We Shall Do and We Shall Understand: The Afterlives of a Biblical Verse and the Birth of Embodied Theology

03/19/2018 - 7:00pm
Boone Center
Speaker(s) / Presenter(s): 
Sam Shonkoff
     Modernity, a period identified with the “death of metaphysics” and the so-called “death of God,” has posed grave challenges to the very idea of theological doctrines. While countless religious leaders and practitioners have continued to affirm the objective truth of inherited dogmas—with even more zeal than before, in many cases—other religious thinkers have sought to redefine the very nature of “faith,” hinting in various ways that it has less to do with abstract statements about God, or with beliefs about miraculous events, than it does with attention toward lived moments that manifest spiritual meaning. In this vein, a remarkable number of Jewish figures have highlighted the biblical phrase na‘aseh ve-nishma, literally “we shall do and we shall hear,” which the People of Israel cried out at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:7). Following ancient Rabbinic commentaries, these Jewish thinkers indicate that the verse’s strange ordering of doing and hearing teaches a profound theological truth, namely that one must first “do” actions of religious existence in order to “hear” or otherwise grasp divinity. In other words, contrary to logical proofs, theological truth is only intelligible or meaningful in the context of embodied experiences.
     And yet, through examinations of Exodus 24:7 and its many afterlives in post-biblical Jewish exegesis, Shonkoff will argue that this particular interpretation of the verse is in fact distinctively modern, emerging in Hasidic mysticism and flowing thereafter into other tributaries of twentieth-century and contemporary Jewish thought. However, far from diminishing or trivializing the significance of the interpretation, he will suggest that its very recentness draws our attention to important features of modern religious thought, as well as the age-old capacity of religious thinkers to reinterpret sacred scriptures in light of new situations.
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