Midrash, Quotation, Levinas: Some More Thoughts

Ok, dusting off my Levinas books!  In a comment to a post on some thoughts her talk about the Midrashic impulse triggered for me, Monica writes:

His [Levinas] writing–at least in my reading–imitates precisely the style used by Talmudists and the rabbis and sages who created classical Midrash. There is always that moment in the text that flips the text itself upside-down and forces a re-reading from that particular point in the text. Sometimes these moments are so subtle that we miss them, which I think in some way leads us back to the question of responsibility even on the part of the reader (?). This is, again, I think, what brings us to the ethical, at least in regard to the way I’m using it in my work to describe the midrashic impulse. The ethical is about that (diachronic?) moment of rupture in the text, and the way it compels us to respond to it.

This is an interesting (and accurate in my view) comment.  Talmudic study, according to Levinas, is an awakening of language to what perpetually exceeds its reach, drawing reading and writing into a mode of infinition, of constitutive incompletion. The translation of Talmudic study into practice starts with the assumption that there is nothing that cannot be expressed in a community defined by its willingness to communicate and disagree, except the name of God.

Of the name of God, Levinas writes

Writing and reading, tracing and uttering, protecting and studying, are observances. They come and take their place among all those other observances–ritual, ethical and liturgical—that Scripture commands in the Name of this very God that it reveals (Beyond the Verse, 117)

Being Jewish, in a rather literal sense, means to inhabit and engage a space in a community of Jews over time, in other words, diachronically. I would add to this, however, the manner in which being Jewish, one that in Levinas’s estimation should be universalized, engages a space in the community synchronically by negotiating law. As the “difficult integrity of ambivalence towards law and politics,” Judaism is the negotiation of a difficult history, which translates into a politics defined by the risk of action based upon the negotiation of the law.

Midrash, as Levinas comments is:

A way of speaking that incorporates, and enlivens, that more confidential, closed and firm manner more closely linked to the bearers of meaning—bearers who will never be released from the duties of the signified…Such are the biblical verses, and even the terms used in their first, ancient deciphering by the sages of the Talmud. Tireless signifiers! But one day it is discovered that philosophy is also multiple, and that its truth is hidden, has levels and goes progressively deeper, that its texts contradict one another and that the systems are fraught with internal contradictions. Thus, it seems to me essential to consider the fact that the Jewish reading of the Scriptures is carried out in the anxiety, but also the hopeful expectation of midrash. (In the Time of the Nations, 169)

Levinas considers the approach of the Rabbis throughout the Talmud as a peculiar type of philosophical thinking with its own particular type of methodology. Yet, at the same time, the Talmudists are engaged in religious practice.  Midrash reads closely for problems; and sometimes, in the absence of a problem it creates one in order to solicit meaning. In describing the metonymic type of commentary which appears throughout the Talmud, Levinas comments,

It is of the essence of art to signify only between the lines—like a footprint that would precede the step, or an echo preceding the sound of a voice.

I think, for the most, part it would be uncontroversial to identify midrash as both a process of interpretation and compilation that utilizes three basic devices, paraphrase, prophecy and allegory (I think Neusner and Strauss –in his book on Maimonides–talk this way too).  The strategy of the Talmud can be described as one of opening, whose principles deal with specific people and text in order to build meaning. Commenting on the dual function of the Talmud, astonishment and questioning, Marc Alain Oukunin (in his excellent Burnt Book) writes:

Reactivation awakens the creative force of interpretation. It is not the meaning that is reactivated, but always the power of the word, of the event, or of the thing to signify ever again and beyond.

One of tactics in the Talmud is to reactivate meaning through quotation, and in one sense, the Talmud is a series of quotations.    What, then, is the function of the quotation? For one, the quotation concurrently performs the duty of the maintenance and rejection of tradition/history. On one hand, the quotation serves as a kind of affidavit or testimony that supports conclusions that were determined earlier. On the other, the quotation is a kind of force. While space is produced by the continual alteration of concepts, the very production of space is simultaneously pre-conditioned. So, this production (of space) paradoxically permits its movement from the start.  The quotation continually traverses (and re-traverses) differing limits and borders that are wholly dependent upon possible corridors of movement opened up by the ‘biblical tapestry’. This force is potent. It lateralizes the affidavit into a co-conspirator/text.  This begs the question of the tension between the significance of the quoted text in its originary context and latest context.

The fragmentary element of quotation moves beyond a limited multivalence to what Barthes calls a “triumphant plural.” The danger of this, however, is slipping into a culturally overdetermined space. One solution lies somewhere in the interrupting element/function of quotation which would account for exactly how midrash undoes processes of subjectivization by isolating signifiers. This is already evident, I think, in Levinas’s account of the proximity of the other that cannot be recuperated:

Beyond the disclosure and exhibition of the known alternate, surprised and surprising, an enormous presence and the withdrawal of this presence. The withdrawal is not a negation of presence, nor its pure latency, recuperable inmemory of actualization. It is alterity, without common measure with a presence or a past assembling into a synthesis in the synchrony of the correlative. (OTB, 91)

This relation to an other is the question of who and where beyond the tension of the already given. Such an encounter is a non-encounter, a disturbance or interruption in one’s persistence in being.

There may be something here. The problem, in my view, is that one would want to avoid the representational structure of hermeneautics to maintain the intergrity of the “disaster,” but also “save” reference.  This is why, incidentally, Derrida is of little help (let alone himself a “Talmudist” contra Susan Handelman I think it was).    Perhaps this is why the midrashic impulse is all the more powerful at work in literature and works of art; maybe philosophy, at best, may describe its conditions…

One thought on “Midrash, Quotation, Levinas: Some More Thoughts

  1. I don’t have much to add here because your post is so great–thanks for such strong insights. I found myself scribbling a few notes just now and reminding myself to revisit some other Levinas texts that I’ve neglected lately, and which you indicate may speak more fully to some of these ideas pertaining to midrash. It’s also interesting that you bring up Burnt Book. I had a conversation with a rabbi a couple of weeks ago, after my talk, and he suggested that I look at it. I’d forgotten until now.

    I didn’t realize Handelman had suggested Derrida was a “Talmudist”–how odd that sounds to me.

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