This post is being cross-posted at The Philosopher’s Stone, a fascinating blog which has gone from hosting Robert Paul Wolff’s full autobiography (!) to hosting an interesting discussion on the future of the left.
In a recent post on religion, Professor Wolff argues, “the religious beliefs of serious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are vile, absurd, and totally incompatible with even the least evolved secular moral sensibility.” Nor should religious people reinterpret ugly texts using tortured hermeneutics: “If… [Leviticus] is the Word of Almighty God, then it is for us to obey it, not to interpret it until it conforms to our modern sensibilities… It is the book burners, the woman stoners, the homosexual killers, who are truly religious. Theirs is the real face of religious faith.”
I do not speak for “serious” Christians or Muslims; frankly, I don’t even speak for many Jews. I do think Wolff is wrong about my Judaism, so I will defend forceful, non-literal biblical interpretation. But I have a problem: whether literalism is right or wrong, it’s certainly faster than the alternative. Citing a verse takes a moment; subjecting that verse to rigorous theological, historical, textual, and literary interpretation takes years. As a full-time student, I do not have that time. For that reason, and because I’m less interested in religious polemics than in neat textual quirks, I’ll argue indirectly, giving a tiny example of how the Jewish religious tradition can work. At the end I’ll explain the implications of my exegesis; if you’re unsatisfied, leave a comment (on my blog) and I’ll defend myself more explicitly.
Let’s start, somewhat arbitrarily, with what 4 Maccabees thinks of Joseph. The text, which probably dates from between 100 BCE and 100 CE, is a panegyric on martyrdom and reason’s control of the passions. Framed by Antiochus Epiphanies’ persecutions of the Jews in the second century BCE — which are recorded with debatable historicity in 1 Maccabees – 4 Maccabees interprets a variety of biblical texts to its ends. Here’s what it says about Joseph:
It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by mental effort he overcame sexual desire. For when he was young and in his prime, by his reason he nullified the frenzy of his passions. Not only is reason proved to rule over the frenzied urge of sexual desire, but also over every desire (4 Maccabees 2:1-4, cited in James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House, 21.
In the biblical story (Genesis 39), Potiphar’s wife unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Joseph and then frames him for attempted rape. How does 4 Maccabees approach this text?
First, it uses Joseph as an early example of a tradition of Jewish resistance to outside gentile temptation; the book is framed as a discussion between Antiochus and several Jews, whom he is trying to sway to eat non-kosher food, thus deserting their religion (as Potiphar’s wife – in this telling – encourages Joseph to do). But just like Joseph, these later Jews resist: “Why do you delay, O tyrant? For we are ready to die rather than transgress our ancestral commandments.” 4 Maccabees turns a number of biblical figures into precursors for its own ideology of martyrdom, self-restraint, and strict adherence to tradition. This typology isn’t present in the biblical text: rather, it’s a narrative the exegete uses to make sense of the text in terms of his own life and world.
4 Maccabees radically opposes Hellenization, following the original Hasmoneans – i.e. the Maccabees – who, if we wanted our own inexact, secularist typology, would be the precursors to the Taliban, imposing religious law and smashing idols. On the other hand, the paradigm with which the book approaches Hellenization, in which the rational intellect opposes base material passions, is cribbed more or less directly from Stoicism – that is, from Greek philosophy. Stoicism, a sophisticated ancient philosophy, contained a system of metaphysics, logic and ethics. In its popular form, it preached the rule of reason of the passions and taught that a right-thinking person could be as happy being tortured on the rack as sitting at a feast. These ideas permeate the exegesis of Joseph from this period, as another bit of Jewish exegesis reveals:
Not even in my mind did I yield to her [Potiphar’s wife], for God loves more the one who is faithful in self-control in a dark cistern than the one who in royal chambers feasts on delicacies with excess… For when I had been with her in her house she would bare her arms and thighs that I might lie with her. For she was wholly beautiful and splendidly decked out to entice me, but the Lord protected me from her manipulations (Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Kugel 24).
The idea that the religious life to aspire to takes place in a dungeon does not come from the Hebrew Bible. Think of the famous Psalm 23: religious trouble for the Psalmist is represented physically as “the valley of the shadow of death,” the life with God, thus: “You prepare a table before me / in the presence of my enemies. / You anoint my head with oil; / my cup overflows.” That theology is all throughout the psalms: spiritual trouble is physical trouble, religious fulfillment, material happiness. The idea relates closely to the basic bargain of Deut. 11:13-21: obedience to God results in material prosperity, disobedience in famine. Sin is death, virtue life. Later, Jewish exegetes were exposed to – and convinced by – Stoic and other Hellenic ideas about the uncontrollable, intemperate nature of physical desire and its proper subordination to reason.
In the Pentateuch, deserting god is a physical act: one strays from god and goes away from the centralized temple cult, to the “high places” of other gods. One couldn’t be “in the house” of Hellenism, clinging to an inner consciousness of God: God is associated with particular geographical parts of the physical world. The whole 4 Maccabees paradigm depends on a dualistic attitude that just isn’t in the Hebrew Bible. Later Jewish exegetes interpret Joseph the way they do, as a resistor of Hellenism, only in light of Hellenistic ideas. Neat irony, yes?
Well, it gets better (I think). I’ve drawn these selections from In Potiphar’s House, one of James Kugel’s excellent books on early biblical exegesis (midrash). If you’re suspicious of my picture of a Stoic Joseph, look at the first chapter of Kugel’s book in conjunction with some sources on Stoicism: there’s a lot more where these sources came from. But interestingly, Kugel never mentions Stoicism. He’s interested in midrashic form – what exegetical rules midrashim follow and how they works as logical structures, not what themes they engage. Only once does he seriously engage thematic questions, in an unscholarly moment in his introduction:
… [T]he book’s title, In Potiphar’s House… obviously comes from the group of essays concerning the story of Joseph which make up the first part of the volume. But there is another sense in which it might indeed apply to the material as a whole. For ancient Jewish biblical exegesis, however much it may have drawn on tendencies and actual material developed earlier in the biblical period, first appears in distinct literary form during the Hellenistic period. Hellenistic culture… was an extraordinary human achievement… [which] presented strong temptations to the Jews during their centuries-long encounter with it… And so, in considering the Jewish biblical exegesis of this period – midrash at an early stage – one cannot but think of its bearers’ position within the surrounding cultural environment as similar to that of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Like Joseph, they were deeply impressed, and no doubt influenced, by their contact with that house’s inhabitants… And yet: if Joseph was changed and, in the story, likewise tempted in Potiphar’s house, he nevertheless remained, in another sense, profoundly true to his origins. So one might say of rabbinic exegesis that, while many of its concerns and formulations were undoubtedly influenced by Hellenism, it is nonetheless also an expression of the survival and continuity of elements that go back to biblical times, elements that are often prominent in the very biblical texts which are the subject of so much rabbinic contemplation and creativity. In this sense, then, these essays are all concerned with tracing the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Indeed it is my hope that, through them, an old rabbinic topos discussed below will likewise acquire a certain metaphorical dimension, suggesting how, amid the vicissitudes of the late- and postbiblical period and in full-face contemplation of an understanding of the world so different from their own, Jacob’s children nevertheless managed to keep the image of their father’s face ever before them.
4 Maccabees used Joseph as an example of how a Jew ought to resist Hellenism; Kugel uses Joseph as an example of how midrash resists the temptations of Hellenism. But in doing so, he uses a paradigm for temptation that’s drawn from Stoicism — the Hellenic culture itself. Of course, the paradigm of Joseph’s faith probably seems quite natural to Kugel: the myth of the faithful Jew in the midst of wondrous, secular intellectualism could easily seem appealing to the “Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University” (from the book’s dust jacket).
How does all of this refute Wolff? Well, I contend that Jews have often, and significantly, read their bible in the manner of 4 Maccabees and Kugel, using ideas from outside, not totally conscious of the lines between what’s in the text and what’s outside of it. Perhaps they would not accept the distinction, but even when they do imagine a dialectic between tradition and the new, the terms of that dialectic are themselves part of that dialectic. This happens not just when the texts are read as philosophy or stories, but also on a legal level. Authoritative, normative halakha – even, perhaps especially, that of the most Orthodox – depends heavily upon “tortured,” not-straightforward readings of texts. A metaphorical reminder to keep God’s word with you all the time yields the obligation to bind leather amulets on your head and arms; the commandment to live by God’s laws becomes permission to break them in the case in which they threaten death; the law of the rebellious son is simply read out of existence … the examples are endless. This complex, historically determined, agenda-laden reading is not a modern invention; it’s my tradition.
Talking to American Protestants – who are often suspicious of traditional interpretation and privilege “plain, common-sense meanings,” I often hear the question, “do Jews read the Bible directly, without any assumptions?” I take that to be Wolff’s challenge (he is a Protestant atheist), and I don’t understand it. What does it mean to read a text directly? A text which is 2000 years old, in a foreign language, from a culture long-lost, one which is unconsciously built into my language, one which has been endlessly translated, reworked in art, commented upon, ad nauseum – how could one have the chutzpah to imagine a “direct” reading of such a text. And why should one want such a reading?