The Signifying Creator: Nontextual Sources of Meaning in Ancient Judaism

The Signifying Creator: Nontextual Sources of Meaning in Ancient Judaism

The Signifying Creator: Nontextual Sources of Meaning in Ancient Judaism

The Signifying Creator: Nontextual Sources of Meaning in Ancient Judaism

Synopsis

For centuries, Jews have been known as the "people of the book." It is commonly thought that Judaism in the first several centuries CE found meaning exclusively in textual sources. But there is another approach to meaning to be found in ancient Judaism, one that sees it in the natural world and derives it from visual clues rather than textual ones. According to this conception, God embedded hidden signs in the world that could be read by human beings and interpreted according to complex systems.

In exploring the diverse functions of signs outside of the realm of the written word, Swartz introduces unfamiliar sources and motifs from the formative age of Judaism, including magical and divination texts and new interpretations of legends and midrashim from classical rabbinic literature. He shows us how ancient Jews perceived these signs and read them, elaborating on their use of divination, symbolic interpretation of physical features and dress, and interpretations of historical events. As we learn how these ancient people read the world, we begin to see how ancient people found meaning in unexpected ways.

Excerpt

The subject of meaning and how it is derived is not one to which I would naturally gravitate. As I imply in chapter 1, I have always been intrigued by the things that language does other than generate meaning. I have also spent a good deal of time analyzing language that most people think is meaningless, especially the language of early Jewish magic and mysticism. the inspiration for this work came during my study of the magical cultivation of memory and was further advanced while studying postbiblical concepts of sacrifice, when I noticed patterns of thought—expressed in midrash, synagogue poetry, and ritual practices—that I believe constitute a kind of indigenous semiotics of the nontextual.

I had been considering this idea while working on other projects when I was invited by the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University to give a series of lectures. They focused on bringing together some phenomena that I had observed while exploring some of the more unfamiliar corners of ancient Judaism, such as early Jewish mysticism and magic, the language and poetry of the ancient synagogue, and those sectors of Talmudic and midrashic literature dealing with such subjects as sacrifice, divination, and memory. This book, which emerged from those lectures, is not meant to be a comprehensive study of the idea of nontextual sources of meaning or of the individual subjects of these lectures. Rather, it is a series of vignettes. That is, the reader will not find an exhaustive analysis of rabbinic myths of creation or a catalog of divination texts and techniques from the Cairo Genizah. Likewise, although my argument is relevant to the idea, advanced in recent decades, that ancient Jewish thought constituted a kind of precursor to the modern critical theory of pantextuality, it does not engage the philosophical basis of that modern critical theory itself. Instead, I use these sources and methods selectively to illustrate a larger point, that ancient Jews looked not only to the text of the Torah and its textuality for signification but also to the world of objects, creatures, actions, and rituals, and that this tendency reflects a complex mentalité regarding how signification and interpretation are carried out.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.