As readers of my blogging (here and at the JCRT Live blog) and my most recent essay in Anthropoetics (“Marginalist Politics, Originary Grammar”), are aware, I have been compelled to address the issue of imperatives—in ethics, in economics, in politics and in thinking. This is part of my project of generating a grammatical conceptual vocabulary, and the next step I would like to take along that line is to make my exploration of the imperative (as exemplary of everything that actually happens within the frame or space constituted ostensively) more complex and articulate; and, at the same time, to bring it more clearly into accord with other terms that have been important to my political thinking, in particular, covenant—which at first glance is located at the antipodes from what I have been calling the imperative order. Finally, these questions have converged, for me, with the polemic, which seems to me as important and underdeveloped as ever, between the Christian and Judaic revelations, which has in turn become urgent to me due to my growing attention to, and admiration for, Christianity. I hope my framing of that polemic will take my originary grammar in new, productive and hopefully more evidently “relevant” directions.
First of all, I confess to have neglected the rich terrain of the imperative itself, which ranges from the brute command—which could be issued to an animal (“fetch!”)—to God’s command to the not yet existing world in Genesis: “let there be…” (really, just “Be…!”). “Have it your way” is, grammatically, an imperative, as are most forms of granting permission; while being “charged” with a task is somewhat different from “obeying” orders. Think, also, about tellingly obsolete words like “heed” and “hearken,” which are used to frame imperatives but call for something much more than “obedience.” So, how to organize this field? The distinction that presents itself here regards the relation between imperatives and their accompanying ostensives. Any imperative requires an ostensive signifying the fulfillment of the imperative (someone has to attest that I did as I was bid); but some imperatives require, in addition, an ostensive signifying acceptance of the imperative in advance of its fulfillment—an endorsement or acknowledgement, as opposed to mere a posteriori verification. An imperative requiring acknowledgement presupposes two separate and autonomous persons, whereas as one calling only for verification after the fact implies complete domination, whether of one individual by the other, or both by some exigent circumstances (“let’s get out of here!”—the imperative seems to come from the reality itself, with the individual conveying it the equivalent of a ventriloquist’s dummy, however unjust the comparison to the person with the wits to respond to the emergency). The acknowledged imperative implies a minimal equality (even, say in the soldier’s “Yes sir!”), while equality is either absent or beside the point in unacknowledged ones (as it would be as meaningless to speak about the “equality” of scattered masses fleeing a storm or a massacre as to speak of the equality of sheep in a flock).
There are other important distinctions to be made. For example, among acknowledged imperatives, we might distinguish between those which acknowledge the imperative and those which acknowledge their source. (“Yes sir!” affirms the source of authority, and is the same form used to reply to all particular imperatives, while less formalized responses would limit obedience to the specific task—“I’ll get right on that,” with the emphasis of “that.”) We might distinguish between various periods allowed between imperative and its fulfillment, between different protocols for verification (must someone other than the source of the imperative be involved in the verification of its fulfillment?), and so on. But I suspect we would be able to present all these distinctions as differentiations among acknowledged and unacknowledged imperatives—for example, a very prolonged period between imperative and fulfillment would seem to require acknowledgement, and the distinction between acknowledging the source and acknowledging the purpose of the imperative would really be a distinction between affirming a prior acknowledgement of an imperative order (an authority) and an acknowledgment concerned only with this particular imperative.
So, I have consented when I have acknowledged the imperative before fulfilling it and when such acknowledgment is expected by the giver of the imperative. It seems to me reasonable to assume that the notion of “consent” would have evolved out of asymmetrical situations involving imperatives that could no longer simply be imposed. The broader sense of consent, say in the exchange of goods or promises, breaks with the simple asymmetry of the imperative not by transcending that asymmetry but by introducing a model that all parties are obeying equally: the model of he-who-refuses-to-participate-in-scapegoating, or, even more, who-is-willing-to-take-the-scapegoat’s-place. We can only have freedom, a free society, equality or isonomy, once that model is in place and we are deriving the imperatives of our being from it.
The Jewish discovery, formulation and resolution of this “problematic” remains unparalleled in its radicalism: it insists upon the minimality of the model of God at the center of the human scene. The Bible provides models of God’s actions and God’s Being—we could write a “biography” of God drawing upon Biblical materials, and hence we could imitate Him—but always as a concession to present human capacities, and always as a way of drawing God’s people closer to that which make specific models of God less important: the law. By following the law, Israel is to become a model to humanity for living without representable models: that is, models so minimal that they offer only general imperatives (do justice, choose life, etc.) that preclude (like the American Constitution’s prohibition on Bills of Attainder) singling out individuals and which each recipient must take upon him/herself. This is only possible through the abolition of human sacrifice or scapegoating, through the felt need of a mode of divinity upon which hands could not be laid.
The Judaic revelation, then, insists that once the law is revealed, no further revelations are necessary—the working out of the law is the realization and further perfection of the revelation. The Christian objection to this argument, as I understand it, is that the law inevitably loses contact with its source and becomes formulaic, faithless and, in perhaps the most charged accusation in the New Testament, “hypocritical”: your punishment of those outside of the law just reflects your satisfaction at being inside it. In privileging “faith” over law, Christianity obviously isn’t promoting lawlessness; rather, it is arguing that only faith can give “spirit” to the “body” of the law—you must obey the law, surely, but not grudgingly and with an eye towards the approval of others; rather, you should, in your obedience to the law, fully put forth a sign of your acknowledgement of He who stands behind and transcends the law, and transcends your own attempts to fulfill it. Indeed, this means (and here is where it seems to me Christianity is really at odds with Judaism) enacting the limits of the law through “faithful” actions the law couldn’t have anticipated and has no authority to forbid.
The Jewish counter-argument, it seems to me, lies in its sacralization of language—Hebrew is the holy tongue, while prohibitions against translating the Bible in Christian countries concerned the authority of the clergy and not the authenticity of the original language. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Christianity’s privileging of the signified over the signifier is almost total.) And this sacralization is inseparable from writing, while the covenant is inseparable from the written text. Written language makes language available as an object, divisible and given to various articulations—it is not only letters that we can only talk about as a result of writing, but syllables, words and sentences as well. David Olsen argues that the logic governing writing in its representation of speech is to control the interlocutionary force of the utterance recorded, which is to say to reduce the utterance’s repetition by readers to the original linguistic event. But it’s easy enough to turn this logic around and suggest that eventually writers would discover that this also meant the possibility of multiplying without limit the linguistic events generated by the text. And the writers of the Talmud certainly did discover this.
The distinction between “oral” and “written” law in Jewish tradition paradoxically privileges the oral while acknowledging that what has been written down has been most worth preserving, and therefore the core of the oral law itself. This concession to necessity also licenses a writing that mimics orality, in its dialogic and digressive character, while exploiting the full resources of the written text—sight puns, the possibilities of removing a single letter from a word, starting a sentence at various points, the numerical values assigned to letters and so on. This honors the law by continually enhancing it and keeping us within its text. And the other critical distinction of Rabbinic method, between “halakha” and “aggadah,” or law and story, does the same—the aggadah narrativizes the law, not only by playing out scenarios predicated upon one or another interpretation, but by transforming its progenitors, the post-exilic Rabbis, into almost biblical sized heroes, and transforming the actual heroes of the Bible into Rabbis, arguing the finer points of the law. Indeed, God Himself often enters the scene, sometimes in familiar and even homely roles, other times in more menacing forms, but always in the manner necessary to hypothesize an origin of the law that sanctions both the law’s irrevocable nature and the legitimacy of endless discussion of its application. The law is sufficient, that is, to continually generate hypotheses of the law’s emergence and revised terms of its evolution, to maintain its divine sanction while reducing that sanction to maintaining the collegiality and accountability of its interpreters and the inexhaustibility of the shared text.
If consent is when we endorse or affirm the imperative we have received, covenant is when we endorse or affirm the model that serves as a source of imperatives: to treat each other as caretakers of the law. The step from consent to covenant lies in our demand that our imperator and model instruct us in fulfilling his commands subsequent to our own, inevitably failed attempt to do so. In making such a demand upon our model one realizes the inadequacy of the model to the demand, and the need for a formal model we can all share. The model for the shared source of imperatives can’t be a super-imperator, because such a model would shut down the demands that called him into being; the model we are looking for must be one upon whom we have in our turn imposed impossible imperatives, and whom we would destroy in insisting upon their fulfillment. That is, it is a negative model, a potential victim, which regulates all imperatives.
The argument between Judaism and Christianity, then, involves how to construct this negative model. For Christianity, it has to be someone who exposes our hypocrisy in treating the law as if it were just a set of automatic commands. For Judaism, it is someone who asked for nothing more than the full measure of the law, and failed to receive it—maybe because of the hypocrisy of the law’s guardians, but maybe due to the political “sin” of factionalism, or the lapse into mimeticism the Bible refers to as “wishing to be like all the other nations,” or some other form of idolatry. Christianity would have us embrace imperatives that we have not the power to obey—our sinfulness interferes with the faith we are commanded to have in God and the love we are commanded to live by. A Christian society would therefore have us honor models that are incommensurable with the compromises of daily life, such as celibacy and monasticism. For Judaism, everyone can attend to the law at least a bit, and that means Judaism allows us to protect ourselves from and direct our anger toward conscious and calculated enemies of the law, an important category of social being that Christianity would easily group with “sinners” more generally or even sympathize with as the victims of “Pharisees.” As models for modernity, then, Christianity proposes Romanticism, also a scourge of hypocrisy and inauthenticity; Judaism proposes constitutionalism, founding as law, writing, power and the limits of power.
In the end, we need both sides of this polemic—we need for them to remain separate, irreconcilable, and reciprocally admiring. One way of articulating the relationship I am proposing is through an examination of the category of “righteous gentile,” invented to honor those members of “unmarked” groups who risked themselves, their families and their communities to save the “marked” during the Nazi genocide. No doubt many of the righteous were Christians, performing what they saw as their Christian duty, and I obviously have no quarrel with this reading of the Christian revelation (for that matter, many were probably secular humanists close enough to humanism’s origin in the further “universalization” of Christianity). But the “logic” of the category, if not the action, seems to me Jewish—what is Jewish, that is, is the codification of this action as a world-changing category of which the law can take cognizance. As a legal and political category which, for example, one nation might recognize in citizens of another, hostile nation, the notion of the “righteous gentile” might support a worldly, even “realistic” politics that would prevent atrocities. At the same time, though, does the centrality of communal self-preservation to the Jewish revelation make Jews qua Jews less likely to put themselves and everyone surrounding them at risk in this way for an Other threatened by some third party? (I am too ignorant to know whether Jewish law accounts for such a possibility—say, protecting a Christian “heretic” who is seeking refuge from the Inquisition—but I suspect it is ill-prepared for it.) (But what about those secularized Jews who have helped extend Christian principles to public life, thereby accelerating modernity? Would this not have been necessary for the universalization of the “righteous gentile”?) Maybe we need the singularity of Christian actions along with the systematization of Jewish codification.
I’m not sure who would be interested in this argument today. It’s a shame it has never actually been had, except perhaps subterraneously, in the complementary emergence of Christianity and Talmudic Judaism in the early centuries of the Common Era. The Christians demonized the Jews and the Jews pretended to ignore the Christians, but one suspects they were watching and listening to each other a lot more closely than that. At any rate, this polemic would provide a better frame for handling our political and ethical discourse than any that we presently have—and might add some new dimensions to the polemics that have become canonical, like “Athens” vs. “Jerusalem.”