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.