Friday, January 08, 2010

An Infinite Conversation

I just read an essay in Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, who is the Co-Director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford.The title of her essay--"It Is Not for Me to Finish the Text, Yet Neither Am I Free to Desist"--jumped out at me for obvious reasons, given my own interests in the work of Emmanuel Levinas as well as in what I call the midrashic impulse. It's that whole Buberian "thou must which takes no account of the thou can" thing again.

I love
things that are neverending--ideas, texts, and emotions that refuse to reveal their conclusions to us. But more importantly, I love such things because they require my active participation. I help to give them life, to make them move, thrive, and evolve.

In the essay
, Fonrobert describes her first encounter with the Babylonian Talmud, when she was studying at a Protestant seminary in Berlin a number of years ago. She was, understandably, seduced by the magic of the Talmud--and, "as with any magic," she writes, " cannot be grasped in its totality lest it lose its hold."

But what
is serious study of any text--sacred or secular--but an attempt to grasp it in its totality? We sometimes think, mistakenly, that in order to make something ours we must master every one of its twists and turns, discern and decipher every enigma and ambiguity. We long for the power and security that we believe such "knowledge" affords. Everyone wants the last word.

As I read
this short essay, I found myself smiling and nodding vigorously to myself at every other paragraph. In referring to a necessary characteristic of the Talmud (and Torah), Fonrobert comments on the:

of the text to remain incomplete, to forsake authority, to leave the final word unsaid; and the insistence of the text that no one, not Rabbi Akiva nor Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi nor Rav Ashi, and certainly no one of us--so many centuries later--will have the final world. . . The truth does not abide with any one person; it is born from the principled discussion between two or more people.

Hello, Levinas.

A person, in
other words, who does nothing more than sit alone in his space and study the text alone is inevitably barred from "the truth" of the text. He is missing the crucial component that would link him back to all the text has to offer. He is missing the company and companionship--and the resulting disagreements--of learning the text among others.

also points out the ways in which the style and rhetoric found in the Talmud confront the rhetoric of early Christianity:

It [the truth
] is born from keeping the discussion going, restaging it. And I experience this intuitive perception of the talmudic rhetoric as profoundly liberating. The Talmud gave me disagreement, dispute, and conversation where early Christian theologians gave me dogmatic claims to the truth.

As proof, Fonrobert
cites pereq heleq, the eleventh chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin. Specifically, she points to a recorded dispute regarding redemption between Rav and Shmuel. She quotes:

Rav said
: All the predestined dates [for redemption] have passed, and the matter [now] depends only on repentance and good deeds. But Samuel maintained: it is sufficient for a mourner to keep his [period of] mourning. ---Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

As Fonrobert
points out, the viewpoints of Rav and Shmuel are diametrically opposed. In other words, in terms of redemption, are works and good deeds either matter (says Rav), or they don't (Shmuel). The talmudic text, however, refuses to back either one of the viewpoints, instead granting legitimacy to the question/dispute itself, rather than the answer/solution by reminding us of earlier disagreements in the Talmud about this very thing.

text," suggest Fonroberts, "turns us and turns us again as we seek to find everything within it."

I love this
idea of being turned by the text. I always refer to the sages' admonition to turn the text, since everything is contained within it. But what does it mean to allow ourselves to be turned by the text, simultaneously? Perhaps the argument is not so much about allowing the text to transform, but about allowing ourselves to be transformed by this idea and its enactment.


Casey said...

I know I'm riding a dead horse here, but I don't feel like that's fair to early Christianity, (especially since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts), even the act of including four different versions of the Gospel of Jesus seems to encourage interpretation and demonstrate great tolerance for ambiguity.

So I agree that the contemporary culture of Christianity, especially in the Protestant/evangelical sects, is lamely dogmatic -- but I strongly believe that isn't a function of the text.

If you are making that claim -- if anyone is -- I'd like to hear a much clearer defense of Torah and Talmud as implicitly more unclosed than early (or later mystical) Christian writings.

Especially because the very question of the importance of our works and deeds (vs. "sola fide") forms the center of a monumentally important debate within Protestantism re: Calvinism vs. Antinomianism, which debate resurfaces almost every generation in Christian churches... and more importantly, which debate is not settled by the texts of the New Testament.

The very diversity of sects within Protestantism ought to serve as evidence of the unclosed nature of the text at its foundation.

Monica said...

I'm glad you said all this, Casey. I think you are quite right about the inclusion of the four different Gospels in the NT suggesting encouraging multiple interpretations. And, to support your argument further, there is a debate in one of the Pauline epistles regarding whether it's faith or works that gets one to heaven. Although belief/faith seems to win out over works, the conclusion is not entirey un-ambiguous. Then again, I think it's pretty clear about what must come first. I think the verse goes something like this: "It is by grace you have been saved through faith, though not of works lest any man should boast." If I was not so damn busy right now I would look it up like a responsible scholar, but I'm pretty sure that's right.

I think the problem (and I think you agree) has more to do with the general reception of the NT text, the way it is read by most people within Christianity. Christians, as a religious culture/community, tend to stress the importance of belief over anything else. And Judaism, of course is about deed rather than creed, to quote Benjamin Blech (which I've been reading lately as I study with a rabbi--I think maybe you should read him).

But then, you do make a good point about the existence of different sects within Protestantism. Clearly these sects are interpreting the text in different ways, and somehow everyone manages to co-exist.

Thanks, Case. You know I love when you disagree with me.

Casey said...

You like when I disagree with you because you know that I only disagree with my closest allies: I spend almost all day every day trying to convince undergraduate Southern Baptists that their abstract concepts about "Jesus" "dying" "for" "them" are hollow unless that conceptual rubber hits the interpersonal-ethical road.

Word Verification: scifi