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The Unapproachability of the Torah

Because the Torah is a deliberately paradoxical text, parts of its message are inaccessible to rational interpretations. Part one of this essay, The Impossibility of Literature, explores the nature of this inaccessibility. Baruch Spinoza’s scientific
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  1 “Tradition is tending the fire, not worshiping the ashes.”     —   Gustav Mahler  The Unapproachability of the Torah:  An Examination of the “Rational A  - Logic”  in Sacred Writing    Abstract   Because the Torah is a deliberately paradoxical text, parts of its message are inaccessible to rational interpretations. Part one of this essay, The Impossibility of Literature, explores the nature of this inaccessibility. Baruch Spinoza’s  scientific approach to the parts of the Torah that are inaccessible to reason is critiqued on the grounds that it misunderstands the “ a-rational logic” (a term borrowed from Karl Jaspers and elaborated upon in part one) of Sacred Writing. Sacred Writing does not present problems to be solved. It does not compose a class of literature, much less a subclass, but is a text about texts that fail to transmit their meanings because they are beyond reason. Sacred Writings describe the intimate processes of literary creation and perform the failures of those processes. The critique of Spinoza is extended to all scientific readings aiming to “resolve” Sacred Writing. Part two, Fugitive Authorship , examines Biblical historiography by contrasting Martin Buber’s and Spinoza’s historical methods of examining the Torah’s authorship.  After showing that Buber’s historical framework is more successful, I analyze Moses as a literary function. I conclude by drawing out the inherent ties betw  een “postmodern” literary theories and Sacred Writing. Keywords:  Torah, Spinoza, Buber, Jaspers, postmodern theology, mysticism, literary theory, Blanchot, weak theology  2  A trend is reconquering continental and analytic philosophy alike. Thinkers from various fields i  are steering philosophy towards theology. “Theological turns” are never surprising. Still, any turn requires a nuanced examination specific to the context in which it happens in order to assess whether the turn is legitimate or a fashion that misunderstands the essence-as-non-essence of theology.  What would it mean to properly understand what thrives beyond comprehension? Is there a proper  way to establish a rigorous field of study whose central concern is “superessential nothingness” ?  ii  No theological turn can succeed unless it can approach the Unapproachable. It is not even enough to fail the approach. Failing for the wrong reasons amounts to failing even as a failure. To successfully fail to arrive at Sacred Writing  ’s meaning  , one must first discard previous methods of approaching the Torah, without preserving them or reaffirming them after negating them, iii  then examine the unique ways in which Sacred  Writing’s message is unapproachable to reason. 1.    The Impossibility of Literature   To approach requires accessibility. Typically, the unapproachable becomes approachable after its translation from an inaccessible to an accessible state. There are two ways of translating: either what cannot access makes itself accessible to the inaccessible, or the inaccessible is made accessible. To what extent should one make oneself accessible to the Torah by studying the language of its srcinal articulation, as opposed to making the Torah accessible through translation? Should Biblical exegeses be based on translations of srcinal Hebrew texts? The question may seem simplistic: clearly, thorough literary analysis prioritizes the dissection of texts in their srcinal language. What if the srcinal text in question is already in translation, even in its srcinal language? The seemingly unwarranted suggestion is the philological dilemma posed by the Torah. On an archeological level, the srcinal scrolls containing the Torah are so corrupt that experts must make unbridgeable leaps, even after millennia of contentious scholarship. Baruch Spinoza affirms in the Theological-Political Treatise that the grammar and syntax of the Torah are also sources of contention. iv   The  3  Torah is a perennially undecided text. Knowledge of archaic Hebrew is full of holes, its syntactical laws  virtually lost : “The men of old who used the Hebrew language have left to posterity no information concerning its basic principles and study of this language…We are deprived not only of these, but more especially of the kn owledge of Hebrew phraseology.”  v   What survives today is a rough mixture of hindsight speculation, deduction, and tradition. Besides having no surviving treatises on ancient Hebrew grammar, Spinoza claims that scholars are confronted with yet another complexity: the laws of the Torah’s language that do remain are themselves uncertain: 1) Letters involving the same organ of speech are substituted one for another…As a result, any parts of a text may often be rendered ambiguous or appear to be meaningless utterance s…   2)“A second ambiguity arises from the multiple meanings of conjunctions and adverbs…   3) “Verbs in the Indicative mood lack…other tenses in common use in other languages …   4) “We either have no knowledge at all or but doubtful knowledge of the authors…We do not even know on what occasion or at what time these books of unknown authorship were  written.  vi   “These difficulties,” concludes Spinoza,   “ I consider so grave that I have no hesitation in affirming that in many instances we either do not know the true meaning of Scripture or we can do no more than make conjecture.”  vii  Any attempt to render a complete account of the Torah is impossible. The linguistic body conditioning the earliest written copies of the Torah forces the reader into a state of quasi-relativism. No interpretation, and hence translation, of the srcinal Torah text can ever hope to lay claim to absolute truth. One could suggest that the Torah’s ambiguities might be settled by future archeological discoveries. Even if the rules of ancient Hebrew grammar were clarified, the oldest scrolls of the Torah were written in scripto continua  .  viii   Punctuations and word-separations, even in Hebrew, are informed speculations by scholars projected onto a pun-littered text. This makes approaching the Torah free from interpolations impossible. Exhuming the Torah requires recognizing it is a puzzle with missing pieces, and the pieces that are present can be arranged in multiple ways.  The Torah’s text does not exist without interpolation. Even if one makes oneself accessible to the  Torah by becoming an expert in Biblical Hebrew, making the Torah itself accessible through the intervention of graphic facilitators, grammatical hypotheses, and archeological leaps is necessary. Because the Torah must  4 be transformed to be approached, an authentic Torah does not exist. Its “pure” meaning is unreachable because it must always be worked on before being read. How does the text inspire so many meaningful interpretations? The ultimate   meaning of the Torah is perpetually unclear. It is nonetheless possible to form provisional   interpretations. Much of the srcinal scripts is decodable, and it is clear that the Torah does transmit meaning. What exactly? No one can definitively say, including those who say,  No one can definitively say.  On the other hand, one cannot help but postulate likely meanings and thereby base entire traditions off of hierarchies of more or less satisfactory translations and scholia of the Torah. Thus while one cannot fully approach the Torah ’s meaning through reading it rationalistically, at the same time, certain interpretive strategies undoubtedly achieve meanings that outlast less consistent ones. What are these elusive interpretive strategies which do and do not approach the Torah? ix  Certainly, they do not exclusively belong to a single class or culture. This is partly Spinoza’s project: to liberate Biblical criticism from institutions. Interpreting the  Torah’s message is not reserved for the learned, nor does it take a learned man to learn that interpreting the Torah requires what academia and religious leaders cannot give: perpetual grayness, elusion, and boundless pluralism.  What is the Torah ’s message ? It is more fundamental than the language in which it was written. That is  why, despite any philological difficulties, it is naked to the human intellect. “The difficulty of interpreting Scripture arises not from t he lack of power of the natural light, but from the negligence…of those who failed to compile a historical study of Scripture while that was still possible. ” x    The Torah’s message is not totally lost. What has been lost is due to physical circumstances, but that is remedied by the mind overcoming and transforming the srcinal scrolls ’ gaps . xi   While no institution nor individual can claim absolute knowledge of the Torah ’s message , a hierarchy of meaning is not only permissible, but natural, “For the nature an d virtue of that [natural] light [of reason] consists essentially in this, that by a process of logical deduction that which is hidden is inferred and concluded from what is known, or given as known .” xii   For Spinoza, humanity’s natural light of reason is a reading-organ. It is an input-output technology, a dispositif xiii   through which reason perpetuates self-dominance in the individual. What lies in inaccessible darkness achieves accessibility through the natural light  5 of reason’s hermeneutical  mechanism   of receiving material, subjecting received material to meaning-producing rules, and yielding interpretations of that material as an object of consciousness. Even in its srcinal form, the Torah is a translation. This is not accidental. If Biblical Hebrew were perfectly known, if the scrolls where the Torah were written were perfectly preserved, and even if there were no ambiguities in the text, the meaning of the Torah’s message is lost, translated by the natural light of reason into intelligible terms, unapproachable because it is made accessible.  The natural light of reason is a revelatory tool, but what it receives and subjects to regulation is always more than what it can construe into meaning. The natural light constantly confronts its limits everywhere, flat-ironing complexities to manageable strands and bidding adieu to swathes of structures it will never cross. But reason is not easily defeated and strives to widen the radius of its clarification power . The Torah’s many gaps are a prime example. Spinoza argues that reason develops and deploys tools to ameliorate the text’s barriers: inference, imaginings, arguments, hypotheses.  The Torah’s message is not stunted by its written expression. Interpretations are still yielded, cultivated from the natural lig  ht’s principles. Reason leaps from uncertainty to uncertainty, asymptotically approaching absolute knowledge but never reaching it. The Torah, then, is laid out for everyone to know in some basic way, and yet it retains a chasm that cannot be bridged by reason.  What happens when reason’s light cannot go further? Spinoza does not entertain the possibility. His faith lies in a deterministic Deus sive Natura governed by a single set of regulations subject to the principle of sufficient reason. For him, hermeneutical obstacles due to chance can be remedied, but rationally; absolute interpretations of the Torah are impossible due to circumstance, not on principle. Confronted with parts of the Torah a priori   incompatible with reason, Spinoza demystifies the text to make it fit with the epistemic fashion of his time : “Many things are narrated in Scripture as real, and were believed to be real, which were in fact only symbolical and imaginary  .” xiv    Latent in Spinoza’s demystification is the belief that Sacred Writing must be accountable to reason and science. Demystifying Sacred Writing is not unique to Spinoza. It is present in countless apologists: Augustine,  Jefferson, and Kant. In the 20 th  century, the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann called for radical
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