Report of the Workshop
Mysterium Tremendum: Horror and the Aesthetics of Religious Experience
Held at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 12 - 15 December 2002
Borrowing a felicitous phrase from Andrew Rippin, one might describe Judaism, Christianity and Islam as religions that "have a stake" in exegesis, insofar as they presuppose collective identities that hinge on textual interpretation: what it means to be a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim is taken to be contained in canonical writings, and is accordingly debated within the framework of a hermeneutic appropriation of texts rather than of independent rational argument. Hence, the community, in interpreting the Bible or the Qur'ân, does not merely attempt to understand the text, but rather strives, through understanding the text, to understand itself. This merger of hermeneutics and collective self-demarcation, however, runs the risk of demoting the text to the status of an unassailable source of legitimacy that is arbitrarily manipulated and drawn upon. Apart from the obvious danger of political instrumentalization, there is also the more subtle one of an unconscious narrowing of the text's semantic potential, which may result from even the purest motives: traditional modes of interpretation are passed on as self-evident and absolute, thus stunting the text's potential of meaning which, within the confines of a textually defined religious community, will inevitably lead to an elimination of alternative modes of self-understanding and interaction with others. An appropriate illustration of these pitfalls is the instrumentalization of the Jewish and Islamic textual traditions in certain forms of Zionism and Islamic fundamentalism.
"Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique" is a project of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin-based Working Group Modernity and Islam. The project aims at bringing together scholars of Jewish, Islamic, and oriental Christian traditions in order to engage in a critical re-examination of traditional modes of exegesis, and to challenge a facile utilization of canonical writings for political purposes. Naturally, one of the issues that must figure prominently in this endeavour is the question of how, within the discursive medium of textual exegesis, the members of religious communities delimit themselves from non-members, i.e. how the border between inclusion and exclusion is constructed. By tracing instances of Jewish-Muslim cross-fertilization, for example, monolithic self-definitions modelled on the myth of self-contained and culturally autonomous national traditions are called into question, and one's own cultural identity can be seen to interpenetrate with that of others. In addition, special attention is paid to the hermeneutical validation of the use of violence against those located outside the boundaries of one's community.
Both these aspects were addressed specifically from the viewpoint provided by Rudolf Otto's analysis of the mysterium tremendum at the second workshop of the project "Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique," which was held at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin from 12 - 15 December 2002 on the theme "Mysterium Tremendum: Horror and the Aesthetics of Religious Experience" and convened by Navid Kermani (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin) and Ruth HaCohen (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).
Part of the rationale behind the choice of topic is the intimate connection between the "tremendous" aspect of God as it unfolds in apocalyptic scenarios of divine judgment and wrath, and the religious valuation of violence. In addition, the comparative perspective opened up by Otto's terminology would seem to furnish a conceptual apparatus for detecting ways of framing the tremendum - both theologically and conceptually - that cut across, and thus cast doubt on, supposedly stable cultural boundaries. What follows is an attempt to tease out and coalesce some of the issues that were addressed during the workshop. It must be emphasized that this essay will of necessity be shaped by the interests of its author and may therefore fail to do full justice to the very different interests and viewpoints of some of the presenters.
1. Articulating the tremendum
As was pointed out toward the end of the workshop, reliance on Otto is not unproblematic. Whereas traditional theology endeavors to describe God as he is in himself, Otto shifts the focus to human experience of the divine and thereby attempts to bracket the conflicting claims about the nature of God that have been advanced throughout the history of religion; he as it were tries to get at God from a second-order remove that appears to be more objective than the direct way of access taken by traditional theology. But while Otto appears to offera universal taxonomy of religious experience, he may be doing nothing more than extracting a common experiential denominator from a selection of primarily Christian and Jewish sources and clothing it in a terminology that is less obviously charged with dogmatic presuppositions. In order to assess the usefulness of Otto's terminology it would accordingly seem necessary to correlate his language with the native idioms of particular religious traditions and determine the extent to which the latter can be captured by the former. By juxtaposing Otto's dichotomy of tremendum and fascinans with the traditional Jewish distinction between love (ahava) and fear (yir'a) of God on the other, Elisha Fishbane (Harvard University), in his presentation on Bahya ibn Paquda and Maimonides, attempted to do precisely this. Otto strongly insists on the simultaneity of the tremendum and the fascinans, which corresponds to Maimonides' proclamation that the contemplation of God's creation will at once elicit love and fear. Bahya, however, breaks down the simultaneity of these experiences by classifying fear as a preparatory stage on the way to love. Whereas in this regard Maimonides appears to stand with Otto against Bahya, in another respect their roles are reversed - while Maimonides emphasizes the human initiative in approaching God, Bahya underscores the believer's passivity and receptivity; in this respect, then, Otto is arguably closer to Bahya. Even though Fishbane did not explicitly criticize Otto, his careful exposition of the specifities of both Bahya's and Maimonide's understanding of the relationship between fear and love casts doubt on whether these positions can legitimately be subsumed under the contrast between tremendum and fascinans. But if this contrast does not in fact possess a universal applicability analogous to, say, the Kantian category of causality, we may well wonder whether it does in any way add to what one may learn from the traditional religious sources themselves about the ambivalent nature of God, who is depicted as both creator and judge. (Of course, Otto might simply hold that Bahya and Maimonides misunderstand the nature of the tremendum.)
Apart from its implications for an evaluation of Otto, Elisha Fishbane's presentation illustrated the permeability of the borderline between Judaism and Islam within the Islamic cultural sphere in pre-modern times. Contrary to one participant's assertion that the concept of sabr (patience) was specifically Islamic, it plays a significant role in Bahya as well. It is quite striking to which extent the introspective vocabulary employed by Bahya in his description of the human experience of God can be found in edificatory writings from the Islamic tradition (e. g. Ghazali's Ihyâ culûm al-dîn) and this ought to instil a healthy scepticism toward speaking about "specifically" Jewish, Islamic or Christian conceptions of the divine.
A similar project of correlating Otto's terminology with the "native idiom" of a particular religious tradition was pursued by Hassan Hanafi (Cairo University), who outlined the terms used in the Qur'ân to describe various modes of fear and horror. For the sake of brevity I shall steer clear of the intractable problem of how such words as rawc, khashya, khawf are to be adequately rendered in English, but one important result of Hanafi's analysis needs to be mentioned here: far from describing horror and fear as an ineluctable element of any human experience of the divine, the Qur'ân in fact portrays God as shielding the faithful from fear and reassures the pious that they have nothing to be afraid of. In associating the fear of God with moral wrongdoing, which is something that man is called upon to abolish, the Qur'ân implicitly asserts that it is humanly possible to confront God without fear. Consequently, Otto's claim of having unearthed a universal feature of religious experience becomes even more tenuous. Otto himself would of course maintain that in associating the tremendum with morality, the Qur'ân is morally rationalizing an experience that originally has no moral connotations whatsoever.
If Otto is aspiring to give an account of the human experience of, and response to, the divine, the Biblical book of Job exhibits a similar interest in the phenomenology of man's reaction to God. Ilana Pardes (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), in proposing to read the book of Job in light of Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), challenged an interpretation of Job that sees God's response at the end of the text as trying to silence and break Job once and for all. In Pardes' reading, God's answer is no mere display of brute force that asserts His right to mete out arbitrary suffering at will. Rather, the very fact that Job is given an answer at all can be understood as a retrospective approval of his seemingly blasphemous probing. In spite of their assertion of the ultimate intelligibility and justice of God's ways, Job's friends are not granted a theophany. Drawing upon Otto's terminology, one can say that in putting forward a theodicy according to which human suffering is to be construed as divine punishment, these friendshave failed to take account of the unintelligibility and tremendousness of God that both the book of Job and Otto are trying to capture. God's response to Job can be understood as an attempt to break him only if one considers it possible that Job might have been granted a less terrifying and more obviously consoling theophany (maybe of the kind that the Qur'ân seems to envisage when telling the pious not to be afraid). Yet if this supposition is abandoned, the alternative will no longer be one of a "terrifying" as opposed to a "consoling" theophany, but rather one of a "terrifying" theophany as opposed to no theophany at all.
While God's response in the book of Job certainly functions as a conclusion, Pardes suggested that it might be read as a kind of overture to an even more radical revolt against the divine decree. The series of rhetorical questions posed by the God ("Canst thou draw leviathan with a hook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into his nose? Or bore his jaw through with a thorn?") affirms the possibility of what is being denied and thus invites Job "to take part in the impossible game of playing with the Leviathan" and thereby to falsify God's claim to supremacy. The underlying theological message would then be the paradoxical thesis that only by challenging God can one experience him in the fullness of his being, of which the aspect of the tremendum is an intrinsic part.
Interestingly enough, the affinity between Otto's insistence on the simultaneity of the tremendum and the fascinans on the one hand, and the implicit theology of the book of Job on the other, would seem to suggest that Otto is not simply furnishing a "neutral" phenomenological taxonomy that will fit human religious experience in all its shades and hues, but that he is instead putting forward a substantial theological claim which is far from self-evident, at least when compared to those Qur'ânic statements that portray the fear of God as an accidental rather than an essential, property of religious experience. It is possible, then, that Otto's claim - according to which he is focusing exclusively on human experiences of the divine rather than the divine itself - merely obscures the fact that a description of what this experience is like must invariably fall back on some rudimentary conception of its object. When Otto asserts that any moral framing of the numinous is only an ex post facto rationalization, he is really arguing for a very specific conception of God that is at odds with, say, the Qur'ânic God. Otto therefore ought to be seen as engaging himself in the to-and-fro of theological debate rather than as providing us with a neutral phenomenological by-pass.
Intimately connected with Otto's employment of the concept of the tremendum is his description of the holy as "wholly other". It is this essential otherness that renders human speech about God so problematic: how can we articulate something that is "wholly other" with linguistic means that are taken from the "wholly ordinary" context of everyday human reality? While rationalists such as the Islamic and Jewish Aristotelians maintained the possibility of speaking of God in a purely intellectual language that is supposed to remain, as it were, uncontaminated by the sensory nature of the sublunar world, Jewish midrash, according to Almut Bruckstein (Free University of Berlin), constitutes an alternative mode of speaking about God that draws more on visual imagination than on discursive reason. Its very existence implies a criticism of the rationalist assumption that human speech can somehow turn into a purely conceptual and disembodied idiom. Bruckstein illustrated her claim that midrash is an essentially pictorial mode of speech by describing Rembrandt's painting of Jacob's struggle with the angel (Genesis 32: 24 - 32) as participating in "midrashic creativity". Even though Bruckstein may have been understood as trying to establish that Rembrandt was actually familiar with Jewish commentaries on Genesis 32: 24 -32, the core of her thesis remains independent of this admittedly controversial conjecture. If midrash indeed offers a theological alternative to the conceptual and argumentative style of theology that medieval Aristotelianism and Islamic kalâm represent, then it should come as no surprise if similar approaches can be traced in Christianity and Islam, even if no direct borrowing can be established. Bruckstein's use of the term midrash in fact elevates the word from the designation of a particular historical corpus of literature with distinct linguistic and structural properties to a general expression for a certain mode of speaking of God that may be incarnated in a number of quite heterogeneous literary corpora.
While all the presentations surveyed thus far dealt in one way or another with the problem of how religious experience is verbalized, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (ISIM; University of Leiden) more specifically addressed the extent to which this articulation is conditioned and circumscribed by its historical context. Choosing Ibn Arabi as an example, he highlighted the tension between spiritual experience and social context. In contrast to writers such as Henry Corbin, who insist that one ought not, and cannot, contextualize a spiritual giant like Ibn Arabi, Abu Zayd posed the question of whether it would even be possible to "appreciate Ibn Arabi's spiritual experience" if one were to sequester itfrom his historical context. Although Ibn Arabi's world view would seem to leave no place for eschatological punishment, he nevertheless threatens political leaders with divine retribution for their moral infringements. Similarly puzzling is Ibn Arabi's fatwa declaring Muslims who continue to live in Jerusalem after its conquest by the Crusaders to be apostates who may be legally killed. Abu Zayd tried to account for both these positions by emphasizing the atmosphere of historical crisis in which Ibn Arabi lived, forcing him to swerve from his innermost convictions. One may wonder, though, whether Abu Zayd does not himself fall prey to the same decontextualizing tendency that he censures, as he appears to envisage Ibn Arabi's "spiritual experience" as an extra-historical given which only secondarily enters onto, and is defaced by, the marshy ground of historical reality. A more radical extension of Abu Zayd's "contextualizing" approach would have to explicate how religious experience itself is structured by concepts and notions current within a particular historical setting.
Eschatological speculation is certainly more than a naive attempt to predict the future and tell fortunes, and Otto's description of God as the "wholly other" may help us see why: if God is a being that is "wholly other", then Judgment Day represents a state of the world that is "wholly other". This correspondence suggests that eschatological speculation may be classed more properly as a kind of theology, i. e. that it is not so much trying to predict the unpredictable as to articulate the divine - and that it is doing so by imagining God's ultimate manifestation in the realm of temporality rather than by deducing his atemporal attributes, as rationalist theologians such as Maimonides are wont to do. Incidentally, the wealth of detail employed in the Qur'ânic presentation of paradise and hell, to which Stefan Wild (University of Bonn) drew attention, suggests a similarity to Bruckstein's midrash in that the latter also conceives the divine by way of enumerative detail and sensory imagination rather than by abstract argumentation.
Wild also pointed out the almost perfect symmetry between the Qur'ânic paradise and hell. For instance, even though hell (jahannam) is a place stripped of vegetation, it does have its analogue to the trees that grow in paradise: the tree of zakkûm, which "is the food of the guilty / like molten copper, bubbling in the belly / as boiling water bubbles" (44: 43 ff.). After God's final judgment the world, which so far has been one unified realm in which good and evil are inextricably linked, is split into two separate and largely symmetrical spheres, one absolutely good and the other absolutely evil. Post-eschatological reality is hence 'wholly other' than the world as we know it.
Like Hanafi, Wild observed that the Qur'ânic aesthetics of horror serve an exhortatory function in that it is supposed to put man on the right path. According to Reinhard Kratz (Georg-August-University of Göttingen), a similar aim can be detected in the pseudepigraphic apocalypse of Enoch. Kratz, however, put more emphasis on the compensatory function of the apocalyptic writings: according to him, they are to be seen as a "literature of the powerless," who try to offset their own political and cultural impotence through elaborate fantasies of divine omnipotence. Kratz's description of the apocalyptic literature as a reaction to Hellenism was questioned by Galit Hasan-Rokem (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), who preferred to see it as one of the shapes of Hellenism itself.
In delineating the counterpart that the Qur'ânic jahannam has in the book of Enoch, Kratz carefully distinguished between the two concepts of she'ol and gehinnom. While the former designates a subterranean abode of the death without any distinctions according to moral merit, the latter was originally a pagan place of worship in the vicinity of Jerusalem and gradually became the location of God's final judgement. The idea that each individual is held morally responsible for his actions even after death thus attaches itself to the concept of gehinnom rather than that of she'ol. Kratz's explanations can be seen to shed valuable light on the pre-history of the Qur'ânic conception of hell, where the idea of an ultimate judgement according to individual moral merit is already solidly in place.
While Wild had no qualms in speaking about the "aesthetic" dimension of the Qur'ânic eschatology, Kratz insisted that even though the apocalyptic writings certainly make use of devices that might be called aesthetic, their main interest lies elsewhere. Controversy between the participants then centered on the general relationship between religion and aesthetics. Those advocating a clear conceptual distinction between the two spheres seemed to presuppose an understanding of aesthetics as "art for art's sake," but the underlying idea of an autonomous and thoroughly secular realm of aesthetic pursuit will probably not be helpful in making sense of their amalgamation in pre-modern forms of religious life. Whether one chooses the word "aesthetic" or a different term is ultimately of minor consequence, so long as one does not shun the hermeneutic task of attempting to understand how art functions within a religious framework, lending plausibility and emotional and imaginative content to the more dogmatic and conceptual teachings of a particular religion. In any case, religion must not be reduced to theological speculation, since even the latter would cease to be a meaningful - and thus hermeneutically accessible - activity if one were to deprive religious life of its "aesthetic" underpinning.
Like Kratz, Angelika Neuwirth (Free University of Berlin) focused on the historical context of eschatological imagination. In her lecture she proposed to read the Qur'ân as a document of the gradual emergence of the early Muslim community. She called specific attention to the appropriation and transformation of pre-Islamic literary forms, which the Qur'ân shapes into vehicles for an interpretation of the world and of human history clearly at odds with Arabian paganism. The Qur'ânic oath clusters (e. g. in sûra 100: "By the panting runners / striking fire in sparks / storming forward in the morning / their track a dusty cloud...") bear a close formal resemblance to the utterances of the pre-Islamic kuhhân (soothsayers). Just like certain kuhhân sayings, the respective Qur'ânic passages present an enigma which is only solved at the end, thus serving to create suspense. Yet in the Qur'ân these techniques are not employed in order to certify the privileged status and supernatural knowledge of the soothsayer, but rather to convey Muhammad's announcement of imminent divine judgment. The literary forms of the oath and the enigma are thus integrated into a radically different perception of historical time that stretches from creation to the day of judgment. This transformation of their Sitz im Leben is also reflected in a variation in their literary structure that can be observed for example in sûra 100, where the enigma and its solution are separated by a paraenetic intermediate section that castigates man's ingratitude toward God. The intermediate section at once retards and prepares solution of the enigma in the concluding section, where the evocation of scenes from Bedouin warfare at the beginning is decoded in terms of God's final judgement and punishment.
Even though the overall context of the workshop strongly suggested a reading of the eschatological scenarios presented by Kratz, Wild and Neuwirth as attempts to articulate the divine tremendum, Yaron Ezrahi (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) advanced a more sociological interpretation. As he remarked, it is frequently the exceptional against which the ordinary is defined; hence, the eschatological fantasies of total social collapse might be viewed as attempts to fathom alternatives to the social order structuring ordinary human life. Ezrahi's reading would give eschatology a function somewhat analogous to that of the "state of nature" in modern political philosophy, namely, that of a radical alternative to society from which the latter draws its justification and legitimacy.
While the presentations discussed in the first section of this essay largely dealt with different articulations of the encounter between God and man, liturgy, as Michael Fishbane (University of Chicago) put it, "recreates through the language of tradition" an "original experience of nullity" that precedes tradition. Liturgy provides a framework within which the confrontation between divine transcendence and human "subscendence" can be contained and safely reenacted.
If eschatology is a way of speaking about God, then it seems that in liturgy man speaks to God. But even if liturgy brings the believer into the presence of God, the awesome majesty of this presence may preclude him from actually addressing God, as some of the prayers discussed by Michael Fishbane demonstrate. This contrast between transcendence and subscendence is captured most strikingly in the original version of R. Simeon ben Isaac's (tenth century or later) hymn melekh elyon, where stanzas starting with "supreme king" (melekh elyon) alternate with stanzas starting with "abject king" (melekh ewyon). Insofar as the "abject king" functions as a kind of metonymy representing the community of believers, the radicality of the hymn lies in its foregrounding of the bipolarity between transcendence and nullity. Later on, all the melekh ewyon stanzas except for two (which are now said silently shortly before the end of the prayer) were edited out. Thus, the antithesis is defused. Although the topic of divine transcendence now occupies almost the whole of the prayer, it has also been defused, since it can be adequately grasped only together with the topos of human subscendence.
Michael Fishbane examined the function of liturgy in terms of the articulation and reenactment of religious experience and thus continued where the first section of this essay leaves off. The presentation given by Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann (Free University of Berlin) related liturgy to the topic of eschatology already broached in the second part of this paper. Schmidt-Biggemann gave an introduction to the eschatological scenario of the apocalypse of St. John and then showed how the medieval Latin hymn Dies irae takes up similar motifs. In opposition to the unmitigated horror of the apocalypse of St. John, the Dies irae introduces a comforting contrast by evoking the possibility of divine mercy: "Nothing worth are prayers of mine: / But, Thou Good One, be benign, / Nor in endless fire confine / ... Who dost save the saved free, / Well of mercy! save Thou me." Liturgy here does not so much aim at confronting the believer with God's awesome majesty and his own nullity as it provides a verbal mould that allows him to deal with this unsettling experience: God can be addressed and implored and thus moved to mercy. Previously, Schmidt-Biggemann had adumbrated the theological dilemma posed by the apocalypse of St. John: How can God break his promise not to destroy the world again? How can God's wrath be reconciled with his goodness? In the Dies irae, the problem of theodicy is solved, or rather circumvented, by the fact that God can be personally addressed in prayer and liturgy. Divine wrath and divine mercy are thus capable of coexisting in a way not possible if God were merely an impersonal object of theological research.
The Dies irae received additional attention in a lecture delivered by Ruth HaCohen that connected its history to that of the Jewish hymn Unetane tokef, which is sung as part of the New Year service. Both hymns have their ultimate origin inthe book of Zephaniah (1: 14-16), which partly explains the numerous parallels between them. Interestingly, Unetane tokef, which is traditionally associated with the martyrdom of Rabbi Amnon, plays a role in the Jewish New Year service that is analogous to that of the Christian offeratorium recalling the sacrifice of Christ. The religious horror expressed by Unetane tokef was thus "updated" to address the experience of medieval European Jewry by connecting it to the representative death of a Jew cast in the role of Christ - i. e. in the role of precisely that individual in the name of which Jews were being persecuted and killed in the first place.
HaCohen then presented two more illustrations of how ancient liturgical moulds are charged with new significance in different historical circumstances. One of them was the performance of Verdi's Requiem, which includes the Dies irae, by Jewish captives in Theresienstadt; the other was a performance of Unetane tokef in commemoration of the victims of the Yom Kippur war in the secular Israeli kibbutz Beit Hashita, demonstrating the "presence of the religious in the heart of modern secular culture." Participants were shown a video recording of this rendition in which sequences of the performance itself were interspersed with scenes that showed mourning Israelis at the graves of their relatives. Ha-Cohen argued that the Beit Hashita Unetane Tokef marks a clear turn in the Israeli history of mourning of war heroes - a turn from a nationalist-heroic conception of "beautiful death" to a more humanized version of mourning which acknowledges the limits of power. According to her, it emphasizes human fragility and impotence in general, rather than taking up an exclusively Jewish perspective.
HaCohen concluded with a rather positive valuation of her last example, considering it a practice of mourning that "is sober and free of any feeling whatsoever of revenge" because the enemy is completely absent from it. Yet it was precisely this absence that caused one Lebanese participant to protest against what he considered a piece of Israeli propaganda that had no regard for the suffering inflicted on the other side. As Ezrahi pointed out, the screening of the video was intended as an illustration of how religious traditions are taken up and transformed by secular nationalism; while one may of course be critical of this process, it would be unfair to hold HaCohen accountable for the message conveyed by the video - just as it would be unfair to hold any scholar accountable for the ideas expressed by the sources he cites.
Yet it appears that the reaction of the Lebanese participant is symptomatic of something crucial. The emotional and aesthetic impact of the film was so irresistible that one could only violently repel or be completely won over by its perspective, which would mean subscribing to the video's problematic depiction of war as a kind of mysterious and inevitable affliction that tragically strikes Israel again and again, and which one can react to only by mourning one's losses. Perhaps one could say that the film was so effective that it proved difficult to contain it within the quotation marks that HaCohen certainly had in mind. The immediacy of the film's impact engendered an equally unmediated response - be it sympathy or rejection - and made it exceedingly difficult to take up a position of analytic distance. Yet, as the ensuing discussion showed, such a position is not beyond reach. The basic idea of the research project "Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics" is precisely to work toward such a position of critical distance vis-à-vis one's own cultural and religious tradition, and thus bring about a reflective autonomy that would allow one to selectively and consciously draw upon one's cultural heritage instead of being unconsciously governed by it. This would also release one from the need to apologetically justify this heritage in its totality, a tendency seemingly exhibited by much of contemporary Arab thought. Farid Esack (Centre for the Study of Progressive Islam, South Africa) criticized the complacency with which Muslims sometimes contrast the relatively benign attitude that Islamic rule exhibited toward Jews with the pogroms that the latter were subject to in Christian Europe, while Mahmoud Ayoub (Temple University) objected that one "needs to be able to live with one's history" and therefore considered it legitimate not to ignore its positive aspects.
In the discussion sparked by the film, the dangers of being held hostage to one's religious tradition were expressed by a number of participants. With regard to Israel one speaker posed the question of what happens "when the former victim suddenly becomes powerful" and yet continues to behave like a victim. The problem becomes even more acute if such a community has compensated its self-perception as a continual victim by imagining moments of retribution of the kind described by Kratz. But as Michael Fishbane pointed out, the experience of "living the life of a wounded nation" and of "being a remnant" is so deeply engraved in the Jewish collective identity that it would be facile to call on Jews to stop "wallowing in their suffering", as one participant had previously demanded. Galit Hasan-Rokem agreed that the way the Holocaust has become part of the Israeli national narrative needs to be deconstructed and criticized, yet at the same time she voiced concern that the Palestinians might think that in order to attain their own state they must undergo a catastrophe similar to the Holocaust and unconsciously look to the Jewish Israelis to inflict it upon them. The "madness of victimology," Mark Cohen (Princeton University) argued, would thus produce the result that each side views the other as a reincarnation of the Nazis, i. e. of absolute evil. Abu Zayd lucidly remarked that one of the potential consequences of such a mutual demonization might consist in a general loss of the ability for empathy. In the "normative culture" of contemporary Palestinian society, for example, the parents of a shahîd ("martyr") are expected to feel no grief over the death of their child. But if the loss of human life is no longer lamented, then what else is there to prevent further escalation of the conflict? In this context Ezrahi contrasted the impersonal modes of mourning developed by "collectivist cultures" with those of more individualistic societies: since individualism as a cultural formation makes the death of one person equivalent to the loss of a whole world instead of considering him a replaceable part of the whole, it is one of the most powerful means of restraining violence.
The contemporary political significance of religious traditions was addressed from a different angle by Abdulkader Tayob (ISIM, University of Nijmegen) who explored the potential of Qur'ân 9: 1-13 for divergent interpretations with radically different political implications. A selective reading of the passage that skips certain verses yields an unconditional declaration of war on the "idolators" ("slay the idolators wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush"). Yet in between these categorical proclamations one finds contextual considerations excepting "those of the idolators with whom you made a covenant." And even the treatment of those not falling under the latter stipulation is limited by the general admonishment that "if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way. God is all-forgiving, all compassionate." However, it would be possible to suppress or 'edit out' these contextual and limiting considerations while still preserving a coherent text without any obvious non sequiturs. How this particular Qur'ânic passage is to be handled exegetically thus becomes almost a matter of individual discretion. The general question addressed, of course, is that of the "borders of interpretability," as Abu Zayd put it: does the text itself impose any constraints on its interpretation, and can one therefore ascribe to it an inherent meaning independent of historical context?
Navid Kermani's presentation focused on a letter sent by a group of high-ranking Iranian military commanders to president Khatami in 1999 that implicitly threatened him with a coup if he did not take harsher measures against protesting students. The historical background to Kermani's analysis was furnished by Mahmoud Ayoub, who described how in Shici Islam a politically frustrated community constructed an ideal which was not put to the test until the Iranian revolution. As Kermani stressed, Shici Islam is permeated by a sense of victimhood that invites comparison with the Jewish tradition: the division of the Iranian people into "our people" and "not our people," for instance, perpetuates a situation of exile even after the successful Islamic revolution and after "the former victim has become powerful," as one participant remarked with respect to Israel. Ironically, Hasan-Rokem was able to confirm this parallel from a journey to Iran that she undertook in 1972, recalling a shared feeling of "being alone against the whole world." Kermani meticulously showed how the letter of the military commanders is pervaded by traditional Shicite topoi such as the failure of the population of Kufa to come to the rescue of Husayn. The language of the letter as well as the iconography of the Islamic revolution in general rest on traditional motifs that produce an aesthetic and emotional effect which everybody who comes from an Iranian cultural background will find hard to resist. In this respect, too, Kermani's lecture offered a striking parallel to Israel and Judaism, especially to the video screened by HaCohen.