The Promise and Limits of Doing Scriptural Reasoning on a Christian “Rabbinic” Text

Steven Kepnes
Colgate University

Wolfson’s explication of Kemper’s hermeneutic genius has a thankful, scholarly tone that allows Jews to read what intrinsically is a difficult text for a Jew to read—the text of a Jewish apostate to Christianity. Reading this text is not unlike reading many New Testament texts which reinterpret torah texts as prefigurations of Christianity and make arguments for Christian supercessionism.

But Wolfson helps Jewish readers to fight through the difficulties to an appreciation of the sheer hermeneutical boldness and creativity of Kemper. And through this appreciation he even reclaims Kemper as a Jew. “In spite of his conversion to Christianity, in his mode of argumentation Kemper remained faithful to his rabbinic training.” The move that Wolfson makes here to look at the “mode” or “form” of rabbinic argumentation as a mark of Jewish uniqueness is one that Jewish textual reasoners have been making for a while. We see it in other works by Wolfson, as well as in the works of Jewish texts scholars and philosophers such as Boyarin, Fishbane, Fraade, Halbertal, and Handelman. This is the attempt to display the unique techniques of rabbinic midrashic and legal reasoning and to present the special philosophical, literary, and theological presuppositions that underlie rabbinic hermeneutics. Peter Ochs has presented us with the most elegant and sophisticated presentation of the logic of scriptural and rabbinic textual reasoning in his new book, Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture . The consequence of these works has been that we have been able to compare rabbinic textual reasoning to other forms of scriptural reasoning in meetings of this group. Additionally, we hope that scriptural reasoning will be applied to contemporary religious and secular life to uplift it morally and spiritually.

Usually Jewish scriptural reasoners choose Jewish rabbinic texts as their objects of study. But by choosing a Christian “rabbinic” text Wolfson pushes us to see the promise and perhaps some of the limits of what we are doing. The promise is that we, as Jewish, Christian, and Moslem scriptural reasoners, can further see and appreciate hermeneutical genius and be brought together through that appreciation. The limit is that the act of appreciation is bought through an act of abstraction out of content to pure form. My hope, however, is that the positive appreciation of rabbinic hermeneutics will be a condition for trust-building between Jews and Christians which will allow us at some point in the future to address the difficult “content issues” of the Christian hermeneutics of prefiguration and supercessionism.