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Sunday, September 19, 2010


A while back I let off steam with an intemperate anti-religious blast. Most of you, wisely, chose to ignore it, but one very bright young man just graduated from Yale and on his way to Israel to study for the rabbinate took the time to write a complex, intresting reply. Here it is:

Professor Wolff has kindly agreed to allow me to guest-post here; in May, I graduated from Yale, and now I learn at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa []. If you like this piece, you may enjoy my blog, Like Them that Dream [].

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 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?


Unknown said...

I know this is a comment you make in passing, Raphael, but I can't help but wonder why you call Prof. Wolff a Protestant atheist.

summortus said...

Hey--sorry, I should have done a better job explaining that! I meant that his critique focused on (or insisted on) reading the bible "directly"--head-on. This is a hallmark--at least in a vast sweeping way--of what distinguishes Protestants from Catholics. Thus early Protestants often worked on Bible translations, because they wanted everyone to read the bible himself (herself? I don't know much about the gender politics of early-modern Protestantism, though now I'm curious...) and interpret it according to its plain sense. Catholics, on the other hand, emphasized interpretation through the Church and external doctrine (often based on non-scriptural reasoning). That's why the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" is so important to Protestants. So I was being a bit tongue in cheek, but I hope my point there is clear...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

In point of fact, Raphael is quite right, in more senses than the one he mentions. I see the essence of Protestantism as the insistence on a direct relation between Man and God, unmediated by Church, ritual, or tradition [this of course describes one strain of Protestantism -- perhaps best exemplified by the Pietism in which my hero, Immanuel Kant, was raised.]

summortus said...

And there is yet another sens in which you are a Protestant, illustrated by a bit from the last book of Paradise Lost:

Returned from Babylon by leave of kings
Their lords, whom God disposed, the house of God
They first re-edify; and for a while
In mean estate live moderate; till, grown
In wealth and multitude, factious they grow;
But first among the priests dissention springs,
Men who attend the altar, and should most
Endeavour peace: their strife pollution brings
Upon the temple itself: at last they seise
The scepter, and regard not David's sons.

Milton's protestantism also figured a radical anti-hierarchicalism politically, and while he himself did not take the point to its logical conclusion, I suspect a close connection between a certain type of Puritanism and left-wing politics (Michael Walzer, for all his faults, wrote about this point quite well in his dissertation)

David Pilavin said...

To Raphael, a beside-the-point question:

Why Maale Gilboa and not the Gush?

[I myself am a Yeshiva graduate btw, writing from Israel...]

Gmar Khatima Tova!


summortus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
summortus said...


I chose MG for a number of reasons, some of which distinguish it from the Gush, some of which don't. I wanted to
a) be far from Jerusalem, so that there wouldn't be distractions in the way of my learning and introspection.
b) be in a place where as many people as possible spoke Hebrew, and as few as possible spoke English.
c) learn where friends and teachers of mine whom I respect and admire learned.
d) learn at a place as freethinking and open-minded as possible.
e) learn very seriously.

Are you a gush alum?

G'mar chatimah tovah
Raffi Magarik

English Jerk said...


A minor quibble: It's a bit misleading to call Milton a leftist. He certainly shares some views with some strains of the modern left (he's a monist materialist in metaphysics, he's an enemy of monarchy, and he thought men and women should be able to divorce for reasons other than adultery). But in many ways he's very far from typically leftist views, as Stanley Fish shows (in characteristically polemical fashion) in How Milton Works (Harvard UP, 2001). For example, Milton doesn't think there are any legitimate kings on earth, but earthly kings are illegitimate in his view mainly because their claims to authority conflict with the authority of the one true king, God. The closest thing to a moral in PL is Adam's conclusion that "to obey is best, and love with fear the only God."

summortus said...

English Jerk--

You're right, of course, that Milton believes in obeying God. Why can he not also be a leftist?

David Pilavin said...

To Raphael:

No, I'm not a Gush alum -- I studied in Or-Etzion -- a similarily sounding name but a very different palce :-)

Now I am at TAU phil. dpt.

English Jerk said...

Dear Raphael,

Fish enumerates the reasons why Milton isn't a leftist in great detail. Just a couple of examples off the top of my head: (1) Milton thinks obedience to legitimate (i.e., divine) authority (rather than, say, individual autonomy) is the precondition of right action, whereas leftists (like Wolff) typically regard individual autonomy as the precondition of right action. (2) Milton was perfectly happy at the prospect of exterminating any people who happened not to be Protestants (see his sonnet "On the Last Massacre in Piedmont" for typical rhetoric), whereas leftists tend to be pluralists or at least egalitarians (Wolff doesn't like Christians much, but I assume he wouldn't be on board with killing them all off). It's rarely possible to extract Milton's politics from Paradise Lost (which shouldn't be surprising, since it's a work of literature), but his (frequently rather shrill) prose works make it more obvious.

None of this, of course, has any effect at all on the fact that Paradise Lost is the greatest single poem in the English language, and that it's perfectly possible to offer a sound leftist interpretation of that poem.

summortus said...

English jerk--

I don't know that we disagree so profoundly--I'm perfectly willing to agree that Wolff and Milton would disagree on many points (though of course, I'm skeptical of intentialist readings and more interested in "Milton" as a Bloomian representation of the psyche behind the Plost than as the biographical person John Milton--pardon an idiosyncratic reading of Bloom). Still, I don't know why obedience to divine authority cannot be a leftist position--indeed, "individual autonomy," at least in some of its contemporary incarnations (ie Nozick and other propertarian libertarians), is not at all leftist... I also don't know that leftists need to be pluralists--perhaps we will be pluralists about that which we consider "merely cultural," but about real substantive differences less so (though presumably we won't advocate exterminations)--of course for Milton, religion was more than a set of private beliefs and rituals, so this comparison is not exactly fair.

I guess my points here are that:
a) you're defining the left too narrowly.
b) I never meant to imply complete correspondence, merely intellectual affiliation.
c) I don't know that there's much of substance for us to argue...