In the Beginning was Hermeneutics – Pt 2

Read Part One.

IV. Biblical Revelation

The full meaning of the Biblical words was not disclosed once and for all. Every hour another aspect is unveiled. (GSM, p. 273)

The meaning of the Bible is not a given. Heschel states “Revelation is not vicarious thinking;” that is, revelation and its meaning do not come to us pre-assembled. Revelation is not a “substitute” for our thinking abilities. (GSM, p. 273) This isn’t to say that revelation can and must be reduced to that which is rational. Reason has its limits. Revelation is not inherently rational, nor is it intended to be understood with only our natural faculties. Revelation is meant to be interpreted through means that are often supernatural, namely through faith. Heschel writes that the prophets did not speak to deliver a timeless, monolithic, and conclusive message, the meaning of which is inhospitable to the changes of time and culture.

But, the text, even if we claim it has divine origin, still needs to be interpreted. And we mustn’t expect that this interpretation is going to be somehow easier than if we were to interpret something else. Kearney asks his readers in his preface to bear in mind that we must be realize that “the holiest of books are works of interpretation––for authors no less than readers.” (Anatheism, p. xv)

But what about the Ten Commandments? They were received in stone. Going back to Kearney’s quote on the CBC interview, he said that it was a Word that was given, not a stone, not a certitude. Kearney writes in Anatheism, “Moses smashed the written tablets; Jesus never wrote a single world (only a scribble in the sand to prevent a woman being stoned); and Muhammad spoke, after much hesitation, but left writing to others.” (Anatheism, p. xv) To expand, the Gospels were written by Christians several decades after the event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Paul’s writings themselves are interpretations of his encounter with the Risen Christ. And, over time, Paul’s interpretations, and those of other apostles, became authoritative.

It also seems as if Heschel argues that revelation itself, in the Torah, is itself an interpretation. While it is possible to still be considered of divine origin, revelation still comes to us through the voice of the prophets. Naturally, interpretation, being central to what it means to be a thinking and acting human person, is going to occur when the prophet encounters or receives the divine Stranger or message.

V. Endless Interpretation: “Continuous Understanding”

Central to both Heschel’s “continuous understanding” and Kearney’s work is the wager that hermeneutics is endless. Heschel writes that while the word of God was spoken once to us, “the effort to understand it must go on for ever.” (GSM, p. 273) I can think of many times that I have picked up a book and read it through once and thought I understood it. Then I return to it a little while later and realized I misunderstood what was being said. The same thing occurs with conversations. I can think of many one-time conversations I have had and think that I have understood what the person was saying. Later on I will remember something said and realized that the person meant something totally different. Why is it that we assume that the Bible is any different? Where did the assumption that revelation’s meaning is singular and that it need not be interpreted generations after the event itself? Recall that the biblical texts themselves are interpretations that occur after the events they speak about.

Kearney argues that faith is “the art of endless hermeneutics.” Interpretation requires a wager. Not a calculating wager, but a wager that acknowledges our limited finite minds. A wager that acknowledges we might be wrong. Humility. Faith interprets revelation and becomes a response to that revelation itself.

Moreover, the conversation between revelation and the conscience and intellect is ongoing. The Divine Stranger “can never be taken for granted, can never be reduced to a collective acquis, but needs to be interpreted again and again.” (Anatheism, p. 14). Meaning is not given once and for all by the Divine Stranger or in the sacred texts. And even if one understands the need to interpret, they can never grow complacent with their interpretation that might be created by dogmatic certainty or the acquis communitaire (“that which is has been agreed upon by the community” or “the material gathered by the community.”) This opens us to the abundance of interpretation, which entails the possibility of fresh and creative interpretations. There is always a “surplus” of meaning within revelation for us to engage and draw upon.

With this in mind, Heschel adds “Every generation is expected to bring forth new understanding and new realization” of the Torah. (GSM, p. 274) Is it possible for us to entertain new meanings that have been hidden away inside the texts and poetical intimations of that message?

If revelation is not fixed for all time, insofar as interpretation of revelation occurs again, and again, and again, then are we really dealing with revelation? Moreover, is there any sort of stability that can keep us from interpreting religion according to our personal agendas? Or political aims? Or cultural preferences? Or heinous plans? In other words, if everything is interpretation, then what keeps us from just making things up as we go about revelation? What gives us the ability to properly interpret revelation? Is there any “proper” way to interpret revelation?

I get the sense that Heschel doesn’t really give us an adequate answer as of yet. (I have yet to finish the section entitled ‘Response’.) But what I can identify right now is that Heschel is not advocating a sort of revisionist interpretation where we can pick and choose what we like, adapting revelation to what we prefer. First of all, interpretative authority is not left to the individual, but to the community. In Heschel’s case, that is Israel. The “savants” of Israel, Heschel’s term for Jewish thinkers, must act responsibly in interpreting the Torah. In fact, their authority has so much bearing that Heschel even says “they have the power to set aside a precept of the Torah when conditions require it.” (GSM, p. 274-275). Despite this, Heschel is not saying we can just throw out whatever we’d like from revelation. It is still necessary to preserve the ancient interpretation of the prophets and sages. One must remain committed to the handing on of the interpretations of the oral Torah through “austere discipline.” (Heschel, p. 275)

Kearney too values the tradition of the prophets and interpreters when he states that “If God and prophets talk, the best we can do is listen—then speak and write in turn, always after the even…returning to words already spoken and always needing to be spoken again.” (Anatheism, p. xv) But the problem is when the tradition becomes closed, sealed to new possible interpretations. The windows become shut and the house becomes stuffy. The tradition becomes stale, dogmatic (in a negative way), and stiff. The body of the tradition no longer exercises itself. If one looks at the work of Kearney, they can see a hermeneutical retrieval of ancient authors, like Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart, and others. Hermeneutics is not a license to jettison past interpretations, but to expand upon, improve, bolster if necessary, and above all, do so in a spirit of love.

This is an area I would like to explore more as it is a very important question in our present day culture. The debate between religions and society about sexuality is perhaps the biggest example.

VII. Lived Interpretation

The Torah is not only our mother, it is “our life and the length of our days; we will mediate on her words day and night.” (Heschel, p. 275)

As mentioned earlier, Heschel stated that the interpretation of the Torah is born out of trial, sacrifice, and the desert of existence. Courage, endurance, tenacity, hope, and faith are what make the interpretation of the Torah possible. As a Jew, Heschel sees the whole history of the Jewish people as a story of lived-interpretation. That is, the Jewish people did not detach themselves from the Torah in order to understand it. They had to live within the Torah in order to interpret it. Thus, their lives influenced their understanding of the Torah and the Torah was influenced by their interpretation. “What modern scholar could vie with the intuition of such a people?” Heschel asks quite perceptively. (GSM, p. 275) The tendency of modern scholarship is to detach itself from any sort of lived-interpretation in the effort to be objective and scientific. But is that really possible?

While I haven’t Kearney express an explicit perspective on lived-interpretation, I would argue it is integral to his anatheistic hermeneutic. The first question Kearney was asked by his doctoral advisor, Paul Ricoeur, in a seminar at the University of Paris was d’ou parlez-vous? Where do you speak from? (Anatheism, p. xi) Kearney acknowledges that he lives, reads, listens, and acts within a particular “hermeneutical situation.” This situation is limited by our individual existence. Our interpretations are limited to our individual abilities unless we engage in interpretation with others. Even still, interpretation means, “there is no God’s-eye view of things available to us.” (Anatheism, p. xv) Objective, detached interpretation is a myth, a contradiction of terms. If we pretend that we are detached observers, then we are really fooling ourselves. Interpretation requires participation.

In the beginning was the Word, and thus, according to Kearney, so was hermeneutics. But the Word did something very particular: it became flesh. And, if the Word became flesh, then it is only to be expected that interpretation becomes flesh as well. If hermeneutics takes on flesh, it takes on the lived experience of the hermeneut (the interpreter). If the Word became flesh, so must its interpreters. Heschel remarks that the oral Torah, the interpretation of the written Torah, is enfleshed in the lives of its interpreters. That which remains unwritten is passed on “from soul to soul, inherited like the power to love, and kept alive by constant communion with the Word, by studying it, by guarding it, by living it, and by being ready to die for it.” (Heschel, p. 275) The Torah is more than a book, it is a voice the spoke, speaks, and will speak.

An interesting question I have yet to find an answer for is how do we interpret other religious traditions if we cannot fully participate in their rites and prayers? In other words, how does interpretation happen without infringing upon conscience? But that is something to discuss another time.

VIII. Conclusion

In conclusion, hermeneutics is as essential to the Word as the Word is to our religious imagination and life. Interpretation can be used for good or for ill and thus it is not something to be engaged in without an acknowledgement of the profound responsibility at hand. Humility is essential for any interpretive act or else it becomes ideology. Interpretation must be open to more interpretation; recognition must be had that the interpretative task is never complete.

Hermeneutics was there from the beginning and will be there to the end. (Anatheism, p. xv)


One thought on “In the Beginning was Hermeneutics – Pt 2

  1. Pingback: In the Beginning was Hermeneutics – Pt 1 | Until I have passed by.

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