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The Signifying Creator

The Signifying Creator: Nontextual Sources of Meaning in Ancient Judaism

Michael D. Swartz
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 132
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  • Book Info
    The Signifying Creator
    Book Description:

    For centuries, Jews have been known as the "people of the book." It is commonly thought that Judaism in the first several centuries CE found meaning exclusively in textual sources. But there is another approach to meaning to be found in ancient Judaism, one that sees it in the natural world and derives it from visual clues rather than textual ones. According to this conception, God embedded hidden signs in the world that could be read by human beings and interpreted according to complex systems.In exploring the diverse functions of signs outside of the realm of the written word, Swartz introduces unfamiliar sources and motifs from the formative age of Judaism, including magical and divination texts and new interpretations of legends and midrashim from classical rabbinic literature. He shows us how ancient Jews perceived these signs and read them, elaborating on their use of divination, symbolic interpretation of physical features and dress, and interpretations of historical events. As we learn how these ancient people read the world, we begin to see how ancient people found meaning in unexpected ways.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2378-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 Introduction: Outside the Text
    (pp. 1-12)

    Jews have been known for centuries as a “people of the book.” This designation was first applied to Jews in Islam, which they have happily adopted as a description of themselves since the tenth century.¹ It is common to think of classical Judaism as the text-centered civilization par excellence, based on the Torah and its interpretation. But the culture of Jews living in Palestine and Babylonia in late antiquity, from the first century CE to the early Middle Ages, also carried with it a profound tendency to derive meaning from sources outside the text.

    How and where people derive meaning...

  6. 2 Myths of Creation
    (pp. 13-32)

    According to the ancient rabbis, at twilight on the sixth day of creation God created the first pair of tongs. This detail appears in the tractate Avot of the Mishnah, known as the Sayings of the Fathers.¹ It is one of a list of ten things created at twilight on the sixth day of creation, a liminal time in prehistory. The rabbis’ reasoning is as follows: A blacksmith needs a pair of tongs to grasp the iron to make another pair of tongs, and so on; therefore, the first pair must have been created by God himself.²

    This statement is...

  7. 3 The Semiotics of the Priestly Vestments
    (pp. 33-54)

    Since the subject of this chapter is the significance of clothing, we begin with a kind of alternative fairy tale:

    Once upon a time, the emperor of a vast empire wanted to prepare for a great procession. He commissioned his best tailors, who made a great fuss of fitting him and flattering him on how splendid he looked. The day came and the great procession began. But all of a sudden, a child exclaimed, “But the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”

    So the adults said to the child, “Silly child! Don’t you know that clothes are a cultural construction anyway?...

  8. 4 Divination and Its Discontents
    (pp. 55-74)

    In March 1982, Symphony Space in New York celebrated the seventieth birthday of the American composer John Cage by holding an event called “Wall-to-Wall Cage,” a fourteen-hour marathon of composers and musicians performing his works and the works of others who admired and emulated him. Cage’s works are well known for what are often called chance operations. One of his most famous pieces is entitled “4’ 33”,” in which the performer sits at a piano and remains silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. In another piece, “Imaginary Landscape No. 4,” the performer places twelve radios on the stage and...

  9. 5 Bubbling Blood and Rolling Bones
    (pp. 75-90)

    The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, quoting a book attributed to a writer named Hecataeus, tells a story of a Jewish archer named Mosollamus, who was traveling with the Ptolemaic army. At one point the army stopped marching because a bird was flying overhead and the military soothsayer wanted to observe it:

    The seer having pointed out the bird to him, and saying that if it [the bird] stays there, it is expedient for all to wait still longer, and if it rises and flies ahead, to advance, but if [it flies] behind, to withdraw at once, he [Mosollamus], after keeping...

  10. 6 Conclusions: The Signifying Creator
    (pp. 91-94)

    We have seen that ancient Jews looked not only to the Torah for meaning but to the created world as well. As a consequence they saw a complex world of images, animate and inanimate beings, and events as potential signifiers. We must consider this conception in light of the tendency to see classical Judaic thought as inherently pantextual. The alternative creation myths provided a metaphysical and theological rationale for seeing the physical world as intentionally meaningful; the priestly vestments were understood to constitute a complex system of communication between Israel and the divine realm; and the technical level of divination...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 95-116)
  12. Index
    (pp. 117-119)
  13. About the Author
    (pp. 120-120)