Clueful Hermeneutics

Yesterday, I was surprised and delighted to see David Weinberger’s blog pop up in my RSS feed with a post about something I had written — it felt like Olden Days! Better still, I agreed with practically everything he said, which always reassures me, since David is a remarkably smart guy. It’s always fun to talk with David, and he has very often triggered some of the insights that I’ve wanted to stay with and explore further (we were conversing before our talks at a conference a few years ago when he mentioned Claude Shannon’s essay on information, and I realised that part of my project entailed problematising the nature of ‘information’ — but I digress).
David contrasts the particular (retrospective, somewhat individualised) way I framed up my ‘On Death (Part 1)’ essay about the understanding of death in the Old Testament/Tanakh with the ways that the Judaic tradition keeps the text as an on-going element in the interpretive conversation. If I’m reading David aright, he proposes that the rabbinic tradition constitutes a case in point of what I’ve elsewhere called ‘differential hermeneutics’: ‘The Jewish understanding of its eternal text is the continuing contentious discussion.’ If that’s a sound interpretation of David’s contribution, and of rabbinic textuality, I couldn’t be much happier, because it would be fair to argue that my energies have all along been directed toward persuading Christians to read more the way rabbis do.
I wouldn’t identify the ‘continuing contentious discussion’ with ‘the text’, or maybe not with ‘the text’, since I see some value to preserving the possibility that there’s a point of reference that isn’t simply dissolved into the discussion. Or maybe not ‘point’ of reference, since I don’t think a ‘text’ (which can also be an image, a flavour, a gesture, a sound, a scent, and so on) has an autonomous self-identical existence apart from our engagement with it, such that that autonomous existence can serve as a beacon toward which interpretive discussion can, or should, tend — maybe a zone of reference, or a nexus of reference (to attenuate the possible spatial implications of ‘point’ or ‘zone’). To that extent, I don’t share David’s suggestion that his community of readers shares ‘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.’ (My explanation of why I doubt this constitutes part of my ‘Sensing Hermeneutics’ presentation/argument, which I may try to whip into publishable shape someday.) But both the ‘meaning’ of a text, and the constitution of what we count as the text, are thoroughly bound up with the ‘contentious discussion’ David describes.
Now, a careless reader might move from this to suppose that David or I posits that Christians wrongly ascribe essential self-identity to texts and pursue their interpretations in strictly individualistic terms. My first reaction would be to underscore that Christians who seem so to be doing are themselves caught up in a ‘continuing contentious discussion’ of what texts mean every bit as much as the Jews whom David describes — but whereas the shared venture of interpretation is an explicit part of the Judaic interpretation in David’s essay, the post-Reformation Christian/secular interpretive practice tends to suppress the role of community, difference, polyvalence, and non-finality in favour of the ideal of a single, univocal, universal, (aspiring-to-) final meaning. As I overstated a couple of days ago, ‘Everyone wants to be right, and most people want to have a theoretical apparatus that justifies coercion directed against those who aren’t right.’ Christians’ cultural dominance has contributed to a sometimes-unstated imperative to make social power correspond to a correct interpretation of Jesus, the New Testament, and orthodox ‘faith’. To the extent that Jewish communities have been excluded from social dominance (and here I’m not forgetting that power struggles continue even when they aren’t extruded into state/civic policy), the issue of controlling other people’s interpretations has taken less prominence than in more dominant cultural groups — notably, among Christians.
David’s ‘tradition of revered sages’ corresponds to some extent to the Christian ‘communion of saints’; renewed attention to the ways that Scripture has been interpreted among previous generations provides perspective (so that readers don’t suppose that ‘this is what all right-thinking people have always thought’); it provides a reservoir of imagination for various ways one might take a text seriously; it provides a sense of elastic, but not non-existent, discursive boundaries; and it offers us guidance toward growing into the sorts of interpreters we want to be. In that context, the quotation from Levinas that Jacob Meskin provided to David seems very right: ‘ the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people.’ (This also sounds quite Pauline to me, but then, he was very Jewish himself.)
So without romanticising Judaism or deprecating Christianity, David rightly upholds the Judaic traditions of reading, interpreting, appropriating, embodying, and protracting the understanding of texts. These are reminders that others, especially Christians, do well to remember, to rediscover within their own tradition, and to bear forward in conversation and (especially) in controversy. And they exemplify the sort of reason I so appreciate having David as a reader and friend.

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