Old Series: Volume 5, Number 3 (November 1996)

General Editors:
Aryeh Cohen, University of Judaism
Jacob Meskin, Princeton U./Rutgers U.
Rebecca Stern, American Pardes Foundation
Michael Zank, Boston University

Founding Editor:
Peter Ochs, Drew University

Contributing Editors:
Roger Badham, Drew University: Postcritical Christian Philosophy
and Judaism
S. Daniel Breslauer, U. of Kansas: Book Reviews
Aryeh Cohen, University of Judaism, Talmud
Philip Culbertson, St. Johns U., Auckland: Christian Thought and
Robert Gibbs, University of Toronto: Continental and Modern Jewish
Susan Handelman, University of Maryland: Pedagogy
Steven Kepnes, Colgate University: Biblical Hermeneutics
Shaul Magid, Jewish Theological Seminary: Kabbalah
Vanessa Ochs, CLAL: Ritual, Ceremony and Material Culture
Ola Sigurdson, U. of Lund, Sweden: Postcritical Christian
Philosophy and Judaism
Martin Srajek, Illinois Wesleyan University: Modern Continental and
Jewish Philosophy
Rebecca Stern, American Pardes Foundation: Student Editor
Michael Zank, Boston University, Book Reviews

Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in this
Network retain all rights for hard copy redistribution or
electronic re-transmission of their words outside the Network. For
words not authored by individual contributors, rights are retained
by the editor of this Network.

TEXTUAL REASONING is sent free of charge to
electronic mail addresses.
Back issues are archived on
worldwideweb: access URL “http://forest.drew.edu/~pmjp”.
Hardcopies cost $6/issue; $15 per volume (3-4 issues).
Send requests and payment to
Michael Zank
Dept. of Religion, Boston University
745 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA. 02215
Tel: (617) 353-4434, Fax: (617) 353-5441
Electronic mail to: mzank@bu.edu
or disks (preferrably Apple/Macintosh, Word) to
Michael Zank, (address as above).

* * * * * *

II. New Editors’ Introductions
III. Responses to Jacob Meskin’s “Critique and the Search for
Connection: An Essay on Levinas’ Talmudic Readings” (A.Cohen,
C.Fonrobert, B.Gibbs, S.Kepnes, L.Shanks, R.Stern, M.Zank)
IV. The new tr-list: A call for support


I.1 Welcome to the latest issue of TEXTUAL REASONING. As many of
you may know, Peter Ochs has moved himself into the wings and
behind the scenes, and a new editorial team has taken over from
him. You will find our introductions below. Needless to say we
are appreciative for Peter’s giving us this opportunity, and will
also be looking for him to continue to play an active role in
upcoming issues and activities.

I.2 We will all be getting together at the upcoming AAR/SBL
meeting in New Orleans, Nov. 23-26, for our annual discussion
(Sunday night at 9pm, in the Marriott, Le Galerie 2). Jacob Meskin
will be responding to the responses to his paper (featured in the
last issue of this journal) on Levinas’ Talmudic Readings. If
previous years are any indication, and also judging by the
responses to Meskin contained in the present issue, the
conversation ought to be exciting and inter-disciplinary, inviting
contributions from students of talmud, Jewish thought, Jewish
studies, Jewish feminism, literary studies, social theory, history
of religions, etc. Refreshments will be served, and a business
meeting will follow.

I.3 And here is an important announcement:


As described in previous issues, you are all invited to this major
conference, guided by your various editors, who are hosting such
text scholars as D.Boyarin, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Michael Fishbane,
David Weiss Halivni, Norbert Samuelson, Elliot Wolfson, and many
more. There will be limited space and rooms available, on a first
come-first served basis. SO PLEASE REGISTER NOW. How to register:
1) To Guarantee a space, send a pre-registration check for
$50 by Dec. 15,1996 to “TR Conf” c/o Pat Glucksman/Drew University/
Tilghman 302/Madison, NJ 07940. Write check to “Drew University
Jewish Studies.” And indicate Housing Option (see below).
2) To hold NON-GUARANTEED space, send e-mail note to
PGLUCKSMAN@DREW.EDU, stating: I WANNA COME to June conference:
name, address, phone, I will send registration fee my March
Either way you do it, here is the cost schedule:
1) Conference pre-registration $50; registration after
Dec. 15 – $70; registration fee includes attendance at all
meetings, coffee hours, conference reading materials, and use of
university atheletic facilities and library.
2) Housing options:
a) University dorm room for two nights plus all kosher
meals for $150 Total (cheap!)
b) Elegant rooms at nearby hotel, two nights $200
(including van service to the university) +food.
c) for commuters and hotel guests, three kosher meals a
day, price TBA.


II.1 New Editor’s Introduction: Aryeh Cohen

As a graduate student at Brandeis I participated in a seminar
which turned out to be one of the most challenging and exciting
experiences of my time as a graduate student. (Michael Zank was
also a participant in the seminar, if my memory serves me, as was
Shaul Magid, TR’s Kabbalah editor.) The seminar, led by Michael
Fishbane at his home, came to be known among its participants
simply as the Fishbane seminar. While I learned a great deal from
Prof. Fishbane, the excitement and intellectual energy came from
the group as a whole. The unique aspect of the seminar was that
though it was a seminar in Midrash, the participants came from a
range of fields within Jewish Studies-Bible, Rabbinics, Philosophy.
Everybody had their own axe to grind and also the openness to
tolerate other people’s agendas–at least to a point. The seminar
was a real working seminar–at each meeting we struggled through
texts and with each other.

Each week as I drove home from the seminar with Mike Carasik,
we debriefed as much about the group dynamics as about this or that
insight. Looking back now, the seminar seemed to have all the
ingredients for an ideal learning group: an intimate atmosphere
(with refreshment), people who all came to the table with their own
intellectual baggage, and a seminar leader who wanted to get to a
point, and had a point to get to–but was just as interested in the

Ideally, this is what I see TR becoming. A meeting place for
scholars who are coming together from different intellectual
locations (Bible, Rabbinics, Early Christianity, Kabbalah,
Philosophy, Literature, Theology of many stripes, etc…) to
struggle with texts and with each other towards a place and a
language that we have come to see (with the help of our founding
editor) as Textual Reasoning. The excitement of TR, for me, is
generated by the feeling that this journal has come to house a
serious ongoing intellectual and spiritual dialogue. The fact that
it is so natural to continue that dialogue beyond the journal (at
AAR meetings, at Princeton last summer, at the upcoming
Textualities conference) is testament to the fact that the journal
has gone some way to create the outlines of a community of

I would like to see the journal expand into some areas that
haven’t been sufficiently explored as yet. Critical pedagogy — the
description of the pedagogical situation from both an ethical and
an epistemological standpoint is, to coin a phrase, critical. (see
Susan Handelman’s article in Steven Kepnes’ collection
_Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age_.) Discipleship,
mentoring, teaching and learning collectively are at the heart of
a discourse that reasons through and with texts. We need a language
to talk about this.

I would like to see more engagement with non-Jewish
scholarship (that is, of and by). As the New Testament and Rabbinic
literature are two conflicting constructions of Biblical religion
on a broad level, there is much to be explored in the way that
those conflicting situations unfolded in specific sites–the Song
of Songs, martyrdom, death, etc.

I have gained much from participating in this learning
community already, and I am grateful to Peter for initiating the
community and the journal, and for bringing me into it. I equally
look forward to the unexpected turns we will take together in the

II.2 New Editor’s Introduction: Jacob Meskin

In as much as a piece of mine was circulated in the last issue
of this electronic journal, and much of this issue is devoted to
excellent and acute responses to that piece, I will keep my
introduction here brief.

My interest in and efforts on behalf of Textual Reasoning stem
from my feeling that this forum may provide an opportunity for
something vital–the forging of new, and ongoing connections
between Jewish tradition and emerging modern intellectual forms and
systems. Indeed, all of our input into TR may also be important
well beyond the case of specificaly Jewish tradition, offering
others interested in their own texts a similar kind of opportunity.

Many of us feel–sometimes blissfully and sometimes ruefully–
caught between, caught within both the marvellous richness of
transmitted tradition and the promising adventure of modern, post-
Enlightenment culture. Tensions are often creative (if sometimes
difficult); perhaps Jewish tradition has always been advanced on
its way by individuals struggling with conflicts–in some cases,
certainly, conflicts much like the one just mentioned. Yet it
helps immeasurably if there are contexts for folks to converse
about and struggle with these conflicts. I believe TR may be one
such facilitating, productive context. I invite our readers and
correspondents to take advantage of this chance to communicate with
others, like themselves, who are engaged in the unending process of
articulating, refining, re-articulating, and creating new models
for joining ancient texts and modern thinking.

With a new and far more apt name, and a new editorial team
taking over from Peter Ochs, Textual Reasoning and its associated
communication network can be a great possibility for just the sort
of cross-disciplinary collaboration, intellectual experimentation,
spiritual reflection, and generous give and take that many of us in
fact went into the academy to pursue. We are contemplating many
projects (some of which Michael Zank mentions below in his editor’s
introduction), and look forward to input from all of you to help us
make this venture everything it can be.

II.3 New Editor’s Introduction: Rebecca Stern

Since I’ll be working on this journal as a student-editor (a
new and to-be-defined position), I thought I’d describe my own
experiences as a student, and then my ideas about how I’d like to
involve myself and others in this project.

At this point in my life, the most potent and visceral
learning experiences I have had have been at Swarthmore College
(PA) and at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies (Jerusalem).
While I’m not at all sure if I am a post-modern, I can say without
a doubt that I am post-Swarthmore and post-Pardes. To be
post-anything means, I think, that first that something became so
deeply a part of your core that it defined you, and then later you
expanded yourself beyond, against, or inside it. That is, I have
had significant moments of change in respect to the strains of
thought I associate with these two institutions, but I do not
necessarily reject any of the systems I found there.

At Swarthmore, I became deeply involved in feminism, and it
informed my studies in psychology (feminist psychoanalytic thought,
especially), and my relationship to ideas and teachers in general.
The intellectual and the personal got fused in intense
ways–suddenly the liberal idea of neutrality and free choice lost
meaning for me. The hidden and subtle sides of power took on a life
of their own in my mind, often preventing me from taking risks for
fear of learning from the wrong person. I expanded on this sense of
disillusionment with freedom in a class which critiqued liberal
individualism–posing community, tradition, and obligation as

So, with these two years at Swarthmore behind me, I took off
a year and went to study in Israel at the Pardes Institute, a coed,
pluralistic yeshiva in Jerusalem. I came to Pardes with two things
firmly in mind: 1) society needs community, stability, and
obligation; and 2) feminism–and justice in general–can never be
subsumed by this devotion to stability. I left Pardes with nothing
firmly in mind….perhaps this was the start of my understanding of
what post-modernism is all about.

Jewishly, I came to Pardes knowing I wanted to learn more
about the tradition I had come to love through years in a Zionist/
Jewish Youth Movement; I never once thought that my interaction
with Jewish text would seriously challenge my firmly-held rational,
modern way of being. But in fact, being part of the Pardes
community shook everything in me–I studied the same texts I had
planned to study, I had the Shabbat dinners I had imagined, but
suddenly everything was intensified as I allowed myself to
entertain the possibility of obligation and/ or text from G-d.

Things opened up as I asked myself if prayer, study, and
practice might mean more than simply another way of creating a
strong, working community. I found my mind working more, giving
more play to interpretations I might have earlier dismissed, not
ruling out the possibility of beauty in any ritual. My search for
meaning instead of randomness had taken on a new dimension. Yet
this sense of wholeness was not untouched. While I was at Pardes,
I was engaged in an inner struggle: I was passionately egalitarian,
and involved in looking for a philosophy of halacha which might
allow for human change in a Divine system.

I was fully decentered when I returned to Swarthmore–dismayed
by the ease with which my college peers dismissed the very idea of
sanctity or revelation, yet not fully at peace with the system
which had claimed my heart and mind. For a time, I was very
ideological–seeing a need to integrate every experience into the
wholeness of my ideal Judaism, of which I had a clear picture. I
felt distanced from the randomness which I saw dominate my liberal
college campus, but uncomfortable in very traditional settings.

At the present moment–living in NYC, working for Pardes
American office–I find myself in a very non-ideological frame of
mind. I am more drawn to the individual human or text than to the
sweeping statement. I find myself working in the present moment,
rather than pining for an ideal found in Judaism, Zionism, or
feminism. Yet, I hope there will be times that these ideologies
claim me again–pushing me to act in accordance with systems,
not only moments. This push and pull is perhaps the best sense of
balance I can hope for.

In this journal, I want to give students like myself the
chance to enter into the unique dialogue created in this journal–a
place for a meeting of the traditional and the non-conventional in
Jewish text study. Many students I know have had intense encounters
with both Jewish text (in a yeshiva setting or a college classroom)
and also with various forms of modern or post-modern thought. This
combination can make us think until our brains hurt, but if we are
not in graduate school or in a teaching/writing profession, we may
have no formal outlet. I hope that various students and ex-students
will decide to devote some time to writing an article for this
journal and to informing other students about the existence of this
journal. The learning process is interactive and possible only in
relationship–to teachers, peers, and text. I hope this journal can
help students in the process of finding and creating all three.

II.4 New Editor’s Introduction: Michael Zank

This journal means a lot to me, and I welcome the opportunity
to share with you some of the reasons why I am grateful for the
chance to contribute to its future as a member of the new editorial

I am writing this on Yom Kippur 5747, September 23, 1996. I
have eaten breakfast and am smoking a pipe, transgressing a whole
host of halakhic and medicinal rules, presumably preparing an
untimely death for myself as well as for my computer. I have no
noble excuse for ignoring the long-term well-being of my body and
of my elecronic servant. And I don’t wish to boast that my spirit
is particularly alive in its defiance of the laws of the Torah. Yet
this situation indicates something about who I am vis-a-vis
*Textual Reasoning,* the Journal of the Postmodern Jewish
Philosophy Network.

Halakha, the body of spiritual and carnal symbols, the
revealed legislation and hedge around a people migrating for
millenia, is, to me, not a dead but a “second language.” I occupy
myself with it to the degree necessary in order not to lose the
little proficiency I have acquired in it over the adult years of my
studying Judaism. My childhood and youth were steeped in German
Protestantism, ecclesiastical and revivalist, disturbed merely by
the repeated intrusion of maternal memories of sin’at hinam that
had led to a drastic decimation of live family members and to a
multiplication of names without faces that populated my

For me, Judaism is a way of not being a Christian. By this I
mean several things. Christianity seems to me a polyphonic,
multi-track reality that is almost impossible to extricate yourself
from once it has shaped your memory and mentality, your symbolic
imagination and your judgments. I have experienced it as my
tradition, my religion, and my intellectual culture, and I consider
myself on a passage away from it on all three levels. In all
respects, Judaism has been the catalyst for my process of
extrication, a guide and companion to adulthood, responsibility,
and an intellectual coming of age.

I am not a baal t’shuva. I am less enamored with Christians
and Christianity than Franz Rosenzweig was his whole life, and have
therefore not felt the need to embrace the traditional world of
Jewish liturgy as a means of defiance. Yet, Judaism — tradition,
religion, and intellectual culture — has been the center of
gravity by means of which I have beeen trying to escape the
gravitational pull of the Christian orbit.

Christianity aims at “the whole.” It casts itself as universal
and catholic. Its logic cannot accomodate the fragmentation of
midrash or the paradox of Jewish particularism and Jewish
monotheism. The deadly arrogance of the West is founded on the myth
of Christ-Cosmocrator. A particular verion of this myth may lie at
the root of what percieve as a German complex of superiority, that
perfectionism that is as devoid of a genuine sense of humor and
self-deprecation as seventeenth-century tracts of Protestant
orthodox dogmatics and that found, with the certainty of the
moon-struck, its outlet in the administration of death to the Jews.
As someone who has lived and breathed (post-war) German culture, I
am trying to rid myself of this legacy. There seems to be no safer
haven from it than the world of classical Jewish literature and its
contemporary appropriation that is paradigmatically exercized in
postmodern Jewish thought.

In truth, like many before and around me, I acknowledge the
gravitational pull of more than one solar system. I live in a land
between two rivers and partake of the waters of both (or more!). If
I am committed to an intellectual agenda, it is one of “critical
reconstruction.” We are coming out of a shattered world that cannot
and mustn’t be restored. Where to? Postmodernism, much maligned
these days, has grown from the ruins of the myths of completeness
that dominated the nineteenth century and took on destructive
political shape in the twentieth. Postmodernism aims at liberation
from bondage to the great edifices of modern idealism. It is a
critical, and thus eminently modern, strategy of defiance against
academic, cultural, and political ideologies and a defense of the
logic of monotheism, as recently defined by Lenn E. Goodman. [One
of the forthcoming issues of this journal will be entirely
dedicated to the introduction of Goodman’s *God of Abraham* and
responses to it by Menahem Kellner, Allan Arkush, and David
Burrell.] Many of our fellow-academics fear deconstruction as if it
meant destruction of values and meaning. Imho, the value of
deconstruction lies in its ability to reveal not only the moral
destructiveness of traditional strategies of self-assertion but
also the beauty of difference, the strengths of the powerless. The
postmodern paradigm is psychologically beneficent. The God of
postmodern discourse is not jealous, though she is not indifferent

Among the ideas for future contributions to this journal is a
series dealing with the forefathers and foremothers of our
discourse. If we define our interest as a meeting between classical
texts and postmodern philosophy and as a platform of exchange
between scholars trained in classical texts and those trained in
philosophy, then we will find ourselves in the good company of the
luminaries of the German Jewish renaissance of the nineteen
twenties. Gershom Scholem described these in his memoir, *From
Berlin to Jerusalem,* as “that small group of men (…) who would
set up a community devoted to spiritual and intellectual activity
[…] to engage without any reservations in a creative exchange of
ideas [… and] perhaps, to put it clearly but esoterically, to
shake the world of its hinges.” [Cf. Gary Smith, “‘Die
Zauberjuden'” in JJTP vol. 4 (1995), p.229.] Among these
forefathers of a new awareness for commentary as a classical Jewish
form of thought and strategy of intellectual extrication from the
dogmatic ills of the idealist tradition is Walter Benjamin. Martin
Srajek, as one of our contributing editors, is soliciting essays on
Benjamin as a commentator on (sacred) scripture that will explore
this stimulating thinker as an inspiring source of ideas for and
critical insights into the pursuits of Jewish postmodernism. [Gary
Smith, the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, will be one
of the authors to reintroduce us to Benjamin.]

My interest as an editor of this journal is to keep it as open
in form and content as it has been in the past, and to add to it
new and hitherto unexplored possibilities of enriching our
discourse. To me the academic excellence of the contributions is a
matter of course. The main point is evidently not how to impress
your fellow scholars with big words or how to place another
publication for the sake of the graveyard of one’s curriculum
vitae, but rather the continuation of the pleasantly stimulating
vulnerability and intellectual risk-taking that has been the
hallmark of the discussions on our network, a discussion which this
journal should enhance and augment rather than displace. Hence, we
also intend to make some of the past discussions from the network
available in slightly concentrated and lightly edited version,
discussions dealing with halakhah, subjectivity and moral autonomy,
the meaning of talmudic studies, the holocaust, teaching Judaic
Studies, and other topics. We also intend to expand our
explorations, for example, into the field of new approaches to the
study and teaching of Jewish mysticism [Shaul Magid, Subject

Finally, a journal is only as interesting and stimulating as
its contributors. You as subscribers are encouraged to send us
material, books for review, hints and ideas at worthwile topics and
prospective authors, and whatever you may think of as a way to
improve our work. We also hope to broaden the base of subscribers.
Rebecca Stern’s membership in our editorial team expresses, among
others, our concern with bringing in younger authors and readers
that feel close to our agenda. Good luck, Rebecca! — Peter Ochs
will stay on as Founding Editor and has declared his readiness to
assist the new team as long as we need his advice. I wish to thank
Peter for launching this exceedingly worthy enterprise and hope
that he will approve of its future development.

III. Responses to Jacob Meskin, “Critique and The Search for
Connection: On Levinas’ Talmudic Readings” (Textual Reasoning, Vol.
5, No. 2, July 1996)

1. Aryeh Cohen, University of Judaism (for Textual Reasoning,
The Journal of the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network (All rights
reserved by the author))

It is appropriate to situate Emmanuel Levinas’ Talmudic
readings somewhere near the epicenter of what “Textual Reasoning”
might be. Jacob Meskin very forcefully articulates the reasons for
this. “Levinas moves beyond the standard dichotomies of modern
western culture.” He does this by way of texts and readings. “The
Talmudic readings force us to ask whether the methods of the
disciplines suffice to fix, or even to delimit, the meaning of
inherited religious texts.” Elsewhere Levinas contrasts “true
reading or study” with idolatry. That is, “[t]he reading or study
of a text that protects itself from eventual idolatry of this very
text, by renewing, through continual exegesis-and exegesis of that
exegesis-the immutable letters and hearing the breath of the living
God in them.” (“Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry,” ITN: 59)
Levinas offers a two-fold critique of the academic text scholar,
and then suggests a new model which “links Jewish spiritual
achievement with ethics and with humility,b defusing the risk of
self-righteousness that attends the religious quest.”

The first critique of the western academic is that the
academic text scholar is concerned with “how to emend a text” and
not “how to emend a life.” Therefore, the hand of the scholar is
the “impatient, busy hand that is supposedly objective and
scientific, the Scriptures, cut off from the breath that lives
within them, become unctuous, false or mediocre words, matter for
doxographers, for linguists and philologists.” This is a hand that
is “without regard for the new possibilities of their semantics,
patiently opened up by the religious life.”

While this characterization of a certain type of
wissenschaftlicher scholar is true, as far as it goes, I would like
to raise the possibility that Levinas’ own reading methodology does
not offer a better option. The critique of the “academic text
scholar” is that he might dissect the text at arm’s length but
never let the text truly touch him. I suggest that Levinas is also
keeping the text at arm’s length. While the academic does this
through history and philology, Levinas accomplishes the same thing
through allegory. Levinas’ translation of the Talmud into the Greek
that “demystifies” is actually, I would argue, an allegorization of
the Talmud which leaves the “pots and pans” (to borrow a phrase
from Jacob Neusner) of the texts behind.

The discussion of the shew bread, which Meskin explicates at
length, is a good example of the problematic nature of Levinasian
reading. Meskin says that “[f]rom the Mishnah [BT Menahot 99b],
Levinas would seem to have determined an appropriate form for a
non-historicist continuity, a tradition of values ceaselessly
enhanced and preserved over time.” Where, though, is the shew
bread? The abstraction is almost immediate. In one paragraph there
are sanctified loves which move from table to table, are replaced
by new sanctified loaves, and are ultimately divided amongst the
priests and eaten. In the next paragraph there are no more loaves,
there is no doughy stuff sating hungry priests. There are values
that are enhanced over time. The real material eating, which is
stressed at the end of the Mishnah by two other examples, gives way
to abstract concepts. The Mishnah is translated into “Greek,” it is

Let us contrast this with the midrash that is attributed to R.
Ammi in the beginning of the sugyah in Menahot. R. Ammi starts from
R. Jose’s statement that the principle of having the loaves before
God always (tamid) can be fulfilled through having one set of
loaves removed just past morning, and another set be placed just
before the evening. R. Ammi then reads this statement to say that
“even though a man learns but one chapter in the morning and one
chapter in the evening he has thereby fulfilled the precept of
‘This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth’ (Joshua
1:8)” The midrashic move that R. Ammi makes is based on the mouth.
Torah must not move from the mouth. Just as the shew bread ends up
being eaten by the priests. This ability for the Torah to sate
physically is what connects it midrashically with the shew bread of
the mishnah. The midrashic connection is the eating of the Torah.
The intertext of this midrash is Ezekiel 3:1-3: “And he said to me,
‘Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go
speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me
the scroll to eat. And he said to me, ‘Son of man eat this scroll
that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it; and
it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.”

Levinas finds in R. Ammi “another understanding of the nature
of non-historicist continuity.” But R. Ammi finds in the words of
R. Jose the physicality of the sacred, and reads that into the
physicality of the Torah. As Daniel Boyarin has argued, midrash
concretizes, while allegory (or “Greek” in Levinas’ terms)
universalizes, abstracts. The midrash reasons through the text,
making it more concrete, more specific, more physical. Allegory
leaves it at a distance.

Levinas’ second critique is of academic historicism.
“Relativizing each moment to its volatile place in a flux of
change, the historicism of the modern West reduces reality to
nothing more than momentarily identifiable patterns of coherence
endlessly giving way to new patterns.” Instead of this model,
“Levinas contrasts history’s relativized concatenation of moments
with ‘holiness,’ moments none of which are lost, only deepened by
future moments.”

I would suggest that the “academic” corrolary of Levinas’
“holiness” is “narrative.” This is that which makes sense out of
the distinct moments. The academic field of Jewish Studies, for
example, is an argument for a certain narrative arc. This is an arc
which connects the Bible to Rabbinic literature to medieval Jewish
philosophy, poetry and mysticism to contemporary Jewish expressions
in literature, philosophy, theology, art, etc. What the specific
points on the arc might be is of course open to debate. The debate,
however, takes place within the overall narrative understanding. In
the academy, however, there is also a recognition that the
narrative is contingent, that the textual history spanned by
the specific arc of Jewish Studies might also be accounted for
otherwise. This doesn’t make the explanatory force of the academic
arc any weaker or less meaningful personally, though perhaps less

In sum, as we push towards realizing a manner of
philosophizing which actually transcends the categories that have
stilted the discourse of the modernist academy, by way of textual
reasoning, there is a need to feel the pull of the “flesh and
blood” of the texts themselves. The texts as pretext will not
transform the dialogue in the way we wish it too.

It should be understood that throughout this response “Levinas”
refers to Meskin’s very clear elucidation of Levinas.

See the introduction to _Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic
Culture_, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), see

2. Charlotte Fonrobert, University of Judaism

Among the many issues that Meskin’s excellent comment on
Levinas’ critique of modern western culture raises I would like to
address two critical moments, as it were, that at this point are
central to my own work with talmudic texts. I understand these two
points to be intimately interwoven with each other. For the sake of
clarity, however, they need to be discussed separately.

A. Levinas’ Romanticization of `Tradition’?

In the introduction of his analysis Meskin assesses Levinas’
work as moving “beyond the standard dichotomies of modern western
culture,” primarily the dichotomy between “modern” and
“traditional,” but also such practices as as classifying Levinas’
writings as either his Jewish or philosophical writings. In this
assessment of Levinas work I agree with Meskin. However, I am
perhaps less confident than him, that Levinas is successful with
the attempt to transcend these “modern” dichotomies. The question
that I feel compelled to ask in this context is whether or not
Levinas’ critique, particularly in his essay “Model of the West,”
does not in fact overly romanticize “tradition” or the
“traditional.” If that is, indeed, at least one aspect of his
critique, the question would be whether he does or does not, in
fact, reinscribe and dichotomize even more the very categories that
he set out to transcend. Levinas’ critique of the historicism of
modernity, its devaloratizion of every and any moment in time,
which he juxtaposes with his concept of the “always” as discussed
by Meskin, may perhaps illustrate my point. Levinas formulates:

“And instead of…some sort of coexistence of moments of time
passing, do not this predilection and this signification of
the always call for a whole structuring of concrete human
reality and a whole orientation of social an intellectual life
– perhaps justice itself – which would render only such a
signification possible and significant?” [cited in Meskin,

Rhetorically this passage is dominated by the repetition of
“whole,” the dream of w/holiness, driven perhaps by the anxiety
about the fragmentation of modern life or modern “Western” society.
This insistence on the whole, however, seems to resonate with
critiques of modernization in Europe earlier in this century, which
were driven by anxiety over fragmentization and juxtaposed notions
of community with society. The political consequence of such a
critical stance could prove and did prove to be fatal. Let me
emphasize that I am not suggesting that Levinas takes a the same
stance that the radical left and the radical right in the 1920’s
did in Germany. However, the resonance needs to be taken into
consideration for our thinking about the viability of Levinas’
stance in the cultural-political context of America at the end of
the twentieth century. Meskin comments on this passage in Levinas
essay that “a whole society, carefully articulated and pursuing
justice would seem to be the pratical condition through which
permanence in time might become thinkable.” However, I am not sure
what Levinas, and with Levinas also Meskin here, might envision as
such a “whole society,” extrapolated from the readings of the
talmudic text. Might such a “careful articulation,” even if in the
pursuit of justice, in the end risk to metamorphize into total

The strength and critical force vis a vis the “western
culture” of talmudic and subsequently halakhic culture, textually
as well as socially, lies in the fact that it refuses to
universalize, that it refuses to transcend limitations set by
specificity and concreteness, a specific people or ethnos, specific
bodies, male and female. Within these limitations it creates
permanence, creates Levinas’ “always,” in order to sustain them in
the face of the universal. Here I am thinking also of Levinas’
statement, quoted in Meskin’s essay, that “the ‘eternity’ of Israel
is not a privilege but a human possibility.” To continue my point,
I would argue that the “eternity” of Israel is not a human
possibility, but a Jewish possibility. By the same token it is not
a privilege either. The critical force would lie here in
maintaining that as a Jewish possibility only it restricts the
universalizing moment of Western ontology.

B. The Gender-Plot

Towards the end of his essay Meskin comments on Levinas’
concept of blessing and the life of (study of) Torah as the
ultimate model of continuity. In this context he writes:

“A life of Torah represents a kind of ultimate home, the place
in which one resides and into which one may bring the outside
world. The world, and Greek wisdom, find their highest
realization in the open life of the student of Torah; he or
she becomes a container, a home, a self with such secure
boundaries as to be able to welcome all else within. All
becomes `continuous’ with the Torah that blesses it.”

The metaphors chosen here have an important intertext elsewhere in
Levinas’ work, both in his essay on “Judaism and the Feminine” [in
Difficult Freedom] and in his talmudic reading “And God Created
Woman” [in Nine Talmudic Readings]. In the latter, Levinas comments
– approvingly – on the eshet hayil of Proverbs: “she makes possible
the life of men; she is the home of men. But the husband has a life
outside the home: He sits on the Council of the city; he has a
piblic life; he is at the service of the universal; de does not
limit himself to interiority, to intimacy, to the home, although
without them he could do nothing” [NTR, p.169]. In the former text
he elaborates: “`The house is woman’, the Talmud tells us [based on
mYom 1:1]. Beyond the psychological and sociological obviousness of
such an affirmation, the rabbinic tradition experiences this
affirmation as a primordial truth” [DF,p.29-30]. The in/adequacy of
this assessment of the “rabbinic tradition” cannot be discussed
here. Nonetheless, what needs to be pointed out in our context is
that throughout his work Levinas associates “woman” or “the
feminine” with the house, with categories of space, with the home.
I can only refer to work of the feminist theorist Luce Irigaray who
has analyzed and criticized the place of this association in the
history of western culture.

I would like to suggest that what this points to is that given
this metaphorical context in Levinas work there is perhaps a deeper
issue here that cannot be glossed over by using inclusive language,
as Meskin does for good reasons in the paragraph cited above. If
the feminine is the home, and if a life of Torah creates a space of
home, then the question needs to be asked, whether, in fact, the
student of Torah in Levinas’ ultimate model of continuity
structurally has to be masculine. A similar issue has been raised
by Arie Elon and by Daniel Boyarin in their respective study of the
role of Torah study in rabbinic literature, and its gendering as
female. Given this gender-plot the place of women-students of Torah
is quite complex, both in rabbinic culture, but certainly in
Levinas work as well. In terms of Levinas’ work, it seems that the
gendered sub-plot that thinks with does not preclude the
possibility of women students of Torah. Nonetheless, in order to
work constructively with Levinas’ critique of western culture
through his revalorization of “tradition” the issue of gender needs
to be moved into the foreground, so as not to turn into

3. Robert Gibbs, University of Toronto

Jacob’s essay is challenging, insightful and points to a key
issue for our conversation: the relation of historical/scientific
study and that of ‘committed’ readings. As a statement of L’s basic
approach to the talmud it is not only accurate but also
illuminating. There is little I would quibble with–instead I want
to step to the side and back a bit and raise three related issues
that point more to what I am trying to do with L on the more
general question: Why read?

The first point, and the overarching one, is that I see
reading as fundamentally an activity of exposure, exposure to a
challenge, to an instruction (a torah), and to a surprise. I
propose we call it not a hermeneutics of suspicion or of piety, but
rather one of surprise. The basic thought is that we read not
merely to acquire further information, but we read in order to
learn something new, new in a way we cannot predict. To let a text
surprise us is to be humble enough to know that we might change our
minds. The challenge to historicist readings from L’s is whether
the text can surprise the historian, or like the famous arguments
over spurious texts in Plato, whether we already know what the text
(in its established historical context) could possibly say. Were a
text to write out of turn about an idea that ‘comes later’ in
history, then we can argue it must be a later emmendation, etc. But
the text instructs us precisely through its surprises. It might
take a pro-Greek position when we expect condemnation, or it might
take a position that opposes philosophy when we hope for tolerance.
Jacob and L both write about the creativity in the rabbinic
tradition. That creativity is continually surprising us, its
current readers. But the traditional readers also found the earlier
texts surprising. The tradition can school us in reading for

Second, I want to briefly address the textuality of a
surprise, using the language of knots. The Biblical and rabbinic
texts are knotty–almost in a literalization of the metaphor. The
textile, the fabric of these texts, is made up of scraps and ripped
pieces basted together, re-knit into a text that does not flow
smoothly. This knottiness is, I would suggest, the reluctance to
become rhetorical that L and Jacob both discuss. A historian reads
the knots to analyse the text, to untie it and take it apart.
A dogmatist, perhaps, pretends that there are no knots there. But
in the rabbinic tradition of readings, much time is lavished on the
knots. What Levinas called rhetoric or Greek makes sense of the
knot and dissolves the knotiness of it. A problem has a solution.
It maybe one of Derrida’s greatest achievements to show us how to
read the philosophical tradition as one also made of knotty texts.
Thus the ‘absence of rhetoric’ in the talmud is merely the
attention to knots in the Biblical and mishnaic texts–a
counter-rhetoric of sorts. And from this attention, the
ongoing interpretative creativity finds its greatest resource. New
readings spring through the cracks. Paving them over, ironing out
the text, much as untying the knots and taking it all apart, will
not allow us to be surprised, to be instructed anew.

Finally, third, the question of continuity, or even
connection, seems to require exactly the alternation of day and
night, the break from reader back to text, and perhaps further back
to author. I am not trying to render the old texts obsolete in
their disconnection from us–but the whole knottiness of the texts,
the anachronisms, the delight in rabbinic interpretation of the
most obscure and oldest parts of the Bible, all display how the
discontinuities generate ever more surprise for us. Jacob can call
the the crowns and their life a non-temporal continuity. The
contintuity seems to allow the texts that are not our historical
contemporaries to address us–and it culminates in Jacob’s argument
with that infinition of responsibility that is the hallmark of
Levinas’ thought. But while I don’t want to diminish that
responsibility, I am not sure how it produces this other
contintuity. His own title, connection, seems to be more promising,
as both a technical talmudic term, and also as a knot: for the
connection requires a disparity, even a discontinuity. The
connection is contentious, the upsurge of meaning follows the fault
lines of the text. The power to instruct us lies in the creativity
that is born from what L calls the discontinuity of the
generations: dor l’dor.

4. Steve Kepnes, Colgate University

“Since what is holy we must raise (in honor) but not bring
down. And within (the sanctuary) was a table of gold whereon the
Shewbread lay continually.”

What is permanently holy, “eternal,” here is the “within”
ofthe santuary, the “holy of holies” and the gold tables. The
breadis the symbol of impermanence, of something that begins to
gostale and spoil almost immediately after it is baked. The bread
is the result of human action–growing, reaping, threshing, mixing,
baking. Bread also allows us to act. It sustains us when we eat
it, it keeps us alive. It represents us: our labor, our becoming,
our living. It simultaneously represents our permanence and
impermanence, our living and dying. By placing plain bread on holy
tables in holy places we elevate it and by eating elevated bread
holy people, priests, retain their holiness. This illustrates the
primary purpose of all Jewish liturgy and all of halakhah. To
elevate the mundane and impermanent to the holy and give it some
permanence and thus make Jews a mamlekhet kohanim v’goy kadosh, a
holy nation and kingdom of priests.

This provides a model for what we as postmodern Jewish
thinkers are trying to do in our thinking and studying. We attempt
to bring our Western philosophy into contact with Torah to
criticize it, judge it, elevate, it bless it, and then “eat it” so
that it is a part Torah. This is a process which George Lindbeck
has called “absorbing the world.” I think it is what Hirsch was
talking out in his version of Torah im derekh eretz. It can be seen
throughout Jewish history beginning with the Israelite absorption
of Ancient Near Eastern cultural ideas, laws, and values, through
the rabbinic absorption of Greek and Roman notions through the
Medieval absorption of Arabic philosophy up to the modern period.
And then we see the attempt to go at this process from reverse. To
take modern Western philosophy and culture as the base and to try
to infuse it with Jewish notions. And it is that method that we are
calling a failure, a failure in rendering us a holy people. This is
the crucial element that we have lost in modern Judaisms: the sense
of kedusha.

What Meskin using Levinas offers us is the model of talmud
torah as the the process of rendering Western thought, something
not holy in the Jewish sense, holy. So that the elevation, the
crown of all knowing becomes Torah or kedusha. And then we have to
ask how and why? How does Torah crown all knowing with kedusha? And
why is kedushah to be considered the crown of all knowing? And
Meskin’s most beautiful point here is that Torah or kedusha is the
elevation or crown or height of all knowing not because it is
necessarily higher in the sense of more true but because it
embodies methods of study and thinking that reveals the limits of
knowing. It is the crown because it brings the knower down low
enough so that knowledge flows over her. It agitates knowledge,
stirs it up and spins it forward and back so that it is increased
to the point of holy knowledge. Holy knowing is the knowledge of
the infinite nature of knowing which first fills and then overfills
the knower. But this elevation is only won at the price of
studying continually, i.e. day and night and also dusk and dawn.
Day and night, torah, which can then absorb the dusk and dawn of
Greek wisdom and allow the humbled student to glimpse the infinite
in and beyond the finiteness of our daily bread.

5. Liz Shanks, Yale University: “Cracking Open the Fissures:
Testing the Limits of Continuity”

One thing that strikes me in Levinas’ reading of the sugya (BT
Men. 99b-100a), is that his overriding theme — notions of
continuity or permanence — prevails upon symbols that actually
seem to me somewhat diverse. He *superimposes* continuity among
symbols (the permanence of the Shewbread before God and the
permanence of Torah in our mouths) that in fact are not identical.
He slides over subtle differences, but leaves them percolating in
my subconsciousnesses. The total effect for me is of
e-p-h-e-m-e-r-a-l, rather than SOLID, continuity. I only vaguely
sense the connections he points me to, instead of firmly grasping
them in the fore of my rational consciousness. While this may be
the effect Levinas wants to achieve — for it mirrors the elusive
way in which tradition renews itself, garbing itself in the relics
of the past, even while pouring new wine into the vessels — I want
to return to the tentative semblances that link the different
symbols. Looking at them more carefully, I may not only see the
gaps between them, but also better understand the notion
of permanence expressed by each.

The sugya explores notions of permanence by looking to the
very spots where continuity is threatened. In typical rabbinic
fashion, a concept (in this case “tamid” or permanence) is defined
by testing the limits of what the concept can bear. How far can
one push the notion of “tamid”, how many holes can one punch in it
–and yet still have it be “tamid.” Depending on whether one
considers the permanence of the Shewbread before God or the
permanence of Torah in our mouths, the challenge comes from a
different place.

When the Shewbread is laid before God, continuity is — for
the most part — achieved by passivity. Most of the week, the
bread is simply before God. No problem. As someone once said,
95% of life is just showing up. In this case, continuity is
relatively easy to achieve, because 95% of permanence is in the
passive presence before God. The only threat to permanence is
deterioration. If the bread continues in its passive mode before
God, it will become stale. Ironically, in order to preserve the
sense of continuity, we must affect a change. The rules that
Levinas so carefully reiterates from the mishnah, ensure that
within the changes, permanence will nonetheless be achieved.
(Raising up the old bread before it is removed, by placing it on
the gold table comes to mind in particular. Continuity requires
that we revere the earlier heritage.)

In the gemara, with R. Yose’s baraita, the focus changes.
(“Even if they took the old away in the morning, and put the new
out in the evening, they have still fulfilled the command, ‘Before
me ALWAYS.’ The main thing, is that the table should not remain all
night with nothing on it.”) How far can we push the window of the
gap open? How much innovation can we allow, before the break is
too big. R. Yose sets the limit on nightfall. Whether nightfall
diffuses the social connections that make continuity possible (as
Levinas suggests), or whether it is simply the quinessential
liminal space, or whether it is the true marker of the passage of
time is unimportant. For any of these reasons, the danger of
nighttime is clearly demarcated. A reasonable limit is set.

As the gemara moves on to discuss permanence in Torah study,
our achievement of continuity becomes entirely dependent on active
engagement. Unlike with the permanence of the Shewbread before
God, there is no passive way for the command to be fulfilled.
Torah study is rigorous and demanding. Only when we do in fact
study Torah are we fulfilling the command. “Permanence” is, at
best, sporadic. The rigorous nature of Torah study means that
permanence must be understood in a symbolic sense. In this vein,
R. Ammi offers his words: “Even if someone only studies a chapter
in the morning and a chapter in the evening, he has fulfilled the
command: ‘The words of this Torah shall never depart from your
mouth.'” The symbolic action suffices to establish permanence.

Once we move into the symbolic sphere, it is much more
difficult to articulate the limits, or even to locate them. Even
though R. Ammi bases his opinion on R. Yose discussed above, the
gap between them is huge. For R. Yose, the permanence of the
Shewbread before God is not at all symbolic, but quite physical.
The space of the intervening day is allowed, because a certain
amount of space, a break between the old and the new does not
threaten their links. If anything, perhaps the break is
restorative. For R. Ammi, the space between moments of Torah is
fundamental. For him, the breaks do not renew, but bear down upon
him, threatening to topple the house of cards. After all, the
links of continuity and the feeling of permanence are but a

R. Johanan deepens the metaphoric character of ‘permanent
study,’ by even further lessening the requirements. (“One can even
fulfill the command by saying just the morning and evening Shema —
but don’t say this in front of an ‘am ha-aretz.”) In the
metaphoric realm, limits are so fuzzy. We can scale back the
symbol, and yet it still signifies. Is there a point, however,
when metaphoric permanence becomes so imperceptible that it can no
longer stand in for “real” continuity and permanence? Apparently
not, acording to R. Johanan. Even so, Yohanan dares not flout the
metaphoric nature of permanent Torah study, since this might
encourage the weak-hearted to refrain from even their few symbolic

When we deal in the metaphorical aspect of permanence, the
only clear-cut limit is to be engaged in a contrary pursuit.
While it seems the permanence of Torah study can bear much
passivity, it *cannot* bear its opposite. (“Ben Dammah asked: May
such a one as I, having studied the entire Torah, pursue the study
of Greek wisdom? R.Ishmael answered, quoting the verse — ‘May the
words of this Torah never leave your mouth’ — If you can find a
time that is neither night nor day, then you may study Greek
wisdom.”) While the metaphorical permanence of Torah resists
erosion in the face of our laziness, it has no tolerance for its
antithesis. To the extent that we have energy, we must put it into
Torah study. Thus the metaphoric permanence of Torah in our mouths
is established and tested by different conditions than those
employed to confirm the physical permanence of the Shewbread befor

Though Levinas slides effortlessly between the permanence of
Torah study and the permanence of the Shewbread before God, I sense
fissures. Even so, Jacob does an excellent job in the last page of
his piece of showing that the final image of Torah’s permanence is
not nearly as metaphoric as I make it out to be. He shows Levinas
promoting a different image of permanence: a blessing bestowed by
God. Still it is worthwhile to explore the discontinuities between
Torah and the Shewbread because they irritate when they are
ignored. Stepping into the liminal spaces, we can greater
appreciate the mastery of Levinas (and Jacob, in drawing it out),
who forges profound links even where the root conditions present a

6. Rebecca Stern, American Pardes Foundation

My central question in response to Meskin’s paper is the
following: How do the modes of justice which Levinas describes
relate to each other? To explore this issue, I want to take a
closer look at the theme of private vs. public space, as found in
Meskin/Levinas’ various descriptions of permanence (and
impermanence). Meskin ties the idea of permanence to connection and
continuity. What sort of connections are being referred
to–closeness to the text; connection to those whom you know
face-to-face; or a connectedness also, even especially, to those
whose faces are most obscured from one’s vision? By focusing on the
motif of public and private space I want to explore the links made
in Meskin’s paper between permanence and justice. In other words, to
what end might this concept of permanence lead? Is it appropriate
to ask questions of outcome of a thinker as mulitfaceted and fluid
as Levinas? Is it useful to bring social science to bear on a
decidedly literary approach to morality? Meskin points out Levinas’
insistence that religious text can live outside the well-lit,
carefully patrolled precincts of individual disciplines. Levinas’
writing itself seems to defy separations; here, between the academy
and the society, by his placing justice in a central place in his
thought. For this reason, I feel the imposition of the potentially
political concepts of the private and the public can be helpful in
exploring Levinas’ abstract and beautifully described concept of
permanence, that state of time held by moments of holiness, by
moments which have a meaning or are so close to the goal–and
where not one such moment is lost, or to be lost.

Meskin provides background for his discussion of permanence
vs. history by giving us examples of Levinas’ critique of modern
western culture. Meskin cites Levinas’ use of the cafe as a prime
example. The example of the cafe is a particularly appropriate
forerunner to the discussion of permanence. Levinas suggests that
the essential quality of the cafe is its openness and levity. Every
aspect of the cafe culture is chosen, not imposed, and thus open to
change. As Levinas writes, one comes to the cafe without needs
(lack of hunger, lack of thirst), but only with light desires.
Further, the cafe distracts us from the needs of others, leading
Levinas to call it a place of forgetfulness. The impermanence of
the cafe seems to be linked to the forgetfulness of the other which
leads to injustice.

It seems to me that Levinas’ use of the cafe heightens
awareness that the categories of public and private have lost their
place, thus making injustice the norm of society. The cafe is by
definition a public space–one which is visited because of its
social, out-of-the-house feeling–yet it is privatized. Private
space has been transported into the public, and with it a
lack of obligation or connectedness to others. Yet private space
has also been violated by this mixing of categories: Levinas writes
that one visits a cafe [a]ll because one does not want to stay in
ones room. You know that all evils occur because one does not want
to stay in ones room. The calm and stasis of the private
sphere–where perhaps contemplation would in fact lead to
connection–has been lost in the cafe setting. The restlessness
which Levinas suggests is driving us from private spaces leads to
a privatizing of places of gathering. Levinas reverses our usual
sense of public and private spheres by positing the cafe as the
ultimate example of privacy in public, while the room is positioned
as a place of concern and awareness even within the space of the
home. How might these observations inform a look at Levinas’
concept of permanence?

Levinas himself brings the abstract idea of permanence
attained through holiness into the practicality of action. He
writes that perhaps justice itself is the necessary precondition
for rendering the idea of always significant. I want to focus on
what is meant by justice here, and how the public and the private
spheres come into play. Levinas uses a text concerning Lechem
Ha-Panim (showbread), which is to be always before the Lord, to
fashion his concept of permanence. He makes use of the literal
translation of lechem ha-panim, the bread of faces. The loaves are
placed in facing columns, gazing at each other. Here, Meskin
writes, Levinas finds his first understanding of the nature of this
continuity or permanence: it takes place only within the small
society of interpersonal relations, where one is present to another
face-to-face, and the two work in solidarity, unlike the
impersonality of society at large. In this instance, justice is
found within community and relationship, seemingly a private sense
of justice motivated by personal connection. However, Levinas seems
to work in a different frame when he explores a qualification of R.
Jose that the showbread is always before the Lord even when it is
left empty for a time, as long as the table is not empty overnight.
Levinas reads this statement as a fear of evening as a time when
all return to their own homes–the private space–and community is
threatened. Is the private sphere the saving grace of justice or
the ultimate threat to it? Can a justice which depends upon
personal connection last from the day to the evening, ie be a
universal justice?

A third model of justice is presented in the idea that Torah
as the ultimate home is a type of permanence. Meskin presents this
idea in the frame of blessing as continuity. Torah then becomes
that which blesses all that comes from outside, it crowns what is
not Torah, elevating it, thus leading to total inclusion within a
frame of holiness. Does Levinas mean to relate the state of
continuity attained through the blessing of Torah to the state of
permanence attained in a just society? The permanence here seems to
be within the individual or perhaps the unified community, but not
within the public, governed space.

What can we make of these three models? To summarize my
thinking: 1) In the cafe section, Levinas seems to suggest that our
private enjoyment and light relations lead us to forget about all
those outside of our view–thus equating injustice with privacy (
and perhaps with liberal individualism?). 2) In the view of the
small society–the lechem ha-panim when each one gazes at the
other–the view of justice seems to be kind conduct towards those
whom you know and interact with. 3) The mention of blessing seems
an ultimately private, perhaps philosophical, morality: all is
included and thus all is just. How is it that the three interact?
Does one form of continuity lead to the others? How does being a
mensch in personal conduct; or being spiritually alive and
grounded; connect to the urgency of remembering the face of the

7. Michael Zank, Boston University (for Textual Reasoning, The
Journal of the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network (All rights
reserved by the author))

Jacob Meskin manages to focus our attention on a few of those
fundamental issues that have concerned us for a long time but which
we occasionally lose sight of. He does so in, for the most part,
straightforward expositions of the ideas of Emanuel Levinas
developed mainly but not exclusively in one of his talmudic essays
called “Model of the West.”

The concern of Levinas/Meskin is with historicism, that bete
noir which, since Rosenzweig and his ilk, has been a major issue in
Continental philosophy, namely in its attempt to forge alternatives
to the modern or idealist mode of philosophizing. Levinas’
contribution in this debate is that of an alternative model of
thought that he associates with the talmudic paradigm in Jewish

The alternative is one between relations, namely a) the
paradoxical relation between historical objectivity and the alleged
meaning and telos of history that plagues the “Western model” of
historicism, and b) the relation between continuity, change, and
meaning that is achieved in talmudic culture. The first relation is
associated with Hegelian dialectics that is supposed to end in
nihilism due to the fact that here the fulfillment of history is
either sought in a falsely realistic or in a falsely utopian
messianism. The second, talmudic, type of history is one wherein
the past moments and values are always elevated rather than
overcome, and continuity and meaning is generated and experienced
in the perpetuity and socio-ethical concreteness of communal study
and liturgy.

This juxtaposition is meant as a critique of the Western
model, a model associated with “humanism,” here identified with
“Greek wisdom, a “humanism” that is criticized as rhetorical rather
than sincere. This judgment of “humanism” is achieved by
contrasting it with an exhilaratingly welcoming vision of
traditional Torah study. This contrast follows the tradition of
apologetics where the worst of the enemy is compared to the best of
one’s own and, thus, reveals Levinas’ stance as rhetorical. It
seems to me that if, when, and where Torah study “succeeds”
according to Levinas’ criteria, i.e., where it provides a sense of
permanence, continuity, and elevation, it cannot possibly
contradict the values of humanism but rather fulfills them in an
eminently humanistic way.

What, then, is wrong with the picture drawn by Levinas/Meskin
of contrasting relations between historicism and meaning on the one
hand, and tradition and meaning on the other? For one, there are
many things quite alright with it. In the first part, Meskin
achieves a beautiful characterization of the fact that “successful”
study of Torah can be distinguished from, say, Dilthey’s
methological ideal for the humanities that, in the wake of
Schleiermacher’s exegesis of Plato, he determined as
“understanding.” Midrash (and I would insist on “Midrash” rather
than on the much more oblique reference to “Talmud,” despite its
implied reference to open-endedness) “succeeds” (pardon my
returning to this un-Levinasian word so repeatedly) where the
methodology of Dilthey cannot. The ideal of a method is to succeed
completely (historicistically speaking), whereas Midrash succeeds
where it makes any sense. It does not aim at a complete
reconciliation between text and comprehension but at revealing ever
new “faces” of the Torah without taking away from the sameness of
the Torah.

The problem is where these two modes of reading are cast
against each other, as I understand Levinas as doing, despite all
assertions to the contrary. The contrast is, imho, one between
history (indeed an inferior, if necessary, pursuit) and the
operations of a “cultural memory” (Jan Assman, *Das kulturelle
Gedachtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identitat* Beck,
1992). Casting these as opposites seems to confuse one discipline
of scholarship with another, a category error. Yet, as Meskin
asserts, the opposition is one that aims at the obliteration of
certain customary boundaries between disciplines. And here, indeed,
may be the deeper concern of the discussion.

The “text” in question, the “text” that needs to be rescued
from the throngs of historians and philologians, is the text of the
Bible, and the Talmud (Midrash) is considered its savior and ours.
Because without a meaningful and traditio-continuous access to the
Bible, i.e. to the Tanakh or the Torah, Judaism is lost. And what
seems to stand in the way of a continuous reading of the text in
the light of tradition is the reductionist historical methodology
of Old Testament scholarship.

The problem, a crucial concern for many of us, is certainly
not new. And it seems to me that the proposed solution may not be
original either. And even if it were a persuasive solution in
pragmatic and psychological terms, i.e., in terms of rhetoric, it
seems to be based on an optical illusion and on an understanding of
the intellectual history of the Jewish position vis-a-vis modern
scholarship on the Bible that is, at least, questionable.

In this view, it seems as if, despite Spinoza and Hegel,
Judaism was never severed from its continuous history of study and
prayer or from midrashic exegesis. Rather, the ancient scribal
tradition of elevating tradition through innovation has been
flourishing throughout and despite those thresholds in intellectual
history that demarkate the emancipation of Europe from
ecclesiastical domination. Spinoza’s critique of the Old Testament
is then ultimately a citique not of the rabbinic Torah ( too bad
for Spinoza and his contemporaries that they were not aware of that
fact!) but of the Christian reading into their sacred scriptures of
a divine sanction for their wielding of secular power. Spinoza
unwittingly inaugurated Old Testament scholarship as a discipline
while aiming at the demolition of certain parts of the Christian
“cultural memory” and its strategies of self-preservation.

Liberally minded Europeans felt the need to fight against the
very text that, in Judaism, had long been open to careful
philological analysis, an analysis that was never seen as
irreconcilable with the more creative parts of appropriating the
text as relevant for the continuity of the Jewish “cultural
memory.” As the flaws of Old Testament scholarship and the
Protestant fig-leaf discipline of Old Testament Theology became
apparent, Midrash is discovered even by Christians and seized upon
as a way out of exegetical nihilism and the historicist
fragmentation of meanings.

What is wrong with this myth of a Jewish continuity despite
the rise and fall of Protestant Old Testament scholarship is that,
in the wake of the same European Enlightenment, the post-modern
exegete has long replaced care for the contemplation of G-d in the
letters of the Torah and prayer for the speedy redemption of Israel
by care for the text as a source of communal identity and meaning.
The two are not the same, even though they may rank as mere stages
in the development of a continuous “cultural memory” out of the
sources of Judaism, so to say. If Jacob Meskin does not agree with
me, all the better. Yet, in that case, I would ask him to explain
why he emphasizes the guidance of “tradition” over the guidance by
“religion” or “dogma” or “G-d.”

A few more minor points that are not unrelated. The experience
of continuity or permanence, described in sociological terms of
concreteness taken from the talmudic texts about the “Shewbread”
and reminiscent of Rosenzweig’s reconstruction of time in
sociological and liturgical terms, can easily be distinguished from
the indifference to the “thicknesses” of time and the constitutive
problems of concreteness that characterize poorly conceived
historicist understandings of time and reality. But is this
experience of continuity a “religious” experience? Couldn’t it also
be a combination of socio-moral and esthetic aspects of experience,
wherein socio-moral stands for the “outside” of the experience, and
“esthetic” for the way in which the “inside” of this experience is
structured? And is this type of system of symbolic communications
really unique to Judaism? Further, are we not also barking up the
wrong tree when we cast Hegel as the father of a historicism
without spirit, especially when, on the other hand, the Levinasian
term “elevation” is nothing but an elevation of Hegel’s

In short, while I share Jacob Meskin’s concern with finding a
way out of what seems a somewhat unfortunate and crippling
opposition between “historical and dogmatic method in theology”
(Ernst Troeltsch), I have as yet to be convinced that Levinas’
talmudic readings are able to break the deadlock between historical
scholarship on the Bible and the need to reconcile it with “our
cultural memory.”


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