Response to Dr. Shai Secunda, Part II: Who Is the ‘God of the Text’?

[Note: This was originally meant to be the third part of the response. However, I decided to bump it up in light of the second quote. Enjoy. AIWAC]

“Rashi? Rashi was an idiot!” – Anonymous*

“Like my Rabbeim, I tremble before Rashi. But I shudder at the thought of those that wish to deconstruct him.” – Rabbi Shaul Gold, Cross Currents

The two quotes presented above represent the two extremes of attitudes towards the study of sacred texts. The first is easily recognizable to modern ears – utter irreverence and even contempt towards anything ancient or ‘primitive’. Even in its more moderate manifestations, the modern attitude initially precludes reverence or even respect for an object of study.

It is true that academic studies today do not contain the kind of dismissive attitudes of, say, the 19th century.** Articles and books show what appears to be proper respect for religion even when they deconstruct and analyze the factual claims that it makes. Ostensibly, academia is more “religion-friendly” nowadays – at least on the surface.

However, this fact does not overcome a much more serious and fundamental problem, one which has potential to undermine any attitude of holiness or transcendence to text. To wit, when a researcher or a critical student approaches a text, he is its God and no other.

Like הקב”ה himself, the researcher judges his personae לשבט ולחסד, decides what text is the more correct and serves as judge, jury and executioner for an entire period and collective work. Even if he decides not to do so, it is his decision to spare the text, so his position of omnipotence and power is in no way diminished.

Of course, it cannot be otherwise. If a researcher or critical student abandons his position as judge, then he betrays his fidelity to the cause. He ceases to be a researcher and becomes something else. Nevertheless, few wield power without becoming drunk with it, and in an age when all heroes – ancient, medieval and modern – are torn down with glee, it is hard to believe that the critical reader will use that power responsibly.

It is this attitude of irreverence and general disdain of sacred Jewish texts and commentators which so shocked Rabbi Shaul Gold. To counter it, he proposes the opposite extreme, one of humility bordering on self-negation. Rabbi Gold would make the text the God and the reader its humble and obedient servant. I assume that for Rabbi Gold, to counter the irreverence of academics and critical thinkers alike, only going to the other extreme will do. Half-measures or balance will not work.

Yet here I must side with Dr. Secunda – such an approach is not only wrong factually, it is counterproductive. Almost none of the great authorities of the Jewish past held to either extreme. Anyone who reads their works will see this and, having been given no real alternative, will likely reject the Rabbi Gold approach for the irreverent one.

Striking a balance between critical faculties and proper respect, reverence and humility towards our forbearers is no doubt a daunting task. But in my opinion, it has the potential to create a much healthier sort of Jew than the fundamentalist yeshivisher or the Orthopractic scholar. It has the potential of creating a world in which we realize that Talmud Torah is a partnership between the ‘God inside and behind the text’ and Man who wishes to uncover His Will with the critical gifts that He gave him.

כן יהי רצון

* This quote is based on hearsay about a conversation from years ago.

** This doesn’t mean that scholars have stopped to view the ancient world through 21st-century glasses. The feminist, racial and class critiques are no less a part of the 19th century project to cut texts down to size, just in a different way.

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to Response to Dr. Shai Secunda, Part II: Who Is the ‘God of the Text’?

  1. SSecunda says:

    Thanks Avi for hosting this discussion and for your thoughts.
    I would only add (and re-emphasize) a couple of points, since we seem to agree on most basic issues.
    I already mentioned in the interview that there is a strain even within traditionalist camps that grants something close to total autonomy to people in the act of learning. There is a saying in a number of yeshivot of needing to be a “shtikle apikorus” in order to be a true talmid hakham. That is, since Talmud study is ultimately an intellectual exercise, one should not suspend the intellect in the process. Judaism traditionally leaves plenty of other spaces for the suspension of the intellect. (2) There’s something funny in Rabbi Gold’s formulation. He merely transposes the humility from engaging the talmudic text itself with fealty to Rashi instead. But hermeneuetical problems of a second order exist there too! Does one then tremble at the aharonim’s interpretation of Rashi? And the Roshei Yeshivot’s interpretation of those aharonim (etc. etc.)? I tried to reverse things by depicting the academic’s focus on the talmudic text itself as actually an act of humility towards that text – listening closely to it instead of getting distracted by later interpretations.

    And you are correct that for the most part, modern academics are normally quite respectful of Rashi et al. When I was still a yeshiva bochur, I snuck away for part of the summer and went to Cambridge, MA to learn. While there I attended a lecture by a Hebrew U professor. He was aghast when people began proposing various weak interpretive hypotheses instead of referring to Rashi’s explanation. “Gemara Rashi, rabotai, Gemara Rash!” – he yelled at us.

  2. fred says:

    for all but the most post-modern, the text is a god, in the sense that you owe fealty to what it says.
    at the same time, you are free to interpret the text as you will, if it is in line with the sources — in that sense, the reader is the god.

    and, in line with respect for rashi, what gold is saying [in part] is that if you understood the analytical powers of my rebbe, this acharon, etc, you would think twice and more before taking them on. this is no so radical, despite his formulation.

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