On Hermeneutics and Secularism

Interview with Yael Almog

Yael Almog is a fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg – The Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study. She finished her PhD at UC Berkeley, was a visiting member of the PhD-Net “Das Wissen der Literatur,” and worked at the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin. In her dissertation and during her time at the ZfL, she worked on the history of literary theory and secularism.

Interview by Dennis Schep

How did you get into this project?

I started my PhD in Comparative Literature at Berkeley, but also had a strong interest in religion. Comparative literature in the US is not quite the same as in Israel or Germany; in the US the emphasis was very philological, whereas I wanted to do something more along the lines of intellectual history. I switched to the German department after a year-and-a-half and first needed to improve my knowledge of German… I then began a long period of moving between Berkeley and Berlin. In Berkeley, I was influenced by a theoretical climate that emphasized the critique of secularism; from Berlin I took the emphasis on the eighteenth century, Enlightenment studies and Romanticism.

My book manuscript presents an intellectual history of the relationship between secularism and the development of modern interpretation between 1750 and 1850. In Germany this starts in the late Enlightenment and continues with Romanticism. It is sometimes said that according to the hermeneutic tradition, we should read all texts the same way we read the bible. Coming from Berkeley with its emphasis on secularism critique, I would respond that we don’t all read the Bible the same way; we cannot really use that “we” as the basis of literary interpretation. My book is about how interpreters and biblical readers have been constituting each other reciprocally by relating to the other group as preexistent.

How did people read the Bible in 1750?

Reading has been shaped in communal contexts for thousands of years. Jews, for example, have honed their attachment to texts in fairly segregated religious communities. In traditional Jewish schools, they would put honey on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and let the young boys lick them. I work a lot on Jews and I compare them with Protestants. I focus on how the hermeneutic tradition evolves in Prussia in conjunction with changes that transformed those two religious communities. It is my view that around 1750, the boundaries between distinct cultures largely collapse, and confessional differences become less important. One of my advisors, Jonathan Sheehan, wrote a book called The Enlightenment Bible. Sheehan claims that in the eighteenth century the Bible emerged as an object that everybody could relate to: everybody had a certain attachment to the Bible and interpreted it in accordance with their own needs and motivations—an engagement that goes beyond his or her faith or confessional belonging. This transformation made the Bible into a pillar of political secularism.

My own project starts where Sheehan’s book ends. I ask how this transformation of the Bible revolutionized interpretation overall. You can see the cultural prominence of the personalized connection to Scriptures in literary texts by people like Klopstock and Salomon Gessner, which suggest that people can connect with the Bible on their own terms. This is a cultural revolution that resonates both in literary texts and in their interpretation. Around 1750, this individual engagement with the Bible was globalized, leading the boundaries between different confessions to collapse. My main point is that this transformation has made the boundaries between different Textkulturen fade away too: what emerges at this point is a community of interpreters that solicits meanings from texts, and that works with religious as well as literary texts.

The Bible is the word of God. What happened when people like Schleiermacher moved from sacred texts to literature? Would you argue that religious reading strategies influenced the discipline of literary studies?

Absolutely. My analysis is always reciprocal. I look at how the engagement with literary texts and other aesthetic objects shapes theology, and how theology shapes the engagement with literary texts. What happens when we enter modernity? What happens to theological interpretation, and how did the transformation of theological interpretation in modernity stimulate the emergence of modern literary theories? It’s not that Herder, Schleiermacher or Mendelssohn started reading the Bible and then one day moved to reading literature. Rather, from the 1750s on, they do those things in tandem. In his Fragmente über die neuere deutsche Literatur (1766/7), to name one prominent example, Herder writes both about German literature and about the difficulties of translating the Old Testament.

In theology Herder does something very interesting: he reconciles two approaches that appear to be irreconcilable. The period saw the rise of philological approaches to Scriptures with the work of such figures as Johann David Michaelis. At the same time there is Pietism, which Jonathan Sheehan has shown to be a driving force behind biblical readership in Germany during this period. How do you reconcile historicist interpretation with faith? Herder does exactly that by saying that when we read the Bible, we put reason to use in our attempt to grasp the background for the writing of the text. Along the lines of the Lutheran tradition, he finds a way to shape biblical interpretation in a way that is both individualistic and accords with a certain version of historicism. One of his principles came to be known as Einfühlung: to put yourself in the shoes of the author. This is a milestone in biblical interpretation, as well as in interpretation in general. There is now a connection between readers and authors: we now strive to understand the cultural norms and historical circumstances that influenced the writing of the text. Since Herder describes this reading method as revelatory, faith certainly still remains the driving force behind interpretation.

Does Herder’s doctrine of Einfühlung come out of his engagement with the Old Testament? Isn’t it difficult to practice Einfühlung when engaging a text that is supposed to be the word of God, and whose author was nothing but a mouthpiece?

The Old Testament is indeed his main object, but what he does with it is very interesting. We could call it either the secularization of the bible or the theologization of reading. When the hermeneutic tradition emerges between 1750 and 1780, certain Protestant interpretative principles are disseminated as universal. By this I’m not arguing that the world became Christian. Evidently, some Protestant principles, like reading allegorically or the type of personalized reading in which one identifies one’s own religious vision in the text, were not accommodated in the hermeneutic tradition.

When it comes to the authorship of the Bible, we need to look at the theology of the time. Herder writes that calling even one word from the bible the word of God is the biggest anthropomorpism. The Bible is a text written by humans for humans: “Menschlich muss man die Bibel lesen.” But there is something godly about reading: when we use reason to understand the author’s cultural norms, this process allows the reader to experience his inner attributes and capacities, and this is where God comes in.

Aside from Einfühlung, there’s the idea of restoration: the idea that we need to restore a text when reading it. This idea is central to the corpus of Herder, Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Gadamer, et al. It is a pillar of literary theory today. In my first chapter, I look at the conversations between Herder and Georg Hamann, showing that Herder develops his idea of textual restoration from his disagreement with Hamann. For Herder, we could get closer to the truth of the Hebrew Bible by trying to understand the culture that produced the text. The idea that we can restore a text goes back not only to scriptural reading, but to a very specific moment in the history of relating to the Bible. It was a very provocative thing to claim that the Hebrew Bible should be restored, because this assumes that it had, to some extent, been lost. This claim was made about the Hebrew bible, and it became a platform for certain proto-German Idealists to practice their theories of human reason. The Old Testament was a wonderful platform for that. Hamann and Herder both wrote theological texts that describe the cognitive processes that occur when a reader approaches a text. From their description there emerges the image of a universal reader who faces gaps and problems in the text and needs to come to terms with those problems. Reading the Bible became a means of studying cognition and affect as universal human capacities. Herder’s emphasis on the cultural and historical specificity of a text makes him into a forefather or literary interpretation, which is why he has been taken up in literary studies recently.

What do you think about hermeneutics today? People seem to try to get away from it. Does that have anything to do with its supposed theological origins?

When I go to panels about post-hermeneutics, people say completely different things. I think that has a lot to do with them not agreeing about what hermeneutics actually is. People cannot get away from hermeneutics without understanding it, or without understanding its religious incentives. So-called post-hermeneuticians who don’t confront the religious origins of hermeneutics still carry those origins with them. People who follow Heidegger or Derrida in literary theory continue to reproduce those religious presumptions; if you resist a phenomenon without understanding it, you keep perpetuating its presumptions.

What are you working on right now?

For my next project, which will be my Habilitation, I will move to twentieth-century “fictions of return.” It will be a cultural history of the notion that Jews will return to Europe after the war. It’s really a book about bad immigrants: people who leave Europe and move to Brazil without learning Portuguese, who move to Palestine without learning Hebrew. They are occupied with Europe all the time. Elsa Lasker-Schüler, Max Brod and Arnold Zweig are some famous examples, but this fantasy of return is very persistent: just think of Yael Bartana’s more recent artwork, And Europe Will Be Stunned, where she envisions the return of millions of Jews to Poland.

Some of the Jews that were in exile during and after the war saw themselves in the image of German orientalists from the nineteenth century who are touring Palestine. And yet, they couldn’t go back… There is something weird about their identity: they are Germans who are expelled from Germany. Of course I will also look at the members of the Frankfurt School who moved to the US. The question I am trying to answer is this: contemporary political theory, and non-humanist political theory in particular, is predicated on the expulsion of the Jews from Europe. If we see this departure as contingent, how does that affect our political theory? Can it think its own lacunae? Hannah Arendt is very important here – she will be at the center of this book.

Hannah Arendt has a performative theory of politics. For her, it is not that we practice politics because we are human, but we become human when we practice politics. In the First and Second World Wars, human rights were being denied to masses of people because they lost their passports, and their political rights with them. They were no longer human exactly because they could not participate in political institutions. But what happens if this situation is volatile; what if we envision a return of these people, a return of their political agency? Is it possible to rejoin humanity as a “returning” political agent, or should we, rather, rethink some of the main presumptions of twentieth-century political theory?