Reading the Underthought: Jewish Hermeneutics and the Christian Poetry of Hopkins and Eliot

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Kinereth Meyer and Rachel Salmon Deshen. Reading the Underthought: Jewish Hermeneutics and the Christian Poetry of Hopkins and Eliot. Jewish Literature and Culture. Bloomington: Catholic U of America P, 2010. xiiii + 314 pp.

Kinereth Meyer and Rachel Salmon Deshen, the coauthors of this challenging and often rewarding study, are two English professors based at Bar-Ilan University in Israel whose previous work includes important essays on TS. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here they undertake the difficult challenge of reading the latter' s Christian religious poetry against the grain; in other words from their perspective as Jewish readers and critics. As they declare in their introductory chapter, the authors are more drawn to the aggadic ("homiletic, legendary, theological, and ethical") as well as halakhic ("legal") traditions, rather than Judaism's more mystical and esoteric trajectories, including the scholarship of Gershom Scholem and others (13). This is what they identify as the crucial contrast between the discursive practices of ancient rabbinics with that of Christian thought:

For Christian hermeneutics, the language of Scripture is a veil, but that veil can be pierced or lifted to reveal full, essential meaning, because ultimate reality itself has become directly perceivable, knowable at least to some extent, through the Incarnation. This kind of reading is informed by . . .a hermeneutics of adequation: that which is known (the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection) before, beyond, behind the written word makes possible the perception of the true meaning of the words that bear witness to it. In contrast, rabbinic hermeneutics does not attempt to move beyond language; within the Jewish tradition, language leads always to more language, never to a non-discursive presence.

(emphasis in original; 13-14)

With these contrasting modes in mind, the authors undertake an exploration of the remarkable ways that Judaism's interpretive traditions can produce fecund readings of narratives alien to it, claiming that: "strategies used by the Rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash...were as innovative in respect to textual analyses as those of our postmodern period. Identifying the knots, gaps and cruxes in the biblical text, the Rabbis enlarged upon and contested each other's interpretations and constantly offered new ones, as if they were out to exhaust every possibility of what they considered an absolute and infinite text" (19). At the same time, they hasten to point out that while rabbinic hermeneutics might "appear exotic, it shares enough common ground with the dominant culture in order to enter into viable conversation with it" (19). While they do not pretend to be able to show the reader precisely how that tradition of multiplicity and infinitude directly engenders the readings they produce, Meyer and Deshen nonetheless strive to delineate 'close interrelations between rabbinic hermeneutic practice" (19) and the approaches they take to Hopkins and Eliot (they hope that their example will inspire further cross-cultural interpretive experiments from other traditions). For the most part they succeed, often producing vigorous, rigorous, and compelling insights.

The authors perceived Hopkins and Eliot as especially pertinent for their project because each embodies an intertextual relationship to two theological traditions, as religious converts. To their credit, Meyer and Deshen closely delineate the complex ramifications of those conversions so vividly that the reader immediately grasps why they appealed to their imagination. Attentive readers may independently conclude that Hopkins's and Eliot's boundary-crossings represent an insider-outsider consciousness not unlike the authors' own position, which after all entailed:

not only religious commitment, but national identity as well; both were expatriates (only Eliot by choice) and both gave up a more liberal form of Protestantism for adherence to a Catholic faith. …