Monday, January 13, 2014

The Trouble with Tanakh

The study of Tanakh is something that many people find intimidating.  I realized pretty early on in my studies that studying Tanakh was going to be crucial.  However, it took me a long time to actually begin that study and an even longer time to make any real headway or meaningful progress in that venture.
I believe I had the mistaken idea that I could master Tanakh.  That Tanakh was somehow an object that I could gain mastery over.  This led me to countless hours in preparation for reading: mapping out the structure of a text, looking for the thematic units, reading introductions to different books, searching for and buying texts to aid me in my study.  All this before actually reading.  Not until I had to actually teach a book of Tanakh did I really start to understand Tanakh—not in the sense of mastery, but in the sense that the act of reading became meaningful (cognitively and emotionally).  
This (and other things) have led me to a realization about learning.  Learning is not an activity that can be done alone.  In other words, texts fail to reveal their meaning to the reader who is isolated.  Only those readings that have been done in preparation for teaching, or in the process of teaching have been meaningful for me. Yes, I have read beautiful essays which offered beautiful readings/interpretations of texts in Tanakh which felt deeply profound and meaningful.  However, I suspect myself of only finding these essays meaningful because they offered me a new way to speak (i.e., to encounter another human being) about those texts.
So, I got over (at least some of) my fear of learning Tanakh by realizing that reading is an activity better done (or, perhaps only possible to be done) with, or for the sake of, communication/communion with another.
The question is not: what does this text mean?  But rather: what does this text let me say to you?  Or: what conversation does this text enable us to have?
This is the rather radical suggestion that we should not be treating the text as an object—i.e. there are no objective meanings.  Only, the meaningfulness produced in a subject in communion.  Or, simpler, the meaning of a text is inter-subjective.  The object of the text is the stage upon which communication can take place.
Maybe a simpler way of saying this is that when a text "speaks" to me it does so in so far as it enables me to speak.
My approach to interpretation has been strongly informed by Gadamer.  Jon A. Levisohn gives a very nice, succinct description of how Gadamer understands interpretation:
To interpret a text is to be in dialogue with a tradition; and by virtue of that dialogue, the tradition is not something we merely accept or reject but something to which we belong. (Levisohn, Jon A. (2001) 'Openness and Commitment: Hans-Georg Gadamer and the Teaching of Jewish Texts', Journal of Jewish Education, 67:1, 20 – 35)
I think this description of interpretation helps us understand the difficulty many people find when they try and study Tanakh.  We are cut off from a tradition of reading Tanakhit is not something to which we belong.  There is almost no societal form in which we read Tanakh beyond the weekly haftorot.  In contrast, Parashat HaShavua, is much less intimidating and much more accessible—the tradition is kept vibrant by the fact that it is institutionalized. 

The good news is that over the past fifty years or so there has been a renaissance in the study of Tanakh.  Yeshivat Har Etzion, as far as I know, seems to be the spiritual and intellectual center of this movement. Many articles from this school can be found on their website:


Avrohom said...

Hi Yehuda,

I would say this is very similar to your experience that you wrote about on your Baseball cards post (under Mishlei). Until you experience "Tanach", until you make the text talk to you, a part of your life, relevant to the human condition, it will be as meaningless as baseball cards to someone who has never played a game of baseball.

Yehuda said...

That's a really cool connection. I didn't think of it, but now that you mention it I really like it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Nice thought Yehuda. Making the thoughts of the greats our own is a fascinating business. As the Nazir starts his work

אזנים כרית לי

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

It is interesting to note that Rav Yoel Bin Nun derives his inspiration for Tanakh from Rav Kuuk. Rav Kuuk is Rabbam shel Kol Rabbanei Eretz Yisrael and the source of revival of Torat Eretz Yisrael itself.

The aspect of this inspiration which led to the revived interest, to my mind, is best captured in the famous poem: El Hamaayan.

אל מעין הנבואה הננו נקראים, צחי צמא אנחנו, אבל מעין גנים, מקור מים חיים, לפנינו הוא [...] מרוחו של משיח זורמים ונושבים רוחות, והנם באים עדינו. הננו מתקוממים, מתנערים, ומבקשים חיים חדשים, חידוש ימים כקדם

Yehuda said...

Where does Rav Yoel Bin Nun talk about that?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...



נולד בשנת 1946 בחיפה לד"ר יחיאל וד"ר שושנה בן נון, מחנכים וחוקרים בתחומי היהדות והלשון העברית. אחיו, הרב אלחנן בן נון, מכהן כרב היישוב שילה וכראש ישיבת בית אורות.
בצעירותו למד הרב בן נון בישיבת מרכז הרב והוא מתלמידיו של הרב צבי יהודה קוק. היה ממשחררי העיר העתיקה בירושלים במלחמת ששת הימים בחטיבת המילואים 55 של הצנחנים.
ב-1968 פנה עם חנן פורת לרב יהודה עמיטל ויחד הקימו את ישיבת הר עציון באלון שבות. כבר אז, בגיל 23, לימד בישיבה. במקביל, הדריך באותן שנים בבית ספר שדה כפר עציון ובעפרה ולימד בקורסי ההכשרה למדריכי החברה להגנת הטבע. בעקבות הרב צבי יהודה, הדגישו הוא וחנן פורת את החשיבות בלימוד התנ"ך בישיבות. הוראתו ופעילותו בישיבה, במכללת הרצוג ועוד תרמה למהפכת התנ"ך בציבור הדתי-לאומי.