Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Confessions of a Jewish Post-Postmodernist
by David Seidenberg, published in Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review, Summer '94
Note: The question of postmodernism in Judaism is no longer cutting edge, as it was when this article was written (even though that was 30 years after the question was cutting edge in literature and philosophy). But the issues of identity, the weight of history, and the direction of the future, are just as alive as always. And some would say that the very problem of postmodernism—the idea (among other things) that there is no arrow of progress to the flow of civilization—is posed most strongly by the appearance of genocide in the heart of Western Europe at the height of "civilization" – a challenge that remains with us always. As I wrote below: postmodernism "is for Jewish people not just a philosophical problem; it is history, the Shoah, not rational history but history which mimics Benjamin's description of nature as 'messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away'." This article was lost to me for many years, but I found the journal in the UMass Amherst library on Yom Hashoah 2011 and ocr'd it. Thanks for reading.
Once in a while she recognizes in the middle of a dream that she's dreaming. Sometimes she wakes up with a start when this happens. More often she dreams she's waking, into a new dream, but with the false consciousness that she's awake. Or he notices that he's dreaming, and suddenly the dream accelerates, becomes heightened, a dream within a dream. And he forgets everything but the sensation of clarity, now drawn back into the world of the dream.
In a way, that sudden recognition in the midst of a dream is all there is to what people call "postmodernity", except that we see ourselves awakening from a multitude of dreams: the dream of progress, the dream of God, the dream of human uniqueness, the dream of universal truths and values. Recognizing that it's a dream does not mean that what is in the dream disappears, or that it doesn't exist. And experiencing an awakening doesn't mean we've really woken up.
Postmodernism includes anything inspired by this shift called "postmodernity". I will try in this article to describe the phenomenology of engaging with "postmodernism", focusing on some of the contradictory feelings it entails: the stimulation of the dream, the sense of awakening, and the illusion of being awake. And I will also explore what it may mean to do this as a Jew.
Once upon a time, when Jacob laid down to sleep on the way to Haran, on the night of his famous dream of ladders, he took stones and placed them around his head. When he awoke, the Torah says that he took "the stone" from under his head and placed it on top of a pillar to commemorate his dream. Why doesn't it say "the stones", asks a midrash commenting on this passage? Because, it answers, all the stones fought with each other for the privilege of becoming Jacob's pillow. The dispute was resolved by a miracle, and they were fused together into one stone, so that none would be jealous or left out. Jacob used his headstone to build a pillar which would found the Temple.
Each word, each letter, is similarly a borrowing, a quotation of untold others; each utterance calls forth others, like a necromancer. Sometimes one finds gravestones reused, built into the pavement or the side of a building. The words on the stone teach us that it had a former life, though their referent is obliterated. We can think of these borrowings as either a renewal or a desecration, as theft or contexture. From a postmodern perspective, we speak of intertextuality, a sense that every text is linked through innumerable paths to the future and the past, without closure.
Most of the time we depend upon the image of a unified text, whose words fuse together into one stone, or as the language of the midrash has it, whose words/stones "are swallowed up into one", to bracket out this complexity, to bring closure to the act of interpreting. There is no other way to affirm the modernist idea of authorship and the authority of the text. But there is no authority in the text. Each time we speak or read we reconstruct the pillar, the house, from a pile of stones. You are the author/-ity over this text, whichever "you" at any moment engages in reading or listening. There is no such thing as closure: Interpretation is interminable. This lifting up, or noticing, of the phenomenology and hermeneutics of reading is the catalyst for most postmodern criticism.
But if the text is not whole, if it does not reveal its meaning to us, then where does the meaning come from? We could just as well ask, Where does Jacob's dream come from? His dream encompasses not just the angels, but also God, and Jacob's own self, so how can we say that any of these are the source for his dream? This dream is embedded within a larger dream which we read as the text of Genesis, our dream. And there is no real answer to the question of where the dream comes from.
Like Jacob, we may lay our head upon a stone, dream our dreams, maybe even see angels. And in our story we wake up, full of belief that the stone is holy, that the stone somehow imparted to us our dreams, and that the text gives us meaning. Jacob's response to his dream is one of the essential acts through which we create culture. As a community, as a society, we reify our experiences of holiness, raise up a stone, anoint a pillar, declare the place "holy ground".
We can recognize the unreality of this gesture: The image of the dreaming stone, the unified stone, is an illusion. All the stones are "swallowed up" in each other—there is no inherent unity of meaning, but first one center, and then another. We can question this gesture by analyzing the psychology of making pillars, the common-ness of the stones. But somehow this is what we do as beings with imagination. We take texts, images, words, memories, lift them up above ourselves, and live beneath them, subject to them. (During a synagogue service we literally act out this process with the Torah.)
One kind of modernism holds that we should escape this process by transcending ritual and tribe and religion. This is the program of universalism and the Enlightenment, which attempts to erect a new pillar for humanity, called progress. A pillar to end all pillars, so to speak. The postmodern insight which feels like an awakening is the realization that progress toward a universal truth is just another dream, with its own rituals and tribal loyalties. One of the specific postmodern responses to modernity is to reject this dream of progress and its search for universal truths.
The dream of progress, which unites everything under the sign of modernity, arises from our need to silence the competition and conflict between values and hopes and purposes. Some would say this dream is a dangerous illusion which erases identity and meaning, that it participates in what Theodor Adorno called "the death of the subject". The quiet which comes from reducing every variation to a single universal pattern also erases the unique meaning, the feel and color and smell, of each stone. Certainly this has been true of the Jewish people's experience under the pressure of assimilation. In postmodern texts this erasure is referred to as "totalizing" and is sometimes named "logocentrism" or "essentialism" or "foundationalism." The names are not so important; what is important is the attempt to eschew essentialism and to embrace the multivocality, the cacophony, of the stones.
Like most insights, postmodernism causes us to interrupt our habits, but like most trends, it often ends up reorganizing our work under new habits. This inevitably leads to competing "styles" of postmodernism. We could characterize them according to our metaphor: this one wants to knock down every single pillar; this one lifts up the stones lying on the ground even higher than the pillars, so as to reverse their value; and this one places every stone on its own pillar; etc. There is even some discussion among Jewish "pomos" about whether there is something that could be called "Jewish postmodernism". What is consistent in all cases is the attempt to reject the idea of a foundation stone, a single pillar around which all meaning revolves.
Water is an element of totality and infinity, immersion, transformation and purification. God is called a "well of living waters"; Israel is born in its passage through the Sea of Reeds. Torah is called "water", and when we learn we see ourselves as immersed in "the sea of Talmud". Water is endless, boundless. But it is also without identity, it crosses boundaries and erases human traces—Reuven is "unstable like water" because he commits incest. And water, of course, is the element with which God destroys the world in Noah's time.
In Pirkey Avot, Ben Bag-Bag says about the Torah, "Turn her and turn her for everything is in her." Like water, like the ocean, Torah is thought to be teeming, thriving, kaleidoscopic; like life, full of change and growth, including the change we call death; like water, full of power, strength, and also weakness, a source of healing and destruction. Like the ocean, in whose depths dark and light are joined together.
This is a romantic view of the Torah, but it is not totalizing, essentializing, or foundationalist. That is because the "sea" of learning includes all goods and all evils. It is without one essence because it is full of many essences, because its essence is the trace of every seeker who was ever immersed in it. This is not only a sensual way of thinking about tradition. It also happens to flow naturally from traditional metaphors into the models or molds left by the postmodern negation of modernity.
In traditional Jewish texts, most interpretation is explicitly contexture, wrenching pieces of text from one place and distorting them into new wholes. The most important genre of text is the commentary. As a result, intertextuality and reader-centered hermeneutics are the surface patterns and not just the undercurrents of rabbinic Judaism. One of the most irreducibly Jewish genres, Talmudic literature, is an extraordinary embodiment of the principle of multivocality, eschewing closure, embracing contradiction. Hermeneutical principles which postmodernism uses to deconstruct a text, to break down its meaning, in Jewish tradition are used to define a way of sacred reading, a process by which we construct the holiness of the text.
Focusing on these elements of Rabbinic tradition creates a new picture of the "essence" of Judaism. We could call this way of looking at Jewishness "postmodern" because of its resonance with postmodern aspirations. Though it is as essentializing as modernist interpretations of Judaism, it is based on a kind of inner vision—Judaism from the inside—like the colors one sees with one's eyes closed (to quote the Zohar), or like listening under water. It describes a way of hearing, rather than defining what we see. It contrasts with modernist interpretations by being directed in and toward a sense of self, rather than being defined by some external or universalizing principle (whether that be monotheism, or tikkun olam/justice, or any other) which ultimately undermines ethnic identity.
Certain styles of postmodernism have become enamored with Jewish questions and Jewish ways of reading, and (contrary to correct postmodern principles) with Jewish "essences", because of these resonances between rabbinic and postmodern styles. As a result, images of midrash and Talmud have become standard models for some postmodern philosophers. This is all "good for the Jews", giving our most peculiar texts entry into the most important salons of Western civilization (though it is not always good for clear thinking).
Two philosophers (both Jews) who were important catalysts for this trend are Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas. Their works deny the centrality of ontology, the Athenan/Minervan image of Being emerging whole-born from the philosopher's lonely head, which has dominated Western thought for many centuries. Instead, they emphasize meaning as emerging from relationship, writing, contradiction, from the encounter with what is other. There are important disagreements between them, but both focus people's attention on the other side of universalism, of system-building, the search for "authentic" being in the self. This other is the side where one can see imperialism, alienation, authoritarianism.
Once we see things from the other side of modernity, its sitra 'achra, we are called to affirm a new "purity" of meaning. For Levinas this means that understanding and knowledge emerge from ethical relationships, rather than from ontological analysis. For Derrida, however, the undecidability of ethical choices and values continuously erodes categories of righteousness. Both teach us to undermine systematizing thought, to embrace what Levinas describes as "the height of the Other". A perfect epistemological platform, as it were, for what is seen as the opposition of "Jewish" ethics to "Greek" Being.
That's the "good news". The "bad news" (which is also good from a revolutionary perspective) is that postmodernism calls into question most of the assumptions we were taught about Jewish identity, Jewish history and Jewish suffering. It destabilizes them, leaving no room for the ethnocentric sense of moral purpose which has guided modern liberal Jews since the Enlightenment. Nor would it allow us to tolerate the kind of naive rhetoric found in Orthodoxy and Zionism that masks the alienation of the Other (whether that other be Jewish women, non-Jews, or Palestinians).
One of the greatest triumphs of Jewish civilization has been to survive intact as a tribal culture in the very heart of modernity. This was largely possible because Jews saw themselves as a particular tribe with a universal moral purpose. For the many liberal Jews who still believe in modernity, the justification for continuing Jewish identity is this belief in the Jewish people's mission for humanity. For almost every Jew, the belief in our special goodness is what makes Jewish existence meaningful. According to this way of thinking, there is an "essence" of Judaism, based on what is ethical and good, which defines the way we want to find Jewish meaning. This is kind of like going to the ocean and bringing back a bucket of sand.
What happens to Judaism when we see the real complexity which this belief obscures? What happens when we relinquish our distorted picture of Judaism's essence? On the one hand, the universalism of modernity, which undermines the bases for community, ritual and identity, is no longer weighing upon us. On the other hand, the Jewish covenant can no longer be justified on universalist or ethical grounds. The liberal idea of Judaism cannot be sustained along with an authentic relationship to the Other, because it assumes that the Jewish people is itself the Other, the source of all authenticity. Paradoxically, giving up this belief can open us to a real relationship to the Other, partly because we must begin from a more inwardly generated sense of self. Gershom Scholem compared the gaze of rationality upon religion to "a Medusa's face, which turns one's heart to stone." By emerging from under this gaze, in a sense we resurrect something vital in ourselves which can transform our relationship to the Other, and which may bring us back to the infinity of Torah.
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud argues that we must first leave heaven behind before we can progress beyond all our other illusions. Freud believed that we could begin transforming culture by investing our hope and energy in this world rather than the next. This is not what happens, though. As soon as we leave heaven to the sparrows, we leave earth to the worms. By losing a sense of otherwordly sacredness, we also lose the tenuous sense of connection to the earth. Progress is largely a story of alienation, of "time wept away" in remembrance of loss.
You need not have heard of postmodernity to notice that technology, the hardened prayer of progress, cannot return these losses. Noticing this would already be enough to break the philosopher's stone—rationality—in pieces. What we add by reflecting on this from a postmodern perspective is to open up all the questions about truth, monotheism, cultural progress, that were supposed to have been settled in the Enlightenment. The idea of the unity of a people, or a culture, or a God, are all called into question. The very concept of universality or unity seems unstable, a source of ambivalence rather than knowledge.
In response, some people reach back to fantasy paganisms and romanticized native religions for spiritual meaning. At the same time, the truly earth-bound roots of our own traditions are opened up. The firm wall erected by centuries of Jewish and Christian philosophy between monotheism and paganism is eroded.
This is as it should be: We can do nothing but give our bodies to the earth, our breath to the atmosphere, our farthest gaze to the heavens. The division of the world into human and nature, primitive and modern, false and true gods, reality and illusions, is another illusion. The dream of Freud, or of John Lennon's "Imagine", is just another modern fantasy, which hypostasizes some notion of the universal in opposition to what is our lived and living relationship to this earth, this place, this community, wherever we are.
What, then, can proffer us the next dream? Postmodernism points backward rather than forward; its questioning is unable to provide answers. However, the theoretical responses of ecology—eco-feminism, eco-theology, etc.—can in some ways fill the breach opened by postmodernism. A rejection of the primacy of rationalizing thought opens us up to the sacred. A rejection of the primacy of the human species opens us up to the community of all life. A rejection of progress opens us up to the heart of the idea of Shabbat: that creation exists as an end-in-itself and not just a means to be manipulated by our technology.
None of these affinities would allow a postmodern theorist to affirm the truth of the new eco-theologies and beliefs. From an epistemological perspective, "Mother Earth" may be nothing more than another essentialism which puts us back to sleep. But there is an even deeper affinity between postmodern thought and ecology, one which is not ideological but hermeneutical. Both the concept of an "ecosystem" and the paradigm of intertextuality and multivocality come out of seeing the systemic balance and flow, the homeorhesis, arising from anarchic webs of relationships. Even so, the discourse of ecology stands in a kind of harmony with postmodernism.
Nonetheless, this turning is still a betrayal of the insight that we are dreaming another dream filled with a new intensity, and a new forgetting. "Nature" is just another reification of a certain human desire not to have been, or not to have been differentiated. It is not what lies behind civilization but what is constructed by civilization as its romantic other. What then lies behind the "crashing screens of the secrets"?
I can give a personal answer to this question. It is still a dream, but a dream which cannot be dreamed unconsciously. It is in some ways the same as the infinity of the Other in Levinas, the disruption of all continuities and totalities.
This is not the so-called God of the philosophers, the primum mobilum, nor the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No "God" at all, not something we address because it is out there, but something each one of us wills ourselves to address from a more radical place: the hope that I can reach toward something that is no answer, toward a presence which is somehow turned toward me. It is nonetheless also an absence, what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov called "the empty space". It is prayer not hardened into theology, but softened into the self-conscious utterance of need. This confrontation with need is something I name with the word yod-heh-vav-heh, but which I can only turn to address with the word You. It is the lucid dream of what Nelly Sachs called "the root of the word", an infinity which crashes against every belief and faith.
It seems that "Jewish" postmodernism, to the extent that one can speak of such a thing, is rooted in a sense that redemption exists, but only in its impossibility. That is, as Walter Benjamin says, "nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything Messianic." The radical irruption into history of the messianic which both consummates and consumes history cannot exist by definition. Yet it is this messianic ideal which is traced by the refusal of my or anyone's thought to be subjected to the rule of a rationality which is non-redemptive. The very wind which allows the sail to billow is the "storm from Paradise", the storm that prevents the ship from coming to harbor.
If this were true we would be forever burdened with what is enshrined below: "your scream", what lies in the hull below the water line, separated from the air and the water, never coming to light. It is for Jewish people not just a philosophical problem; it is history, the Shoah, not rational history but history which mimics Benjamin's description of nature as "messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away". If this were true then postmodernism would be the amanuensis of a scream, an exercise in being stricken dumb.
If there is something more than that, something to be written, it is too soon to tell what it will be. Perhaps it is adumbrated in the myth of Lurianic Kabbalah: the world was formed as a vessel for light, but when the light poured into it, it shattered into pieces. According to Isaac Luria, the sparks of this light are trapped in the fragments of the vessel, but we can free them through our actions. In this way, we create the future redemption, even though we cannot see its shape. This is perhaps what Nelly Sachs evokes when she writes, "I founded the future upon the stone of sadness", or what Adrienne Rich describes in her "Diving into the Wreck":
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006