Friday, March 21, 2008

Subdividing Meaning - 4

[update: remarkable synchronicity that this subject should arise when a significant review of von Balthasar is in progress - see particularly this essay.]
In the comments on the previous post, Iyov has described some aspects of derash as a part of the fourfold division of interpretation.
It is important to note that in Jewish traditions just because a story is not mentioned in the Bible does not mean it is not considered as "Torah" -- the Midrash is included as part of the "Oral Torah" and is also held to be holy.
He also implies an expanding authority of derash in other traditions. In raising the issue of canon in the context of my image of a table and legs as text and interpretive schema, he appears to be redefining the idea of the table surface.

Canon is by itself a big subject as we discovered in much blogging last year. See the series of posts beginning here. I have limited experience with additional stories that might be considered 'canonical'. It is enlightening to hear of the holiness of Oral Torah. I do not find it helpful, however, to extend the traditional canon for two reasons:
  1. we get claims of extension that are clearly wrong. (Not that all the canonical material is necessarily 'right' but there is enough to illustrate the need for discernment.)
  2. if we extend the table top, we have lost the role of canon as measuring stick.
I regard with great respect and interest the opinions of the Rabbis when such stories are related to me. But for me they are not Torah in the same sense as the Five Books of Moses are. To focus the question:
is derash a method of interpretation that differs from the plain, the figurative, or the mystical?
Example 1, Targum: I was introduced to Targum Jonathon on the binding of Isaac by the Milgroms in Cambridge in 2002. This is a story in Aramaic woven into the Hebrew story of Isaac. Would it ever occur to me to consider it canonical? No. What it does is extend the story in its own time as story by including plausible imaginative conversations between the characters. It extends the plain meaning (though in a very different way from redaction or form criticism.)

Example 2, A Purim celebration: the hamentaschen representing Haman's hat: This brings the story of Haman into a modern Purim festival in which the participants eat Haman's hat in the form of a cookie. In this respect it is making present an ancient reversal of fortune. It is a figurative extension of the story with application of the figure in the present.

Example 3, Christological interpretations of the Psalms: much as though I think they may apply, these interpretations of the early fathers and medieval commentators are not canonical. I do not measure by them, even if I might enjoy the inventiveness or their application.

Example 4, the extended canon of other traditions than my own (e.g. the Catholic, or Serbian Orthodox deutero-canonical books): as Doug Chaplin and John Hobbins both argued, these books are important for placing the more limited canon into a historical context, especially where canonical passages reflect or clearly allude to the non-canonical ones as if they were authoritative. The limited canon is not sufficient unto itself socially, historically, or scientifically. But it is sufficient within the context of its purpose: the effecting of salvation, the work of liberation, the confrontation of God with the children of dust, the engagement in the process of tikkun olam - healing the world.

What will I do with interpretation if Christians with their Mystical tradition (per Neale as critiqued by Scott) can make 'anything out of anything' and if Jews really have an open canon?

For me, my motivation and my life are from the death of Jesus, and the utter surprise of new life which I can only put down to the working of the Spirit. My understanding of the psalms - to date - and provisionally - is that the psalmist, the anointed king, and I are in the same place. To illustrate this, I must exercise a discipline in research to begin to appreciate the creative work of the psalmist. I must decide what figurative language is applicable. And if there is a hidden anointing in the plain and figurative meaning of the presence of the Beloved, then I must find a way to express the question - first for myself and those with whom I live and work and second in such a way that I do not blunt the apprehension of the gift to anyone who might come across my work. Then perhaps I will have a new appreciation of the hermeneutical approach to the text that the New Testament authors used - and perhaps I can better understand how Jesus read the psalms.

There remain for me these three legs to the table. Each of them can be elaborated, storied, or sought out. Derash seems to me to be method rather than subdivision of meaning. There remains for me a table of fixed dimensions. The Confrontation I have known through its witness and in which I am known is sufficient for the task - at least as far as I can see at the moment.


John Hobbins said...

Thanks, Bob, for a wide-ranging and insightful post.

Bot Judaism and Christianity insert scripture into a metanarrative which differs from the ones (plural!) the writers of scripture worked within.

Like you, I think it's helpful not to pretend that the metanarrative in which we work can or should be made to coincide with a metanarrative which is wholly deducible, and without contradiction, from the data of scripture. The very attempt to do so betrays a misunderstanding about the givenness and discreteness of specific historical contexts.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for your note, John. Having begun to read Neale and Littledale more slowly, I hope I will not be too quickly moved away from the three-fold subdivision - though now I see his two-fold division. And I keep on writing stories (drash?) - how slowly they move.