Torah Study: Two Approaches

We are separated from the writing of most Jewish texts by centuries or even millennia. Do we use that chronological distance to objectify the texts as an historian might? Or do we claim that the reading of the text is an activity that engages us in our particular present? Ouaknin, a disciple of the existentialist Emanuel Levinas, presents both options, although it is clear that he prefers the latter. Adapted from The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud, published by Princeton University Press, and reprinted with permission.

How should the Talmud and the Midrash be approached? In what manner and what spirit? 

What are the rules of interpretation that aid in understanding and giving the text its real scope? We are now going to attempt to answer these questions.

We can, in a somewhat simplified but nonetheless exact manner, dis­tinguish two approaches to the Talmud: the historical and the existen­tial.

The Historical Approach

The historical method considers the past as belonging totally to history. The past is intelligible only after the knowledgeable and critical media­tion of the historian. In this case the texts acquire a mythical dimension and are considered as a “surviving mythogenic fabric” that the scholar attempts to decipher. He seeks to find, reconstitute, and understand the life of the Hebrews in the desert, the life of the Jews at the time of the Talmud, etc. He shows us how the Jewish language, clothing, habitats were borrowed from the Greek or Roman world. The philologist will find grist for his mill in deciphering words with Persian, Greek, or Latin sounds, which will then allow him to shed light on the similarities or differences in customs, attitudes, and myths.

In spite of this will and this effort to get to know texts and traditions, the historian keeps his distance. In other words, he ensures that the past remains the past and the present the present. The historical method consists in objectivizing tradition and methodically eliminating any in­fluence that the present may exert on the understanding of the historian.

The historian-interpreter tackles the object of study with one very precise rule in mind: “Only he who refuses to become involved will be able to understand.”

To whom are the texts of tradition addressed? For the historian the answer is simple: to every one except himself. It is impossible for the historian to conceive himself as the person to whom the text is addressed, to submit himself to the demands of the text.

The historian bases his work on the following hypotheses: He must put himself in the spirit of the era, think with its concepts, with its representations, and not according to his own time, in order to attain historical objectivity. All this means that the temporal distance is a bar­rier to understanding: objective understanding. Or else, paradoxically, this temporal distance is the very thing that makes the historical situa­tion of interpretation possible. Objective understanding can be attained only on the basis of a certain degree of historical distance…. A thing can be objectively knowable [only] when it is so dead that it is only of purely historical interest .

The Existential or Situational Approach

“No one can refuse the light of the historian; but we believe that it is not sufficient for everything” (Levinas, Quatre Lectures talmudiques). Here, no temporal distance separates the interpreter from the text. This famous text from the Midrash (Rabbinic interpretations of the Bible) commenting on Deuteronomy 29:15 could provide the epigraph to this approach:

“It is not with you alone that I make this covenant, as well as this plea, but with whoever is present today with us in the presence of God . . . and with whoever is not here today with us.”

All those who will be born in the future until the end of all generations were present with them at Mount Sinai. (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 41)

The existential attitude is based on the idea that every era must un­derstand the text in its own way. The real meaning of a text, as it addresses itself to the interpreter, does not depend on accidental factors concerning the author and his original audience. Or, at least, these con­ditions do not exhaust its meaning.

And so one can state that the meaning of a text–if it is a great text–not just occasionally but always escapes its author.

It is not just a matter of understanding better but of understanding differently. In this context, the temporal distance should be considered as a positive and productive possibility offered to the understanding.

The existential approach is based on the personal involvement of the interpreter in the event of understanding. The…ideas of the interpreter are, from the very start, involved in revitalizing the meaning of the text; his personal background is a decisive factor. But it is not so in terms of a personal point of view that would be maintained or im­posed but rather, like an opinion or a possibility that comes into play, allowing one to apply the content of the text to oneself.

The subjective interpretation precedes the understanding itself, so that one could say, To understand is already and ever to interpret, or Understanding always contains a degree of interpretation. In fact, it is not the text that is understood, but the reader. He under­stands himself. To understand a text is, from the start, to apply it to ourselves. But this application does not diminish the text, for we know that the text can and must always be understood differently.

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