NOTES ON Susan Handelman, “Emunah: The Craft of Faith” (1992, 2000)

NOTES ON … Susan Handelman, “Emunah: The Craft of Faith.” The Academy and the Possibility of Belief: Essays on Intellectual and Spiritual Life. Eds Mary Louise Burley-Meissner et al. Cresskill, New Jersy: Hampton Press, 2000. 85-104. [originally published in 1992 in Cross Currents]

Defines emnuah, uses biblical text, to define FAITH as “not a sentimental matter,” but a craft, a skill, one that needs to be educated, trained, nursed, not blind, not something some have but others don’t, but “a long process of education” (87).

— > Ex of Moses leading people. Helps H integrate skepticism and faith (not nec opposites) – Ex of man who became orthodox Rabbi after being raised by secular socialist parents, he said, “because I was a skeptic” (88). [Yes! :)]

History of Literary Theory
Before English lit, was classics (in which philology, lower text crit, mss editing). English lit did same, applied to Bible, too (desacralized). Lit became sacralized. Matthew Arnold quote – religion = poetry.  New Criticism asserted autonomy of lit text, ignores history. Lit = special kind of knowledge, special kind of language, so do close reading, not history.  1970s – intense theorizing re lang, text, meaning.  Now – New Historicism (aka cultural materialism). We have access to the past only through texts.  power/knowledge, all material, truth relative, connected to social practices / power rel. Then Handelman adds, “Go try and talk about faith to these people” (91). Cardinal sin = appeal to transcendence.

Judasim and Mod Lit Theory
How to integrate faith…? Studied Hebrew text at Yeshiva, found the similarities of Jewish commentators to lit crit. Wrote _The Slayers of Moses_. Postmodern theories are connected to theological issues. Literarcy criticism as substitute theology. Rabbinic methods resurfaced. Lacan admired Jewish habits of interpretation, connected Midrash and lit theory.

Midrash and Meaning
93 Midrash = to seek, search out, demand (Deut is midrash on first four books). 95 Ex of midrash on Ps 89:9, sharp criticism of God’s silence, “almost like sacrilege” but based on faith, not simple piety, “a very complex faith that incorporates despair and questioning within itself” (95).  “very aggressive” interpretation also describes postmodern interp. 96

What is fascinating to me is how the rabbis make these twists and turns, in what are very aggressive modes of interpretation. There is no simple literal fundamentalism here. Indeed, to some, these intepretations may appeal a bit outrageous. For the rabbis seem to create problems in the simple, literal meanings of the text; they make odd and anachronistic juxtapositions of verses; they break up the flow of the narrative, atomize verses and words, fragment the cannon and collapse time. These practices, however, also describe postmodern interpretation. In its critique of modern forms of reasons and coherence, postmodernism delights in fragmentation, rupture, and play. These are part of its project to subvert what it considers to be oppressive notions of identity and history.

Were the rabbis postmodernists? No. But the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment form of reason has opened a path for renewed relation with religion. By criticizing the “Dogma of Immaculate Perception” – the idea that there is a neutral, detached, observer who sees things objectively as they are “in themselves” – it enables us to return to the language of theology and religious texts with a new seriousness – to study how they signify and construct meaning. […]

Implications for Bib as Lit – don’t have to focus so much on the historical background. We can, once again, look at the text as a whole, “as it is given to us – as a construct of the communities or editors who put it together. Here is an example of postmodern theory helping us, ironically, to appreciate the premodern view of the Bible as a unity” (96). Rabbinic interp – self-conscious, elicits/recognizes gaps, problems, questions.

Not easy with undergrades. Bib as Lit, trying to distance one’s self, but may be going too far when separate emotional response from reading [cf Swearingen]. May be too much emph on critical thinking. H leaves the teaching part of this whole integration of faith and skepticism as “a difficult question” 102


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