World Chance De-personalization (Contemporary Art & Ancient Judaism)

Finally finished reading Michael Swartz’s Signifying Creator: Non-Textual Sources of Meaning in Ancient Judaism. This is not exactly new territory for Swartz, who’s scholarship explores magical practice and mystical prayer in the ancient Jewish world. This is a neat little book, and full of surprises.

I like very much the move away from a text-focused model of (ancient) Judaism  towards a more worldly one. “Torah” is still a component in this model, but it is now embedded in “nature,” alongside “objects” and “animals.”

The question of meaning is paramount to this study. Swartz is also interested in how chance elements and meaningless bits of language and linguistic combinations are used to promote healing, love, and other worldly effects.

What surprised me most was the persistent presence of DADA, Surrealism, John Cage, and Andy Warhol in this study of divination in ancient Judaism. This is the first attempt I’ve ever seen of an attempt to bring modern and contemporary aesthetics into the study of ancient Judaism. Modern and contemporary art provide a pivot with which to understand compare ancient semiotics by way of comparison, contrast, and comparison.

In the ancient conception, what appears to be random is never really random, not as random as it is in modern and contemporary aesthetics. For the ancients, meaning is enmeshed in the world as it can’t be for the ancients. But what is common to both models, according to Swartz, is how in both contemporary art and ancient ritual, “meaning” is depersonalized insofar as it is disassociated from a subjective will, intention, or consciousness (p.72).

No longer text-based, the approach to the study of ancient Judaism is object-oriented.

(The cover art is by Suzanne M. Silver, also at Ohio. You find more about her at:

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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