The bold, pithy title of Yael Almog’s monograph cuts to the chase, addressing from the start the core themes of her highly nuanced critical conceptual history. Almog narrates how a set of German intellectuals writing between 1750 and 1850 aimed to use the fundamental operations of the humanities, reading and interpretation, to cultivate an egalitarian, universal community, a collective “we” of readers constituting autonomous, politically active, global citizens of all faiths. Such a community, however, was hardly inclusive despite its pretenses to be such. Rather, these democratic norms of reading were founded upon the erasure of Jewish difference. While presenting themselves as universal, they were, rather, culturally and historically particular, inherently linked to Protestantism and its notion of sola scriptura. Amidst debates surrounding the political emancipation of the Jews and their integration into European society, norms of interpretation of cultural artifacts excluded certain religious minorities, here the Jews, from inhabiting the “we” of secular readers.
Almog’s insights reach beyond German Judeo-Christian hermeneutics, and are generative for approaching, more broadly, tensions between, on the one hand, religious minorities and fundamentalism, and, on the other, Western Enlightenment values, such as democratic secularism. Her critique of political secularism builds upon the work of Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, but especially that of anthropologist Saba Mahmood. For Mahmood, a key point of divergence between traditionalist Islamic believers and Western values is their differing approaches in reading the Koran. The former regard it not as a historical document, but rather divine, in contradiction to state institutions and the media’s expectation of how an individual citizen should practice interpretation. Almog innovatively employs Mahmood’s insights regarding the process of reading the Koran as constituting an individual to argue for the formative influence of the Old Testament in the emergence of hermeneutics in the West.
Protestant intellectuals, in particular J. G. Herder, Almog expounds, prescribed norms of interpretation of the Old Testament to train emerging political subjects. Herder’s readings of Oxford professor Robert Lowth’s lectures on Hebrew poetry catalyzed the process whereby his contemporaries came to approach the Hebrew Bible as a historical, literary artifact with human authors rather than an object of divine revelation. Such a critical form of reading served as a universal model for developing skills to interpret cultural artifacts. Once readers mastered the “peculiar and interior elegances of the [ancient] Hebrew poetry,”1 Lowth wrote, they would be able to situate themselves in place of the poets and their original audiences, developing an affectively charged, empathetic relationship with the author, while observing it as historical.
Almog’s German Protestant protagonists, including the erstwhile “father of hermeneutics” Friedrich Schleiermacher, aimed to restore the Hebrew Bible’s status as a literary artifact, wresting it away from what was described as the Jewish corruption of its text related to the Jews’ “corporeal or spiritual decay” (85–86). Jewish readers’ materially bound, ritualized, and preservationist reception of the Hebrew Bible inhibited a higher-level understanding, and was limited to indecipherable obscurity, to nonmeaning, German writers claimed. At the same time, the Hebrew Bible’s new status as literature suggested an affiliation with an as-yet-unrealized, unified German nation, which, these intellectuals theorized, may form by training modern readers’ interpretive skills of the document along with their affective relation to it.
Almog brings to light a key moment in the history of humanities elided in important post-critical theories (and histories) of reading such as those of Elaine Auyoung, Rita Felsky, Hans Ulrich-Gumbrecht, and Deirdre Lynch. Each either call for or analyze affective modes of reading, focusing on mood, presence, love, and empathy in relation to literature. However, they detach them from their theological underpinnings, brought to fore by Almog. What Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the critical obligation to expose hidden, counterintuitive truths in literature, which Felsky identifies as the dominant attitude of contemporary academic approaches to literature, may, together with these affective modes from which it appears far afield, be traced back to efforts to restore the Old Testament from Hebraic obscurity.
The exclusionary nature of Protestant efforts to prescribe norms of literary interpretation, as identified by Almog, is loudly absent in German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s influential “genealogy of hermeneutics” in Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Akin to Almog’s project, Kittler seeks to “tear the veil away from hermeneutics and dispels its aura, its shimmering suggestion of sacral authority” and its “universality claim,” aiming to expose its particularity.2 Kittler’s critique of “hermeneutic humanism,”3 leaves unmentioned the constitutive role played by the marginalization of Jewish difference in both Enlightenment claims of universality, as well as in the emergence of literary hermeneutics. Per Kittler, hermeneutic understanding around 1800 is based rather on particular discursive and technical practices such as the disciplining of reading bodies, the expansion of book production, and the modern university. Yet what ultimately defines each medium, including literature, is the difference between meaning and nonmeaning, or information and noise.4 The stakes behind Almog’s work become especially salient through juxtaposition with Kittler’s post-hermeneutics. From this perspective, the monograph suggests that current academic approaches to reading are constituted not only through a distinction from nonmeaning or noise as per Kittler, but from rendering as nonmeaning the interpretive practices of particular religious and political communities.
In her commentary, Ilit Ferber points out that the Enlightenment’s concept of community was a broad one, not limited to politics or religion, as her reading of Herder’s late works on the Bible makes apparent. What about the other religious minority in Germany, the Catholics, and the lay readers’ approach to the Bible majority who comprised the majority of the German population, inquires Jonathan Fine, addressing lesser-known, yet key facets of the German Enlightenment. All interpretation, whether universal or parochial, necessitates position-taking, John T. Hamilton shows through a close analysis of Paul Celan’s poetry, briefly addressed in Almog’s “Coda.” Chad Wellmon argues that contingent practices, not norms, as Almog claims, shaped the practices of reading nineteenth-century literary education. The commentaries, each tremendously erudite and pointed, will provide diverse points of departure for a productive discussion of interest to scholars throughout the humanities.
Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, trans. G. Gregory (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1829), 48; cited Almog, 57.↩
David Wellbery, foreword to Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), ix–x.↩
Wellbery, foreword to Discourse Networks 1800/1900, x.↩
Wellbery, foreword to Discourse Networks 1800/1900, xv.↩