Symposium Introduction

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 The former regard it not as a historical document, but rather divine, in contradiction to state institutions and the media’s expectation of how an individual citizen should practice interpretation.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.

  1. Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, trans. G. Gregory (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1829), 48; cited Almog, 57.

  2. David Wellbery, foreword to Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), ix–x.

  3. Wellbery, foreword to Discourse Networks 1800/1900, x.

  4. Wellbery, foreword to Discourse Networks 1800/1900, xv.


Reading, Community, Feeling

“Is intellectual community possible?” This simple, yet suggestive question appears in the Syndicate’s landing-page. It is meant to evoke a question that is almost unasked and whose answer is always assumed, a question that deserves to be asked and re-asked forcefully.

It is also, in many ways, the question that stands at the center of Yael Almog’s intriguing recently published book Secularism and Hermeneutics. Since I would like to write a response to the book rather than to review it, I will not attempt to describe its thought-provoking argument as a whole, but rather indicate some central points that I find most important and interesting for the context of my following discussion.

Almog’s book is a book about reading: practices thereof, interpretations and a community of readers. It takes its departure point at the middle of the eighteenth century where, following Jonathan Sheehan,1 she demonstrates the important change that has taken place in the relationship to the Hebrew Bible: from a religious artifact, it has turned to a political, psychological and literary object, that is open—so to speak—to everyone. The book continues from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, where the tradition of literary theory and hermeneutics further developed, connecting the holy scriptures to the world of literature and interpretation, broadly understood.

There are a lot of threads one can pick up from Almog’s rich discussion, however, I would like to concentrate on one: the idea of a community. Within the hundred years with which the book is concerned (1750–1850), the concept of a community was no longer merely political or religious. It began to spill over into domains of culture, language and aesthetics. It is this extensive sense of community that bridges between the eighteenth-century religious practices (in the first part of the book) and nineteenth-century aesthetics and literary theories (in its second part). This move has to do in Almog’s discussion with the transformation of the idea and implications of practices of reading and textual exegesis, but more concretely, the reading of the Hebrew Bible and the fascinating transformations that occurred around the turn of the century from religious pietism to literary theory, from the holy book to what Herder would like to think of as any “human book.”

In his Oldest Document of Humankind, Herder argues for the necessity to distance the Bible as text from its simplistic understanding as the documentation of God’s literal words, a view that Herder thinks of as “nonsense.” Instead, he makes the far-reaching, bold suggestion to read the Bible “in a human manner” and as a “human book” (31). Herder’s statement had wide implications insofar as the contemporaneous potential reader is concerned: he or she no longer had to be Jewish, religious, or even have prior knowledge or background (although there are some very interesting discussions of the practice of learning Hebrew in Almog’s book, for example, in Goethe’s attempts and disappointments). The biblical stories speak to everyone and can be read by everyone.

One of the book’s most interesting points is that it is not that the Bible as a holy text simply disappeared in favor of literary texts, but rather, that there is something in the very practice of reading itself, that was formed by way of bringing together the Bible and literary works, in a structure that can be described as that of a constant echoing. To take one example, the principle of empathy (Einfühlung, or feeling-into) that Hamann develops and describes as “the necessity to immerse ourselves as readers in the feeling[s] of the author whom we have before us, in order to come as close as possible to his state of mind” (30). This principle, which Herder later famously elaborated on, was transposed from the moral context (in which we usually think about it) into the world of readership, where an empathic relationship or affective affinity is construed between reader and author, or reader and protagonist (29–30, 35). This is a principle that came across in important ways into literary theory in the following century.

With her interpretations of thinkers such as Hamann, Herder, Mendelssohn, Kant, Michaelis, and others, Almog demonstrates the ways in which this wide potential of readership goes along with another of the book’s leitmotivs: the forming of a hermeneutic community, an imagined collective, a “we,” of interpreters and interpretations. The book asks how this transformation of readership of the Bible can, and indeed has, constituted some of the most important streams of literary theory in the nineteenth century. It is here that the two communities come together: the community of Bible readers and that of readers as a whole.

I would like to say a bit more about this idea of a community, as it converges with my own interest in Herder.

The idea of a community was highly important for Herder not only in his works on the Bible or German literature, but also in his texts about history, cultural identity and political communities (a corpus that later became the basis for nationalistic ideas, some of which went very far from Herder’s original intentions). In his Ideas for a Philosophy of History, to take one of many examples, Herder defends the principle of diversity and demonstrates that it does not contradict the essential striving towards unity and harmony. On the one hand, he writes, every man is “in spite of his external resemblance to other men, in the last analysis . . . a cosmos in himself, a wholly incomparable being.” On the other hand, the human mind continues to seek unity in diversity and therefore, “in spite of the vast realm of change and diversity, all mankind is one and the same species upon earth.”2

But most importantly, Herder advocates the idea that a community based on the ideal of unity, is not to be confused with a “flat,” Enlightenment-like universalism in which all differences disappear in favor of a unified type of individual.3 In fact, as many of his interpreters have shown, Herder makes a point of defending differences and diversity, arguing that only in this way can a true unity be put forth. Ernst Cassirer describes this beautifully when he writes that Herder is not merely striving towards a general outline of historical development, but rather, sees the individual forms as they are and has thus “definitely broke[n] the spell of analytical thinking and the principle of identity. History dispels the illusion of identity; it knows nothing really identical, nothing that ever recurs in the same form.”4

Herder understood, of course, that there is an inherent problem in demanding on the one hand a defense of diversity, and on the other hand, seeking a unified understanding of humanity. His solution for this conundrum was feeling, and more specifically, developing our ability to feel for other cultures, even if not fully known to us. This is similar to what Almog describes in her book in the context of reading and hermeneutics, where feeling becomes one of the highest ideals, thus constituting a community of readers with diverse religious beliefs and cultures. As Almog shows, Herder advocates the maxim of empathy, or “Fühle dich in alles hinein!” (Feel yourself into everything!), when he develops a principle for the interpretation of foreign cultures. Almog adds: “Literary texts address the sensibilities, tastes, and preferences of a certain historical group of people. Focused on standardizing the readership of the Scriptures, Herder develops a new notion of civilization that can meet the challenges put to a universal vision of scriptural interpretation” (35).

In my own work on Herder, I have discussed feeling and empathy at length, especially in the context of Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772). The Treatise begins with Herder’s description of what he calls “language of sensations,” a primordial language that is made up of immediate sonic expressions of pain and strong emotions. This language creates a community that is inaugurated on the basis of sympathetic, echoing sounds (his main metaphor is that of a musical string). The “finest instrument strings of animal feeling,” in Herder’s words, originate not in volition, deliberation, or any type of consciousness but are nevertheless directed toward the induction of strong natural sympathy.5 This pain-based sympathy does not result from designative, propositional, and communicative language; it stems, rather, from the bare sounding and resounding of pain itself. These sounds, together with the intimate connections they arouse among their bearers, form the groundworks for a community founded on sympathy.6

A few pages later, Herder introduces “human language,” a developed, sign-based system of communication. It is here that the bond of sympathy begins to break. Sympathy is traded for communication, a form of communication very different from that conducted in natural language. In the pure linguistic sense (which governs the remainder of the treatise), human language is a stronger and more advanced form of communication, based on concepts, abstractions, and the ability to think systematically; however, in all other respects, it appears to be weaker. The prefix com- of communication marks something quite different from the com- of comm-unity, and com-passion. Herder’s presentation thus abides by a fundamental premise of the Enlightenment—namely, that the advantages of rationality and logos exact a price.7

Herder discusses the relationship between the two languages on various levels, however. In order to take this back to Almog’s book, it would be interesting to use the term “community” as key here. In the Treatise, as I’ve shown, there is a movement from a primordial language of sensations, expressed and received within a natural community based on feeling, to a reflective, sign-based human language which emerges along with the inherent distance it demands: from the world it describes as well as from other human beings. Following up on Almog, we could argue that in Herder’s later texts on the Bible and its poetics (especially Oldest Document of Humankind and On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry), practices of biblical readings allow for a far-reaching perspective on reading and hermeneutics as a whole. There we find what I take to be a re-emergence of the idea of a community. This time, it is not natural and somatic as it is in the Treatise, but rather, a community of readers and authors, of interpretations and idea. From a community of speakers we move towards a community of readers.

To end, I come back to the Syndicate’s provoking question, “Is intellectual community possible?” “We think so.”

  1. Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton University Press, 2005).

  2. Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideas for a Philosophy of History, book 7, in J. G. Herder on Social and Political Culture, trans. and ed. F. M. Barnard (Cambridge University Press, 1969), 282–83.

  3. See also Johann Gottfried Herder, letter 121 of “Letters on the Advancement of Humanity,” in Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Michael N. Forster (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  4. Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton University Press, 1951), 231.

  5. Johann Gottfried Herder, “Treatise on the Origin of Language,” in Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Michael N. Forster (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 65–66.

  6. Ilit Ferber, Language Pangs: On Pain and the Origin of Language (Oxford University Press, 2019), 45.

  7. Ferber, Language Pangs, 47.

  • Yael Almog


    Response to Ilit Ferber

    In Secularism and Hermeneutics, I argue that conceiving readers as a cohesive community helped thinkers conceptualize biblical readers as members of an equally cohesive group. In placing Johann Gottfried Herder in the heart of this transformation, I take readership to animate a universalistic theological project. Here I would like to address the question that Ilit Ferber has posed: What is the relationship of Herder’s notion of a universal community of hermeneuts, a notion that my book takes on to excavate, to his overall understanding of communities?

    A philosopher interested in Herder, Ferber situates his hermeneutics in his overall reflections on humanity. In doing so, she helpfully cites different moments in Herder’s oeuvre that explicate his thinking on communities. She thus provides a reading of his 1773 Treatise on the Origin of Language, a text that portrays in her mind two forms of group belonging. First, the Treatise describes a primitive attachment of members of a species to each other, a bond that builds on an alert to a basic array of sounds that they share. A cry of pain is Herder’s dominant example for this affective connection. According to Ferber’s reading, this description construes a community that is based on an empathetic relationship between its members.

    Ferber points out that the Treatise’s exceptional position on humanity lies in a second, diverging description of group belonging. Through descriptions of modern uses of language, the Treatise portrays contemporary civilization as degenerating. Language no longer presents basic human feelings and needs, but rather obscures them. The social conventions reside in refined European societies weaken, according to Herder, the basic sensory capacities of human beings (this account carries out Herder’s critique of enlightenment ideology with its seminal notion of Bildung). This use of language contrasts, therefore, the basic making of sounds that attaches members of the same species. Ferber builds on this contrast in her original suggestion that these two approaches to sound modulate two diverging forms of community.

    I will try to pursue this provocative thread. In my view, the hermeneutic community is surprisingly closer to the first, somatic form of collectivity than to the second portrayal of the “enlightened” society, a group of individuals that seems much more skilled in critical literacy.

    In brief, Herder believes that certain peoples register the rudimentary use of language: a direct expression of one’s emotions and perception of reality through the senses. In the Treatise, this unmediated expression is ascribed to non-Western peoples—to which Westerners may be exposed in their travels and anthropological or missionary endeavors. Additionally, Herder refers to ancient peoples, whose rudimentary use of language is well documented, in his view, in textual forms. Herder approaches the Old Testament as such a document. It is a testimony for the ancient Hebrews’ vitality that is captured in Biblical Hebrew. This language features, in Herder’s mind, unique motion and action, due to the dominance of verbs (for instance, verbs are used in the language to construct nouns).

    Take, for instance, Herder’s approach to the Song of Songs. Herder translated the text, including it in his collection of love songs. Herder praises the Song as a unique instance of a work of art that activates several senses simultaneously. A certain aspect in Herder’s approach to the Song colors his overall thinking on poetics. Herder praises poetry that is meant for oral transmission. He views the Song as a supreme aesthetic artefact because he understands it to be a text that was meant to deliver orally. In Herder’s mind, oral delivery makes for the most supreme poetic creations.

    Thus, in his 1774 theological writings on the Old Testament, Herder praises the Hebrew poets’ ability to engage the listeners’ senses. The Hebrew people to which their texts were intended held, in his mind, enhanced sensibilities: they were able to discern sound particularities that Westerners’ modern ears can no longer grasp. It follows that Hebrew poetry is a supreme aesthetic artefact for several reasons. First, it registers civilization’s early stages, where human senses were sharp and human language, rudimentary. Second, the Old Testament is exemplary of how cultural artefacts correspond with their audience’s Volksgeist. Herder suggests ranking aesthetic creations according to their effective addressing of the audience to which they were meant (this notion cancelled out the hierarchy between the cultural artefacts of distinct epochs). The Hebrew Bible represents such success.

    This latter principle guides not only Herder’s aesthetics, but also his hermeneutics. Approaching texts with sympathy to their authors is essential, because sympathy facilitates the investigation of the culture that led to their composition. Putting oneself in the shoes of the authors brings about the understanding of the social and cultural conventions and even physical sensibilities. Biblical reading is exemplary for this effort. With this task in mind, Herder offers a model that appears to trace historical, objective truths about an original text. The suggestion to unearth the context in which a text is written has become a formative model of interpretation.

    Reading the Bible as a “human book” necessitates, therefore, a holistic understanding of what it means to be human. This hermeneutic effort triggers a reflection on the triad connection between bodily mechanisms, their echo in emotions, and verbal expression. In a sense, reading the Hebrew Bible while attending to the special sensibilities of the people for which it was written entails taking part in a somatic community of the past, before the decay of human sensibilities in Western societies. This effort defines, in my view, the hermeneutic community.

    Even if not exactly an “intellectual community” in the contemporary sense, it is a community whose members foster a strong connection to each other, amidst their search for their innermost common qualities.


High-Stakes Hermeneutics

Cognitive dissonance can be immensely productive. As Yael Almog observes in her trenchant monograph Secularism and Hermeneutics, Enlightenment scholars interested in deeper explorations of the Hebrew Bible were faced with a quandary. On the one hand, they identified in the Torah’s ancient Hebrew poetry a potential “asset with all-human pertinence” (12). On the other hand, the poetry was written in the liturgical language of the autochthonous other, the Jews, a minority that at that time had few inalienable rights, let alone political privileges in any of the many German-speaking territories.

German scholars in particular had long navigated this tension. Almog cites Heinrich Heine’s On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, in which Heine describes the indelible image of German scholars “secretly climbing down into these disreputable hiding-places in order to unearth the treasure,” that is, the Hebrew language (128). Such solicitude for linguistic nuance naturally did not preclude the upstanding Christians who had been slinking around in the Semitic penumbra from subsequently arguing for the inherent moral debasement of their erstwhile tutors and the exigency of their elimination. However, over the course of a few short years in the late eighteenth century, several German men of letters found a way to square this hermeneutic circle of universality and ethnic particularism. The twinned questions of both how and why this happened at this particular point in time are central to Almog’s inquiry.

She situates the quest that eventually resulted in the universalization of the Pentateuch as a derivation of the Enlightenment attempt to understand how texts are produced by unique cultures. The Pentateuch was thereby conscripted into a far larger project to create a world literature. Within this project, holy scripture was to serve as a primordial text, and developing an understanding of the Old Testament’s Hebrew language became the paradigmatic hermeneutic task. Through careful readings of texts by the polymath Johann Georg Hamann, the iconoclastic theologian Johann Gottfried Herder, and the philologist Johann David Michaelis, among several others, Almog illuminates a hermeneutic struggle on the part of those who sought to engage with the Hebrew text. This tussle eventually resulted in the sublation of a de-Semitized and consequently universalized Hebrew Bible. It is the breadth of this universalism that I would like to explore in my remarks.


As the catalogs that listed the books to be sold at the Easter and Michaelmas conventions in Leipzig and Frankfurt attest, the preponderance of reading materials available to participants in the late Enlightenment’s reading revolution remained theological in nature. One certainly finds in the pages of these indices many of the authors that Almog focuses on in her study. They include, for example, many of the linguistic works by Michaelis, poetry by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and the pivotal biblical translation by the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the subject of Almog’s third chapter.

Most of the theological texts, however, are by names that have not withstood the test of time. One accordingly finds not only Mendelssohn’s translation of the five books of Moses but also translations by Johann Heinrich Daniel Moldenhawer, a pastor at the cathedral in Hamburg, and his son, the librarian Daniel Gotthilf Moldenhawer. Herder’s translation of the Song of Songs was not advertised, but a translation by the orientalist Wilhelm Friedrich Hezel was. Among the translators of the Book of Job is the forgotten figure Heinrich Sander. Many of the theological works are explicitly addressed to laypeople; this fact was usually included in the books’ titles lest a potential reader get the impression that the books might be too advanced.

When one considers this larger corpus of theological texts and especially those that were designed for use by less educated readers, the conceptualization of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language is considerably more ambivalent. The Tanakh can undoubtedly not be ignored; after all, Jesus himself refers to it, and it can be read to presage his arrival and redemption of humanity if one is so inclined. Moreover, it includes the story of the creation of the world, which provides the necessary theological grounding for the doctrine of original sin. Yet the implication from some of the translators and commentators, even those who are more interested in providing a textual apparatus that engages with the original Hebrew such as the elder Moldenhawer, is that the Pentateuch is primarily of interest as an illustration of the burden from which Christians have been thankfully freed.

There was another substantial thread of popular theological discourse that presented a considerably less exalted view of the Old Testament. As can be seen, for example, in “On the Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea,” the third of the Anonymous Fragments by Hermann Samuel Reimarus that were later published by the playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, biblical poetry can also be experienced as something much less profound. Indeed, Reimarus presents the entire episode from Exodus as utterly ridiculous and entirely absurd. Cheap, bootleg copies of this text circulated widely in the final decades of the eighteenth century.

Almog notes in her chapter on Mendelssohn that theorists of secularism understand the existence of the modern state as relying upon the “allocation of religious practice . . . to the private sphere” (104). This split is enabled by an understanding of exegesis informed by the modern interpretive practices codified by intellectuals such as Herder and Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. Almog convincingly argues that readers of the translations of biblical texts by Herder and Michaelis were provided with a very lofty view of a Hebrew Bible that was dynamic enough to ground much of subsequent culture. But is that the view that the majority of people imbibed? In this pedagogical century, what were the majority of people actually learning about their sacred texts?


There is one word that is curiously missing from Almog’s discussion of the intellectual ferment that resulted in the abstraction of the Hebrew Bible from its Hebraic roots and subsequent elevation of the purified essence into a universal aesthetic object. In the book’s first few chapters, Almog speaks quite broadly of an undifferentiated German Enlightenment. Only in the fifth and final chapter, which interprets Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s novella The Jews’ Beech as a parable of modern hermeneutics, does Almog allude to a crucial absence. She writes, “The theological turn of the late eighteenth century originated in certain prevalent Protestant reading techniques, which presented the Bible anew as a global cultural asset” (144). The explicitly Protestant character of these reading practices cannot be denied. However, in acknowledging this crucial fact, Almog simultaneously calls attention to what has been excluded, namely Catholics.

This absence might be expected in light of the fact that many of the pivotal figures in Almog’s study who were responsible for the abstraction and elevation of the Hebrew Bible—figures such as Klopstock, Herder, and Schleiermacher—were Protestant, and in the case of the last two at least, Lutheran preachers. Moreover, no matter how trite it sounds, intellectual history, just like every other form of history, is mainly told from the victor’s perspective. In the German context, Protestant men of letters have spent centuries loudly proclaiming themselves the victors over their superstitious and backward Catholic brethren, and scholarship has all too rarely challenged their diktat.

That an acknowledgment of the explicitly Protestant nature of the reading practices under consideration in Almog’s monograph should come in the chapter on Droste-Hülshoff is perhaps not surprising. Although many of her interlocutors were Lutheran, Droste-Hülshoff was herself Catholic, and her engagement with the Catholic Enlightenment can be seen in her poetry. Whether introducing this confessional element might complicate the fascinating reading of The Jews’ Beech presented by Almog is beyond the scope of my response here. Instead, I would like to explore the absence of Catholic Germans (with the exception of Droste-Hülshoff) from Almog’s analysis of modern hermeneutics. Catholics were certainly aware of intellectual developments in that portion of the Republic of Letters located to their north and east. It would, of course, be completely in keeping with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestant Germans’ customary prejudices for them to define modern hermeneutics and consequently modern subjectivity and the modern state in such a way as to exclude those who suffered under the papist yoke. It nevertheless strikes me as highly likely that there are additional factors at play here. It might be in this regard that the political situation of Jews in the two major Christian confessions becomes relevant. It was Catholic Austria, after all, that was the first major German state to grant Jews rights. Christian Wilhelm von Dohm’s argument for Jewish emancipation, which Almog briefly addresses, was received quite hostilely in Protestant Prussia.


As Almog notes in the book’s introduction, the theorists who conceived of this path to secularization paved with biblical hermeneutics “were primarily invested in readings of the Old Testament that amalgamated biblical interpretation with general theories of textual comprehension” (3). In doing so, they “conceptualized a structural similarity between the hermeneutic community and the political community of the emerging modern political collective” (2). The book redounds with language that quite accurately depicts the politically ambitious nature of the development of modern hermeneutics. Almog writes, for instance, of how master hermeneuts would be able to address “all Enlightenment readers—every citizen of this new collective” (45) This is based on a presumption that “every reader in the Enlightenment’s emerging reading culture” could “recognize biblical forms and motifs.” The state could then address this “public of biblical readers” (67). Indeed, the “public of biblical readers” and the modern state are co-extensive. Granted, Almog does acknowledge that not everyone was sold on this universalism. Mendelssohn, for example, was skeptical of the universality of the interpretive community (84). Nevertheless, he ultimately decided to shape the Enlightenment trend toward universalism rather than contradict it entirely.

But how many people actually met the criteria to be members of this community? If Catholic reading practices are by definition inimical to modern hermeneutics as it has been defined by Protestants on behalf of the German state, then a large proportion of German speakers is inherently ineligible to participate. Members of the elite were presumably able to contend with the ideas advanced by writers such as Herder and Schleiermacher, but what about the moderately educated majority who preferred their theology to be a bit diluted? When political subjectivity is defined based on interpretive ability, perhaps what we have is a state of elite intellectuals, for elite intellectuals, and by elite intellectuals. A state perchance, but a lonely one indeed.

  • Yael Almog


    Response to Jonathan Fine

    Jonathan Fine raises some great points regarding my line of thinking about scriptural interpretation and the universalization of the Hebrew Bible in the late Enlightenment. I will address here three of his insightful reflections on the monograph’s choices and on the intellectual confines that derive from them.

    First, Fine eruditely presents a few references to the Hebrew Bible, and particularly the Pentateuch, which are not examined in my monograph. He mentions references to the Hebrew Bible that maintain that it is a text inferior to the Christian teachings (Moldenhawer). He also brings references to presentations of the Hebrew Bible which hold it to be “something much less profound” (Reimarus) that appear at odds with Hamann or Herder’s respective ways of idealizing Hebrew poetry, which are described in chapters 1 and 2 of Secularism and Hermeneutics.

    Let us not conflate universalization with idealization. My argument concerning the transformation of the Hebrew Bible’s status centers on the former and not the latter. In my mind, universalization means that different readers could approach the Scriptures by projecting on them their own agenda. In the late eighteenth century, I trace the rise of a personalized approach to Scriptures. And in the case of the Hebrew Bible, this approach is reflected, in my view, in a variety of uses that cancel out the materiality of the Old Testament as an object of worship and of the knowledge of the Hebrew language. My focus on Herder is not due to his idealizing approach, but to what I see as his seminal contribution to literary hermeneutics—a point that will be elaborated on henceforth. Therefore, the historical cases that Fine brings actually serve my own argument. And while Fine’s examples complement my examination of the proliferation of approaches to the Bible, they also coincide with my own examination of Salomon Gessner’s attempt to disseminate biblical narratives through popular literature, an attempt that I take to address the majority of people.

    Second, Fine rightly points out that Catholicism is largely missing from my examination of late Enlightenment theology in Germany. Indeed, my monograph’s scope is the dynamics among Protestant thinkers and between Protestant and Jewish interlocutors, and my focus is Prussia and not Austria. It is thus not a coincidence, as he points out, that a main literary agon that I show to have challenged modern hermeneutics is Catholic author Droste- Hülshoff. Frankly, because I shy away from the biographic reading of literature, I only considered in brief her confessional poetry that manifests her Catholic faith. One could certainly associate, I think, the challenges to literary hermeneutics that I ascribe to her work with Jewish alerts to the materiality of the Bible, its decaying juridical stature, and ceremonial status as an object of worship.

    What I find significant in late Enlightenment Protestant theology is not the actual advancement of the rights of religious minorities, but its depictions of humanity and human traits (to be found in Herder, Lessing, Kant, Dohm, and others). My protagonists are not political leaders, nor, as I write, republicans who celebrated a united nation. However, I do find that their theological and intellectual visions built on and propagated political shifts toward a political imaginary that endowed citizens with all-human traits.

    In the last part of his commentary, Fine returns to the opposition of elite-majority cultures, this time with regard to the political story that I attempt to tell. Fine’s comments make me realize that Secularism and Hermeneutics revolves around a certain tension. On the one hand, the monograph attempts to depict cultural trends of global importance—both political and intellectual. On the other hand, as stated above, the book’s emphases are quite limited in pertaining to a rather small group in a specific time and place. I believe that this disparity is grounded in my topic of interest: the emergence of literary hermeneutics. Ways of reading, norms of interpretation have, I hold, universal pretentions: they present themselves as relevant to all texts and all readers. I chose to begin my inquiry with early German Idealism, because I take the inquiries of the human to parallel literary hermeneutics’ universal pretensions. At the same time, I contend that the intellectual movement that forged those pretensions emerged under specific (political) circumstances. Arguably, the propagators of literary hermeneutics—my protagonists—belonged to an intellectual elite that formulated a global vision of humankind.

    Our own period reminds us of the gap between the intellectual elite, a circle that modulates such fields as literary studies, and the majority of the people. Some plausible explanations for the election of Donald Trump and for the rise of the far right in European democracies relate to this gap between intellectuals and the majority of the population, in a society that undergoes radical political transformation. And while this gap is palpable and intense, it does not efface, I think, the universal pretensions that intellectual endeavors continue to foster.


The Point of Interpretation

Every act of interpretation implies taking a position, qualified as a point in time at which multiple vectors of possible meaning come to be actualized. To interpret is to punctuate—to impose a full stop, to bring to a halt any number of other possible significations, denotations, or connotations—however provisionally. This point of interpretation, like any point of view, entails a process of selection which validates certain meanings at the expense of others. It is thereby driven by a host of criteria, explicit or implicit, criteria that permit certain lines of significance to be engaged while omitting or dismissing others. Punkt.

Yael Almog’s nuanced study, Secularism and Hermeneutics, articulates two major historical paradigms that have been employed in ascertaining the meaning of biblical texts. These paradigms may justly be identified as oppositional: on the one hand, as belonging to the private sphere of religious belief and confessional identity; on the other hand, as belonging to the public sphere of civic or political life. The parochialism of the former contrasts with the universalist aspirations of the latter. As she astutely demonstrates, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, “the Enlightenment Bible took on the status of a cultural artifact that transcends confessional specificity” (3). The burgeoning theories of hermeneutics in this epoch correlate to general trends of secularization, which further adumbrate the position of the individual interpreter as an autonomous, morally responsible citizen.

The assumption of an explicit position—in German, a Stellungnahme—not only characterizes every act of interpretation but also every time a word is employed. For words, too, constitute moments of hesitation, a clear determination which is the result of provisionally crystalized movements. These movements come from afar and continue beyond the term at the moment it is spoken or inscribed, and thereby comprise a kinetic energy that traverses, infuses, and disturbs the present definition, opening each word up to multiple vectors of signification. Insofar as historical scholarship depends on a sound handling of its primary concepts, some punctuating halt is required in order to communicate a thesis clearly and convincingly. Nonetheless, each concept, precisely because it is a word, ought to be regarded as a terminus at which other definitional meanings must be somehow deactivated.

Tellingly, the “coda” to Secularism and Hermeneutics rehearses the decisive stoppage that constitutes the fulcrum of Almog’s primary argument—namely, how “Enlightenment thinkers interfered with [traditional, Jewish] rituals of reading” (149). The achievement of literacy was now geared more towards the cultivation of intellectual autonomy. “As Enlightenment philosophy drew from scriptural interpretation, it also annulled the doctrinal separatism of some key theological ideals, narratives, and practices. . . . this process of universalization called upon another preoccupation of Enlightenment philosophy: the art of interpretation” (150). With a passing reference to Jürgen Habermas’s Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962), Almog reiterates how freshly developed hermeneutic approaches contributed to a political vision very much linked to the idea of the modern nation populated by free individuals who may demonstrate “autonomous judgment, interpersonal empathy, and the self-cultivation of intellectualism” (150)—all of which would confirm a person’s capacity to participate in the polis.

Here, one might recall the crucial distinction that Aristotle invokes at the head of his Politics, that the polis, precisely as a partnership among free individuals, should not be confused with a “household” (oikos), which includes members who are unfree. In an Aristotelian key, exactly as Almog meticulously demonstrates, the autonomous hermeneut is the person who is liberated from the familial sphere of the private oikos. Hence, Almog formulates the important corollary: “the transformation of interpreters into a universal group worked to erase the distinctiveness of religious textual cultures” (150).

Certainly, the clear distinction between private and public spheres that Almog portrays is complicated by the historical actors she investigates. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, confirms the capacity of the Jewish population to be political agents while disparaging their tradition of biblical exegesis. And Moses Mendelssohn underscores the particularity of Jewish ritual while praising the Jewish contribution to humanity as a whole. These contradictions point to the continuation of the story she wants to tell, specifically, how “a universalist conception of the interpretive community has fueled not merely hermeneutics but also its critique” (151).

To illustrate, Almog closes with a consideration of Martin Heidegger’s reflections on language and Paul Celan’s poetic engagement with these reflections. As Almog stresses, Heidegger’s 1954 essay Was heißt Denken “advocates the reflective use of language as free and independent from preconceived intentions, ideas, or meanings enforced by the author” (151). Heidegger thereby challenges the basic premises of hermeneutics by putting the author’s intentions out of play, intentions that are based on an inadequate belief that language is merely referential. The presumption that an author employs words referentially from an autonomous position and that the interpreter may come to understand that position is challenged by insisting that language itself is autonomous and hence not simply referential. It is for this reason that one should listen to the words rather than suffer the delusion that one is in full referential control of the language one employs. As Heidegger claims, thinking (Denken) is linked to giving thanks (Danken).

Celan, in turn, appears to exhibit his indebtedness to Heidegger’s conclusions in the opening of his acceptance speech for the Bremen Literaturpreis in 1958: “Denken und Danken sind in unserer Sprache Worte ein und desselben Ursprungs. Wer ihrem Sinn folgt, begibt sich in den Bedeutungsbereich von: ‘gedenken,’ ‘eingedenk sein,’ ‘Andenken,’ ‘Andacht.’ Erlauben Sie mir, Ihnen von hier aus zu danken” (“Thinking and Thanking are, in our language, of one and the same origin. Whoever follows their meaning, places oneself in the semantic field of: ‘to remember,’ ‘to be mindful,’ ‘remembrance,’ ‘devotion.’ Allow me to thank you from this place.”)

That is not to say that Celan accepted Heidegger’s position uncritically. Rather, as James Lyon has compellingly shown, the poet’s engagement with the thinker would remain complex and highly fraught (see Lyon’s 2006 study, Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951–1970). Perhaps nothing illustrates this complexity better than Celan’s reception of Heidegger’s public debate with Martin Buber in early 1959 in which the two philosophers presented their views on poetic language. Whereas Buber defended his position that language is inherently dialogic and thus open to a hermeneutic encounter, Heidegger insisted on language’s monologic nature. Celan, who apparently followed the debate closely in the press, reportedly confided to Otto Pöggeler that he agreed wholeheartedly with Heidegger’s position, while also reprimanding Buber for his gesture of reconciliation with a figure who was once loyal to the Nazi regime. In Celan’s opinion, Heidegger would need to make a public apology for his involvement before any public reconciliation could be initiated. In keeping with Almog’s argument, the public or even political aspect of this demand should underscore Celan’s commitment to an individual’s autonomous judgment, even while upholding Heidegger’s position on the autonomy of language.

The dynamic, if not wholly contradictory nature of Celan’s position, comes to the fore in Almog’s brief discussion of Celan’s poem “Denk dir,” which she takes to be an intervention that evokes the semantic field or “realm of significance” (Bedeutungsbereich) of Denken and Danken, while also challenging Heidegger’s theoretical premises.

Celan’s “Denk dir” is dated June 7/8, 1967—that is, during the outbreak of Six-Day Arab-Israeli War—and was published first in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on June 24 and then in the poet’s 1968 collection, Fadensonnen.

Denk dir:                                                         Think of it:
der Moorsoldat von Massada                         the bog soldier of Massada
bringt sich Heimat bei, aufs                            teaches himself home, most
unauslöschlichste,                                           inextinguishably,
wider                                                               against
allen Dorn im Draht.                                       every barb in the wire.


Denk dir:                                                         Think of it:
die Augenlosen ohne Gestalt                          the eyeless with no shape
führen dich frei durchs Gewühl, du                lead you free through the tumult, you
erstarkst und                                                   grow stronger and
erstarkst.                                                         stronger.


Denk dir: deine                                               Think of it: your
eigene Hand                                                    own hand
hat dies wieder                                                has held
ins Leben empor-                                            this bit of
gelittene                                                          habitable
Stück bewohnbarer Erde                                earth, suffered up
gehalten.                                                         again

into life.


Denk dir:                                                         Think of it:
das kam auf mich zu,                                      this came towards me,
namenwach, handwach                                   name-awake, hand-awake
für immer,                                                       for ever,
vom Unbestattbaren her.                                 from the unburiable.

(trans. M. Hamburger)


It is in the course of her reading that Almog explicitly articulates the position-taking or Stellungnahme of interpreting: “[Celan’s] poems maintain a view of reading that recalls the reader’s position as an exception to human society and not as a member of a global community. Only from that position does meaning take shape” (153–54; my emphasis). Almog’s point is that, although the poem involves verbal and phonic effects which would signal that language here unfolds rather autonomously, the referential energy of the images should alert the reader of Celan’s personal identity as a Jewish survivor of the Second World War. In other words, it is Celan’s position-taking as a poet that “interferes with Heidegger’s notion of language as representing its own inspiration” (153).

As Lina Barouch writes, “Denk dir” serves as an exemplary text for disclosing the “autonomistic and referential ways of interpreting Celan’s writings” (“‘Denk dir’: On Translating Paul Celan into Hebrew,” Prooftexts 37:2 [2018] 275–305; here, 277; my emphasis). In this regard, as a poetic persona, Celan constitutes a point at which the independent, non-referential dynamism of the word encounters the signifying, referential weight of the poet’s biography.

The anaphoric imperative, “denk dir,” implicitly designates the subject’s position. The phrase clearly commands the recipient to “think of” something or “imagine” something. Yet, the verb denken further relates to the network of danken that Celan had spelled out in his acceptance speech at Bremen nearly a decade earlier. Likewise, Massada names a precise geographical reference—the high plateau of dolomite or magnesian limestone near the Dead Sea—while also conjuring a broad range of historical associations from the first-century Jewish revolt against the Romans and the mass suicide of the Sicarii, as reported by Flavius Josephus, to the martyrological narrative transmitted through twentieth-century commemorative culture. These significations are provocatively juxtaposed with the figure of the Moorsoldat, which Michael Hamburger translates as “bog soldier.” As commentators have pointed out, the term specifically refers to political prisoners in the Nazi camps built in the moorlands of Lower Saxony in 1933. Their plight is articulated in the resistance song titled the “Moorsoldaten Lied,” written by Johann Esser and Wolfgang Langhoff, and set to music by Rudi Goguel—a song subsequently adapted by Hanns Eisler and Ernst Busch, and then incorporated into Eisler’s film music for Alain Resnais’s 1956 documentary Nuit et brouillard (“Night and Fog”) for which Celan himself prepared the German translation of the voice-over narrative.

The multiple meanings and phonic resonances that inform the words in “Denk dir” approach the poetic persona—das kam auf mich zu—which further suggests that, after passing through this poetic gesture, they will continue to further, developing and accumulating significance beyond this poetic punctum. Für immer. Tellingly, an earlier manuscript of this poem employs the term Allverwandelnden (“All-transforming”), which was subsequently revised to Unbestattbaren (“Unburiable”). The former is taken from the opening scene of Friedrich Hölderlin’s drama Der Tod des Empedokles in which Panthea concludes her description of the hero by stating, “ein furchtbar allverwandelnd Wesen ist in ihm” (“a terribly all-transforming being is in him”). Celan employed the term in another poem, in the closing stanza to “Muschelhaufen” (“Shell Midden”), published posthumously in 1970 in the Lichtzwang collection:


Ungestillt,                                                       Unassuaged,

unverknüpft, kunstlos,                                    unlinked, artless,

stieg das Allverwandelnde langsam               the All-transforming rose slowly

schabend                                                         scraping

hinter mir her.                                                             after me.

(my translation)


The Muschelhaufen or “shell midden” refers to the sedimentary limestone (Kalkstein) formed by the calcified remains of marine organisms like mollusks. Limestone is generally striated, which gives the impression that it is easy to penetrate, when in fact it is not. The emphatically negative depiction of this all-transforming stone—unassuaged, unlinked, artless—lies buried in the unburiable that “Denk dir” evokes which seems especially apt for marking the interminable nature of every term, for it demonstrates how autonomous language passes away into referential points without remaining in any buried state, a phenomenon that, as expected, returns to the gratitude that is unburied in the imperative denk dir. In a letter from June 13, 1967, less than a week after Celan dated his poem, he confessed to his friend Franz Wurm the power of das Allverwandelnde: “dieses Wort aus dem Hölderlinischen Empedokles versetzte mich in jenen, Ihnen wohlbekannten, Zustand der sich straffer und straffer dem Gedicht—jedem möglichen Gedicht—entgegenspannenden Erwartung—und kam dann, aus Dankbarkeit, im Text wieder” (“this word from Hölderlin’s Empedokles placed me in that state, familiar to you, a state of tighter and tighter expectation—becoming taut against the poem—against any possible poem—and then, out of gratitude, came back in the text”).

  • Yael Almog


    Response to John T. Hamilton

    In his commentary, John T. Hamilton accentuates “position” as a notion that is seminal to literary interpretation. In so doing, Hamilton points out that a term that is theoretically underdeveloped in the monograph can be shown to carry a considerable weight for its arguments. Readers’ diverging positions, he points out, create the meaning of the aesthetic object under examination by amalgamating a set of possible linguistic meanings. Hamilton’s commentary brings me to reflect on “position” as an aspect of literary writing and interpretation that cancels out the consideration of language as either autonomous or dialogic. This venture point makes use of the plurality of collectives. It accentuates the ability of (reading) communities to be inclusive while upholding their separatism. Hamilton demonstrates that Celan’s poetry shows the concurrence of those features as a creative force. In the following, I will pursue this point further by examining its links to the main arguments of my book.

    As Hamilton demonstrates, Secularism and Hermeneutics develops two concurrent examinations. The monograph describes the detachment of textual interpretation from religious affiliation as a phenomenon that is constitutive of modernity. I argue that the late Enlightenment promoted a public sphere populated by autonomous individuals. Effacing the specificity of biblical reading, so goes my argument, was thus both instrumental and emblematic for the constitution of the nation state. Through a reference to Aristotle’s distinction of a “household” (oikos) from the “polis,” Hamilton points out that the autonomy ascribed to the modern hermeneut goes well beyond the late Enlightenment. The image of the modern hermeneut, which I trace as seminal to modern political imagination, presupposes a sphere where free members converse with each other, an image that is resonant with Aristotle’s constitutive notion of politics.

    However, as Hamilton points out, the monograph also develops a parallel thread. I bring dictums by my main protagonists that problematize the overall political changes that they propagated through modern hermeneutics: the imminent emergence of a state that grants its citizens equal political rights and that, correspondingly, opts to detach those rights from citizens’ religious affiliation. The inclusiveness of the modern hermeneutic community serves as a model for political inclusion, since it claims to efface distinctive interpretive communities. Yet religious communities uphold their separatism, which is ingrained in and further perpetuates their distinctive interpretive paradigms.

    References to Jews as unique (or faulty) readers of Scriptures are sustained throughout the shift toward a polis of interpreters. My book takes Jewish readers to encapsulate the problem of traditional religious readership, and I suggest that their position may elucidate the stances of other insular religious communities. I pursue this argument in analyses of literary works. My intention there is to unearth instances that alert to religious difference as having bearing on literary reading.

    The coda to the book pursues this argument in reference to Celan’s poetry. My reading of Celan is foregrounded by the reception of hermeneutics in the twentieth century. I argue that Martin Heidegger, Celan’s famous interlocutor, did not merely pose challenges to the hermeneutic tradition, but also recapitulated some of its central presuppositions. Heidegger contends that language is entangled in its own creative interplays—a tenet that canceled out authorial intentions as the object of interpretation. In portraying a collapse of this vision, so goes my argument, Heidegger upholds the idea that textual comprehension is exercised in a socially coherent community. Language collapses for us all and to a similar degree.

    Hamilton’s commentary invites me to expand my brief reflections on Celan. In the coda, I approach Celan as challenging Heidegger’s critique of hermeneutics while evading, at the same time, the positivist legacy of modern hermeneutics. In following Celan’s challenge to Heidegger, I do not take Celan to retrieve readers’ autonomous judgment in the sense that he reestablishes a firm moral agent. Celan does not rescue the efficacy of the hermeneutic project; but his poetics problematize the totality that Heidegger ascribes to the failure of this project. While echoing the view that language is entangled in its own potential intricacies, Celan’s poetry disrupts the binary opposition of comprehensibility and incomprehensibility. Accordingly, this poetic project questions the universal nature of the hermeneutic community that presided both in modern hermeneutics and in Heidegger’s critique thereof.

    As Hamilton notes, my reading of Celan builds on the biographic allusions that hover above his poetic speaker. Celan’s Jewishness and survival of the atrocities of the holocaust forestall his poems’ reception. Simultaneously, references to Jewish liturgy and to mysticism—at times through the employment of Hebrew words—alert to the ingraining of readership in religious difference. I think that Celan’s concurrent employment of these strata presents textual comprehension as a volatile effort that is modulated by variable and transient affiliations of readers.

    Consider, for instance, the famous “schwarze Milch” controversy. It has been suggested that the expression “black milk,” which recurs in Celan’s mesmerizing poem “Todesfuge,” is a poetic plagiarism with the allegation that the expression was first used by the Elsassian poet Yvan Goll. This accusation has been examined (and ultimately refuted) in light of the historical circumstances tied to the idiom. Thus, biographer John Felstiner wrote that “black milk” was used among camp inmates to name a liquid they were given. In Felstiner’s account, deeming the expression referential rather than metaphoric accentuates the surreal reality of war.1

    If we adhere to this explanation as an apologia, Celan is to be acquitted not because of the purity of his intentions (a legal deliberation that would consider the poet an autonomous creative force), nor due to a celebration of language’s free interplays (a position that would exempt the poet from responsibility by regarding language as an autonomous creative force). Rather, Celan’s poetic innocence would draw on his ostensible membership in a certain collective whose shared experiences make idioms comprehensible to its members (while barring their understanding beyond its boundaries). Celan’s biography reminds the readers commendably (if yet enigmatically) that a poetic function that exerts language’s openness may in fact encapsulate an entirely different vector: concrete historical circumstances that are present for some individuals, and that echo those individuals’ traumatic memories. As Hamilton succinctly writes, “As a poetic persona, Celan constitutes a point at which the independent, non-referential dynamism of the word encounters the signifying, referential weight of the poet’s biography.”

    In this paradigm, the belonging to a certain collective cannot be reconciled with—or emblematic of—membership in a universal collective. This is the feature of exceptionalism that I raise with regard to the interpretation of Celan. Affiliating oneself with camp inmates or with Jewish holocaust survivors accentuates the exceptionalism of the hermeneut to human society while ostensibly giving him or her tools to unearth the peculiarities of Celan’s language. It is perhaps in this sense that Celan’s poetry paradoxically draws near modern hermeneutics: the interpretive position of belonging to an excluded collective builds a bridge between the readers and the poetic speaker.

    1. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 33.


Learning to Read like a Modern

In the winter of 1875, as he considered quitting academia and leaving his position as professor of ancient Greek literature at the University of Basel, a position he had held for just over five years, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that the biggest problem with philology was that philologists become teachers. This was particularly true in Germany, where civil servants trained in the rigors of ancient Greek and Roman philology populated the teaching ranks of the Germany’s elite secondary schools, the Gymnasium. For Nietzsche, the privileged social position of philologists was difficult to justify, because philology as practiced in nineteenth-century Germany was based on “prejudices.” He listed several of them: its ignorance of other ancient civilizations other than Greece and Rome, its false idealization of “humanity,” and its mindless adoption of the ancient Romans’ admiration for the Greeks. Philology’s Greco-Roman prejudice denied Chinese, Egyptian, Hebrew, or Persian cultures equal status to that of ancient Greece and Rome and, thus, recognizing their textual traditions as worthy of philological care and concern.

For Nietzsche, however, the prejudices of philology were more fundamental, more insidious. In addition to their parochial presumptions about which cultures and traditions ought to be studied, nineteenth-century German philologists (and Germany’s Gebildeten more generally) took for granted the value of philology itself. Nietzsche thought that philology could be an antidote to all this abstract human talk, but simply expanding the canons and corpora of classical philology––making philology “global” as we might put today––would be insufficient. They harbored two basic prejudices in this regard. First, they presumed that philology cultivated the skills and knowledge that uniquely prepared young people to become scholars in any field and generally educated. Second, they “exaggerated the importance given to literature.”

Nietzsche was pointing out not only philology’s prejudices of representation, but also its prejudices of practice. It conflated academic industriousness and rigor with value and worth. He suggested the need to historicize and critique basic philological concepts, ideals, and values: notions of what constitutes a text, reading, authorship, historicism, interpretation, narrative, and media.

In Secularism and Hermeneutics, Yael Almog identifies another of philology’s possible prejudices: against religious reading. She contrasts “modern” forms of reading––those that Nietzsche would associate with modern, university-based philology––with un-modern, sacred forms, those “contingent upon participation in discrete, specific religions of revelation.” To read as part of a distinct community and in response to and in participation with a sacred force that exceeds all human effort is to practice a faith at odds with “the global visions of religion” (17). The “we” of modern hermeneutics, argues Almog, excludes the “we” constituted through the liturgies of religious life.

By excluding distinctly religious readers, modern hermeneutics has proven not only its own prejudice, but also its inability to realize its own internal purposes. It has, contends Almog, “repeatedly failed” to embody the “we” at the core of its own interpretive project at the scale and depth of the global aspirations of some of its most well-known defenders.

If I grant Almog’s general arguments along these lines, I’m still left with a related but differently disposed set of questions, which also courses through the careful readings and compelling claims of Secularism and Hermeneutics. Has modern hermeneutics not also succeeded even if at different scales and degrees? Has it not only managed to exclude religious readers but also to create its own practices, inculcate its own ideals and values, and so constitute its own communities of readers? And has it not managed to do those oftentimes by reinventing un-modern, religious, and sacred forms of reading? In sum, has modern hermeneutics also not managed to craft a particular “we” whose own contingent communities, practices, and institutions embody if not a universal community, a community scattered across the global? but nonetheless exert a normative that may well outstrip their own epistemic and moral resources? Almog so effectively dismantles the universal pretenses of modern hermeneutics––describing instances of failure––that she risks obscuring the communal, contingent, and liturgical practices of reading that constitute modern hermeneutics as a purportedly big tent of textual and literary thinking. She risks obscuring what Nietzsche called the prejudices of philology, or what I would suggest are the underlying practices and ideals of modern hermeneutics.

Consider, for example, the historical and philological seminar of nineteenth-century German universities. The primary purpose of these seminars, first established at the University of Göttingen in the eighteenth century but then adopted and adapted at institutions across Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century, was to teach students not only how to deploy critical methods and perfect certain techniques but more generally how to see like a philologist or historian. Philological and historical method, as one student from the United States who studied in Göttingen put it in 1884, “is the gift of time [and] the result of long contact between the mind of the master and the mind of the disciple” in the seminar.1 Historical and philological forms of reading, in this sense, were not reducible to a fixed set of rules, a series of clear steps, or even the “modern” ideals Almog sketches in relation to late eighteenth-century practices of interpretation. They also relied on transformed and remade theological forms of reading.

In 1876, the Germanist Julius Zacher wrote that Lachmann’s metrical analysis of medieval epics “grew up from out of the entirety of altdeutschen poetry itself. . . . His theory of German metric was nothing other than the ordered and structured sum of his observations. . . . To see much less to understand [these observations and bits of evidence] is not easy. It’s difficult, even impossible, especially so for someone who has not had the relevant instruction and personal direction.”2 But for those students who had been in the “Meister’s” presence, continued Zacher, recalling his own first visit to Lachmann’s study, “everything that was printed and on which we had expended so much fruitless effort . . . was suddenly so understandable, so obvious, so compelling! It was as though the scales had fallen from [my] eyes” (206). Everything was illuminated. In addition to erudition, method, and technical skills, the greatest gift a teacher can give a student is a “right way of seeing” (206). Such vision blurs the lines between critique and revelation, modern and un-modern, attachment and detachment––between scholarly reading and sacred reading.

Yet, the ability “to see” like a philologist was neither the fruit of a mystical process––necessarily inscrutable or blackboxed––nor an innate capacity accorded by birth or grace alone. It was learned. “To see” like a philologist was Ludwig Fleck described in 1935 as “Gestaltsehen”––a capacity to see particular forms, a capacity cultivated over time and through collective experiences.3 It was a disciplined seeing. To see in this way, as Lorraine Daston observes, is more Aristotelian than Kantian. Epistemic filters or ways of seeing are not hard-wired categories of understanding; they are learned, gradual effects of “accumulated experience . . . acquired habits of perception.”4

The ability to see particular forms, however, is also a learned ability not to see other forms. Learning to see, wrote Fleck, is “simultaneously the loss of the ability to see contradictory forms [der Gestalt Widersprechendes].” Put positively, the capacity to see also is also the capacity to exclude or filter out certain forms, while focusing on others. Depending on the environment and the particular ends of reading, conscious biases can become epistemic filters, but these same filters can become pernicious prejudices.

What is the relationship between what Almog calls the “modernization of reading”––with its epistemic ideals of autonomy, independent thought, and critique––and the mixed forms of reading that proliferated in the history and philology seminars of nineteenth-century German universities, some of the most sacred spaces of modern hermeneutics? How are these attached and enchanting elements of reading to be understood, especially in relation to the broader purportedly more public and secular spaces universities help craft and govern? What is the relationship not just of “modern hermeneutics” but of universities to modern, secular publics? Is the “we” at the core of modern hermeneutics an institutional one––a “we” formed and catechized by a system of higher education that has long aspired to be global, even universal?

The fault lines between critical and sacred or secular and religious reading continued to shift over the course of the twentieth century. In 1983, Edward Said, one of the most eminent of university-based literary scholars, decried the “specialization” and “division of intellectual labor” endemic to contemporary literary criticism; condemned the “pernicious effect” of the “cult of professional expertise,” with its jargon-ridden theory, obsession with method; and, in sum, lamented scholarly reading’s aloofness from the world (The World, the Text, and the Critic). As an antidote to all this, Said proposed a “secular criticism” capable of reintegrating world, text, and critic, thereby realizing the freedom of critical reading. It would be “skeptical,” “reflectively open to its own failings,” and, ultimately, liberatory.

Said’s “secular criticism” reproduces many of the basic features of what Almog describes as modern hermeneutics. But it also reproduces some of the same contingences of that project and the unease with which some of its practitioners carried it out. Said invocation of a “secular criticism” echoes the incantations of insight and vision sung in honor of Lachmann. Like Zacher, Said stresses the limits of scholarly expertise, method, and division of labor. He issues a claim to continuity and tradition. Zacher praised philology for its capacity to see unity and wholeness; Said hailed criticism for its capacity to “touch” life as lived.

Michael Allan describes the subtle but unmistakable movement in Said’s account of “secular criticism.”5 Said, he writes, moves from an account of how a secular scholar ought to read a text to an account of the “consciousness necessary” to be recognized as a legitimate and, thus, secular scholar. A “secular critical consciousness,” writes Said, is “life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of freedom.” Secular reading will set us free.

But how exactly? Said casts Erich Auerbach, a German philologist whose essay “Philology of World Literature” was translated by Said and his wife, Maire Said, in 1969, as the exemplary “secular” scholar. In his celebrated work Mimesis: Representations of Reality in Western Literature (1946), which he wrote during World War II while in exile in Istanbul, Auerbach claims that he could not have written the book had he not left Germany. What Auerbach means, writes Said, is that in exile he lost “the authentic presence of the culture, as symbolized materially by libraries, research institutes, other books and scholars,” and became “an outcast from sense, nation, and milieu.” But Auerbach’s cultural disorientation also freed him from “that grid of research techniques and ethics” that business as usual would have imposed. By liberating Auerbach from the norms of European scholarship, exile made Mimesis an undisciplined or even supra-disciplinary book. “Secular criticism,” Said suggests, would reproduce Auerbach’s experience by resisting and opposing any cultural impositions. Secular criticism would liberate without the coercive force of discipline, expertise, method, and technique. The properly “secular” scholar would be able to relate autonomously to a text and the world, and is thus equipped to pursue the work of liberating the mind.

Said, as Allan observes, criticizes the “Eurocentric” character of canons and curricula of literature departments and the “Eurocentric humanities” generally. Yet he does not do the same with certain other of his categories, such as “literature,” “the humanities,” “the humanist,” and “the humanistic scholar.” And the university remains almost unacknowledged. For Said, “secular criticism” has no particular culture, no requisite religio.

In Secularism and Hermeneutics, Almog shows in brilliant detail how modern, critical reading adopted and adapted elements of un-modern, un-critical forms of reading. Modern hermeneutics adopted and adapted theological traditions of reading while simultaneously disavowing them. In so doing, she has shown us something that other scholars interested in the ethical, transformative, or so-called “post-critical” possibilities of reading––such as Rita Felski in The Limits of Critique and Hooked––have only hinted at: at the core of the modern hermeneutic project was a reinvention of the most un-critical and un-modern ways of reading. If we consider these adaptations and reinventions not only as negative prohibitions and exclusions, but as positive, constructive norms and ideals, then we can see the outlines of the culture of Said’s and, perhaps, our own “secular criticism.” And then we can ask, again, who we are and why we want to read at all.

  1. Adams, New Methods of Study in History (1884), 71.

  2. Fehler 204, 206; see Carlos Spoerhase, “Das ‘Laboratorium’ der Philologie? Das philologische Seminar als Raum der Vermittlung von Praxiswissen,” in Albrecht et al., eds., Theorien, Methoden und Praktiken des Interpretierens (Berlin, Munich, Boston), 53–80.

  3. Entstehung, 121; see Lorraine Daston, “History of Science Without Structure,” in Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty, 115–32, 128.

  4. Lorraine Daston, “On Scientific Observation,” Isis 99.1 (March 2008) 97–110, 99.

  5. In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt (Princeton, 2016).

  • Yael Almog


    Response to Chad Wellmon

    In his essay “Uncritical Reading,” Michael Warner observes the subtlety in which we, instructors at institutes of higher education, cultivate expectations regarding literary reading: “Students who come to my literature classes, I find, read in all the ways they aren’t supposed to. They identify with characters. They fall in love with authors. They mime what they take to be authorized sentiment.”1

    Warner helpfully distinguishes between “critical reading” and “uncritical reading” and marks the former as the current that dominates contemporary literary studies. His account, which has informed my own agenda in my book, correlates critical reading to personal freedom. Warner builds on a short history of artes grammaticae, the set of textual practices that was formative for modern textual training in academia. Disseminated in the course of twelve hundred years, grammatica embraced rules governing not only the interpretation of texts, but also their recitation, evaluation, and authentication. Warner notes that this scholarly paradigm thus set the background not only for critical reading, but also for uncritical reading, since “the performance of critical reading as a mode of free agency requires that it not be seen as a strict application of rules, in the manner of grammatica.”2 What has then made critical reading dominant in academia? Warner makes the case that the prevalence of this paradigm relied on its association with a “broader normative program”: the liberal arts.3 Non-modern approaches to reading certainly still preside in this program, yet they are mobilized to support post-Enlightenment scholarly agendas.

    Chad Wellmon raises an important set of questions in observing that Secularism and Hermeneutics is occupied with hermeneutics’ universal pretenses to the extent that it omits diverse and intricate positions from the history of literary reading that it tells. An alternative history may excavate contingency as crucial to readers’ agendas in modern academia. The points Wellmon makes, such as the historical fostering of intimate epistemological transfer between the skilled philologists and their disciples, are an important and timely reminder of the diversity of modern reading practices and training of literary readers. If university education, particularly in literary studies, had been eminently focused on indoctrinating readers, neither my colleagues nor I would have chosen our profession. It is therefore reassuring to be reminded of positions on reading that instill contingency in scholarly norms.

    Here is the tricky thing about norms: they are not quite the same as “rules.” I too consider norms as what governs readership. And my book puts at its center norms that are, in effect, at odds with rules. At the center of my investigation are norms that reject sovereignty and rigidity: the belief that every reader can decipher an aesthetic artefact and the notion that this deciphering would build on one’s emotional rapport with the author(s). Accordingly, I trace modern readership in the pluralizing trends of eighteenth-century hermeneutics and semiotics, which, I think, extended interpretation to a universal humanity, and not, as Wellmon does, in philological trends that adhere to erudition and scholarly training through mentorship. In my book, the thrust of references to new trends in reading lies not in rules, but in their ostensible opposite: freedom.

    My own focus, as Wellmon points out, are norms that render readers autonomous, reflective and independent. I take the above-mentioned traits of readers to be a seminal heritage of the late Enlightenment, a heritage correlated to the Kantian revolution of propagating individual freedom. Certainly, notwithstanding my focus on trends that pluralized readership, this revolution can be understood in relation to the proliferation of the modern university—an institute that presumes that the ability to learn is intrinsic to human nature.

    In referring to modern institutions, such as the university, Secularism and Hermeneutics is not meant as an attack on modern hermeneutics; its focus is the amalgamation of egalitarian trends in theology with hermeneutic practices. Equipped with secularism-critique, I examine this interdependency with an eye on the partiality with which the above-mentioned traits have been made formative for reading norms. It is from within this perspective that I reflect on the confines of freedom. If a woman decides to wear a veil in a public space, her adherence to faith may be viewed critically as sacrifice of her freedom, renunciation of her agency as a critical thinker. In a parallel way, my book asks, what if we choose to refer to a holy text, in a public context, as the artefact of divine revelation?

    And what if we refer to a literary text in a parallel, sacred manner, celebrating our emotional attachment to it, praising its enchanting beauty, reciting it, deeming its authority over us inexorable, rendering the text indecipherable? My focus is, indeed, not the manifold practices that the modern university facilitates, but that which is barred from the public, secular spaces that the university governs.

    Wellmon’s overview of nineteenth-century approaches to philology is illuminating in emphasising empathetic relationships at the core of academic training. Moreover, he convincingly shows that major streams in philology insisted that the end result of the interpretive effort is open, and that this effort accommodates a dynamic transformation of readers in its course. His account suggests that literary studies and philology have fostered self-reflection and self-critique with regard to their own programs. I believe that the dialogue between us raises new questions regarding contemporary academia and its relationship to secularism. Does aesthetic education facilitate a strand of discipleship that accords with pre-modern theological traditions? Does exegesis that puts at its centre sensory revelation permeate pre-modern religious epistemologies that still live on today? An inquiry of freedom in its relation to religious volition may be a fruitful starting point for addressing those questions.

    1. Michael Warner, “Uncritical Reading,” in Jane Gallop, ed., Polemic: Critical or Uncritical (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13.

    2. Warner, “Uncritical Reading,” 22.

    3. Warner, “Uncritical Reading,” 22.