Negotiating Traditions and Transitions: A Response to Elliot R. Wolfson and David F. Ford

Robert Gibbs
University of Toronto

These two papers take us deeply both to the substance and the task of SSR. There is much to praise, and I will offer only brief notes that go forward. Ford’s paper begins for us the appropriation of Ochs’ work: and the satisfaction for all of us is that the methodology and the logic of Ochs’ work has been in practice in SSR (and in other groups)—not the least because Ochs has articulated a methodology for a task which we wanted individually and collectively to pursue. At the center of Ford’s appropriation is the question of vagueness, and particularly irremediable vagueness. To appropriate it for us is to begin to think through Scripture as unbound from the `natural’ desire to have it say precisely one thing that means precisely one thing. Ford is awake to the theological dimension of vagueness: that it is not merely God’s attributes which are vague, but that the working through of their meaning depends on God reserving the authority to re-interpret, or at least to inspire us to re-interpret, the text of Holy Scripture. This reservation of meaning makes the interpretative task itself aware of a Divine intentionality—to refuse a final determination of the meaning of the text—and to correct and augment the history of interpretations by the ongoing work of interpretation. Perhaps the promised fullness of the pleroma has to be definitively deferred in relation to the irremediable vagueness of the holy text.

A brief second note, however, points in a historical direction. The current community of interpreters is formed through the Patristic readings of these texts. I am incapable of marshalling the relevant commentaries, but I suspect that our struggle with the set of texts that Ford brings from Ephesians can only be achieved in fighting with and for and against, that is, in closest proximity and negotiation with the Patristic readings. I am unsure whether the supercession theme and the claim for the church as already filled will be unanimously held, but I wonder if we can avoid navigating in those waters as we examine these texts.

Wolfson’s paper offers a very different enterprise, but one that interlinks the closest proximity of the Scriptural traditions (mystical texts) and their greatest tension (on law and the spirituality of law). Beyond the brilliance of the reading of Kemper as a deeply hyphenated person, Wolfson asks us to think two thoughts more deeply.

1) What is the relation of law and the fulfillment/suspension of the law? Alternatively: can antinomianism emerge from hypernomianism? At times, it seems that a robust hypernomianism/messianism will lead directly or at least converge with antinomianism that the mystical interpretation of the halakah will lead to Pauline abrogation of the law. In other veins, it seems that only a reversal of that hypernomianism will produce the antinomianism. For both Jews and Muslims the possibility not of a liberal abrogation of the law but a mystical one is most interesting.

2) In the context of the view of Kemper as a disaffected Sabbatian, who was led to his embrace of Christianity, what kind of conversional typology do we have here? There seem to be Muslim Jews (Sabbatai sevi) and Christian Jews (Kemper, and of course the early church). Are the kabbalists somehow to be seen as the point of transition out of Judaism? Or is Judaism itself a point of transition out of itself? Is the failed messianism of Sabbatai Sevi readily distinguished (by Kemper, at least) from the crucified messiah as Jesus? Is messianism, then, the bridge that negotiates this typology?