We can spend our entire lives learning how to read. The bare bone mechanics of spelling and grammar might be introduced from an early age as the hard hitting rules which are handed down and which I have little or no choice about, but the finer art and science of reading takes longer to become aware of, much less to obtain any real mastery over. The obstacles to a radicalized co-creative reading are all of the usual suspects: we can be lulled to sleep by the literal–rendered complacent with our first impressions, subdued by the echoes of voices of authority–that we imagine are hovering over the text, paranoid about accuracy, intimidated by past readings or scolding teachers, afraid of the unknown or simply lazy and abortive in the face of the inscrutable.
By contrast, the secret tradition of kabbalistic reading techniques and methodologies refashions us into ninja-like sentence flipping, word throwing, page tearing fearless warriors on a quest for meaning. While extreme reading is not yet a part of the X-Games, it does involve significant risk (it also risks significance).To be let in on this secret a little bit, we must begin by introducing a whole new set of reading directives–mandates which have to be carried out to the very end. Pulling back the unconscious veils we find that reading beyond the informational into reading as interpretation follows the same fourfold model as our science of networks.
Rabbinical exegesis starts not with the literal meaning but with something that is often confused with the literal–the plain meaning or peshat of the text. The main difference between them revolves around our assumption of textual completeness in and of itself verses an incomplete text which requires our participation in order to actualize its potential significance. The plain meaning of the text solicits the aid of the reader who may have to dig into it, to question, to survey its context and compare it to other texts and contexts. It permits a multiplicity of plain meanings and strips us of our feeling of security brokered by the obvious. Much work must be done to earn our access to the plain meaning. With passive reading no longer being an option, we must gear up for an extensive trek as active surveyors of the literary landscape at hand.
When we stick to the immediate context within which a given text is presented (the plain meaning enjoins us to primarily consider words taken in context) we are concerned with Domains. Location, location, location–the words resonate against the adjacent contextual environment. The timbre of their ‘sound’ and significance reverberates off the walls of their nearby surroundings. Confining ourselves to ‘local’ reading can only go so far. All of the different contexts within the text of the ‘Torah’ (teaching) are in danger of becoming a patchwork of Domains, each with its own sovereign interpretation and with limited or no trade with other literary contexts (both within the Torah and without). All of the friction and contradiction ensues from the inability to connect one Domain to another. Practically speaking, an example of this might be an analysis of the story of Adam and Chava/Eve in the Garden of Eden with the Tree of Knowledge where we stop thinking through it at the conclusion of the episode in the linear narrative. What could these individuals and this tree have to do with events separated both in historical time and in pages and books such as the story of Purim with Queen Esther and Mordecai going up against the wicked Haman? The two contexts on a plain and simple level seem totally unrelated.
This is where the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17a) chimes in and makes an astonishing assertion: “Words of Torah are poor within their place and are rich in another place.” To paraphrase: delimiting the meaning of any words or statements in the Torah to their original context impoverishes them in their meaning, but when we uproot and transplant them into other contexts, the innovative juxtaposition engenders all kinds of novel associations and unanticipated meanings that enrich their significance. Keeping textual passages homebound, as if they are ineligible for a literary passport to visit and take up temporary residence in foreign contexts, depletes them of significance and prevents their realization of universal relevance on an intertextual plane. By giving up a little bit of their self-contained sovereignty within their immediate Domains, they may amass abundant wealth by trading on the non-local exchange.
In order to accomplish this, we have to introduce Links. In the multi-tiered interpretative strategy of the rabbinic tradition this level is termed the allusive meaning or remez. In everyday terms, allusions begin to appear as soon as we begin to read between the lines. ‘Reading between the lines’ does not imply that we jettison the plain meaning but rather that we are willing to venture out beyond it into the zones of ambiguity. We break with the oppression of the linear reading and open ourselves to a non-linear one. This bursting of the bubble of the local textual context supplies us with the runway for venturing off into other non-local contexts. Allusions forge Links. We can harvest from the textual field by driving through it from any direction we desire. The Talmud–perhaps the greatest ancient world hypertext project–constantly weaves diverse literary contexts together by highlighting the non-explicit and indirect connections between them. These hyperlinks end up characterizing the spirit of the Domains (text in context) that causes a tremendous flowering of significance.
The process hardly stops there. Our next move is to introduce the equivalent of Search on the Web into the reading process. This bring us to the level of interpretation known as the homiletic meaning or drash. While homiletics is a poor translation (it tends to have a negative association of moralizing or sermonizing), drash actually means to ‘seek,’ to ‘inquire,’ or even to ‘search.’ A traditional place of Torah study is called a Beit HaMidrash which can be rendered as a ‘House of Search.’ It is a space which is conducive to seeking meaning or understanding. It is an environment within which we can feel comfortable and be inspired to make inquires. Web based Search surfs along on the myriad of Links across the many Domains. Today too, our studying is all about making queries using Search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Wolfram Alpha, etc…) that generates pages of Links to different Domains. Like the Talmud, many other rabbinic texts such as those which are classified as Midrash (also from the word drash) really amount to a compendium of Search results to different questions put to a body of texts.
Our fourth and highest interpretive level cannot be reached simply be using Search. Search only picks up on known or explicit Links and Domains. As anyone familiar with the limitations of even the best Search engines will tell you, they have not succeeded in having their spiders crawl through every page on the Web. Results are always incomplete because new content is going up all the time and it takes time to find and catalogue it. Therefore, the Programmable dimension of the Web bears witness to the continuous creation or re-creation of Web content and even the form and function of the Web itself. Thus, this kind of interpretation is not merely uncovering what already exists but innovating new potentials for all of the Searches, Links and Domains. It is referred to as the secret or sod–the non-explicit esoteric aspect of meaning. The secret of the text is the spontaneous emergence of something (some definite meaning) out of nothing (the indefinite, paradoxical, or aporetic). This is the level of kabbalistic reading which looks at systems of correspondence and parallels which can generate limitless new interpretations. It insures that our textual universe and the interpretations which populate it are continually expanding.
In Part Twelve we will examine how rocks, plants, animals and humans relate to our four-level interpretive schema. Additionally, we will try to distinguish the concept of Websites from that of Domains.