Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Jonathan Sacks on "witness" and "substance"

I recently posted Brevard Childs' suggestion concerning the way forward for a Christian multiple-level interpretation of Scripture. John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry gave his own two-part summary in the comments:
What Childs seeks to do is to keep together what others drive asunder. The traditional exegesis of the church, whenever it has proposed a meta-sense of the text as a replacement of one of its more foundational senses, has ultimately done a disservice to the church's witness to the Gospel.
Modern, historical-critical exegesis, whenever it has proposed a foundational sense in replacement of the meta-sense a text has within Judaism and/or Christianity, has severed the text from its own "Nachleben," a self-defeating operation.
An Orthodox Jewish friend of mine asked via e-mail what John was talking about. I tried to clarify both the content of my post as well as John's comments in terms of Rabbi Jonathan Sack's interesting introduction to the newly published Koren Siddur (John warmly recommends it here, and so do I, though I can't comment on ArtScroll]). My concern is simply to argue that, theologically speaking, one ought to go beyond plain sense of the text to a "deeper meaning", and then back again, in a dialectical movement.

Here it is:

In his introduction to the Koren Siddur, Sacks states that the whole of the Siddur, despite all it's diverse sources, creates a "calibrated symphony." The implication is that beyond the diversity of the parts, there is an inner harmony, a harmony that is not particularly visible when one just reads one of those parts. One needs the whole in order to grasp the full implications of the part, one needs to read the canon (of Scripture and of Tradition) in relation to itself (which for a Jew includes Scripture's liturgical use, and the oral torah, both of which constitute the Bible's Nachleben, to use Hobbin's phrase). Reading the part in light of the whole helps us grasp something of the transcendent beyond. As Sacks says:
The Jewish people ... have ... been singled out for the most exalted mission ever entrusted to mankind: to be witnesses, in ourselves, to something beyond ourselves: to be God's "signal of transcendence" in a world in which his presence is often hidden (p. xxiv).
Part of this Jewish witness is in the body of tradition it has handed down to us. Again, Sacks puts it thus:
The siddur is ... the book of Jewish faith. Scholars of Judaism, noting that it contains little systematic theology, have sometimes concluded that it is a religion of deeds not creeds, acts not beliefs. They were wrong because they were looking in the wrong place. They were looking for a library of works like Moses Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. They should have looked instead at the siddur. The home of Jewish belief is the siddur.
So, it would seem (to me at least, do correct!), that in order to grasp something of this theological reality, one has to immerse oneself, not only in an exegesis of the particular texts of the Bible, but in the whole of the tradition which it has spawned. Only then is our vision adjusted to be able to "perceive the mystery" (as the Eastern Orthodox theologican Andrew Louth put it) that is hidden within the fragmented parts.

This assumption only works, of course, if we believe that God has been guiding the Jewish people through their history. Again, Sacks not only has this assumption, he also draws hermeneutical implications from it. In regard to the composition of the siddur he says:
The siddur as it exists today is the result of some forty centuries of Jewish history. Yet the result is not mere bricolage, a patchwork of random additions. It is as if the composition of the prayer book has been shaped by an "invisible hand," a Divine inspiration that transcends the intentions of any particular author. Specifically, form mirrors substance. The shape of the prayers reveals the basic shape of the Jewish spirit as it has been molded by its encounter with God (p. xxii).
He then goes on to discuss some of the structural features of the prayers (where, again, he points out that "form mirrors substance.")

As far as I can see, the conclusion one must draw from this is the following: God wishes the world to know him, and to this end he has elected for himself a people who must witness to him. Scripture and siddur are the literary products of this people, borne out of an active relationship with this God, and their function is to point beyond themselves to their substance, which is God himself (as the prayers themselves plead: "make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths ... so that we ... may all know your name ... " (check out this post on the goal of God's self-revelation). Yet, getting to know this "substance," the God of the text, involves being part of the community, in it's life and practice, and not just being a Biblical scholar. The sum of the Bible is greater than its parts.

There are only two differences here between what Sack's is saying and what Hobbins is saying: the substance of the Scripture is the Gospel, and the elected witnesses are the church (mysteriously grafted into Israel, not replacing it ... though I still need to work on understanding the relation). Sack's "symphony" is Hobbin's "traditional exegesis of the church"/Nachleben; Sack's "substance" is Hobbins' "gospel" or "meta-sense."

Hobbins adds, however, an extra element that I don't see in Sacks or even in Judaism (though I remember from past conversations that I may be wrong here). For Hobbins, the plain sense of the text not only functions as a witness to the substance (it's "spiritual sense," if you will), it also functions as a critical norm over against church tradition. In other words, if the church does too much allegorizing it runs the risk of drowning out the voice of Scripture and subjecting it to foreign ideology. There has to be a constant tension, or dialectic: on the one hand, the plain sense of the text has to be understood in relation to our broader understanding of the substance; on the other hand, our understanding of the substance has to be mediated by the plain sense of the Scriptural witness. The community of faith (church or synagogue) is not allowed to make the text say what it wants it to say, and so must always be willing to critique itself in light of the text.

As for historical criticism, it's main problem is ideological. Though it pretends to objectivity, in reality it has its own presuppositions concerning the nature of the "substance" of the text (I've also made similar comments in a post here on clarfiying the Bible's subject matter. Also, cf. my post of Medieval allegory and historical criticism). By jettisoning Christian tradition, it has adopted another one (modernism, for example).

I'd appreciate any feed back pointing out where I'm misrepresenting either Christianity or Judaism, or simply not thinking logically enough!

Update: Tzvee, of Tvee's Talmudic Blog, has a number of interesting and critical posts, gathered here, on Sack's understanding of the Siddur. Of particular relevance to this post is his post Welcome to the great Jewish assembly.


tzvee said...

U want feedback eh? Sacks' intro is not critical by any means. It is apologetics lite. It's not his fault - there is no coherent analytical tradition for siddur studies. I'm writing books and papers on the topic - blogs posted earlier this year point the way. http://tzvee.blogspot.com/search?q=sacks

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for the link. I've linked to it in my post.

Concerning the symphony, you may be right that it is more of a cacophony. I can't judge there. I'm guessing, though, that you do believe in some kind of theological unity undergirding the diversity ...