Genesis Secularized: An Exchange Between Ronald Hendel and Jon Levenson

By | Apr 30, 2013
Book Review, Latest, Religion

Genesis Secularized

I’m delighted that Jon Levenson has good things to say about my book, The Book of Genesis: A Biography in Moment‘s March/April issue. In fact, several parts of the book bear his imprint, particularly my focus on the reception of Genesis in Judaism and Christianity. Levenson is one of my favorite biblical scholars, even when I disagree with him. In the second part of his review, he raises some important issues where his perspective and mine diverge. I wish to respond to these issues, not that I have any clear answers, but because a conversation about them is potentially illuminating.

According to Levenson, the key problem is this: my “handling of modernity reveals a contradiction, or at least a serious weakness, in the overall argument…On the one hand, Hendel seeks to appreciate the afterlife of Genesis, for it ‘transforms, renews, and extends’ the book. On the other hand, he describes the traditional interpretive methods of Judaism and Christianity as very often ‘false, or based on faulty premises.’” Levenson seems to think that these two statements are in contradiction. But I hold that they are not. Our lives are shaped by as much by erroneous premises as they are by true ones. This is a key lesson of modernity. As I explain, “the afterlife of Genesis…mostly consists of such creative illusions.  Sometimes these illusions are profound, providing the means for human life to flourish. Sometimes they are cruel, justifying the forces of injustice and oppression. But in either case, they provide the inevitable atmosphere of human life.”

Levenson contests the notion that traditional Jewish and Christian methods of interpretation can be described as, in any significant sense, false. Rather, he advocates a full-bodied “interpretive pluralism.” He writes, “the prime example of it, rabbinic commentary, commands increasing respect from Jews and Gentiles, secular and religious, alike. The same thing can be said about the biblical interpretation of the ancient rabbis’ Christian contemporaries, the Church Fathers. In the post-modern era in which we live, it is the advocates of single-sense exegesis who are now on the defensive, and rightly so, in my opinion.” But here he’s mixing together several different strands of argument.

To have respect for something doesn’t mean that it is true. I don’t think Levenson really believes that everything the rabbis and Church Fathers say about Genesis is equally true or worthy of respect. Clearly there are past errors in human understandings of the Bible. We need to admit that our heritage is filled with insight and illusion, and that it is our responsibility to wrestle with both. This is, in fact, an apt description of the life of Genesis in modern times.

Levenson suggests that the concept of truth (or, more precisely, explanatory adequacy) in interpretation derives from Reformation Protestant theology. In my book, however, I derive this stance from Rashi, the greatest medieval Jewish commentator. Rashi argues that interpretation should “fit” the grammar and context of a passage. He argues that the Bible is not a cryptic or esoteric text, and that many rabbinic interpretations simply “do not suit the plain sense.” However, Rashi included many rabbinic interpretations in his commentary, either because they suit the context or because of their homiletical or pedagogical value. In his interpretive practices, Rashi expressed “open rebuke and hidden love” for the rabbis.

Rashi’s interpretive approach adjudicates between truth and error in interpretation while, at the same time, he is in an active dialectic with his predecessors. He appreciates the legacy of tradition, even where it fails as a suitable interpretation of the biblical text. This is a position that is completely compatible with modern practice–and, indeed, I argue that the hermeneutic approach in most denominations of Judaism and Christianity plainly descends from Rashi. We’re still living on his intellectual capital and working out its implications.

I would add that this is a good description of Jon Levenson’s interpretive approach, and mine too. For the most part, the difference between Levenson and me is how we theorize our common practices. I think that Levenson’s appeal to postmodernism and to an absolute pluralism or relativism in interpretation is overstated, and certainly isn’t what he really practices. If one compares his insightful commentary on Genesis in The Jewish Study Bible with my commentary in The HarperCollins Study Bible, you won’t find much difference in our pursuit of the meanings of Genesis, which necessarily concerns multiple levels–-literary, philological, historical, theological–-and which includes its life and its afterlife. To put it differently, our interpretive practices equally rely on the realism of Rashian hermeneutics, whether we acknowledge it or not.

One last point. Levenson writes: “Hendel leaves the impression that nowadays the book of Genesis can be handled credibly only by artists, activists, and antiquarians.” I don’t believe this to be the case, but I do believe that over the last centuries abolitionists, feminists, civil rights leaders, novelists and poets have changed the life of Genesis in Judaism and Christianity. Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Naguib Mahfouz (all of whom I discuss in the book) are astonishing commentators on Genesis. There’s much more to be said about the life of Genesis in the synagogue and church (and, in a slightly different way, the mosque), but in my view, contemporary religious discourse about Genesis can only be enriched by attending to illuminations from artists and activists in our midst.

Ronald Hendel
Berkeley, California


Jon D. Levenson Responds:

I stand by all the positive things I said about Professor Hendel’s book and thank him in turn for the generous comments in his letter. Where we principally disagree is on the best way to handle the key fact that Genesis, like the rest of the Bible, has been appropriated by multiple communities, which place the book in different contexts and pursue differing interpretive goals. Hendel readily acknowledges that this afterlife of Genesis “transforms, renews, and extends” the life of the book, but at the same time he characterizes the traditional Jewish and Christian methods of interpreting it with heavily value-laden expressions like “error,” “illusions,” “false, or based on faulty premises.” To me, the implications of this are clear: The afterlife of Genesis in Judaism and Christianity over the centuries has been largely based on mistaken methods, and its correct interpretation has mostly emerged in very recent centuries, catalyzed by the modern disengagement of the Bible from religious tradition. I continue to find that double movement in Hendel’s thinking problematic. It is also unnecessary.

Hendel seeks to resolve the problem by praising errors and illusions. “Sometimes these illusions are profound, providing the means for human life to flourish,” he claims. I wonder, though, just how profound something can really be and how much it can authentically enable human life to flourish if it remains securely in the category of illusion. If illusions, errors, falsehoods and faulty premises have done such wonderful things for us, can you imagine what the truth could do?

Both Judaism and Christianity have traditionally placed Genesis in larger contexts defined by their authoritative literatures, the Oral Torah (or rabbinic tradition) and the New Testament (usually along with Church tradition), respectively. (Were it not for the larger Jewish context, in fact, we would not even know there was a distinct book called Genesis.) Within those traditional contexts, lively debate has taken place, and errors challenged. In both cases, an awareness has developed that the text has multiple senses that cannot be reduced one to another. This “interpretive pluralism,” as I called it in my review, is community-specific and entails an encompassing life discipline; it should not be confused with relativism. Modern historical criticism, with its astonishing recovery of ancient Near Eastern culture (including ancient historiographical goals and compositional techniques), further complicates the picture—and, in my judgment, enriches it—but it cannot by itself invalidate the other contexts of interpretation or expose them as erroneous in all contexts and for all purposes.

Hendel can take Rashi as his model only because of the serious misunderstanding of the great medieval commentator that appears, unfortunately, in both the book and his letter. Rashi personally concentrated on the plain sense of the Bible (though what he meant by plain sense was different from what many today mean by it). His attitude toward rabbinic interpretation, however, was one of reverence, not rebuke. It should not be overlooked that he was also the outstanding commentator on the Talmud.

Hendel’s letter leaves the misimpression that I criticized him for including artists and activists in his account of Genesis in modern times. My criticism, rather, was that, because of those unwarranted historicist presuppositions, he has disregarded altogether the vibrant engagement with the book on the part of believing Jews and Christians. (Although Hendel accuses me of not practicing what I advocate, the truth is that I have long sought to contribute to the very discussions that he ignores.)  The supposedly illusion-driven communities continue to flourish.



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