I recently “found” a book that’s been on my bookshelf for years but that I’ve never “made” time to read. Forty pages into Richard Rorty’s, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, my only regret is that I didn’t read it years ago when I purchased it. I’m consoled by the profound joy of reading it now. As I read I carry with me the wonderful memory of studying with Rorty as an undergraduate. I can vividly picture his always purple button down shirt (worn to each class) and can hear the sound of change jingling in his pocket– an unconscious habit that contrasted humorously with his intensely brilliant lecturing. This book is one of those books that, by the time I’m done with it, will be mostly highlighted. This means one of two things: 1) I don’t know how to highlight or, 2) it’s absolutely brilliant. Among the many highlighted passages there’s one that stands out to me at this exact moment as I think about the nature of liberal Judaism in the world today.
In describing Nietzche’s contribution to a postmodern understanding of the contingency of selfhood, Rorty writes, “They [certain philosophers that Rorty praises] accept Nietzche’s identification of the strong poet, the maker, as humanity’s hero– rather than the scientist, who is traditionally pictured as a finder” (Rorty, 1989, p. 24).
The maker categorically rejects the temptation to inherit. She resists the temptation to define herself using someone else’s language. She refuses to copy, to adopt, and to conform. She’d rather be a misunderstood or failed metaphor than an already dead metaphor. Novelty is her aspiration, redefinition and redescription are her aims. She strives, she smashes idols, and is relentless in her pursuit of new language to describe her selfhood and her place in the world. Unavailable to her are all previous attempts at articulating meaning– religion, philosophy, theology, metaphysics, science. If it’s been done then it cannot be made, only remade, remixed, reiterated. The maker’s task is to do something new.
The finder seeks patterns, looks for evidence that will help evolve theory into law. She isn’t necessarily a metaphysician, priest, or positivist, but she isn’t emphatically opposed to the idea of inherited wisdom. She remains open to the possibility that meaning is “out there” and that wisdom can be sought, heard, and integrated into the tapestry of her life.
If liberal Judaism and Judaism generally is to survive then we need both makers and finders.
Judaism is fairly comfortable with finders. Our tradition teaches, hafoch bah d’chuleh bah (“turn the Torah over and over for everything is within it). Clearly the finder’s orientation sits comfortably within the paramaters of the Jewish hermeneutical tradition. When it comes to makers Judaism is decidedly more ambivalent, even antagonistic. Hadash asur min ha-Torah (“innovation is prohibited by the Torah”)– a famous teaching of the Chatam Sofer (18th-19th century rabbi) the 18th-19th conveys this antagonism. Given Judaism’s enduring commitment to Torah and the rich traditions associated with Jewish history and practice, the question of how to embrace “makers” is both sincere and significant.
The most obvious way of incorporating makers into the Jewish story is to point out that they’ve always been there. The three Moses’– Moshe Rabbenu, Moses Maimonides (Rambam), and Moses Mendelssohn (the great Enlightenment philosopher) come to mind. More recently, the work of Jewish feminists such as Rachel Adler also come to mind, as does the work of GLBT oriented rabbis like Rabbi Josh Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, GA (where I live and work). I’d like to think that the album of original Jewish music I’m currently recording and producing is an example of “making.” In other words, there’s no shortage of “makers” in the context of Jewish history.
Another way of thinking about the role of “making” in Judaism stems from the traditional idea of Midrash. Midrash comes from the Hebrew root doresh which means “to seek.” Finding and making are two different and complimentary ways of seeking, of doing midrash. The finders task is analytical– she scrutinizes, reviews, deciphers, and unpacks. The makers task is constructive– building, innovating, and creating. The finder uses a microscope and the maker uses a telescope. The finder understands that interpretation is a never ending process. The maker understands that vision and novelty are the guarantors that the Jewish future is even more vibrant than the past.
There’s much more that could be said about makers and finders. We’ll leave it here for now with the intent of returning to explore the dialectical relationship with fresh eyes sometime in the future.