Old Series: Volume 4 (1995)
We don’t read alone. You might consider this a rallying cry of at least a significant sub-group of the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network. We read with. “Ehyeh imach,” says God to Moses out of the Burning Bush, “I will be with you”; and being-with is a postmodern theme, in three senses: We don’t read alone. This means, first, that the text we read is not a naked text whose meaning displays itself to anyone who would see it. It is a text that speaks in certain ways to certain groups of people. We read with-others as part of some group. That is a rabbinic rule of reading that is being repossessed by postmodern scholars. A second meaning is that, even when reading individually, we read-with. As shown by late modern analysts of interpretation theory, we read with presuppositions. A text doesn’t simply mean something, but means something with respect to the beliefs and pre-understandings we bring to the text. Postmodern reading may be distinguished from modern reading, however, by its assumption that there is an ultimate presupposition without which reading is not the reading we have in mind: namely, that we are reading with-God (even if Jewish readers are not accustomed to enunciating this partnership so explicitly.) This third meaning, we might say, is the biblical assumption recovered by postmodern readers. We read with others, we read with our assumptions, and we read with God’s presence.
By postmodern reading, we mean simply whatever reading comes after modern reading (and we expect there will be many more kinds yet to come!). By modern reading, we mean a reading that withholds assent to inherited traditions of reading until certain questions about them can be answered satisfactorily to suspend commitment to inherited forms of reading for fear that those readings may carry with them some germ of error or illusion or imperialism and, striking out on its own says, “we have ourselves, alone, to rely on. Let us make use of whatever faculties we have of ourselves alone our reason and our feelings to erect for ourselves some criterion against which to judge the validity of our ancient texts.” To say we are “postmodern readers,” then, means that we are disillusioned with this modern stance, having found that it breeds irreconcilable oppositions between merely rationalist and merely emotivist rules of reading. We fancy ourselves, at least, to inhabit a third stance. This is not a climactic one, to be sure; ours is too sad a posture to claim for itself any triumphalism. Seeking to resume some of the reading that modernity interrupted, we attempt to listen once again to inherited traditions, while also acknowledging our own modernity and, with it, the gap of uncertainty and ignorance that now separates us from these traditions.