A work in progress
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
― Michael Crichton
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
― George Orwell
Why is Jewish history important?
Why is history important?
Why is the study of history important in Jewish history?
If one doesn’t respect the legitimacy of history, there’s no reason to believe in any part of the Jewish faith. If we don’t respect that our historical documents have a meaning, then:
- there’s no difference between reading the Bible as a Jew, or as an evangelical Christian.
- there’s no difference between approaching philosophy and science like a Jew – e.g. Maimonides – or like an atheist
- there’s no reason to believe that the Holocaust happened, and neo-Nazi Holocaust denial would be an equally legitimate position
- there’s no reason to deny anti-Semitic myths like the blood libel, or the Protocols of Elders of Zion.
- there’s no reason to say “never again”
History confronted by deconstructionism
Bill Crouse writes
Postmodernism is characterized by fragmentation, indeterminacy, and a distrust of all universalizing (worldviews) and power structures (the establishment). It is a worldview that denies all worldviews (“stories”). In a nutshell, postmodernism says there are no universal truths valid for all people. Instead, individuals are locked into the limited perspective of their own race, gender or ethnic group…. the emphasis in this form of reading is never to learn the intended meaning of the author, but rather the subjective interpretation of the reader.
Deconstructionists argue that all writing is reducible to an arbitrary sequence of linguistic signs or words whose meanings have no relationship to the author’s intention or to the world outside the text.” Newsweek, 6/22/81
Objective reality cannot be known. There is no transcendence. The universe is a closed system. Reality is entirely subjective…. Language is a system constructed on the foundation of arbitrary symbols. That is, texts are collections of words and pictures (“signifiers”) that have no inherent meaning or connection to the objective world of things or objects (“signified”). Since language is the medium for communication, and since language constructions are unstable, interpretation is also uncertain. … since the meaning of words (“signifiers”) is derived from one’s social context, ultimate meaning likewise arises from one’s social context. Language can only convey cultural biases.
Consider this incredible description, from a deconstructionist literary critic..
“Until recently, an author was an unproblematic concept; an author was someone who wrote a book. Roland Barthes’ landmark essay, “The Death of Author,” however, demonstrates that an author is not simply a “person” but a socially and historically constituted subject. Following Marx’s crucial insight that it is history that makes man, and not, as Hegel supposed, man that makes history, Barthes emphasizes that an author does not exist prior to or outside of language. In other words, it is writing that makes an
author and not vice versa. “[T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings […] in such a way as never to rest on any one of them” (146). Thus the author cannot claim any absolute authority over his or her text because, in some ways, he or she did not write it.”
Or how about this claim:
“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing […] However. by refusing to assign a ‘secret,’ an ultimate meaning, to the text (and the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases–reason, science, law.”
Rebuttal to deconstructionism
Texts are written by people, and they have a certain meaning. Of course it is possible for people to read new meanings into a text, but that says nothing about what the author actually intended – It is only a reflection of the mind of the reader.
Dialogue between deconstructionism and a historian
> I couldn’t disagree with you more — and neither could the scholars of
> mysticism, as I read them. There are different ways of knowing; the
> linear logic of traditional “empirical” scholarship is only one.
I disagree. We should not dismiss empirical scholarship. If one does so, then one loses the ability to defend any position. On a another forum I was involved in a discussion about the textual origin of the Torah. Some people claimed that logical analysis was not applicable to studying the history of the Torah. In response, Prof. Jacob Love wrote a stunning rebuttal:
As a historian, I also have to deal with an almost constant barrage of claims that history is not based on science, that history can prove that things happened one way and the opposite simultaneously, that nothing can be proven about anything, etc.
Take a look at alt.revisionism (I long ago stopped) and you’ll see what I mean. There is a commonality between the logical framework of the Creationists [religious fundamentalist] and the Holocaust Deniers. And this logical framework extends to most fundamentalist religions. You have to decide whether I, as a historian, can use logical and scientific principles to conclude whether the Holocaust happened, whether a given document is a forgery or authentic, whether an anachronism betrays the true date of a document and apply those principles uniformly to all subject areas. Because if I cannot apply them to yours, how can I do so elsewhere?
> Peshat is not the only interpretive understanding of the Torah.
Well of course. Later readers can bring new interpretations to the text. My point is just this: One should not assume that later interpretations were the actual intent of the
original author, that’s all.
> I’m confused here. Was there one original text whose contents have
> been lost, in your opinion, or was there never one original text? As I
> understand modern Biblical scholarship, it espouses the latter idea,
> so the concept of an “original text” is pretty much irrelevant.
The answer depends on which book you are talking about. As you know, some books were written by one author, others were redacted together from a number of earlier sources. Even those books that were written by one author likely didn’t start off as a pristine text; various prophets may have written down their thoughts in their own words; their friends (or people who listened to their preaching) might have written down their own version of what they heard. It is highly unlikely that all the written material was kept intact. Just like today, in the past one could find different editions of different books, some with certain material that only appears in one edition, some editions with material deleted, etc. A good modern analog is the textual history of the stories of Howard Philips Lovecraft. He wrote his books as recently as 1930 – yet trying to find an authoritative text for any of his stories is difficult.
> Literary critics claim that the original text and the author’s intention is *irrelevant*.
> The central concept of the literary (more specifically, the structuralist and
> post-structuralist) critiques of Scripture is this: language has no inherent meaning.
If that was true, then how could you object to any of my replies? How can you claim such a priviliged position for your own letters? You keep writing posts which expect that readers understand your meaning – yet that isn’t how you feel about the writings of others.
How would you feel if people claimed that everything you wrote was irrelevent? Perhaps those people may be unable to understand what you wrote, and attribute unintended meanings to your words, but none of that changes the basic fact: You obviously do intend your words to have a certain meaning. Why else would you be taking time to write these letters?
You are falling into the same logical trap that all deconstructionists fall into: You dogmatically claim that that the intention of the author is unknowable and irrelevant, yet you demand that others read your own words according to your intent.
> we deny the ultimate equality of persons, because a privileged
> reading implies a privileged READER.
Saying that one can understand an author is a denial of equality? That’s neo-marxist ideology, not rational thinking.
References: How deconstructionism threatens history
Have Deconstructionists Destroyed History?; Can We Know What Really Happened in the Past? Skeptic Magazine, Issue 4.4
“The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past ” Keith Windschuttle, Free Press, 1997
“How to think about weird things: Critical thinking for a new age” Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaugn
Chapter 4: Relativism, Truth and Reality
Overcoming Veriphobia – Learning to Love Truth Again, Richard Bailey, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 159-172
Truth has had a hard time in much recent educational and social scientific writing. Veriphobia, the fear of truth, can be witnessed in the work of postmodernists, radical social constructivists, pragmatists, and others. Although it manifests itself in numerous ways, there remain certain frequently appearing symptoms, and these are examined in this paper. It is suggested that the veriphobic stance is inherently self-contradictory. It is also fatal for serious and meaningful research and inquiry.
References: How deconstructionism threatens science
A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodern Myths About Science (Oxford University Press)
Are Truth Claims in Science Socially Constructed?, Kenell J. Touryan
PSCF 51 (June 1999): 102-107
“Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrel With Science”, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt , Revised edition, 326 pages 1997, Johns Hopkins Univ Press.
Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” Lingua Fraca, September/October 1996, p.59-67
“Against Relativism: Philosophy of Science, Deconstruction, and Critical Theory”
Christopher Norris, 1997, Blackwell Pub.
Reclaiming Truth: Contribution to a Critique of Cultural Relativism
Christopher Norris, 1996, Duke University Press
“The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida” Seán Burke, 1998. Edinburgh Univ Press
“In contemporary thought, the death of the author has assumed a significance comparable only to the death of God in the nineteenth century, yet no clear statement of what is meant by this notion has emerged in critical theory. In this study, now extensively revised and updated, Sen Burke provides the first detailed explanation of anti-authorialism and shows how, even taken on its own terms, the attempt to abolish the author is fundamentally misguided and philosophically untenable. This second edition features a new section on Derrida and an epilogue dealing with the politics of authorship and issues of technology; and a fully updated bibliography.”