During reading break I flew across the continent to Charlottesville, Virginia to spend time with an old friend from college. Since our time at college together, she’s gone on to study at Yale, and is now in her second year of doctoral coursework in the University of Virginia’s Jewish Studies Program. I got to ask her some questions about what she’s studying, and the questions that drove her to a program that revolves around sacred texts.
BJ: How exactly did you get to be studying sacred texts? Why Jewish Studies?
Ashleigh: When I was at Prairie [Bible College, where we both did our BAs] I loved reading books, loved literature, but I didn’t read the Bible. I think this was or is true for a lot of people, who loved narrative and stories and grand metaphors but had no interest in the narratives or stories or grand metaphors of the Bible. Why was this? For myself, it seemed like I was given this understanding of the Bible as simply a self-help story or children’s book, and once I came to those conclusions, I moved on from it.
Reading Midrashim [rabbinic commentary on Jewish texts] and other writers such as Kierkegaard opened my eyes to other ways of reading the texts and were a corrective to my reductive understanding of what scripture is.
Kierkegaard pointed me to the fact that the sacred texts shouldn’t be read only for moral meaning. You wouldn’t sum up Charles Dickens’s Hard Times with a one sentence imperative, and the bible is the same. I wanted to look at periods of history where people were offering other ways of looking at texts. At Yale, I looked to historical criticism for answers, but I was dissatisfied with their assumptions as well; their conclusions tended toward the naivety of people for looking to sacred texts for any kind of answers. But the historical critics weren’t interested in [the] same questions I was. Kierkegaard and the historical-critical movement coincided, so I went back to him to see where he disconnected from the movement. I looked to history to find people who were reading well—not just minimizing importance between reader and text or taking single kernels out of text. Look at writers who have a thicker meaning of the text, way that [the] Bible apprentices readers, what it means to be human, fear God.
B: What exactly is a Midrash? My only exposure to any kind of Jewish learning is through My Name is Asher Lev.
A: Midrash is essentially rabbinical commentary and usually starts with an issue in the text that doesn’t make sense, something we call a “textual irritant.” Midrash begins with questioning the text, and can mean anything from analyzing a certain word in the text, to asking about the reasoning behind an individual’s action in the narrative.
B: You’ve used “reading well” as a good way to approach a text, but what does that mean? Is there a certain qualitative standard you can apply to a method or way of reading?
A: I think that is something I’m still working to define. Something that doesn’t work is when a writer who’s writing to a community of readers gives an interpretation of the text that doesn’t encourage readers to go back to the text itself; for example, pastors or writers not pressing readers go back and do the work themselves I’d say is not reading well. Midrash, Kierkegaard, Herman Melville: their work provokes people to go back to the text and read well. So, I’m interested in interpreters who provoke people to a more earnest reading of their texts.
B: Your project and ideas in general regard reading sacred texts, who do these ideas apply to? Who are you thinking of when you think about these ideas being put into practice?
A: I’m thinking of the broader Protestant community because that’s the tradition I find myself in. An apparent issue in this tradition is that people can’t read the Hebrew Bible, or don’t have the tools to. Thinkers that have better tools to approach Bible should be encouraging the larger faith community to gather those tools. How does the average person make sense of a God that presents judgement and prescribes the death penalty, for example? It’s usually dismissed under the idea that “Jesus makes all things new.” It makes Jesus look like a peace loving hippy and God a dictatorial tyrant, and that can’t be right. Are we reading in error? Are our structures for reading fundamentally flawed? These are questions I’m trying to answer.
B: How can this apply to people from other traditions?
A: A great example is our Scriptural Reasoning seminar that has Jews, Christians, and Muslims reading each other’s sacred texts. The course draws out the challenge to read texts well: we pick a text that doesn’t have an immediate pay off, like a reading on how one should plough a field, and then we ask the text questions. “Is this a principle grounded in crops actually work, or is this text about rest or responsibility?” For one, reading others sacred texts trains our attention as readers. We’re reading for reading’s sake. Secondly, it teaches us to act outside of what the moral value is, for example, what does this text actually say? It brings out an interesting relationship with texts when a Muslim reader offers a better reading of a Christian text than my own.
B: What are some things that have been important for you in learning to read better?
A: Learning Hebrew and Greek. Christianity is the only of the Abrahamic religions that doesn’t have its followers read the text in its original languages. Why not? I think that Christianity values immediate relevance in its message and text, which could be at the expense of reading well. This kind of relevance-chasing apprentices people to the assumption that anything in Christianity can be gained immediately, which intrinsically is not true of the text I read in Judaism. Christians are not being taught to wrestle with texts. Who takes their churches through Numbers [a book in the Pentateuch]? If these texts are all sacred, we should spend more time with them and try to understand past their immediate payoff.