Deconstructing a Biblical Text through Midrash–A Derridean Approach

Studying the philosopher Jacques Derrida is never for the squeamish of heart.  When you read his writings, you have to wonder why he can’t seem to formulate his ideas in a more straight-forward language. Derrida almost  always writes in the idiom of  “doublespeak.”  What exactly is “doublespeak,” you might ask? Doublespeak  is language constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning—it is the language of ambiguity; it is also the language of punsters.

Well, one of my friends thought that Derrida sometimes wrote his ideas while he was under the influence of drugs. But like his friend Emanuel Levinas, both of  their philosophical writing styles invite the reader to think more deeply into what they are attempting to say. Philosophers, since the time of the Greek mystic Heraclitus, love speaking in the language of enigma. Kant and Spinoza are not much different. Sometimes I have to take an Excedrin tablet or two whenever attempting  to plow through  their obtuse ideas.

Derrida’s Spatial Philosophy

Derrida argues that all Western thought is based upon the idea of a center, or an origin, a Truth, and Ideal Form, a Fixed Point, an Immovable Mover or Essence, a God, a Presence, all of which are capitalized. The problem with centers, is that they all tend to exclude, repress and marginalize anything that is Other. Thus, in male-oriented societies, man is central, while the woman is the marginalized “Other”; she is repressed, ignored and pushed to the margins. Deconstruction is a tactic which the center is “decentered” which enables the marginalized to become central thus overthrowing (at least temporarily) the hierarchy. Thus there is no truth, only interpretation — and all interpretations, Derrida asserts, are socially constructed.

I often thought about Derrida’s idiosyncratic  idea whenever I study the Talmud, a work that this full of thousands of rabbinic discussions; it is a pity this great work of Jewish literature almost never included rabbinic dialogues with women within the  margins of the text. Sometimes the boundaries of the Talmudic text almost appear like a fence or hedge.

Our philosopher also contends that no philosophical system can provide its own foundation or justification. Language will never become a transparent window to the world-as-it-really-is. Reality is not subject to the constructs of the human ego, for it is elusive. Any attempt to philosophically confine it and determine that which is presented will only result in something which is not real —  a logocentric construct which may have violent and deadly consequences, especially once manifested within the realm of politics and societies which are based on hierarchies.

Language as a Self-Contained System

Derrida  also contends that language is a self-contained, self-enclosed system of signs that bear no direct relationship with the external reality it is thought to name. In itself, language does not have any transcendental meaning. The meaning of a word is based upon convention, and it is not forged by some ontological link between the word and what the word signifies. Deconstructionism is a philosophical critique of language as a medium for determining meaning, and as such, deconstructionism denies all epistemological certainty.

Communication depends on speaker and hearer sharing the same competence, and this cannot invariably be guaranteed. Nor are ambiguities in language and context always sufficiently recognized to ensure against misunderstanding. How much more problematic is the conception of meaning in terms of an author’s intention when it is applied to texts, written, published, and read in quite different contexts, with the reader unable to cross-question the author to discover whether the supposed interpretation is the right one?

The Futility of Divining the Author’s Original Intent

Even when a writer and author share a common culture and language, and live at the same time, the reader can discover different plausible interpretations of the same text, and difficulties are increased when author and reader are separated by time and language.

Deconstructionism abandons the search for the intentions of the author and acknowledges a text’s multiplicity of possible meanings;  it attempts to go beyond normal literary or philosophic analysis to discover the true, and previously hidden, meaning of a text or situation viewed as a text. [1] This method of interpretation is arguably known in rabbinic circles as “Midrashic.” It is a fun way of interacting with the text–provided you don’t take your deconstructions too seriously!

Derrida attempts to cast this insight into textual terms.  The author who writes a book cannot absolutely control the meaning of the text, as each reader will draw a specific meaning from the text.  Moreover, the author himself may read the text at varying points in time and derive completely different meaning(s) from it.  There is an itérabilité (transcendence) which marks the nature of the text (qua author-reader relationship).

The Wisdom of Reb Lema

The text and, by implication, truth claims about reality (as all reality is “textual” in a way for Derrida) transcend their specific time-space contextuality and are subverted in time and through the dialectic implicit within the communication network of human relations. One of my favorite Derridean pieces reads:

The necessity of commentary, like poetic necessity, is the very form of exiled speech. In the beginning is hermeneutics. But the shared necessity of exegesis, the interpretive imperative, is interpreted differently by the rabbi and the poet. . . . The original opening of interpretation essentially signifies that there will always be rabbis and poets. And two interpretations of interpretation [sic]. The Law then becomes question and the right to speech coincides with the duty to interrogate. The book of man is a book of question. “To every question, the Jew answers with a question”—Reb Lema.

JACQUES DERRIDA, Writing and Difference


[1] To show you how idiosyncratic reading Derrida’s neologisms can be, check out this textual excerpt:  “That writing [is] epekeina tës ousias… Nonpresence is presence. Différance, the disappearance of any originary presence, is at once [B la fois] the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of truth. At once. “At once” means that the being-present [ön] in its truth… is doubled as soon as it appears, as soon as it presents itself. It appears, in its essence, as the possibility of its most proper non-truth, of its pseudo-truth reflected in the icon, the phantasm, or the simulacrum. What is isnot what it is… unless it adds to itself the possibility of being repeated as such. And its identity is hollowed out by that addition, withdraws itself in the supplement that presents it. (Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) p. 168.

It is no small wonder why many modern scholars think Derrida was either a modern-day Sophist, or that he was an idiot masquerading as a “philosopher.”

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