An Interview with Michael Fishbane

How do we experience God or read religious works in an era of globalization, after modernity, after the hermeneutic turn, and after the modern critiques of religion? Michael Fishbane, the Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, attempted to deal with these issues in his Sacred Attunements: A Spiritual Theology.” (You may want to print out this post for home reading, it is very long.)

fishbane teaching

Fishbane is currently one of the world’s leading Jewish thinkers whose attempts to create a philosophy of Judaism from contemporary philosophy, in this case hermeneutic theory, makes him a significant major thinker -akin to Buber- whose thought transcends denominational concerns. Hermeneutic theory is one of the major philosophic systems today, therefore I would recommend reading some Hermeneutic theory especially Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and general hermeneutics. There have been academic symposiums on Fishbane’s thought but he has not become a household name. I blogged him when I first read his book here, here, here, and here.

Fishbane is the author or editor of over 20 books including Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel; Garments of Torah. Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics; The Kiss of God: Spiritual Death and Dying in Judaism; The Exegetical Imagination; Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking; and his recent Sacred Attunement. A Jewish Theology (2008). He is the recipient of many scholarly awards.

Fishbane is aware of modernity’s challenges to religion, writing that, “the mirror of the world reflects back to us our willful epistemologies, our suspicion of values, and the rank perversities of the human heart.” (ix) (H/T to Sam Berrin Shonkoff for the following formulations.)

Fishbane recognizes that the classic approach to Jewish theology is no longer viable. The classics of pre-modern Jewish thought tried to reconcile Jewish texts with their own generation’s philosophies, but in today’s intellectual world cannot support synthesis. First, Fishbane explains, there is the “absence in our times of one coherent or compelling worldview.” Second, in the currents of globalization and multiculturalism, “we are affected by diverse sources of cultural value and memory,”

Fishbane identifies the need for a new theological breakthrough. It cannot be a new idea, concept, or theoretical framework. It must be a quality of awareness more than a state of mind, an invitation to the divine more than an answer, an opening to “a throbbing of divine everlastingness” —he presents a theology that is permanently unfinished and open-ended

Fishbane calls for a new breakthrough of mindfulness but in a post-hermeneutic age, he holds that all consciousness involves verbal and hermeneutical constructions. Language, he writes, is “our most primary rationality, giving our minds their most basic mindfulness.” How can we have or trust experience when it is filtered through the lenses of hermeneutical consciousness? Fishbane suggests that the only way to preserve a theology’s integrity is, ironically perhaps, to open it up to the dynamic dissonance of multiplicity, “the multiform diversity of life itself.”

Over a Shabbat dinner table, Fishbane complained to me how his graduate professors were religious in shul but entirely secular in class. He seeks to overcome that dichotomy through shifting to a post-apologetic theological discourse. Fishbane does not seek to explain and justify his fidelity to his faith before a forum of philosophers or other custodians of reason. He suffices with a witness to ‘a journey of spiritual quest’ as embodied in the life of a pious Jew. He even worries about the ways in which his own primary field of Biblical exegesis can end up missing the forest for the trees: neglecting divine reality, while getting caught up in what too easily become pleasurable but soulless word games.

His form of “The beginning of wisdom is fear of God” is sacred attunement, an ability to listen. Fishbane contends that “[t]he capacity to listen with attention and humility is a spiritual beginning … [of] a gradual growth in religious consciousness.” But it is one that is impossible without this initial ethic of listening. He maintains that the practitioner must cultivate a “spiritually pregnant silence” before speaking. But even afterwards: “As the curve of speech bends toward the transcendent, this truth becomes ever more unsayable.”

Fishbane occasionally speaks at the minyan here in Teaneck. The first times he spoke, the questions from the audience afterwards reflected the Lutheran inspired modern Orthodoxy. “We confront God and then recoil.” “We follow the law but do not have God directly in our lives”. “We cannot trust the self” In contrast, Fishbane is comfortable with direct God talk and religious experience without recoil and as a once born optimist he does not have the withdrawal and darkness of the twice born. He assumes that everyone is looking to get in touch with themselves and God. He also assumes that his audience is transparent and psychologically aware in their religious lives.

Since the goal of this project is a hermeneutical one, most of the book is on his views of Torah For him, the four levels of Pardes are the peshat of the everyday, the remez of the theological-legal, the derush philosophical-psychological, and the sod of the mystical. He develops Scholem’s idea of Torah as organism into Torah kelulah: God’s ongoing presence as a hermeneutical process. We have an opening to receive God’s word in everything if we are “attuned” to it. The fullness of Torah Kelulah is unsayable, yet an opening in which God’s creative power issues forth into a manifest universe. The Oral Torah is the ongoing expression and development of the primordial Written Torah. Religious life is in Torah study as reflected, imbibed, and present in the self. This process includes interiorization, centering, and silence.

Fishbane sees that the attunement leads to action and therefore we move quickly from hermeneutics to ethics. The book deals with reasons for the commandments, prayer, Shabbat, and the meaning of tehillim.

These interviews resulted from the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism at Yarnton convened by Dr. Freud-Kandel of Oxford and Prof. Ferziger of Bar-Ilan. Yet, one modern Orthodox intellectual present called Fishbane’s approach prophetic but not relevant for our real world lives based entirely on sociology and politics.

But this is real world-class contemporary theology in dialogue with contemporary philosophy thinking and within the bounds of contemporary thought. It is not just personal opinion but an opening to fertile rich new lines of thought. Take the time to understand it.

sacred attunment

1) What is Attunement with God? What are your sources for such attunement?
In my book, Sacred Attunement, I am concerned to cultivate modes of spiritual attentiveness. This involves focusing the mind and heart in particular ways – on the entities of existence and ultimately on God. The notion of ‘attunement’ serves this purpose. With respect to these entities, attentiveness to their distinctive qualities (be they persons or features of the world) involves putting oneself into an ongoing resonance with them; and this constant dialogical adjustment, which never appropriates the other, is a matter of self-attunement. With respect to God, the concern is to concentrate on ultimate transcendence, above and beyond the entities of the world; and this spiritual orientation is an attunement of another kind – a mindfulness of God, this being an attitude or disposition totally other that ‘knowing’ or ‘having’ some factual knowledge of Divinity. The self may even rise to a state of awareness of the Divine gift of being, and hold that cognition ‘in mind’. Humble reverence is its emotional valence.

I adapted the term ‘attunement’ from medieval and renaissance sources dealing with the vibration of the soul to ultimate matters; I subsequently found that a related existential usage was developed by Heidegger. My usage is idiosyncratic.

2) How can we use the Bible for gaining consciousness of God after historical criticism?
In religious traditions formed from Scripture, study is a multifaceted means of accessing knowledge of its content, for the sake of its values and practices. Thus the language of Scripture serves various purposes. Towards this end, Judaism has cultivated different modes of textual interpretation; these include the plain-sense of Scripture, its multiple midrashic senses (theological and halakhic), and some allegorical and mystical dimensions. Since all of these types were concerned to understand or apply the content of Scripture to religious life, these modes – singly and together – may provide a resource for contemporary seekers as well. But they will each have to be reinterpreted. For example, we have much to gain from contemporary studies of language and its modes of signification: this may guide us in thinking about how language names and transforms the world, and how it formulates terms of transcendence – through its various metaphors and figures (many of which are rooted in ancient Near Eastern stylistic forms, and cannot be fully appreciated apart from this context).

Midrashic creativity is also a rich source for thinking with Scripture about the mysteries of life and the transcendent claims they may make upon us. Midrash gives us a God-language that is grounded in the Bible, but also allows us to formulate new religious thought. This religious language is itself inflected by components of its historical environment (and many midrashic parables, which imagine God in human terms, are influenced by Roman figures and scenes).
I would add that many contemporaries also find in the meditative interpretations of the Bible as recorded in the Zohar a profound fund of verbal elements for imagining God in cosmic terms, or in the service of meditations that transcend language altogether (and knowing that some of these features also derive from Neoplatonism does not diminish their value, but may help us to better understand our own mystical texts).

Study of the Bible can therefore foster diverse forms of God-consciousness and attention to ultimate matters; and a critical understanding of its historical features may prove beneficial – both in their own right, and as they impact our contemporary lives. I therefore have no problem with historical criticism of any sort. We are historically situated beings, and all that we have created through acts of the spirit and the imagination are historically inflected – this includes the Torah, which we have through the agency of Moses and Tradition.

Historical criticism can enhance our sense of the myriad ways Jewish spiritual life (both theology and practice) has developed or changed over time, through ongoing biblical interpretation, and even stimulate new creativity. It is therefore a spiritual resource in every sense. Historical criticism respects the specificity of the literary works. Our appropriation of them is no less situated and historical.

In so many ways, the study of the Bible may inculcate new theologies or religious consciousness; and in doing it may put the interpreter in mind of God in diverse ways. As moderns (not unlike our forebears) we live with a conglomerate of theological figures; and in ritual moments (be they the study of different passages, or the recitation of different psalms in prayer) we move from image to image without any need for systematization or harmonization. We are their living coherence.

3) What does Sinai and the event at Sinai mean? How is Sinai an ever present reality? What happened to Biblical criticism?

Sinai is a foundational moment for Scripture and for Judaism. It is a cultural pivot, insofar as it mediates the founding event of the covenant and the onset of a commitment to certain values and acts. From Sinai on, the Jewish people have been devoted to God’s absolute transcendence – beyond all images and forms; and to a Torah and its related traditions which teach the inviolable character of life and its sanctification. Scripture places that event in an axial position, and Tradition has affirmed that every moment of its study can renew that event in consciousness as a living entity. Sinai was not merely a historical ‘then’, but may be an ever-present ‘now’; and thus the old event of Sinai can be revived anew, in ongoing ways. And just as Jews are repeatedly enjoined to see themselves ‘as if’ they came out of Egypt, every day, so too are we enjoined to see ourselves as standing at Sinai in the everyday: each moment being a modality of ongoing divine instruction which we may hear and do.

In this way, a person is attuned to the possibilities presented at each and every moment. For a Jew to live theologically, with Sinai in mind, is to live with this mindset. Biblical criticism is but one vector into the ancient moment of the ‘happening of Sinai’ and its literary transformations. These records are part of the formation of Scripture that radiates from Sinai, and has become sacred for Jews. If we suppress or elide the voices of the past, we become tone-deaf to primary accounts of our precious legacy.

4) You wrote about a “communal moment” at Sinai, but isn’t your approach very individualistic?

Every reading of Scripture is an individual event, even as it also participates in a communal paradigm; similarly, every religious action is performed by an individual, even as worshippers are part of a larger congregation or community of believers. The same holds true for the founding moment. The event of Sinai is portrayed in Scripture as a communal and collective moment (We shall do and we shall hear); but since antiquity many different midrashic passages reinterpret the literary traditions in the Book of Exodus, or other Scriptural passages linked to Sinai, with the individual aspect of this event. In some cases, each person was asked if they were individually committed to all the Torah and all its subsequent Traditions; in other ones, we learn that different persons received and understood the revelation according to their particular ability or capacity.
My book strives to renew the theological spirit of modern Jews. It therefore addresses them personally and individually; hence the particular tone I have taken throughout. But the renewal of Jews means the renewal of Judaism, which cannot be transformed without them; and thus the ultimate context for my work is the entire Jewish community. The individual and the communal are therefore intertwined.

5) Can one separate serving God from specific cultural forms? How is theological thinking a basis for action, and how do the mitzvot bring thoughts to action?

I do not understand how one can serve God separate from specific cultural forms – be those verbal or silent, public performances or private thoughts. This is true for all religions, and is distinctively so for Judaism. Moreover, because of this vital interconnection, the ritual forms used by the worshipper shape consciousness in different ways, and the ways one serves God enact distinctive God-forms for the culture and persons involved. Acts of thanksgiving or petition come to mind, as do deeds of charity and blessing. Each involves a distinct image or mode of Divinity. We incorporate these various modalities through our ritual gestures and in the vocabulary of our prayers (referring to God as the one “who” does thus and so). This said, I would still suggest that serving God through various cultural forms may include a theological disposition that can transcend them all, insofar as a person performs these actions with God in mind – a God who is transcendent to the specific actions and even the God-mindedness involved.

All activities may become occasions for such a God-consciousness, when recognizing in and through all our actions the God-given reality that challenges us to service and celebration. Each ‘Sinaitic moment’ obligates us to hear and do – to respond to our Divine destiny as creatures through the forms Torah and Tradition have prescribed. These are not restrictive obligations, but ones that are mind-expanding. They call upon us to enact our freedom in service to these duties; hence we discover our freedom through our obligations to God. This is the way I understand the great mishnaic watchword that interprets the laws “inscribed upon the tablets” (harut ‘al ha-luhot) as modalities of “freedom” commanded through them (herut ‘al ha-luhot). Thus this intersection of freedom and obligations transcends the dichotomy of autonomy and heteronomy (inner-directedness vs. external rules). I do what I must do for the sake of the fulfillment of who I am and may freely become as a moral and spiritual person.

6) What is the role of the ever changing reasons for the commandments?

When one speaks of the ‘reasons for the commandments’ one thinks primarily of constructing meanings that serve one’s spiritual destiny and intellectual integrity. These reasons have changed over time – and there is evidence for this process already in the Bible – since people are ever trying to live with meaning and honesty, and trying to find in the commandments a higher purpose (or justification) for their religious behavior or attitudes. This purpose often accords with their hierarchy of values at any time – a hierarchy that emerges from Scripture and the Tradition, but also from external philosophical values reincorporated into it. The changing ‘reasons’ attest to our changing historical situations and our desire to justify the quality and character of our religious lives. Finding reasons for the commandments offers opportunities for such reflection, and for integrating what we value from the world at large into our daily religious lives. This process keeps us spiritually alert and morally honest.

7) What is the difference between the Adamic Self and the Mosaic Self?
When I use the designations ‘Adamic Self’ and ‘Mosaic Self’ in my book, I am concerned to highlight the difference between two ways of being in the world: the term Adamic Self refers to ourselves as natural beings, who share mortal characteristics and a world destiny with all creatures of flesh and blood (it thus has a universal component); whereas the term Mosaic Self refers to us Jews as religious beings, who share the specific spiritual path charted by Moses our teacher and his historic heirs (it thus has a particularistic component).
Our religious lives are both embedded within, and develop from, our condition as creatures of the earth – and we must never lose track of this alignment. But our universal creaturehood is also culturally marked and inflected, and we choose this as self-conscious religious persons. This choice is exemplified by Moses himself, who turned from his natural condition as a shepherd, to engage his spiritual destiny. In Scripture this is a paradigmatic moment; and this challenge confronts each of us – our turning to religious choices and spiritual destiny is something we ourselves are ever called upon to do. And so, just as we must always be aware of our natural ground as creatures, so must we try to be simultaneously conscious of the religious challenges that give us opportunities to transform our naturalness. This is a mentality to be cultivated and lived on a daily basis.

8) Your work is so pious and God-centered that most who share your sense of the sacred would not have a historicist consciousness? How do you bring the two together?
To be a Jew is constantly to stand at Sinai and choose to accept the life tasks that present themselves. Our Jewish Tradition has powerful means for shaping our consciousness and attitudes, and for guiding them towards action in the world. It is essential to live with alert attunement to these tasks and what they require of us at every moment. This is a demanding requirement; so is the God-mindedness related to it. To be God-centered is therefore not to be self-centered; it is rather to be engaged in self-transcendence through attunement to the presentations of the world, as they present themselves.

This is not a theological attitude that transcends the world for some metaphysical domain, or is free of the nitty-gritty that stains things and our frail moral purposes. It is a theological disposition that is historically situated, with all the contingencies and complications that go with that posture. Hence our historical factuality is fundamental and cannot be escaped, if we are spiritually honest; and to be critical and analytical by degrees is not a stultification of our God-centeredness, but a way that we may monitor ourselves and our attunements to existence at every moment. Living in this way, is a type of ‘avodah be-gashmiyut – a service of God in and through our embodiment. Ultimately, I believe, it is a ‘sacred attunement’.

9) Do you have an ‘ontological presupposition’ of sorts about the existence of God and of Sinai?
This is a weighty question, and needs to be sorted out at several levels. The primary ontological given that one has to reckon with as a human being is the totality of existence that impinges upon our lives, and demands (or calls us to) a response. We answer with attempts to live meaningful lives: to name things rightly and for good ends; to act rightly and for high-minded purposes; and to do all this in ways that reduce harm and increase goodness.
This is part of our natural lives within a mystery that ever exceeds us – call it ‘super-natural’, if you wish. Oriented to this all-encompassing mystery, we humbly direct our consciousness to what we name ‘God’ – meaning by this word a culturally inflected limit-term, which exceeds all our cognitive and passionate presuppositions. And this limit includes all of our theological presuppositions about God, be these ever so sophisticated or naive.
Religious philosophy and mysticism have always cautioned us to beware of thinking that God is a being like other beings, or even a supreme Being, since God is wholly Other than anything our anthropomorphic presuppositions may suppose; contemporary philosophical and theological thought has reinforced this caution and the dangers of mental idolatries.

But if our ontological nature as human beings is something we are potentially cognizant of, this requires us, so to speak, ‘to know before Whom one stands’, and to live a life consonant with such a God-inspired humility: one that seeks the good and the sanctification of all life from within the standpoint of our mortal frailty. Sinai calls upon us, as a Voice of destiny, to heed these values: to have no god but God before us at all times, to smash idols of every sort, and to respect human and material boundaries.

For this reason we may perhaps say that Sinai is an ontological reality that calls us, through the unfolding realities of tradition and interpretation, to hear what must be heard and to do what must be done. It is a cultural presupposition that directs our minds and lives beyond ontology, to God as absolute transcendence, and absolutely transcendent to all being.

10) What are the philosophical challenges of theology, metaphysics or hermeneutics today?
Every person must start from their own particular life situation, knowledge, and proclivities. There is no set of philosophical challenges that address all minds, or in the same way. This said, we are all aware that our small universe is part of infinities beyond our comprehension, and that its peril and fate is both related to but far exceeds our intentions and our destiny. And this must give pause to the hubris of our various theological, metaphysical, or hermeneutical assertions.

Modern thought has produced volumes that stress our cognitive and interpretative limits (for any number of epistemological reasons), or the limitations of our situated perspectives (for phenomenological reasons) – even as our scientific capacities challenge the constraints we have imposed. We must therefore determine to live with self-conscious humility and with a consciousness of our moral responsibilities – both for ourselves and our planet.

Hermeneutical thought, in particular, has brought home in incontrovertible ways that we use language within certain ‘horizons of understanding’, and that it shapes human consciousness and social realities. Language is a creative force to be used or abused – both for the forms of thought produced and the forms of life which underpin them.

These considerations also affect our religious and theological lives. The issue of religious language is a challenge, as it has always been (since the sages in the Midrash or philosophers like Philo). Once again, we are perplexed. What terms should we use for God, and what is their status? Are the images of God to be understood as theological propositions, or as figures that direct consciousness towards non-conceptual references?

And, more practically: how can we use or develop a theological language that fits with both our tradition and with intellectual frontiers our tradition has never confronted? These and related topics have particular import for the practice of our religious lives. Within ever-expanding horizons that may include the respect for and awareness of different religions and theologies and philosophies (including literatures depicting diverse worldviews), we must repeatedly determine how to formulate and sustain compelling motivations for our traditional behaviors.

These are great challenges. Taking them in hand, we must not retreat before this vast horizon into naive fundamentalism or narrow traditionalism; or dilute our basic values within some indeterminate universal dimension. A stance of open steadfastness (open to the world yet steadfast in a thoughtful commitment to traditional forms of life and value) will require will power and good will. But despite the confusions and tensions these issues engender, we still have local tasks to perform – which compel us without doubt; and face the reality of other persons (both religious compatriots and fellow creatures) and the imperatives they impose – calling us to hear and do what we can, as best we can. Such demands are perhaps sufficient for the day, and help ground our lives, otherwise depleted of much metaphysical certainty.

4 responses to “An Interview with Michael Fishbane

  1. For those who want a video introduction:

  2. lawrence kaplan

    I have a few questions.

    1. Professor Fishbane speaks of God’s transcendence. What of His immanence?

    2: He further speaks of the study of the Bible, of Scripture, as fostering diverse forms of God consciousness. What of the study of the Talmud, the central form of traditional Jewish study?

    3:Finally, he speaks of the Adamic-self and the Mosaic-self. What of the Abrahamic self?

  3. Berry Schwartz

    Very interesting. His book was a wonderful read. The problem is that there is no data on how real people in the real world can use this in a healthy, authentic and soulful way.

  4. Prof. Fishbane appears to create a very subjective and personal Judaism.

    How does the State of Israel, the Holocaust, the North American Jewish Federation model, collective Jewish history, Catholic Israel, or Jewish Peoplehood fit into his theology?

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