- Beyond HaverutToward an Interfaith Hermeneutics
Haverut is a Jewish approach to reading Scripture, which acknowledges that the meaning of a given text can only be found with a partner, or friend (haver).1 Such an approach recognizes that the meaning of Scripture always transcends individual subjectivity and is only available to a community of subjects. According to Levinas, this amounts “to understanding the very plurality of people as an unavoidable moment of the signification of meaning” (BV 110). A pluralistic approach is thus necessary to the apprehension of the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures. While this pluralism seems to give way to a certain hermeneutical freedom, it is clear that, for Levinas the community engaged in Haverut must necessarily be Jewish. The Hebrew Scriptures remain inseparable from the tradition from which they have emerged and must be interpreted from within that tradition if one is to get to the correct meaning of the text. An approach that makes abstraction of the tradition surrounding the Hebrew Scriptures could only arrive to a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the text. The partner in the enterprise of Haverut must therefore already have claimed a place within the Jewish community. [End Page 99]
Although we understand Levinas’s concern with guarding the text’s intrinsic connection with tradition, one wonders as to whether the text’s entrenchment in a given tradition does not run other risks. Levinas himself acknowledges those risks and proposes the broadening of the hermeneutical circle beyond an elitist circle of connoisseurs to include the “other” in order to avoid the crystallization of the text into dogma (NT 8). Yet these “other seekers” (9), although situated on the margins of the Jewish community, must, according to Levinas, remain part of that community if the text is to be salvaged from the dangers of misinterpretation. This is where I beg to differ from Levinas. Why not extend the identity of these “other seekers” to people beyond the Jewish community? Levinas’s definition of pluralism as the confrontation between strangers already invites us to do so. The achievement of authentic pluralism, in the Levinasian sense, calls for a broadening of the concept of Haverut to the stranger and even to the enemy. But to do so would invite other problems. What then will safeguard the text from wild and subjectivist misinterpretations? What will protect the text from being misappropriated by commentators who feel no connection with the people to which it has been entrusted? It is again from the Levinasian perspective that we intend to resolve this problem and pave a way beyond Haverut toward an interfaith approach to hermeneutics of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Levinas on Haverut
In an essay on the Jewish reading of Scripture, Levinas observes a “characteristic pluralism of rabbinical thought” (BV 101) in the interpretation and explication of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is, indeed, a unique characteristic of Jewish exegesis: the acknowledgment and celebration of diverging points of views in the approach of the Hebrew text. The rabbis never agree. The rabbinical commentaries often open the hermeneutical debate to three or more modes of interpretation of a given passage. As Psalm 62:11 says, [End Page 100] “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this” (132). This psalm seems to imply that the word of God itself calls for multiple interpretations. This is in part due to the nature of the Hebrew language itself which, in the ambiguities of its syntax, calls for multiple interpretations. Levinas observes: “It is by going back to the Hebrew text from the translations, venerable as they may be, that the strange or mysterious ambiguity or polysemy authorized by the Hebrew syntax is revealed. . . . Returning to the Hebrew text certainly and legitimately makes it more difficult than one thinks to decide on the ultimate intention of a verse” (132). In other words, the Hebrew text, because of its lack of punctuation and lack of vowels calls for multiple interpretations, depending on the vocalization one chooses, or the syntax one decides upon.
But this polysemy testifies to more than mere syntactic ambiguities pertaining to the Hebrew language. Far from being a flaw, it constitutes, in the terms of Richard Cohen, a...