Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Leviticus: Drawing near the Other

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Leviticus: Drawing near the Other

Article excerpt

YOUR LETTER INVITING ME TO RESPOND TO THE TWO essays on Leviticus (Franziska Bark, "'Listen Your Way in With Your Mouth': A Reading of Leviticus" and Bernard Harrison, "The Strangeness of Leviticus") put me in mind of the Buber-Rosenzweig correspondence on the status of the Law in Judaism. Bark and Harrison recall this debate as well both explicitly (Bark) and implicitly (Harrison). Before addressing this matter, however, I note the importance of the epistolary form for such discourses, from the letters of Paul, to Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, to the letters of Buber and Rosenzweig. For the interpretation of just such addressed (or, as Rosenzweig termed it, "Commanding") Speech is very much the issue here.

Before turning to these matters, and to Bark's and Harrison's essays in particular, I begin with a recollection from my girlhood which bears on the inter-religious engagement evoked both in and by the essays which you so kindly sent me.

When I was a young girl, I spent many hours gazing out the stained glass windows of the living room in my parents' home. I would watch the various people who walked by our first floor apartment on the South Side of Chicago, wondering or knowing who they were, curious to see them move and interact. One group in particular consistently drew my attention. These were the flocks of girls in Catholic School uniforms (plaid stars, knee-highs, loafers, pressed white shirts, and navy or forest green cardigans) who regularly walked by or congregated in front of my parents' windows. I felt more or less hidden, safely concealed behind the dark multicolored glass, throwing rainbows on the carpet and furniture around me. More than likely, I was not as concealed as I either imagined or wished myself to be.

These girls (and their male counterparts) viewed me--whether in my home, on the street, in the playground, or in my school--as strangely and, in some way, threateningly other. These views persisted even into the time during which I joined their neighborhood bicycle gang (I was a very fast and reliable cyclist.) And while these views, I knew, had nothing to do with me at all, strangely they stuck to me as if I myself were their origin, their author. For I was for these girls, before and above all else, a Jew.

And so, when I would look out the window at these girls who would at times stop and suspiciously stare at my home, I would wonder what they saw. I knew they were seeing something I could not--that they "knew" what it meant to be a Jew, but that I didn't know what they thought it meant. I did know that whatever they had been taught was so powerful that in place of me they saw a "Jew." My gaze could not penetrate and reverse their vision of me as a "Jew" however long I stayed at my window post, stationed at the border between the inside and the outside of my Jewish home. My window watching, however, did inaugurate a lifetime of wondering at that double gaze, its vagaries and consequences.

In Bernard Harrison's and Franziska Bark's essays on Leviticus I find a kind of reciprocal wondering and worrying at this dominant Christian gaze. Their perspectives reveal a self-conscious awareness of this history of distorted perceptions of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism by Christians. Further, this critical awareness explicitly and implicitly informs their respective re-readings of Leviticus. In reading their texts, I am once again gazing out of my parents' living room windows, now however with a corresponding wondering gaze returned from the outside in. Reading Harrison's and Bark's essays, thus, enables me to gaze through the (distorted) lens of Christian anti-Judaism as well as into re-envisioned Christian self-understanding(s) as enacted through their very different renderings of the book of Leviticus.

It is probably not surprising that Harrison's and Bark's papers each begin with a reference to strangeness and, even, the Uncanny. Bark from the outset frames her reading through an attempt to make the strange familiar by a reading-aloud of Leviticus that both thematically notes and reenacts the bringing close of the Israelites to God and of God to the reader/hearer of the text. …

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