Yael Almog examines the works of thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder, Moses Mendelssohn, and Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher and reveals the tension between textual exegesis and confessional belonging. Secularism and Hermeneutics challenges the modern presumption that interpretation is indifferent to religious concerns.
2019 | 216 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature / Religion
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Secularism and Hermeneutics: The Rise of Modern Readership
Chapter 1. Rescuing the Text
Chapter 2. Hermeneutics and Affect
Chapter 3. Perilous Script
Chapter 4. On Jews and Other Bad Readers
Chapter 5. The Return of the Repressed Bible
Coda. Beyond Hermeneutic Thinking
Secularism and Hermeneutics: The Rise of Modern Readership
In the late eighteenth century, a new imperative began to inform theories of interpretation: all texts should be read in the same way that we read the Bible. This premise, however, concealed an inherent problem: there was no coherent "we" who read the Bible in the same way. This book argues that a cohesive group of biblical readers did not exist before this modern attempt to model interpretation on a collective "we." Quite the reverse, I demonstrate that the use of this imaginary "we" in the establishment of a modern community of interpreters itself created a cohesive collective of biblical readers. Placing this dialectic at its center, Secularism and Hermeneutics describes textual interpretation between the years 1750 and 1850 as reliant on diverse—and at times contradictory—explanations of how to read the Bible as a universal asset of civilization.
Coming up with new approaches to texts was central to the enterprise of creating a Bible whose interpretation would pertain to all individuals. In the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Georg Hamann, Moses Mendelssohn, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, I trace attempts to create a universal Bible. Their theological writings not only established scriptural interpretation as a universal practice but also yielded norms of reading that became constitutive of modern interpretation. Their writings gave rise to major concepts within modern literary readership and aesthetics, such as world literature and historicist reading.
Addressing biblical readers as a cohesive group has continued to be a central source of tension within literary production and interpretation, as hermeneutics has become a widespread intellectual practice. Occurring in public places (such as schools and universities) and perceived as neutral with regard to religious belief, secular interpretation brings with it the presupposition that acts of interpretation depend upon human capacities honed through education. One's ability to interpret a text is seen to derive not from faith but from literacy and literary education. Literary interpretation, therefore, is intertwined with a main organizing principle of the modern political community: the assumption that confessional belonging is separate from the sphere of education.
Importantly, this organization does not merely assume that hermeneutics occurs under the auspices of modern state institutions that relegate religious practices to the private sphere; it also dictates an array of norms regarding semiotics and interpretation. Secularism and Hermeneutics argues that eighteenth-century hermeneutics bore a special significance to the emerging political surroundings in which it was performed. Its theorists conceptualized a structural similarity between the hermeneutic community and the political community of the emerging modern political collective. They took both communities to include members of different ideological groups and contended that universal human merits (such as autonomous judgment, interpersonal empathy, and the striving for self-education) enable polemics and productive coexistence of different members of society.
Despite its cultural eminence, modern hermeneutics has constantly faced disruption from the starkly divergent reading cultures that confessional belonging sustains. The persistence of the Bible as an unchanging object of worship among some groups has posed a particular challenge to models of interpretation that insist upon the restoration of an original text as the foremost purpose of reading. As I will show in Chapters 4 and 5, literature makes apparent the disjunction between textual interpretation and confessional belonging in modernity and challenges the presupposition that textual interpretation is indifferent to religious conduct. My analysis focuses on the work of Heinrich Heine (in Chapter 4) and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (in Chapter 5), in which they engage the impact of confessional affiliation on the reading of literature and, by extension, on the interpretation of their own texts.
From 1750 through the 1780s, a period that straddles the late German Enlightenment and early Romanticism, theologians, philosophers, and poets shifted the focus of scriptural interpretation from the theological imperative of the biblical text to reading itself as a revelatory process. Crucial to this shift were polemics that discussed the exact ways in which the Scriptures should be newly approached. Naming the object at the center of these debates the "Enlightenment Bible," historian Jonathan Sheehan has shown how a large wave of biblical translations throughout the eighteenth century drove a new conception of the Scriptures. The personalization of the Bible during this period parallels today's understanding of the Bible as a cultural and literary asset to which each and every member of Western society can relate. Sheehan's book is one in a series of publications that challenge the view that the European Enlightenment was antagonistic to faith. It does so not by presenting empirical evidence that demonstrates the endurance of religious practices but by demonstrating how the theological dynamics of the period shaped modern norms of social and civil conduct.
Building upon Sheehan's work, Secularism and Hermeneutics demonstrates that as the Enlightenment Bible took on the status of a cultural artifact that transcends confessional specificity, it also came to serve as the privileged model for the interpretation of cultural artifacts, especially literary texts. This book presupposes that from 1750 through the 1780s, theologians were primarily invested in readings of the Old Testament as they amalgamated biblical interpretation with general theories of textual comprehension. Secularism and Hermeneutics centers on the contention that the making of the Hebrew Bible into a universal cultural artifact during the late Enlightenment was both instrumental to and emblematic of the construction of a global community of interpreters. Secularism and Hermeneutics does not provide a review of hermeneutics in each epoch where it appears. Rather, the book focuses on the conceptual roots of major principles of "literary hermeneutics" in the contemporary understanding of this term as a methodological approach to literature. I take Schleiermacher to be the agreed-upon major propagator of this method. As scholarship has shown, although Herder had already articulated Schleiermacher's overall methodological principles, Schleiermacher presented them paradigmatically.
In contemplating political secularism, I distinguish between "Judeo" and "Christian" components. The notion of toleration toward religious minorities maintains that certain readers hold distinct presumptions that guide their approach to the Bible. It presumes that there is an initial difference between confessions. The examination of the new approachability of the Scriptures in the eighteenth century emphasized the Enlightenment's awareness of and dialectic with the presence of traditional believers in the emerging modern state. In Germany, the direct context was Jewish integration in German-speaking society. Because Protestant and Jewish exchange centered on the learning, interpretation, and circulation of Biblical Hebrew, the comprehension of the Old Testament became a constitutive object through which religious difference was to be negotiated. Debates concerning the Jewish presence in the emerging citizen state show how religious toleration became formative for the conceptualization of certain norms of cultural production, sensibility, and textual comprehension as global human capacities.
In the late eighteenth century, Judaism became the emblem of religious toleration. Yet, for Enlightenment society to accept Jews as competent political agents and, in a second step, to characterize itself as tolerant through this acceptance, it had to rethink the toleration of traditional reading cultures. Taking the toleration of Jews as an accomplishment required as well that Jews be seen as inherently different from other political agents.
I focus on a salient aspect of this disparity: the standing of Jews as believers whose adherence to ritual jeopardized their entrance into the general community of readers and interpreters. Taken to be universal, interpretive practices were meant to overcome religious difference—with the model example being Christian and Jewish perspectives on the Old Testament. I contend that modern hermeneutics thus parallels the conception of a political realm of equal agents under conditions of secular and self-governing sovereignty. Secularism and Hermeneutics views Mendelssohn's exchange with the Romantics on aesthetics, exegesis, and politics as emblematic of this dynamic. Mendelssohn endorses aesthetics as grounded in universal human skills such as judgment, preference for mimesis, and support for literacy. Mendelssohn's writings on aesthetics, as well as on biblical interpretation, form a universalistic stance that draws on the religious ethos of a religious minority—of practicing Jewish believers—in order to portray humankind as a collective. In so doing, Mendelssohn's stance on aesthetics prepares the way for his famous political manifesto, Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism (1783).
During these early years of German idealism, the fragmentary character of the Old Testament made it a paragon for experiments with theories that sought to explore the universal contours of human reason. Reading the Bible helped diverse thinkers, who were debating with one another, hone proto-Kantian theories of comprehension. Embedded in the imaginary childhood of humankind, the Hebrew Bible—particularly the Genesis stories—was taken up as a universal source that could be recuperated through communal effort. Prominent thinkers who applied theories of human reason to reading, such as Herder, identified the Old Testament with the deleterious influence of a religious minority but also maintained that such influence could be collectively overcome through textual interpretation. At the same time, because interpretive practices were taken to be universal, they were meant to overcome religious difference.
Debates on how to comprehend the Old Testament in the late eighteenth century thus set in motion new political deliberations during the development of the modern state. The notion of religious toleration, which was at the core of some seminal portrayals of humankind as collective, rendered the coexistence of different religious cultures acceptable. This new political sphere thus had to accommodate traditional reading practices that understood the Bible to be a product of divine revelation and not an artifact that had been damaged with time. Following the tensions between acceptance and exclusion in the late Enlightenment, Secularism and Hermeneutics investigates the structural parallel between, on the one hand, the community of interpreters established with the presumption that textual comprehension is a universal human capacity and, on the other, the community of citizens in the emerging modern political community.
A main objective of the collective of readers has been the attempt to restore the original meaning of a text. Against the backdrop of Germany's fascination with Genesis in the 1760s, Chapter 1 follows the development of Herder's theory of textual interpretation, which pushes readers to grasp the cultural and historical circumstances behind the writing of a text. This theory breaks not only with his own early theological writings but also with those of his close friend Hamann. For Hamann, true engagement with the Bible disconnects textual interpretation from historical inquiries, whereas for Herder, the Hebrew Bible embodies the attempt to bridge the difference between fictional and historiographical texts. The examination of these diverging approaches to the Old Testament demonstrates that inherently diverging dispositions—such as those for and against the historical understanding of the Scriptures—have shared a conceptualization of the Hebrew Bible as a universal object. Herder's mature interpretation theory makes restoration the collective task of modern readers, and it presents humanity's primordial origins as the emblematic object of this effort.
Chapter 2 investigates further Herder's interpretation theory. It shows how Herder's praise of the Bible's aesthetic merits in his On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782-83) advanced his interventions into aesthetic theory, in particular his challenges to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Laocoön (1766). Herder's writings on the Old Testament in turn provoked the imagination of his influential interlocutor: the young Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Eminent figures of the period such as Goethe and Herder treated the Bible as a sublime artifact equally available to all readers, Christians and Jews alike, due precisely to its initial unreachability.
Chapter 2 argues that the making of the Bible into an object that is pertinent to members of different confessions revolutionized reading per se. Authors who took part in the period's aesthetic debates—centered on the comparison of poetry to other forms of art—grounded their arguments in the interpretation of the Old Testament, which they saw both as universally pertinent and as an asset that was lost and needed to be rediscovered. In the mid-eighteenth century, scholars were already arguing that the period had undergone a radical shift by viewing the Bible as an artifact with sublime aesthetic value. I propose a new look at this widely accepted thesis by arguing that eighteenth-century biblical reading did not turn to the Bible as a new artifact to be examined within a pregiven set of principles of literary interpretation. Rather, it invented, shaped, and negotiated new arguments about aesthetics through the redefinition of the Bible as an aesthetic asset.
This leads me to examine, in Chapter 3, a major problem concerning theology in the late Enlightenment. The growing view of the Bible as equally available to all readers was incongruous with the ongoing dissemination, consumption, and interpretation of holy texts in religious communities—the prime example being Jews' continued study of Hebrew (and its overall comprehension). The comprehension of Hebrew as a component of one's ethnic or religious identity drew attention to diverging reading cultures in modernity, unearthing their basis in distinct religious belongings. The communal study of the language thus challenged the period's new theory of interpretation.
Chapter 3 develops this problem as a driving force behind Mendelssohn's interventions into various fields of philosophy. At the center of the chapter is Mendelssohn's conceptualization of scriptural reading as compliant with both a Kantian approach to aesthetics and traditional notions of holy texts in Judaism. Mendelssohn reiterates some tenets of such authors as Robert Lowth and Herder in their appeal for the Hebrew Bible's universal merits, but at the same time, he grounds the Bible's relevance for humankind in arguments from traditional Jewish scholarship. Mendelssohn can thus be said to inform a situated universalism. He promotes the Bible's relevance as a global asset while also striving to conceptualize this relevance in terms that preserve the Bible as a pillar of traditional Judaism. Mendelssohn's contributions to modern interpretation thus show the permeability of the political sphere to values of religious minorities. Modern interpretation, I argue, has responded both to universal Enlightenment ideals that were steeped in the globalization of religious notions and to the traditionalist need to adhere to religious rituals that center on Scriptures. Notwithstanding the universalism at the core of Enlightenment theories of comprehension, the Bible therefore continues to be conceived as the sociocultural pillar of the community, a standing that has been honed in the context of traditional reading cultures.
A clear preference in German idealism for Greek over Hebrew (and for the New Testament over the Old Testament) illustrates a later transformation in modern hermeneutics as this interpretive paradigm became popularized. In such works as Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793), Kant distinguishes between moral religion (which pertains to the individual's natural inclinations) and the authority of the church (which can cultivate these inclinations but not control them). Chapter 4 reconsiders the work of Heine from the 1820s through the 1840s as a response to the conception of scriptural interpretation as a universal measure of human subjectivity in German idealism. Of special interest to me is Heine's presentation of Jewish institutions as determining believers' epistemic choices. In considering his fragment The Rabbi of Bacharach (1840), I explore how he portrays liturgical reading as a prism for perceiving and interpreting reality under the auspices of a secluded religious community.
In Chapter 5, I examine hermeneutics in nineteenth-century thought through an analysis of Hegel's "The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate" (1798-99). Representing dominant tendencies of German idealism at the time, Hegel's essay depicts Christian epistemology as emerging from an ancient, stagnant mode of thinking that is embodied in the Jewish spirit and in Biblical Hebrew. Against Hegel, I read Droste-Hülshoff's canonical novella, The Jews' Beech (1842), as a reaction to the detachment of interpretation from its traditional theological contexts. With its perplexing narrative form and its prominent inclusion of a mysterious Hebrew sentence, the novella calls attention to the transformation of the Bible into an object that is no longer understood as the product of a divine revelation. Since they reveal diverging cultures of interpretation with different moral codes, the novella's momentary breakdowns of interpretation prompt reflection on the religious dimension and history of modern hermeneutics. Nineteenth-century literary texts allude to ritual in moments that disrupt the coherence of the narrative; these moments interrupt attempts to solicit meanings that rely on the narrative's apprehension as a lucid system.
Literary Theory and the Critique of Secularism
Demonstrating the interrelation of secularization and modern interpretation, this book traces the conditions of modern political participation in a community that opts to transcend confessional difference. Hermeneutics and aesthetics construct a realm where interpretation is detached from its anchoring in traditional relationship to holy texts and is thus rendered secular. As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, the spread and circulation of Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible was integral to the emergence of the modern state, owing to the importance it ascribed to cultural production in the vernacular. Modern readership made evident a public that witnesses together the process of reaching the ultimate meanings of the text. Examining the tensions at the core of this enterprise, I argue for the need to understand the Enlightenment's legacy as the outcome of an essential conflict: the motion toward inclusion of "others" in the Enlightenment society of interpreters, despite the eradication of confessional difference.
As Pascale Casanova claims in The World Republic of Letters, the rise of national literatures is entangled with the concurrent emergence of vernaculars as a source of cultural capital. Casanova stresses Herder's theory that literature represents a nation's distinct spirit as a main influence on the emerging system of world literatures. Secularism and Hermeneutics expands this claim, as it investigates the importance of Herder for literary studies in view of eighteenth-century political transformations. Herder reads the Hebrew Bible as presenting a universal ethos—a reading grounded in the idea that the nation will represent all citizens and the corresponding expectation that those citizens will share his vision of a universal religious ethos. He grants the Hebrew Bible this special status amid efforts to forge the Scriptures into a universal asset that can, at the same time, elucidate the particular character of each nation and culture. The question of how to read Hebrew evokes the particularity of "the Hebrew nation" and juxtaposes it with the living presence of literacy among Jews.
Casanova's depiction of world literatures has become a topic of critique in works that reject broadscale, normative depictions of world literature, such as Emily Apter's Against World Literature. Opposing a facile understanding of intercultural transmission, Apter develops the notion of "untranslatability," which presents the difference between national literatures as irreducible to mere cultural differences or gaps. She takes secularism (which she understands in relation to Edward Said's identification of the term with colonial tendencies in modernity) as a key example of the fallacies of translatability and locates the tradition of untranslatability in the traditionalist resistance to the abstraction of the biblical word through the act of translation. She thus contrasts Harold Bloom's presentation of biblical translation as a formative principle of translation with Muslim perspectives on reading.
The fascination with the Hebrew Bible as a cipher of translatability, as I demonstrate in Chapters 1 and 2, is an enduring legacy of Romantic aesthetics and its reception. Apter's position—especially her emphasis on how biblical translatability has constantly been questioned in the history of textual transmission—parallels my own intervention into the historiography of literary hermeneutics. The Romantic idealization of the Old Testament as a cipher of textual transference is an always incomplete project whose incoherence, I argue, is evident in both Enlightenment theology and its afterlives. The status of the Hebrew Bible as a cipher is due not only to its having been marked as the divine gift of transference but also to the Old Testament and the Hebrew language themselves having become ciphers of tensions ingrained in the secular reinscription of biblical reading.
In her turn to Islam as a current of untranslatability, Apter draws upon Talal Asad's inquiry into the religious presumptions that guide modern state politics. Asad's work has become representative of critiques of the Enlightenment's secular legacy. In his Formations of the Secular, Asad presents the emergence of German higher criticism as a transformative moment for the social functions of religion in modernity. Biblical critics conceptualized biblical reading as universal, a transition that, Asad argues, mobilized the modern perception of the Scriptures through Romantic aesthetics and its focus on human sensibilities: "My concern is primarily with a conceptual question: What were the epistemological implications of the different ways that varieties of Christians and freethinkers engaged with the Scriptures through their senses? . . . How did Scripture as a medium in which divinity could be experienced come to be viewed as information about or from the supernatural? Alternatively: In what ways did the newly sharpened opposition between the merely 'material' sign and the truly 'spiritual' meaning become pivotal for the reconfiguration of 'inspiration'?"
This strand in literary criticism and critical theory—which includes Apter, Asad, Michael Allan, Saba Mahmood, and Michael Warner, among others—demonstrates how fundamentally the critique of secularism informs the historiography of reading, literary theory, and world literature. Secularism and Hermeneutics addresses two central claims that these critics have made, claims whose interrelation is central to my account of modern hermeneutics. Asad's depiction of Romantic divine inspiration and Apter's critique of translatability focus on the interpersonal connection between readers and authors (or between translators and authors). The new notion of the Bible as having human authors ("poets," in the terms of Romantic aesthetics) replaces divine revelation with inspiration, which arises from a universal idea of affect and interpersonal communication. The globalization of theology ingrained in literary interpretation the objective to decipher an author's feelings, to which empathy was central.
In viewing the history of the distinction between "uncritical" and "critical" reading, this strain of criticism also stresses an utterly different aspect of modern readership. The ability to perform a critical interpretation of literary texts—and, by extension, of other cultural objects—is expected from mature political agents. It is a skill embedded in the Western conception of individual autonomy and rationality seen as human nature. The making of the Bible into a human book—an enterprise that fueled the search for the Hebrew origins of humankind—established the ideals of interpersonal identification between readers and authors and of critical interpretation of literary texts.
In the late Enlightenment, becoming a member of the emerging political community required, first and foremost, autonomous subjectivity. The subject's responsibility in making epistemic decisions and choices was essential to the attainment of spiritual convictions. The decline of revelation narratives and their replacement with the Romantic vision of interpersonal exchange coincided with the emergence of this subject position. This transformation shaped the view that engaging with the Bible via reflection is a means for spiritual development through believers' subjective utilization of their cognitive and affective capacities. As I shall demonstrate, the divine merits of Scripture came through the processing of a text, rather than through the perception that the Bible is a direct gift from God. This transformation of the Bible into an aesthetic object was foundational to the birth of literary reading. Honing reading skills through the affective attachment to texts, literary hermeneutics grew out of the detachment of interpretation from the historical authenticity of the Bible.
The contemporary critique of secularism can be applied to German-Jewish encounters in the German Enlightenment, an exemplary moment when a traditional religious group entered the general republic of letters. Secularism and Hermeneutics contends that the globalization of religious norms does not exclude the influence of religious minorities through symbols, ideals, and practices. The book does not inquire, therefore, whether the dialogue between Germans and Jews is or is not possible. Rather, it explores the symbolic cultural function of this dialogue in construing a political ethos. A model for cross-cultural investigation, Biblical Hebrew presents an invitation into a community of readers—a summons that simultaneously includes and excludes traditionalist believers, making their presence essential to Enlightenment political institutions. At the same time, this invitation sets affective and ideological conditions that define these believers' belonging to the collective of readers (and citizens).
The foundational texts of modern politics established the toleration of religious minorities as the pillar of political secularism. Such works as Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), and Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise (1670) promote critical scrutiny of the Scriptures as essential to political agency. Specifically, they attempt to show how the Scriptures accommodate competing religious doctrines. The contradictory view—that the Bible dictates one true set of religious rules—consequently emerged as a tool of political autocracy. The emergence of modern hermeneutics as a standardized paradigm epitomizes the effort to constitute a new modern subject: one who is aware of how the Scriptures give rise to coexisting religious practices.
As Jonathan Hess has written, from their beginning the debates over emancipation in Germany "were as much about theology as about the politics of universal citizenship." Because its author belonged to a religious minority, Mendelssohn's Jerusalem can be read as a formative contribution to these debates. The question of whether the Jewish subject could approach the Bible in a way that would foster, rather than jeopardize, religious toleration was crucial for late Enlightenment political theory. Mendelssohn presents Judaism as a rational religion that facilitates its believers' political engagement. At the same time, he reinforces the perception that ritual law remains important because of its continuous practice since the giving of biblical law. Subsuming the religious credo of Jewish law under the new separation of church and state, Mendelssohn's position allocates religious conduct to the private sphere.
In his correspondence with Herder, Mendelssohn adds new tenets to hermeneutics as he advocates his political agenda. He is lobbying for toleration toward Jewish worship—that is, toward a confessional context that views the Old Testament as the product of divine revelation and certainly not as an object whose meanings were lost. Mendelssohn compliments his interlocutor for his command of Biblical Hebrew and suggests that Herder's efforts to comprehend a foreign culture should be applied to relationships between individuals (Mitmenschen). As will be elaborated in Chapter 3, this suggestion gives rise to a certain irony: Herder conceptualizes his interpretive apparatus to a large extent as a means of overcoming a gap between reader and author. The paradigmatic example of this gap is the unreachability of the Old Testament for Christian readers. (The Jews are a damaging factor that causes this breach.) Mendelssohn, in contrast, attempts to use key notions of textual interpretation while circumventing the cultural background for their emergence.
The rise of hermeneutics as a universal practice neutral to one's confession served diverging political agendas. I examine Mendelssohn's use of interpretation in propagating the separation of church and state to show that enacting toleration was by no means exclusive to Protestant thinkers and institutions. Rather, adhering to toleration as a universal value promoted competing religious principles and their claims to compatibility with egalitarian political participation. Using the new umbrella of hermeneutics and its appeal to universal skills, capacities, and values, Herder's philosophy of history, informed by his Pietism, and Mendelssohn's portrayal of Judaism as exemplary for religious toleration promoted diverging religious ideologies. Modern hermeneutics and its reliance on the view that the Bible is an asset with all-human pertinence has thus accommodated, in effect, the claims to universalism made by both reformers and traditional believers.
The majority of studies on theology during the Enlightenment have observed Jewish scholarship as a realm separate from Christian theology. This book relies on a different vantage point, following major Protestant and Jewish intellectuals whose debates in the public sphere centered on various presentations of the Bible as a cultural asset that transcends confessional difference. This investigation narrates an Enlightenment where the politics of toleration emerged not through a Christian enforcement of religious values on minority groups but rather through the rise of norms of political secularism—such as the understanding of scriptural reading as a cultural practice—that were porous to different religious ideologies.
The notion of German-Jewish exchange helped fundamentally constitute the universal community of readers, turning it into an asset of political secularism. Instrumental to this transformation, in the late eighteenth century the Hebrew language became a signifier of higher understanding. This was achieved through depictions of Hebrew as an Ursprache, the instrument of creation, and the primeval tongue of humankind. Examination of the intersecting positions of Hamann, Herder, and Mendelssohn in their writings on the Hebrew Bible shows that their references to Hebrew shaped major presumptions of the emerging field of textual interpretation. Reading Hamann's and Herder's respective writings and correspondence throughout the 1760s sheds light upon the role of the Old Testament (and specifically the Genesis stories) in the development of a new, collective historical consciousness for readers. The idealization of Hebrew as a transcendent object rid the Bible of its status as an object of worship in the context of a discrete religious community. The importance of learning Hebrew within the Jewish community was exemplary of the communal attachment to holy texts. As a result of the Enlightenment reconceptualization of the Bible, both Jews and non-Jews had to reshape this traditional training into a practice that pertained to a private identity—ethnic, confessional, or other—and not to the believer's overall ability to function as a reader and interpreter of texts.
My examination of this transition builds on work in German studies that describes a new tendency in eighteenth-century European literature and criticism: an emphasis on representation grounded in semiotics over the production of imitation. More recently, critics have drawn attention to new facets of late eighteenth-century aesthetic sensibilities, including the period's shaping of new disciplines and forms of scholarship, the changing awareness of the senses in the German republic of letters, and the ways in which the period's literary theory made use of new conceptions of politics through the image of the body. Critical accounts of Europe's cultural capital, which I will elaborate below, have shown Herder's influence on the establishment of the notion of world literature, a concept dependent on the vision that there is a system of national literatures that fosters each nation's culture as embodied in its national language and folkloric and mythical sources.
In my account of the interrelation of theology and modern hermeneutics, I rely on studies in literary theory, German studies, and philosophy that have shown Herder's centrality to the Enlightenment shift toward a popular, egalitarian, and inclusive practice of interpretation. One may ask why an inquiry into modern hermeneutics should focus on Herder's intervention into theology. Such a question would imply that the emphasis on Herder stems precisely from his extensive engagement with the Old Testament and the Hebrew nation. Scholarly preoccupation with world literature as a discipline in its own right and with transnational textual circulation has recently brought attention to Herder's role as a forefather of interpretation theories. Secularism and Hermeneutics grounds my focus on Herder in this research on his prominence in the history of textual interpretation. Studies on Herder's legacy in literary theory turn our attention to a philosophical interpretive tradition that posits the translation of texts as emblematic of comprehension. This tradition, which links Herder's views on translation to those of Schleiermacher and Walter Benjamin, shows translation to be ingrained in a theological set of debates. Continual and contingent religious polemics have modulated the linking of translation to the study of human comprehension.
In her analysis of the role of theology in the German Enlightenment and, more particularly, in the history of Orientalism, Suzanne Marchand has presented cogent criticism of methodological biases in scholarship on European interest in Eastern cultures. She argues that the popularity of Said (which goes hand in hand with that of Michel Foucault) has encouraged scholars to approach Orientalism as a monolithic and global exercise of power over the East. This genealogical approach, she argues, obscures the need for an extensive investigation of different authors, texts, and tendencies in European Orientalism, which at times may reveal multifaceted ideologies and motivations. In her study of German Orientalism, she found not imperial motivations but various attempts to justify and support long-standing religious interests.
Like the inquiries to which Marchand refers, Secularism and Hermeneutics seeks to trace some major principles of modern politics to Enlightenment philosophy. But with Marchand's criticism in mind, I ground my examination in a broad array of historical sources and disciplinary categories, building upon Sheehan's intervention into Enlightenment historiography in The Enlightenment Bible. That study draws a substantial connection between transformations in the status of the Scriptures since the early modern era and current critiques of political secularism. Sheehan has shown that the "Enlightenment Bible" became a universal asset as a result of the large number of biblical translations during the period. His study relies, therefore, on the exploration of how a personalized approach to the Scriptures became widespread—a trend that he detects in diverging appropriations of the Bible. In this respect, his book's argument converges with its methodology in that the author detects the globalization of the Bible through the consideration of manifold sources that represent various agendas, motivations, and needs.
Ongoing research on the "religious Enlightenment" also informs my examination of religious practices within Jewish-Christian interreligious exchange. Counter to depictions of the Enlightenment as antagonistic toward religious practices, David Sorkin has depicted Enlightenment theology as conducive to religious polemics and exchange. His book, The Religious Enlightenment, challenges the notion that religious toleration per se is the Enlightenment's theological heritage. Rather, according to Sorkin, what tied together different confessions was a set of religious notions and practices common among all members of the political community. His prominent example of such equality is the idea, shared by both Christian Pietists and Jewish readers of the Bible, that engagement with the Bible relies on affect in the process of reading. I build upon Sorkin's insight when I argue that the decline of confessional separatism was the defining factor of public participation and polemics (even in the field of theology) in late Enlightenment Germany. Individuals' emerging characterization of themselves as belonging concurrently to humankind and to their confessional affiliation is the point of departure for this book.
Detecting Secularism: Diverging Routes
With this theoretical aim, I wish to keep in mind Hans Blumenberg's critique of quests after religious bias in modern political models. In a famous section of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Blumenberg responds to Karl Löwith's examination of modern history through the notion of Heilsgeschehen. For Löwith, the term, in its claims to distinguish itself from theology, exposes a bias in modern historiography. The stakes of this bias lie in the "theodicy" that Löwith locates in some historiographical perceptions of modernity. Modern historiography, he claims, encompasses an inherent conundrum: it relies on a Christian perception of time, but since Christianity does not have a critical historical consciousness, descriptions of events that are salient to modern historiography—particularly those pertaining to the notion of human progress—wear an eschatological cloak.
Responding to the gesture of uncovering that lies at the core of Löwith's project, Blumenberg questions the methodology behind such attempts to uncover the religiosity of secular politics. Blumenberg questions the assumption that notions of cultural inquiry are mobile or transferable from one period in human history to another. Against this assumption, Blumenberg suggests that an investigation of secularism in modernity requires a self-reflective perspective. Such an investigation would ask not only how religious notions manifest in various times and places but also how the observation of history itself and the assessment of its development and transitions absorb religious categories. Blumenberg questions, therefore, the attempt to expose the so-called duplicity of political secularism (or to suggest that the promise of toleration is false). The alternative is to examine how hermeneutic categories and practices were shaped in the course of secular modernity. According to Blumenberg, any dislocation of religious values from one epoch to another is faulty, since it ignores the continual development of historical consciousness, which exerts this ongoing discursive influence in different historical epochs.
To that end, Secularism and Hermeneutics scrutinizes the particular routes that the transformation of hermeneutics took as it became a secular phenomenon, most crucially how it circumvented the specificities of religious beliefs and the identities of religious believers. The stakes of this examination echo recent scholarship, such as Charles Taylor's eminent work A Secular Age, that has examined the exchange between theology and secularism as instrumental for modern politics and particularly neoliberalism. In his review of this book, Martin Jay criticizes what he sees as Taylor's obliviousness to Blumenberg's criticism. Jay takes issue with Taylor's project of finding unifying or universally valid religious notions in political secularism, claiming that Taylor performs a move similar in structure to the attempts to uncover religious tendencies in modern politics. He accuses Taylor of trying to "discover" in the religious realm precisely those tenets whose merits are often identified with the secular, thus overlooking Blumenberg's critique that such arguments about secularism presuppose that historical consciousness itself is neutral to religious notions. According to Jay, such scholarly investigations as Taylor's present themselves as able to trace the transferring of religious values from one epoch to another without acknowledging that the scholarly account itself contains vocabulary that is intertwined with the cultural reception of secularism, especially the notion of progress.
This critique is discordant with Taylor's turn to religion for the universal values that he considers to be much needed in contemporary politics. Such is the ability of religion to unify an egalitarian human community through the shared feeling of hope and a sense of meaningfulness. Jay recapitulates this view and counters it:
Religion can both embolden some believers to think that they share in divine wisdom and remind others that there are mysteries that they, as imperfect creatures, are unable to solve. It can therefore serve as stimulus to both arrogance and humility, both confidence and doubt, and the historical record abounds with examples of each. For a committed believer like Taylor, the scales are weighted in one direction, toward the possibility of meaningfulness, although he is reflective and self-critical enough to acknowledge they can easily tip in the other. For other less hopeful readers of that record, there is ample reason to worry that the post-secular age, if indeed it is upon us, has some very unpleasant and, alas, meaningless surprises in store, no matter how eagerly they are folded once again into the lessons of a divine pedagogue, whose previous teaching evaluations, alas, leave a great deal to be desired.Jay compares Taylor's insistence on the need to preserve the mystery of reality—the human inability to comprehend the logic behind history—to Benjamin's reading of Franz Kafka's fable as a comment on human hope. The lesson we learn from Kafka, according to Benjamin, is that the world is full of hope, but this hope is alas not meant "for us." The lesson we learn from Taylor is that "there may be meaning, but it is not for us."
A "liberating" global conception of religion lies, according to Jay's reading of Taylor, in a global notion of spiritual meaning that exists beyond the reach of human capacity. I would add that it lies as well in eliminating a kind of individuality that thrives in the context of a traditional religious community. The liberal "us" knows that meaning exists out there, but the discovery of this meaning is contingent upon the participation in discrete, specific religions of revelation and, hence, in practices of faith that are at odds with global visions of religion. My attempt to reconstruct the history of hermeneutic thinking aims to recover the "us" who are disinherited of the option of soliciting meaning from the world due to the failure to embody the "we" at the core of modern interpretation.