From the Talmud to Judith Butler: Audiences as Co-Creators with—and of—the Public Intellectual

The Talmud tells a story: the reason God covenanted with the Jews was that they were the only ones who were willing to take the deal.

According to a commentary on Deuteronomy, “When God revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel but to all the nations.” First God goes to the children of Esau, asking them if they will accept the Torah. They ask him what it contains, God says, “Though shalt not murder,” they say, no thanks.

God goes to the Ammonites and Moabites. Same response, only for them the prohibition against adultery is the deal-breaker. He goes to the Ishmaelites, to all the peoples of the earth. Each time, they turn him down. They can’t accept some portion of the Torah’s instructions and injunctions.

Then God comes to the Jews. They don’t ask questions. They simply “accepted the Torah, with all of its explanations and details.” So God “surrendered them [the Torah and all of its details] to Israel.”

You almost get a sense, reading the midrash, of God’s weariness. The Jews aren’t his first choice, but they’ll take the deal. God’s exhausted, history is made.

It takes two to tango in Jewish theology: God and the people. (My rabbi at Yale, Jim Ponet, used to call “Avi Malkeinu,” the prayer we sing on Yom Kippur, a love song—or dance—between God and the Jewish people.) That’s why the act of covenanting is repeated again and again, through the Jewish Bible. At Sinai (in Exodus), on the verge of entering Canaan (in Deuteronomy), after the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), and after the return from the Babylonian exile (in Nehemia).

God requires a people, the Torah an audience, the text a reader. But as the midrash shows, that people—that audience, that reader—isn’t a passive recipient, the final step of a journey. The reader—the audience, the people—is an active agent in her own right. Not only is she free to refuse the covenant, the text, but she also helps make the covenant and the text what it is. She elaborates it, explains it, interprets it, repeats it, transforms it.

So it is with public intellectuals.

I got to thinking about this issue after a conversation this morning with my friend Ellen Tremper. She pointed me to a wonderful text from Virginia Woolf, “The Reader,” which Woolf apparently never completed, but in which Woolf talks about the active role of the reader, how she is, in some ways, a co-creator—or at least is involved in the creation and transmission—of any text. Ellen pointed out to me that this notion was hovering around the edges of some of my recent work on public intellectuals as well as of an essay I wrote on Fiddler on the Roof, which first appeared on this blog and has now been published at Politics/Letters.

But I realized that, however implicit that notion might be in my argument, the way I’ve construed the topic of public intellectuals still downplays the active role of the audience. Instead it makes the writer a kind of sovereign author, a God-like figure who brings an audience into being. (Someone in the audience at the S-USIH conference, where I first spoke on the topic, also pointed this out to me: that I was relying on a kind of romantic 19th century notion of the intellectual. I knew that he was right, but I also knew that that wasn’t quite what I was thinking or wanted to say. Several people also pointed this out in various comments threads in response to my post on Judith Butler. On Facebook, Lisa Duggan had some especially helpful comments in this regard.)

Speaking with Ellen—and remembering this midrash—gives me a way of thinking more properly about the audience the intellectuals seeks to create. That audience is never the creation of the writer; it is always an independent actor in its own right. The intellectual writes a text, but the audience makes the text what it is. It not only makes the text a public act; it interprets the text, gives it life. Not just life in the here and now, but, with any luck, throughout time. By receiving and then renewing the covenant, the audience turns a temporary agreement, a text of the moment, into a document that not only lives for a few years but forever. It turns a text into a way of life, a way of life that has its own claims to textual autonomy and originality.

When we talk about public intellectuals, not only are we talking about the audience as a recipient or reader of the text, but we are also, necessarily, talking about the audience as an independent, autonomous, and equally original and creative, co-creator of the text.


  1. xenon2 July 2, 2016 at 3:32 pm | #

    Speaking of ‘public intellectuals’, Chris Hedges and Cornel West were the only public intellectual to show up for the trial of Chelsea Manning.Not NYT, WaPo, LATimes, The Guardian.

    How someone got condemned and sentenced for most of her life, the world will little note, except Manning saw Hedges and West there.And that makes all the difference.

  2. Benjamin David Steele July 2, 2016 at 5:08 pm | #

    In a democracy, a public intellectual has a different role. A democracy requires a reasonably well educated and well informed citizenry. So any citizen has the potential to become a public intellectual or at times to play such a role.

    For example, when a parent has studied an educational issue and written an opinion piece for the local newspaper, they are acting as a public intellectual. They can even end up creating a local audience for that issue. And they might find themselves playing a leading role and connecting to others playing a leading role in other communities.

    Public debate is a more participatory process in a democracy and the roles people play are more fluid. It’s less clear these days who is and is not a public intellectual. Being capable of intellectual thought and expressing it publicly isn’t a grand achievement. There is nothing necessarily special about being a public intellectual.

    It’s not like the distant past where literacy and education were rare. Heck, only a century or two ago, literacy or any other aspect of basic education wasn’t that common in much of the world. We are finally at a point where even the majority of descendants of former slaves are free to read and capable of doing so. And now with the internet anyone can be heard and even gather a fairly large audience. Then, in doing so, they can have significant influence.

    Here I am writing this comment. Are you the public intellectual and I the audience? I’ve written posts that have gotten attention and I have people I consider public intellectuals who sometimes comment on my blog. Does that make me the public intellectual and they the audience? Or do those labels not capture the essence of the relationship?

    Maybe, in a democracy, there is simply public discourse and debate which includes anyone who joins in. The old romantic notion of public intellectual being particularly inapplicable. The democratic audience is lacking passivity to an extreme degree. Any schmuck can come along and contribute something important or act as a gadfly.

  3. John Merryman July 2, 2016 at 10:59 pm | #

    The basic problem with the conventional, monotheistic God is a spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience from which we rise, not an ideal of knowledge and judgment from which we fell.
    Information is always as much a function of the frame, as well as the content, otherwise it would be noise. A spirit without form would not be superhuman, but simply nebulous.
    Even the puppet pulls back on its strings, giving meaning to the puppeteer.
    The problem with a God of knowledge is that knowledge is divergent. Ask Adam and Eve and the problems with the tree of knowledge.
    The issue is what makes society converge? As individuals, we have many desires and needs, but only one will, which is the summation of all those impulses. How does a society mediate the direction of its will? Religion, culture, government, politics, etc. Keep in mind the two classical instances of pluralistic government, Democratic Athens and Republican Rome, started within a pantheistic religious model. Monotheism has been used to validate the “divine right of kings” and requires separation of church and state to function within a democratic society.
    We push against our limits and they push back. The ultimate limit of humanity is the planet and possibly a few colonies on the Moon and Mars. Only hardware and possibly some bacteria will ever go further.
    We are about to bounce up against this limit in the not too distant future. We may have to do it several times, before accepting it is what ultimately defines us. Then we will settle into our role as stewards of the planet and not just apex predator of a collapsing ecosystem. The central nervous system of a planetary organism. The Gaia hypothesis come to fruition. The end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.

  4. mark July 3, 2016 at 5:35 am | #

    I think this is why Stefan Collini wrote his ‘Public Moralists’ on Victorian Britain, and that is more the term you are looking for than the usual American Public Intellectuals?

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