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Summary: Hidden Reading and Subversive Reading

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler



Lecture #30:

Summary: Hidden Reading and Subversive Reading





Throughout the length of our series, which we conclude today, we have seen the different methods through which one may draw hidden readings from beneath the revealed surface of the narrative.  The basic assumption of our proposal is that every narrative holds something back; it does not say everything explicitly.  The reader must expend effort in order to draw out the internal aim of the narrative.


In the last generation, a new reading position has progressively developed – the subversive reading of the text. This type of reading draws from the text things that the author apparently never intended; on the contrary, frequently these proposals oppose the view of the author and draw hidden elements from the narrative in a desire “to tell the story anew.”


For example, one of the modern feminist approaches to reading (perhaps it would be more precise to call it “postmodern”) seeks to follow the “female narrative” of different plots, with the recognition that this is not the aim of the narrative and this is not the focus of the author or the narrator. On the contrary, it is often stressed that the narrator has limited, primitive assumptions, and these feminist readings try to reinvent the story and to bestow upon it an identity it did not have before.[1]


These approaches rely to a great extent on the undermining of the author’s authority and its detachment from the narrative. (Roland Barthes terms this “the death of the author” in an essay of the same name, famously analyzed by Michel Foucault in his essay “What is an Author?”) This approach is based on the modern theories of literary analysis; less prominently, but still noticeably, it draws on the idea of “the death of the text,” the basic assumptions of deconstruction formulated by the French (Jewish) philosopher Jacques Derrida.  According to these assumptions, it is difficult to speak of a stable text or of one reading.  Of its very nature, the text is mutable and dynamic, in light of the reader who encounters it and in light of the game of symbols that links different words to each other without one’s knowledge. Thus, narrative elements arrange themselves in the reader’s mind in a surprising way. 




I am not a party to these views; I wish to stress that throughout this series, my analysis of the “hidden reading” has never been meant to bolster a subversive reading such as these. Rather, I have sought to construct a reading that draws out the aim of the narrative in light of the methods of shaping the narrative and in light of the allusions found in the text itself. It is logical to assume that indeed this is the way in which the narrator leads the readers and that this is the original aim of the narrative.  Naturally, no one can prove the original intent of the author, but it is possible, in my view, to feel whether the proposed reading is based on the text or subverts it with the aim of proposing a new meaning for the narrative that is not hidden between its pages.


The border between the two is very fine, and one who is prepared to respond to hidden readings often must struggle with doubts of having fallen into the web of subversive reading and having loaded onto the narrative more than what is truly within it.  Despite the fineness of the boundary, it appears to me that this line exists, and in the following pages it is my desire to try to map it out. 




Before we approach the work of sketching out the borders, it is my desire to point to another fundamental assumption often tied to subversive readings, one that I have adopted and which we have relied upon many times throughout this series.  Throughout our analysis, we have used the term “the reader” in order to attempt to present the experience that the reader of the narrative goes through.  This reflects the fact that in order to fully interpret the narrative, one must pay attention to the dialogue that the narrative encourages between the narrator and the reader. In other words, the narrative by its very nature is turned toward the reader. Without the reader’s response, its aim will not be realized and the message will not be transmitted.  Nevertheless, the narrative itself constitutes the focus of our analysis, even if we have followed the process of the reader.


I will explain this point. In the last few generations, new literary approaches have prevailed. Roman Ingarden sought to apply Edmund Husserl’s theories of phenomenology to literature, causing the text to lose something of its stability; the work of giving significance to a narrative passes, broadly, into the hands of the readers.  We will not delve deeply into these extensive topics, but only point out that according to Ingarden, one must distinguish between autonomous and heteronomous objects. Autonomous objects have independent features existing in their own right, while heteronomous objects require a combination of their own independent features along with attributes ascribed to them by the consciousness of one who encounters them.  Narrative details are naturally heteronomous, requiring the consciousness of the reader in order to realize them.  Therefore, it is accepted to speak of concretization or realization of the narrative by the reader.  Naturally, there is also a supreme significance to the reader’s identity, and, in fact, every narrative is designed for a figure described by many thinkers in different ways - Jonathan Culler’s “ideal reader,” Stanley Fish's "informed reader," and (perhaps the most widely accepted) Wayne Booth’s “implied reader.”


There are distinctions between these different definitions of the reader; some describe an actual reader addressed by the narrative, while others see the reader as a “theoretical construct,” in the words of Rimmon-Kenan,[2] or a “metonymical characterization of the text,” as Perry puts it.[3] In other words, “the reader” represents the exegetical process through the text, the reading experience towards which the narrative is driving.  I have used this term throughout this series to refer to the abstract reader, the reader who represents the consciousness of the reading that the narrative itself evokes in light of the literary forms and structure within it.


Because of this, when we talk about “the reader,” there is no intent to abandon the narrative itself and to wonder about the experience of the reader as a critical subject on its own, but rather a reflection of the journey that the narrative encourages. In light of this, I wish to address the distinction between the hidden reading and the subversive reading.




The border between the two positions of reading is tied to three parameters of the act of reading: the reader, the reading process, and the relationship to the text itself.


The Reader


Perhaps the most important distinction between a subversive reader and a reader seeking hidden readings is the basic mental relationship in terms of the text that one reads. When one adopts a subversive reading, one declares himself a critic of the text ab initio.  This reader has left the audience to which the narrative is directed.  In fact, this reader often shows scorn for those who blithely follow the manipulative rhetoric of the narrator and succumb to the narrator’s messages.  In the logic of the subversive reading, the reader must be emancipated from the chains of the framework of the narrator, and in this sense, there is no pretension of conducting a dialogue with the text. One creates a new, surprising and stirring monologue in opposition to the text. 


These subversive readings are applied to biblical narrative as well, and logically have the power to move the story to greener pastures. However, this fact in itself renders this approach wholly irrelevant for anyone who seeks to be part of the story, part of the audience listening to the tale. 


Let me share an anecdote.  Recently, I went with a friend of mine to a musical performance. When we entered, we were offered a unique opportunity: to observe the performance from the vantage point normally reserved for the sound and lighting crew, observing everything from a much broader perspective.  We accepted, and at the beginning of the show, we indeed sat up there, and we watched what was happening both onstage and in the audience.  After a number of minutes, we understood our horrible mistake, and we quickly descended to our normal seats.  Our error, of course, lay in the feeling I describe a sentence ago: “we watched what was happening.” We were not part of what was happening; we were only watching it.  It appears that this experience accompanies the subversive readers — they do not become “part of the story” in the traditional role of readers, but rather turn into observers, external critics. Subversive readers do not merely observe the story, but they observe the observers — more precisely, the readers.  The response of the audience becomes part of the subject of criticism to which they are external. 


These points are appropriate for a subversive reading as is, but they are all the more correct when it comes to the biblical narrative.  Since the main tendency of the narrative is an educational aim, when one steps out of the target audience of the narrative, one is no longer ready to respond to the narrator’s aim; rather, one seeks to create a new significance of his or her own and thus cannot be educated.  In other words, the narrative does not leave on such a reader its impression and its mark; this reader cannot point to the meaning of the narrative, as the mental impression left on the reader is an integral element. The subversive reader educates himself or herself, but not through the educational message of the narrative.


The Process of Reading


Beyond the position of the reader and his or her basic assumptions before the encounter with the narrative, a fundamental distinction exists between the two approaches in the reading process.  What is the reader looking for? What is the reader seeking? In each case, the reader wonders what hides from his or her view, what is not written explicitly but can be encountered in the text.  Despite this, the processes that our two readers undergo are very different.


The subversive reader looks for the abandoned parts of the narrative, for the details mentioned in its periphery. (Some of the thinkers associated with deconstruction express this explicitly).  Specifically in these places, the reader can point to a side character, for example, and tell the tale according to that character’s viewpoint. In these places, this reader will find undeveloped motifs, yielding a wider field in which to craft a new reading.  On the other hand, the reader who asks what is hidden in the narrative seeks to respond to the natural flow of the narrative.  On the contrary, were this reader to feel that there is a motif shoved to the side, this would constitute a proof that the narrator is not interested in developing it and therefore puts it in an unimpressive position.  However, one must be careful about this, because at times some of these points are hidden in order to allow them to be raised by-the-way, incidentally as it were, while they hold a significant allusion to the narrative’s true aim.


Naturally, while the subversive reader wants to be freed from the hegemony of the narrator and from the reading process that the narrator encourages, the seeker of hidden readings wants to be absorbed in the narrative, wherever the narrator may bring it, even if it is not accomplished by bare hands but by cryptic winks only. 


Relationship to the Text of the Narrative


The third focus by which one can express the gap between the two readings relates to the relationship to the narrative itself.  Here, in fact, we are talking about the converse of what we first mentioned, the position of the reader.


Above, we noted that the subversive reader does not see himself or herself as part of the events of the narrative; he or she experiences the text as an “other.” This matter influences the relationship to the narrative itself.  Does a narrative exist without the reader?  Does it have meaning independent of the reader, or does it — as is accepted in postmodern literary theory — come alive solely in the mind of the reader?  This question appears negligible, but when we discuss biblical narrative, this issue becomes significant.  As we saw above, many today agree that at the end of the day, the reader’s encounter with the story gives birth to the true meaning of the narrative. 


The reader has an obligation to interpret the narrative, certainly when we talk about hidden readings that are not prominent in the first and na?ve reading of the narrative.  However, after interpreting the narrative, he may take two different positions. The subversive reader actually narrates himself or herself; the reader creates his or her own story, which is explicitly a narrative alternative to the written text. On the other hand, one who champions the hidden approach to reading feels the narrative as existing in an objective way, beyond the reader.  According to this claim, different readers can reach the same meaning of the narrative by responding to the allusions in the narrative.  Even if we refer to the dialogue of the reader with the narrative, we are talking about collective dialogue that many are invited to; the narrative itself is the main speaker in this dialogue, and the reader mainly listens.


If we analyze the first parameter — the reader — and the third parameter — the narrative — together, it appears that we are, in fact, talking about two sides of the same coin; even if they appear at first to be opposition, in fact one emerges from the other.  In a subversive reading, the reader sees himself or herself as separate from the text, reading the narrative through the experience of otherness, and especially because of this, the reader can tell the tale anew.  Naturally, the narrative that one has created occurs within oneself, and the original story has no independent standing; it is being told anew. 


On the other hand, the hidden reading is an involved reading, or perhaps it is more correct to call it a conversational reading — the reader maintains living communication with the story before him or her. In this sense, the reader listens to the text and seeks to respond to what is hidden in it. At the end of the day, the feeling is that it draws from the verse itself its significance. Therefore, this meaning remains as the objective expression of the text separate from the reader, even if the only the sensitive reader can realize it. 


Thus, one may describe the two reading processes discussed as two opposing axes: 


The subversive reader begins the journey from a position that is separate and alienated from the text and its authentic aims, and finishes the reading in a new narrative in which the reader is totally involved in telling his or her story, created by that individual’s encounter with the original text. On the other hand, the reader searching for the hidden aims of the narrative starts his or her journey from an involved position, striving to be part of the target audience that the narrative addresses. Specifically because of this, at the end of the day, this reader’s proposed reading dares to be an objective reading of the text.


As I said before, it is now common in critical circles to indulge in tendentious exegesis that seeks from the beginning to read the narrative with a search for certain aims, whether it is the original aim of the narrative or not. However, in point of fact, and surprisingly so, a similar approach (even if it is different in a number of characteristic aspects) may be found in the Chassidic reading of the Torah’s portions.  Many of these sermons reinvent the narrative without any connection to its original aim; the reader determines a destination at the point of departure, well before the encounter with the specific narrative.  As an extreme example, let us pick a famous vort of R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe. 


In Devarim 5:5, Moshe says to the nation: “I was standing between God and you.” The simple meaning is, evidently, that Moshe is describing the lofty convocation at Mount Sinai, stressing that he was standing as the interlocutor, mediating between God and the nation in order to communicate God’s word to the people. Since Moshe is speaking for himself, he uses the first person. 


With this, the Kotzker offers the following explanation: “Anokhi”, the egotism[4] of a person, is what stands “between God and you,” that is, separates between a human being and the Creator. It constitutes a barrier and a wall that separates between man and God. 


Needless to say, this proposal of reading this verse goes beyond the bounds of the simple meaning, and even one who may adopt the basic assumptions of the hidden reading will feel that the Kotzker is proposing here a reading that goes beyond the permitted boundaries (as long as we are talking about the simple meaning of the verse). But why is this so? In fact, the word anokhi can arouse linguistic-aural associations with the word anokhiyut. Perhaps, in fact, there is a certain hidden reading in the verse that alludes to the hermeneutics of the Kotzker! It appears to me that indeed one may define the reading of the Kotzker as a subversive reading, in the sense that it is clear to whoever hears the vort that this is not intent of the verse, but rather of the exegete. In other words, the Kotzker Rebbe seeks to educate those who hear his message of opposing egocentric feelings and abandoning egotism, and he uses the verse in order to make his point resound.


This will be clarified if we return to the three parameters by which we may detect the border between the hidden reading and the subversive reading. We may contend that indeed the Kotzker’s vort is appropriate for definitions of the subversive reading.


Clearly, the Kotzker does not disrespect the original intention of the verse; however, in this sermon, he indeed proposes to see himself as a creator, and not one who listens to the text.  In terms of the context, we cannot read the verse according to the Kotzker’s proposal; the very term anokhiyut is not a biblical word and we cannot claim an intentional connotation such as this. Nevertheless, as emancipated from the chains of the simple meaning, the chains of the narrative and the chains of the author’s intent, the Kotzer forges a new reading, moving the narrative anew so that it will dovetail with his aim. 


Furthermore, in terms of the reading process, it is clear that the Kotzker in his vort does not respond to the place to which the narrator brings him; rather, he blazes a new a trail.  This path is indeed brilliant and innovative and can cause great enjoyment, but in this reading process, one does not ask whether this is the essential focus of the narrative.  On the contrary, the Kotzker takes the verse, which opens a complete speech, chops it at its halfway point, and claims a hidden meaning. 


Finally, the new narrative that is created in the face of the Kotzker’s reading is not found in an objective way in the text beyond him. This is the narrative of a rebbe who wants to encourage his adherents not to act in an anokhi way. This is the “personal story” that only a position of otherness as a point of departure can allow.


We thus learn that what is shared by Chassidic exegetical readings and feminist postmodern readings: both of them are emancipated from the narrative’s chains and the narrator’s chains, and both seek to create a new story.  On the other hand, those who embrace the hidden reading, as we have said, seek to hide themselves beneath the wings of the narrative, to nullify themselves in the face of the narrator, and to create a reading experience akin to listening - listening to what is written via the words and listening to what is written in the space between the words, a space created by the words themselves.


With these words, our series comes to an end.  There are other extensive and significant literary elements that we have not discussed at all (e.g., allusions, literary analogies, structures of repetition in the narrative, character development, methods of assessment, etc.). However, the academic year of the Virtual Beit Midrash is drawing to a close, and since, with my limitations, I cannot hope to cover all of these topics in their entirety, it is best to stop here.


May God send us all blessings and peace, and may we be comforted with the rebuilding of Jerusalem. 

Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch

[1]     For more information on feminist readings and subversive reading, see the book by Orly Lubin, Isha Koret Isha (Haifa, 5763), mainly in the second chapter (“Subversion”).

[2]     Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Ha-Poetica shel Ha-Sifrut Be-Yameinu, trans. H. Herzig (Tel Aviv, 1989), p. 113.

[3]     M. Perry, “Ha-Dynamica shel Ha-Text Ha-Sifruti: Eikh Kovei’a Seder Ha-Text et Mashmauyotav,” Ha-Sifrut 28 (5739), p. 10.

[4]     Translator’s note: Here the verse uses the term “anokhi” for the first-person singular pronoun, which is a bit less popular in the Torah than the term “ani”. In modern Hebrew (as of the last century), the latter has become the dominant term, and “anokhi” has for the most part become an adjective meaning selfish or egocentric. The term for egotism is thus “anokhiyut.