“Your Thoughts: Cultural Repertoire”

“Cultural repertoire.”  I learned this term from Dr. David H. Aaron while studying at HUC-JIR.  While he did not coin the term, he did use it extensively and it became a consistently used reflection when studying biblical Hebrew and its history.  One understanding of the term, by Swidler (1986) and Tilly (1992), is that “culture consists of a repertoire of behaviors that includes symbols of meaning and practices selectively used by group members to construct ‘strategies of action’.”  In other words, each culture that exists through time, geography, history, etc has its own understandings of the world.  Each culture has its unique explanation for occurrences, its unique theological overlay, all of which influence how members of that culture make decisions, write, speak, chronicle history, and interpret the world.

This is an extremely important term to remember when studying biblical life as through the lens of the Torah or the Tanakh.  Today, we all read things with lenses on without knowing it.  These lenses contain our own subconscious biases, our thoughts created by experience, and our understandings based upon the influences we have received from family, friends, school, location, time period, and most importantly, religion.  However, when we read the thoughts and writings of authors from other time periods, and other cultures, we must remove these lenses in order to put ourselves in the shoes of the author.  We must understand the author’s cultural repertoire before we can begin to interpret his work.  One cannot read Shakespeare and understand the humor, idioms, or concerns of the characters unless one studies the time period in which Shakespeare is said to have lived.  Well, you can, but you won’t get very far, or you will make wildly inaccurate observations.  The same is true of our current cultural repertoire.  In 500 years when someone picks up a book written at this time, or political statement, they will have to put themselves in the shoes of a 21st century author.

I was teaching Rabbinic law code of the Mishnah and Talmud to a student of mine, and we came across an idiom which, when translated, made absolutely no sense.  I had to explain the idiom and use, and once I did, we could move forward.  I comforted the student that in 1,000 years someone will read the idiom, “cat got your tongue,” and ask “what on earth does a cat have to do with what they were talking about?”

Foucault describes this phenomenon this way: “We are not even sure of ourselves when we use these distinctions in our own world of discourse, let alone when we are analyzing groups of statements which, when first formulated, were distributed, divided, and characterized in a quite different way.”

He continues, “after all, ‘literature’ and ‘politics’ are recent categories, which can be applied to medieval culture, or even classical culture, only by a retrospective hypothesis.”

Too many readers of the Torah and Tanakh forget this principle, and view these texts as timeless; that they could exist fully in 2017 with no issue.  Somehow the moral challenges of slavery seem to fall by the wayside, while polemics against homosexuality somehow rise to the surface of relevance.  Those who interpret the words in this way forget that they are only interpreting the meaning behind the words by retrospective hypothesis.  We cannot possibly understand fully the culture in which these documents were written, despite our ability to study the culture extensively.

When you read the words of the Torah, the laws, the stories, what lenses are you wearing?  Is it possible to take them off, and give the text the historical distance it deserves?  Curious to hear your thoughts.




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