In a profound look at what it means for new generations to read
and interpret ancient religious texts, rabbi and philosopher
Marc-Alain Ouaknin offers a postmodern reading of the Talmud, one
of the first of its kind. Combining traditional learning and
contemporary thought, Ouaknin dovetails discussions of spirituality
and religious practice with such concepts as deconstruction,
intertextuality, undecidability, multiple voicing, and eroticism in
the Talmud. On a broader level, he establishes a dialogue between
Hebrew tradition and the social sciences, which draws, for example,
on the works of Levinas, Blanchot, and Jabes as well as Derrida.
"The Burnt Book" represents the innovative thinking that has come
to be associated with a school of French Jewish studies, headed by
Levinas and dedicated to new readings of traditional texts, which
is fast gaining influence in the United States.
The Talmud, transcribed in 500 C.E., is shown to be a text that
refrains from dogma and instead encourages the exploration of its
meanings. A vast compilation of Jewish oral law, the Talmud also
contains rabbinical commentaries that touch on everything from
astronomy to household life. Examining its literary methods and
internal logic, Ouaknin explains how this text allows readers to
transcend its authority in that it invites them to interpret,
discuss, and re-create their religious tradition. An in-depth
treatment of selected texts from the oral law and commentary goes
on to provide a model for secular study of the Talmud in light of
contemporary philosophical issues.
Throughout the author emphasizes the self-effacing quality of a
text whose worth can be measured by the insights that live on in
the minds of its interpreters long after they have closed the book.
He points out that the burning of the Talmud in anti-Judaic
campaigns throughout history has, in fact, been an unwitting act of
complicity with Talmudic philosophy and the practice of
self-effacement. Ouaknin concludes his discussion with the story of
the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who himself burned his
life achievement--a work known by his students as "the Burnt Book."
This story leaves us with the question, should all books be
destroyed in order to give birth to thought and renew meaning?"
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