Friday, May 01, 2020

Evening Note for Friday, May 1

Thought for the Evening: Modes of Reference in Rituals

In a paper that should be better known, "Modes of Reference in the Rituals of Judaism" [Religious Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 109-128], Josef Stern applied some ideas of Nelson Goodman's theory of symbols in art to various Jewish rituals (as you might expect from the title). I'm not especially impressed by Goodman's account in general, but Stern, I think, does a good job of capturing what is of value in it.

Goodman takes symbols to be primarily constituted by reference, in which they stand for something; but there are different ways things can stand for something. There are several, but two notable ones are denotation, in which something like a description or a word attributes something to something as the possession of the latter, and exemplification, in which the symbol possesses that to which it refers and thus exhibits it, like a sample of something.

What Stern does is take this and apply the ideas to "ritual gestures", by which he means "all actions and objects that achieve ritual status" (p. 109). Judaism, of course, is very ritual-rich. The ritual gestures of Judaism do not merely act as symbols, but they do act as symbols of various kinds. When we look out how these ritual gestures refer, we get several varieties, which are sometimes found in simple forms but sometimes mixed in complex ways.

(1) Representation, which is essentially denotation. A typical case of this is the ritual gesture that is a commemoration. Circumcision, for instance, commemorates the covenant of Abraham by way of Scriptural authority; there is nothing particularly about circumcision itself that suggests Abraham or covenants, but Scriptural authority sets a precedent and a standard for its use as a way to refer to the Abrahamic covenant in order to bring it to mind. Others might do so in a way that's more 'pictorial', like haroset at Passover, which commemorates slavery in Egypt; a paste of fruits and nuts, its muddy color and texture is a sort of pictorial representation of mortar for bricks. Yet others might do so more metaphorically or metonymically, by depicting or suggesting something related to or like that to which they refer.

(2) Exemplification. Exemplification is not complete reiteration; as a symbolic mode of reference it generally takes a little something (we might say) that is of the same type as what it refers to. Stern's example is that Israel is commanded (Dt 26:2) to bring every first fruit; given that this is, if taken hyperliterally, usually impracticable, and given that offering first fruits is by its nature a symbolic offering anyway, the Rabbis have generally taken this to mean that you should bring first fruits capable of representing every first fruit, namely, the seven specifically mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8. All of these are actually first fruits, but they also stand for all first fruits whatsoever.

(3) Expression, which is a form of exemplification that works figuratively. Bowing at the beginning of the benedictions of the Amidah expresses homage. It does not do so because the person bowing has feelings of homage. In fact, it is the reverse: the point of the bowing is to put the person bowing in a state of mind that is at least suitable to such feelings.

All three of these are often found in combination. Take representation and exemplification. "While denotation is the preponderant mode of reference for (verbal) languages, and exemplification is more central to the arts, the two frequently function in tandem in ritual gestures" (p. 112). The bitter herbs of Passover both exemplify the bitter herbs used in the ancient Passovers and also commemorate the sudden flight from Egypt, and this is quite common; indeed, the interaction between these two modes of reference often lead to further symbolizations associated with them. This leads to the forming of symbol-chains, which give to ritual a living flexibility.

While these three are in some way fundamental, there are other kinds of reference in which ritual gestures refer to other, parallel ritual gestures.

(4) Allusion. One ritual may have reference to another; Stern notes that the rabbis will sometimes explain a Sukkot ritual by a Shavuot ritual. Another example that he doesn't use is that there's a lot of evidence that early Hanukkah rituals were modeled on Sukkot rituals; Hanukkah, the feast of dedication, was a relatively new celebration, and as it was a joyful celebration for the people, it was done by partial imitation of the major festival that was both joyful and popular in its actual celebration, namely, Sukkot, the festival of tabernacles. But it's not as if the early ritual gestures were just direct copies; they were adaptations to different purposes, and the rituals were modified accordingly, sometimes quite heavily.

(5) Re-enactment. A re-enactment is a token of the same type as that to which it refers, so as to be a successor to it in a series. Thus a Sabbath ritual gesture, which commemorates Creation, is also a re-enactment of previous Sabbath ritual gestures. A Passover seder is both a commemoration of the Exodus and a re-enactment of past Passover seders going back to the original.

(6) However, perhaps the most important way in which a ritual gesture would refer to others, is one for which Stern doesn't settle on a name but which we might call Co-participation. In the Passover seder there is a recitation of the Haggadah. The Haggadah commemorates the Exodus both by description and by dramatic portrayal; it is an exemplification of the kind of thing that is commanded to be done for Passover in Exodus 13:8; it re-enacts previous recitations; but it does something more. The Haggadah represents those participating in the seder as in some way involved with the Exodus itself. This goes beyond commemoration in the ordinary sense. The way Stern tries to explain this is by suggesting that this is tied up to the nature of the ritual as a story, and in particular as a story of stories. Storytelling of the sort that is expected in the seder is not simply a description, but an imaginative appropriation; but the Haggadah doesn't simply tell the participants to do this, it walks the participants through it, in going through samples of how prior generations did this. And in participating in the recitation in this way, the participant is also participating in the community of all those who have done this in the past. "Through this mode of symbolization, the Exodus thus serves, not only as the historical beginning of the nation of Israel, but as an imaginative origin by which the Jewish community is regularly recreated through its performance of ritual" (p. 128).

This is not necessarily a perfectly exhaustive list, although obviously it covers a great deal. But the strength of it lies in its generalizability.

Various Links of Interest

* A Close Look at the Frontrunning Coronavirus Vaccines As of April 23

* At the Journal of the History of Philosophy:
Anselm Spindler, Politics and Collective Action in Thomas Aquinas's On Kingship
Deborah Boyle, Mary Shepherd on Mind, Soul, Self
Edward Slowik, Cartesian Holenmerism and Its Discontents
Lawrence Pasternack, Restoring Kant's Conception of the Highest Good
Dario Perinetti, Hume at La Flèche
Terry Echterling, What Did Glaucon Draw?

* √Čtienne Brown, Kant’s Doctrine of the Highest Good: A Theologico-Political Interpretation

* Tyler Hildegrand, Non-Humean Theories of Natural Necessity

* Nathan Pinkoski, How Not to Challenge the Integralists

* Charles De Koninck, The End of the Family and the End of Civil Society

* Gordon Graham, Scottish Philosophy in the 19th Century, at the SEP

* Snail salves, waters, & syrups at "Early Modern Medicine"

* Gray Connolly, The Geopolitical Lessons of 2020

* Thomas Pink, Suarez on Authority as Coercive Teacher

* The Impossibility of Language Acquisition, an interesting semi-interview with language research pioner Lila Geitman, was a really enjoyable look at the issues in studying language acquisition.

* Kelsey Donk looks at some of the likely effects of the shutdowns on our food supply. Briefly and roughly: most of what we have seen so far has been due simply to adjustment problems, given that we have distinct commercial and grocery food distribution systems and it is very difficult to switch from one to the other; we are not anywhere near a real shortage, since the problem is that we are actually having gluts that we can't sell because we can't distribute them to the people who are buying. These problems will slowly be solved by various sorts of improvised solutions. But food production has to be planned about a year ahead based on what we can do now; as what farmers can do now massively contracts due to distribution problems and the like, we will likely see the effects starting in February of next year. If the lockdowns don't last a long time, the problems will likely be minor disruptions in the U.S. -- milk might become very expensive, bacon might be almost impossible to get, some things might have roller coaster prices or go in and out of availability. Food distribution brownouts, so to speak. The reason they will be minor, however, is that the U.S. is a massive agricultural exporter; what is likely to happen is that we will use domestically what would usually be sold abroad. Since other exporting nations will likely do the same, nations that are less agriculturally self-sufficient -- and there are a lot -- will find their domestic production stretched very thinly. Of course, a lot depends on decisions made between now and next year as to how serious that will become.

Currently Reading

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
Matthew C. Briel, A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios
Stephen Jarvis, Death and Mr. Pickwick

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