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phil_style

When reading any literature, I find myself becoming a collector of gems. I'm currently reading Dostoevsky's "The Idiot". I find myself pausing frequently to re-read an encounter, a description, a quote or a small incident becasue it has just brought me great joy, sadness or some kind of new insight. I'm compelled to write notes, and sometimes just wish that someone else was reading the same book, at the same time, right next to me so I could glance accross and share the emotion with them.

It seems you are suggesting a similar approach for the biblical texts?

JohnFH

I am, Phil.

What Shulevitz accomplished - though I think with less than complete success - is to read the texts of her tradition with what Ricoeur called second naïveté. That's a French word that evokes naif, which means artless, one might say, defenseless; and, at the same time, "native disposition."

Carl Kinbar

"the Talmud. . . You couldn’t assimilate it to anything you knew if you wanted to."

How true.

"It only gets better with the Bible."

I read the two as so different that it's difficult to compare. Can you explain what you mean by "better"?

JohnFH

Hi Carl,

I had James Kugel's apologetics for the tradition of the Sages in mind. In a nutshell, he cleaves to the idea that the God of the Bible, its ethics, and all the rest are pretty unpalatable whereas the Sages (and the Fathers in the Church in another way across a different canon) humanize the Tanakh in Talmud Torah and Midrash.

I don't want to deny that, anymore than I want to deny, as a Christian, that inveramento (sorry, I think in Italian: the in-truthing of scripture) is modeled in the New Testament.

But I do want to say that the salutary disorientation the Talmud produces is trumped by that which the Bible produces. Kugel's apologetics imply as much.

Gary Simmons

One form of immersion that I find satisfying is the process of memorization and recitation. Christians in my tradition don't practice it. I'm overjoyed that you chose to write on this topic! It's hard to describe literary rapture.

Speaking of literary ecstasy excellence, John, have you read Benajamin Segal's translation and commentary for the Song of Songs? I feel motivated to sharpen my Hebrew now that I have a copy of that.

JohnFH

I agree 100 per cent with the memorization and recitation thing. I would also be an ineffective preacher if I didn't have scripture in my bones. For Easter I walked down the center aisle of the church to a packed house riffing on scripture without notes for a straight five minutes. People find that riveting.

I have an epiphany about literary immersion everyday because my youngest daughter Anna is an absolutely passionate reader. To the dismay of her mother she loses herself quite regularly in reading, and fails even to answer her mother's beckoning.

I'm unfamiliar with Segal's translation and commentary. Thanks for the tip.

Simon Holloway

I felt your argument was stronger without the last section on the Talmud. To that extent, Carl pre-empted my question, but I don't feel that you answered it. In what way is the Bible more existentially disorienting than the Babylonian Talmud? In the latter's case, the disorientation arises from the fact that, with certain exceptions, one is reading arguments over precise matters of law. One cannot assimilate that into one's everyday life (indeed, even an halakhic arbiter is unable to make a ruling today on the basis of the Talmud), and so the effect is as of reading something with no practical value whatsoever. One reads the Talmud in order to read the Talmud. One does not look up at the world again afterwards with greater clarity or distinction.

But the Bible? The Bible reads as narrative, as epic, law, history and poetry. Even those sections that lack 'practical value' are crafted for their prose, and it possesses as much relevance as does any other example of great literature. In what manner, then, is it disorienting? And in what sense does its disorientation supercede that of the Talmud?

JohnFH

I think you got me, Simon.

Perhaps my problem is that I remember my first lesson in Talmud as so full of joy and excitement that I struggle to identify with the disorientation bit at first, though of course it is real from a variety of points of view.

My teacher was a freshly minted PhD from HUC-JIR who sucked us right into the legal argument. Once you understand how the reasoning works, there is a beauty to it, but yes, then you go back to observing halakha as one did before that, or not.

Now, if you turn to Leviticus, it is more or less disorienting? Or the tabernacle pericope in Exodus? How about the lists of ancestors? The endless wars? The psalms of revenge? The texts of terror? The prophetic oracles of doom? Isaiah 6? Ezek 1-3? God who cowers Job into submission? I don't find Qohelet disorienting, but then, other people do. That's off the top of my head.

But you are also right, there is the narrative, the love poetry (which, however, was allegorized; that's a game every bit as interesting as that found in the Gemara), the aphorisms. It has a homey feel to it, at least for long stretches like the Joseph story.

PatrickM

John,

Excellent post. It reminds me of a passage from Walter Kaufmann’s “Critique of Religion and Philosophy.” where he takes fellow atheists to task for not reading scriptures in the same manner you describe. I wanted to quote a small portion of a fictions dialogue between two characters, Satan and the Atheist (p. 258-9):

Satan: Have you read no religious scripture at all?

Atheist: I have only an amateur’s interest in anthropology. I have read a bit about primitive religions. But I have never followed it up. There are all sorts of handy cheap editions now; perhaps I’ll try some of them next time I travel by train. Usually I drive.

Satan: But these things were not written for a quick dip on the train between a crossword puzzle and a whisky sour.

Atheist: And why not? You would not want me to go to church to catch up with the Upanishads?

Satan: Of course not. You don’t go to church to catch up, as you call it, with Lear; but at least you take off an evening for it and give it your whole attention and let it do something to you.

Atheist: And what should these scriptures do to me? At most I should want to fill a gap in my education. I don’t want to be converted

Satan Well, these are not things merely to know about or to have handy for a dinner conversation. The Bible and the Buddha, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, Lao-tze and the Tales of the Hassidim, these are not things about which one is informed or not informed: what matters is that they speak to you and in some way change you.

Atheist: Have you become a preacher, Satan?

Satan: I am merely shuddering at the prospect of having to spend an eternity with you. I should rather like to make a human being of you before you settle down in my place. I don’t agree with the people who accept these scriptures, but I can talk with them and, to be frank, I rather enjoy talking with them. But you! I wish you’d go to heaven.

Those parting shots from Satan never fail to make me chuckle. My own experiences are owed to Ezekiel. I simply love this book (Judges being a close second) and every time I sit down to read it, I always come away with something new that I hadn’t noticed before. The extended and vivid metaphors used to mock (in my own opinion) symbols of national pride. There isn’t a iconoclast today who can hold a candle to Ezekiel when he calls the Lion of Judah and rabid man-eater or Jerusalem as a perverse prostitute rather than the faithful bride.

Chapter 18 is by far the best piece in the work. From what little I understand about religions in the Ancient Near East (gleaned from textbooks found in used book stores), this sermon stresses so beautifully the importance of the individual and his/her actions that seems to completely contradict the contemporary religions of the time period. It’s an amazing ethical document really, given it’s origins, to suggest that the actions of the past can be forgotten, if the deeds of the present have merit. Salvation doesn’t depend on the actions of a third party, but the individual himself and his relationship with YHWH. The positive emotions I get from this work, gives me a glimpse into the faith of the Christian and Jew that I simply don’t get anywhere else unless I sit down and let the scriptures change me.

JohnFH

Patrick,

God that is a well-written passage. Thanks for quoting it.

Yes, Ezekiel is as good as it gets. You might enjoy this older post:

http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2009/03/the-bawdy-speech-of-an-angry-loving-god-ezekiels-dilemma-.html

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