Jewish and Christian Intertextuality and Welcoming Islam

Peter Ochs
University of Virginia

This year’s SSR gathering features several events at once: two great text-philosophers treating us to innovative reasonings about messianic/mystical scripture in Judaism and Christianity; our group’s achieving a new level of Jewish/Christian intertextuality and cross-hermeneutics (as in “cross-culture,” not the Cross, at least I don’t think so!); and our welcoming into shared study a sub-community of Muslim text reasoners. This response focuses on the second item in particular: the inter- and cross-study.

Think of it. Elliot Wolfson, the Jewish text scholar-philosopher of mysticism, examines the theological hermeneutics of a Christian kabbalist (Kemper), a convert from Judaism, who comments on the trinitarianism—and christology—implicit in Jewish kabbalah and in Jewish halacha. Whose texts and interpretations are these? Which rule of interpretation rules which, and for what end?

Think of it another time. David Ford, the Christian philosopher-text scholar of theology, re-examines the performative force of scripture (Ephesians) for Jewish-Christian relations; re-interpreting a Jewish study of the work of the Christian philosopher Charles Peirce as a scriptural, in fact rabbinic-like, semiotics. Do the Christian Scriptures suffer? Do they suffer for Jews? Does the Christian theo-philosopher suffer with and for Scriptures in their causing—or caring for—the suffering of Jews? That is to say, may the Scriptures that heal also bring pain? Not only that, but may Ford’s reading ward against such potential violence, by reading the text Christologically as guided by a rabbinically-inspired pragmatics, so that the healed Scripture brings or introduces pleroma ?

All this, even before Dr. Israr Ahmad brings to the dialogue his Muslim reading of Sufi mysticism.

A first response is Baruch hashem, Praise God: both as an expression of thanks for the wonder of this moment of study, but also as a caution against the pleroma ‘s overspilling. If it overspills, it is out of joy and shared abundance, indeed, but this abundance also risks overstepping the lingusitic, semiotic, hermeneutical, and performative borders of the text communities. While carrying on such a set of readings, how do we both share and protect the differences among our traditions?

My second responses are Blessings to the two authors.


A blessing on my friend David Ford for finding any use for a technical study of the arcane Peirce beyond intra-Peirce studies…. David gives his reasoning habit up for a spell to try-on the pragmatic pattern of reading scripture suggested or at least hinted by this book on Peirce. Then again, he has not only given-up habits, for any of us who reads Ford’s theo-philosophies knows that his work already displays this deep tendency to release his-own rationality before others and the Other. And we know that his theo-phenomenology is already one that thematizes (in a humble way) the Face of the other and the Other to whom one gives-up ones reasoning. Reasoning’s ex-stasis? Is this not already a habit of ecstatic reasoning? And is it not remarkable that two major tropes in his writings are the other (object of this self-offering) AND joy, superabundant joy? Shouldn’t giving up connote more the pain and suffering of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice? Whence this joy?

I won’t enter here into the themes of Levinas/Jungel/Ford that some of you may have seen already in David’s recent writings and will see, with much more to boot, in his profound theo-philosophy book on Self and Salvation, Being Transformed (Cambridge, 1999). Later, I’ll mention instead a small, pastoral book he wrote for the Anglican Church, The Shape Of Life (Harper Collins, 1997). It’s about mundane things: a paperback with a cover filled with the images and colors of everyday life, and also filled page by page with the outburst of abundance that can be heard in the everyday even when the everyday can seem, as ours does so much, too weighted down by the overwhelming noise and distraction of modern life. Before turning to it, however, a look at how his essay for us anticipates this book.

In his paper for our SSR, David achieves, in about 3 pages, a remarkably clear and comprehensive statement of most of what I sought to argue, through about 400 very dense pages on Peirce. He fully captures and then tests the pragmatic (that is, reparative) logic of scripture as an invitation for dialogic and performative responses to scripture’s own enigmas and problems. Here scripture is received as a word (and discourse) that redeems suffering and repairs the conditions of violence that cause it. David clarifies this logic and then tests it, performatively, by conducting a pragmatic reading of Ephesians.

The pragmatic logic of scripture is also complemented by a SEMIOTIC (i.e., diagrammatic) logic of scripture, and this one is PERFORMED more than thematized by David’s paper. This logic is displayed in the way scripture BRINGS TO LIGHT the unseen or enigmatic—that is, in the way it clarifies and in that sense diagrams what is already here but not recognized. David performs this dimension of scriptural logic through the way he brings light to my book and to any usefulness Peirce’s work might have to the work of scriptural reasoning.

What relation does the logic of repair have to the logic of clarification? Or in what are they co-present? Here, they are co-present, for one, in David’s performance: as his essay could be redescribed as a simultaneous activity of bringing light to what is unclear or hidden AND of illustrating how to bring healing to what is wounded. HOW are these co-present in David’s activity of reading and reasoning: by what rule or through what source?

I have already mentioned the copresence of JOY and RESPONSE TO THE FACE OF THE OTHER as tropes and as performances in David’s theo-philosophic work. Does that mean the co-presence of these two is already a sign of the scriptural logic inherent in his previous writing? If so, in what, by what are these two complements co-present in his work? Perhaps in the form of “Two seeking a Third.” Here the “Two” refers to the co-presence of a principle for “bringing-light” with a principle for “bringing redemption or repair.” The “Third” refers to David’s search for the rule or practice that brings these two principles to cooperative, rather than competitive, co-presence. What is this Third? By what name is it called?

Time to return to The Shape of the Living. HERE there are two dominant tropes: what David calls “bad overwhelmings” and “good overwhelmings.” Of the bad he mentions our being overwhelmed so much and in such painful ways today: by the excessive presence of the computer and information bits; by excessive news and talk and noise; by addictions; and by all ways in which relationship(s) is and are interrupted, postponed, and broken. Beyond these, he speaks as well of the excess of death and loss that characterizes this century.

Of the good, he mentions moments when we taste the overwhelming generosity of others, or of overwhelming resources and potential, or of this and that reason for our sometimes feeling overwhelming gratitude. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (from Michael O’Shiadhail, HAIL! MADAM JAZZ[Bloodaxe, 1992]; Michael O. is David’s poet of joy and, at times, of brokenness; his poetry is also a place of both logics and for it too there is reason to want to name a Third that binds both). Here, he writes of joy and feasting. And he cites Ephesians, “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up … all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” By his last chapter, the joy is perichoresis, dancing—Michael O’s “Dance”—and the dance of “the hospitality of God.”

So, David’s paperback gives at least a couple of names to the Third in which the two logics of scripture are one. Scripture is identified as the place where that One is known by way of a relation between the reasoning that repairs suffering and the reasoning that brings light to the hidden.


My second blessing is on my friend Elliot Wolfson for portraying, in that infinitely recursive detail of the Jewish textualist, the way suffering and light may mix in the bi- or cross-covenantal kabbalah of the Jew cum Christian kabbalist Kemper. Leave it to Elliot to bring to light various pockets of as yet undisclosed darkness and enigma in what we may have thought we had seen clearly.

Placed together, Elliot’s and David’s papers generate comparisons of unexpected fertility and danger. First note the serendipity of this attractive danger. Stimulated by Wolfson’s work, the SSR had planned this year to examine mysticism in the scriptural traditions. Elliot’s work on the Jewish mystic Cordosa led to a theme of messianism within the mystical corpus, and that led to David’s paper on Ephesians. What would have led to this rabbinic pragmatism, or led Elliot to move on to messianic mysticism in this Christian kabbalist?

I believe that this unexpected coincidence provides an appropriate vehicle for analyzing the ongoing work of SSR.

In the academic study of scriptural traditions, we have already ridden over the crest of an exclusively historical paradigm for intra- and inter-religious scriptural study. That paradigm already prepared us appropriately to take up the anti-foundationalism of more recent philosophical theology and religious studies. But our legitimate cautions against conceptualist reductions of scriptural study should not scare us away from disciplined, POST-CRITICAL PRACTICES OF FORMAL REASONING. Elliot is very disciplined, and there is much in the way he has set up the study of Kemper that remains hidden from a reductively explicit view. But this hiddenness can also mean a deferral of certain conclusions that can be articulated ONLY WITHIN SOME COMMUNITY-SPECIFIC VOCABULARY of analysis. In this sense, one could say that the hidden in Elliot’s work (not just in this essay, but also in his growing corpus of work) serves as an unspoken RULE for re-reading certain aspects or forms identified in the texts he has studied AS TYPES WHOSE ANTITYPES WE MUST YET IDENTIFY WITHIN OUR OWN COMMUNAL DISCOURSE. I suggest we identify, for example, the formal reading of Elliot’s paper as a reading that proposes for a particular community a particular way of identifying this implicit RULE in his work—which is a rule for rereading certain text tropes as TYPES that will have various antitypes in various different communities.

In other words, I am suggesting that we resuscitate a KIND OF FIGURAL READING as ONE KIND OF POSTCRITICAL FORMAL REASONING WE COULD CONDUCT WITHIN THE SSR. And I suggest that both David’s and Elliot’s papers introduce contexts and unspoken ways of conducting this. Hans Frei, of blessed memory, sought to reintroduce figural reading in this way in postcritical Christian discourse, with support from George Lindbeck. In our case of SSR, we would be supporting this AND also saying something in addition: that a religious society for the study of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures may need to include among its inter-communal discourses a mode of figuration that is one degree more formal or more abstract than the one we may conduct WITHIN our several scriptural communities. Here is an initial, quick list of some of the rules of such an SSR practice of figuration—and I believe something like this list could be an unspoken subtext of Elliot’s paper:

#1: Reintroduce a working distinction between everyday-religious-communal discourse AND that esoteric discourse that may serve gatherings like the SSR. Assume that all members of the SSR participate and contribute to everyday communities in which their discourse remains within the intratextual bounds of their various religions and denominations—and that all members of the SSR defend the everyday integrity of those bounds. BUT assume also that in the SSR scholars from these communities come together in ways that are irreducible to the patterns of EITHER intra-communal study OR the extra-communal historical or conceptual work typical of academic religious studies. In other words, assume that we have another, third, very serious business here and that IT REQUIRES MODES OF DISCOURSE SPECIFIC TO IT.

#2: Protect the difference between this “THIRD” discourse conducted within the SSR AND THE DISCOURSE OF OUR EVERYDAY RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES. AND also, in a different direction, protect the difference of this THIRD discourse from standard academic inquiry.

#3: To whatever degree figural reading is reintroduced to the local scriptural communities in which we participate, INTRODUCE ANOTHER KIND OF FIGURAL READING INTO the SSR community.

Before suggesting any initial, abstract description of this INTER-communal figuration, let me illustrate how I think it is already working between the lines of Elliot’s paper. First, I’ll guess that Elliot wants us to REJECT BOTH of two customary responses to the Kemper material—and to reject it both in our SSR work and in our intracommunal work:

(supercessionist): according to this response, Kemper is correct on a simple, plain sense level of his figural reading: the Jews and their law are a shadow, and a Christian kabbalah fully discloses this fact.

(merely communitarian): according to this response, Kemper is simply wrong on any level in his effort to learn something from his (bastard) manner of reading half-Christianly and half-rabbinic-kabbalistically.

Second, I’ll propose that Elliot wants us, instead, to maintain a third claim that emerges from out of our contributions to our various everyday religious communities: that kabbalah is an esoteric matter within the religious communities.

Third, I’ll propose that Elliot WANT US NOW TO INSTITUTE an additional esotericism WITHIN OUR INTER-RELIGIOUS SSR dialogue. This, second kind of esotericism would enable us to recognize that Elliot’s reflection on Kemper’s kabbalah is itself doubly esoteric belonging neither to “traditional” esotericism (like Kabbalah), nor to the specialized discourses of academe, BUT ONLY TO THE KIND OF ESOTERIC REFLECTION THAT IS SUITABLE, perhaps alone, for something like the SSR. Here “esoteric” would mean: not directly translatable into the normal discourses of our communities, but useful ON BEHALF of those discourses for some other work we are carrying on. “Doubly esoteric” implies that it is also not directly translatable into our normal academic discourses. ANY attempts to translate into either of these communities would cause dangerous confusion (for them and for us).

Fourth, I’ll propose that Elliot might suffer this addition: that a group like the SSR needs to adopt a language of inter-communal scriptural interpretation that is stripped of the associative meanings that members of our religious communities would attach, confusedly, to it. This means that the language SSR would be uttered, for example, independently of the various noun-forms that signal our doctrine-specific rules of scriptural reading (names of God, of God’s people, of the Trinity, of the land, and so on). Independently of these noun-forms, what remains would be a FORMAL LANGUAGE meaningful to us but perhaps none other. The process of “stripping away” these noun-forms would be a processing of substituting certain formally defined RULES (“R”) for the relations between type and antitype that appear in the figural discourses of our various communities and that, on another level, also appear in Elliot’s inter-communal study of Kemper’s inter-communal rhetoric.

Let me illustrate. Elliot has uncovered these figurations in Kemper’s Christian kabbalah:

Jesus as logos is type of SON, is type of Chokhma/Sophia is type of Torah is type of…zeir anpin …
Jesus as God incarnate is type of DAUGHTER, is type of Binah is type of Shekhina (machut), is type of zeir anpin, is type of metatron…

Now, you’ll note that some confusions remain in this particular illustration, either because Kemper’s usages cannot be fully clarified into the two sub-figurations, or because I need someone else to re-read Elliot more carefully for me. EITHER WAY, the point I am after is this: that our FORMAL REASONING would interpose a RULE (R) between every binary pair of type’/anti-types, for example:


Or Messiah—Rm—Torah .

In this example, one of the esoteric discourses of SSR would be about Ri and Rm, the POLES OF WHICH RELATIONS would be identified through communal-text-language-specific discussions of Incarnation, for example, or Torah. But the relations between these poles could be formalized in extra-textual language for use only in SSR-like discussions, which would correspond to only certain intra-communal meanings and relations.

Now it seems I have used an impenetratable code even in this little response. This is for want of space, but also for the sake of offering only allusions to a process that SSR members may or may not warm to, and in the warming give such allusions clearer meaning for us. WHEN I referred in David’s paper to poles of JOY or SUFFERING in his popular work, I was suggesting that these appear in explicit terms in the intra-communal settings for the sake of which we carry on our work; but they appear in different terms in our esoteric analyses. In the Peirce study, for example, one appears as a pragmatic or reparative rule for reading scripture, the other appears as a semiotic or diagrammatic rule of reading. In either case and in both settings, such poles are mediated only in the presence of a Third, who is named with different names in the individual communities and perhaps in the SSR. This one alone, of course, would bring any sense to the cross-terminologies in Kemper’s kabbalah.

(By the way, the book on Peirce rereads Peirce’s pragmatism as having been seriously re-written by his pragmaticism—and I re-read the latter as antitype of a trinitarian type of patristic philosophical theology. The only reason I believe such a pragmatism is useful as one of two poles of reading scripture is that it restates an intra-scriptural rule in formal terms.)