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:

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Patches of Dignity

I was listening to NPR the other day and Robert Caro was discussing the 4th volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.  I was deeply moved by a story he told to illustrate Lyndon Johnson’s hatred of poverty (this week marked the 50th anniversary of his War on Poverty).

This is the passage from the book relating this episode:
“Hate” is, in fact, a word that occurs frequently in descriptions of Lyndon Johnson’s feelings about poverty.  He “hated poverty and illiteracy,” Dr, Hurst would say.  “He hated it when a person who wanted to work could not get a job.”  Accompanying Johnson on a vice presidential trip to Iran, Hurst had seen his reaction when someone in the party said that a group of Iranian children they passed had “rags” for clothing.
“They did not,” Johnson said.  “Don’t say that.  I know rags when I see them.  They had patched clothes.  That is a lot different than rags.”  Hurst says that “I noted as the years passed that he reacted in the same way whenever he heard the word ‘rags.’  I realized that to him rags were the ultimate symbol of the poverty he detested.”  There had, after all, been patches on clothing worn by his brother and youngest sister, who had still been small when Sam Johnson went broke on the ranch, and that clothing certainly hadn’t been rags!
Caro, Robert A. The passage of power: The years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV. 2013, p. 543.
When you see a human being suffering from poverty what do you see?  When you look at their clothing what do you see?  
Humans do not wear rags.  Humans wear patched clothing.