Postmodernism and Mesorah


I don’t think I can touch this topic without first defining what I mean by Postmodernism.

The old way of doing things, from the Enlightenment until the middle of the 20th century, was to encounter texts by trying to determine the author’s original intent. This requires finding the historical context of the author, learning about his mental state, etc…

Of course, it was rapidly found to be error prone. Whether we wish to or not, we can’t really recreate the world and the mind of the author, and we are still encountering the text based on our own definitions of things.

Postmodernism can be defined as “Incredulity to all metanarratives.” (Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition)

Meaning, we have stories, narratives.  After being exposed to a number of them, we develop “social constructs“, concepts that these narratives have in common. And then we end up combining these social constructs into metanarratives, stories about stories. A metanarrative is “global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience.” (John Stephans) It could be the underlying unity of all fairy tales that leads us to a particular expectation and understanding of them.

For example, is a Postmodernist understanding of feminism would be about narratives, stories and explanations given to life events that lead one to a certain set of contstructs about men, women, and the relationship between them that is then built into a metanarrative about how men and women are supposed to relate. The suffragettes questioned this metanarrative, and thus noticed a new opportunity.

(For more detail, see this page from Adam D Jones’s blog.)

So while the classical academic tried to find the original intent of the text, the postmodern found this impossible and therefore doesn’t try. Instead, he looks to see what social constructs the text implies for the primary purpose of questioning it.

One can see a central theme of Judaism, or almost any religion, is to make a point of imparting a metanarrative. Questioning the metanarrative means never really encountering a religious narrative. You can’t sit on the outside peering in and truly experience a religion. Without “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ — taste”, one will never get to “וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֑ — see that G-d is good!” (Tehillim 34:9)


One popular Postmodern school is Deconstructionism. Rather than looking look for the meaning the text had to the author, but the meaning the text has to the reader. A hyper-correction to the opposite extreme. I think it’s the key to the Conservative movement’s approach to halakhah, once it left the classical academic approach of Historical School under the influence of Mordechai Kaplan’s concept of transvaluation. It literally asks the reader to recreate Judaism according to how he wants it to be.

One example of what I mean about Conservative Judaism: I once heard a Conservative rabbi present on the topic of the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim. According to his presentation, Olam haBa (the World to Come) is something that can be experienced in the here and now, godliness is something we feel most when interacting with other people. And so, he takes words in which the Ramchal speaks of preparing in the “corridor” so that one may “enjoy the sweetness of the Divine Presence” in the World to Come, and makes it into an interpersonal imperative. Mesilas Yesharim stripped of classical Jewish theology (or the Ramchal’s riff on that theme in Derekh Hashem) and replaced with some Levinisian encounter with the other. And when he was done, there were people in the audience who were nodding as though he really captured the Ramchal for them!

Prof Marc Shapiro writes (Tradition 31:3, Spring 1997):

Furthermore, it is possible that an author is not aware of all the wisdom contained in his work. This idea is well established in literary circles, which stress that the most reasonable interpretation is not necessarily identical with the position of the author. Although the notion that an author understands his words better than everyone else would appear to be self-evident, and most intellectual historians still operate in this fashion, modern literary and philosophical thought argue that even the author does not recognize all that is found in his work, both in terms of background and motivation as well as content.

Professor Shapiro is taking the same step from classical academics to Deconstructionism that I laid out earlier. Since we can not know the full intent of the author, and in fact the author himself may not realize every implication of the idea he is describing, we instead look for the interpretation that is more reasonable to us. And I fear that if we accept the premise, that we are to take an academic approach — classical or postmodern — to the text, we will inevitably end up with something more resembling Conservative Judaism.

Mesorah is a living tradition of a development of ideas. The Oral Torah is oral, a dialog across the generations. If we see a quote in the gemara from Rav Yochanan, we might be curious about the historical intent of Rav Yochanan. But in terms of Torah, important to us than what R’ Yochanan’s original intent is what R’ Ashi thought that intent was, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of what the Rosh and the Rambam understood R’ Ashi’s meaning to be, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of the Shaagas Aryeh and R’ Chaim Brisker.  That is the true meaning, in terms of Torah, of Rav Yoachanan’s statement.

Definitionally, talmud Torah is entering the stream. Not seeing a statement as a point to isolate in time and space, but as a being within current that runs through history from creation to redemption.

(This notion of process, that G-d “planted within us eternal life” [as the berakhah puts it], that the job of the Jewish People is to nurture that seedling until “truth arises from the ground”, is developed quite beautifully by the Qetzos haChoshen. Hopefully those quotes were enough to tempt you to read this earlier blog entry.)


Both the classical academic and the Deconstructionist share one thing in common — they see themselves as encountering the text. The idea is that the material is “other”, outside, to remain objectively studied. One looks for the context for which the text was written. The other looks for how the text can be understood with minimal assumptions about context.

Wissenschaft des Judentums, the “science” — i.e. academic study — “of Judaism”, isn’t inherently evil. It is quite possible, and in some circles quite common, to combine Orthodoxy and Wissenschaft. However, as implied at the end of the previous section, it is not to be confused with Talmud Torah as per the mitzvah.

The academic’s job is the objective study of the material. Trying to get to the truth by eliminating personal bias and hidden assumptions. Talmud Torah is about internalizing the lessons of the Torah. Rather than trying to be objective, the entire goal is subjectivity. If mesorah is a discussion down the generations, studying Torah is adding one’s voice to the conversation.

3 thoughts on “Postmodernism and Mesorah

  1. It’s likely that no one will take the time to study, analyze, and publish about Torah material who is not committed to it or committed against it ahead of time (whether he knows this or not).

    Even if an uncommitted approach could be arranged, a scholar’s commitment to Torah produces the better, more objective result, as least in part because the investigator then has a greater degree of Siyata D’Shmaya (G-d’s help).

  2. Pingback: Halakhah: Truth or Law? | Aspaqlaria

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