Spirituality of Texts

Overcoming the "leprosy of fluency" so we can discover ever-greater insights in our textual study

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Judaism is a text culture that always has been nurtured by study and interpretation. The interpreter and the text interpenetrate in dynamic ways. The individual finds and realizes that the layers of his or her deepest self have been "textualized" by study, so that the sacred texts provide the language for ongoing life experience and inspiration. The text, on the other hand, reveals itself through the accumulated readings of its many seekers and learners. In a profound reciprocal way, every renewal of the self is simultaneously a renewal of the text, while every deadening of human sensibility is a simultaneous deadening of the life breath of the text.

woman studying the bibleThe biblical text is a shaping of the divine spirit by the human breath of Moses and the prophets; but it may speak now only through the spirit and breath of its interpreters. Martin Buber [the 20th-century Jewish philosopher] once said that the task of the biblical translator is to overcome "the leprosy of fluency," a disease of the spirit that can lead us to imagine that we already know what we are reading, causing us blithely and triumphantly to read past the text.

The effective translator must, therefore, reformulate the word or the words of the text to produce a new encounter with its language and thus facilitate a new hearing and a new understanding. The spiritual task of interpretation, likewise, is to affect or alter the pace of reading so that one's eye and ear can be addressed by the text's words and sounds--and thus reveal an expanded or new sense of life and its dynamics.

The pace of technology and the patterns of modernity pervert this vital task. The rhythm of reading must, therefore, be restored to the rhythm of breathing, to the cadence of the cantillation marks of the sacred text. Only then will the individual absorb the texts with his or her life breath and begin to read liturgically, as a rite of passage to a different level of meaning. And only then may the contemporary idolization of technique and information be transformed, ad the sacred text restored as a living teaching and instruction, for the constant renewal of the self.

Reprinted with permission from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Jewish Publication Society).

Michael Fishbane

Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His research spans the spectrum of biblical and Jewish studies and he has written numerous books in Jewish Studies.