absent. So Primo Levi writes of the camps: ‘I could not see his face.’ Absent in Auschwitz, absent in the traumas that make us unable to show ourselves or be seen. Though the Temple was rebuilt, it lacked, the sages of Babylonia say, the divine presence, the holy spirit, and ark of the covenant, all aspects of the divine connection to man. The sages of Palestine, however, say there was a divine presence, even in the Second Temple. True, they acknowledge, the divine presence that comes from Above was gone. But the Second Temple was built because of a different kind of divine presence, one with origins from below, from the people of Israel. Someone with da’at, who is able to join upper and lower worlds, who brings the Torah down to earth through his actions, is like one who builds the Temple. He makes himself present to himself, and others. Though there is no compensating for the sufferings of destruction, exile and holocaust, there is the possibility of repair – through bringing the shechina down to earth, by letting it be seen in the human face.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

'Miami Thrice' and King James



No, I do not live in a cave. I followed the adventures - through New York Times headlines - of Lebron, and watched with everyone else as he did what in retrospect seems obvious, signing with Dwayne and Chris and (here's the significant and) Pat Riley.

But I still, over the last few days, have been guilty of a cognitive disconnect. I kept on seeing tweets, about 'hating King James,' and I'm thinking to myself: why the sudden animus for the King James Bible? Maybe, I found myself thinking, public culture is not in such a sorry state. True, I myself prefer King James, especially to the polemical and fussy Geneva Bible, but hey: I'm open minded. In any event, feeling myself not so irrelevant to discussions of the day: first one of the World Cup organizers refers to Donne's Meditation 17 - 'no, man is an island' - and now the greatest English Bible translation trending on twitter.

But then I realized: oh, that King James.

A twitter-quaintance - is that a word? - noted how 'all of the yeshiva guys' he knew were in the parsha of King James, but this time, the right one, or the wrong one, depending on your perspective.

So why does the 'Torah only' world tolerate a love of basketball, but not King James (the real one), Aristotle, and Shakespeare? Talk about the King James Bible translation to yeshiva guys, and after a long blank stare, they will probably wonder if Art Scroll got a new donor. I'll quote Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: why do people think it is 'perfectly legitimate to labor long and engrossing hours in order to eat lamp chops, drive a Volvo, or vacation in St. Moritz, but illicit to devote those hours instead to exploring, with Plato and Goethe, new vistas and experience?'

Yes, Rav Aharon's references are dated (a Volvo!), but why do so some of us tolerate Torah and entertainment, and not pursue Torah u'madda? or pay lip service to the latter while pursuing the former?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love

Yes, that is the now official title - coming in the spring of 2011 to a book store near you.

And for an OMT interview, as well as chulent recipes and lots of other interesting stuff, check Ilana Davita here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Faceless

'And I will dwell upon you' - so God says to the people of Israel, and He dwells among them, first in the sanctuary in the desert and then in the center of Jewish worship the Temple in Jerusalem. The ninth day of the month of Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple, the day to which future Jewish tragedies are linked - exile, pogrom and holocaust. 'I will hide my face from them' - and so God - Jews know this too well - withdraws his presence when he turns his face from his people. Not only is the face of God absent, Primo Levi writes out of Aushwitz, but also the human face. 'I do not know who my neighbor is. I am not even sure that it is always the same person because I have never seen his face.' Auschwitz is the faceless world without the presence of God or man.

The first Temple, built in the merit of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was destroyed on the ninth of Av because of the sins of the people of Israel: illicit relationships, idolatry and murder. Abraham's hesed - the outward excess of generosity - turns into vulgar indulgence; Isaac's subjugation of his will to God - bound on the altar by his father - turns to idolatrous ritual; the peace established by Jacob - through the tribes of Israel - transforms into murder. When the attributes of the patriarchs that had distinguished the Jewish inheritance are overturned - and turned into their opposite - says the Maharal of Prague, the first Temple falls. The temple is rebuilt, not because of the merits of the patriarchs - the first and second Temples are different - but because of the people of the unity of the people of Israel. In the Purim story, Esther calls a day of fasting for the Jewish people: 'go and gather all the Jews of Shushan.' As a result of their heeding her call for unity - the story of Esther takes during the Babylonian exile - the second Temple is built. As the Maharal writes, the sustenance for the first Temple came from above - the relationship that God initiates with the patriarchs; while that of the second Temple came from below, from the people of Israel. But when the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple hundreds of years later, also on the ninth of Av, the sages say that the people of Israel were Temple service, studying Torah, and performing acts of kindness - what Simon the Just later calls the 'three pillars upon which the world stands.' So what went wrong? On the surface it seemed like great times of the people of Israel: there was scrupulous observance to the Torah, and even shows of care for others - acts of kindness - but beneath it all, baseless hatred. And so the second Temple fell.

'You shall not harbor hatred for your neighbor in your heart' - b'lavavcha. So God commands the people of Israel in Leviticus. There is another command which must be fulfilled with all 'your heart': when God commands me to love Him with all my heart - the doubling of the letter bet in the Hebrew word for heart means, the sages say that I must love God with both my good and bad inclinations, with the energies which I am happy to publicly own, and those about which I am less inclined to acknowledge. I need to love God even with the self which at times may seem a stranger to the self I proclaim to myself and others. One of the sixteenth century sages of Safed, the Alshich, applies the words of the sages about love of God to the command to refrain from hating one's neighbor. Just as I can love God with both good and bad inclinations, I also hate with good and bad inclinations. To hate with my bad inclination is, paradoxically, 'better' - for after my perception of having been wronged or injured, and turning towards another with hatred, I may, in a moment of calm, come to my senses and experience regret. 'It was a bad moment; I had a bad day: the part of me that hates is not the part of me that I embrace.' Out of regret comes repentance. But I can also hate with my yetzer tov - my good inclination, or rather with that part of my personality which I see as upright, and even moral. But from such hatred, repentance rarely follows. For as I'm hating the other, I tell myself that I am justified in my hatred - the hatred in fact is my duty, a sign of my moral rectitude. And if anyone questions me - I will do my best not to condescend to them as I explain to them - 'how could I do otherwise? how could anyone? don't you know that it's a mitzva to hate?' 'We are obligated to hate evil!' - and I may even show you a verse in the Torah, as I prove that hatred is my religious obligation. But devotion to hatred of this kind that, or the strident adherence to any position, Jonathan Lear writes, is one way I may keep myself 'in the dark about who I am.' My unconscious - the part of me that feels ambivalent about my own choices and actions, causing me to lash out at others - acts out not through my 'evil inclination,' but through my so-called 'good inclination.' This may explain why in our generation, we do not fulfill the mitzva of hating evil in our fellows. Not just because it's hard to distinguish good and evil - as Milton wrote, 'good and evil grow up together almost inseparably' - but also because our 'good inclination' is suspect. So one of the great sages of the twentieth century, the Chafetz Chaim says, if you are looking around for mitzvot to perform - hatred is not among them - you will have to find another. Not only is the hatred projected outwards likely doing psychic work for me about which I am not fully aware, but it is also a hatred from which I will never recover. I repent of what I acknowledge I did wrong. It is hard - if not impossible - to repent of something which I consider to be a mitzva.

Already at the time of the second Temple, the people of Israel were doing hesed, performing acts of kindness with the wrong kind of 'good inclination.' They put a good face on things - the Temple service was flourishing, the houses of study were full, and the hesed organizations - groups devoted to charity - were thriving. But through these acts of kindness - their 'good inclination' - they showed what they were really about. For their acts of hesed were selective: 'We are the the genuinely God-fearing' - each group boasted. And: 'the way they serve God is not to my liking.' 'I don't like the shul where he prays'; and 'I don't care for how she dresses.' 'They may look like Jews, but they are not' - so each group claimed of the other. Acts of kindness did not serve as a way to come together, but to divide. Kindness becomes a way of expressing exclusivity; hesed, paradoxically, the way to show hatred for others. The baseless hatred is not just an external cause for the destruction of the Temple; without the unity of the people of Israel, the Temple had, writes the Maharal, no further reason to exist. The Jews may have been doing mitzvot; but they did not make themselves present to others in doing those mitzvot. Just the opposite: the performance of the mitzvot - hesed as a form of hatred - allowed them to be absent to others, because absent to themselves.

The sages say: 'Any one who has da'at - knowledge - it as if the Temple is rebuilt in his days.' Man is like the Temple in the way that he brings together different worlds. Like Betzalel who constructed the sanctuary in the wilderness uses his da'at - his power to connect - to bring the Torah and the divine presence or shechina - down to earth. The sages bring together my knowledge or my sensibility - another word for 'da'at' - with my face. For I show my individuality in my face; it is the place where neshama and guf - soul and body - upper and lower worlds come together. The sage Shammai's injunction - 'always show a good countenance, panim yafot, or literally a beautiful face' is not just a call for good manners. The beautiful face, the face that glows or shines, is like the Temple - which is called hod or beauty - where the physical yields to the spiritual, where God's presence rests. The second Temple was built in the merit of the people of Israel, in their making themselves present one to another. A person who has da'at who is present to himself and present to others participates in the Temple's rebuilding; he joins higher and lower worlds in himself.

When God's face is absent on the ninth of Av, it is not just a seeming absence; on that day we experience it as such. On other days - holidays and fast days like the ninth of Av all provide different lenses on experience - we may speak about happy endings and redemption, but on the 9th of Av evil is palpably, irredeemably real. And in the face of destruction - and trauma - man's face is also absent: 'I could not see his face.' Absent in Auschwitz, absent in the traumas that make us unable to show ourselves or be seen. Though the Temple was rebuilt, it lacked, the sages of Babylonia say, the divine presence, the holy spirit, and ark of the covenant - all aspects of the divine connection to man. The sages of Palestine, however say that there was, in fact, a divine presence even in the second Temple. They acknowledge that the divine presence that comes from above was gone, but that the second Temple was built because of a different kind of divine presence, one with origins from below. Someone with da'at, who is able to join upper and lower worlds, who brings the Torah down to earth through his actions, is like one who builds the Temple. He is present to himself, and others. Though there is no compensating for the sufferings of destruction, exile and holocaust, there is the possibility of repair, through bringing the shechina down to earth, by letting it show itself in the human face.








Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Would You Buy This Book?

In essays as likely to turn to baseball, Denzel Washington, and the NASDAQ as to Macbeth, quantum physics and psychoanalysis, William Kolbrener provides powerful –and often surprising – insights into how open mindedness allows for authentic Jewish commitment in an age otherwise defined by fundamentalism and unbelief.

Open Minded Torah presents – on topics ranging from parenting a son with Down syndrome to Biblical criticism to Talmudic interpretation of dreams – a perspective on Torah which emphasizes skepticism, creativity and the need to embrace difference. Through a personal synthesis of Western and Jewish learning, popular culture and philosophy, Kolbrener offers a compelling new vision where being open minded allows for a non-dogmatic and committed Jewish life. Informed by Kolbrener’s considerable erudition, but always accessible, the essays of Open Minded Torah show that skepticism informs belief, commitment grounds creativity, and non-defensive receptivity makes individual autonomy possible.

For every person, it is said, there is a corresponding letter in the Torah: this innovative collection shows Kolbrener writing his letter, and providing the inspiration for others to write their own.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Summer Game: Baseball and the Jews

“What is it with you and baseball?” my wife asked recently after I emerged late for breakfast from my basement office. “It’s a Jewish sport,” I told her. Not because there may be a disproportionate number of baseball players in that classic volume, Jews in Sport. There is rather something about the sensibility of the game that makes for the connection between baseball and the Jews.

Bartlett Giamatti, the former Yale professor of comparative literature and Baseball Commissioner, had written of the Greek not Jewish nature of the game. The goal to “come home” places baseball in the epic traditions of the West, beginning with the heroic Odysseus whose desire to return home to his native Ithaka is at the primordial roots of the game. Perhaps, I considered, since Odysseus is really the Greek version of the Jewish b’aal tshuva—the one who returns—there is a hybrid Hebraic and Hellenic provenance to the Great American Game. But Giamatti’s meditations are too abstruse and allegorical, somehow missing the point. Baseball, rather, is a game of stories, complicated, intertwining, entangled—which is what makes baseball the Jewish sport.

There is not only the story told by the standings, the win and loss columns, or the rivalry between teams etched in baseball’s collective memory; there are the unfolding stories of individual players. Unlike the synchronized beauty of pro football’s violence, these stories can be watched as they develop in the luxuriating slowness of the 162 game season. After a few games, just a highlight can alert to the latest nuances of the story-lines; for the true initiates even a box score is redolent with cues to their progress (there were once, after all—hard to imagine for our image-centered generation—fans who followed the whole season through box scores).
It’s not only the narratives that evolve over the course of the season. The games of the “endless summer” provide, if watched carefully, cerebral stories of the moment. I remember the magical season of 1986 of the Mets’ World Series victory when I first tuned into the broadcaster, Tim McCarver, with his elaborate explanations of the permutations that make up the confrontation between pitcher and batter. And so the position players factor in dozens of variables, for every pitch, every batter, every developing scenario. There are those that compile baseball’s ever-growing number of statistics. But the numbers, of course, tell a story.

Before Odysseus even thought of leaving his hometown, Jews were telling stories. From the first Passover seder in the desert, the year after the Exodus from Egypt, we have been following the divine command to recount the formative moments of our creation as a people—connecting the present to the past through story-telling. How strange, if you think of it, a mitzva, a divine command, to narrate! But not only that, we are always already enmeshed in a life-long cycle of story telling: the weekly Torah and Haftorah portions that tell the stories of Jewish history. Or the sabbath itself—the prayers and meals of which implicate every Jew in the story of the longest duration which stretches back from the present to divine creation. Or the cycle of holidays in which we find ourselves part of the stories that have already been told, and are not only told but re-enacted, with words and through actions—with each reading of the megillah at Purim time, with each lighting of the candles on Chanuka, with each blintz on Shavuot.
From the very first seder in the desert, there were already variations and embellishments. As the Passover hagadda enjoins, the person who adds to the narrative of the Exodus is to be praised—enriching himself and others through the telling of tales. The stories that unravel over time are experienced and told differently in every home: that the famous four children of the seder each recquire a different approach becomes a lesson for parents for all generations to tell the stories so that that their own children can hear them best. And since, as the sages say, there are “seventy faces of the Torah,” there will be an endless multiplicity and variation, ever-unfolding opportunities for narration. Jews are probably not, as the old saying goes, people of the Book, but rather people of the telling—the telling and living of stories.



Monday, May 17, 2010

OMT Classic: Thoughts for Shavuos: Why I Gave Up Biblical Criticism and Just Started Loving...

My title is a bit misleading. For to tell the truth, I never was much for the Biblical criticism--that academic discipline founded in the nineteenth century, promising to tell the truth about Biblical authorship. There's been a lot of talk about Biblical criticism recently, with a new book claiming once and for all to provide a vision of the Bible "as it really was." The assumptions upon which Biblical criticism are based is that the methods of the sciences can be brought into the humanities, and that if we just occupy the right perspective, we can sift through all of the facts and evidence and have an objective picture of things. I'm a scholar, and I love evidence as much as the next guy, but I've never been compelled by the readings of Biblical scholars with their alphabet soup of authors--J, D, P--which in my view is just their way of not facing the complexities of a Biblical text with which they don't truly engage or understand. I certainly wouldn't want a Biblical scholar to help me read Milton's Paradise Lost; where Milton argues through paradox, they would just see contradiction and evidence for multiple authorship. Now is probably not the time to go into the way in which enlightenment beliefs in reason are also faith-based practices (Stanley Fish has written brilliantly on this as a columnist in the New York Times). Nor is it the time to cite those scholars in various academic fields (in both the humanities and sciences) who have called into question the whole conception of objective neutrality upon which the Biblical Criticism is founded.

When my wife and I began our paths to Torah, I remember someone (I think it was my father-in-law) saying that if G-d wanted to give a handbook to humanity, he would have given it in binary code. To him, this would have been a form of revelation that could be objectively understood, a crystal clear revelation requiring no interpretation at all. But the Torah in it's very first verse asserts itself not as an objective knowledge, but one that is based upon relationship--the relationship between G-d and His people, Israel. As Rashi explains the בראשית--"In the Beginning"--of the first verse is a contraction of ב-שביל ראשית b'shvil reshis, 'on behalf of the first.' And 'the first,' as Rashi shows from other passages in the Holy Writings refers to Torah and Israel. The world was created for the sake of the divine revelation through Torah and for Israel, the nation through which the divine revelation comes into the world. Torah and Israel are together the purpose of creation; without one, the other could not exist.

G-d did not choose Israel to be an objective observer, but he founded a relationship with Israel based upon love. "With an abundant love you have loved us"--so begins the second of the two blessings which precede the recitation of the Sh'mah in the morning. And in the evening blessings preceding the Sh'mah: "With an eternal love, you have loved us"--a love expressed through G-d's bestowing of "Torah--and mitzvot, decrees and law" to His people Israel. Torah and love are thus linked together. The morning blessing continues with an entreaty "to instill in our hearts to understand, to elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all the words of Your Torah's teaching with love." That we ask that G-d grant understanding to our hearts (and not, for example, to our minds) emphasizes again that Torah founds a relationship based upon love. So the morning blessing concludes with the praise of G-d who brings Israel close to Him so that they can "praise his unity with love," and the benediction of "G-d who chooses Israel with love." A reciprocal relationship of love: the numerical value (or gematria) of the word אהבה is equivalent to that of אחד--love is based upon unifying. In this sense, the act of receiving the Torah is an act of union or love.

Our sages refer to the giving of the Torah as yom chasanatu, the day of our chuppah or marriage. The blessing from the marriage ceremony includes five קולות or sounds--the 'sound of joy and of gladness,' the 'sound of joyful wedding celebrations,' and the 'sound of youthful feasting and singing'--which correspond, the Talmud tell us, to the five 'sounds' that accompanied the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. That the sages compare the giving of the Torah to marriage is not merely a poetic embellishment; it expresses a deep philosophical truth. G-d chooses Israel with love, and we respond with acts of love. There is no external perspective, no possibility of disengagement, but rather learning Torah is an act of love. The Sh'mah begins: "And you shall love the Lord your G-d..." How, our sages ask, do we follow the injunction to love the G-d? For the answer, they turn to the continuation of the verse, "let these words which I command you today be your hearts." It is through 'these words'--learning Torah--that I express my love for G-d.

But even more than this, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner writes, the continuation of the verse in the Sh'mah further refines the definition of learning Torah: "Let these words...be upon your hearts, and you shall teach them to your children." The act of Torah study is only fully realized through teaching. Torah study then is an act of love which connects me to G-d, but is consummated in the teaching of children and students. There's a vertical relationship, a double connection, where with love I strive upwards to the divine, and complete that act of love through a corresponding downward movement--bringing Torah into the world through teaching the next generation. My love of G-d, realized through Torah study, reaches its perfection with the love expressed in "you shall teach your children." A double movement of connection and love.

In this dynamic, there is no external place of objectivity. As Jonathan Lear, the Chicago classicist and psychoanalyst, writes the position of objectivity and the so-called "neutral perspective" is just a myth, and attempting to occupy it leads to "developmental failure and pathology." We've all been there, even if not as Miltonists or Biblical critics--who forestall genuine engagement with texts through their flat and preachy readings. We've more likely occupied that perspective in bad moments as spouses, or equally bad moments as parents where we flee to a place of disengaged complacency and crabbiness (or self-righteousness) instead of engaging with those whom we love. So this Sunday night--z'man matan Toraseinu, the time of the giving of our Torah--we should give up that very contemporary and Western desire for objectivity and cool disengagement, and start loving a little--by renewing our efforts to connect, to make the Torah our own.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trauma's Legacy: Thoughts on Israel Independence Day



I took some time yesterday to go to Mount Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem not far from my house. Yesterday marked the official state holiday, Yom Ha'zicharon or Memorial Day, instituted by the Knesset in 1948 followed by Yom Ha'tzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, commemorating the establishment of the State. The days have been called Israel's 'new High Holidays' - which is true in as much that they have become the days central to Jewish identity in the modern Jewish state. In the Israeli imagination, it's from the depths of despair to triumph - so Memorial day is followed by Independence day.

I have hesitations about the story implied in these two days, and especially their proximity to one another. But I took my daughter, Avital, to Mount Herzl anyway as a way of acknowledging - ha'karat ha'tov - the service and sacrifice on behalf of the State of Israel, and the people of Israel. It was moving and strange in that uniquely Israeli way - chaotic and public, at the same time intimate and dignified. Bottles of water piled in huge boxes offered by eager high school students. More young people in blue jackets behind tables with piles of flowers, some standing closer to the entrances, looking as if they wanted to hawk their wares, but freely dispensing flowers to the thousands piling in to the cemetery. Avital took a bunch - we would find, I told her, an unvisited grave upon which to place the flowers. We looked; but we didn't find one.

On Yom Ha'tzma'ut, Israelis gather for a family barbeque or mangal. As my friend Allen Hoffman, the novelist, told me yesterday, the question of whether one says Hallel - psalms of praise recited on Jewish holidays - on Independence Day is secondary: what is important, he quipped, is the mangal. In each of the tiers of the cemetery which my daughter and I visited, we found families gathered. Among them, the religious border policeman in his late sixties, in full uniform, who had brought tiny collapsable chairs, and his children and grandchildren - it looked like they had been there for decades. And in the middle of the family circle - the scene was repeated again and again -instead of the mangal, a gravestone, stoking not coals, but what seemed like an ancient grief. There were those whose loss was fresh, but the overall impression - a true one -was of a nation that has been grieving for a long time.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik distinguishes between moods and emotions - the former he writes are 'homogenous and singular,' while the latter are complicated, consisting of many different elements. The poet, T.S. Eliot writes in a similar vein, understands that 'implicit in the expression of every experience are other kinds of experience which are possible.' So Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that the Jew should pursue a complex life of emotion and not the singularity and satisfaction offered by the mood - the quick and reactive response which ends up as 'degrading.' The Torah cultivates emotions and not moods. When experiencing the plenty of G-d's benificence, the Jew in his pilgrimmage to Jerusalem is commanded in Deuteronomy to remember the poor. Amdist his own wealth and pleasures, he remembers the other - consciousness of plenty is balanced by the knowledge of poverty and need. When experiencing the mourning of the loss of God's presence in the Temple - the chorban beit ha'mikdash - on the ninth of Av, the Jew does not say penitential prayers of supplication, for the day is a mo'ed, a holiday, to also anticipate the coming of the mashiach, the messiah. Holidays on the Jewish liturgical calendar incorporate the opposite of the dominant emotion of the day: experience of abundance brings about acknowledgment of need; the absence of the divine presence is accompanied by hope for the fullness of divine presence at the end of days.

In America, Memorial Day marks the beginning of the beach season in May; or if you are religiously observant, the day where in some shuls you get to wear your white straw hat - with Independence Day following later on the Fourth of July. The sense of collective loss and national triumph is muted both by the passage of years, as well as the interval between the two holidays. One might have thought that in Israel the proximity of the holidays would lead to a heightened consciousness that even in national victory - I won't say salvation - the memory of suffering and vulnerability would be present, that the consecutive holidays would nurture a sensibility informed by emotions and not moods. But the two days - each representing a singularity of one mood despair on Memorial Day to the triumph of Independence Day - may preclude the sensitivity to complexity cultivated by Jewish holidays.

Trauma can have different effects - it can lead to the fostering of moods, or the cultivation of the complexity of emotions. 'Remember you were a slave in Egypt' is the Torah's instruction to transform the trauma of slavery into a more refined consciousness - one which includes self-knowledge and knowledge of the other. Trauma, the Torah tells us, cannot be ignored. Addressed, trauma can lead to an acknowledged vulnerability refined into a receptivity. But trauma can have another effect - the sense of a suffering and self-righteousness that justifies conquest and triumphalism. In this different kind of acknowledgment of trauma, my suffering justifies my triumph. My trauma and suffering become the license for a self-protection that turns into arrogance, redressing my pain as a way of asserting an (impossible) invulnerability. The stories that I tell - narratives of what the Torah calls cochi v'etzem yadi, of 'my strength and my power' - are asserted with an unambivalent certainty. I am not referring to politics, certainly not geo-politics, but to something more important - the constitution of the Israeli, or Jewish, soul.

What, I thought as we left the cemetery, if the placing together of the holidays - in a story of national and nationalist victory - does not lead to receptivity, but to an arrogant and self-justifying triumphalism? What if in our pursuit of the nationalism of other nations, in our pursuit of being Israelis first and not Jews, we lose the awareness of the stranger - in ourselves and others - which marks us off as a people? What if overtaken by feelings and taken by the mood of nationalist triumph, we fail to refine trauma into sensitivity, and allow all of those generations of suffering - and the pain felt at Mount Herzl - to be squandered?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Afikoman as Metaphysical Conceit: Paradox of Pesach



You tell the wise child when she asks about the laws of the holiday - we don't have dessert, 'ain maftirin, afikoman,' we don't have an afikoman after the meal. No dessert! Yet, the sages use the Greek term - afikoman - for what we do eat at the end of the meal. So what does it mean that we don't have dessert - 'afikoman' - when in fact we do eat the afikoman?


Afikoman can also mean,' bring me the dessert.' After the wine drinking and symposium partying, the Greek revelers would have dessert - bring it on! - and then look for other parties: the after-party, the after-after-party. For the Greeks and later the Romans, it's 'Carpe Diem, baby!' Enjoy the present moment. But the sages say, no afikoman. No after-party tonite, sorry. Have the taste of the matzahs in your mouth for the rest of the night - just like our ancestors had the taste of the paschal sacrafice. So, no afikoman - no dessert.

But... the last part of the meal is
tzafon - which means literally 'hidden.' Bring out the hidden - bring the afikoman. Pay off the kids who hid the broken piece of the middle matzah - and bring it to the table - let every one have a piece - and end the seder with the taste of the afikoman. Another Jewish paradox: do not have an afikoman after the meal, but, bring the afikoman.

One has to know how the
seder is based on Greek antecedents to know how the seder is NOT Greek. Bring the afikoman - not of more wine and revelry, but bring out the hidden essence of Pesach. The matzah we eat during the meal recalls our redemption from Egypt; the hidden matzah of the afikoman - 'bring the dessert which is not a dessert' - foretells, our tradition tells us, a future redemption. We end the seder not with Greek partying - but with the taste of past and future - in the present. 'We don't end the meal with an afikoman'; 'bring the afikoman!'


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

James Kugel Redux - Reply

In my review of How to Read the Bible, I did not suggest that Kugel is too ‘biased,’ as some commenters have suggested on a blog devoted to the subject have suggested nor did I, as Gil Student, in apparent agreement with my argument, suggest that Kugel is ‘subjective.’ I did express in a comment of my own a sense of disappointment in understandings of interpretation that rely upon the subject-object distinction. It is a nineteenth century philosophical distinction - wielded in various contexts, usually now as a form of polemic (which predictably happened following Gil’s Student's comments) - which has nothing to do with traditions of Jewish interpretation, nor conceptions of interpretation that go back to Newton, Milton and Aristotle. I went on to cite the analyst Jonathan Lear - that any knowledge entails a form of love - in order to argue that all forms of knowledge entail some form of union - and that there is no erasure of subjectivity, nor pure Truth or objectivity. Despite Kugel's dismissal of my claims - and the assertion that he acknowledges the importance of interpretation - he does, as my full review reveals, persistently write about the so-called objectivity of modern scholars, and their ability to deliver the Real Truth.

Have no doubt about it: the heroes of How to Read the Bible are the modern biblical scholars who supposedly ‘read the Bible scientifically’ and ‘without any presuppositions’ and conclude that the Torah is just a scramble of different human traditions and interpretive accretions. It is true, as Kugel writes, that I did not address him on some of his areas of scholarly expertise – in which I admittedly have limited expertise. But I do address him on methodological assumptions about hermeneutics – theories of interpretation – to which he offers no response. How to Read the Bible as the title announces is not only about the Bible, but about interpretation. My review took issue with Kugel’s methodological assumptions about interpretation (and assumptions about objectivity which come from it) – which, as I wrote, arose in the nineteenth century and have since been discredited by scholars working in a large variety of disciplines (and not by post-modernists with which he blithely groups me). The assumption that ancient interpreters ‘play fast and loose’ with the ‘face value’ of the Bible, and that modern scholars tell us like it really was, leads to Kugel’s clear advocacy of the conclusions of the latter, and the ‘great secret’ which they reveal. For, as Kugel writes, they understood Scripture to be on ‘the level of any ordinary human composition – in fact arguing that it was in some cases even worse: sloppy, inconsistent, sometimes cynical, and more than occasionally deceitful.’ This conclusion is based upon flawed methodological assumptions, and it is to these flaws that my review attempts to draw attention.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

James Kugel and Me on How to Read the Bible

OMT gets dissed as a bush-league post-modernist Miltonist by noted author James Kugel - who responds to my review of his How to Read the Bible. Read his comments on my review below or here, but first an abstract of my review - which can be read in full in number 100.1 of the journal JQR. The review is available through JSTOR, or you can send a request for an offprint to me.

Here's the abstract of my review:

In How to Read the Bible, James Kugel employs the many resources at his disposal - among them archaeology, anthropology and linguistic - to reveal a Bible, at once thought unified, to be rather “contradictory and incoherent.” The story which takes center stage in the book is the contrast between the reading habits of “ancient interpreters” and “modern scholars,” – and of how “people went from one way of reading the Bible” to “reading it in another.”

The heroes of Kugel’s account, modern scholars, he explains, “understand the Bible afresh”; reading it “scientifically” and “without any presuppositions,” they embark upon a “cold, objective search for the truth about the text.” They write about the text’s “real meaning,” its “original meaning,” or the Bible at “face value.” Ancient interpreters “had a stake in what the text would end up saying,” while modern biblical scholars oblige by telling us what “really happened”; where “Biblical texts really come from”; and what these texts “really mean.”

Claiming allegiance to both sets of traditions, Kugel fashions himself as the one who delivers “reality” - that is, “the real Bible,” summoned by his own “unbiased interpretation.” For Kugel, there are two Bibles: the real biblical texts and the “Interpreted Bible”: they “make up side by side, two completely different books.” Modern biblical scholars are said to deliver the former; traditionalists, liberal theologians and literary critics offer instead the debris of “human dogmas” and “interpretations.” Kugel ends up delivering what Thomas Nagel calls a “voice from nowhere” – the ostensible perspective of objectivity and so-called unbiased interpretation. How to Read the Bible thus fulfills the dream of the nineteenth century, in having finally revealed what von Ranke calls “Wie es eigentlich gewesen,” the world—in Kugel’s case, the Bible—as it really was.

Kugel’s hypothetical “unInterpreted Bible” is also a fantasy – the fantasy of modern biblical scholars. Not just from a post-modernist sensibility (which Kugel rightfully dismisses), but, from a perspective which ranges from Aristotle to Kuhn, from Milton to Wittgenstein, that understands that perceptions are never innocent of assumptions, and traditions of interpretation are always the vehicles for encountering texts. The mostly etiological (that is causal) interpretations of Kugel’s modern scholars may be elegant, clever and ordered, but such interpretations leave the Bible as simplistic, even simpleminded. Kugel claims that the ancient interpreters ignore the “plain sense” of Scripture and supply the “final and definitive interpretation,” but it’s really the explanations he advocates that provide final and definitive interpretations of the biblical text. In Kugel’s reading, it is predictably the heroic modern biblical scholar, from his (ostensibly) Archimedean vantage point, who provides the causal link that renders everything coherent and final.

Foregoing the objectivity which turns the Bible into a sloppy collection of unrelated fragments may not mean, as Kugel says of traditional interpreters ‘crouching’ in front of the Biblical text, but rather trying to occupy the traditions of those ancient interpreters which allow us to attend to a work that transcends our (sometimes overly narrow scholarly) expectations of what texts should be.

Here's Kugel:

William Kolbrener’s “How to Read How to Read the Bible” presents a pretty good summary of some of my ideas, but he certainly errs in saying (p. 188) that while I “gesture to the role of assumptions in interpretation (p. 135), the mantra of ‘the real Bible,’ repeated throughout How to Read the Bible, betrays a faith in a somehow unmediated text.” I gesture? It is the role of assumptions in interpretation that is the true mantra of my book, chanted in every chapter. But if he is implying that I am not sufficiently interested in the interpretive assumptions of modern biblical scholars, I should point out that the Bible is a rather different from Paradise Lost, to which Kolbrener compares it. Much of the Hebrew Bible was written twenty centuries or more before Milton, in a society and literary environment very different from our own, and in a language still imperfectly understood. What is more, many biblical texts purport to recount historical events, and almost all of them presume a knowledge of specific historical and cultural details proper to biblical times. All these things have been immeasurably illuminated by the last six or seven generations of scholars working in various fields connected to the Bible. What I find lacking in Kolbrener’s article is any appreciation of this circumstance or, indeed, any real acquaintance with modern scholarship apart from the things that I have to say about it – and sometimes not even with those. He doesn’t seem to think that archaeological evidence, Assyriology, Egyptology, ancient Near Eastern history, and comparative Semitics need to play any decisive role in our attempt to understand the meaning of biblical texts. But it is precisely these things that must mediate any serious, critical engagement with the Bible today.

Kolbrener apparently believes that they can be dismissed with a postmodernist wave of the hand: they’re all just one possible way of reading. This may fly with Milton scholars, but I don’t think biblical studies are quite there yet. In short: I would like to be kinder, but I’m afraid this is one game he shouldn’t have suited up for.