13 SES 06 A, Educational religious translations and truth in the Talmud tradition
According to the French-Jewish philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin our common society is characterized by a gap between people who think dogmatically, and those who want ‘to be free’. In other words, between what we call ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘free spirits or liberal thinkers’. Also according to the Dutch abbot Lode Van Hecke of the monastery Orval, the battle today is not a battle between different religions such as Islam against Christianity (or a cultural-ethnical battle between the Middle East and Western Europe) but between people who are open and those who are closed. What is missing today in this world of ‘absolute truths’ is a fundamental critic. Moreover, there is a lack of a critical instrumentarium in order to keep each other awake.
This paper is about the art of reading, and more in particular, the tradition of the Talmud, based on the work of the Jewish philosopher Ouaknin, who is inspired by the work of Levinas and Derrida. In the Jewish tradition the ‘Talmid Chacham’ or the Talmud scholar is a ‘searcher of truth’, and not a possessor of (the) truth. The Talmid Chacham starts from a fundamental (attitude of) faith that there is truth, ‘here and now’, in contrast to our contemporary ‘Enlighted’ thinking - religious - where ‘truth’ is seen as something that we can ‘think’ and hold on to. Reading is seen as ‘reading the words right’ and understanding as ‘to know the right/correct interpretation’: it is all about a verification of the theory or truth. Many (religious) institutions gather these (religious) traditions which use a unique, certified and uniform language. A ‘clear and unambiguous’ language that leads to a certain intolerance and hardness towards the other, i.e. the person who is not (yet) introduced into the truth.
For Ouaknin, books need to be destroyed in order to give birth to thought and renew meaning. What he means is that tradition as a way of saving the truth and the words, does not help us to read (religious) books. A Talmud-reading is therefore always a ‘wrestling with words’: it is about ‘opening the words’ and making them fruitful. In this way, reading is always an act of freedom (and not of ‘conservation’), it is to liberate ‘words’ as to open them up in search for meanings. As we know, this wrestling with words and meanings, is in the end always a wresting with the world and therefore, with ourselves. When we agree that reading is wrestling with words, it is not only the text but also our ‘ethos’ as a human being that is at stake in this practice of reading. The Talmudic reading in the ‘learning house’ or Yeshiva has an individual as well as a collective dimension: it is a collective study work and dialogue between students from different ages of commenting (i.e. Latin word 'com-mentis') a text.
A student came to visit his master He asked him: ‘What have you learned?’ The student answered him: ‘I have read the Talmud three times. And the master said: ‘But has the Talmud also read you?’ In this workshop/long paper we want to present an instrumentarium for dealing with the truth (in/and (religious)) texts. In the Talmud tradition, reading is a way of ‘understanding’. ‘To know’ implies always an act of translation. It is this act of translation, that Ouaknin calls religious, religion comes from the Latin verb – re-legere, which means re-reading. This act of re-reading as translation is not a mean to understand what is in the text, nor to understand the text better (cf. the right interpretation). But is always an act to understand differently. In this Talmud tradition, the reader/translator does not go back to the past or the (historical) context, in order to understand what the text ‘means’, or in order to grasp the idea of the text (that the writer put in it). ‘To know’ means to contribute to what is written (i.e. the words) in the present of the here and now In this specific manner of reading the text is not an (static) object which lies in front of us and in which the ‘truth’ is buried in order to dig up, but appears as a subject that is involved in the reading process. It is the reader who wants to understand himself, in and through the opening (or penetration) of the text (cf. the notion of attention in the work of Simone Weil). Interesting to see is that the Hebrew word for ‘to know’ has also a sexual connotation, meaning ‘to confess oneself’. To know involves an existential ‘eros of knowledge’. It is precisely in this interplay or ‘transcendental dialogue’ between the reader-translator and the text that ‘truth’ reveals (cf. Blanchots idea of 'entretien infini').
This examination of the literary method and Talmud tradition is not only a way to overcome the growing gap in (religion and faith) education between the more ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘dogmatic’ approach, on one hand, and the ‘free spirits’ on the other. It is also a way to re-invent religion as such, and to find a new path to a ‘common (faith) community’. Not a community in which we share the same truth, belief, identity or nationality, but a ‘community of those whose nothing in common’, referring to the philosopher Alfonso Lingis. Instead of a ‘rational (and absolute truth) community’ this latter community implies an ethos (or ethics?) of responsibility, i.e. that we don’t dogmatically accept the words but that we engage ourselves in the text! The Talmudic reading is thus a method to transcend the authority of the own (religious) reading and invites students to interpret, discuss, and re-create their religious tradition. Especially this moment of re-creation is what religion or spirituality is all about. It is this act of re-reading and translation that in itself becomes an existential (religious) experience. It is an experience of disposition and of re-connecting oneself with oneself, the other and the world. And these experiences of reading as re-connecting is what we want to call religious (from the Latin world re-ligare): the way of human being is finding oneself in the world.
Levinas, E. (1990). Nine Talmudic reading. Indiana University Press. Ouaknin, M.-A. (1998). The Burnt Book. Princeton University. New Jersey. Ouaknin, M.-A. (1999). Les Dix Commandements. Éditions du Seuil. Lingis, A. (1994). The community of those who have nothing in common. Indiana University Press. Weil, S. (2009). Waiting for God. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
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