Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique
Report of the Workshop: Scripture beyond the Written Word
June 13 - 15, 2002 at the Orient-Institut der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft in Istanbul
The following essay attempts to outline the basic issues addressed during a conference held between June 13 and 16, 2002 in Istanbul on the topic of "Scripture Beyond the Written Word". First conceived by a group of scholars connected to the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin's Working Group Modernity and Islam (including Almut Bruckstein, Navid Kermani and Angelika Neuwirth), the project "Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique" sought to create an initial context of intellectual synergy, in which individual scholars who do related work in their respective fields of Judaism and Islam could benefit from what Navid Kermani aptly called "an integration of expertise." At this first level, scholars of Jewish and Islamic traditions could, on the one hand, work to create a common scholarly language with which to think comparatively and, on the other hand, to foster a mutual assessment of method and textual criticism that could form the backbone of future discussions. With this in mind, the conference organizers have conceived of the Istanbul conference as the first of seven such conferences over the course of three years, each building on the momentum and directives of preceding discussions. The specific problem of textual and cultural hermeneutics in such a scheme is an initial foray into cultivating the common academic discourse fundamental to a later goal of engaging more directly in political concerns that are therefore reserved for the final conference.
A closer look at the project title ("Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as a Cultural Critique") reveals a two-fold problematic at the heart of the conference: (a) How traditional texts provoke the modern reader to contend with the full range of questions and methods posed by antiquity, such that the multiplicity of traditional voices are viewed as part of a vigorous discourse; (b) How modern hermeneutical methods complicate and provoke such an exegesis, stimulating a reevaluation of traditional exegetical methods. The critique that was envisioned is therefore two-dimensional, committed to the hermeneutical challenge elicited by the juxtaposition and critical analysis of both traditional and academic methods.
The direction of the conference revolved directly around a series of dialectical polarities. The first and least controversial of these was the task of locating and identifying the religious context of hermeneutics. Michael Fishbane, whose presentation will be introduced and discussed in its respective place, articulated at the outset of the discussion the dialectical function of intervocality and intertextuality as the definitive matrix of traditional exegesis. Fishbane's stress on the vocalic primacy of scripture began with a reevaluation of oral textuality that takes its bearings from the transmission and experience of text in ceremony and ritual. Among the paradigms of intervocality that emerged from Fishbane's remarks was that of the social space of the text, whether on the page or enacted in the body, in what he called "complex textuality," including the ritual of recitation and exegesis, no less than in the ritual fulfillment of divine law.
The second dialectic that emerged throughout the conference used texts as a point of departure for a critical study of cultural hermeneutics. Presenters considered traditional constructions of identity in light of the demarcation of boundaries and otherness. Several scholars, of both Judaism and Islam, pursued this theme through traditional sources and artistic representations, in an attempt to expose the problematic of selfhood and the other within the often fierce medium of religious polemic. The challenge of boundaries and of what Elliot Wolfson termed "alterity" and "engendering the other" raised a series of questions whose unsettling, and still unfinished, tensions will likely be addressed anew in future gatherings. The course of such a conversation will no doubt touch upon the modern appropriation and integration of contentious polarizations of the other through the lens of modern hermeneutics.
In light of the profound thematic links that connect the questions and problematics posed by different contributors, this essay will not proceed by treating each individual in order of presentation, but according to the thematic integrity of each. Those who addressed the dialectic of text and performance will each be discussed as a unit, and likewise those who engaged the dilemma of alterity and boundaries will form a separate unit.
In the spirit of moving out of sequence, let us begin before the beginning. In an attempt to set the dialectical tone of the conference, Almut Bruckstein introduced the problematic of tradition and modernity through the lens of a hermeneutical critique, briefly outlined above. Bruckstein raised the methodological question of how to cultivate a fluid discourse between the concerns of antiquity and those of modernity. Modern discourse, she argued, can and must benefit from the profound textual insights of the ancients, and even from their intertextual methods. In her essay on Talmudic hermeneutics, Bruckstein presents the very structure and coherence of the Babylonian Talmud as a methodological revolution. She regards the use of dialectic and the cultivation of a form of narrative polyphony at work in the Babylonian Talmud to be a critical element of a modern reevaluation of method. Such a methodological revolution, Bruckstein insists, is itself a cultural critique. It prefers to rethink the multiplicity of methods as a fluid, and therefore inclusive, framework for modern discourse, be it religious or academic.
As an illustration of the centrality of dialectic in both Islamic and Jewish exegesis, Bruckstein posed as a point of departure the illusive and often amorphous nature of scripture itself within both traditions. Scripture provides the primary touchstone for delimiting the canonicity and boundaries of the sacred. At the same time, the life of scripture paradoxically bears witness to its own boundlessness. As the direct and unmediated voice of revelation, Bruckstein argued, the sacred text is boundless and indefinite. Functioning as the white space of parchment upon which the words of revelation are fixed, according to the famous image known to classical rabbinic Midrash, the divine traces in scripture are viewed as formless and infinite. Bruckstein observed that the white space between and behind the black constitutes, in the words of Franz Rosenzweig, "the embodiment of the not-yet". It is the space inhabited by hermeneutics and consists in the unspoken, or "not-yet" of revealed speech.
Juxtaposed to the view of the boundless scripture, Jewish and Islamic hermeneutical traditions have developed a nuanced counterpoint in the form of ritual space. As opposed to the idea and idealization of text reflected in the shapeless white of the parchment, the ritual context of scripture is defined by the empirical dimension of sight, sound and texture. The canonization of text in ritual space, animated by the senses, is embodied in its material and ceremonial presence in the midst of the community.
In a reconfiguration of the dialectic posed by Bruckstein to the conference, Michael Fishbane inaugurated the morning presentations by shifting attention from the notion of a formless to that of a voiced and embodied text. Both scripture and hermeneutics, Fishbane taught, are both orally transmitted and orally experienced. To the model of intertextuality as the meeting of scripture and commentary, Fishbane preferred the more nuanced model of intervocality, the ritual animation of recitation and performance. Texts therefore inhabit dialectical poles of communal life. In Fishbane's own words, they constitute both "a culture of the mind" and "a culture in the body", the latter providing the living framework for the written word of scripture. As a general rule, both text and culture are constitutive of tradition inasmuch as text functions as the medium of recitation and study.
For Judaism specifically, Fishbane outlined three normative frameworks for the embodiment of text in public life. The first, though not necessarily the dominant, is the ritual and liturgical space of the synagogue, or prayer house. The second records the exegetical and educative life of rabbinic Judaism, known as the beit midrash, or house of study. Finally, the text as law and religious canon is animated in a comprehensive social space, which can be imagined in two distinct modes of actualization: One is the space of "normative actualization", the all-embracing structure of halakhah, or Jewish law; the other is the concentration of Jewish legal and ritual praxis in the body of the individual. The individual Jew then functions as a complex textuality, the living of midrashic hermeneutics and of halakhic realization.
Michael Fishbane's treatment of the multiple modes of the actualization of text provided a framework for the discussions by later presenters of one or the other of those contextualizations, especially of the first two: recitation and exegesis. Fishbane then continued to deconstruct a dominant mode of rabbinic exegesis that self-consciously and somewhat paradoxically surpasses the written word. This essay will therefore return to Fishbane's illumination of midrashic exegesis and the orality of rabbinic Judaism after taking a step back to consider the dimensions of oral recitation as constituting both recitation and hermeneutics. The role of law as the embodiment of textuality and exegesis, though not covered in detail in this conference, may become a fruitful source of discussion in subsequent meetings.
Orality and Chant
Speaking after Michael Fishbane, Ruth HaCohen introduced the dynamic nature of scriptural recitation, or te`amim, in the arena of public performance. As a branch of liturgical musicology, HaCohen argued, cantillation occupies a space between text and context. It is a form of chant that utilizes musical indicators, or signs, to facilitate syntactic coherence for the sake of the ease of comprehension, on the one hand, and of the standardization of delivery, on the other. As a system of musical recitation, however, Jewish cantillation is remarkably inconsistent. As HaCohen noted, the variability of chant from one community to another is a strong indicator of the inherent flexibility in Jewish musical interpretation. That being the case, the tradition has simultaneously maintained an effective restraint on its own variability in the form of the musical signs themselves. Whereas the cantillation tradition aims at the rigorous conservation of text and attempts to homogenize delivery, HaCohen described this form of standardization as a system of isomorphic tropes, formally and therefore musically distinct. The integrity of the text and of each syntactic unit is in this way preserved, while individual communities maintain a distinct mode of chanting the te`amim that have developed and that continue to flourish, perhaps dating from as early as the period of the second temple.
In contrast to Jewish cantillation, HaCohen pointed to the traditional form of Gregorian chant prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church. In the latter, she observed, emphasis is placed on the rigorous control of musical interpretation in the form of pitch in addition to that of cantillation notes. As a result, Gregorian chant throughout the world will without exception be strictly uniform. Conversely, Jewish chant is musically multiform and is only contained by the isomorphic structure of standard musical tropes. These tropes, HaCohen noted, contain a number of variants even within a single community. For example, festivals or days of mourning are musically marked by variation in trope. HaCohen isolated a single note, or ta`am, to better demonstrate the interpretive dimension inherent in ritual performance. The note she selected is known by its Aramaic appellation of zarqa segol, and is among the more musically intricate tropes in many traditions. It is moreover marked by broad variability between and among different communities. HaCohen then chanted zarqa segol in a number of biblical verses according to the Ashkenazi cantillation tradition. She demonstrated the significant range of musical interpretation that governs a single trope when applied to the Pentateuch, Prophetic readings known as haftaroth, the festive reading of the Book of Esther and finally the plaintive recitation of Lamentations. The hermeneutics of scriptural recitation is therefore a combined effect of dramatic and modal variation, in which audience expectation is both elicited and sensitized through the modifications of trope.
In an attempt to demonstrate the direct relevance of Eastern Christianity to both Jewish and Islamic hermeneutical traditions, the orchestrators of the conference invited representatives of two Christian communities, one Greek Orthodox, the other Syriac, to recite from sacred liturgical texts of the paschal tradition. The two men function as public reciters in their respective communities. The group benefited immensely from the recitation of several prepared readings (both scriptural and liturgical) before listening to Angelika Neuwirth's presentation on Qur'ânic chant. The first reader chanted texts that are ritually recited after midnight on Easter, namely Matthew 28:1-20, Acts 1:1-8 and the Gospel of John 1:1-17. The second chose to chant the Syriac translation of Psalm 136, a psalm of rhythmic and repetitive pathos, recalling God's abundant and everlasting mercy throughout history. Rather than rely on definitive cantillation signs in the text, the two reciters utilized recurrent modes of accentuation and rhythm, reaffirmed only with slight variation in each successive verse.
Not unlike these two Christian modes of biblical chant, members of the group who demonstrated Qur'ânic recitation did not rely on any standardized musical notation. As both the Christian and Muslim chanters acknowledged, the rudiments of learning and absorbing the technique of chant is thoroughly empirical. One learns the basic rules and structures through patient listening and by slowly developing a personal ear for individual modification. The stress on personal innovation is even more strikingly present in Qur'ânic recitation. If Gregorian chant is most rigid in preserving musical uniformity, and Jewish and eastern Christian tropes are progressively less restrictive, recitation of the Qur'ân maintains the maximum degree of flexibility of each for innovation in individual performance. What then are the guidelines and authoritative models for correct Qur'ânic recitation?
In her presentation of orality and ritual performance in Islam, Angelika Neuwirth introduced the integration of individual innovation with a form of spiritual mimesis. Like each of the previous examples of religious chant, the extent to which there are musical guidelines is determined by the degree to which a given reciter is compelled to operate within traditional rules of syntactic coherence. Each verse, or âya, of the Qur'ân consists of one or more sentence units whose integrity must be respected for the unequivocal meaning of the text. As is to be expected, however, variant traditions exist as to how to divide a given unit, as well as how to correctly mark the vowels in the text. Neuwirth introduced the principle of tajwîd in Qur'ânic recitation, a set of rules for proper intonation that applies for both private and public performance. Yet even this tradition is not uniform. Neuwirth called attention to the seven, or according to others fourteen, canonical versions of the Qur'ân, each regarded as equally authentic and sacred. Modern Islam has inherited only two of the variant readings, one prevalent in western, the other in eastern, Islamic regions, each preserving the canonical version for their respective communities.
But the story is more complex. Even with such an intricate tradition for the preservation of syntactic and other sense units, the primary experience of the text for the modern (and perhaps pre-modern) Muslim community is not written at all but oral. As Neuwirth demonstrated, the Qur'ânic text itself facilitates both oral comprehension and public delivery. Among the numerous examples that Neuwirth raised of what she called the "intrinsic orality" of the Qur'ân was the significance of liturgical structure in the composition of the sûra. An assembly of poetic techniques are integrated into the rhetorical unit of each verse, which are only manifest in public recitation. One such example is familiar from pre-Islamic Arabic literature known as saj`, a ductus of composition that integrates fluid, rhythmic units into tightly compact verses. Another key example is what Neuwirth termed a cadenza, according to its familiar use in Gregorian chant, in which the audience is prepared for a caesûra, or metrical conclusion, by means of a sophisticated system of phraseology and rhymed colons. The rhythmic manipulation of colons in public performance constitutes an individual interpretive dimension in addition to that of pace and musical intonation.
In her illustration of oral performance, Neuwirth alluded to the foundational work of Navid Kermani, Gott ist Schön, in which he contends that orality of the Qur'ân stems from poetic and rhythmic structure. In this respect, Kermani observes, the text functions less as a textual composition and more as a musical or poetic score. In order to illuminate the performative dimension of the Qur'ân, Kermani cited the comment of Paul Valery that a poem "only comes to life when uttered by human lips, and these lips are what they are." The words of God to Muhammed, in this model, are appropriated by the community of believers only in the public mimesis of recitation. The words of God "are what they are" in the mouth of the believer as he reanimates the moment of revelation in community.
In the ritual performance of the Qur'ân, it is then the public space of the community that provides the purpose of, and occasion for, recitation. The experience of revelation is an aural one. It is felt and interiorized not as text but as direct proclamation in the ear. Neuwirth referred to Kristina Nelson's observation that the words of the Qur'ân are known today to the majority of Muslims primarily through recitation, whether in public or in private prayer. Neuwirth put it even more forcefully: "One should also keep in mind that only the act of reciting comes up to the essential claim of Islamic scripture to be qur'ân" according to its most precise definition. The word qur'ân connotes the very act of recitation. As sacred as it has come to be for the Muslim community, the bounded text on the shelf is strictly speaking not itself the qur'ân. The qur'ân proper is manifest only in recitation. In this sense, the word of God is immediate and direct and is continually animated in the rituals of prayer and performance. The sui generis position of orality in Islamic tradition may force us to rethink the usefulness of the term scripture itself as an adequate designation of revealed speech, one that is contained, but not circumscribed, by text.
In order to illustrate the profound effects of oral recitation on both reciter and audience, Neuwirth invited some of the participants to recite passages of the Qur'ân. The first of the texts, sûra 112, among the most concentrated declarations on the sincerity of monotheistic faith, was recited by Abdulkader Tayob. The second, sûra 55, a text with close structural resonance to Psalm 136, was chanted by Farid Esack. The third text, sûra 20, performed by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, is one of a number of longer pericopes that relate a series of pivotal moments in sacred history, here touching on the prophetic calling and mission of Moses. The final text recited for the group, performed by Jabir al-Khorasani, was sûra 97. This short sûra is recited during the holy month of Ramadan and alludes to the power of divine decree (qadr) that descends in the night between the twenty-sixth and the twenty-seventh days of Ramadan, the night in which, the sûra relates, the Qur'ân was revealed and that is therefore pregnant with the revelation of divine will.
The combined effect of all four suwar (plural of sûra) upon the ad hoc audience of the conference was striking. Even with little or no Arabic comprehension, participants were conscious of the rhythmic power of the Qur'ânic verses. The intensity of Qur'ânic poetry in its aural reception provoked a thoughtful discussion on the primacy of orality in an unmediated experience of the Qur'ân. Each of the four reciters confirmed the immediate transformation he experienced in the what seemed like a simple act of recitation. Even without all of the other elements that ordinarily contribute to creating a ritual space of recitation, namely the community of the faithful or the sacred ambience of a mosque, the combined effect of language and ritual memory - i.e. an array of emotional and spiritual associations to the performance of analogous recitations - were sufficient to evoke an immediate shift in consciousness.
For Abu Zayd, the question of language was critical: To what extent is the linguistic dimension of the text essential to internalizing its message? It is well known that Islamic law does not legitimate any translation of the Qur'ân as a functional equivalent within the legal parameters of what constitutes the original Arabic text. Any and all translations are traditionally restricted to the status of 'interpretations' of the sacred text. Yet Abu Zayd's observation went one step further in scope than the familiar distinction of revelation and interpretation. Less concerned with the principle of fidelity to the language of revelation, Abu Zayd alluded rather to the poetic texture of orality in the Qur'ân first addressed by Neuwirth and Kermani. For listener and reciter alike, explained Abu Zayd, the cognitive function may at times take second place to the aesthetic, or sensual, response. The language must first be felt and interiorized aesthetically before it can be processed intellectually.
As Abu Zayd observed, the aural component of revelation is even more immediate for the reciter. To demonstrate his point, Abu Zayd referred to the remarkable role assigned by tradition to the reciter of Qur'ân. At the moment of recitation, in the enclosed space of ritual and prayer, the mediation that exists at the cognitive level between God and the angel Gabriel, between the angel and the prophet, and between the prophet and the community of reciters, is thoroughly collapsed in the immediacy of ritual performance. What is left is the direct and unmediated speech of God, revealed once again in the mouth of the reciter. As a modern re-enactment of original revelation, it is simply the last in a long line of unmediated recitations begun by the prophet himself.
In the subtle observation of Abu Zayd, an important insight into orality and scripture has begun to emerge. At the ritual crossroads of speech and text is a mythic present. Ordinary space and time cease to be meaningful and even obstruct the enactment of ritual. Cognitive distance of original time is erased together with distinctions of person and place. The mythic time of ritual, in Eliade's terms, is eternally present. In the case of Islam, mediation disappears precisely at the moment of spiritual mimesis when divine speech first recited by the prophet is interiorized and re-enacted. The words of the Qur'ân are animated only in the mouth. In the act of recitation, one is absorbed and sublimated by the immediacy of divine speech.
If we take our bearings from the culture of recitation in Qur'ânic recitation, can we identify a meaningful correspondence in the oral tradition of Judaism? Is scriptural recitation, or cantillation, in the last analysis the appropriate analogue? To what extent can one speak of orality as a mythic or ritual present in Judaism? Among the many indicators for the history of orality in Judaism is the rabbinic name for scripture, miqra. With obvious parallels to the Arabic qur'ân, the word connotes oral proclamation, and therefore public recitation. As is very much the case in Islam today, the primary loci for the experience of scripture in early rabbinic Judaism were the ear and the mouth. Memorization and recitation seem to have been as prevalent in their own context as they currently are in the Islamic tradition. But whereas Qur'ânic recitation in all its different ritual manifestations has remained the definitive act of piety for the believing Muslim, rabbinic Judaism has since given way to a profound reorientation of the culture of the oral law. Here the shift of what constitutes orality is that from miqra - scripture - to talmud, or exegetical and often dialogical engagement with the primary text.
For the first time, we observe in rabbinic literature the notion of two authoritative torot (plural of torah), one written, the other oral. The former we may identify with miqra, the latter with the hermeneutical process of explication or elaboration that traditionally begins with Moses and continues in an unbroken chain through the generations into the present. In the spirituality of modern Judaism, the culture of study and exegesis has developed into a form of devotion in itself. In the space of the beit midrash, or house of study, the exegetical discourse that emerges over the text creates a mythic space of its own, the ritual re-enactment of the reception of revelation at Sinai. Daniel Boyarin put the problematic in the firm of a proper (Aristotelian) analogy. What Qur'ânic recitation is for the practicing Muslim, religious study and exegesis is for the observant Jew. The common denominator of each form of ritual re-enactment is the aesthetic or sensual point of internalization, in the ear and in the mouth.
Self-Reflexivity and Innovation
In the introduction to his presentation on the oral tradition in Judaism, Michael Fishbane developed a three-fold schema of the contextualization of scripture in ritual life. These three dimensions were earlier defined as (a) the synagogue as the site of recitation, (b) the study hall as the center of textual exegesis and (c) the social space of legal and ritual practice, independent of either sphere. Each of the three contributes to what he called the "double normativity" of script with the voice of script as it is refracted and continually re-valorized by the oral tradition. Each context blends very naturally into each of the others, constituting the human space of the living tradition. As the space of scriptural recitation, the synagogue has the privilege of housing the sacred scrolls which constitute what Fishbane called the "first voice" of tradition, whereas the beit midrash is the home of inquiry and debate, the "second voice" concerned with both literal and non-literal interpretation of text. This is the voice of the sages as much as it is of the modern student interested in problems of hermeneutics and spiritual inquiry. Traditional Jewish understanding of orality and scripture is paradoxical from the start. Classical rabbinic sources speak of the identical origin of the two at the moment of Sina'itic revelation, one enshrined and fixed on stone, the other transmitted by word of mouth. The context and scope of the two are conceived as identical, one acting as midwife for what is implicit or in potentia in the other. In other words, the exegetical act of unveiling the text is said to be a vital dimension of its own revelation. Text and hermeneutics are profoundly symbiotic. Even more striking is the particular way in which biblical sources are incorporated in rabbinic creativity. The innovation of language and ideas that is unavoidable in the development of the oral tradition becomes the point of departure for rabbinic discussions of orality for a scripturally grounded community. For the sake of methodological coherence, Fishbane presented the double lense with which modern readers read ancient texts so as to determine how the ancients conceived of their own cultural project. The most basic of these is what he called "projected or protected images" that constitute a broad Kulturbild, which may not itself be fully disclosed in the text. The second level consists of the self-reflexivity of the ancients vis-a-vis their own complex relationship to tradition. Here the task of the reader is infinitely more intricate insofar as the method of self-disclosure as well as the nature of its relationship to tradition is often paradoxical and only half-disclosed. The attitudes and assumptions of the modern scholar must be used with tremendous care before attempting a critical reconstruction of the text.
Several key sources were examined by Fishbane so as to elucidate the paradoxical symbiosis of orality and scripture in rabbinic thought. Three texts were analyzed, one of which will be treated in greater detail here. All three rabbinic texts touch on the dialectical self-reflexivity of the oral tradition. Each reflects on the origin and construction of authority no less than of tradition itself. The second, and fullest, of the three, was taken from Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (I,9). Like the first, this text presents a defense of rabbinic Judaism from within the biblical text. The Midrash relates a parable in the name of R. Berekhya and R. Helbo. The parable begins with a comparison to a coin or button tied to a shirt that is detached and subsequently lost. The owner, in search of a replacement, reflects on three apparent options. Were he to choose a button too large or small for his shirt, it could not possibly fit the space. Rather, "should he replace it with a similar one, the area would be filled. And so similarly, if you heard (a teaching of) Torah from the mouth of a disciple of the sages, let it be as if your ears heard it at Sinai".
Characteristic of rabbinic parables, our text leaves us to determine the purpose of the comparison. A teaching from the mouth of a scholar of Torah is spiritually equivalent to the original moment of revelation. The Torah of the sage, in the words of Fishbane, is the "mythic reconstitution of revelation." But the analogy is still incomplete. As he went on to explain, the button that serves as a replacement has to be an absolutely perfect fit in order to fulfill its function. But at the end of the day, it is still not the original button. The moment of revelation in its primary manifestation is lost. What remains is the chain of tradition that must reproduce and fill the empty space of revelation with an oral tradition that is a perfect fit alongside what remains of the original. The parable reflects a remarkable awareness of the existence of gaps in transmission and of the responsibility of culture to reconstruct through reflection and discourse the missing links of tradition. The rabbis of this passage seem to be less interested in originary artifacts than in the principles of coherence in a living tradition. The act of study in rabbinic culture participates in the revitalization of divine speech with the tools of contemporary discourse. It is the role of culture to activate and cultivate the moment of revelation. In this sense, there is a true mythic renewal in the ritual act of study. The modern voices of sages endlessly recreate the mythic presence of Sinai by keeping their ears attuned to the lost voice of God in the mouth of the teacher. The teacher is moreover compelled to fill in the space with the vessels of his own space and time. Thus the prophet at the end of the Midrash can respond to the impatience of the people: "Vessels [for their expression] had not yet been created in me. But now that [such] vessels have been created in me, [I can say] 'And now the Lord God has sent me and [has endowed me with] His spirit.'" As Fishbane observed in his own words: "The primordial linguistic structure was given by God, but the prophet gives it shape on the basis of the vessels: human context [and] culture." The preordination of orality at Sinai can in the end live comfortably alongside the endlessly expanding discourse of future generations.
The problem of orality in Michael Fishbane's presentation thus turns on a series of self-reflexive models of tradition and its position vis-à-vis revelation and authority. At this point, it will be valuable to shift attention to Jabir al-Khorasani's presentation on the problem of authority and interpretation in Shi`ite tradition. Al-Khorasani introduced the group to the modern exegesis of Sayyed Muhammed Husein Tabataba'i (d. 1981), a Shi`ite, whose novel approach to Qur'ânic commentary stems from a principle of exclusivity, by means of which he strove to interpret the Qur'ân "by the Qur'ân itself." All prior attempts to elucidate the meaning of the sacred text are condemned by Tabataba'i on account of their inability to read the Qur'ân on its own terms. The adherence to speculative commentary is immediately suspect if it does not begin from a principle of textual independence. As a religious exegete, Tabataba'i withdraws from the community of interpreters that preceded or were contemporary with him.
As al-Khorasani demonstrated, however, not only did Tabataba'i make use of a variety of Islamic exegetes in addition to hadîth literature, he can only be read in light of a medieval philosophical background that is anything but Islamic, let alone Qur'ânic. Through the mediation of Platonic and Plotinian rationalism, Tabataba'i has effectively incorporated voices from outside of the tradition in an attempt to elucidate the text of the Qur'ân. According to al-Khorasani, Tabataba'i is one of a number of Iranian scholars who esteem Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus among the community of prophets. According to Islamic tradition, numerous anonymous prophets are said to have existed before the time of Muhammed. To extend this principle to Greek philosophers of antiquity is not inconceivable. In fact, it manages to integrate otherwise foreign elements as legitimate exceptions to Tabataba'i's own exegetical constraints. What he could not permit himself at the ideological level, he maintained with apparent ease by naturalizing Greek philosophy into the Islamic prophetic tradition.
The exclusive exegetical tradition represented by Tabataba'i is especially illuminating in light of the self-reflexivity of rabbinic Judaism seen just before. The defense of ongoing hermeneutical inquiry reflected in Ecclesiastes Rabbah presented the oral tradition as part of an expanding exegetical discourse outside the margins of the text that nonetheless seeks to canonize the same exegesis in the original moment of revelation. Tabataba'i, on the other hand, takes just the opposite approach with a very similar result. By restricting Qur'ânic hermeneutics to an enclosed traditional framework, he ends by widening the parameters of the very margins of that tradition. In his own case, he allows for a reevaluation of traditional boundaries in favor of Greek philosophy by canonizing otherwise heretical thinkers together with their intellectual progeny under the honorific of prophecy. On the assumption that no two prophets could ever be at odds, neo-Platonism suddenly becomes an invaluable and irreplaceable resource for inner-Qur'ânic exegesis, a necessary supplement to the traditional canon.
At this point in the discussion, several dialectical shifts have already become salient. Initial reflections focused on the dual significance of scripture as both transcendent and impenetrable and as the scripture of daily ritual life. Much of the discussion sought to reevaluate traditional assumptions of the nature and scope of scripture for the religious community in light of the oral and aesthetic dimensions of text. In her presentation of Jewish cantillation, Ruth HaCohen addressed the exegetical components of biblical chant. She demonstrated the need to approach her subject from the vantage of sacred music as a form of performative hermeneutics. Introducing the problem of orality for Qur'ânic recitation, Angelika Neuwirth together with each of the subsequent reciters described a deep ambivalence in traditional Islam to the de-contextualization and de-animation of words on the page. According to its precise understanding, the Qur'ân comes to be as such through oral recitation conceived as a re-enactment of divine revelation. On the pivotal question of orality, this essay then returned to the problematic of the oral law in rabbinic Judaism, presented by Michael Fishbane, as a modality of self-reflexivity between tradition and authority. The oral tradition of Judaism was observed musing, as it were, on its on its own innovative relationship to the written word of scripture. The paradoxical resolution posed by the rabbis is in fact the legitimation of ongoing exegetical inquiry by its incorporation of orality in nuce in the moment of Sina'itic revelation. In his paper on the modern Qur'ânic commentary of Tabataba'i, Jabir al-Khorasani took up a similar problematic on the limits, or margins, of tradition in Qur'ânic exegesis. The marriage of Qur'ân and neo-Platonic philosophy in his commentary shifted attention from the problem of orality per se to the modalities of religious boundaries between the native and the foreign, self and the other.
Boundaries and the Other
From the margins of Tabataba'i, we are now better equipped to examine four additional presenters, whose contributions on the problem of religious boundaries may be considered as a thematic unit, through which to investigate the place of such boundaries in the sharpening of identity in the face of the other. The first of the four, Elliot Wolfson, presented a series of provocative texts from the Jewish mystical tradition, kabbalah, on the nature of the community of Israel vis-a-vis its Christian and Muslim neighbors. On its own terms, each text exhibited a concern for what has so far been the opposite, and as yet unaddressed, pole of the two dialectics raised in previous discussions. The first of these was the duality of scripture as both timeless and embodied, both read and recited. The second was the place of the original and the innovative, or the native and the foreign, in traditional negotiations of selfhood.
Wolfson's presentation bears on the construction of ontological identity through forms of typological and essentializing exegesis. It grew out of a larger scholarly project on alterity and eschatology in kabbalah that will feature in a forthcoming book on the limits of ontological boundaries. A recurrent theme throughout many of Wolfson's selections was the mark of circumcision in the male Jew that serves as a corporeal witness to the divine covenant. Here the mark of the flesh reflects the supreme consummation of the human form. In a text from the Zohar (I:97a-b), elucidated by Wolfson, three individuals in the book of Genesis are each viewed in succession as a new prototypical first man, beginning with Adam, proceeding to Noah and concluding with Abraham. In contrast to the first two, Abraham's distinction is his ability to break the cycle of sin and establish a new line whose covenant with the one God is inscribed for all generations in the flesh of the phallus. Inasmuch as he represents the new man of the covenant, Abraham emerges in the Zohar as the model and archetype of perfected humanity, in whose perfection each successive generation marked by the sign of the covenant participates. According to such texts of the Zohar, the covenant of the flesh, elsewhere described as "a glorious crown," is the visible reflection of the hierarchy of humanity, renewed and redeemed in the body of Abraham and his numerous descendents.
Characteristic of Zoharic literature, however, the visible distinction is only an external indicator of ontological structures. As Wolfson demonstrated, these physical markers are witness to the much deeper essentialist claims on behalf of the authors of such texts. In the case of Christianity, the distinction is self-evident. For the Zohar, the impurity of the uncircumcised flesh is a sufficient indicator of a deeper spiritual blemish. Such a crude distinction must however be reconfigured in the case of Islam. The presence of circumcision on the male Muslim body created the need for a third category. "'[He will be] a wild ass of a man' because he is circumcised and the beginning of the human form is in him . . .'" As the prototypical Muslim man, the biblical Ishmael is said in no unclear terms to be both the son of Abraham and circumcised. He is therefore heir to the covenant and bears its mark on his flesh. But the author of the Zohar passage poses another distinction, even more comprehensive and exclusive than circumcision: "As a result of being circumcised, [Ishmael] entered the beginning of what is called 'all' (kol), as it is written, 'He shall be a wild ass of a man,' and not a man. 'His hand [will be] in everything (kol),' certainly, but no more because he did not receive the commandments of the Torah. The beginning is found in him because he was circumcised but he was not complete in the commandments of the Torah. But the seed of Israel, which is perfected in everything (kol) is called a man.'" The full stature of humanity, according to this passage, is then physically initiated through the act of circumcision, but is only consummated in the life of the commandments. The Muslim, concludes the Zohar, as a descendent of the archetypal Ishmael, belongs to a new middle ground vis-à-vis Israel and is deprived of perfected humanity.
At the exegetical level, the Zoharic passages presented by Wolfson reflect a very different orientation to scripture than that seen thus far. The primary experience with the text is no longer its aesthetic or acoustic dimensions, the experience of text in community, but is rather profoundly essentialist. The text is now itself the embodiment of a different sort - of deeper spiritual structures reflected and refracted through history, and whose true significance is encoded in text. Jacob, Esau, Isaac and Ishmael are as much symbolic of deeper human types as is the patriarch Abraham. At the historical level, they are eponymous ancestors, whose characters and lives are emblematic of the narrative of their progeny. The historicity of this form of hermeneutics is as disturbing as it is transparent. Embedded as it is in a mystical commentary of the Bible, there is a second, equally pervasive, level at work. Here the ontology of identity becomes a form of mystical identification, in which biblical characters convey aspects of divine or demonic structures. In the case of the Zohar, however, these two levels are often difficult to distinguish at face value. As a result, the human and historical dimensions of the text are never far from the surface. Wolfson observed that other Zoharic sources point to an eschatological fusion of these opposing forces, whether at the mythic or historical levels (or both), that anticipates the final effacing of these inherent ontological boundaries. Even at the deeper mythic core of the Zohar, the characters and forces at play remain firmly grounded on the field of history. While history may be mythically or symbolically charged, it is never fully decontextualized. The biblical text provides the occasion, and kabbalistic exegesis the medium, for a rethinking of historical collisions with the other, itself only meaningful in light of the deeper mythic drama of the Zohar.
Following the same trajectory as Elliot Wolfson and Farid Esack, Daniel Boyarin further complicated the problem of alterity with that of heresy. He chose to concentrate on a series of texts representative of classical rabbinic and early patristic traditions that first surface some 400 years before rise of Islam. By focusing on a period in which the lines between the two faiths were still vigorously negotiated, Daniel Boyarin sought to highlight the strategies of heresiology, of how otherness is deliberately constructed and subsequently marginalized. The polemics of heresy, argued Boyarin, were frequently achieved quite subtly and, as it were, through the back door. Even more frequently, the polemics are not sufficiently explained in their own context, leaving great gaps in historical reconstruction. Boyarin focused his discussion primary on texts of the second type, in which the surviving testimony sheds tantalizing light on early Jewish and Christian heresiology.
The first selections were taken from two parallel traditions of the doctrine of angels in early biblical exegesis. Boyarin cited a passage from Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, in which the elliptical reference of Genesis 3:22 to a plural object of a God that is otherwise in the singular ("one of Us") is the occasion for Justin's critical exegesis via a polemical riposte to the prevalent interpretive response to the verse. Here Justin recalls rabbinic exegesis that conceives of the speech-act in terms of God's address to the heavenly council of angels. Justin specifically uses the Greek word heresis that, even in such an early text, is already close to the semantic range of the modern word. His usage refers first to a community of believers or adherents of a specific doctrine and only secondarily to the earlier Greek terminology.
As Boyarin demonstrated, Justin's rejection of the Jewish interpretation of the biblical text through the branding of heresy echoes another text of Late Antiquity, this one from the Babylonian Talmud. Here the roles are reversed, in which the revered R. Aqiva spars with an anonymous 'Papos,' a frequently cited name for the token heretic in Talmudic literature. Papos gives voice to the opinion condemned by Justin in his Dialogue and is promptly reproached by Aqiva for proposing such an offensive reading. With their own independent motives, Justin and Aqiva are aggressively seeking to silence what they identify as indefensible heresy. Each is rooted in the exegesis of an enigmatic text. Yet each is motivated no less by a religious or cultural antipathy than by straightforward hermeneutics. The biblical text is again the occasion for an historical collision of ideologies and, just as severely, of religious identity. The examples cited by Boyarin each reflect a concerted effort within the Jewish and Christian interpretive communities to harness exegetical liberties that, in the hands of their adherents, are prone to sharp ideological divergence.
The second major set of texts presented by Boyarin was to a collection of Talmudic pericopes that treat the encounters between R. Aqiva and the arch-heretic of Talmudic literature, Elisha ben Abuya. Once again, the movement towards the language of heresy, or - more precisely - heresy-making reflected in these texts, begin with a hermeneutical divergence that then comes to typify a whole class of unorthodox interpreters. For the communities of interpreters engaged in these debates, exegesis is the primary occasion for identifying, and so for marginalizing, the heresy of the other. In the last text selected by Boyarin, Elisha ben Abuya functions as the archetypal other insofar as his identity is determined vis-a-vis the exegetical normativity of his community. Once he can no longer read as one of them, his identity is no longer a function of that hermeneutical community.
To the medium of literary polemic that has so far been the primary lens through which participants in the conference have viewed strategies of alterity, Claudio Lange's artistic presentation posed a valuable alternative, one viewed both historically and exegetically. By virtue of the profoundly aniconic traditions of both Judaism and Islam, Lange restricted his study to medieval Christian visual art. He sought to demonstrate what he described as an artistic media revolution in eleventh- and twelfth-century Christian Europe, a period of art history known as Romanic, in the form of severe anti-Islamic statuary. The period of Lange's study was one of profound instability in Europe as Christian-Muslim warfare reached new heights of ferocity: from the western-most tip of the Iberian peninsula and as far east as Jerusalem and beyond, Christianity and Islam were in the grips of a mighty power struggle. Lange argued that this fierce animosity was translated into the medium of the visual arts in a rash of demonizing anti-Islamic statuary erected in churches throughout Europe. The vast range of evidence, documented by Lange in a new collection of photography, reveals a sustained effort to portray Muslims as "unrefined, materialistic, primitive and sexually perverse." Beginning in 1060, statues depicting naked and often grotesquely gesturing Muslims appeared on the exterior of Romanic churches. Many of the statues functioned as column stumps or as parts of decorative drainage systems, stressing the Muslim defeat and subservience to the might of resurgent Christendom.
Claudio Lange's photographic art sets this artistic development within the broader framework of Western European history and of Christian militancy. He argued that the violent strain of medieval Christianity has since become overshadowed by later developments in Church history such as the emergence of Gothic and Protestant Christianity together with the doctrinal refinements of the Council of Trent. Moreover, he observed, anti-Islamic statuary was not the only Christian artistic innovation of its time. It coincided with other, more recognized, trends such as the visual ornamentation of French musical scores, the rise of vernacular literature in the court culture of western Europe and a new - non-religious - statuary. European historians have, in Lange's view, either ignored or forgotten the brief emergence of such a fascinating and pernicious art form. Lange focused his own inquiry into the representation of violence as a means of reevaluating the fierce construction of boundaries and alterity in Christian art compared to parallel developments in the literary culture of western Europe. His emphasis on medium helped orient scholars of the literary culture to recognize the vast dimensions of artistic polemic that flourished in tandem with the text. Lange also succeeded in introducing into the conversation the idea of cultural hermeneutics that worked as fiercely - and as ubiquitously - to demonize the other as the familiar framework of textual hermeneutics.
Starting from a somewhat different cultural directive than that of Claudio Lange, Galit Hasan-Rokem took up and reexamined the notion of cultural hermeneutics as a function of literary production in her study of a selection of Jewish literary genres from classical midrash to medieval poetry. Much of the conference before Hasan-Rokem touched on different facets of the dialectic between tradition and boundaries of identity. The role and function of orality, in the presentations of Michael Fishbane, Ruth HaCohen and Jabir al-Khorasani, became the focus of discussion on the self-reflexivity of tradition and the limits of exegesis. By contrast, the work of Elliot Wolfson, Farid Esack, Daniel Boyarin and Claudio Lange shifted attention to the problem of alterity, what Wolfson described as a means of "othering the other." Whereas in the former introspection and self-definition were the order of the day, the latter sought to delineate difference and boundaries with the other. Presenting her talk in contradistinction to both approaches, Hasan-Rokem preferred to concentrate on images of commonality in the literary culture of Judaism and Islam. Drawing on what she called the shared imagery of a desert culture, Hasan-Rokem specifically addressed the motif of water in classical and medieval Jewish folklore.
The first of her sources, taken from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eli`ezer, a collection of late antique rabbinic thought of predominantly ethical content, recalled the conversion of Aqiva to a life of study in the early second century. The story of Rabbi Aqiva dwells on the exceptional personality of the sage, who functions in the account as the archetype of the latecomer to the life of letters and who, in his boundless curiosity, overtakes those who have grown into their scholarship over the course of many years. The central and pivotal image of the legend is that of water as the slow yet ultimately transformative medium. Rabbi Aqiva learns of the inexorable power of water to erode even the most solid of stones over the course of time. The relentless force of water became the occasion for Rabbi Aqiva to reflect on his own malleability to the penetrating power of Torah. His heart was likewise capable of being reshaped and even broken by the words of Torah.
Beginning with Rabbi Aqiva, Hasan-Rokem sought to demonstrate the long and varied life of the imagery of water in the Jewish tradition. Discussing the cultural fascination with the image, she noted that the spectrum of associations ranged from that of the object of thirst to the billowing of waves and tempests to the passing away and natural urgency of the seasons. In addition to demonstrating its centrality as a Jewish image, Hasan-Rokem addressed the parallel reuse of this pregnant image in Arabic literature, searching for its foundation in a common desert subculture. By means of a culturally reinforcing motif in Hebrew and Arabic literature, she contributed an important new dimension in an understanding of cultural hermeneutics. Rather than serve to sharpen or highlight difference, the imagery of water presents a point of commonality, integral to the religious imagination of each community.
Hermeneutics and the polis
From the outset, the questions posed by presenters on religious exegesis were, for the most part, theoretical problems of textual and of cultural hermeneutics. Even as the discussion moved further from orality and text to literary and artistic polemic, the hidden practical implications, whether addressed internally or externally, remained at least speciously beneath the surface. The problem of alterity was conceived within the framework of religious response to difference via rancorous polemic. By the end of the conference, however, the focus of discussion had already begun to shift. The final presenter, Abdulkader Tayob, broached the problem of practical repercussions, from the roots of religious polemic to political pragmatism.
The topic of Tayob's address was the interplay of religion and the polis. He was especially interested in the possibility of the de-politicization of religion in Islam. He questioned the use of the Qur'ân in Islamic political discourse as a feature of traditionalist responses to modernization in the form of political polemic and propaganda. The question posed by Tayob is in fact the first step in deconstructing the traditionalist polemic: Where is the best place to look to understand Islamic religious nationalism? Is the point of departure within the Qur'ân itself? For many traditionalists, the Qur'ân presents the blueprint of an ideal political constitution. Tayob argued that modern scholars fall into the same trap of seeking the sources of Islamic nationalism in the verses of the Qur'ân without taking into account the tradition of hermeneutics, both political and legal, imposed on those verses by a community of interpreters. The first task in understanding the phenomenon of Islamic political hermeneutics, argued Tayob, is to reorient the search itself to the second tier of exegesis. In Islamic political thought, the second tier constitutes the classical debates to be found both in kalâm, or Islamic theology, and in fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence.
The context of the kalâm disputes presents an intriguing case. Tayob made the case that political debates in kalâm were centered neither on purely theological principles nor, more unexpectedly, on preconceived theories of nationality per se. The focus of the debates, he stressed, was rather on arriving at a rigorous definition of who constitutes the civic body, namely the community of the faithful. It is impossible to bifurcate religion and politics in a system in which the definition of the believer is identical with that of citizenship. An Islamic state by definition seeks to create a polity on the model of revealed law according to its interpretation in the legal and theological schools, then crystallized in a system of religious hermeneutics. Portraying the question of who constitutes the civic body as a religious question, Tayob noted that this fusion of the political and the hermeneutical continues to arise in contemporary Islamic political discourse, leading in turn toward greater traditional authority in current debates of Islamic nationalism.
Tayob concluded his presentation with a series of open-ended questions for future discussion on the theme of religion and politics. The first of these concerns the place of sharî`a, or religious law, in a state in which hermeneutics itself is a source of the greatest authority. How may a state governed by an ancient code authorize and promote change in a modern society? Even more difficult is whether the organ of a religious state may apply force to its self-asserted ethical and religious code of conduct, as a secular state would enforce civil and criminal law arrived at through political consensus? In his probings on religious nationalism, addressing both classical and contemporary precedent, Abdulkader Tayob concentrated the discussion on determining what means of statehood maximizes what he called the "humanization of modernity," while simultaneously striving for a "de-politicization of religion."
In both the scope of his treatment of contemporary religious nationalism and in his point of departure of post-scriptural authority, Tayob managed to bridge the multiple interests of the conference on hermeneutics with a forward-looking prospectus for future conference discussion. According to the stated purpose of the architects of the conference, "A research project on Judeo-Islamic hermeneutics could be the overture to a Jewish-Islamic cultural critique of politically motivated religious ideologies that for obvious reasons is a scholarly and political desideratum." In broad intellectual terms, this "critique of politically motivated religious ideologies" seeks to reclaim the discourse of hermeneutics from politicized religious platforms to an academic and critical one, whether such a scholarly critique occurs as part of an academic or religious discourse. In practical terms, the stated purpose of the organizers envisions a progression of both content and scope in seven conferences over the course of three years. As described by Navid Kermani, the early conferences, including the first in Istanbul, are to take a detached conceptual approach to the study of Judaism and Islam, while the later conferences are expected to directly confront the problem of "politically motivated religious ideologies." Only after scholars of both traditions have laid the foundations of a common intellectual language with which to think comparatively and critically will a political discourse on religion and the state be possible and desirable. In this sense, Abdulkader Tayob's address served as a bridge between the theoretical or academic study of religion and religion as an instrument of political ideology.
Responding to Tayob, Daniel Boyarin noted that what is in order is both "a cultural critique of religion and a religious critique of culture." According to this perspective, traditions may be utilized in the project of a cultural critique. It also meant that the discourse should in fact anticipate, and encourage, an interplay between academic and religious critiques.
The Istanbul meeting proved extraordinarily effective in bringing Muslim and Jewish intellectuals together from around the world. It happened at a moment of tragic stalemate in Muslim-Jewish dialogue, in which the only parties engaged are burocrats and politicians, not to mention soldiers and militants. The goals articulated at the beginning are two-fold. First to create, in Navid Kermani's words, an "integration of expertise," in which intellectuals of the two civilizations work to create a common scholarly language and a mutual literacy of the major trends in their respective traditions. The second is to use the resources of an intellectual reciprocity to create an 'integration of personalities,' one in which a serious Muslim-Jewish discourse may build on this common language and mutual literacy in order to broaden the cultural margins of current ideological debate.
The balance between scholarship and cultural discourse is extremely delicate to maintain. In her introductory remarks to the conference, Almut Bruckstein observed the need for "restoring autonomy and humaneness of religious scholarship from national engagements." Even the most innocent and detached of academic exchange is now charged with the highest aspirations of humane and committed scholarship. The appropriate integration of political autonomy with the renewed commitment of intellectuals and academics in a "humane" - though still political - discourse will continue to be negotiated at each stage of the joint project.
As the author of this essay, I am pleased to say that the collaborative spirit of the conference did not end in Istanbul but continued in the construction of the essay itself. My colleague and partner in the detailed note taking throughout the conference was Betul Avci, a Turkish student of Christian theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. It has been a sincere pleasure to work on this project together with her.