Canon Fodder


One of the curiosities of the world of scholarship is the fixation with the arcane. This is why, somewhat regrettably, the word “academic” finds its kin in the thesaurus with the adjectives “donnish,” “pedantic” and “trivial.” When this is at its worst, it seems like a terrible waste; our universities are the places where young adults go to learn, think and become citizens of the world. If their mentors and role models are only interested in the marginal, what does that portend for how we value ideas?

Now some may attribute this inclination to a kind of snootiness — after all, we know all there is to know about the known! — or perhaps, more pragmatically, because in order to gain the prestige needed to say something about important things, one must find new things to say (even if in fundamentally unimportant recesses of human knowledge).

But there are times when this accusation is unfair, and where the disjuncture between the habits of scholars and the world of mainstream ideas is driven more purely by sheer different recognitions of what is ultimately important. In the study of ancient Jewish history, and in how we are starting to understand better the rise of rabbinic culture from a marginal movement to a dominant and defining strain of normative Judaism, there is a giant chasm between the books thought important by scholars of antiquity, and those that define the canon of importance in Jewish life. The Tosefta — loosely translatable as additions, supplements, or less generously “leftovers” from the canonical Mishnah — is a vital witness in the hands of scholars to the evolving rabbinic tradition and to the ideology of rabbinic Judaism, where the Mishnah is the functional tool of study for Jews needing a short, doable, intellectual and spiritual exercise. No one carries pocket versions of the Talmud Yerushalmi — the shorter, often more complex, earlier-redacted version of the Talmud — around for daily study on the subway, but scholars find it provides an invaluable resource for understanding the intellectual development of ideas that may find fuller formulation in the later Babylonian Talmud, and as a historical witness to the Roman world in which it was produced.

In other words, sometimes the work of scholarship involves placing different books at the center of the canon: not for nefarious or self-interested reasons, but because the center simply looks different from this vantage point.

The big question comes when we consider the ethical outcomes from this broader view of the important books. Besides the production of knowledge for its own sake — which is its own valuable ethical outcome — how does the broadening of the canon affect why it is that most of us look to our old books, cherish them and meditate on them? The canon of Jewish books is important not as relic of a time gone by, but precisely because the passage of time has made these books more timeless. And more importantly, it is because these books constantly teach and guide us. More than just repositories for our ethics and values, they are the very stimulants of our morality.

In this respect, the straphanger reading Kehati’s pamphlet-sized Mishnah, or softcover daf yomi (daily page) edition of the Talmud, is not unlike the unnamed interlocutor of Hillel and Shammai seeking to know the whole Torah on one foot (or in this analogy, hopefully standing on both.) These majestic books become functional manuals in which we seek the good, handbooks of relevant ethical guidance to help us navigate the choices we face and that frame, between two covers, a coherent vision of an ultimately knowable Judaism.

And in contrast, the radical diversity that emerges when we open the canon is a kind of ethical minefield. Aren’t some of these ideas best left behind? Had an Arab shepherd boy not accidentally discovered the library at Qumran, certain apocalyptic ancient texts would have been lost to history. Certainly we would have been impoverished by this lack of knowledge; but I think it is reasonable for our Jewishness that “The War Between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness” is not a book with which we must reckon. The broad Jewish library is scary and alien. With so many ideas, how do I know what is real? How do I absorb authentic Jewish ideas into my daily life and practice? How do I know that the Judaism that I live, ostensibly derived from one set of books, is not predicated on a basic mistake — on the wrong choices? The exhilarating move to open the canon, to expose its choices, to challenge its boundaries brings with it a fretful potential for instability.

The discoveries of the last few centuries — in the Geniza, in Qumran, in Nag Hammadi, in the Vatican Libraries — and the culture of intellectual openness and access to knowledge that is still relatively new to the Jewish experience, now force us to reckon with these questions of canon more seriously than ever before. Let me suggest two possible, somewhat contradictory takeaways:

First, there is an ethical move in multiplicity, multi-vocality, diversity and pluralism. There is actually enormous opportunity here to see ethical opportunity both literally and metaphorically in the re-proliferation of old/new ideas. I see the great scholar Judith Hauptman of the Jewish Theological Seminary as the exemplary of this: Hauptman is accomplished both as a feminist scholar of Jewish texts, as well as for her work (alongside others) in pioneering “synoptic” readings of ancient texts. In this method, parallel versions of texts are studied together to understand the development both of the textual traditions as well as the implications of these traditions in law and practice. To my mind, this reading strategy and the ethical-political frame of being a feminist scholar are completely of a piece: the openness to previously suppressed ideas and texts travels together with the eagerness to change both access to and interpretation of the classical tradition. The “Bauer thesis” of early Christianity is also useful here. Bauer argued that, contrary to popular belief, heresy precedes orthodoxy; and the codification of fixed ideas is invariably a response to an underlying diversity. So here too: the reclamation of diversity of texts comes alongside, or even leads to, the privileging of new readers.

But at the same time, let us neither overly privilege the stuff that might rightly be left behind, and in the process overly commodify the obscure. This is often the evil inclination both of Jewish scholars and Jewish educators, to find something altogether new and exotic — to be radical demystifiers and discoverers — rather than reckoning with the familiar and conventional texts and ideas. It is hard to find new things to say about the texts that are most known. And yet: There is a reason they are known! The motivations for canonization of books and ideas are not always nefarious; and the consequences of canon are not inevitably suppression. Opening the canon should not make us fearful of basic, big ideas and core ethical principles. Some of the stuff in the Geniza was indeed trash, and in the Tosefta unsavory leftovers. The challenge is to find altogether big, inspiring stuff from among the increasingly complex and diverse mess of books — the kind of stuff that will mean something important, even while standing on one foot.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His current work focuses on the restoration of Jewish memory.