Category Archives: literary studies

Levinas’s Wartime Notebooks

Summer Reading- Levinas’s Wartime notebooks. From the brief excerpts in the review in this week’s Forward, it seems that the content is steps on the way to his “Existence and Existents.” It also shows the early interest of Levinas in fiction and human nature. The short quotes seem to have a Nietzsche quality or a Thomas Mann pessimism.

The Obi-Wan Kenobi of 20th-century Jewish philosophy, Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, has grown in fame and stature since his death in 1995.

This spring, a flood of admiring new books on Levinas will appear: “Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption” from Columbia University Press; “Other Others: Levinas, Literature, Transcultural Studies” from SUNY Press; “Levinasian Meditations” from Duquesne University Press; and “A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism” from Stanford University Press.

Yet none is as startlingly, indeed stunningly, revelatory as a new book… Levinas’s previously unpublished “Notebooks in Captivity” the first volume of a planned series of his complete writings.
The notebooks were written mostly during the Second World War (some uncollected postwar jottings and essays are also included). Levinas, a French citizen since 1930, had served in the army, and after the Nazi victory he became a prisoner of war in various French camps and finally, from 1942 to 1945, at Stalag XI-B at Fallingbostel, Germany, near Bergen-Belsen… Levinas was assigned to one of the all-Jewish commandos, doing hard labor for long hours under brutal conditions. He mostly worked in harshly treated forestry brigades,

Fascinatingly, the notebooks reveal for the first time that Levinas long planned to write novels, even though these would remain unfinished, surviving in the form of outlines and fragmentary drafts. One, titled “Sad Opulence” (Triste Opulence) and later retitled “Eros,” tells the story of an army interpreter who becomes a prisoner of war. A second novel, “The Lady From Wepler’s” (“La Dame de Chez Wepler”), also set in wartime, is about a protagonist’s obsession with a prostitute glimpsed, but never approached, because of the “chasm which separates respect from sexuality.”
Levinas notes: “Sexual love — the only one which may be fulfilled, in which caresses may culminate. Other loves (even filial or paternal) are impotent. Impotent because inexpressible, incapable of being fulfilled.”

Excerpts from Emmanuel Levinas’s nine small wartime notebooks:

Appearance of prisoners in Germany. Monastic or moral life. Even old men have something innocent and pure about them.

In the room with the little dormer window, men like clouds which hide the sun.

In Tolstoy the main thing is not truth about human nature but the emotion of someone who suddenly discovers all of life’s falseness, lying, complacency.

Winter sun, like a dead man’s kiss.

The only human perfection — beauty. Like a miraculous branch on a rotten tree trunk. The only miracle.

Tree — the most arrogant vertical of living nature. Its majesty — vertical majesty.

Moshe Kline and the Structured Mishnah

The 1980′s and 1990′s attracted many original minds to Jerusalem. One of them, Moshe Kline, part-time real estate developer, devoted himself to a Torah lishmah quest for the structure of Mishnah. I was always intrigued by anyone who can discuss Leo Strauss, Maharal, and Mishnah in one sentence. My interest was originally the Maharal angle. But, I have had many colleagues who use Kline’s structured approach to the Mishnah in teaching HS or adult education.

An introductory lecture presenting his discovery and method as delivered to Talmoodists is available here.
Having this chart in front of you will help in understanding the lecture.
An article capturing his original insight based on Maharal is available here.
The website has his articles on Bible and his complete printable color-coded Mishnah. If you want to discuss the method then please read the above articles first. Here is the home page of the website with tabs for articles on Torah and Mishnah.

He recently stopped by on a cold wintry NY day and answered a few questions.

1] What was your discovery about the Mishnah?

The original goal of my Mishnah project was to determine the principles according to which chapters of Mishnah were organized. In order to uncover these rules, it was first necessary to identify the components of chapters. The differing divisions into mishnayot (Bavli, Yerushalmi, various printings of the Mishnah) are all late and extraneous to the text. So I began going through the Mishnah dividing the chapters into components according to literary indicators.
Early on, I realized that the chapters were actually composed with two levels of division, a fact which is totally disguised by the common division into linearly-divided mishnayot. This was the key to the discovery that the chapters were composed as non-linear texts which could be visualized and understood as tables.
The chapters of the Mishnah were formatted according to a paradigm that resembles a table. I then set out each chapter in a visual format consistent with its inner literary structure. The discovery of the literary structure of the chapter leads to an approach to the study of the chapter as a coherent construct rather that a collection of loosely connected laws.

2] Who has supported it?

My edition of the Mishnah was accepted for publication by BGU Press on recommendation of Shamma Friedman and Daniel Boyarin. I have also received encouragement from David Weiss Halivni and Shlomo Zalman Havlin. Since I made it available online ( about ten years ago, I have lost track of how many people actually use it. Currently people are downloading about 20-30 copies of the full text per day. In addition, several hundred individual chapters are accessed every day. So I guess a lot of people are using it.

3] What did you learn from Leo Strauss about reading a text?

Although I cite Persecution and the Art of Writing, and see the Mishnah as an exoteric/esoteric text, I learned how to read during four years of the great-books program at St. John’s College. (Strauss retired to St. John’s as scholar in residence.) The most important element of this education, relevant to my research, is the requirement to read primary texts without commentary. This made me uncomfortable with the traditional Jewish approach to its foundational texts, i.e. that they could not be approached without commentaries. I was also influenced by the fact that the historical approach was anathema at St. John’s. Consequently, my work is neither “traditional” nor academic/historical.

4] What did you gain from Maharal?

The Maharal opened the door for me to see the Mishnah as a coherent composition, primarily through his exposition of the pairs in the first chapter of Avot. He made it clear that this structure was to be read as a philosophic composition rather than a loose compilation of aphorisms.

5] What did you learn from Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou)?

From Manitou I learned first and foremost to trust in myself and my St. John’s training. After we studied Maharal together for a period of several months, I began to see other parts of Avot as literary constructs, in addition to the pairs in the first chapter. Manitou then told me that he had received a tradition that the whole of the Mishnah used to be studied in the way that I was beginning to read Avot. However, several generations ago this knowledge had been lost. He asked me to restore this knowledge by identifying the literary structure of the Mishnah. He was sure that the “kabbala” was embedded in the formal structure, or in his words, that the Mishnah was constructed according to the “kabbala”. However, he instructed me to avoid reference to this in my work, and limit myself to literary analysis. Monitou gave me my life’s work, which has now gone farther than he envisioned.

6] What are you current Bible projects?

I am preparing a structured edition of the Torah which is similar to my edition of the Mishnah. In the meantime, I have published articles on Leviticus. Jacob Milgrom has become my mentor in biblical studies. I am also finishing an article on the link between the structure of the Torah and the structure of the Mishnah. In it, I demonstrate that Rabbi had an esoteric tradition regarding the literary formatting of the Torah which he applied to the composition of the Mishnah.

The paradigm can be seen in the first chapter of the Torah through the six days of creation. We all are familiar with the parallels between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6. These parallels actually divide the days into two parallel cycles of three days each, 1-3 and 4-6. What is less known, is that the cycles differ from each other in a fixed manner. The days of the first cycle contain creations that are unique, separated, named and motionless (Straus). The days of the second cycle contain groups of multiple, unnamed, moving creations: stars, fish, etc. By arranging the six days in a table containing two columns, the two cycles, and three rows, the paired days, you get a visual representation of the structure underlying the six days of creation. Each individual day is a function of the intersection of two planning lines, its column and its row. “Reading” the text according to this structure reveals the underlying metaphysics of the creation.

7] How does your approach differ from the literary approaches to Bible and Mishnah that are being produced by Machon Herzog?
My specific focus is on the division into the structural literary units and the additional meanings that are made available by the identification of these larger units.

Critical Theory and Religion

An interesting find on the consistently superb blog Mirror of Justice, written by two dozen law professors teaching at Catholic law schools.

The Cambridge professor of theology,  Denys Turner, has noted “in much continental philosophy, from Heidegger to Levinas and Derrida, it is  acknowledged, with varying degrees of unease at having to concede the point, that the predicaments of our culture have an ineradicably theological character.” Back in 2004, Paul Griffiths made a similar point in a First Things essay, titled “Christ and Critical Theory,” which explores the Christian yearning of the likes of Lyotard, Badio, Eagleton (then a disaffected post-marxist), and Zizek.

If one takes the Crits to be involved with a philosophical engagement with difference, then their connection to a form of Christianity has been noted by theologians for some time. Points of contact exist between apophatic religion and the philosophical concern for difference, religious skepticism, and lived experience. Apophaticism is a via negativa approach to the divine where God is nameless because, in the words of Meister Eckhardt, “no one can say anything or understand anything about him.” The Crits, in their veneration of difference, negate the hegemonic traditions, thus leaving a space for apophasia, since positive namings of God are a part of the negated tradition.

What remains paramount for the Crits is experience. The lived experience of moral sentiments substitute for rational discourse, since such discourse is viewed as hopelessly rooted in authoritative traditions of moral reason that must be de-centered. Some, such as de Lubac, Balthasar, (and recently Pickstock and Millbank), see a genealogy for this in Ockham’s nominalism–the separation of language from reality.

What would any of this mean for Judaism? Can any of this turn be used to create an ethical turn and moral sentiments toward love, fear, hospitality, and engaging the other?

Authorship and the Individual

Interesting book review on questions of authorship as applied to Dante. The critical theorists have already shown that medievals treated Aristotelian philosophy the way we treat the rules of physics, not something that needs an author. And they showed how some medieval texts were written with the reader in mind- either as images on the side of the page or only giving allusions and letting the reader apply them on his own. Medievals also wrote as a form of revelation, and treated cosmologies as revelatory and they considered the bearers of the scholarly tradition as possessing an immanent truth. Not everyone who wrote was considered an auctores.

This opens up the question of what rabbinic Jewish author were doing? The Geonim and Nahmanides were writing with the a Divine spirit, or at least legal decisions were guided by the Divine. Some Kabbalistic works are seen as transmitting ancient knowledge or ascribed to older figures. And the Guide for the Perplexed is just that, a guide for the reader. But what were the “authors” of Pirkei deRebbe Eliezer thinking?

To consider the modern issues: Judaism never bought into the idea of the individual author and still has trouble with intellectual property of an author. In many texts, Torah is seen as possessed by the collective or as eternally given. So when a posek writes a teshuvah: Is it his own authorship? Does he write as bearer of a mesorah, like a medieval kabbalist? Is there a revelation granted to the community? We tend to frame these questions using the anachronistic modern contrast of autonomy and authority. We need to ask: what is involved in an act of religious writing? Does one write ex cathedra, with immanent truth, with revelation, or for the reader?

But then it becomes more difficult- what happens when the written opinions of a rabbi are involved in petty squabbles or personal interests or manipulated by politics? Ascoli’s book on Dante asks that question directly – If Dante claimed to write with revelation then how can he till be involved in his petty squabbles? What happens when someone writes with immanent divine truth and also acts as an independent agent?

Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2008. Reviewed by Jan G. Soffner (Zentrum Cr Literatur- und Kulturforschung) Published on H-Italy (December, 2009)

By Which Authority Did Dante Write?

If one happens to talk by chance about Dante’s fourteenth-century masterpiece _Divine Comedy_, one can observe a strange phenomenon.

Dante seems to misuse God for his political opinions, by letting the divine justice condemn his enemies, and for his personal
pride or arrogance, by having all the best dead poets honor him (see, for instance, Inferno IV, 100-102). Moreover, isn’t it already quite
presumptuous to “know” the divine verdict about everybody who has ever died? All this seems to be even stranger, since this work is
evidently a literary text, not an inspired prophecy like the Revelation. So how could Dante attribute this authority to himself?
And did he attribute this authority to himself after all, or did he “just” write fiction?

This suspicion arose as soon as the _poema sacro–_the “holy poem,” as Dante himself calls it (Paradiso XXV, 1)–was written. Nearly
seven hundred years of “Dantology” (to use Robert Harrison’s brilliantly provocative term)[1] have not convincingly resolved this
doubt. In the fourteenth century cosmological representations in the _Cosmographia_ of BernardusSilvestris (ca. 1084-1178), the _Anticlaudianus_ of Alanus ab Insulis (1120-1202) and the _Tesoretto_ of Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-94). They read the text either as a spiritual revelation and a dream, despite its literary construction and despite the claim to report a physical journey, or they interpreted it in a “modern” way, that is, as a fictional construction, despite the explicit claims of the _Commedia_to be a revelatory work.

Ascoli also has an excellent knowledge notonly of the works of modern theoretical thinkers such as Hannah
Arendt, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Mary Carruthers about literary authorship and authority, but also of the discursive
figurations of _auctores_ available at Dante’s time. Ascoli starts with an extensive analysis of contemporary concepts of
authorship, and of the manner in which Dante seems to be relating to them as a whole. Ascoli argues that the image of an author stemmed
from the trustworthy _auctoritates_ of the ancient and/or philosophical and theological tradition granting for an immanent
truth to biblical scribes and the true author, who is God. These traditional concepts refer to _auctoritas_ as both an individual and
impersonal power and knowledge. The _auctor_ thereby was not so much a creative agent, but rather a mediating power of knowledge. He was
one worthy of faith and obedience.

Hence Dante, modeled as an individual traveler in the _Divine Comedy_, “comes, paradoxically, to embody the canons of
impersonal authority” (p. 20). On the one hand Dante is thereby traditionalist and conservative, on the other, he is also provided
with the “transgressive desire to appropriate that attribute for himself, for the vernacular, and for ‘modernity’” (p. 20f).

How can a fictional work gain a revelatory truth? Ascoli shows convincingly how Dante assumes the traditional role of an
authoritative author without thereby relating to the pre-existing models of knowledge implied by these kinds of authorship.
The unease of us moderns when confronted with Dante cannot just be about the relation to an ineffable divine Being. Representationalist
modern authors work with a more or less Aristotelian concept of fiction, that is, with a concept of a poetic truth relying on
modeling possibilities and an emotionality that can be addressed playfully and without consequences. However, Dante tells us a
different story

Here is a sample of chapter one of Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author.
Can we move beyond the dichotomies of authority/autonomy or submission/freedom and explain the act of religious writing or studying Torah or acting as a rabbi in terms of how they define authorship or role of the self in the process?

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Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part II

This continues from part I – here.

Back when I was in graduate school, I was studying Neoplatonism as a background for mysticism, but at the time postmodern deconstructionism was the rage. My professor trained in classics just shrugged off the new movement saying it was the return of the Sophists who were rejecting our beloved Plato. In the last 15 years, French philosophers- such as Alain Badiou have rejected post-modernist denial of truth by a return to weak knowledge; they return to Plato but argue that he had sympathy for the sophist projects (and mystery cults). Plato, and rationality in general, now has irrationality, obsessions, puzzles, and idiosyncrasies. Boyarin has read many of these works and presents the ideal of Greek philosophy and Talmudism as mediated in the complexity of the real world by satire (and rhetoric).

The setting for Boyarin’s book is a freshman core curriculum course in rhetoric for 600 students, in which the reading list includes among others Plato, Gorgias, Lucian, Thucydides, and Talmud. The book reads like the literary criticism of mid-twentieth century Columbia University- Van Doran, Barzun, Trilling- great ideas, illuminating fragments of other people’s scholarship, awakening the students to the life of the mind, but not worrying about the philologists.

My interest is what it contributes to Jewish thought- I will leave comments on the rest of the book to classicists and Talmudists. Only 3 out of 8 chapters are on Talmud.

What is a Platonic dialogue? Boyarin follows the Platonic scholarship of John Salllis (1996) who accepts the arguments of Plato’s critics’ and those who see him as more rhetoric than dialectic. Boyarin wants to open a humanistic question that is asked of Plato but rather in Jewish studies– what is Talmud? His starting point is David Kraemer work’s on the Bavli as literature, which he sees as asking some of the right questions and Boyarin will give more complex answers.

He situates the entire rabbinic project in the broad Roman cultural world. Somewhat similar to the way that in the current era of globalization the entire world knows coca cola, the Lexus, McDonalds, American TV, and American Pop music.  Boyarin has little interest in creating a thick description of the cultural world and he has no analysis of the local knowledge or micro-histories. (Ignore his preface to the book- In the 1990’s when he was claiming to be a post-modern in his introductions, he was still using Dilthy and classic German cultural approaches. Now, he once again makes self-identifying claims based on what he is currently reading but having little bearing on what he is doing.)

He built up a presentation through other classical works about the role of serious vs satire, farce, and child’s play and applies them to the Talmud. Chapter six applies all categories as a sustained playing with Rabbi Meir. He cites an Ohr Sameah web posting to show how a “non scholarly to a fault source” uses the Roman material as a form of piety. Boyarin’s own presentations plays with satire, rhetoric, and the serious; many examples are left as metonymy or emblemic without a full presentation.

One of his best insights of the book for Jewish thought is his reading of Why did they not listen to Rabbi Meir since he can make the pure impure and the impure pure? Answer- like a sophist he was not connected to truth and therefore gets an ambiguous presentation..

Maharal and Rav Zadok answer that he was above the single perspective of ordinary materiality, the former emphasized his lack of materiality and the latter his mystical perspective. And they both have expositions on why the rabbis are fat. As noted before, Boyarin will be useful for the Eastern European interest in wild midrashim- midrash peliah.  In my slow production of Maharal articles, Boyarin will come in handy when I deal with emblem and grotesque in Maharal.

Boyarin never discusses the mythos-logos relationship. Plato reformulates the myths to teach logos once property understood. This would have made the book more relevant to later Jewish thinkers since philosophers, kabblaists, and modern rationalists all use this device to state the aggadah has a deeper meaning. In the interim, I recommend the recent French scholar  Luc Brisson, Plato the Myth Maker

The book has lots of ideas but would be nicely complimented by someone to write a full volume on Roman satire and the Talmud in order to actually be able to evaluate the thesis properly.  In Border Lines, Boyarin introduces rabbinic logos thinking and the idea of rabbinic bitheism and then we have Moshe Idel giving us 700 pages of Ben: Sonship in Jewish Mysticism. This large tome allows us to begin to see where it works and where it does not.

I would like a similar volume here. For example, in TB Berakhot where the market place is seen a place of courtesans- there is much material in  Jmaes Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1999)to begin an analysis- but how does this relate to the Hesiod sounding “HKBH’s tears created Orion and the Pleiades and both of them to the Heikhalot material in the tractate.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance turned to Plato to show how rhetoric wins over dialectic, and people should turned to direct experience and the narrative of the daily life. Now that current authors mix all the Platonic category – Boyarin offers a way to look at the mixed bag of the Talmud as part of classics.

I did not think it will make it onto my reading list for this spring on contemporary Jewish thinkers of the last 15 years (I am sitting here with a pile of examination copies of things. Michael Fishbane will be on the list).

As a side point, Boyarin did not seem to know Jacob Bernays, the important Lucian scholar was Hakham Bernay’s son (RSR Hirsch’s teacher) and Freud’s brother-in-law,  because if he did the loose editorial hand of the book would have somehow tied it in.

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part I

I just received my desk copy of Daniel Boyarin’s new book Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (University of Chicago), I have not read it yet. The book is quite dense and intricate at points so I just did a short first reading, skimming it at points and will read it in detail this week.

The major fact used by the book is that the aggadah in the Bavli was influenced by Roman Satire especially Lucian  with his Menippean satire.

1] I wonder about the upcoming reception of the book. There has been a strong visceral reaction against situating the Talmud within Roman satire. A.A. Halevi, Sha’arei ha-Aggadah (1963) gave parallels between aggadah and Roman satires, but almost no one really picked it up. Already the Soncino Talmud had footnotes to the sources of sugyot in Roman satire, but who quotes those footnotes? In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many majored in classics and readily saw the parallels.  Is the reluctance because those who study Talmud, even in liberal seminaries, have a theological need to make the Talmud unique?

2] Boyarin discusses those who distance themselves from the exaggerated aggadah by distinguishing between halakhah and aggadah, and he discusses those who want to show the relationship of the two realms of halkhah and aggadah. He mentions the folklorists who remove the stories from their halakhic realm altogether.But he concludes that there are two types of aggadah, the gentle rational aggadah of the Halakhic realm and the wild aggadah. Boyarin references the distinction to Krokhmal. (I heard  similar distinction from Rav Soloveitchik – that we should use the aggadah of the halakhic realm and not any and all texts of aggadah)

3] But Boyarin’s point is that the Talmudic debates are really monovocal, unlike the dialogues of the Platonic dialogues. (Similar ideas were already stated by Louis Jacobs in his Talmudic Argument.)  Boyarin uses Bakhtin’s theories of dialogue and heteroglossia to claim that the halakhah does not consist of debates but is a single voice. But the halakhah together with the agadah, the narratives, and roman satire Aggadah create a rich sense of dialogue in the Talmud in which the aggadah undercuts and reverses the halakhah yet the halakhah retains its supremacy. (I had similar ideas back in 1988 using Bakhtiin and have notes to myself in a jot pad – my focus was distinguishing between the monovocal sugya compared to heteroglossia created by the commentaries- I must find the jot pad in the basement.).

4] Since anyone who has read classics has seen this parallel to Roman materials – what were the first reactions? R. Shmuel David Luzzato wrote that the Talmud is a conversation and that we can reject parts. Krokhmal said “dor dor vedorshav” this was the way the Jewish idea was expressed in that era. They were ahistoric and had roman satire- now we are rational and study history. For Geiger and most critics of the Talmud, it is another reason to reject the entire Talmudic enterprise. Maharetz Hayetz  offers apologetic that they are didactic and do not conflict our modern sense; there is no historic difference from today. Many of them were simply to awaken and arouse the students.RSH Hirsch said aggadot have no tradition and we have to use reason to pick out the real ones. Even Loius Ginzberg claimed to have an intuitive sense of which aggadot are truly rabbinic.

Boyarin claims these ribald carnival aggadot are essential parts for understanding the Talmudic literary structure. This puts him in the same camp as the Maharal, Vilna Gaon and Rav Nahman of Breslov.