I spent the first week of June lodging on Jesus Lane at Westcott House in Cambridge, England. (For those for whom the point might be too subtle, there is also a Jesus College, a Christ’s College, a Corpus Christi College, an Emmanuel College and a Trinity College.) I was, along with about twenty other scholars, the guest of the Cambridge Interfaith Program of the Faculty of Divinity. CIP is the gracious host and home of the Scriptural Reasoning-University conference. Scriptural Reasoning is the brainchild of Peter Ochs and Dan Hardy (obm), along with Bob Gibbs, Steve Kepnes, David Ford and other fine folk. SR is an offspring of Textual Reasoning (which, back in the days when communication consisted of hammer, chisel and bitnet was called the “Post-modern Jewish Philosophy Bitnetwork”). TR, also founded by Ochs, Kepnes and Gibbs was started in the early 90s (back when everybody was deconstructing some binary or another) by Jewish philosophers frustrated by the canon and canonical thinking in the field of Jewish philosophy, and by text scholars (Talmudists, Midrashists, Kabbalists, etc.) frustrated by the perceived straitjacket of the historical-critical method which mostly still defined the field. I was one of the latter folks, along with Shaul Magid, Elliot Wolfson, Charlotte Fonrobert and others. We met once a year at the American Academy of Religion conference, drank beer, studied texts and crossed disciplinary boundaries.
The main move, to my mind, was disrespecting the territorial claims of academic fields. When we studied a Talmudic text, for example, the Talmudist(s) in the room had no greater privilege to define the discourse (beyond, perhaps, defining actual words in the old fashioned dictionary sense) than the philosophers did.
At a certain point some Christian theologians wanted to join the party, followed by some Moslem scholars. Still the main move remained the same. No one was allowed to claim privilege of interpretation over “their” text. This simple move demands an enormous amount of faith, since everybody’s cherished reading of their texts, grounded in centuries of tradition, is up for grabs when someone is invited into the conversation who “doesn’t know the rules.” When it works, the process (which is the point) is amazing. Texts that are usually separated by walls of tradition, and sometimes by actual walls and borders, reverberate with each other. Moslems suggest readings of Rashi’s understanding of the Hagar story and Jews argue about John 4. Razi’s commentary on Sura 4 is used to illuminate Jacob’s relationship with Leah.
SR defies both tradition, which demands its territorial integrity, and academe, which demands that conferences and research be about product. SR is about what happens in the room, around the table, with the texts.
Nicholas Adams, a long time participant in the Cambridge group, describes one of the characteristics of Scriptural Reasoning as follows.
One of the features of scriptural reasoning that make it interesting is the constant surprises that it holds, even for experienced participants.…
Scriptural Reasoning practises a different relation of the past and future, and a different model of causality. To be open to surprises is to deny that the past causes the future in a strong sense. To describe something as a surprise is precisely to deny a narrow conception of causality. In some ways surprises are descriptions of events that give the future priority over the past. … With respect to a politically sensitive practice like scriptural reasoning, where the histories of the three traditions have each other’s blood on their hands, and bones underfoot, this is a significant matter. If there are surprises then the past is allowed to be the past, but it cannot wholly cause the future. … Friendship is made possible not only by repairing the past, if that is even possible, but by being open to the future. (Nicholas Adams, “Making Deep Reasonings Public,” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning 47-49)
We seven or eight or nine men and women, from the US and Canada and England and Pakistan and Turkey, are sitting around this table studying these sacred texts in their original languages and in translation, and we are creating the future.
Ultimately this is a bet midrash whose short term goal is to find a certain comfort in the company of texts that are supposedly not one’s own, in the company of scholars who are supposedly Other. The long term goal is the radical transformation of the role of religion in the world, as a broad highway of hope and peace rather than a cudgel of cruelty and divisiveness.
One of the more exciting aspects of SR in Cambridge is its outreach in civic engagement. Towards the end of the week that I was there, a group of thirty or so Londoners (non-academic Jews, Christians and Moslems) made the trek to Cambridge for a two day intensive on how to do Scriptural Reasoning. They were then going back to London to start SR groups-many of which are already up and running throughout London. Scriptural Reasoning is one of the modes of interfaith work employed at St. Ethelberga’s, an amazing home of peace and reconciliation.
SR now has a website, and a dream for SR groups to be started in one thousand North American cities. Join the party.