Gadamer on Orthodoxy: Tradition as self-identity

Avi Sagi,  Tradition vs. Traditionalism (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008) $69 short paperback!

The book deals with a pluralistic halakhic approach and was combined together in the Hebrew edition with the book that I discussed below.- here. In English, it is two separate books. I will comment on the book itself next week. However, the book has a short first chapter, newly written after the rest of the essays in the book, that approaches the question of pluralism from the perspective of Gadamer.

He asks: How can the modern Jew appropriate the tradition?

Sagi answers it using his new found readings in currently read books that are beyond his training in analytic philo and existentialism.

His basic answer is that now we can appropriate the tradition in an open ended way based on Gadamer, no more alienation from religion due to modernity or lack of freedom in halakhah. We just read it with open horizons.

I am not sure if he intends to be liberal or conservative and he certainly does not deal with questions of rabbinic and communal authority. It is an existential appropriation of the tradition. I am not sure what I gain here over Franz Rosenzweig.

On Tradition: He has a nice use of Zygmunt Bauman to show the paradox, in which once one speaks of a tradition then the speaker is no longer part of the tradition. Tradition lies in tacit acceptance without justification Bauman claims that the use of the concept tradition is more about the present and future than the past. Speaking of tradition is itself about renewal or the conscious identification with something and ascribing of new meaning. (As a side point, Bauman is essential for most topics these days- why is he taking so long to be integrated into American thought?)

Tradition has 4 parts according to John Thompson- hermeneutical, normative, legitimacy, and identity and all have been broken. (I am not so certain- most people have taken these upon themselves in his/her period of emergent adulthood. And in the post Evangelical age they have all returned.)

Sagi quotes Gadamer’s rejection of Schleiermacher approvingly that we cannot attain the original meaning, therefore it is personal appropriation as something new. Tradition is one of self identity through appropriating ones tradition as one’s own.

I don’t think Sagi gets the radical openness of Heidegger horizons (Compare Fishbane who does get Heidegger)nor the Ricoeur tensions of scholarship, personal, narrative, and revelation.)

Returning to his existentialist favorites, Sagi quotes Kierkegaard one can return on the personal level, to community and to one’s imagines inner home.  But, he writes that after Bauman and Gadamer- we don’t return to the actual past but stand in tradition.

He thinks that his approach overcomes the alienation that Peter Berger circa 1972 describes of having no return to the past after modernity. [Does Sagi know that by 1995 Berger rejected this sharp dichotomy and his students, like Christian Smith, are some of the leading researchers into Evangelicalism as a contemporary movement? What of Jose Casanova and Charles Taylor et al?]

Now that we have re-appropriated tradition, we can see that Traditions undergo change – even revolutionary ones.  [his proof is Halbertal on tannaic exegesis]. (Don’t I have this from the 1830’s already with Friedrich Carl von Savigny and Schleirmacher? Isn’t this just positive-historical without the philological certainty?

Sagi advocates a post-traditionalism in which tradition is dynamic and changes and is captured in dialogue. We enter into the tradition in dialogue with self, past, community, and a fusion of horizons. No return to the texts themselves. [He seems to conflate hermeneutics of retrieval of scholarship with hermeneutic of personal meaning]Modern Jews can return though a Gadamer tradition, which according to Sagi overcomes modern alienation, allows freedom, and creates choice—a Kierkegaardian freedom to recognize limits and given situation.

So bye bye Wittgenstein closed language- Hello Gadamer.

But wait, he concludes his essay with the question: Don’t religious and secular receive the tradition differently.  Are they even sharing the same tradition? Yes, there is a Wittgenstein family resemblance that holds it together. Therefore, we do nothave to worry about different horizons.

I must note that there are 6-7 of you out there that have been sending me  long comments and questions by email and not posting. If you want to discuss my rambling then post it.

3 responses to “Gadamer on Orthodoxy: Tradition as self-identity

  1. One question which we are dancing around is the foreignness, and returnability-to of the past. Does hermeneutics render the past accessible by empathizing it (let’s say Schleiermacher) or reliving it (Hegel) or do we see the past as foreclosed and inaccessible because of its high level of contingency and openness involved in some non teleological accounts of it (Derrida)? This problem is academic for most people, but for those Orthodox Jews who wish to go back to the future, it is alive. Perhaps what we need is some kind of thought of futurity in Orthodoxy, more than a thought of reliving the old days. Even reading pamphlets from JOFA we see the evocation of the golden age of the 50s rather than any rigorous thought of anything which is to come. A side note, if we are so obsessed with the ethos of Hadesh Yameinu KeKedem we ironically make the past more inaccessible as it is effaced into futurity, while foreclosing the future within the limitedness of the momentary impasse. So where is the JOFA pamphlet which begins with an invocation of the fact that the 2050s could be better than the 1950s, and that even if Daniel Sperber does not discover the egal minyan of medieval Worms, we will still be ok?

  2. I think there are many issues here and this may not be a test case.
    The Jofa case has the fact that it was one of the battle lines in the culture wars, so they could not have historical blindness. These who created supply side halkhah or libertarian halkhah saw themselves as the tradtion.
    Second, they are caught up in the liberal side of the conservative-liberal divide and based it on the supersessionalism of liberal 1960’s positions.
    Third, as a more general comment. Much of Jewish studies on traditional texts is still in the retrival through philology mode of the 1860’s.
    Fourth, the community does not read theory- as Steven I. pointed out in a newspaper article – he found the feminist books never taken out from the library.
    Finally, to your question- even the historicism of Dilthy has not really been absorbed by the community – let alone the openess of later thinkers.

    Andrew Louth- a very traditional Catholic who wishes to reclaim the neoplatonic mystical tradition offers some worthwhile thoughts on the reclaiming hte past.
    While I devoured Louth in my studies on mysticism- the immediate connection is that WordPress offered these posts to look at on this post.
    Read the Louth and get back to the discussion here.

  3. Gadamer is becoming a sort of red herring in this discussion. Gadamer believes what he does about tradition because he argues for tradition as a sort of reference point in anything we are going to understand, in order to get around the problem of performances vs originals. He does this by focusing on aesthetic appearance (reception aesthetics is really prefigured here) rather than Kant’s product aesthetics (and anthropological ideal reception) as given in the third critique. The way he sidesteps Kant relies heavily on Heidegger, but Gadamer has a kind of twist, where understanding becomes the basic comportment of Dasein in the world. So we are refocusing on our activity as worlded understanders, rather than deworlded sort of evacuated aesthetes as Kant has (if you want, Agamben has a great critique of this anthropological type in Man without Qualities). Anyway the point is not to detach the art from the world, or the person from the world. This worldedness, or intersubjective sphere where I am sort of stuck, as Hegel could have told me, is now seen as tradition. So aesthetic appearance ends up being PLAYED (key term) against and with reference to tradition. In some sense, this understanding Dasein is a playing Dasein, one who plays the interplay of tradition and the new aesthetic appearance. So tradition is not closed, like playing with a bouncy ball, seemingly anything can happen (at least with reference to the bouncy ball happenings, the ball will not turn into a squid, sorry to disappoint the children).
    Why did I rehash this? Because I think people like Sagi are forgetting the key terms in MH which undergird this architectonic system. If you take the upshot of the play and tradition without the sort of assumption of Dasein, Heidegger hermeneutics and a refocusing on intrinsic question of Being, you sort of have an open tradition. That’s great for people who want to be Modern Orthodox, but for those keeping score at home, it would not be Gadamer. Pulling just one thread from the vast Gadamarian tapestry, we see for example that Gadamer believes understanding is inevitable. Compare this to Sagi’s pictures of rupture with and return to tradition. There is an entire step missing in Gadamer because you do not rupture with tradition, since you are a hermeneutical being, and thus always already understanding. So where would this rupture come from? If I say that Moshe Rabbeinu was a night club owner, I am already playing off the tradition, I am not leaving it somehow and returning when I admit that he actually led the Jews through the desert for forty years. Getting to the final question Sagi poses about horizons, there is no need for a family resemblance, there is just one tradition. Anyway I think we can say that Sagi does not equal Gadamer without getting into the problems with the latter which I may have inadvertently pointed out in this comment.

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