MYTHS AND RIDDLES: SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LITERATURE AND THEOLOGY

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MYTHS AND RIDDLES: SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LITERATURE AND THEOLOGYAuthor(s): ARTHUR A. COHENSource: Prooftexts, Vol. 7, No. 2 (MAY 1987), pp. 110-121Published by: Indiana University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20689178 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 19:09Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. .Indiana University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Prooftexts.http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=iupresshttp://www.jstor.org/stable/20689178?origin=JSTOR-pdfhttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsphttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp110 MYTHS AND RIDDLES: SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LITERATURE AND THEOLOGY Myth is an answer in which a ques tion is comprised; riddle is a question which postulates an answer. Andre Jolles 1. Theology is a public discourse with a private language. In this it resembles literature. The difference between theology and literature? one difference, at least?is that most people presume to understand literature. Few bother to understand theology or, bothering, assume that its arcanum is purposely obscure, designed by theologians to warn trespassers off their preserve. God, the unsophisticated believer seems to insist, is the simplest of beings and therefore unequal to the complexities with which theology belabors him. I prefer the gentle and exceedingly simple formulation of Saint Sylvester: "God is like an onion. He is very simple and he makes one cry." Let us pursue this metaphor. I do not bother to discover who is Saint Sylvester. He sounds to me like a Judaizer. Saint Sylvester's theological formulation is, after all, so monochromatic, so concrete, so lachrymose. The onion is all of a piece, it is generally recognized. There is nothing different at its core than what appears at its surface. Nothing new is revealed if we begin to remove its layers. Nothing at all. We weep, however, as we pare away each layer. One thing, of course, does occur. With each layer that we remove the onion becomes smaller. Is this the same with God? Is the image precise, much less respectful? But we must begin, I am afraid, with such matters as God and onions. We are persuaded to do so less by the accuracy of God's diminishment with each onion paring than we are by the certainty of our tears. It comes to mind, however, that even tears are inappropriate. The Psalmist always begins with tears and follows his lamentations with an overwhelming of tears, a transfiguration of confidence and hope. We dare not, as Kierkegaard noted, despair before God. This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspSome Observations about Literature and Theology 111 Unfortunately this is all literary theology, a parsing of personal estates, both individual laments and individual aspirations. The con junction of literature and theology unnerves me. I doubt the propriety of literature?its usefulness, its consequence, its capacity to shake us awake, to compel our attention?to the God who shrinks as he is pared or who makes us cry all the harder as he becomes smaller. 2. I do not understand what is Jewish literature. I have some fairly specific notions about what is Jewish in Jewish literature however. It is "literature" that baffles me. I do not under stand literature. It tends to be used as a salute and a congratulation. Much too general, like an anthem. There is, however, something terribly concrete and particular about the Jewish. It doesn't much matter whether the Jewish is a condition, a lengthy fatality, an incurable estate of optimism. Whatever it is, the Jewish is identifiable. It is chicken bones in the pocket of the poor penitent on Erev Yom Kippur. So says Sholem Aleichem. For no one other than a Jew would these specifics have any meaning. Only in English would such facts require a footnote of explanation, since it is possible a Gentile might read the story and not understand. But a Jew reading such a story with such an arrangement of fact, particularly a Jew who could read such a story in Yiddish, would be obliged to wince and to laugh. Or it might well be "One day during the time of the massacre I was sitting in a dingy room, writing. As if the Angel of Poetry had confided to me: The choice lies in your own hands. If your song inspires me, I will protect you with a flaming sword. If not?don't complain . . . my conscience will be clean.'"* So writes Abraham Sutzkever in his Green Aquarium. For no one other than a Jew would these images have any meaning. And such a Jew would be obliged to feel the pain of Sutzkever's irony. There is no doubt that Sholem Aleichem and Abraham Sutzkever are Jews. They would not know how to write properly with the hands of Esau, holding a smooth pen, with fluent ink, preparing clean manuscripts. Jewish manuscripts, I think, are constantly subject to erasures. (Except for scribal copying which is after all copying. But that's another problem to which we will return. It will be seen there that even copyists have theological problems with mistakes.) 3. The modern Hebrew term for literature is essentially an abstrac tion of the Hebrew for "book." It is "bookness." Sifrut is the quintes *Abraham Sutzkever. Griner akvarium un andere dertseylungen [Green Aquarium and Other Stories] (Jerusalem, 1975). Translated by Ruth Wisse with introductory text in Prooftexts 2 (1982):100. This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp112 ARTHUR A. COHEN sential book, book as essence, book even as substance without acci dents. Book as actuality. Sifrut does not allude to literacy, which in its archaic derivations comes forth out of litteratus, that is, marked with letters. A coat of many letters. Literature is a constellation of lettered culture. Hebrew seems to think differently. It presumes the letters were formed before creation and that at least one book was written. Sifrut requires only a single Sefer. "Jewish book" is the proper formulation for the Jew, not Jewish literature. Jewish literature alludes to a culture formed of letters rigorously gathered out of their natural dispersion. The Jewish book is somehow always in place. As I have noted, it is clear to me what defines the Jewish?a resonation and sound chamber of particular experience, which employs a considerable variety of images and metaphors that signify the experience of Jews. But not only historical experience surely. There is no historical experience of the Angel of Poetry (or the Angel of Death also alluded to) or even of Yom Kippur. The disordering gift of the imagination may well reside in the ability to take the historical experience, bare and unwinnowed, and leaf it with the language of perpetual and renewing myth or liturgy that enables it to endure long after the specific event has been forgotten. If literature is an art it may be said that literature lifts the event out of the dust and makes of it myth. We are so stupid that only with myth is the memory alive and vigorous. Events are forgotten and misconstrued, indexed and forgotten. But who has not heard of Troy or, if they know nothing of Troy and its ardents, who has not heard of Adam and Eve, or Cain and Abel, or of Joseph and his brothers? And is there any doubt that what they have heard is myth and not only the myths of our origins and descent into history, but the myths of other nations and peoples as well? Myth is not all slogan (although it can be that too). It is a mnemonic of feeling and the source of the deepest loyalty. It is so easy to betray history and survive. It is impossible to do the same with one's own myth. 4. Some have written that it is impermissible to assimilate the destruction of European Jewry to the millenial memorial of the destruc tion of the Temple on the 9th Day of Av. They say (quite correctly I believe) that there is nothing in these modern events that does not overwhelm the confines of the ancient tropes, rendering them distended and flattening these catastrophes of our own day by false similitudes. (Again I believe they say something that is true.) All events, as events, are incommensurable. No fact is like any other. It is the resemblance of This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspSome Observations about Literature and Theology 113 the catastrophe to the unconditioned finality of the fact that makes catastrophes incomparable and unassimilable to ordinary historical memorializations. It would be the same for redemptions as for catastrophes. Each fact of ransoming or restoration would be incomparable. Presumably what the "historical" mnemonics of Jewish liturgists and paytannim undertook was to establish "catastrophe" as a Jewish trope and having caught the underlying rhythm to make of each catastrophe a stanza, a quatrain of particularity, held to the center by an overarching similitude. The resistance to regarding these modern events as yet a further extension and original elaboration of the classical trope of catastrophe rests perhaps on the no less significant conviction that the trope, despite all mourning for the wasted ancient Temple and for all our persuasion that every Jewish catastrophe until the present began on the 9th Day of Av, did little or nothing to avert the modern catastrophe. It could be the case not that the trope is false, but that the trope is no longer believed. Long ago I stopped mourning the destruction of the Temple. I have no wish to behold its rebuilding nor have I any desire (as did my teacher, Rav Avraham Schreiber) to receive instruction in the laws of sacrifice. Rabbi Schreiber wanted to teach me the laws of sacrifice since I bore the most exalted of Hebrew names and might indeed in that time of rebuilt Temples become the High Priest of Israel. I defile myself daily to render myself unfit. I visit graves and fail to separate myself from my beloved. And yet if it is the case that the ancient trope of tragedy is no longer believed, then with it into oblivion goes the whole of the liturgy which is a necklace of similar tropes responding to the other side of the same question. In the one God is enthroned in judgment; in the others God is enthroned in mercy. There would be little point to the liturgy of mercy were we not also confronted by the inculpation of history. This is, of course, the real issue. Not that the catastrophe of this century is vaster than any other, but that the Jewish people had no choice. Without choice, without guilt. And without guilt, blameless except by the work of a cruel God. Or a God who couldn't help himself. Or a God who thought creating the heavens and the earth and all the creatures thereon to be enough. Or a God who didn't invent history. Or perhaps no God at all. Whatever we have made of these modern events the last thing we have made is a literature. All of the literary undertakings by which these events are culled reflect the overwhelming need to carve out from the granite of implacability a corner of ostensible sanity. Either a This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp114 ARTHUR A. COHEN sanity that normalizes insanity. Or a manner of speech that institu tionalizes sepulchral gravity. Or a rhetoric of injury that makes it impossible for anyone but the victim or the survivor to speak. Which, of course, makes the victim and the survivor the conserva tor of correct interpretation and, in extremis, the legitimated moral terrorist empowered to silence every one else wrro was a bystander. No Jew, however, is permitted to be a bystander. Every Jew is commanded to be a witness. This is an article of faith. Even if my eyes did not see nor my ears hear nor my voice speak, I am no bystander. Only a witness. This is what is meant by the community of Israel. Each and every Jew who has endured until this time is in some way a survivor and is commanded to address the world as a survivor. The survivor who was not a victim must hear the testimony of the victims who survived, but since it is the survivor who will transmit the knowledge of the catastrophe from this generation to the future, not a single one is freed from the obligation to judge not alone the catastro phe but the whole history of the Jewish people that begins five thousand years ago and is carried through the fire to this season. The laws of mourning are obligatory for every Jew. Not only victims, but survivors. Once this is accepted by victims and survivors who were victims, and survivors who were not victims, it will be possible for storytelling to begin again in Israel. It is hardly storytelling when the storytellers require that the listener know that what he tells is not a story. In such situations (and it is commonplace in many recits of survivors who were victims) storytelling fails to estrange the common place. Rimbaud wished to disorder the senses. I would wish to estrange the commonplace. Tadeusz Borowski succeeded in this. He estranged the commonplace of the death camps by not being a Jew and thus he could begin on the very first day of his arrival at Auschwitz by hating the Jews among whom he was cast until in the end he joined them and they entered him. The real predicament that all talk of Jewish literature confronts is that it must either assimilate these catastrophic events to the episodic history of Jewish life or permit these events to tower so monstrously that nothing else would be allowed. Everything else would be dwarfed. Or made trivial. 5. What I propose is that these modern events be made liturgic as quickly as liturgy becomes possible so that they can serve us hencefor ward as the highest rule of critical adjudication, marking off the authentic from the lying, the truthful from the deceiving, the unique and irreducible from all efforts at universalizing symmetries. The This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspSome Observations about Literature and Theology 115 catastrophe?now that it is surely history?must become the halakhah of speech, that is to say, the law of truth. Once it is the law of truth (which strikes down misrepresentation and falsification) it is possible to raise again the question of truth telling. Truth-telling (which is the thinker's art whether the thinker be a poet or storyteller or exegete or inventor of ingenious ideas) entails the recognition that at all times and in all places the truth is not wanted. Truth-tellers are wanted, but not their truths. They are protected even while their truth is spurned. Recall the astonishing argument of Leo Strauss, who documented the curious history of persecution and the art of writing during the Middle Ages and among Jews. Persecution, of course, meant everything from capital punishment to social ostracism. The argument of true philosophy during the Middle Ages required literary art as a means of exposition and self-protection. There was a language open and fit for the audition of right believers. For them the argument could be devised in common, exoteric terms, built from shared assumptions and unex ceptionable beliefs. But since all were not philosophers (indeed philoso phy was not considered among Jews to be a requisite to learning) if one were both learned in Torah and a philosopher, one had either to make philosophy subservient to Torah that the general public remain con firmed in faith or reserve for the hearing of the few those esoteric arguments that could be pursued for the sake of deeper and more subtle wisdom. Strauss suggests that for these reasons Maimonides prepared his more popular and universally acclaimed rehearsal of the Torah, the Mishneh Torah, while for the few he proposed his Guide for the Perplexed. I have returned many times to Leo Strauss's argument. It struck me that there had to be something more to his thesis than what was apparent. The interlineation of a coded text, the device of the loaded phrase, the purposeful contradiction, the secret arcanum which only the astute, careful, and perspicacious reader would discover (realizing with his discovery that what seemed to reflect the safe course of exposition actually revealed a counter-current of heterodoxy) were undertaken by the great medieval Jewish philosophers less in terror of persecution than in celebration of the extreme consequence of speech. Language, after all, made the universe and by language are we slain. Therefore all caution and care for words. What a man thinks should be guarded and protected lest his habits of fidelity and obedience be compromised by intellectual subtleties. And so the great Jewish phi losophers (and Muslim and Christian thinkers as well) created a doubling of language which spoke with one voice the efficient truths on which society thrives and with another voice (more still and small) This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp116 ARTHUR A. COHEN advanced theoretic truths which none but the speculatively gifted would discern. 6. An example of theological misprision. Saint Sylvester never said that God was simple. He said rather that God was good. About God's similitude to the edible bulb of the lily family, no mistake. Nor that God makes us cry. But why Saint Sylvester thought that onions were good I have no idea. He was undoubtedly an early medieval. Onions made up much of the peasant diet. They grew wild, withstood cold, and flourished under the worst of conditions. But how far should I press Sylvester's metaphor? God, of course, grows forth under the worst of conditions. But evidently I have never thought God good. (Scholem is reported to have remarked once of Judah Magnes: "He could speak of goodness and justice without making one split one's sides laughing.") I have found God to possess so many other qualities more outstanding than virtue that his goodness never came to mind. Moreover, his virtue is among the more dubious of his moral attributes, since virtue, unlike majesty, grace and serenity, is grounded in the human realm where goodness changes from generation to generation like the seasons. I dislike the notion of God's goodness. A simple confession of indifference to his virtue. It makes no difference to my conduct that God is good. It makes a great deal of difference to my conduct, however, that God's nature is always simple. It makes a great deal of difference to my conduct that God makes me cry. 7. The defect of all written texts is not the fault of speech, but the condition of time. Everything that is decisive may be known (in fact has probably been known since the ancient world) but unfortunately what the mind knows in simultaneity it must ploddingly unfold in speech. Words, alas, must follow each other, one after another, for pages on end, holding hands like a line of blind men. What we receive, however, when we read is not the sequence of the words, but the undulance of time. We come to the word requiring not sense, but time. Surely it is the presence of time that prevents us from anticipating, that requires that we await each revelation of the word patiently, that compels our recognition that everything upon which we depend for life and truth must be wrested by one understanding from another. Since time is the atmosphere of words, it is time and our sensus temporis that introduces into language what is called style. Style is essentially language taking account of its temporal medium. In this respect all literature (even the most unworthy) verges upon the This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspSome Observations about Literature and Theology 117 metaphysical, since in even the most foolish heads time blows, obliging it to hurry on, to set it forth, to make the text. It is only when the text is finished that the wind of time shifts directions. It begins then to blow in the reader's head and the process recommences. 8. It appears in the liturgy of the Days of Awe: "The enlargement of the heart is for man, but the gift of speech is from God" [Prov. 16:]; ]wb mvn 'nm 2b my? m*6. 9. The natal fall into consciousness is twice described. The first time as Plato devised it. An event of reminiscence (anamnesis) Plato called it. In such events of reminiscence we recollect through the promptings of instruction the fundamental truths we knew at birth and lost. The second time as a Midrash understood it. The Hebrew tradition proposes that mankind once knew all essential truths in advance of birth; however, lest man in his pride come to regard himself as either the equal or worse the rival of God in wisdom, the guardian angel of each child put a finger to the infant's lips at birth and all was forgotten. The origin of our labial depression is this angelic counter to our hubris. But I think there may be a third view which regards neither deep instruction nor angelic premonition. Let us imagine that the origin of our natal ignorance is that at the moment of coming into the world each child bit its own lip and crying out in pain announced that it knew nothing (and hence the punishment for excess need not begin). Forgetting everything in tears, however, was to begin a primary schooling in discontent. 10. Consider this tale, perhaps legendary, or even a riddle. It is recounted that a printer, a Hasid by conviction, who lived in Podolia during the middle of the nineteenth century, was laboriously inserting metal letters into the matrix of a page, when he discovered to his horror that many passages of the manuscript from which he was composing were misquoted. It would have mattered little had the passages of quotation been from ordinary secular literature, for the printer was also in the habit of printing the handbills then coming into use among the Jewish merchants of the town. But that was not the case. The passages in question were extracts from Holy Scripture. Indeed, the copyist, who had transcribed the learned text, had made numerous mistakes and were it not for the printer's considerable learning they might not have been noticed. However, he did notice and he corrected the errors. It was the last page of the manuscript and This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp118 ARTHUR A. COHEN when he closed his shop for the night he was satisfied that he had saved the word of God from misquotation. The printer returned to his home, concluded his supper, and retired to his study for several hours of holy learning before he went to sleep. As he was studying, however, it crossed his mind that all was not well in his printing shop and when he went to sleep he reported terrible dreams. Unsettled letters rose from the matrices that he had locked and made ready for the press and flew about the room, refusing to return to the pages from which they had loosed themselves. The following morning when Shaharith was concluded in the Bet Midrash where the printer prayed, he asked a Jew more learned than himself and a confidant of the Rebbe whom he served whether he could interpret his dream. The learned Jew inquired what he had done the day before and what events had transpired. The printer then described the difficulties created by the mistranscription of Holy Scripture in the learned text he was setting into type. The learned Jew then interpreted the dream: "Perhaps," he proposed, "other passages of Holy Scripture have been misquoted by the copyist and set into type by an ignorant typesetter. Perhaps then the letters are angry and upset. Since it is known that the Hebrew alphabet was created before the creation of the world, those supernal and holy letters are offended." The printer hurried to his print shop and inquired of the young apprentice who had been assigned to set the earlier pages of the manuscript, it being required only that the master printer set the last page of each manuscript in order that the typesetters, printers, paper handlers and other workers in the shop can then gather and recite a Kaddish deRabbanan and toast lehayim. The young apprentice, skilled though he was in the printing trade, was not learned in Torah. He admitted that he did not know if the earlier pages contained misquota tions from Holy Scripture. The master printer, a Hasid by conviction, examined the pages and to his horror discovered not one but hundreds of misquotations from Holy Scripture. The entire book, with but the exception of the final page, would now need to be recomposed. The cost to the modest print shop would be exorbitant and his promise of a finished volume by Sukkoth would be violated. He cursed the copyist and thought to have him put in herem, but the copyist had already left Podolia and it was not known in which direction he had travelled. Vexed a!nd angered, the printer allowed himself to think (in jest or in despair it cannot be known): "God can be such a careless writer." The printer was of course referring to the careless copyist, but in his anger had exaggerated, accusing God Himself (it would appear) of the copyist's mistakes. It is no surprise that on the evening of his blasphemy a fire broke out in the wooden trays that held the little metal letters of the many This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspSome Observations about Literature and Theology 119 type fonts that the printer owned. The corner of the print shop which held the trays of metal letters was destroyed. The metal of each little letter, heated by the concentrated power of the flame, flowed together and fused (it was reported). All that remained of the thousands of Hebrew letters was a giant Shin. All took this to signify the accusatory finger of God's judgment. The printer, a Hasid by conviction, chastened by his ordeal still wondered about its cause and meaning. His manuscript was full of errors, the completed matrices awaiting only the embrace of ink and paper now required recomposition, the fire had destroyed all his fonts. The printer was nearly bankrupted by his misfortune. It was then that he determined to visit his Rebbe at his summer court in western Czechoslovakia. It took him two weeks to travel by coach and train, Arriving at the Rebbe's court in late afternoon, he was told that his visit was expected and he was given an appointment for two o'clock in the morning of the day of his arrival. He believed his fortune was changing. Ushered into the presence of the Rebbe he was left alone. All of the Rebbe's attendants and gabbaim were motioned to leave. The Rebbe bade the poor printer to speak and the printer told the Rebbe the story of the manuscript, the mistranscription of the holy words of Scripture, and the ensuing fire. The Rebbe listened carefully. When the printer had finished, the Rebbe spoke angrily. "There is something you did that you have not told me." The printer denied this but the Rebbe insisted. "There is something you said that you have not told me." The printer denied this but the Rebbe insisted. "There is something you thought that you have not told me." It was then that the printer remembered his blasphemy and repeated it. "I thought to myself that God was a careless writer. But surely the Master of the Universe knows that I meant the copyist." The Rebbe was very firm. "You have thought blasphemy against the Holy Alphabet which is like the sinew and muscle of God. Without the Holy Alphabet there would be no Torah and if God had not given the Torah to his people Israel, who would serve him and what then would be our God?" The Rebbe prescribed a penance and the printer, a Hasid by conviction, departed. In time all was restored to him. But that is the way such stories usually end. I hear this story and I think to myself. Is blasphemy any longer possible in this world of our making? Observe initially that there are presuppositions even for blasphemy. God must surely exist if it is God that is to be blasphemed. (I recall being challenged many years ago when I was young by a Christian who had overheard me say the name of Jesus. In those days I believed that Christ was his family name. He demanded in his anger This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp120 ARTHUR A. COHEN that I retract my blasphemy. He said (I recall exactly): "Take back that Jesus Christ." He even lifted a fist to clarify how seriously he regarded my utterance. I answered him that I was only trying out a name that I had recently come to learn. He countered my frivolous, but truthful reply, by saying that my tone of voice suggested more than recent acquaintance. "You're committing blasphemy," he said angrily. I gave in. Since I did not know anything of Jesus Christ, my ignorance in those days was invincible. I had said the name of Jesus Christ as lightly as I might have invoked Hermes Trismegistus. A bit of anger, a bit of magic. But how could this be blasphemy? It might have been a blasphemy if, not a Jew, but a Christian had spoken the name with the will to erase it. But could it be blasphemy on the lips of a Jew who had no need or will to violate syllables of air?) I read the tale of the printer and recalled my first encounter with blasphemy. But I put to myself this question: if it is a blasphemy for a Christian to speak the Holy Name of Jesus Christ in anger, what would be a comparable blasphemy for a Jew? I understand the Christian's rage with my Jewish unbelief. It is meaningless to me, but serious for him. The logos after all became flesh and the Son filiates the Father. Offend against the one and the heart bleeds. It is, however, a common Jewish reversal to put the book before the world, the writing before the word, in effect, literature before theol ogy. Jews cannot help themselves therefore if they blaspheme by their very existence against Jesus Christ. This is because Christianity requires that the logos precede creation and Jews require not logos (nor even logoi) but writing before speech. The ultimate blasphemy for a Jew would be to deny that God is a writer at all, that his Torah preceded creation and was its archetype and that speech, far from being the vital, spiritual inscription of God upon the stem of man, is already a deformation. Bluntly put, a Jewish blasphemy would be to say that God is an exceedingly bad writer, indeed, no writer at all. Had the printer said that God was an exceedingly bad writer, perhaps no writer at all, not only his print shop, but Podolia and even the whole world might have been swept by fire. 11. Jacques Derrida remembers betimes his childhood as an Algerian Jew and comments: As was the case with the Platonic writing of the truth in the soul, in the Middle Ages too it is a writing understood in the metaphoric sense, that is to say a natural eternal, and universal writing, the system of signified truth, which is recognized in its dignity. As in the Phaedrus, a certain fallen writing continues to be opposed to it. There remains to be written a history This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspSome Observations about Literature and Theology 121 of this metaphor, a metaphor that systematically contrasts divine or natural writing and the human and laborious, finite and artificial inscrip tion. It remains to articulate rigorously the stages of that history, as marked by the quotations below, and to follow the theme of God's book (nature or law, indeed natural law) through all its modifications. Rabbi Eliezer said: "If all the seas were of ink, and all ponds planted with reeds, if the sky and the earth were parchments and if all human beings practiced the art of writing?they would not exhaust the Torah I have learned, just as the Torah itself would not be diminished any more than is the sea by the water removed by a paint brush dipped in it." (Of Grammatology, pp. 15-16) 12. There is much more. This is only a sample, but not a random sample. I have vbeen doing this kind of work for more than a generation. I have many notebooks full of such speculations and note taking. Their order here?seemingly random?is rigorous. But it is an unconventional notion of order and rigor. It is in substance, however, all textual commentary, although very often the original text is omitted or misquoted, perhaps even lied about and misrepresented. The original text is someone else's problem and since, as often as not, the original text is deformed in my rendition, it no longer matters whose text it is. In many cases all I know of the original text is my misrepresentation of its substance and all I remember of it is its savor and trace. I try to make every quotation my own. If, after living with a text for a long time, I continue to remember its author, I give it back. It will never become mine and I have no use for it. There are several passages quoted in this text but only one is a real quotation. I have not yet decided whether I wish to own it. This content downloaded from 188.72.126.181 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 19:09:03 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspArticle Contentsp. 110p. 111p. 112p. 113p. 114p. 115p. 116p. 117p. 118p. 119p. 120p. 121Issue Table of ContentsProoftexts, Vol. 7, No. 2 (MAY 1987), pp. 107-206Front Matter[Myths and Riddles: Some Observations about Literature and Theology: Introduction] [pp. 107-109]MYTHS AND RIDDLES: SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LITERATURE AND THEOLOGY [pp. 110-121]Judah Halevi: The Compunctious Poet [pp. 123-143]Zionism: Neurosis or Cure? The "Historical" Drama of Yehoshua Sobol [pp. 145-162]REVIEWSRecent Developments in Biblical Poetics [pp. 163-178]Interpreting Midrash 1: Midrash and the History of Judaism [pp. 179-194]When the Reader Is in the Write [pp. 194-205]Back Matter