On Mondays and Wednesdays, at 11:40 AM, I have a mad dash to run as fast as I can from one class to the other, trying to exit a class that always runs over to another that always starts precisely at 11:55. During this mad dash, there is no way to let the material I learned prior to 11:40 settle and tuck itself somewhere in the crevices of my mind. At 11:55, I am still thinking about everything that I learned last class, and it makes for some pretty interesting thought processes.
From 10:25-11:40, I am in Women’s Literature, with Dr. Kim Evans.
From 11:55-1:10, I am in Naḥmanides’ Literary Approach to Biblical Narratives, with Dr. Michelle Levine.
The two classes have slowly merged in my mind, to the point of entanglement. I write my Lit papers on literary theory and Biblical stories, and argue in my Bible class the exact literary methodology I learned fifteen minutes prior.
And I think this convergence has made me a better reader of English Literature and a better student of Bible.
Recently in Women’s Literature we were assigned an incredibly complex book chapter about how to read text by Anthony Larson, based on the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and The Great Gatsby. The arguments were difficult and left my head spinning, uncertain if an argument even existed, much less what these arguments were. I then scurried off to Naḥmanides, hoping for a refuge from the shame of being wholly lost in class.
We were studying Cain and Abel and the methodology of Naḥmanides in analyzing the textual nuances. Before I knew it, I was reading Larson into the Biblical text, and the Biblical text suddenly had new nuance. I was noticing details in the Biblical narrative that I had not seen at first glance. I was picking up both how brilliant Larson is and the brilliance of chapter four of Genesis. I then looked at Naḥmanides, and marveled at how wonderfully the two scholars complemented each other, and pondered over Naḥmanides’s exegesis in a new, thoughtful way. I then went back to English class two days later and announced, exultantly, that I had some notion of what we were talking about.
Last semester I took a class in Midrash, with Dr Richard Hidary. Part of the curriculum was exploring the literary theories of Midrash, based off the works of ancient scholars such as Plato and Aristotle, and modern ones like Derrida; we were studying how literary theory can enlighten the confusion surrounding the methodology of drash. For one class, Dr. Evans came to our class on Midrash, and we all discussed midrash, pshat, and literary theory.
I didn’t quite grasp the discussion; it was extraordinarily theoretical and at a level of scholarship that I have not yet reached. But I do know that studying literary theory and its application to drash not only stretched my mind in the delightful way that only true education can, I now understand the nuances between pshat and drash better.
The skills one needs to close-read text are similar to the skills one needs to read Tanach well. Attention to words, detail, grammar, what is stated and what is missing. The skills required to grasp philosophical lenses of how to read text is strikingly similar to the different methodologies of Biblical exegetes. Multi-disciplinary approaches can expose fresh ways of looking at old ideas and can accentuate the power of these old ideas.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Rosh Kollel and director of RIETS, has written that, “secular studies are often invaluable as a direct accessory to talmud torah proper. Consider simply the aid we derive from semantics in Amos, history in Melachim, agronomy in Zeraim, physiology in Niddah, chemistry in Chametz u’Matzah, etc.” Secular knowledge, including literary criticism, can be an incredible aid to the study of Bible.
A class that is co-taught by or cross-referenced between the Bible and English departments does not need to have all the loaded assumptions that come with such a notion. The discussion of theism, the Documentary Hypothesis, or historicity need not be mentioned; these ideas are not even truly relevant to the discussion at hand. The application of methods of reading literature to the literary narratives of the Bible needs to only be controversial if we decide that it is.
I have heard others argue that this is a dangerous notion, because it can lead to students’ faith being shaken by such a comparison, of Bible to literature. Yet this proposal is not one of comparing the value of these texts, but of acknowledging the inherent similarities that govern interpretation of text, regardless of the source of the text.
Granted, such a class would need to be instructed by the right Bible professor and the right English professor, with the right cadre and the right curriculum. Granted, this proposal would be novel in this institution. Granted, it would cause both idle gossip and thoughtful critique. Yet there has been much talk by students about the need to re-think our approach to approach to grappling with the ‘Big Ideas.’ I would think this a fine place to start. What finer glorification of Torah U’Maddah could there be than acknowledging the wisdom in Literature, and applying the knowledge gained from this discipline to understanding the multifaceted, layered glory of G-d’s language?
Ariella Gottesman is a senior, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Middle East Studies. She is the Opinions Editor of the YU Beacon.