Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Rav Girl: Biblical Intertextuality Is My Happy Place

My professor in Revel handed back an assignment to me. On it, he had written, "You think like the Baalei HaMidrash about biblical inter-textuality!"

This comment was illuminating for me. He was precisely correct. I love biblical intertextuality. That's when you take two texts or similar narratives and compare them in order to understand how one story echoes or complements the other (example: Sedom and Gemorah as compared to Pilegesh B'Givah.) That is exactly how I learn. I am the biblical intertextuality party girl, dancing from text to text, lighthearted and excited and loving the way in which they all connect to one another. In school, I always excelled at b'kesher l'ma lamadnus. I am great at recognizing connections between texts, ideas, places or characters. My strongest papers are almost always comparative essays. I excel at intertextuality as a skill across the board- whether it's fairytales and Torah, different classical works or biblical intertextuality, that is me.

So when I approach academic bible, I do so in the literary sense. But to me, what that means is that I am engaging in a literary approach to the bible because I am practicing intertextuality upon it, not that I subscribe to an entire methodology that treats the Bible as literature. You see, I am a Rav girl (so I was dubbed once by a friend), and thus I am uncomfortable with treating the Bible as literature in an all-enclusive sense.

At the very beginning of Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative by Adele Berlin, we encounter the following statement:
    Narrative is the predominant mode of expression in the Hebrew Bible. The longest block of narrative runs from Genesis to 2 Kings, and there are shorter narrative units such as Ruth, Esther and Jonah. There are narrative sections in the prophetic books, and there is even some narrative poetry, such as Jud 5 and Ps 105. It follows, then, that if we are to understand the biblical text, we must understand the basics of biblical narrative—its structure, its conventions, its compositional techniques—in other words, how it represents that which it wishes to represent. Above all, we must keep in mind that narrative is a form of representation. Abraham in Genesis is not a real person any more than a painting of an apple is a real fruit. This is not a judgment on the existence of a historical Abraham any more than it is a statement about the existence of apples. It is just that we should not confuse a historic individual with his narrative representation.

    Somehow we have no problems with paintings of apples. We know they represent apples even though they are two-dimensional, and not always true to life in size or color. Conversely, we know that paintings of apples are not real; if we cut them no juice will run out, if we plant them they will not grow. We can make the transfer from a realistic painting to the object that it represents- i.e. we can ‘naturalize’ the painting- because we know (either intuitively or from having learned them) the conventions of the medium. When it comes to ancient art forms, difficulties may arise, for some of the conventions may be unfamiliar to us. But it is not impossible to naturalize ancient works of art.

    ~page 13
Here is the problem with this approach for the Orthodox Jew, or at least for me. In Sabbath 55a, we are taught that "The seal of the Almighty is Truth." Thus, the seal of God is truth. To me, a narrative painting a fictional portrait of Abraham, exaggerating his qualities and creating a man who did not historically exist, would be a fiction. Thus, it would not be true. Indeed, it would be an utter departure from the truth. Thus, to suggest our characters in Tanakh are not historically accurate and are depicted in particular ways is problematic to me.

In "Sacred and Profane," Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, writes:
    For Jewish boys and girls, Abraham is not a mythical figure but an ever-present inspiration. They live through his tribulations and wanderings. They travel with him from Syria to Palestine. They feel the fear and trembling of Isaac on the akeda. They escape with Jacob to Haran. They are imprisoned with Joseph in the pit. They rejoice in his ascendancy to high office and fame. They lead the Jews with Moses in the desert of Sinai. They sing with David. They are exalted with the prophets. They laugh with Rabbi Akiva. They meditate with Rambam. These figures are not dead or historical "have-beens" for the children of the heder or the adults of the halakha, but dynamic, living heroes who visit the Jew from time to time, bringing him comfort, inspiration, and hope.

    ~page 165 in 'Shiurei HaRav'
That is the view of Jewish history that I subscribe to. To me, the characters in Tanakh are real. Their suffering, journey, pleasure, joy and passions are all as real as you or me. Thus, when I take inspiration from them, I am not taking inspiration from a literary construct or a narrative representation but from a living, breathing, historically true character. These people existed, they lived, and the way the Torah describes them is the way they are. With that understood, of course I think like the Baalei HaMidrash when it comes to intertextuality; they assume the meaning that is there and use literary principles to find it. I do the same.

Now, I can entertain ideas that differ from my own ideas- that is why I am in Revel. It is important to learn methodology and the thought of others even if it differs from your own. Despite the fact that it is doubtful I myself would ever use so carefully defined and limited a methodology as this literary formulation, it is important to know what occurs within the realm of biblical scholarship should I wish to understand it.

A quote from Chaim Potok's The Promise comes to mind:
    I sat down on an easy chair and was alone for a moment and found myself thinking of my father and his book and Rav Kalman and felt suddenly drained and hollow with the realization that the months of seesawing between the two worlds had finally ended for me this night with nothing but an awareness of how deep the separating chasm really was and how impossible it seemed to bridge it- unless you were a Danny Saunders and were rooted deeply enough in one world to enable you to be concerned only about the people of the other and not about their ideas. I was in between somewhere on a tenuous and still invisible connecting span, and I did not know how to make that span tangible to myself and to the inhabitants of both those other worlds. Maybe it could not be done. Maybe Rav Kalman was right. Maybe one had to take a stand and abandon one or the other entirely. I would enter Abraham Gordon's world if I was forced into taking a stand. The world of Rav Kalman was too musty now with the odors of old dead books and dead ideas and Eastern European zealousness. But it would be an unhappy choice. I did not think I could ever be comfortable with Abraham Gordon's answers. I found myself envious of Danny's solid-rootedness in his world- and discovered at that moment to my utter astonishment how angry I was at my father for his book and his method of study and the tiny, twilight, in-between life he had carved out for us. That awareness left me so frightened and shakened that it was a moment before I realized that Abraham and Ruth Gordon were standing in front of me and trying to get my attention. I got quickly to my feet. They were inviting me and my father over to dinner a week from tomorrow night. I accepted gratefully for myself and told them I would talk to my father and call them tomorrow.
If I were truly intellectually honest, a total purist, I think it would be extremely difficult if not totally impossible to be religious. A truly intellectualy honest person is by default an agnostic. The difficulty is that I have to determine how intellectually honest I am or am not going to be. I feel that it is an ideal to be an intellectually honest person; at the same time I believe in the Rav's idea of surrendering one's mind to God. Thus I walk a very unhappy and difficult strata, pulled in two directions by the more secular, curious, questing side of me and refraining from answering that call, or at least truly throwing myself into that world, because of the fact that I know where it would lead if I were totally honest. I would walk into Abraham Gordon's world and I would not be happy about it. I cannot prove my religion; I do not think I will ever be able to. Indeed, the greatest question is what to do when the vast majority of what I read or learn about simply seems to disprove what I have been taught. But you see, above all logic there is emotion, and my emotion and intuition point to the fact that there is a God, He exists, and He listens to me. Thus I remain a Rav Girl and bow my head to God. If not for the emotion that anchors me to God and the belief that I know nothing when it comes to my religion- for there is so much knowledge I do not possess- I would unhappily bow to the logic that postulates that I belong in Gordon's camp. I would not be happy about this because I would still believe in God- it's just that I hate living with so many open-ended questions and continously having to refrain from truly intellectually attacking them because I know the answers I will end up with will lead me on a path I do not want to walk... I am afraid, and no one has yet taught me how not to be afraid.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this thoroughly. I love the way you compare and contrast ideas and describe where you stand on things @ the same time. Well done!

Anonymous said...

WADR Chana Imho you're a bit off track with the intellectual honest thing.

Permit me an imperfect analogy -

"Flatland-The story is about a two-dimensional world referred to as Flatland which is occupied by geometric figures, line segments (females) and regular polygons with various numbers of sides. The narrator is a humble Square, a member of the social caste of gentlemen and professionals in a society of geometric figures, who guides us through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The square has a dream about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland) which is inhabited by "lustrous points." He attempts to convince the realm's ignorant monarch of a second dimension but finds that it is essentially impossible to make him see outside of his eternally straight line.

The narrator is then visited by a three-dimensional sphere, which he cannot comprehend until he sees Spaceland for himself. This sphere, who remains nameless, visits Flatland at the turn of each millennium to introduce a new apostle to the idea of a third dimension in the hopes of eventually educating the population of Flatland of the existence of Spaceland. "



Religious people have that additional dimension - they can be intellectually honest and still reach different conclusions than those with n-1 dimensions

KT&ST
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

pompous

Gavi said...

Rav Carmy once wrote that it is a well-known phenomenon that religious Bible academics tend to stay in "safe" areas of scholarship...

Never bugged me (but then again I am a scientist, not a professional Bible scholar). I tend to look at this type of quandary with the attitude that faith is there to explain all that cannot be explained empirically.

Furthermore, you could always take the Rambam's position that it wouldn't matter whether all of tanach was an allegory or not. Granted, we believe that it is all true exactly as written at some level - but the moral lessons are just as important. Stated differently, tanach is not a history book, but a morality book.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Nice post, but to honest, I couldn't find your idea more frustrating and untrue. Intellectual honesty doesn’t lead to agnosticism. It’s hard for me to believe someone like you would write that. I personally think a lot of it has to do with the mood of the times. Like if 100 ears ago you told someone that you don’t believe Aryans are objectively superior to Jews they would look at you like your head was on backwards (..whatever).

“you see, above all logic there is emotion”- that’s smacks of Chassidic jargon and is directly opposed to the opinions of the Spanish rationalists and the leaders of western orthodoxy (Rav Soloveichik for example).

“to me, a narrative painting a fictional portrait of Abraham, exaggerating his qualities and creating a man who did not historically exist, would be a fiction”- there’s no way to prove r disprove the existence of such individuals, and anyway it is the concept of them that matters more than the reality. The torah is not a science book as is not concerned with the age of the universe and it’s also not a history book and is not concerned with retelling stories for the sake of historical preservation (Adam, for example; orthodox rationalists agree he didn’t exist quite as he’s described in the bible. That represents nothing about the “truth” of the bible).

Either way, much of this ethical work that g-d has given us is written in the form of a story, therefore it only makes sense to view it as literature (in order to fully understand it).

Would say more; keyboard issues.

ס"ט

Anonymous said...

זכור ימות עולם the torah absolutely is a history book. a very very relevant history, every single slight letter of it.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר-וָדֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ
בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹיִם בְּהַפְרִידוֹ בְּנֵי אָדָם יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאל כִּי חֵלֶק ה עַמּוֹ יַעֲקֹב חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתוֹ

i.e. "Remember that G-d decides the Numbers of the nations based on the numbers of His people." Maybe also: "think about past historical events." But the G- never said, "Looking for history? Read this." I don't see that anywhere in the Torah.

(Throughout Tanach there is obviously a running history of how the people of G-d fared on His land, but even that was obviously written as ethical imperatives and not for the sake of recording history (since it says "You want history? Check out the "ספר דברי הימים" on so-and-so king, because I'm not going to tell you).

Again, the mosaic religion was based on the premise that there was in fact a family of nomadic shepherds that formed the nucleus for what would later become the chosen people, so denying their existence would be a sort of heresy. But like I said, it's sheer madness to "prove the existence" of a few ancient Near-Eastern shepherds.

In regards to later EVENTS, unlike the tales found in the Books of Mormon, they were, As much as it’s possible to verify, proven legitimate, or, in regards to the exodus story, at least proven “possible”.

But one should keep in mind that it’s ludicrous to attach too much credibility to the words of the bible critics, since they’re just as biased about the whole thing as rabbis in Mea Shearim…

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

P2: "But G-d never said".

P5: "In regards to later events" (no caps).

Anonymous said...

Chana,

You are, of course, correct that intellectual honesty leads to agnosticism--not to tortured defenses of religious dogma...and not either to a sneering insistence on atheism.

Most people have a need for certainty on matters of existential orientation; most also have a need for belonging. Therefore very few are willing to allow themselves to see such matters clearly, and to admit what they do not know--especially if it means breaking away from their people's tradition.

But I encourage you to listen to that voice of honesty and nobility within you, that begs you to be authentic, and to not mistake emotion and loyalty and intellectual virtuosity for truth.

AW

Anonymous said...

Chana,

My heart ges out you as I find myself in much the same place.

For me, though, I find I must bow to what seems the clear truth that must lead to being agnostic.

I have not been exposed to much Potok, but your quote makes me want to read more of his work, since this is my current challenge - how do I find a way to live within my frum community and with my frum family, believing now as I must?

Shalom, Cherry Hill, NJ said...

To Anonymous 9/5 @ 11:39pm:

Perhaps one might consider that any honest person must admit that no human can understand all that there is to know. That being the case, how does one account for the incredible history of our people?

While I'm no expert, I believe that everyone would acknowledge that the Torah is at least 2300 years old--and look at how correct it's prophecies are. Can that really be random chance?

Some people look at the more dogmatic, close minded people as the spokesmen for a religion's beliefs--leading them to think that a 'religious' Jew or Christian cannot accept evolution or a 15 billion year old universe. Of course, that's nonsense; you may know that Ramban wrote some 700 years ago that the 6days of Creation were not six 24 hour days, as the sun wasn't even created until the 4th 'day'.

While the Tanach certainly has history in it, it wasn't meant to be a history book, which is why it focuses on some events while skipping huge amounts of time as well. While it tells us some things about people like Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya'akov, it only relates what G-d knew to be necessary--one certainly can't look at it like a biography meant to relate the history of a person's life, because that obviously wasn't the point.

My point is, that being honest and having questions doesn't mean that one has to throw out the baby with the bathwater. You can make a decision to allow your doubts to rule over you, or the natural desire to connect with G-d-- it may seem difficult, but it's in your hands.

Best Wishes,

Off the Derech said...

I blog about this here.

FYI, "Shalom in Cherry Hill" is most likely a kiruv troll that usually goes by the name Garnel.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Just wrote a post ‘bout this…

http://sshriki.blogspot.com/2009/09/ok-um.html

Rose said...

If I were truly intellectually honest, a total purist, I think it would be extremely difficult if not totally impossible to be religious. A truly intellectualy honest person is by default an agnostic. The difficulty is that I have to determine how intellectually honest I am or am not going to be. I feel that it is an ideal to be an intellectually honest person; at the same time I believe in the Rav's idea of surrendering one's mind to God. Thus I walk a very unhappy and difficult strata, pulled in two directions by the more secular, curious, questing side of me and refraining from answering that call, or at least truly throwing myself into that world, because of the fact that I know where it would lead if I were totally honest. I would walk into Abraham Gordon's world and I would not be happy about it. I cannot prove my religion; I do not think I will ever be able to. Indeed, the greatest question is what to do when the vast majority of what I read or learn about simply seems to disprove what I have been taught. But you see, above all logic there is emotion, and my emotion and intuition point to the fact that there is a God, He exists, and He listens to me. Thus I remain a Rav Girl and bow my head to God.

I am not Jewish. Despite that, I know exactly, I think, the path you walk, and how hard it is, because it is my own--and I pray for you to have the strength for the balancing act it requires every day.