History and Meaning

Many goods appeal to people; when those goods conflict what should we do? People want meaning, they also want knowledge, and they also want their freedom to think and to choose. Sometimes they want someone else’s “Torah”–sometimes they want their own. To invoke the spectrum: Some people care only for the chase, for the question, for the logic of inquiry, others want that and Meaning, others want only Meaning (forgive the Germanic capitalizing of nouns–I’m not German which explains why I only capitalize those I wish to emphasize).

In his just-published book The Jewish Jesus (Princeton 2012), Peter Schäfer succinctly and I think effectively critiques Moshe Idel’s indifference to historicism (part of his long-running duel with Gershom Scholem’s historicist work that created the modern study of Jewish mysticism) in his methodological and existential preference for the phenomenological–a fancy academic word suggesting his interest in the content of ideas and how they work rather than in placing them in historical context and then perhaps raising Meaning sorts of questions about them.

Here’s Schäfer on page 6 re. Idel and his phenomenological method (specifically his book Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism (Continuum 2007):

 “…an approach that scorns both unilinear histories of Jewish mysticism as well as homogeneous interpretations focusing on the theosophical strand of Kabbalah (as opposed to the ecstatic strand), the latter demonized as Gershom-Scholem-and-His-School. Such an approach leads to a highly idiosyncratic mixture of sources that deliberately ignores the constraints of time and place, advocating instead a synchronic reading of the respective literatures that moves effortlessly back and forth between antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern period. The reader who doesn’t want to follow Idel’s presupposition is confronted with a hodgepodge of sources and impressions that–although often interesting and illuminating–defy any serious source-critical analysis and chronological classification and are therefore, from a historical point of view, worthless. Even at the risk of being suspected of historicism, I prefer a sober historical evaluation to one of impressionistic ideas, brilliant as they might be.”

I frankly remain perplexed as to why we still argue about this. To make meaning (going normative) out of something requires understanding that thing, understanding (going analytical) requires knowing that thing (going descriptive), hence the strong linkage of these supposedly exclusivist assays.

Anyone who pays attention to students in classes sees this all the time. Students need information, and they need to learn how to not just what to think about it. Jewish study–at its best–involves various sorts of interpretive dialectics: between students and their own ideas and values, between students and one another, between students and teachers, between students and the texts/history/ideas under scrutiny, and between the implicit if not explicit dialectic of text and interpretation embedded in the Jewish process and substance of learning. Without contexts how can one possibly store, sort, question this mass of material?

The real obstacle to this sort of multilayered work remains the desire for intellectual coherence and even unity. When someone invokes “Jewish unity” that usually means they want you to agree with them and their worldview. They may know more than you, they may care about your soul, whatever their motive the fact remains they possess the truth and they want to teach it to you to transform you. That’s fine in my book, as long as they make that goal clear, and that they teach responsibly. But that method usually excludes pluralist dialectic, and it almost definitely precludes genuine criticism.

Of course the hard part in all of this remains those multiple goods that we seek: we want to live inside of a tradition (except when we don’t), but we also want our freedom. Judaism’s power (at least from the Sages onward, and perhaps even prior, cf. Michael Fishbane’s work on inner-biblical exegesis) derived from its built in interpretative mindset and operation. It’s not possible in any real way to separate text from interpretation, to go to the Original Intent place that some of us crave. That’s not some fancy relativist deconstructionist talking, just the midrashic mentality. But that assumes some sort of a priori commitment to the people, culture, religion, to the truth of what brings you to the study, to the process of the study, to the outcomes by which individuals and communities choose to live.

Founder and Executive Director, Tzion; Teacher and Scholar, Gann Academy

Posted in History, Jewish Education, Jewishness, My View, Religion, Teaching, Teaching History, The Scholarly Tagged with: , , , , , ,
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[David] has a brilliant mind; he is a scholar of great range and depth; he is a deeply devoted father and husband; his outstanding abilities at organization are manifest in the splendid Me'ah Program he created and fostered; he is a forceful and moving orator; he is a man of both compassion and commitment; he is a teacher who fortifies and inspires; he is a natural leader; and his contribution to the Jewish community is legendary.
Sacvan Bercovitch, Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature, Harvard University

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