Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Peter Ochs and Nancy Levene, eds., Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002). Pp. x + 310. Paper, $28.00. ISBN: 0-8028-3997-5

Editors Ochs and Levene have gathered a challenging and provocative collection of essays that, in the aggregate, proclaims and embodies what its editors and most of its contributors take to be a radical departure in contemporary Jewish textual hermeneutics. The “textual reasoning” of the volume’s title expresses the sense among many of its authors that the received methods of appropriating the Jewish textual tradition for diverse intellectual projects have exhausted their value. This is not, in their view, a uniquely Jewish problem; rather, it is one that haunts members of all the classical religious traditions that seek to retain the integrity of their received discursive traditions at the other end of the modern transformation. On the one end of the spectrum, it seems, there stands the skeptical “hermeneutics of suspicion,” spawned by the European Enlightenment tradition, that insists on subjecting all texts to the acids of historical/historicist criticism. On the other stands the resisting “hermeneutics of embrace,” represented by various authoritarian interpretive discourses that do not critique enlightened secularist heremeneutics as much as they walk away from it as if it did not exist or drown out its voices of doubt with ever louder shouts of authenticity.

Textual reasoning seeks to carve out a discursive space that by-passes the dichotomous fetishism that structures secularist fundamentalism’s worship of individualist interpretive autonomy and religious fundamentalism’s romantic genuflection to ahistorical mythologies. That is, they claim to bring modernity’s critique of textual authority into communication with pre-modernity’s capacity to hear the texts of tradition as a claim to truth. As such, the “movement” of “textual reasoning” (and whether it is a genuine “movement” or merely an intellectual fashion remains to be seen) is of great potential significance, since it self-consciously holds out for itself the task of constructing new forms of textual dialogics that might heal the modernist breach between “knowledge” and “faith.” Herein would lie the hope of a transformative new form of inspirited knowledge that might overcome not only modernism’s battle of the “secular” versus the “religious,” but also pre-modernity’s war of “faith” against “heresy.”

Consistent with its dialogical model of thought, the volume unfolds as a series of inter-acting essay-clusters that stake out fundamental hermeneutical issues. These are gathered into two rubrics, “Textual Reasoning” and “Reflections on the Process of Textual Reasoning.” The book begins with each editor offering a cogent (if somewhat messianic and, at times, self-congratulatory) assessment of the nature of textual reasoning as a self-conscious transformative discourse in the world of Jewish textual study, with editor Ochs focusing upon the upon the essays gathered in the first section of the volume and editor Levene focusing upon the second group. The essay-clusters under the rubric of “Textual Reasoning” offer examples of textual reasoning as a hermeneutical praxis focused on biblical and rabbinic genres. Those gathered together as “Reflections on the Process of Textual Reasoning” offer a series of meta-discourses—interpretations of the interpretative praxis of textual reasoning. These are curiously divided into “Jewish” and “Christian” reflections, about the act of textual reasoning. I say “curious” since, for most of the volume, the self-evident dichotomies of modernism—“truth/error,” “reason/unreason,” “secular/religious,” “historical/mythical”—are routinely placed under great pressure. The three Christian contributors seem aware to varying degrees that the “Jewish/Christian” dichotomy might be no less problematic from a postmodern point of view. For her own part, however, editor Levene does acknowledge that the Christian contributors function as a kind of chorus reflecting on ways in which both Christian and Jewish textual reasoners share common concerns and a common intellectual situation, even as they bear personal responsibility for healing rather different traditions.

Readers of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures should know that the biblical tradition is not the primary focus of the hermeneutical essays. Rather, these essays are more concerned with the strategies of reading brought by rabbinic and later medieval tradition to bear upon both scriptural and rabbinic texts. Nevertheless, readers interested in the cutting edge discussions of the humanities will find this a very stimulating and worthwhile glimpse of one small corner of the world of contemporary Jewish thought. And, one might add, it is a corner that shows every sign of commanding ever more space in the larger room of Jewish hermeneutical reflection.

Martin S. Jaffee
University of Washington