The Burnt Book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin

What do you get when you cross Derrida and Kabbalah? Something like “The Burnt Book”, a postmodern interpretation of Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts by Marc-Alain Ouaknin, a French rabbi and philosopher from a Sephardi rabbinic family and the French postmodern tradition. Ouaknin is a disciple of Levinas; he brings Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Blanchot, and other European thinkers to his reading of traditional Jewish texts; and he brings the Rabbinic tradition, including Kabbalistic and Hassidic mystical traditions to his understanding of postmodern philosophy; the combination is a distinctive and wild fusion.

This post is part of a series exploring the work of thinkers who explore the resemblances of traditional Jewish thought and post-modern theory. Like David Kraemer, in “Mind of the Talmud” Ouaknin reads the Talmud’s rhetoric as the expression of a philosophical approach that explores truth in multiple voices and un-resolved arguments. Like David Frank, in Arguing with God, Ouaknin shows have this approach is different from the tradition of Western philosophical dialog, contrasting the multi-voiced argument in the Talmud with Platonic dialogues, where one of the characters is present as a foil for the other.

Engaged interpretation

Unlike Kraemer, who uses a historical approach to trace the origins of Talmudic rhetoric, Ouaknin rejects the historical perspective, and prefers an immersed and interpretive style of reading (Chapter 6). Ouaknin’s ahistoricism appears to draw from a common orthodox perspective; from this perspective, a historical reading is alienated and impersonal. “To whom are the texts of the Tradition addressed? For the historian the answer is simple: to everyone except himself”. By contrast, the ahistorical view allows for living, personal engagement. “The existential approach is based on the personal involvement of the interpreter in the event of understanding.” In contrast to traditionalists, though, Ouaknin wants to use the ahistorical approach to generate innovative interpretations.

The first five short chapters provide an accessible summary of traditional Jewish literature and its interpretive methods, from the perspective with which the tradition sees itself. “We will not be giving a description of the history of the Tradition, but the tradition of the history of the tradition.” In the tradition of the tradition, Moses hears revelation from God, writes it down, and conveys in oral teachings more context than is written in the bible. The point of view of traditional self-perception yields sentences like this: “since Hebrew is a consonantal language, no vowel that would provide for a more precise reading should appear”. From this traditionalist perspective, Hebrew is a consonantal language in order to deliberately enable ambiguity of interpretation; rather than as an accident of the evolution of writing scripts. As someone infected by modern notions of history, the unbracketed perspective seems a bit jarring. The historicist and charitable way to say the same thing is that the Rabbis took advantage of the consonantal language of the script to create fruitful interpretations.

If you are familiar with the tradition of the tradition, you can skim this section; though it has some tasty snippets of midrash and interpretation. If you are less familiar, it’s a nice intro, if you prefer or can tolerate the traditional self-perception.

Post-modern talmud

Drawing the traditional interpretive framework, Ouaknin highlights a variety of aspects of Talmudic rhetoric that exemplify post-modern traits. Ouaknin draws on Blanchot and R. Nachman to highlight the importance of the open-ended question in the Talmudic genre; Talmudic discussions start with questions (rather than definitions), as is common in Greek philosophy and its descendants. Ouaknin elaborates on “Makhloket” – the classic form of Talmudic dispute between pairs of sages in each generation who are continual opponents – Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Samuel, Abbaye and Rava, etc. In Makhloket, reconciliation is not sought… we would have to talk of an open dialectic, since no synthesis, no third term, cancels out the contradiction.”

Following Levinas, Ouaknin reads the Talmud’s classic interpretive method, “gezerah shavah”, “analogy by common term” as a process of interpretation that opens up a vast amount of creative space by bringing the context of each quote to inform the other.

Like Kraemer, Ouaknin uses the familiar story of the Oven of Aknai to make the point about dialectic. In homiletic style, though, Ouaknin creates his own interpretation. The Talmud says of Talmudic discussion “The words of one and the words of the other are the words of the living God. Ouaknin’s own take” “The sentence should be understood as conditional” “*If* there are words of one *and* words of the other, *then* they are words of the living God. This is nice, and an example of Ouaknin acting as a participant not an observing analyst.

Opening up, incompleteness, instability

Ouaknin’s style melds the serious play of Jewish mystical tradition, and the wordplay of Derrida and other French school postmoderns; words, letters and meanings are combinatorially re-assembled, exploring themes of presence and absence, intertexuality, multiplicity, incompleteness. In the section on “Openings”, Ouaknin reads and interprets midrash on idiosyncrasies in the passed down scribal tradition of the writing of torah scrolls. Various dots and symbols in the text are interpreted like pre-GUI typesetting codes, erasing, transposing, cutting, pasting, and otherwise transforming the meaning of the coded text.

Ouaknin describes the paradoxical effect of these erasures: “Once effaced, these two verses no longer exist, but, as a result, their effacing and the meaning of this effacing are themselves effaced, forgotten. Therefore the effacing should be done without effacing, and we should perhaps write indicating the effacing, leaving a trace of the existence of this intention of an impossible effacing” This echoes Derrida, in its style and content illustrating a shimmering indeterminacy of meaning. Trace is a Derridian technical term, referring to ways that the meaning of language always depends on things that are not said.

When I read Derrida back in the day, I wondered whether he was at all familiar with the play of Midrash; his family was assimilated, his education was Western, and his life was secular. Regardless of Derrida’s intention (!), Ouaknin reads the Midrash back into Derrida. There are similarities and differences that are more complex than they may appear – deconstruction works to destabilize authority and gives the critic the last word; Ouaknin’s midrash insists that there is no such thing as the last word; and gives creative power to each reader who can innovate. Ouaknin’s radical theology insists that the presence that animates the play of meaning is only visible in its absence (the burnt book theme); but his normative orientation and reading of postmodernist themes back into sacred texts creates a gravitational pull that adds back reverence where Derrida would not find it.

The Mystical Tradition

Ouaknin approaches postmodern rabbinics with distinctive background in Kabbalah and Hassidism. Ouaknin uses the mystical sources and techniques to generate meanings; he plays them off of postmodern sources to create a unique take on these ideas. I can’t count the number of times in undergrad when the teacher said that text comes from the latin Tissus, to weave (this was Yale in the 80s.). Ouaknin brings a section of the Zohar, in which a phrase is broken into horizontal and vertical columns, and read both vertically and horizontally. “Here we are really confronted with a “text” that must be understood in its etymological meaning: fabric, texture, built by interweaving of vertical threads (warp) and horizontal threads (woof). The Gaon of Vilna, speaking of this diagram, explicitly uses the term “woven.” Ouaknin then segues to Julia Kristeva.

Mysticism isn’t my primary disposition, I confess. Whereas text interpretation sets up interplay between the reader and the text, mystical readings strike me as arbitrary and unmoored; pretending to being interpretation but being fully self-expression. I like abstraction in art, but I’m puzzled to the pretension at coded messages. The same techniques that can be used to compute hidden messages from the text of the Torah can derive messages from the text of Tolstoy, or the phone book. It’s not a matter of belief in one text or other – getting messages from an source of alphabet material is a matter of algorithm not source text. It’s a matter of esthetics, I suppose. When the readings are insightful (as Ouaknin is), and the emphasis is more on interpretation than on literalism and “proof” (as Ouaknin does) I can enjoy mystical interpretations as tours de force.

Rabbi Nahman and atheism

Ouaknin draws the image of the Burnt Book most strongly from the work of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. This Chassidic master is best known for his stories; Ouaknin reads him in his more neglected role as a philosopher.

Rabbi Nachman wrote several esoteric works, and then had their copies destroyed, believing that their existence endangered his life and the life of his family. Ouaknin connects the burning of R. Nachman’s own books with the Chassidic Master’s take on the classic myth of Lurianic Kabbalah. In order to create the world, God needed to constrain Godself to leave enough room for the world to be created. The world as it is, is devoid of God, other than little divine sparks scattered in toxic container fragments, as a result of a sort of explosives accident during the creation. The burnt books are analogues of this self-constrained divinity, they are present only in their absence.

The Kabbalistic myth, and the tale of the burn book both serve as powerful illustrations of the Derridian trace. The picture of assembling truth out of a million scattered sparks of Godstuff is a different image of the postmodern fragmentary alternative to systematic truth. WIth these ideas of presence-in-absence, Ouaknin gets to be engaged with the atheism and decenteredness of modern/postmodern thought, while maintaining the gravitational pull of God and meaning. He can be an atheist in thought, while keeping God on the other side of the screen.

What’s hidden behind the screen?

The image of the screen that hides the divine from sight is a core image in the central section of the book on eroticism and transcendence. In an upcoming post on the Burnt Book (part 2 of 3) I’ll talk about this section. Things will get strange. To be continued…

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