The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics

By Michael Fishbane | Go to book overview

·2·
EXTRA-BIBLICAL EXEGESIS:
THE SENSE OF NOT READING
IN RABBINIC MIDRASH

On November 24, 1644, John Milton responded to a parliamentary ordinance passed a year earlier (June 14, 1643). Control of printing was the issue, and the result was his famous Areopagitica. In due course, the following ironic rhetoric occurs. Since the "knowledge and survey of vice" is necessary for "the constituting of human virtue," fear of the "infection" which might arise from such study could encourage the suppression of all works which "scout into the region of sin." Among these, the Bible is particularly worrisome:

for that [work] ofttimes relates blasphemy not nicely, it describes the carnal sense of wicked men unelegantly, it brings in honest men passionately murmuring against Providence through all the arguments of Epicurus: in other great disputes it answers dubiously and darkly to the common reader: and ask a Talmudist what ails the modesty of his marginal Keri, that Moses and all the prophets cannot persuade him to pronounce the textual Chetiv.

Here, indeed, is a point worth pondering. Among the manifest dangers of Scripture, Milton lists not only its brute descriptions of brutish men, and sundry accounts of blasphemy and desire. He also stresses the occasional paradoxes of its pronunciation—the "marginal Keri" and the "textual Chetiv." By this, Milton alludes to the rabbinic practice of substituting special (though traditional) readings for various forms found in sacred Scripture. Thus certain words are read (the qeri) differently from the way they are written (the ketiv); while in rare instances words may be read when nothing is written in Scripture at all. One therefore reads Scripture according to a fixed tradition—recorded in old Massoretic lists and the margins of printed (rabbinic) Bibles, but never in the holy scrolls themselves. In a true Derridean sense, one might say, the qeri-ketiv difference of the Massoretic masters is a defiant différance: a point where the written

-19-

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