What Work Do the Concepts of “Language” and “Literature” Do for Michael Rosenak?

Dec. 11, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 4, pages 411-433


Michael Rosenak uses the twin metaphors of “language” and “literature,” borrowed from Oakeshott and Peters, to argue that the goal of education is initiation into a language. This goal transcends the study of literature in that language. It includes, as well, the development of the capacity both to critique literature and to produce literature of one’s own. This article compares his use of the language-literature distinction to that of Oakeshott and Peters, revealing some inconsistencies that are driven by his desire to emphasize both autonomy and pluralism, on the one hand, and to maintain a residual essentialism on the other.



For Rosenak, the language-literature distinction helps us to make sense of the way that traditions grow and change over time, while at the same time making sense of their rootedness, their connection back to something stable. When we judge certain interpretations or practices to be authentic, we are implicitly affirming that connection, in effect saying that, yes, this is a legitimate use of the language, this is a work of literature that conforms to its linguistic norms. The language-literature distinction enables Rosenak to articulate a conception of the coexistence of tradition and change.


Furthermore, the distinction represents a repudiation of the anti-interpretive stance promoted by some traditionalists, the idea that one need not interpret a tradition but only apply its eternal truths to any and all situations. In this respect, Rosenak (2003) is firmly in the tradition of Oakeshott and Peters, emphasizing autonomy as an educational goal: “education provides learners with the tools to select literature for use … [and] prepares them to take part in the enterprise of making new literature” (p. 180). The language-literature distinction, therefore, enables Rosenak to articulate a vision of success in Jewish education that is both deeply traditional, because it focuses on an immersion in a literary tradition or a tradition of practice, but also deeply progressive, because the tradition is a means to the end of the cultivation of the capacities of the individual to participate in that tradition independently.


Finally, Rosenak intends the language-literature distinction to offer a framework for pluralism, since one language may—indeed must—generate multiple literatures rather than merely one authoritative expression. If all those multiple ways of life can be understood as legitimate expressions of something fundamental that is shared, then we may imagine a pluralism that is more than mere tolerance of error. And if there is something inevitable about the ways that a language generates multiple literatures, as a hammer shatters a rock, then that pluralism is natural, normal, perhaps even desirable.


However, the introduction of the idea of privileged “foundational literature”—and even more so, the blurring of the conceptual distinction between that literature and the language that it expresses—is a philosophical error, pointing to a kind of underlying residual essentialism. The image seems to suggest that Jewish educators should teach both Torah and the literature of (i.e., commentaries on) Torah, as if that would somehow guarantee the authenticity of the literature that the students write on their own (since they will become fluent in the language), and in order to accommodate pluralism without fragmentation (since the literatures are all, in the end, commentaries on the same text). But alas, no such guarantees are available. There is no unmediated language, but only literatures, and the language is not fixed but always changing in light of the literatures that are written in it. Even the apparently simple idea that Torah serves as the common language of the entire Jewish community evaporates once one tries to articulate just what that Torah is.


The language-literature distinction, therefore, is relative—certain texts function as foundational for certain purposes—but never absolute. Language evolves over time, as literatures accumulate and respond to each other. What connects multiple literatures is not their conformity to an unchanging set of linguistic norms, but what Wittgenstein taught us to call a “family resemblance (1953/1973)”; they are linked as a matter of historical contingency, not as a matter of essence. We are participating in an ongoing conversation, as Oakeshott put it. So it remains a worthy goal to teach literatures in order to cultivate the capacity, among students, to know the language of those literatures, and to critique those literatures, and to compose new literatures of their own. And it remains a worthy goal to promote a certain kind of interpretive pluralism, and perhaps pluralism of practices as well. In those respects, the twin concepts of language-and-literature do valuable work for Rosenak, and for us. It is only when Rosenak uses the concepts to argue for Torah as language, and for a model of pluralism bounded by the norms of the essential language of Torah, that he goes too far, asking the concepts to do more work than they can do.

Updated: Dec. 24, 2014