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March 7, 2012

Contentious hermeneutics

My friend AKMA has posted part I of his research and reflections into the “Old Testament” writings about death. AKMA is a friend, and a truly learned, open-minded, and open-hearted theologian. It’s fascinating watching him doing his preliminary research, sorting through the death references from within his Christian frame, although AKMA being AKMA, he’s mainly pointing out ways the Jewish testament does not support the Christian testament’s ideas about death; AKMA is carefully avoiding (I believe) the assumption that Christianity completes the Jewish beginning.

Even so, as I read his thoughtful interpretation, I was struck by how differently he proceeds than would my orthodox Jewish friends (one of whom is my wife :). They’re learned scholars as well, and they of course at times traverse the testament to find all the references to a topic under discussion. But the next step is different. My orthodox friends understand the text only in conversation with the tradition of great scholars — rabbis — who are interpreting the text. It wouldn’t occur to them to try to understand the text apart from that great conversation. Of course AKMA also understands the text through the interpretations that surround it; he is, after all, an extremely well-versed scholar. But it’s different. For the Jews, the rabbinic conversation is, essentially, a part of the text.

And, it’s worth pointing out that that interpretative tradition is fully embraced as unresolved. The rabbis disagree, and this is a good thing. A scholarly discussion that does not point out and defend the disputations has failed. Thus, the tradition is self-contradictory. But, my orthodox friends bridle at that phrase because when you call something self-contradictory, you usually mean to say that it’s flawed; at least one of the sides needs to be rejected, or you need to mystically embrace the paradox. For orthodox scholars, to reject one of the great sources would be to lessen the tradition. And mystically accepting all sides would end the perpetual argument that in a real sense is Judaism. Rather, it’s accepted that we humans are not up to the task of finally understanding the world or the G-d that created it. But we are commanded to keep trying. So, we need as many learned points of view as possible, and we especially need to understand them in their very disagreement. The Jewish understanding of its eternal text is the continuing contentious discussion.

This divergence of argument occurs on the basis of agreement about an unchanging text. We’ve been given an original text that stays literally the same; its letters are copied from one text to another with error-checking procedures that keep the sequences of letters quite reliable. But the text does not speak for itself. It needs to be read and interpreted. That interpretation cannot be accomplished by an individual or even by a community. It requires a history: a set of conversations within the community, arguing about the text across time and circumstance. Thus, an unchanging text can remain relevant because its meaning is not apart from or behind the interpretation, but is in the history of interpretation by an argumentative community.

The perpetual argument is driven by a need to resolve questions of behavior: how the Law is to be applied to a particular dilemma. What constitutes sufficiently koshering an oven when you move into a new apartment? Your rabbi rules, citing text, tradition and its interpreters. The rabbi one synagogue over might well rule differently. That’s ok. That’s how it works: local rabbis refer to a contentious set of interpreters operating from a single text, following rules of argument and evidence. This ties the community to a continuous tradition and an eternal text, while allowing for progressively relevant interpretation and for a multiplicity that enables Jews to not only to live with disagreement, but to flourish within it.

AKMA has written brilliantly about the diversity of interpretation as reflected through his own commitment: differential hermeneutics , and also here and here, among other places. This is a difference in traditions that is reflected in differences in interpretative practices. It is a difference we should embrace.

[Disclosure: I am a non-observant, agnostic Jew. There is no chance that I have gotten the above right.]


My friend Jacob Meskin read a draft of this and has been very helpful, as have several other people, none of whom entirely agree with what I’ve written. Jacob passed along the following from Levinas:

“The Revelation as calling to the unique within me is the significance particular to the signifying of the Revelation. It is as if the multiplicity of persons — is not this the very meaning of the personal? — were the condition for the plenitude of ‘absolute truth’; as if every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from mankind. This is not to say that truth is acquired anonymously in History, and that it finds ‘supporters’ in it! On the contrary, it is to suggest that the totality of the true is constituted from the contribution of multiple people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carrying the secret of the text; the voice of the Revelation, as inflected, precisely, by each person’s ear, would be necessary to the ‘Whole’ of the truth. That the Word of the living God may be heard in diverse ways does not mean only that the Revelation measures up to those listening to it, but that this measuring up measures up the Revelation: the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people. We can thus see the whole impact of the reference made by the Revelation to exegesis, to the freedom of this exegesis, the participation of the person listening to the Word making itself heard, but also the possibility for the Word to travel down the ages to announce the same truth in different times.” [ From “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” (1977), in Beyond The Verse, trans. Gary D. Mole, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp.133-134]

Jacob points out that Levinas is saying this within a context that assumes a tradition of revered rabbinic commentators who are touchstones for the conversation. Without that understanding, this particular passage could lead one to think that Jews feel free to interpret any which way they want. No, our argument has bounds.


August 1, 2010

Two tweets worth

1. A show at the Des Moines Art Center is featuring works overstuff and overcrowded over the ages.

A year or so ago, Des Moines Art Center curator Amy Worthen noticed a pattern in the things the museum was adding to its permanent collection. Many of the new paintings and prints were crammed with imagery, top to bottom, side to side.

“There was just a lot stuff going on in the works,” she said. “I mean, insanely packed.”

She wondered why, especially since the artwork was created by artists with entirely different backgrounds and styles.

Cool idea for a theme.

2. I like AKMAs calm-but-stern commentary on Anne Rices decision to depart a Christianity that she has defined for herself in the worst possible way. AKMA has a great last line, although I suspect a person not as kind would have substituted “Anne Rice” for “Flannery OConnor.”


September 6, 2008

[ae] AKMA

I’m sitting on the speakers panel at Ars Electronica, listening to AKMA. “Theological discourse intrudes awkwardly into tech conferences,” he says. Theologists and technologists frequently talk past one another, he says. They are mutually suspicious. Theologians sometimes suffer from “replacement panic,” the fear that online will replace real world interaction. The church needs to “indiginate” itself online. [Live blogging. Poorly. Omissions, typos, mistakes. That’s just the way it.]

Jacques Paul Migne discovered in the 19th century the most efficient means of editing a paper: outright plagiarism. He’d copy an entire article, while introducing it by noting where it was first published. “He scraped newsfeeds and republished them.” Migne owned five steam presses in 1861. He published a “universal theological library” comprising 25 vols of Biblical commentary, 25 vol encyc, 18 vol of Christian apologetics, 13 vols in praise of the blessed Virgin Mary, and many more. While most relied on public domain sources, he sometimes republished volumes still within copyright. It was a “theological literature Pirates Bay.” Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps” (“What would Jesus do?”) had a technically flawed copyright notice, so it was republished without permission.

So, situate all of this in the transition to digital media, AKMA suggests. Theological might serve as a useful “fishbowl” for technological innovators. There are online libraries of theological works, but “no organization has broken through to offer open access digital works” in comfortable, readable formats. “The conditions for publishing will go through some sort of convulsive change.” It will not replace books. But it will enable a “vastly more open exchange of digital literature.” We need “shareable, searchable, downloadable, disposable” texts, as well as durable, ownable printed texts. We need an open, standard format with a direct correlation to print copies (because print will survive and will generate cash flow). This will provide users wioth the “tools and the incentive to particiapte in the production of knowledge.”

Q: (James Boyle) You say technologists should see in the theological domain an opportunity to expand the commons. Why have not the faithful seen IP issues as something that gets in the way of the practice of their faith? E.g., many pieces of sacred music is under copyright. The organist at a local church said that she has a parishoner who is dying of cancer and I want to send her a cd of the music. They want $5,000 for a hymn.” I told her to go ahead and when they sue you, come to me. Why isn’t the world of the faithful looking at these issues?
A: The Bible publishing industry was one of the startups in 19th century US because the King couldn’t enforce copyright on this side of the ocean. Replacement panic causes the church to fear that personal interactions will evaporate. And assimilation to the culture of property rights. [Tags: ]