The Rules of Scriptural Reasoning

Robert Gibbs
University of Toronto

Peter Ochs has offered us a definition of our work together, a process of defining WHY we are doing what we do. His specific expertise in explaining the logic of inquiry and his basic aid in this moment of definition is clear to all. I do not think that wrangling over that definition will contribute to our conversation, and so I will move in quite a different direction. One other thing that I will not do is explore exactly HOW we do our scriptural reasoning. A hyper-commentary on the essays by several of us and then on the responsive abstracts, digging into the textual practices of this group, is far too grand a task for a short abstract. Moreover, while I think WHY we are engaging in scriptural reasoning helps orient our work, I am less convinced that the reflection on HOW is beneficial at this point in our society.

But my direction is to consider what we do when we are not working together–a somewhat counter-intuitive way of defining a practice and its rules, I grant. When we come together, however, we bring the conversations and writings we produce when we are not together. We have, if not loyalties, then at least responsibilities to others, those ones who would not choose to meet with this assembly, and perhaps not even to read our collaborative work. Thus, I propose a centrifugal process of definition as a complement to Ochs centripetal inquiry into why we reason as we do. Our work, our rule, then, for this dispersing definition, this dissemination more than definition, wants to ask us to consider different contexts in which we offer our scriptural reasoning. In a short space and time, I will not try to make this rigorous, but let me propose a schematic of sorts. There are two major contexts for our scriptural reasoning not in this society: 1) in our religious communities, and 2) in our academic communities. I doubt that my experience is the norm for all of us, but if you can accept the anecdotal nature of these comments, I hope that it can spark a conversation for our group. 1) I teach in the Jewish community in various contexts: in synagogues, in adult education programs, and in a liberal Kolel (a Bet Midrash, or Lehrhaus ). These audiences are intellectual but not academic, and certainly not philosophical. Most of my time, I offer them Jewish texts (Bible, Rabbinic texts and philosophical commentaries and discussions). In the Jewish community there is a real thirst for scriptural reasoning at this time–as adults want not merely literacy in Jewish texts, but indeed, want the questions, the insight, and above all the experience of learning. In conversations with others who teach scriptural reasoning in the religious community, I have often heard corroboration of my discovery; it is some of my very best teaching.

These adults bring their lives to the texts, and so resist the texts and engage their own modernist assumptions vigorously, but they learn (and they teach me). The religious communities are important interlocutors for our work, and they require of us a translation of what is often technical, and almost always complex and difficult, into what can be approached directly. The practice of teaching texts, of reading texts together–both traditional ones and contemporary ones–helps to equalize the disparity between an academic teacher and a member of the community.

The second sphere of interaction is with academics, usually ones who are not themselves involved with Scripture (indeed people who are at best indifferent to Scripture and religion, and at times simply hostile). While the religious communities are less inclined to interpret themselves as postmodern; the people I engage in the academy are often so, but not without more than a little suspicion that what we call scriptural reasoning is simply pre-modern fundamentalism. The task in these dialogues, however, is not simply an apology (” see, what we are doing is engaging with modernity and my Jewishness does not prevent me from participating as an academic” ). Rather, there is a richer level of interaction possible; the problems that arise in a wide-range of disciplines in the academy are parallel to our own struggles to reconstrue our relation to Modern Western Thought.

I will give you three examples among current Ph.D. students of mine.

First, there is a Philosophy student who is working on the topic of Home. She is interested in how philosophy has construed home, and particularly addresses the place of women (in the home?). She is struggling with Levinas, Hegel, Marcel and Plato. Her work is bound to philosophical texts, yet her reading and inquiry not only is postmodern but also is in some interesting tangent with Scriptural Reasoning. Her explorations are not simply a modernist critique of some philosophers, but a working with their texts–a re-reading that can learn but also must mark the inadequacies of this tradition. (And who can fail to see that our modes of reasoning require a re-interrogation of our religious traditions on this very same question of women and home!)

A second student is working in Philosophy of Law. The intellectual imperialism of modernist legal theories in relation to other cultures and other polities in the world trouble her. As long as the only thing that counts as reasonable law is what law is in modern Christian culture, the interpretations of other cultures and other kinds of laws are confined. Her task is to develop ways of thinking about legal texts–and legal-theoretical texts–in ways that do not reduce those texts to a fixed set of modern rationalist visions of law. She is not destined to become an expert in halakah , or canon law, but our work with traditional religious legal texts is interesting at least at a theoretical level for her. Just as we have to struggle to find a way to reason about legal texts that is not simply a premodern traditionalism nor a modernist reconstruction of our religious legal traditions, so she is trying to find postmodern models for interpreting legal texts.

Last, a third student is working on pedagogy and drama. She is writing about several popular and school theatrical productions that all deal with bearing witness to suffering. The lines between witness and didacticism, emotional exploitation, and authoritarian control are the ones she is drawing. Her theoretical support comes from Levinas and a wide-range of drama theorists. Her “texts” are not merely the scripts, but the practices of teaching students in student productions, rehearsals, and dramatic performances. The change in theory from seeing popular drama as an instrument for social change to seeing it as a way of bearing witness is remarkable. While she is not allergic to the religious overtones of witness, her work requires a concept of witness that belongs in drama. Her problems, as playwright, dramaturge and theorist, are parallel to our explorations at two levels: at the level of liturgical performance, and at the level of witnessing to suffering. She does not need a master-concept, but needs to reflect on these textual performances to interpret the scripts and the performances in such a way as to explore (both sympathetically and critically) the ethics of witness.

I choose these three students in part to elucidate three areas where my work (and ours) overlaps with other academic disciplines: 1) in philosophy, 2) in law, and 3) in drama, or if you prefer performativity. In these areas, we have much to give, but also much to learn. Of course, there are texts we do not know and local theorists that are unfamiliar. But the struggles of scholars and students in these fields offer insights for us that exceed a pre-emptive judgment that they are simply lost in secular or universalist thought, or condemned in the aftermath of modernism to stumble in the dark. Just as we learn from our passionate if less intellectually expert religious communities, we also learn from our academic colleagues who are engaged closely with texts in ways parallel to our own. And we also offer some of the fruits of our labor together. Our passionate reading, and our contemporary needs in our reading display a kind of engagement that allow for a recovery of lost possibilities–possibilities not merely for knowledge, but possibilities for practice–at the personal level (women and homes), at the communal level (law and non-modern models of legal reasoning), and in liturgy (performing witness).

The relations, therefore, with others when we are not together are complex. But not only are they not extrinsic to Scriptural Reasoning, they are also not merely a missionary proclamation. Our intimate relations with others are not merely an extra influence on our work, but lie deeper even in our work together. When we write for each other and talk with each other, those others are also here. Their interests and questions inform our own questions. And when we meet with them, we are continuously speaking AND listening about the practices we are developing for reasoning with Scripture.

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