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Interpreting Judah Halevi's Kuzari 1

by Haim Kreisel


Introduction

        How should one read the great intellectual works of the past? What is the relation between these texts and the thoughts, preconceptions, concerns -- the intellectual "baggage" -- the reader brings in the act of reading? What is the basis or justification for the manner in which one approaches a text? What claims, implicit as well as explicit, is one making in one's interpretation? For the most part, one settles into a non-reflexive pattern of reading. One approaches the texts with a certain implicit set of concerns and assumptions, in accordance with training and habit. One proceeds to interpret the author's stance on particular issues according to the methodologies with which one is familiar without much further ado. In light of contemporary intellectual trends, however, one is now often confronted directly with these problems and can no longer ignore them. 2 What is the basis for favoring a certain approach? Can we ascribe greater "truth value" to one over another, or even to any given interpretation over another. Does all "truth" simply exist in the mind of the beholder? Is there anyway of knowing what the author's intended meaning was, or is such knowledge even important. Let the text stand as an entity in its own right that says different things to different readers, spreading its light in a variety of ways in accordance with the characteristics of its recipients. Why should I even care what the author intended when only the text remains, presenting to us its infinite possibilities? As a student of medieval Jewish philosopher I had naively assumed that my training was preparing me to "hear" accurately the great thinkers of the past. If I listened hard to the words they wrote together with those they read, not only would I understand what they were saying. I would also grasp what they were driving at or what was driving them, even when they were not fully conscious of these points. Having done that, I would be able to better evaluate their conceptions and place them in a proper historical perspective. Now I am left wondering what exactly is it that I am doing in my research and why I am doing it. I can no longer listen to the text without continuously probing my own mind. I can no longer ask questions of the text without asking myself about the basis for these questions and the way I go about finding the answer. I would like to address a few of these problems through the prism of a particular text that has occupied my attention over the years - Judah Halevi's Kuzari. 3

  Academic Reading -- Motivation and Meaning   >


This e-lecture is from the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought
        Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel


(scroll down to see notes)
  1. This article is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Marvin Fox. One of his virtues is that he continuously forced his students and readers to reflect on the fundamental issues of how to read Jewish philosophic texts. Since Leo Strauss, perhaps no one in the field of Jewish philosophy has paid so much attention to this issue. (back to note 1 in lecture)
  2. This issue has become much more prominent in recent years as a result of the work of such thinkers as Derrida, who have challenged the very foundations of intellectual history. (back to note 2 in lecture)
  3. I have dealt with aspects of my interpretation of the Kuzari in two previous studies: "Judah Halevi's Kuzari: Between the God of Abraham and the God of Aristotle," in: R. Munk and F.J. Hoogewould eds., Joodse filosofie tussen rede en traditie (Kok-Kampen, 1993): 24-34; "Judah Halevi and the Problem of Philosophical Ethics [Heb.]," in: A. Sagi and D. Statman eds., Between Religion and Ethics (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1993): 171-183. (back to note 3 in lecture)