To Make the Hands Impure: Art, Ethical Adventure, the Difficult and the Holy

To Make the Hands Impure: Art, Ethical Adventure, the Difficult and the Holy

To Make the Hands Impure: Art, Ethical Adventure, the Difficult and the Holy

To Make the Hands Impure: Art, Ethical Adventure, the Difficult and the Holy


How can cradling, handling, or rubbing a text be said, ethically, to have made something happen? What, as readers or interpreters, may come off in our hands in as we maculate or mark the books we read?

For Adam Zachary Newton, reading is anembodied practice wherein "ethics" becomes a matter of tact in the doubled sense of touch and regard. With the image of the book lying in the hands of its readers as insistent refrain, To Make the Hands Impure cuts a provocative cross-disciplinary swath through classical Jewish texts, modern Jewish philosophy, film and performance, literature, translation, and the material text.

Newton explores the ethics of reading through a range of texts, from the Talmud and Midrash to Conrad's Nostromo and Pascal's Le Mémorial, from works by Henry Darger and Martin Scorsese to the National September 11 Memorial and a synagogue in Havana, Cuba. In separate chapters, he conducts masterly treatments of Emmanuel Levinas, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Stanley Cavell by emphasizing their performances as readers a trebled orientation to Talmud, novel, and theater/film. To Make the Hands Impure stages the encounter of literary experience and scriptural traditions he difficult and the holy through an ambitious, singular, and innovative approach marked in equal measure by erudition and imaginative daring.


Writing, in its essence, touches upon the body.

—Jean-Lue Nancy

All books in the Bible defile the hands.

Mishnah Yadayim 3:5

For the meaning of the voice perishes with the sound; truth latent in the mind is
wisdom that is hid and trea sure that is not seen; but truth which shines forth in
books desires to manifest itself to every impressionable sense. It commends itself
to the sight when it is read, to the hearing when it is heard, and moreover in a
manner to the touch, when it suffers itself to be transcribed, bound, corrected,
and preserved.

—Richard de Bury, Philobiblion (1345)

“Those are very expensive books.”

“Don’t be so ner vous, John. People are supposed to touch them.”

“There is touching,” John said sententiously, “and there is touching.”

—Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Tactility and reverence

In the now-severely reduced Jewish population on the island of Cuba (a high estimate of 1500 persons out of eleven million total), it was not uncommon for the quorum of ten required for public prayer in the small Orthodox synagogue of Havana to consist of “ocho hombres, la Torah, y Dios,” with the Torah scroll—and God—standing in for the missing men. in Havana’s Conservative Sinagoga Bet Shalom (also known as “El Patronato”), the situation used to be even starker: “For more than 30 years, the daily minyan usually consisted of seven el der ly men and three Torah scrolls placed in chairs in a small chapel.”

—Jean-Luc Nancy . . .

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