Peter Slyomovics

A Sad Tale of Modernity

We live in strange times. Paradoxically, the main cause of this development is rooted in the intellectual class-not popular culture. Judges believe that they can interpret the law as they see fit. Indeed, there is a whole school of thought that supports this view-called Judicial Activism. Unfortunately, one of its extreme versions is the judicial branch in Israel-a fact that is well recognized in law schools all over the world. Judicial activists will defend their legal reasoning in seemingly objective ways; moral, cultural, religious and national. In fact, the decision completely resides in the judge’s individual hands.

The source of this malaise is rooted in postmodernism, particularly widespread in  college campuses. This worldview has unfortunately succeeded in persuading the social elites of the Western world that words have no real meaning, that they are arbitrary, that in reading a text whether legal or literary, any interpretation is possible. But if words can be anything then they are nothing, utterly meaningless.

More sinisterly, in postmodernism, religion, philosophy, and indeed morality indeed are perceived as tools of power instruments of oppression. Society is variously defined as patriarchal, racist, exploitative, white imperialistic, male-dominated, in short, an array of various oppressive mechanisms. Traditional political moral philosophy and law are essentially veils masking the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. The two-thousand-year history of political, religious and moral philosophy from Plato to the present can summarily be vitiated. The necessary ominous conclusion: words do not mean what they say!

This view is at odds with the totality of the Western and Islamic tradition that has dominated for almost 2000 years. Rabbinic literature, secular Greek civilization, and later Islamic Doctors, all developed rules for interpreting ancient religious, philosophic, and even scientific texts. Distinctions were made of literal interpretations from consciously symbolic, moralistic, scientific criteria attempting to elucidate rigourous rules governing the operations of all forms of thinking.

The seriousness of words demonstrated by Plato, able to write entire books focusing on the true meaning of a single word-justice. With similar arguments to that of the postmoderns, the sophists of his day attacked Plato mockingly, maintaining that justice is merely a cover for power. All appeals to a universal and rational understanding of morality were depicted as naïve.

It is important to point out that thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before postmodernity were much closer to traditional thought than the postmoderns. They vastly extended hermeneutics [the science of interpretation]. They methodically examined the nature of scientific phenomena and the proper interpretation of these phenomena. Thus comprehensive rules of understanding the new scientific era were seriously debated and complemented the more traditional hermeneutics of legal and textual interpretation.

In contemporary society, we often criticize ourselves about the deterioration of language. Educators complain that students have difficulty in reading and comprehending simple texts. Modern societies are rightly depicted as having little respect, not just for literature but for the written word in general.  As well, people speak of language having become more crude and indeed often abusive. Perhaps we should examine our universities and other “higher” institutions for our contempt and utter disregard of language.

About the Author
Born 1948, Dr. Peter Slyomovics lived in Montreal Canada and made aliya to Jerusalem in 1971. He earned his BA from McGill University, his MA Doctorate at Hebrew University, and is a retired lecturer in Hebrew and English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.