Old Series: Volume 5, Number 1 (March 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network.
All rights reserved.

Office of Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940
Peter Ochs, Editor
David Seidenberg, Managing Editor
Scott Wood, Drew System Manager
Patricia Glucksman, Network Manager
E-mail Address: pochs@drew.edu
Back issues are archived on worldwideweb:
Access URL “http://forest.drew.edu/~pmjp”
Telephone: (201) 408-3222

Contributing Editors

Roger Badham, Drew U: Postcritical Christian Philosophy & Judaism;
S. Daniel Breslauer, U. of Kansas: Book Reviews;
Aryeh Cohen, Brandeis U: Talmud;
Philip Culbertson, St. Johns, Auckland: Christian Thought & Judaism;
Robert Gibbs, Princeton U: Continental & Modern Jewish Philosophy;
Susan Handelman, U of Maryland: Pedagogy;
Steven Kepnes, Colgate U: Biblical Hermeneutics;
Shaul Magid, Rice U: Kabbalah;
Vanessa Ochs, CLAL, Ritual, Ceremony and Material Culture;
Ola Sigurdson, U. of Lund, Sweden: Postcritical Christian
Philosophy and Judaism.



This issue is redacted at another time of terrible loss in Israel,
the bus bombing and terrorist attacks of February 22. Included among the
murdered, Matthew Eisenfeld z”l and Sarah Duker z”l were known to many
members of this Network: Matthew, a rabbinical student at the Jewish
Theological Seminary, scholar, poet, spokesperson for peace; Sarah,
graduate student in science at the Hebrew University, scholar, poet,
spokesperson for peace. “For those do I weep, My ears stream tears,
Comfort has left me, None can restore My spirit, My children are

We do not yet know what contributions, if any, postmodern Jewish
study may make to the understanding of Jewish political life or of
Israel’s place in the world. Are the Network’s practices of dialogue,
commentary, and relational thinking pertinent to the study of Israel’s
relations to others and to itself? In the midst of this most recent moment
of tragedy, we have no ready responses. We wait for members of the Network
to begin to speak to these concerns and to call the Network to its
appropriate responsibilities with respect to them.

The two main sections of this issue have particular and unanticipated
pertinence for this sad time. Our ongoing section on Talmud examines
rabbinic views on martyrdom as an act of sanctifying the Divine Name, the
theme of last summer’s Postmodern Talmud Institute at Princeton. A new
section on “Postcritical Christian Philosophy and Judaism” brings to light
a more hopeful side of the people Israel’s relations to other peoples: the
work of Christian theologians whose work as Israel’s loving “others” may
lend some assurance to Jews who are forced now to relive only the
frightening side of Israel’s relations to others.

May the memory of the two young sages of Israel, along with all the
others who were lost, be for a blessing. They dedicated their lives and
profound talents to the life of God, Torah, and Israel, and to practices
of study, dialogue and decision-making that embody many of the ideals
Network members hold dear.


* Philip Culbertson
Deep Calls to Deep: The De-Centered Post-Constantinian Church
* Roger Badham and Ola Sigurdson
* Philip Culbertson

The 1995 Princeton PMJP Talmud Institute, First Responses
* Elizabeth Shanks, Robert Goldenberg, Aryeh Cohen, Steven Kepnes

Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age (NYU 1996)

A Second call for support; coming attractions

Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in this
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words not authored by individual contributors, rights are retained
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issues). Send requests and payment to Jewish Studies – PMJP c/o Peter
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Madison, NJ 07940.

Stephen Hood: “I am currently a graduate student in religious
studies at Rice University and an English teacher at Houston
Community College. In 1994 I was graduated from the University of
St. Thomas with a B.A.in philosophy. Previously, I have worked as
an electronics technician–tubes, not chips–and a musician. I
am “enthused” by mysticism, continental philosophy, Whorfian
linguistics, cultural anthropology, and of course Judaism. Also,
I have interest in space,time, and body metaphors and their
relation to prepositions.”


Philip Culbertson (U of St. John’s, Auckland)

With this issue, the Network inaugurates a new section
designed to address issues in Christian theology and thought
which we believe are important enough to pull into the
Jewish-Christian dialogue. In 1966, German theologian Karl Barth
addressed the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity. His
speech suggested an act of personal teshuvah, publicly opening
room in his theology for a positive evaluation of the
relation-ship between Christianity and Judaism. Barth closed his
speech with a now-famous question: “We should not forget that
there is finally only one genuinely great ecumenical question:
our relations with the Jewish people.” (1)

Yet in spite of fifty years of post-Holocaust interfaith dialogue,
it remains rare that deep theological issues are addressed jointly by
these two faith traditions. Some have begun to read texts – biblical or
otherwise- together (as we did at the AAR in Philadelphia with Elliot
Wolfson), and their findings bear out much that Roger Badham and Ola
Sigurdson say about “the seventy faces of the Torah,” or the challenging
diversity of textual interpretation in our mutual histories.(2) But on a
grander philosophical or theological level, the deepest issues remain
largely unaddressed in dialogue. Some of these theological issues have
been addressed in print,including by members of the Network such as Peter
Ochs, Leon Klenicki, Michael Wyschogrod, and myself. Two of the most
successful face-to-face dialogue groups on deep theological issues are the
semi-annual meetings of the Christian Study Group on Judaism and the
Jewish People in the US, and in Israel,the Shalom Hartman Institute’s
annual Theologians’ Conference. But these dialogue venues-in print and in
person-are not as widely known as they should be.

For this reason, the issues and emphases of Postliberal Christian
theology may be unfamiliar to Jewish members of the Network. The
controversial term “Postliberal theology” is generally attributed to Yale
theologian George Lindbeck, from his 1984 seminal book, The Nature of
Doctrine. Lindbeck did not equate “postliberal” with “conservative,” but
rather understood his term to signify a new stage of development beyond
the liberal theology popular in the 1960s and 70s. A list of the
intellectual influences on postliberal theology appears to be an illogical
mish-mash: the theology of Karl Barth, Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of
science, analytic philosophers like Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle,
sociologists like Peter Berger, anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, and
several literary theorists including Erich Auerbach and Stanley Fish. The
majority of the present postliberal theologians have some connection with
Yale University, and appear to be rooted in the work of Yale theologian H.
Richard Niebuhr, younger brother of Reinhold Neibuhr.

Among the tenets of postliberal Christian theology is that the
authority of scripture is not inherent, but lies in the ways in which it
is used by particular communities. Postliberal theology grants no
exaggerated authority to any one traditional source (as opposed, for
example, to forms of Christianity which grant sole authority to
scripture), but rather understands Christian identity as the product of
several “families of argument” which would include the scriptural text,
the theological and historical traditions, and religious experience.
Christian identity (and the meaning of scripture) is found where these
“families” intersect within particular communities. Because different
communities comprehend these sources differently, each community develops
its own universe of discourse. The role of theological doctrine is simply
to reinforce the ground rules of a community’s discourse. Doctrine
thereby also serves to reinforce a community’s boundaries.

William Placher offers this summary of the basic concerns of
post-liberal theology: “[it] attends to the biblical narratives as
narratives rather than simply as historical sources or as symbolic
expressions of truths which could be expressed non-narratively. But unlike
some other theologians interested in narrative, postliberals do not let
the stories of our lives set the primary context for theology. They
insist that the biblical narratives provide the framework within which
Christians understand the world. Christian theology…pursues
apologetics, therefore, only on an ad hoc basis,looking for common ground
with a given conversation partner but not assuming some universally
acceptable standard of rationality.” (3)

Narrative theory has had an effect on postliberal theology, though
so far, few theologians have taken seriously the many different and
sometimes conflicting narratives within scripture. Most postliberal
theologians seem to speak as if there were a single coherent biblical
narrative. The questions raised in the following article by Badham and
Sigurdson about “otherness” and alternate narratives are largely
unfamiliar territory within postliberal theology. Interestingly, Lindbeck
has recently been involved in the Theologians’ Conferences at the Shalom
Hartman Institute, and it may be that he will ultimately publish something
which corrects his previously narrow focus on Christian narrative alone.

Other authors of significance in postliberal theology include Hans
Frei, Stanley Hauerwas, Ronald Thiemann, David Kelsey, Hans-Georg Gadamer,
Paul Ricoeur, Jurgen Habermas, Alisdair MacIntyre, and some of the most
recent works of David Tracy. To the best of my knowledge, there are as
yet few women theologians working in this field, perhaps because feminist
systematic theology and feminist ecclesiology are commanding more of
women’s energy.(4) Most of these names just mentioned would be unfamiliar
to the average American Christian parishioner, and even to most clergy who
are more than ten years out of seminary. But the substance of postliberal
theology is beginning to filter into local parishes through publications
such as *The Christian Century*. While it remains controversial, and
vigorously opposed by almost all of “the Christian right,” postliberal
theology holds great promise for the reconstitution of an increasingly
shaky Christian identity as the church becomes more socially marginalized.


(1) The text of the address can be found in Paul van Buren, *A
Christian Theology of the People Israel* (New York: Seabury,
1983), pp. 351-52. See also Karl Barth, *Against the Stream:
Shorter Post-War Writings* (London: SCM Press, 1954).

(2) For source citations on “the seventy faces of the Torah,”
see Philip Culbertson *A Word Fitly Spoken: Context,
Transmission, and Adoption of the Parables of Jesus * (Albany:
SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 90 and notes, 190-191 and notes.

(3) William C. Placher, “Postliberal Theology,” in *The Modern
Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the
Twentieth Century*, edited by David F. Ford, vol. 2, p. 117
(London: Basil Blackwell, 1988).

(4) [Katherine Tanner is one name to add to the list of
postliberal theologians – Ed.]


Deep Calls to Deep:
The De-centered Post-Constantinian Church

Roger A. Badham (Drew U) & Ola Sigurdson (U of Lund, Sweden)


The a/theological cry that God is dead continues to be w/rung out across
the once-Christian landscape of Western civilisation. While it is not
certain whether that cry has been the triumph of (a) modernism or (b)
postmodernism over traditional religious beliefs, it is certain that God’s
announced demise ought to have some significant effect on the way the
Christian church views itself. For example, we might well ask, Is God only
alive and well for Christians when they are in a position to guide society
according to their religious, moral and political vision? Can the church
only function within God’s dispensations in the theological line of the
Sadducees? Or are there other identities possible following the
decentering and destruction of that vast temple of European Christendom
which some of us are able to rename the Constantinian heresy? The meaning
of this term is probably clear enough; by it we mean that development of
political hegemony from the 4th century onwards which eventually made
utterly porous the boundaries between church and society in Europe leaving
little hospitable room for those whose identities could not be co-opted by
baptism. Thus the other remained the outsider.

The Reformers made no reactive protest against the medieval marriage
of church and society with the significant exception of the Anabaptists,
whose alternate vision was at once anathema to Catholic, Reformed and
Lutheran churches and their sovereigns alike. The Anabaptists became, in
their radical otherness, a voluntary Christian counterpart to the Jewish
communities in Europe. Like the Jews, they were seen as outside the
homogenizing structures of society. Like the Jews, they offered Europe
early warning of the pluralism to come, and similarly were persecuted for
their difference.

The Enlightenment can be interpreted as a courageous attempt to
correct the problem of ecclesial hegemony. Increasing religious toleration
led to the emancipation of the Jews, the church’s power over education was
broken, and society was released to develop the image of the mature
individual with ‘inalienable rights’. What the Enlightenment inherited
uncriti-cally from the medieval period was its allegiance to universals,
albeit based upon reason rather than revelation. Michael Walzer suggests
that when God is removed as the transcendent authority, other secular
transcendent authorities are required when seeking to discover or invent
new social codes(1). These often take the form, to use Thomas Nagel’s term,
of assuming “the view from nowhere.” Alasdair MacIntyre’s thesis in After
Virtue is that these modernist theories are incoherent for rejecting the
very ground from which they sprouted, which was a medieval synthesis of
Aristotelian teleological ethics and a Christian teleological faith(2).
The attempt to dismantle this cultural-linguistic world without
jettisoning its ethical coherence has been part of the “failed modernist
project,”according to MacIntyre. We are now living in the fragmentary
ruins of a past ethical worldview.

2. Speaking from the Heart: Protestant Social Ethics

It is our contention that Protestant social ethics, as heir to
medieval and Reformation theologies and Enlightenment moral theories, has
continued to function under the rubrics of universality. Mainline
Protestant theology has largely refused to give up its role of speaking on
behalf of the whole society. It has sought universally applicable rules
and codes, by which a society can govern itself “self-evidently,”
reasonably and justly. Emory University’s James Gustafson seeks to
balance the Christian’s responsibility to “absolute obedience to Jesus as
Lord” and the universal applicability of Christian ethics to God’s created
human order. Representing one stream of post-Niebuhrian Christian social
ethics, Gustafson firmly asserts that any ethical position must be based
upon a general, rational and universal order of moral discourse. For this
reason he claims that any religiously-based ethics is not technically
ethics at all when judged by the “highly restrictive” rationalist concept
of ethics that he considers most appropriate for society as a whole.
Instead, it is a collection of particular religious practices based upon
revelatory and non-rationalist commitments.

This technical distinction, however, has contributed to a serious
malaise within the congregations of many mainline Protestant churches. The
problem has been that the external, rationalistic voice (Gustafson’s
“ethics”) has dominated the more particularistic, revelatory, and
“non-rational” voice (“religious practice”) even within the church,
erasing Gustafson’s careful distinction and thereby rendering it
irrelevant. It has similarly erased the distinctiveness of religious
over-against secular ethics as a discipline in the academy. The Liberal
Protestant church hasbeen eager to engage in full dialogue with
secularism. The movement reached its height in the seventies with the
writings of Harvey Cox and David Tracy. Tracy, in his book Blessed Rage
for Order, presents his correlational or “revisionist model” for theology.
“The post-modern intellectual believes that he must remain in fundamental
fidelity to thecritical exigencies of the liberal period.”(3) Accurately
describing a secular commitment to the modern morality of scientific
knowledge as a faith, Tracy writes:

The most basic expression of such faith…is probably
best described as the faith of secularity: that
fundamental attitude which affirms the ultimate
significance and final worth of our lives, our
thoughts and actions, here and now, in nature and in
history. An explicit and full recognition of this
faith as, in fact, the common faith shared by
secularists and modern Christians is perhaps the most important
insight needed to understand the contemporary theological
situation in its full dimensions and its real possibilities.(4)

While Tracy more recently has made what he calls “the hermeneutical
turn” and finds himself questioning more critically the secular modernist
inheritance (“Something may be more drastically awry than even Freud or
Marx…suspected: sin and avidya.”)(5) the influence of his and others’
earlier secular optimism has hardly waned in its negative effects within
the liberal Protestant church. Juergen Moltmann has argued that “the loss
of eschatology…as the medium of theological thinking as such — has
always been the condition that makes possible the adaption of Christianity
to its environment and, as a result of this, the self-surrender of
faith.”(6) We must therefore ask, Is this movement toward the secular the
kind of interreligious dialogue that we need?

It is against this secularist assimilationism that George Lindbeck
reacts in developing his cultural-linguistic theory. To describe
Lindbeck’s position very briefly, he urges us to consider the ways in
which “religions resemble languages together with their correlative forms
of life.” They are thus similar to cultures. The function of church
doctrines that becomes most prominent in this perspective is their use,
not as expressive symbols or as truth claims, but as communally
authoritative rules of discourse, attitude and action.”(7) Lindbeck
attempts to develop a via media between what he terms the “experiential-
expressive” dimension of religion and the “cognitive- propositional”
dimension, by proposing his “cultural-linguistic approach.” He claims
that the more liberal theologies, represented in this essay by Tracy and
Gustafson, fall under the rubrics of the first category, while more
conservative theologies fall under the second. Without resorting to
propositionalist strategies and to correspondence theories of truth,
Lindbeck argues that doctrines articulate a particular religion’s internal
rules. If Tracy’s logic can be interpreted as a move tosecularize
Christian religious language, Lindbeck’s theory is a counter-attack, that
has, he believes, the benefit of turning Tracy’s logic on its head:

It need not be the religion that is primarily reinter-
preted as world views change, but rather the reverse:
…Jesus Christ, for instance, is in one setting
affirmed primarily as the Messiah; in another as the
incarnate Logos….Yet amid these shifts in
Christological affirmations and in the corresponding
experiences of Jesus Christ, the story of the passion
and resurrection and the basic rule for its use remain
the same.

Hence, Lindbeck’s interest appears intra- rather than inter-textual, and
Tracy and Lindbeck can view each other suspiciously as being respectively
amorphous and sectarian in their leanings. It is important to remember
that Lindbeck’s account pits intratextuality not against intertextuality
but extratextuality, by which he means the importation of “extrabiblical
materials [which] become the basic framework of interpretation.”(8) With
Barth, it appears that he seeks a specialized biblical hermeneutics not a
general hermeneutics.

Lindbeck claims he is not arguing for homogeneity between communities
of faith, but for a committed integrity within. This is precisely the
appeal of his cultural-linguistic emphasis in describing communities of
faith. His proposals have appeal if presented as strategies to overcome
the amorphous malaise afflicting non-conservative Christian churches.
However, they have much less appeal when they are promoted from the level
of a strategy up to that of a full-blown theory. The reason for this is
that there is internal conflict within Lindbeck’s proposals. For example,
arguing for a “proper” kind of typological reading, he makes surprising
demands on how the symbol of the cross is or is not to be viewed, which
might be described as overdetermined. There is a single “direction of
interpretation,” from Bible to world, and it seems that his theory
includes rather precise demands about how communities are to go about
their own hermeneutical task, whether in interpreting a biblical text or
any symbol of the Christian church. He appears to insist (with Barth) that
the reader submit to the text, and come without any “forestructures”
(Heidegger), or “prejudice” (in Gadamer’s non-pejorative usage) that
affect the reading.

Both Heidegger and Gadamer have demonstrated that understanding
demands these forestructures, that understanding demands a fusion of the
two horizons of text and reader (Gadamer). No greater example of such
reading can be offered than the early church’s Hellenistic readings of the
Hebrew texts. Two worlds collided, the intratextual world of Christian
biblical reading and the intratextual world of Platonic, Aristotelian and
Stoic philosophies, both of which were mostly external to one another
prior to that. The transformative synthesis of these worlds led to the
creation of many of the doctrines which Lindbeck seeks to describe as the
rules of grammar for our thinking and which lie at the heart of Barth’s
Logos Christology. While Lindbeck calls for us, as readers, to be
thoroughly “steeped in” the canonical writings, it is naive to think that
weread without extrabiblical structures at work, however steeped we may
become, and however much we attempt to submit ourselves to the text.(9)
While it is perhaps a valuable hermeneutical tool to attempt to be guided
as much as possible from within the sacred texts, it is a modernist
pretence to think we come without other structures which are constantly
forming and shaping our ways of reading and thinking. That is what it
means to be formed culturally and linguistically in Geertz’s broader
sense. Again, it is valuable to assert that alien structures not become
the “basic framework of interpretation,” but there is no avoiding the
interplay and interpenetration between worlds in the course of

3. The Historically Decentered Voice: Judaism

Those who feel that the ‘problem’ of pluralism is not solved by
assimilation, yet who are also wary of uncautious communalism may take a
lesson from the contemporary forms of Judaism that have avoided these
extremes. Both Frei and Lindbeck have suggested as much. Some Christians
have now begun to realize that Jews have historically engaged in the tie
of internal and external hermeneutic that is now required of the church.
Jews have engaged in this community hermeneutic because they, like the
Anabaptists, have not been in a position to speak on behalf of society as
a whole. Now that the Protestant church has become one voice among many,
rather than “the” religious voice of America, it needs to learn from the
historically decentered voices if it is successfully to reshape its own

One way of reading the story of Judaism’s passage into the twentieth
century is to claim that it began with Franz Rosenzweig’s rejection of
neo-Kantian assimilationism and the realization of the importance of
particularistic religious identity.(10) Yet Rosenzweig successfully
avoided a myopicturn to the introverted community (a) through his
dialectical understanding of the double covenant of Jews and Christians
and (b) through the anti-idealist logic of his “bridge of speech.” His
philosophical exegeses were returns to the rootedness of the scriptural
text as the locus of revelation.

In scripture we find prophecy, Rosenzweig asserts. But what is
prophecy a sign of? That remains unknown until we see what happens. As
Robert Gibbs puts it, “In retrospect, the signified displays that it was
already signified by the sign. The linking of sign and signified,
discovered retrospectively, is the miracle and so provides us with the
revelation.”(11) This re/turn to scripture is continued in the semiotic
concerns represented by Peter Ochs. He suggests that growing numbers of
postliberal or postcritical scholars, unlike strictly modernist
…practice what the semiotic philosopher Charles Peirce would
call a three-part hermeneutic: claiming that the text (the
first part) has its meaning (the second) for a
normative community (the third), rather than
identifying the meaning of the text with some
historical or cognitive ‘sense’ that is available to any
educated reader.(12)

Michael Walzer makes a similar point with regards to moral argument. The
question, what is the right thing to do, floats free of any means of
interpreting it “through an existing and particular morality.” What is
needed is the “crucial addition: what is the right thing for us to
do?”(13) By “us” he is referring to the interpreting community
historically located in its moral stream.

A second area where the church may be able to learn from Jewish
practice is precisely in its reading of sacred texts. Some of the
differences lifted up by Ochs between Jewish and Christian reading
practices (paradigmatically, between Frei and Lindbeck on the one side and
the rabbinic thinkers Moshe Greenberg and Steven Fraade on the other) may
open up new possibilities of reading for Christians, with an
interpretative freedom never-before dreamed of within the true-false,
fact-myth, orthodox-heresy dualisms that have plagued modernist Christian
reading practices. These tendencies within the church have driven
liberals to all but disavow biblical reading and conservatives to be
focussed primarily on issues of historical veracity. It is for this
reason that Lindbeck’s over-determination of how to interpret raises fears
of a return of the same.

4. Speaking Within, Speaking Between: Intra- and Inter-Textuality Revisited

Ochs, indirectly echoing H. Richard Niebuhr, asserts that questions
of truth may only relevantly be raised within the context of a normative
community’s exegetical practices. The internal growth of a community of
faith is central to the concerns of postliberal thought, opening it to the
charge of sectarianism. Lindbeck closes The Nature of Doctrine with words
addressed to younger postcritical scholars. He writes, “May your tribe
increase.”(14) While this translates the Jewish words of praise yeshar
kochekha, words better designed to provoke misunderstanding in the camps
of liberal Protestantism are hard to imagine! Lindbeck’s own ecumenical
and interfaith dialogue should be enough to suggest that his concern is
not only for a single introverted Christian community; but also for the
internal, healthy integrity of religious communities. But his critics are
bound to ask if his cultural-linguistic theory successfully acknowledges
the validity of other differing normative communities, regardless of
Lindbeck’s own personal ecumenical commitments? Any proposed theory
properly raises questions of its own hidden hermeneutical and ethical

Bradford Hinze suggests that, from a Roman Catholic point of view,
even fairly sympathetic theologians are concerned about Lindbeck’s theory
on the issue of its “‘regulative’ approach to doctrines and their truthful
and referential character” and about the “postliberal predilection for a
hermetically-sealed text and canon, a Barthian reading of the gospel
tradition…and an exclusive focus on biblical narratives.”(15) Displayed
in this characteristic critique of Barthian reading, is a Catholic-
Protestantintertextual concern regarding how reading goes on within a
certain religious community. According to the rubrics of a Geertzian
cultural-linguistic “thick description,” Lindbeck is likely to say that
each community will properly find its own ways of reading, its own view of
the canon. With his desire to construct a theory applicable to all
religious practices and their use(s) of doctrine is Lindbeck not in danger
of falling back into modernist universalizing tendencies? If he wants a
general theory of religious doctrine, then perhaps David Ford is right in
arguing that Lindbeck’s emphasis on historical narrative, for example,
biases his account toward Christianity(16).

If these concerns are accurate, perhaps newly decentered
post-Constantinian Christians still have a lot to learn from historically
decentered communities before a mature constructive postmodern theory can
emerge that will genuinely hold the dialectical tension between
particularism and pluralism. In a secularizing society, in which the
epistemological taunt rings out, “Where is your God?” we trust indeed that
deep may call to deep, Christian to Jew, Jew to Christian and that
Christians especially may learn how to speak in the decentered dialogue of

5. Speaking on Whose Behalf? A Postmodern Critique of Community

Perhaps solutions are not so easy, however. For perhaps
post-modernity poses an insoluble dilemma for theology. On the one hand,
the “death of the subject” (Foucault) tells us that persons are socially
constructed, that there is no transhistorical nucleus of a person that
escapes the historical, contingent webs of nature and culture. Who you
are depends on your social, cultural and confessional locatedness. This
could be an argument for a higher evaluation of community. Even if one
doesn’t go as far as Foucault regarding the status of the subject, one
could argue, as communitarians like MacIntyre, Walzer and Charles Taylor
do, that identity is community-dependent.

Postmodernity may thus mean that one’s community is the place for
identity, a bastion against the total fragmentization of the subject.
This has been an option for Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.
Community–in this case, the Christian church–becomes the locus for
identity and stability. Church has its base in the biblical narrative,
which gives the identity of God and (Christian) persons. The biblical
narratives, read in the Church, constitute the basis for the virtuous
Christian and the communal ethic. This is a break with the Constantinian
view, which came to identify church and state. Lindbeck and Hauerwas
would say by contrast that the church constitutes its own “polis.”(17)
But,on the other hand, postmodernity is also suspicious of the claims of
the community. Community can too easily become repressive, and imposes,
physically or non-physically, its ideals and behaviours on its members.
The consequence is an inevitable normalisation. The soul becomes the
prison of the body!

Moreover, as Zygmunt Bauman has observed, the recent ideas of
community often define themselves oppositionally.(18) To be a member in a
particular community may be to define oneself against other communities.
Would the unavoidable consequence of community in the postmodern world be
internal repression and external aggresivitytowards the other? As
Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey put it:

If the basic communitarian claim is that moral and
political argument is validated within particular
cultural discourses and practices, whose role in
constructing human identity must be recognised, it
is difficult to see how one is to attain the critical
capacity to judge the sexism, patriarchy or any other
feature of the culture in question.(19)

Duke theologian Mary McClintock Fulkerson writes: “One can no more
concieve of purely religious communities as the origination of meaning
than one can treat isolated interpenetrating subjects that way.”(20)

Postliberal theology has rightly acknowledged the postmodern critique
of the subject, but it has not responded to post-modernism’s other
critique, the critique of community. Even if its purpose is to make the
church a prophetic and liberating voice in capitalist society, postliberal
theology could also serve as to legitimate authoritarian theology that
preserves injustices against classes,races and genders. Where does
postliberal theology allow for internal criticism of these injustices?
Where does it account for internal difference? Has the church in these
cases really put the temptation of constantinianism behind itself?

6. Speaking to Our Neighbours, Speaking to Ourselves: The Church’s
Midrashic Identity

The problem might be posed as a dialectic between identity and
openness. If postliberal theology strongly affirms identity, then where
does it find room for openness? Could the post-liberal community be open
to strangers, without either reducing the stranger to the same, or
representing the stranger as a negative other? Could the community be
open to self-criticism as well as critique?

This might be a problem of eschatology. Where does the Christian
community exist, between the ages or in the fullness of time? Is the
church identical with the kingdom of God, as St. Augustine sometimes
suggested? Or is the kingdom of God still on its way, the church living
in suspense between the ‘already’ of the first coming and the ‘not yet’ of
the second? When any church theology begins to equate its own community
with the kingdom of God, that community is likely to develop protective
strategies against external or internal criticism.

Today we are constituted by overlapping, and sometimes conflicting,
communities. The plural life-world of society today also implies–for
better or worse–that difference is not only between communities, but
within communities and persons as well. The rift between the church and
the world goes right through the believer’s heart. And since the church
shouldn’t identify itself with kingdom-come, the difference between inside
and outside is not a given. As Jeffrey Stout has it, following James’
“Will-to-Believe,” “We need not agree on all matters of moral importance
to agree on many, and where our judgements happen to coincide, we need not
reach them for the same reasons” (21).

Christian theology has rarely denied that God works outside the
church. This was Josiah Royce’s view regarding the beloved community.
The relation to the surrounding world provides opportunity for renewing
self-criticism in the church, not in any once-for-all manner but as a
principle of continual change. A post-Constantinian church has to learn
what it means to live in partial exile, both as community and as an
interpreter of the sacred texts. This alien status does not mean,
however, that it should adopt a closed attitude to other communities. The
argument for the church’s openness is an intratextual one, displayed
centrally in the ministry of Jesus. Openness to the world remains a vital
principle while the church lives in the tension “between the times,”
between the “today” and the coming of the eschatological kingdom.

The identity of the community must therefore be an identity on its
way (corresponding to a theologia viatorum), and the difference between
inside and outside of community must remain porous. This means that the
narrative reading of Scripture is never an activity isolated from the
surrounding “extratextual” or “extrabiblical” reality. Extra-biblical
concepts are necessary to “get” the point of the Bible, since we can
understand only through the fusing of horizons, of the text’s and of our
own. Understanding is always a way of supplementing, or, as Gibbs call it,
adaptation. Adaptation “requires not merely new terminology and
argumentation, but also a certain refashioning to bring different tones
into focus and change the old thoughts to conform to current
circumstances”(22). According to Gibbs, “adaptation” is a kind of
midrash. It is not a matter of accommodating Scripture to the surrounding
culture, but a way to discover the semantic potential of scripture, its
“surplus of meaning” (Ricoeur).

Here rabbinic midrash could be most helpful, since it is
intertextual, dialogical, and not prone to closure. The search for
identity is an ongoing argument that one does not do alone, whether as an
individual person or as an individual community; identity is a function of
this ongoing argument, rather than its result or presupposition. Jacques
Derrida has warned us against the risks of both a total homogenizing of
differences on the one hand, and total fragmentization on the other:
“Neither monopoly nor dispersion….This is, of course, an aporia, and we
must not hide it from ourselves”(23). Realistic participants in this
dialogue must therefore be able to live with this aporia, where neither
the unity nor the differences between and within communities should be
universalized. The dialectical tension remains an inevitable aspect of
the teleological life of the decentred beloved community.


(*) “Deep calls to deep,” alludes to Peter Ochs’ own
intratextual allusion concerning George Lindbeck. See Ochs’
essay, “A Rabbinic Pragmatism,” in Theology and Dialogue: Essays
in Conversation with George Lindbeck, ed. Bruce Marshall (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1990), pp. 213-248.

(1) Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987) p. 16. Walzer
considers Rawls to be one still making this attempt. See John
Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,”
Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14:3, 1985, p. 236. See also
Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1986).

(2) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral
Philosophy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2nd
edition, 1984).

(3) Tracy, Blessed Rage For Order (New York: Seabury Press,1975)

(4) Ibid., p. 8.

(5) David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics,
Religion, Hope (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 76.

(6) Juergen Moltmann, A Theology of Hope (New York:
Harper and Row, 1967.)

(7) Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, op cit., pp. 18 & 82-83.

(8) Ibid., p. 114.

(9) Ibid., p. 117.

(10) Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press, reprinted 1985).

(11) Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 83.

(12) Peter Ochs, The Return to Scripture in Judaism and
Christianity (New York: The Paulist Press, 1993), p. 4.

(13) Walzer, op cit., pp. 22-23.

(14 Lindbeck, op cit., p. 135.

(15)Bradford Hinze, “Postliberal Theology and Roman Catholic
Theology,” Religious Studies Review 21:4 (Oct 1995): 299-303.

(16) David F. Ford, “The Nature of Doctrine,” (review) Journal
of Theological Studies 3 (1986): 280-81.

(17) Arne Rasmusson, “The Church as Polis: From Political
Theology to Theological Politics as Exemplified by Juergen
Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas” (Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1995).

(18) Zygmunt Bauman, “Intimations of Postmodernity” (London
and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. xviii-xxi, 134-139.

(19) Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey, “The Politics of
Community: A Feminist Critique of the Liberal-Communitarian
Debate” (New York, London et al: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p.

(20) Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “Changing the Subject:
Women’s Discourses and Feminist Theology”, (Minneapolis:
Fortress, 1994), p. 149f.

(21) Jeffrey Stout, “Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Moral
and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), p.226.

(22) Robert Gibbs, “Correlations,” op cit., p.32.

(23) Jacques Derrida,”The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s
Europe” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992),p.41.


Postliberal Identity and Christian Community:
A Response to Roger Badham and Ola Sigurdson’s “Deep Calls to Deep”

Philip Culbertson (St. John’s, Auckland, Austalia)

Roger Badham and Ola Sigurdson have produced an important contribution
to the Network discussion by summarizing some central issues in
Postliberal Christian theology and then raising some serious critical
questions, particularly in relationship to Christian community identity in
the face of otherness. While I am fascinated by their arguments and
believe they deserve a wide hearing within the community of faith, my own
experience differs enough from their foundational assumptions that I found
myself occasionally uncomfortable. I know neither Roger nor Ola
personally, so I don’t know how grounded they are in parish work. I must
confess that my own response is shaped by fifteen years of full-time and
ten years of part-time parish work, as well as eleven years of teaching
counseling psychology in a theological seminary training Christians for

I was jarred by their opening sentence. I am not convinced that the
“death of God” is an accurate explanation for the increasing
marginalization of the church (I rather believe that it is being ignored
to death because it has so lost touch with the daily concerns of most
people). Surely many postliberal theologians would be uncomfortable with
such a claim, for in granting authority (albeit not sole) to scripture,
they imply that there is a God behind the narrative, even though God’s
nature and intention cannot be known apart from a narrative community.
*A* god may be dead–the god assumed by many centuries of Western
civilization as informed by Christian theology–but there remain many
highly educated and deeply faithful Christians who are happy to let go of
that God anyway, in order to obtain a clearer glimpse of the God who
stands behind human perception. This “God behind” may be a God who rules
yet does not yet reign (1), and indeed, most contemporary theologians
speak of the “not-yet-ness” of both the Kingdom and the Messiah. Perhaps
God cannot reign until the grip of Constantinian Christian theology in its
most traditional dogmatism is finally broken.

Traditional Christianity has certainly sat uncomfortably within the
tension between the mission imperative and xenophobia, like Janus looking
both directions. In the South Pacific where I live, there is a clear 150
year history of missionary efforts to eradicate the otherness of
indigenous beliefs and cultures. Ola and Roger’s essay points to the
problem of designating a “foreign” narrative as normative for new cultural
contexts. Postliberal theology calls Christians not to bring the story
down to their level, but to rise up into the story. As I cited William
Placher in my introduction:

Unlike some other theologians interested in narrative,
postliberals do not let the stories of *our* lives set the
primary context for theology. They insist that the biblical
narratives provide the framework within which Christians
understand the world.

This is not an idea radically new to postliberal theology, but mimics the
traditional discipline of the Ignatian lectio divina, a technique of
spiritual meditation which called Christians to enter into the gospel
story as an active participant, or even as an alter ego to one of its
named characters. (2)

There is already difficulty in asking a Western monk to use a Western
method to enter the Semitic and Hellenistic worlds of scripture. How much
more destructive is it to ask, for example, a Sepak subsistence farmer
from Papua New Guinea to use a Western method to enter the Semitic and
Hellenistic philosophical and theological worlds? The dangers inherent in
this narrative model might be softened if the story we were calling people
to enter were not itself so often obsessed with “insider-outsider”
rhetoric. The result in the South Pacific is that in some cultures, one
village will be entirely Methodist while the neighboring village is
entirely Anglican; in spite of being bound by a common ethnicity and
culture, the two villages will refuse to cooperate in matters of faith,
and perhaps even social justice issues, each convinced that its own
universe of dogmatic discourse is superior and must be protected from the
neighbors. It is the nature of all narrative communities to create
boundaries through the process of shaping their narrative and therewith
the community’s identity. This is what Alex Kozulin called “Life as
Authoring.”(3) But as Christianity becomes increasingly decentered, the
boundaries between individual narrative communities seem to become
increasingly rigid, a development easily justified by “rising up” to
participate in a meta-narrative structured around “chosenness to be
different from others,” “peirush” (4), or being “in the world but not of
the world” (John 1, 17,18).

Can postliberal theology make room for the alien other? Is there a
place in decentered Christian communities for what Wayne Booth calls “the
otherness that bites”? (5) Roger and Ola speak of the Christian
communities’ “need” to learn from others including Judaism. But my
personal experience is that it is quite difficult to convince many
Christian communities that they need at all to learn from anyone or
anything outside of Christianity. This is perhaps a part of the
continuing fallout from the xenophobia which results when narrative
boundaries are fixed by a sense of superiority or uniqueness. To learn
from others, one must first respect them, and Christianity’s respect for
otherness (including, or perhaps particularly, Judaism) does not have a
good track record. In his important essay “Confrontation,” Rav Joseph
Soloveitchik defines the four necessary pre-requisites for dialogue to
occur, and thus for each party to learn from each other: (a) Our radical
differentness must be recognized in advance, and we must not be insulted
by any language such as “I know just how you feel.” Among other things,
there is no such thing as a religious Judeo-Christian tradition, though
there may be such a cultural tradition. Uniqueness is paramount. Adam
and Eve were created because God approved of them as autonomous human
beings and not as auxiliary beings in the service of someone else. (b) The
mystery of the logos must be appreciated. We can talk about cooperation
in the secular world for the redemption of that secular world, but each
community has its own private conversation with God, and must not be
expected to justify, or even explain, it to an outsider. (c) Change should
not be expected of either partner. Otherness means that you cannot
understand, and if you cannot understand, an opinion about what the Other
is doing wrong is not welcomed.(d) Tradition, and especially the faith of
the dead, must be respected fully. We must know quite clearly who we are
and where we have come from, else confrontation with an Other will result
in our being swallowed up (6)

These criteria are not easily reconciled with many historical forms
of Christian theology, and perhaps equally uneasily with postliberal
theology because of the isolation which results from being decentered. Is
this the aporia of scripture: that as it teaches us to love our neighbors,
it also teaches us to fear, to demote, and perhaps even to hate them? (7)
Stanley Hauerwas, an important contributor to postliberal theology,
co-authored a book with William Willimon which was extremely popular in
parish circles about five years ago, called *Resident Aliens: Life in the
Christian Colony* (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989). Citing the eschatological
nature of the Christian message (and it is interesting to note that
postliberal theology is moving toward eschatological interpretation of the
New Testament just as the biblical world is moving away from it), Hauerwas
and Willimon describe the church as “a beachhead, an outpost, an island of
one culture in the middle of another.” Hence the church is “colony”, and
its members are “resident aliens” in the midst of the world. But the book
goes on to suggest that the pressing task is now for Christians to gather
in the parish hall and re-examine their identity, “not to make the gospel
credible to the world but to make the world credible to the gospel.” This
manner of thinking underlines the charges of “tribalism” with which some
critics greeted Lindbeck’s work. When Lindbeck closed *The Nature of
Doctrine* with the words, “May your tribe increase,” he opened the
opportunity for Hauerwas and Willimon to prescribe tribal withdrawal as
item #1 on the Christian agenda. In a post-Holocaust age, I find the call
to tribal withdrawal vile and even immoral. Must we recapitulate the
despair of Pastor Martin Niemoller when he wrote: “First they came to take
the Communists and I was not a Communist, so I did not protest. Then they
came to take the homosexuals and I was not a homosexual, so I did not
protest. They they came to take the Jews and I was not a Jew, so I did not
protest. Finally, they came to take me and by then, there was no one left
to protest”? (8) If all the Christians are busy working out their identity
in the local parish hall, in a colony withdrawn from the world, who will
be “out there” to listen when Jews or gays and lesbians or anyone else
cries out “Save me, for the waters have come up to my neck!” (Psalm 69:1)

As a lecturer in counseling psychology, I must raise yet one more
question concerning the use of narrative in decentered Christian
communities. A common claim in narrative psychology, though patently
hyperbolic, it would seem, is that because we spend our lives responding
to the many messages, signals, introjects, and reactions we receive from
others, our personal identity is no more than the sum total of everything
ever said to us in our lives. This makes our “passive narrative self”
(what we have been told) primary to our “active narrative self” (what we
tell). It also raises the ethical dilemma of how far we should go in
attempting to control what is said to us, and perhaps even identifies our
avidya as the source of subsequent sin, in that avidya makes us
susceptible to what is said to us and how it is received!(9) I want to ask
how aware a community is of the basic vulnerability of its members, how
far it is willing to bear full culpability for the effect its universe of
discourse (doctrine, understanding of scripture, definition of boundaries,
community-dependent identity, etc) has upon those who are listening?
However much individual postliberal Christians are “rising up” to find
themselves in the narrative, so too the narrative is finding them, and
molding and liberating and confining them. This, of course, is the
desired traditional outcome of Christian identity formation, but are we
taking the psychological import seriously enough? Have we identified the
narrative’s shadow clearly enough to comprehend the ethics of what we are
doing? Is this not the ultimate tragedy of failing to take Roger and
Ola’s questions about the “dialectic between identity and openness”
seriously enough?

The intriguing concept of community identity as a “theologia
viatorum” which Roger and Ola present in section 6, combined with the
questions I have raised about the formation-ethics of a
community-dependent personal identity, suggest yet another question: where
is the 71st face of the Torah, the one which is ultimately outside the
pale of faithful interpretive possibilities? In a recent book, William
Henn, of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, examined the term
“unity of faith” (Ephesians 4:13) to see how much agreement he could
identify within the long history of Christian theology. After searching
the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament,and the patristic literature, he
concluded that there never has been a clear unity concerning the contents
of the Christian faith or an official list of universals.(10) But
postliberal theology causes us to ask new ethical questions about the
limits of the “seventy faces” when decentering becomes destructive of both
the faith and individuals.

As I mentioned earlier, there were some places in Roger and Ola’s
essay that made me uncomfortable. One was their naivete about the
relationship among modern Judaisms. They almost image Judaism as
conflict-free (see the beginning of section 3). My own twenty-five years
of involvement in Christian-Jewish dialogue suggests that Judaism can be
as fractured as Christianity and can produce just as many competing
midrashim. There are also occasional hints of historical sloppiness in a
couple of places. Near the end of section four, they suggest that
post-Constantinian Christians can learn from a decentered Judaism, but
this is not a new idea. Origen (185-255), *In Ioannis* VI.xiii(7)76,
insists that any Christian who wishes to exegete a difficult Biblical
passage must begin first by consulting Jews to see how they understand it.
It is also not accurate, as they claim in section 6, that “Christian
theology has rarely denied that God works outside the church.” Though
“Truth” was available outside Christianity, Salvation traditionally was
not. Origen (*In Jesu Nave* 3,5), along with his contemporary Cyprian
(c.300), are generally identified as the authors of the famous dictum
*extra ecclesiam non salus* (“outside the church, there is no salvation”).
Once this doctrine was formulated, it exerted a significant influence on
the continuing development of Christian thought, at least until the
mid-twentieth century.(11) Indeed, the history of this particular doctrine
causes me to stumble (cf. Romans 14:13) over Lindbeck’s claim, for given
the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms,and the Holocaust, can we say
that *extra ecclesiam non salus* is “merely” one of the ground rules of a
community’s discourse, or must we charge that doctrine with the crime of
abetting murder?

Further, I wish that Ola and Roger had been more aggressive in their
own critique of Christian community. If communities have boundaries, then
certainly New Zealand has a boundary-to wit, many more miles of seashore
than the US. Inside that boundary, there are many communities, one of the
smallest being the church (only about a quarter of the population claims
any church affiliation). Inside the church, there are many denominational
communities, and inside each denomination there are many communities of
interest groups. The Anglican church in New Zealand, to which I presently
belong, is officially divided into three “streams”-Pakeha (white)
Anglicans, Maori Anglicans, and Pacific Island Anglicans. (12) Each has
its own rules of discourse, its own canon law, and its own protocol. Even
the Pakeha Anglicans sub-divide into communities: evangelical, broad
church, and liberal; traditionalist and feminist; pietists and social
activists, etc. Within these communities inside communities,scriptural
interpretation differs markedly, even to the point of “canceling each
other out”. I would love to see a discussion of how small a community can
be and still retain a sense of authority to the meaning it discovers in
scripture. Will it be like Abraham’s bargaining: fifty righteous persons,.
. . ten righteous persons? Do two people really make an identifiable
community of scriptural discourse? Is there anything we can do to avoid
devolving into that bane of Protestant thought: radically exaggerated
individualism? If a community of two people calls everyone else in the
world alien, does that charge retain any meaning?

Today the church is undergoing a change which some have compared to
the impact upon the synagogue of the destruction of the Temple in
Jerusalem. However promising postliberal theology may appear–and in fact I
believe it has a great deal to offer Christianity as the church enters a
period of great instability–it also has grave ethical questions to answer
before it can retain credibility on the other side of the millennium.


(1) On the distinction between God’s rule and God’s reign, see
Philip Culbertson, *A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission,
and Adoption of the Parables of Jesus* (Albany: SUNY Press,
1995), pp. 103-05.

(2) The pattern of the “Spiritual Exercises” of Ignatius Loyola
(1491-1556) consists in taking a scene from scripture, usually
from the life of Christ and taking part in it as if it were
actually occurring and one were participating in the event. One
prepares the scene down to the slightest detail. . . . Then one
puts oneself in the scene and observes, as it were, from the
inside….The meditation always ends with a colloquy with the

(3) Alex Kozulin, “Life as Authoring: The Humanistic Tradition
in Russian Psychology,” *New Ideas in Psychology*, Vol. 9, No.
3,Pergamon Press, 1991, pp. 335-351. See also Mikhail
Mikhailovich Bakhtin, *The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays*,
ed. Michael Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 365.

(4) Though the etymology of “Pharisee” is not clear: did they
voluntarily set themselves apart or is it a pejorative term like
“Quaker,” used to denigrate difference?

(5) “I embrace the pursuit of the Other as among the grandest of
hunts we are invited to;…But surely no beast that will prove
genuinely *other* will fail to bite, and the otherness that bites
us…must have sufficient definition…to threaten us where we
live.” Wayne C. Booth, *The Company We Keep: An Ethics of
Fiction*,(Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1990), p. 70. On
the need to engage otherness, see Jose Ortega y Gasset, *Concord
and Liberty* (New York: W. W. Norton, 1946), pp. 92-95.

(6) Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” in *Tradition* 6:2
(Spring 1964), pp. 5-29.

(7) In private correspondence, Peter Ochs defines aporia as “the
condition of perplexity unresolvable that comes from the
incompatibility of some thought structure with itself.”

(8) Quoted in Yehiel Eckstein, *What Christians Should Know About
Jews and Judaism* (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1984), p. 286.

(9) Avidya is a Buddhist term meaning the “primal ignorance”
which leads us to develop a reality-perceiving consciousness
which is in fact illusory,awaiting enlightenment. See David
Tracy, *Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope*
(Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 75.

(10) William Henn, *One Faith: Biblical and Patristic
Contributions Toward Understanding Unity in Faith*, (New York and
Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995).

(11) See my article “Known, Knower, Knowing: The Authority of
Scripture in the Anglican Tradition,” *Anglican Theological
Review* 74:2 (Autumn 1991): 144-174.

(12) See my article “Pastoral Theology and Multiculturalism”
forthcoming in *Anglican Theological Review*, late 1996.



Steven Kepnes, Colgate U.

Last summer from July 31 to August 2 (1995),the postmodern Jewish
philosophy network teamed-up with the Shalom Hartman Institute of
Jerusalem to hold its first Talmud workshop. The workshop was organized
by Menachem Lorberbaum (Hartman Institute), Robert Gibbs, and myself.
Hillel Rabbi Jim Diamond provided the venue of Princeton Hillel. Our idea
was to bring together about 12 people to try to extend the relatively
short sessions which we have had at the AAR meetings to give postmodern
Jewish philosophers and Talmud scholars a chance to study together and
explore areas of confluence and difference between postmodern theoretical
concerns, Talmud schlarship, and Jewish philosophy. We wanted to follow up
our intial sense that the Talmud could provide a common text that would
generate dialogue on theoretical issues of
textuality,interpretation,discourse, gender,and postmodern logic. And we
wanted to use the Talmud to help us to push across the boundaries between
our different academic expertises, between text and life, and between
scholarship and faith.

The theme of “Kiddush Hashem: Sanctification of the Name as
Martyrdom” was taken from the June philosophy conference at the Hartman
Institute in Jeursalem. We used relevent texts from Sanhedrin, Yoma,
Berakhot, and Avodah Zarah. Our workshop followed the following format:
text scholars presented a brief overview of a sugya, followed by havruta
study for 1 and a half hours; then a philosopher led a group discussion
that culminated in an attempt to summarize both the logic of the suyga and
the insights gained into postmodern issues. What follows continues the
conversations that were started at Princeton.

Dialogues on the Theme of Martyrdom

Elizabeth Shanks (Yale U) and friends from the PMJP Talmud Institute

Fall 1995
Dear Institute Friends,

Yesterday was Yom Kippur. In anticipating the day, I remember Norbert
Samuelson’s comment last July, that the martyrology almost brings him to
tears each year. This year, my rabbi, Jim Ponet, substituted a reading
from a Holocaust survivor for the traditional liturgy. The excerpted
piece was a woman’s voice, speaking of the daily ordeal of morning role
call in the brutal cold of winter. She spoke of the temptation she felt
each day to die, her one moment of pleasure being fainting, which she
would do every day. At that moment, her heart would become separate from
her body, finally, and she would be at peace. How she treasured that
moment of peace and longed to succumb once and for all to the total peace
of death. But each day, her neighbor would rudely awaken her, and it
pained her to come back to the bitter cold reality of the biting wind. As
the reader brought us into the psyche of someone struggling daily with the
reality of wanting to die, I was again humbled. Who am I to try to write
about martyrdom? . . . In fact, the literature that we read finds heroism
in the act. Who am I to respond to the heroism, when I have not faced the
terror of it? In spite of it all, I’ve written a few paragraphs, and I
hope that they show enough respect for the gravity of the reality that
they describe. I look forward to your responses.


What is accomplished when one gives one’s life to sanctify God’s name? Is
the sacrifice a preventive measure that averts harm, by refusing to take
part in something awful that is happening to God’s presence in the world?
Or is it a positively conceived act that deepens one’s relationship with a
God who is ever present in death, as in life? Whether one identifies with
the first description of martyrdom or the second depends on how one
relates to God. The moment of martyrdom, with its heightened drama, can
serve as a magnifying lens on even our own relationship with God. Two
aspects of how one relates to God are particularly relevant to this
discussion: 1) whether the prospective martyr suspends or relies on her
rational faculties in order to relate to God and 2) whether she locates
God in the observable world or inside of herself. For the prospective
martyr who uses her faculties of reason to relate to Godliness in the
observable world, the value of martyrdom lies in preventing damage to the
worldly Divine presence. Alternatively, if she suspends her faculties of
reason and turns inside herself to find God, the value lies in affirming
faithfulness to the internally perceived Divine presence. A careful
reading of several talmudic sugyot serve as the basis for these two
descriptions of the value of martyrdom.

II. God in the Observable World: Relating Through Reason

R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yehozadak: By a majority
vote, it was resolved in the upper chambers of the house of Nithza in
Lydda: For every transgression [that one might com-mit], if one is told,
“Trangress and your life will be spared,” one should transgress and let
his life be spared. Only for bloodshed, forbidden sexual relations and
idolatry [should one be killed.] But shouldn’t idolatry be excluded from
this list, in accordance with the opinion of R. Ishmael? [He said]: From
where in Scripture do we know that if a person is told, “Worship this
idol, and your life will be spared,” that person should worship the idol
and let his life be spared? Scripture says: And you shall live by them
[the commandments](1):i.e., not die by them. Does [Ishmael’s restrictive
opinion, which excludes idolatry from the list of sins for which one must
die,] apply even when the act is committed in public? Scripture teaches,
Neither shall ye profane my name, but I will be hallowed [amongst the
children of Israel].(2)[No, Ishmael’s opinion does not hold for public
acts of idolatry.] (Sanhedrin 74a)

Here, we encounter a voice that addresses the issue of martyrdom with the
instruments of reason. It measures, sets limits and establishes criteria.
It makes discerning distinctions on the basis of things learned from the
observable world. A discussion ensues: what types of trangressions are so
heinous that it is preferrable to give one’s life, rather than succumb to
them and live in a perverted relationship with God? The council of Nithza
and R. Ishmael disagree. The council of Nithza says idolatry, forbidden
sexual relations, and bloodshed are the limits beyond which a Jew cannot
trangress. If asked to commit these deeds or give up one’s life, one must
meet one’s fate. R. Ishmael disagrees on the issue of idolatry, for he
thinks through life itself we consummate our relationship with God. The
significant difference between Ishmael’s opinion and the majority decree
is, to put it bluntly, whether or not idolatry is worth dying for.
Idolatry, which later came to be the quintessential impetus for martyrdom,
was in its initial context a disputed justification for martyrdom!

What values underlie these conflicting opinions? The value of martyrdom,
as it is expressed in these rational statements, rests in not doing damage
to the worldly Divine presence. The difference between the two opinions
stem from differences in observation: Ishmael and the council locate the
worldly Divine presence in different places. Ishmael finds that the
essence of God’s worldly presence is threatened by bloodshed and forbidden
sexual relations, which are sins that occur between “man and man.” It
seems ironic that a disruption of social harmony threatens to desecrate
God’s name. What makes bloodshed and forbidden sexual relations
violations of an absolute religious standard? I believe the commanding
value of blood and sexuality is that they are Divine commodities that
humanity has access to. They are the quinessential manifestations of
Godliness in this world. While humanity can possess and manipulate them,
we must refrain from perverting the Divine within them. We are given
permission to kill animals for food only with the understanding that we
will not eat the blood (Lv 17, Dt 23). The lifeblood belongs to God and
returning it to its proper Master reminds us of our position as God’s
servants. Similarly, we are given the delights of human sexuality to act
as a vessel for God’s on-going creation. But our use of these gifts is
limited by the divine purposes for which they were given, and excludes
sexual pleasure outside of the family context (Lv 18, 20). To participate
in bloodshed and inappropriate sexual relations is to violate the
conditions under which we are given Divine privileges and to make oneself
a vessel for the diminuition, rather than sanctification, of God.

When Ishmael stakes out his position on kiddush hashem, he wants to
prevent a distortion of the Divine image that each one of us embodies.
The loss of one’s life is justified, indeed required, when one risks using
it to diminish God within this world. It is on the basis of a God who
leaves traces in the world, which Ishmael can percieve and evaluate, that
he can make a rational decision to give his life.

What then do we make of the council’s decision to include idolatry on the
list of abominable acts? The sugya’s analysis of R. Ishmael’s omission
implies that the inclusion of idolatry is justified primarily when the
violation is performed publicly. I assume, then, that the public aspect
of denying God accounts for the council’s broader decision. If one denies
God in a private setting, one’s inner conviction and belief can remain as
firm as ever, and then no tangible harm is done to God’s presence in the
external world. However, in a public setting, one must consider how one’s
actions will be perceived by strangers who cannot see into one’s heart. Of
crucial importance is how the public denial will affect the community of
believers. A public denial might weaken the belief in the community and
so diminish the God’s presence in our midst. The council of Nithza differs
from R. Ishmael only in the place it locates and observes the worldly
Divine presence. For the council of Nithza, it is to be found not only in
the human creature, but also in the collective community faith.

The decisions of Ishmael and the council are the product of rational
judgments made on the basis of what is observable and knowable. Their
powers of observation lead them to different conclusions, but that is
because each finds the worldly Divine presence in a slightly different
setting. For Ishmael, its in the Divine image which each of us embodies;
for the council of Nithza, it is in the collective body of the community
of faith. Regardless of their difference, both understand kiddush hashem
as a gift to a present God, who is ironically reflected in the very
intelligence with which they discern the point at which to give their
lives for God.

III. An Internal Faith in God: Suspending Reason

Humanity is, however, not constituted by reason alone. When danger lurks,
we become frightened, a natural response that no amount of reason can
defer. When the situation does arise, and God forbid that it does, that
we face a threat to our very existence, how will we respond? Will the
rational limits that we have set for ourselves still guide us? When the
pain is imminent, will God feel so close? Would a God who resides in the
world and is present in history permit our enemies to threaten us with
mortal danger? At the moment of crisis, the world is not filled with
observable traces of Godliness. Instead of seeking God in the tangible
world, the believer must turn inside herself to find the God to whom she
is faithful. In her precarious position, her faculties of reason may not
serve her well. The cold logic of reason draws her into an untenable line
of thought: Why has God done this to me? Either I’m a terrible sinner so
I must deserve this, or maybe God isn’t really there. But neither of these
responses is adequate. The faithful believer needs to engage God and the
world in a way that by-passes the traps of reason. If reason is deceptive
and God is not readily perceptible in the world, then the value of
martyrdom must be understood differently than we had previously surmised.
Turning to two more sugyot, I will try to articulate an alternate model of
relating to God, focusing on how it infuses the act of martyrdom with

Our Rabbis taught: Once the evil government issued a decree that Jews
should not study Torah. Papus b. Yehudah came upon R. Akiba and found him
bringing groups together for the study of Torah. He said to him, “Akiba,
aren’t you afraid of the author- ities?” He replied, Let me tell you a
parable. A fox was once walking alongside a river, and he saw fishes
swimming in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: “From
what are you fleeing? They replied, “From the nets cast for us by men.”
He said to them, “Would you like to come up on the dry land, so that you
and I can live together the way that our ancestors did?” They replied, “Do
they really call you the cleverest of animals?! You are not clever, but
foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more
so in the element in which we would die.” So it is with us. If such is
our condition when we sit and study Torah, of which it is written For that
is your life and the length of your days (3), if we go and neglect it how
much the worse we shall be! (Berachot 61a)

In this parable, R. Akiba communicates to Papus b.Yehudah how to alter
one’s perception and engagement of the world so that belief can flourish
in spite of adversity. The fishes’ perspective is of greatest interest to
Akiba, since the danger which threatens to distort their vision parallels
the danger in which Akiba and Papus live. The question with which the
parable grapples is how can the fish (and the Jews!) best survive, given
the inescapable abundance of the fishermen’s nets. Lurking beneath that is
yet another question: how is survival measured? The fox suggests that
jumping up onto dry land is a way out of their dangerous predicament. In
the parable, the fallacy of the fox’s suggestion is readily apparent,
since everyone knows fish can’t survive out of water. However, for Papus,
the false logic of the fox’s suggestion is not so clear. Papus wants to
jump out of his own net-ridden waters by abandonning the study of Torah.
Abika’s parable is designed to clarify for Papus how the fox’s logic
misleads. While it may not be false in absolute terms — in fact the dry
land is free of nets, while the stream is frought with them — it is false
in the relative terms of the fish. Akiba wants Papus to see his own
situation from a similarly limited perspective. While objective logic
might offer the dual possibilities of loyalty to and abandonment of Torah,
the relative reality of being Jewish does not. Just as the fish must
follow the vector of their own movement, so too the Jews must continue
walking their distinctive path, in relationship with God. At this moment,
however, they must turn within themselves to feel the relationship, for
God is barely, if at all, visible in their external world. Ironically,
having an internal locus for the relationship makes one so oblivious to
the external world that it enables the very thing we might never imagine
ourselves capable of: swimming right into the net. Akiba says, if the
strength of my own internal convictions leads to external harm, so be it.
In such a situation, the value of martyrdom lies in its being the ultimate
consummation of the relationship of faith. The martyr follows the only
path she knows, that of Torah and God.

The path of internal faith requires a willful naivete. The prospective
martyr behaves as if she were unaware that her position is precarious; yet
it seems that she must condition herself not to react to what is in plain
sight. In the following midrash about the moments before the Akedah, we
find Abraham embodying the frame of mind that epitomizes Akiba in his
martyrdom. Like the fish in the previous parable, he is able to ignore
the images of danger that lurk about him; relying on his internal faith in
his Master, he “swims straight.” And it came to pass after these words
that God tested Abraham. What do the words “after these words” refer to?
… On the way Satan came towards Abraham and said to him, “Might I try to
have a few words with you?…Behold you have instructed many, and you have
strenghtened the weak. Your words have supported those who were falling,
and you have strengthened those of feeble knees. But now [trouble] has
come upon you, and you weaken!”(5) Abraham replied, “I will walk in my
integrity.” (6) Seeing that he would not listen to him, he said to him,
“Now a thing was secretly revealed to me,(7)thus have I heard from behind
the Curtain: a lamb [will be offered] for a burnt offering, and not Isaac
for a burnt offering.” He replied: “It is the penalty of a liar that
should he even tell the truth he is not listened to.” (Sanhedrin 89b)

Like the fox in the previous parable, Satan offers an apparently
acceptable way to view the situation. His perspective could destroy
Abraham’s internal commitment first from one angle, by offering a faulty
logic on which to base his faith, and then from another, by undercutting
his ability to act out of faithfulness. But Abraham’s stride is so sure
that he swerves neither when pushed from the left nor the right. He
proves himself to be a master of willful naivite. In order to throw
Abraham off his tracks, Satan acknowledges Abraham’s devotion. Satan says
to Abraham, “Pardon me, I hate to bother you in your times of trouble…
But surely you won’t mind if I offer a little insight. You have been such
a leader in our community of faith…. So how can it be that you of all
people must sacrifice your son?!”

As a model of faithfulness, Abraham simply doesn’t deserve hard times. If
God is responsible, is such a God worth being faithful to? Abraham’s
replies that he does not seek evidence of God in world around him. All he
can know is the rhythm and meter of his own holy trek. “In my innocence,
I will walk forward,” Abraham replies. It’s true, he says, that my path
is determined by God, but do not know the essence of that God. I only know
my own faith, which will lead me to my fate, whatever it be. Once
realizing the depth of Abraham’s faith for God, Satan tries to pull a
dirty trick. If I give away the outcome, Satan reasons, then Abraham’s
act will be deprived of all meaning. It will no longer be an expression
of faith, but merely a mechanical acting out of God’s will. Satan says to
him, “Now, a thing has been revealed to me. I heard from behind the
Curtain that it is a lamb that will be offered, and not your son Isaac.”
With this revelation, Satan is assured he will finally begin to fray the
line that connects Abraham to his Master. Even if Abraham doesn’t resent
God when he learns of the deception (which Satan hopes he will), then at
least the act itself will no longer be a testament to his faith. But
Abraham is undeterred by the apparitions that appear in the tangible
world: “Such is the punishment of liars: Even when they are telling the
truth, no one believes them.”

Abraham’s faith survives precisely because it does not depend on the
worldly Divine presence. It is rooted in something elusive and mysterious
that Abraham knows in his heart. Ironically, it reveals God in the very
places which reason suggests are empty of divinity. It enable actions
that reason cannot fathom, but where God resides nonetheless.

IV. Conclusion

When the world is safe, God is everywhere. When the world around us
becomes transformed by danger, we learn to seek God in different places
with different parts of ourselves. Reason can fathom only some things.
The value of Akiba’s act is very different from the value that underlies
Ishmael’s rational statement. Akiba’s act is infused with positive
meaning. It continues a relationship that may have once been recognizable
in the external world, but in the moment of crisis is centered in the deep
core of his own heart. Ishmael, on the other hand, using the instruments
of reason, sees God in the world around him; for him, martyrdom sanctifies
by its refusal to participate in God’s diminuition. Each of these rabbis
experience their relationship with God through different parts of
themselves and in different locii. They offer complementary ways to
infuse the act of martyrdom with significance. May we also learn to find
God in the world around us when our situation enables us to, and in our
hearts when we cannot.


Dear Liz,

You wrote in your first paragraph about “two aspects of how one relates to
God,” and then you offered the distinction(s) between suspending reason or
relying on it, and between situating our relationship to God within
ourselves or in the outside world. It took me a while to realize that you
actually present those as two different formulations of a single
distinction: we can rely on reason and situate our relationshp with God in
the outside world, or we can move beyond reason and find our relationswhip
with God within ourselves. I would like to suggest your original pair of
distinctions are independent of one another: wherever we find our
relationship to the Divine, it can be either our reason or something else
that brings us to it.

An alternative reading of Akiva’s parable of the fish will point to what I
mean. In contrast to you, I think that the fish reject the fox’s proposal
precisely because it is “false in absolute terms”: the fox is asking them
to exchange the uncertain danger of their present situation (they may get
caught in the nets) for the certain danger of the dry land (outside the
water, they’ll die at once of “drowning”). No rational analysis could
lead to accepting such a proposal, only a bizarrely irrational death wish
with no religious meaning to redeem it. That is why the fish call the fox
“stupid,” rather than wicked or insidious or whatever. It may well be as
you say that the fish must survive (or “find God”) in terms of their own
relative situation, but I don’t see why that should necessarily demand the
abandonment of reason. Only the most careful analysis of one’s particular
situation, what it allows and doesn’t allow, will sometimes get one
through it.

I myself can’t relate to God in absolute terms through contemplating the
cosmos or anything like that. By that route I could reach only the rather
unconvincing God of the philosophers. Instead I find myself gripped by a
kind of unrelenting Divine power when I consider that Jewish history
rather than some other has placed me where I am in the world. That is not
a rational conclusion: surely through the use of reason I could as easily
see myself as the product of American history, or working-class upward
mobility, or the Enlightenment, or whatever, and after all I am in fact
the product of all those. Instead my Jewishness is a kind of pre-rational
starting point that has the feel of a mountain inverted over my head like
a trough. But this path to God has not meant for me, as you write, that
“God is barely, if at all, visible, in the external world.” It is only
through the external world that this fierce pre-rational loyalty can lead
me to God at all: Jewish history, after all, is not a product of my inner
experience, even if my own Jewish identity is.

Taking my own experience as an example, I would therefore suggest both
that the outer world need not, cannot be seen only rationally, and that
acknowledging the non-rational grounds of our rational choices does not
force us to turn within ourselves. Accidents of experience and temperament
lead each of us to combine those elements in our own unique recipe.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to set these thoughts down,


Dear Bob,

Thanks so much for your response. I enjoyed hearing from you. I, of
course, am now tempted to “respond” to your “response.” I absolutely agree
with you that these two issues (where we seek God,and whether we use
reason to do it) need not be connected. The point I wanted to make was
that in “dangerous” situations, we function differently than we do in our
day to day lives. The way in which Jewish identity is formed for you in
your day to day life, may in fact be a non-rational process. But I think
I wanted to claim something distinctive about the non-rational experience
of God when the world is changed by danger. But your point is well taken,
that the fish are in fact making a well-thought out choice, that relies on
true logic. So even, in times of danger, reason may function. Maybe this
artful use of reason to transcend reason is one more way of trying to
describe the paradox of “willful naivete”? Again, it was nice to hear
from you.

All the best, Liz.


Dear Liz,

On a first reading, the distinctions you introduce seem to help us to
portion out various talmudic readings on martyrdom in a very clear and
useful fashion. However, I wonder if the great diversity of opinion
recorded in the texts about kiddush HaShem, and the open-ended, polyvocal
Talmudic conversation itself don’t end up winking slyly at your particular
choreography here. Perhaps the two binary distinctions you employ–reason
OR emotion, and God outside of us OR God inside of us–end up, despite the
depths they most certainly reveal, freezing things a bit too much, closing
off other parts of the talmudic conversation that do not fit, while also
preventing succeeding generations from really getting into the dynamic
flow of the living text? Believe me, even saying these things (on which I
will expand in a moment) does not prevent me from admitting that actually,
I do exactly the same thing when I read a piece of the Talmud (though
maybe without your grace)–I try to “get it”. What I want to suggest,
though, is that especially when dealing with a topic like kiddush HaShem
which can, and sadly all too often has become so existentially real and
dire, perhaps we have to be very cautious about using the tools and
distinctions of western philosophy, even if those very tools and
distinctions are exactly how we may start to draw close to the talmudic
text at the beginning.

I guess I feel that having benefitted from your remarks on these texts, I
am now in a position to re-enter the yam ha-talmud, both to seek out new
insights which may not work within your framework, but also even more
importantly to begin to have the experience myself (along with others in a
study hall or chevruta) of immersion in a very complex turning and
re-turning of crucial biblical verses and previous opinions of chazal.
This seems terribly important to me because kiddush HaShem does not
exactly mean “sanctification of the Name of God”. It means, rather,
something like the “showing to be Holy, the making Holy of HaShem”, where
“holy” retains, it seems to me, its sense of set apart–i.e. one who does
kiddush HaShem dies for a God set apart, her martyrdom both witnesses to
and somehow manifests the singularity and holiness of this God. In short,
kiddush HaShem is a Jewish concept. And this returns us to the talmudic
conversation–the God for whom one dies in kiddush HaShem comes into and
obsesses the lives of real, flesh and blood Jews at least in large part
through encounters with the words of previous Jews, with the letters
themselves which transmit a message from that God to each new generation
of Jews.

Perhaps one may say that in kiddush HaShem one dies for an idea–but if
this is so (which I doubt) one is then dying for quite an idea. It would
be the idea of a God who (as Levinas says) teaches in the form of texts,
the point of which would be the educational analogue to tzimtzum, namely
educating the students sufficiently to enable them to argue back, with,
and against their Teacher.

So, this is why I worry about using western philosophical distinctions,
except as one take on the texts, which would then cry out for others to
come and continue the conversation. (One might incidentally go another
direction here, and argue that the letters of the Hebrew language
themselves are actually emanations of God, through which human beings
begin to get into contact with God. In this sense, texts and text study in
Judaism once again become central–and part of what one in fact dies for
in kiddush HaShem, since this is how Jews draw close to God.) Something
about textual immersion itself seems central to kiddush HaShem–indeed
Daniel Boyarin argues in the last chapter of his Intertextuality and the
Study of Midrash that R. Akiba’s martyrdom will make much more sense if we
see it as a kind of “being claimed by” certain p’sukim. R. Akiba fought to
understand certain verses until in his own life his martyrdom finally
supplied him with an answer. So here passionate involvement with
texts–one might even say a being obsessed by and with certain texts,
almost as if one were more receptive than active in the process–is key to
understanding kiddush HaShem. (Boyarin leaves open the question as to
whether this is exactly what “happened”, i.e. whether this is midrash or
rather should be read as the contemporary western genre known as

Finally, one might also want to use this conversation as a way of trying
to situate western binaries with respect to Jewish tradition. 1) Such
distinctions are certainly useful in order to help us get an initial fix
on the texts. 2) However, the texts themselves, animated as they are by a
rare “disputational logic” of endless conversation and contestation from
all and every angle, do not obey most western philosophical trajectories.
This is why recent work exploring how we might bend and alter say literary
criticism in light of talmudic texts–or rather, if Susan Handelman is
right, how current fashions in literary criticism in fact come a lot
closer to talmudic ways of reading and arguing–is important to this
conversation. So once again, we must try to allow talmudic insights to
“step out of” western categories when they seem to want to. 3) Lastly, it
is important to try to distinguish between two different theses here: a)
talmudic texts, given their richness and many-voiced encounters, cannot be
captured by any straightforward set of binary categories (because the
talmud is simply not, ultimately, the more single-voiced enterprise of
philosophy), and b) the talmud does indeed employ its own set of
distinctions which are different from more traditional western
philosophical ones. I guess I definitely hold a) above, and sometimes
think that I slide into b). B) would imply that there really is a
“talmudic philosophy” waiting to be culled from the pages of the talmud.
This would not be the same thing as just saying a) above–i.e. just saying
that what goes on in the general process of talmudizing is not philosophy.
Perhaps sometimes I try to express a) in philosophical terms–and then I
slide into b), because I try to say the “new” things that the talmud has
to contribute to western philosophy. But it may be, rather, that a) is
really the right thesis, and so then talmud would rather interrupt western
philosophy–or even maybe try to educate it, rather than really be playing
the same game only in a different way.

Thanks for opening up this valuable conversation, Jacob


Dear Jacob,

Thank you so much for your stimulating comments. I find it particularly
noteworthy that you contrast my neat binary lcategories to the chaotic
multi-vocality of the Talmud’s discourse. Reading your comments, I am
brought to the realization that the neat binary categories (which
sometimes work more effectively than others, as some of the other
responses have revealed) represent an attempt to render the sea of Talmud
accessible from outside of the details of the individual arguments. They
are an intellectual “coping mechanism” if you will. The more chaotic the
sea of the Talmud, the more I need them to anchor me in the discourse. I
need them to help me locate different components of the discourse and
situate myself within the range of ideas precisely because the sea is so
unpredictable and tumultuous. They are a response to the chaotic state of
affairs in the texts themselves. Having internalized your insight, it is
unclear if it remains for me to resist the coping mechanism, and learn to
tread water without the aid the of a life vest. Or if the coping
mechanism has an intermediary value, which is useful, but which must be
transcended. Again, thank you for your provocative comments. Liz.

Dear Liz,

I have spent some time thinking my way out of your compelling framing
of R. Ishmael’s position–and of the parameters and possibilities for
thinking about kiddush hashem. I confine my remarks to the first sugya and
its implications for the larger discussion. You frame the first sugya
(Sanhedrin 74a) as a “rational” discussion of, or engagement with
martyrdom. I would like to engage that assumption on a number of points.
You see the sugya as representing “a rational voice that reckons with the
issue of martyrdom using the instruments of reason.” In the disagreement
between the council of Nithza and R. Ishmael, the latter sees no need to
sacrifice one’s life rather than worship idols “for he [R. Ishmael] thinks
through life itself we consummate our relationship with God.” You sum up
the significance of this exchange by saying that “[i]dolatry, which later
came to be the quintessential impetus for martyrdom, was in its initial
context a disputed justification for martyrdom!”

First, I would maintain that within the parameters of b San. 74a-75a,
dying for the sanctification of the name of God is not the topic of
discussion. Kiddush hashem is, rather, a subset of the larger principle of
“yehareg ve’al ya’avor” [he should be killed and not transgress]–itself a
branch (if not a subset) of “matzilin oto benafsho” [those whom one can
save by killing them]. This latter is the Mishnaic law which generates the
sugya. It is quite possible that the three commandments for which are
found under the rubric of “yehareg ve’al ya’avor” do not have much in
common other than that very rubric. The obligation to die rather than
murder one’s fellow is not necessarily an instance of kiddush hashem. It
is a result of sevara–what greater right to live do you have than anyone
else? [That Rashi’s rhetoric–haviv, etc.–ties all three together is
significant. But it is still a reading of the whole sugya as generated by
the ve-hai bahem–venikdashti dialecitc. This is not the only possible way
of reading this sugya.] The idea of kiddush hashem is only introduced with
the prooftext from Lev. 22:32: “Neither shall you profane my name, but I
will be hallowed [ve’nikdashti] amongst the children of Israel….”
Kiddush hashem, for this sugya at least, is inherently tied to idolatry.

The difference between R. Ishmael and the council of Nithza is in the
way they value the “act” of forced idolatry. That is, is the act of forced
idol worship, one which benefits/pleasures the worshipper? Or is it more
akin to rape? Is the worshipper who is forced to worship idols seen as
“karka olam” (as Esther is later characterized by Abbayye)? Or is he
understood to have “benefitted” from the act–even though forced? R.
Ishmael, by this reading, is saying that coerced idolatry is rape–and
therefore the one who worships is not culpable. Therefore there is no
reason to save him by killing him (since he doesn’t need to be “saved”).
Therefore, he needn’t let himself be killed rather than worshipping. On
the other hand, the position of the Council would be that idolatry — even
though forced — is an act which benefits/gives pleasure to the
worshipper. In this case the worshipper is culpable and there is an
impetus to save him by killing him. Therefore he must let himself be
killed rather than transgress. On the other hand , when the act is done
in public, the act is defined by the community of observers–and it no
longer matters whether or not there is “really” benefit or enjoyment in it
for the actor him/herself. The act is constructed as an act of idolatry
(rather than “rape by idol”) by the gaze of the community. Therefore even
R. Ishmael agrees that in public one must submit to death rather than
worship idols.

The basic terms of the discussion are the erotics rather than the
logic of the relationship with God. To rephrase Liz’s opening statement I
would say now that the aspect of how one relates to God which is
particularly relevant is whether the prospective martyr sees herself as
karka olam in relation to God–or as an active and participant lover. It
is the threat to the erotic or passionate relationship with God that
demands martyrdom. If one’s relationship with God is active–it cannot be
subverted by “idol-rape”. If one’s relationship with God is as karka
olam–then “idol-rape” is a threat.

A Book Self-Review by Steven Kepnes

New York University Press, 1996
Steven Kepnes, Editor
Volume 4 in the Berman Center for Jewish
Studies of Lehigh University Series: “New
Perspectives on Jewish Studies,”
General Editor, Laurence Silberstein

SK: I am extremely pleased to present a description of my recently
published edited collection of essays which includes the work of many of
the contributors to the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network. I would like
to acknowledge now, as I do in the book, the significant debt I owe to
Peter Ochs, Larry Silberstein and all the participants in the collective
work of Postmodern Jewish Philosophy. Thanks so much for your stimulating
comments and the help you have given me in my attempt to articulate the
parameters of our work. I begin simply with the Table of Contents, since
it includes the work of so many Network members.”

“Postmodern Interpretation of Judaism: Deconstructive and
Constructive Approaches”
Ch. 1 Edward Greenstein,
“Deconstruction and Biblical Narrative”
Ch. 2 Peter Ochs,
“Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation in Judaism”
Ch. 3 Martin Jaffee,
“Halakhah as Primordial Tradition: Gadamerian Dialogue
with Early Rabbinic Memory and Jurisprudence”
Ch. 4 Daniel Boyarin
“Rabbinic Resistance to Male Domination: A Case Study in
Talmudic Cultural Poetics”
Ch. 5 Eliot Wolfson,
“From Sealed Book to Open Text: Time, Memory, and
Narrativity in Kabbalistic Hermeneutics”
Ch. 6 Adi Ophir,
“The Poor in Deed Facing the Lord of all Deeds: A
Postmodernist Reading of the Yom Kippur Mahzor”
Ch. 7
Susan Handelman,
“The `Torah’ of Criticism and the Criticism of Torah:
Recuperating the Pedagogical Moment”
Ch. 8 Hannan Hever,
“The Struggle Over The Canon of Early Twentieth Century
Hebrew Literature”
Ch. 9 Yudit Greenberg,
“The Hermeneutic Turn in Franz Rosenzweig’s Theory of
Ch. 10 Edith Wyschogrod,
“Hasidism, Hellenism, Holocaust: A Postmodern View”
Ch. 11 Laurence Silberstein,
“Discourse, Ideology and the Contemporary Interpretation
of Judaism: The Case of Zionism”
Ch.12. Laura Levitt
“Rethinking Jewish Feminist Identity/ies:
What Diference Can Feminist Theory Make?”


For a more detailed overview, here are words from the book’s

The essays collected display the fruits of the application of an
array of postmodern hermeneutical approaches to the study of Judaism. The
work does not represent a “paradigm shift” in the Kuhnian sense of a
movement to a shared new model with commonly accepted criteria. Rather
what we see in the articles collected here are “family resemblances” and
“selective affinities”; shared problematics and questions; recurring
themes such as the importance of language, discourse, and interpretation
in the variety of Jewish cultures; and a movement away from fixed
foundations and essentialized notions such as “Judaism” or “Jewish values”
to an appreciation of the forces of cultural construction and

Generally, the articles in this collection can be grouped around two
different poles, each of which finds its roots in different hermeneutical
traditions of Western intellectual life. These traditions can be described
as “deconstructive hermeneutics” with Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as modern
progenitors and Derrida and Foucault as their postmodern successors and
“constructive hermeneutics” with Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Heidegger as
modern progenitors and Gadamer and Ricoeur as postmodern successors. The
former type of hermeneutic attempts to uncover the conditions and
processes that lie behind the ostensive meanings of human cultural
expressions and the latter seeks to disclose new possibilities of meaning
within the fabric of cultural products themselves.

In a rough categorization one could say that the essays of
Greenstein, Boyarin, Ophir, Hever, Wyschogrod, Silberstein, and Levitt
mainly utilize deconstructive hermeneutics, and the essays of Ochs,
Jaffee, Wolfson, Handelman, and Greenberg mainly utilize constructive
hermeneutics. The structure of the volume follows a chronology of from the
biblical to contemporary period. All authors were asked to include a
methodological discussion in which they outline and distinguish the
characteristics of the theoretical model they are using. Authors were
also asked to illustrate the applicability of a particular postmodern
approach to Jewish studies by performing an act of interpretation on
specific Jewish texts. Therefore, in each essay the reader will find a
different presentation of the recent theoretical movement in academic
scholarship and its implications for Jewish studies.

The scholars utilize a wide range of postmodern approaches. One will
find a Derridean analysis in the essay by Edward Greenstein, a Gadamerian
analysis in the essay by Martin Jaffee, a Deleuze and Guattarian analysis
in the essay by Hannan Hever, a semiotic analysis in the essay by Peter
Ochs, a new historicist analysis in the essay by Daniel Boyarin, and an
analysis employing feminist theory in the essay by Laura Levitt. In
including essays from different hermeneutical poles in the same volume and
in suggesting that every hermeneut necessarily employs deconstructive and
constructive hermeneutical strategies, I hope to encourage the
continuation of the creative dialogue between scholars of different
hermeneutical orientations on the most productive ways to interpret Jewish
texts and cultures in the postmodern period.

Editor to SK: Could you say a few more words about the process of putting
this collection together?

SK: The idea for putting this collection together came to me after I saw
150 people show up at a panel I put together at the 1990 Association for
Jewish Studies meetings on “Theories of Interpretation and the Study of
Judaism.” After struggling for a couple of years, along with Larry
Silberstein and Peter Ochs, to get sessions accepted at the AJS and the
American Academy of Religion and the Academy of Jewish Philosophy on
topics related to contemporary theory and Jewish Studies, the AJS meeting
in 1990 seemed to be something of a breakthrough. This was followed by
exciting Spring meetings in 1992 and 1993 at the Berman Center for Jewish
Studies at Lehigh University where a small group of scholars from
different fields in Jewish Studies and from both America and Israel met to
see if our respective interests in postmodern theories of interpretation
and culture could allow us to explore connections in our work. A number of
us were energized by Buber’s notion of dialogue, by Rosenzweig’s notion of
“speechthinking,” and by the kind of rich interchanges we saw in talmudic
discourse. We wanted to be able to talk about ourselves, our
universities,our Jewish communities and about Israel, about Jewish men and
women and also about God and torah and prayer. It could not be some Jewish
Esalen session because poststructural theory gave us our focus but still
we wanted to move through the theory to address in new ways vital issues
that concerned us. We all had come to a similar conclusion that the older
methods of Jewish scholarship were deficient in providing us with the
profound analyses of Jewish texts and cultures that we wanted and that
characteristically modern critiques and solutions to problems of modern
Jewish life were no longer capable of adequately addressing contemporary
“postmodern” problems.

Hopes were very high for the first night session at Lehigh in May 19,
1992 when about twenty of us met to introduce ourselves and to say how we
came to contemporary theory. And, as I probably should have expected, the
evening was a disaster. The Israelis almost walked out and it was not sure
that they wanted to continue the next day. After hours of late night
postsession review and analysis we came to a realization that our theories
could have provided us with before we began: that we each came to the
meeting with different preconceptions and expectations and that the
distance which separates American Jews from Israelis is extremely
significant for the ways in which we conceptualize our scholarship and the
issues of contemporary Israel and Judaism. Our first important lesson was
thus a lesson in difference. Having realized this and having tacticly
agreed to try to make our differences productive, we returned to our
discussions of theory, talmud, gender,Hebrew literature and Jewish
philosophy and sustained extremely fruitful and enriching dialogues at
Lehigh in 1992, 1993, and 1994. These dialogues were displayed and
continued in the e-mail network which Peter set up and David Seidenberg is
now sustaining, in this electronic journal, and in the sessions which we
ran at the AJS, AAR, and the Academy of Jewish philosophy. Last summer,
(1995) Bob Gibbs and I joined together with the Hartman Institute to the
Talmud Institute (see earlier). In Spring, ’94, Gene Borowitz convened a
meeting meeting of us all HUC. And we look forward to our June, 1997

These events, along with the considerable number of recently
published books in Jewish Studies that employ postmodern approaches shows
that we have reached a point of academic respectability and acceptance.
But as we have gained this acceptance it is obvious that our differences
are being brought into sharper focus. Each one of us utilizes and
synthesizes theory in ways which are unique and tied to a specialized
field. Peter suggested in the last issue of this journal that the logic of
postmodern Jewish reasoning is “shaky” like the staves which hold up a
sukkah. I would add that the fabric which holds us together as postmodern
Jewish scholars is as flimsy as the walls of a sukkah. As far as we have
come in establishing a new approach to Jewish Studies we often seem close
to walking away from each other and returning to enlarge the moats and
sure up the defenses of our precious and unique intellectual castles. So
as I look to our future I would bring us back to the initial impluses and
motivations that brought us together. Wearied by the isolation, pettiness,
and nastiness of much of public academic life, We came together to be
energized by the ideals of dialogue and difference and to do serious
thinking together about issues that vitally affected us and the larger
Jewish communities in which we live.

To close with a personal reflection I would say that 7 years after
the AJS panel which energized me to put together my collection I am no
longer as enamored as I was then of postmodern and poststructural theory.
As powerful and complex as the variety of theories are I have lost
something of my earlier zeal to articulate and uphold postmodern
intellectual doctrines. In fact turning these theories into doctrine seems
to contradict the spirit of creativity and openness inherent in the
theories and is more a display of decline than celebration of them. Yet if
my allegiance to certain tenets of postmodernism has waned a bit my
commitment to the modes of interchange in postmodern Jewish thinking which
we have developed has not. I am only more convinced of the power and
rewards of the thinking together that is done when we converse through
e-mail and when we meet together face to face. In these interchanges the
abstractness and rigidity of theory is overcome. Our jargon is emptied
into a common colloquial usage where its pragmatic value and truth can be
weighed. Our differences are highlighted for sure but we also come to see
what we hold in common. So for the future I want to encourage us to
remain in the sukkah of postmodern Jewish thinking and scholarship as
shaky and flimsily held together as it is and to continue to converse
together on the very important issues of postmodern Jewish scholarship and
life which lie ahead.



Kepnes, Michael Zank, Nancy Levene, Perry Dane, Peter and Vanessa Ochs,
Marilyn Katz, Aryeh Cohen,Peter Knobel,and Martin Yaffe for their generous
sh’lach manot!

OUR SECOND, URGENT CALL FOR ASSISTANCE: In the last issue, we made our
first call, in five years, for financial assistance. The Network is
published with only minimal clerical assistance: the rest of the work is
volunteered by thinkers and academics like you. To raise any significant
funds for the Network, we need to be more widely known. Our June, 1997
Conference will help make us known. But, in order to receive grant funding
for that Conference, we need to show, SOON, that our membership has first
given its strong support. Last issue, and through email, we have asked
for you help. We are grateful for the contributions received so far, and
now we have only 228 more of you to go! Please, fellow scholars, offer us
this material sacrifice, along with your words! As we work toward our goal
of $63,000 more, would you contribute from $20 to $250? Please make your
tax deductible checks out to Drew University-PMJP and mail c/o P. Ochs,
Program in Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940.

NEXT ISSUE: Among other items, we’ll be featuring an essay on Scriptural
hermeneutics, for discussion at our 1996 AAR annual meeting; Aryeh Cohen
will present Part II of our responses to the 1995 Talmud Institute at
Princeton; there will be writings on pedagogy; and book reviews on
Samuelson and Novak.

PEACE, WAR, POLITICS AND LOSS: We welcome submissions on postmodern Jewish
philosophy’s means of responding to the agonizing issues of peace, war,
and politics in Israel.


A list of the members of PMJN will be sent to the e-mail recipients of
5.1 under separate cover. Please send us your updates at that time. To
see a copy of the “POMO@jtsa.edu” list, write to “listserv@jtsa.edu” with
the command “rev pomo”. You must be a subscriber to “pomo” to use this
command. To subscribe, send the message “sub pomo Your Name” to the same
address. To get a list of the additional members of PMJN, or for more
information about the “POMO”, write to “daseidenberg@jtsa.edu”.