Linafelt, T., Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust

Tod Linafelt, ed., Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust (New York, New York University Press: 2000) pp. 304.*

This new collection of essays on how one reads the Tanakh after the shoah has a very wide range. The biblical texts treated by various contributors include: Abraham at Sodom, the Akeda, Aaron at the death of his sons, the unnamed concubine of Giv´a, Isaiah, Job, Lamentations, and Kohelet. The modern sources which the authors cross-read with the biblical text include: Derrida, Freud, Levinas, Wiesel, Jabès, and Celan. And the list of contributors, Christian and Jewish, includes some well-known names such as Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, and Walter Brueggemann as well as some new, young talent such as O. E. Ajzenstat, Katharina von Kellenbach, Tod Linafelt, and Mark George.

The motifs, too, range over a wide area. Several authors deal with the tension between our desire to draw some meaning out of the shoah — that is, to reduce it in some way to comprehensible terms — and our need to let suffering speak for itself without any attempt to read meaning into it. Other contributors deal with the tension between seeing the holocaust as rupture — that is, as a break in human experience — and seeing it as continuous with some kind of human being-in-the-world. Most interesting is the theme of “hegemonic interpretation” which is dealt with by several authors. They point to the tendency of western critical literary tradition and theology to want to impose a pre-judged ideology or theology on the events of the shoah as well as on the biblical texts. Particularly relevant are those who point out that Christianity has exercised “hegemonic interpretation” over “Old Testament” texts in its biblical scholarship and in its recommended readings for the church liturgical cycle. This “universalizing tendency” has often treated the shoah as if it were a challenge equally to Judaism and Christianity, or to German and Jew — an equivalence strongly rejected by these authors.

A few essays stand out: Walter Brueggemann, one of the senior scholars in the field, has written an excellent essay on “hegemonic interpretation” as a method which seeks to contain and limit the biblical text. By contrast, he points out that, in the Tanakh, texts of faith coexist with texts of protest. They just stand side by side with no attempt to generate higher coherence, and with no attempt to deny God either. Rather than a comprehensive philosophy or theology, the Bible gives us a fragmented, but true, picture of suffering and blessing, and of the God Who dispenses both. The Tanakh does not deny God when suffering prevails and rarely rationalizes God’s “evil” actions into a greater whole. I agree fully with Bruggemann on this, as I have written in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster / John Knox: 1993).

Also among the senior scholars, the essay by Richard Rubenstein stands out. Always a thinker who ranges over wide area, Rubenstein points out that the Book of Job does not talk about Job’s children. They are innocent, as are Isaac and Jesus. And, they die immediately, without having the time to come to terms with their situation as did those who went immediately to the gas chambers.

Among the younger scholars, O. E. Ajzenstat has written a very good article explaining the philosophy of Emanuel Levinas. He explains why post-shoah ethics must be rooted, according to Levinas, in difference from the other and not in our common humanity. He also explains why Levinas deals only with ethics and not theology.

Also among the young talent, Katharina von Kellenbach has given us a remarkable reading of the incident of the unnamed concubine of Giv´a who is mass raped and murdered, and whose murder leads to further massacre, particularly of women. Her reading of this horrific story (Judges 19-21) shows its racist, as well as its misogynist, roots — a point worth making as a post-shoah reading.

Tod Linafelt has written an excellent article, based on his book on Lamentations. He shows that there is a tension between chapters 1 and 2, where suffering is directly presented without any attempt to rationalize it, and chapter 3 where the author, and especially the commentators, have attempted to read a meaning into the suffering of the people after the destruction of the temple.

Mark George has also written a very good article, though I am not sure I agree with it, on Kohelet. He maintains that the point of Kohelet’s emphasis on death is to teach that, by recognizing the inevitability of our deaths, we can accept death, then accept our lot in life, and then accept responsibility for our lives. He even extends this, reading with Derrida and Levinas, to accepting the death of, and ethical responsibility for, the other.

This is a very fine book though, as is to be expected, not all the essays are of equal merit. It is a book which brings together the Bible, the shoah, contemporary philosophy, and modern literature.

 

Appeared in Conservative Judaism, 54:1 (Fall 2001) 111-12.

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