Clearing out the Living Room

As the Talmud Blog’s first Book Club winds down, we are happy to present you with the author’s response to the discussion. His words will only make sense if you first read the comments, and his response appears here and not down there so as not to confuse the “author” and “reader” functions. Although you may be tempted to put down your coffee cups and saucers and clear out of our virtual living room, please do not take this as a hint to end the discussion!

We also wish to announce that the Book Club’s next book will be Talya Fishman’s Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures  (a very recent recipient of the National Jewish Book Award). The club will be open in about two months time. But in the meantime we will inaugurate the ‘Book’ Club’s first discussion of an article – Zvi Septimus’ “Trigger Words and Simultexts: The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” in Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, ed. Wisdom of Bat Sheva: In Memory of Beth Samuels (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009).  Zvi’s paper at this past year’s AJS conference created quite a stir, and his research, first set out in his recently filed dissertation, is to my mind at the cutting edge of the application of critical literary theory to the reading of the Bavli. We plan on talking about the article on Febuary 6th, and Zvi has agreed to ‘update’ his argument and respond to your comments and questions.

And now, for Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s response:

I was thrilled to read the discussion, the praises, the critique and especially the analysis. The engagement is serious and thorough, and this is ultimately the most that an author can hope for: fostering a serious discussion. It is also a delight to enter into such discussion without the need to first clarify misrepresentations (well except maybe Eva’s suggestion that I “spared certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression”, which calls for substantiation).

As for Eva’s arguments about the place of dialectic approach to the yetzer in rabbinic literature and the possible distinction between “yetzer” and “yetzer hara” in this context, I have detailed my arguments in the book and it’s up to the reader to be more or less convinced. Let me just say that I was very surprised to find out what I did. I entered into this project as part of my interest in rabbinic sexuality, and especially the famous rabbinic “dialectic of desire”, and was quite shocked not to find all this in the rabbinic sources, especially, as I try to show in the book, in their earlier stratum.

Persian sources? Sure (after all this is Shai Secunda’s blog, and one has to be a mannerly guest). Their absence from the book is due to my old (old-old) schooled principle not to engage sources which I cannot read in their original language (I tried to be totally straight forward about that in the introduction). But I must add that the secondary literature I did read (and I read quite a lot) gave me the impression of much more generic similarities than the ones I found in the Patristic sources, where I could identify not just phenomenological parallels but specific traditions, images and idioms. The Persian equivalent is still to be shown. Eva: I hope you will pick up the gauntlet.

I believe Amit is right that this book ultimately strives to show how foreign the rabbis are to us, and to resist (and correct) the temptation to read our own post-Freudian conceptualization of self and personality into these sources. Rafael notes the same phenomenon but with a discontent (the famous Freudian discontent?). ‘What is the ultimate goal of such an enterprise?’ he asks.  Well, my most honest answer is that this is what the history of ideas is about. Can it make any change? It might, as any historical research, first and foremost by contextualizing, historicizing and thus de-essentializing, our own most basic conceptions about ourselves (our “selves”). I believe this is what Foucault means when he says that showing the Person (or the Author, or Sexuality, or Humanities) was born sometime (and not very long ago) means that it can also, sooner or later, die.

Does rabbinic ontology, anthropology and cosmology matter? To whom? Is the only way to make history relevant through recruiting the past to became “a usable past”? I do not believe so, and have tried to make my point, especially with regard to gender studies, in several places (see for example “Misogyny and its Discontents”, Prooftexts 25 [2005], pp. 198-208). But this leads us way beyond the scope of my book to the most basic questions  about Humanities and their “usefulness”; questions that admittedly become more and more acute in our anti-intellectual atmosphere, especially (if I may) in today’s Israel. But that’s, I guess, for another club to discuss.

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4 responses to “Clearing out the Living Room

  1. As I said, there’s no reason to end the discussion now that the author has weighed in, and I actually am going to respond to Ishay’s final point even if he seems reluctant to get into it here.

    Raphael (and then I) put the pressure on the overarching goal of the kind of genealogy that Ishay engages in in this book and elsewhere. Ishay was kind enough to respond clearly to this. I respect the forthrightness and simultaneously very strongly disagree with. If I understand him correctly, it seems that, exactly as I feared, these deconstruction processes are a way to let things die (though surely one cannot take Foucault at his “word” that he wished “sexuality” to die – and then what? What replaces it? According to Foucault discourse and power never die, they simply mutate or re-embed themselves. Foucault’s project is about problematizing not letting things die). I am afraid of this kind of genealogy both as a humanistic scholar and as a Jewish scholar. First, because my affiliation as a Jewishly engaged scholar means that I care about the rabbinic project as a whole – even when I am able to point to its “warts”. Letting it die means to my mind killing it. And second, because as a scholar I try to be “charitable” with virtually everything I study – including phenomena that previous generations of Orientalists considered “primitive” or “savage”. This charity doesn’t just mean I respect from a distance but I perceive fragments relevant to understanding humanity today. And this is all very relevant endeavor in a society where the present is so closely (and dangerously) linked to past – remember Scholem’s warning about the Hebrew language.

    I agree that what we don’t need are simplistic attempts to make scholarship relevant or in Israeli slang, “aktuali”. But I actually think that the so-called Israeli anti-intellectual environment (which Israelis have been complaining about as long as I can remember and yet which pales in comparison to American anti-intellectualism outside of certain very ratified circles – anyone following the current GOP primaries?) is important because it helps us remember why what we do is important. It is so easy to think that our own personal intellectual bubbles – be they in NYC, Northern CA, South Jerusalem, etc are self-justifying.. Scholarship that is responsible and yet has what to say beyond the bubble is where we should ultimately aim. And my own aesthetic preference is that it not be a wholly de(con)structive process.

  2. I follow the interesting discussion from distance and would like to add my understanding of Foucault’s cocnept of genealogy and the way it can be used when dealing with the yetzer. Indeed, Foucault does not take a simplist position with regard to the history of ideas, saying something like we need to learn history in order to better understand ourselves. Instead, he is asking himself a general question about the human being or, i’ll dare to say, the human condition, and then tries to undersand how was this question articulated in the past. Obviously, this is a dialectical process – finding the ancient articulation of the question has impact on the modern articulation of it… 
    The question of the yetzer is indeed a wonderful case study to the use of the geneaological approoach in the context of rabbinic studies. The rabbinic doctrine of yetzer can be regarded as the rabbinic articulation (whose historic evolution is studied in Ishay’s book) of the same problem human beings ask themselves today – why is it that even though we know how to act morally we still feel the urge (and often sucumb to it) to act immorally? 
    That is, of course, the same problem the monastic demonolgy is trying to tackle. Both monastic demonolgy and the rabbinic doctrine of yetzer do not simply try to solve the problem; their goal is to put it into words, to articulate it in terms and concepts and mythes so that people (rabbis, monks) will be able to understand themselves and to act as moral subjects within their discourse. 
    And of course, Freudian psychanlysis is yet another discourse that offers us a language by which we can articulate the same problem. In a paper I gave some years ago, as well as in my book I claimed that we can distinguish between the monastic and the rabbinic articulations of the problem, and that the same distinction can be made, in the modern context, between the freudian and the philosophical articulations of the same problem. Both Freud and the rabbis assume a perpetual state of conflict between the human being and the moral law (the yetzer hara never leaves the body, its presence is permanent and the more a person is “gadol” the more powerful his yetzer will be), whereas the philosophers (both ancient and modern, at least the “idealistic”  ones) and the monks envisage a state of harmony between the human being and the moral law (or universal/natural law) – once a person really understands how she should behave (whether it is by means of her reason or by the divine gift of grace) she will behave accordingly. The monastic demons are not an integral part of the human being as the rabbinic yetzer is. 
    I think then that we find here a case in which the geneaologocal approach can help us to shed light on ancient ethical discourses by means of reflection on modern ones, and vice versa…
    Yes, the rabbis of the Talmud were so different from us, but we have at least one thing in common with them – we are after all human beings trying to be and to act better…

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