Dana Shem-Ur studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. Ph.D. candidate in history at Tel Aviv University, she translates from French, Italian, Chinese into Hebrew and published Where i am, (New Vessel Press, 2023).
How are you?
Dana Shem-Ur: I don’t know how you’re feeling right now about being Jewish. I feel the duty to communicate and explain the meaning of all this, the rupture between before and after October 7, the question of life and death, and how the Holocaust happened. I have the sense that our European friends can never truly understand.
Why did you specialized in negative theology.
Dana Shem-Ur: That was my first doctorate, but to do that, extensive research is required. I had just completed my master’s degree on the subject of negative theology, and then I started my doctorate in Geneva, where I stayed for six years. However, I didn’t enjoy it, so I left. I went to China to learn Chinese, and then I started a second doctorate before a third one. In the fifth year, I worked on the history of management.
I found many things there that interested me. Then I ended up at the École des Hautes Études to study the philosophy of religions. But it was always the history of ideas that didn’t originate from individuals. The exercise was to look at religions from the perspective of secularism and examine how philosophers use ideas “buried” by the church and religious institutions. So, my topic was how Jacques Derrida and Georges Agamben view apophatic discourse, negative theology, to support their social and ethical visions. I must explain that negative theology is the thought of an intelligible, omnipresent, powerful, infinitely great God about whom nothing can be said because it surpasses our understanding. So how do you talk to God when he is such a distant thought, eluding us and failing us in our human and fallen form? That’s the fundamental question of negative theology. It’s about constructing a discourse that is not metaphysical, that doesn’t rely on ideas of knowledge and attributes. Instead of talking “about” God, you talk to Him directly. Prayer is a good way to approach Him, establishing a connection that maintains a distance but respects the complete eternity of the other. The thought of Maimonides introduced the idea of negative theology, and Saint Augustine in Christianity, as well as in Islam. Derrida and Agamben have two different ways of thinking about this and how to apply it to humanity. Instead of saying I know something about you, I say I know nothing about you, fully respecting your otherness but getting closer to you.
What was the issue?
Dana Shem-Ur: How do Agamben and Derrida use negative theology differently? Agamben describes an absolute and messianic community where people approach each other in a non-metaphysical way. Heidegger talks a lot about silence, the power of silence in apophatic discourse, the power of the “unsaid.” What does the “unsaid” tell us? There’s an impulse.
No future or past in Judaism, “cleared” of metaphysical errors.
Dana Shem-Ur: But why do you say that? Because in Judaism, there is the future. For example, in the phrase “I am what I am,” it’s actually a poor translation of the Hebrew, which says, “I am what I will be.” And I would add that the beauty is the secret and depth of Hebrew. French is a Cartesian language: “I possess, (“j’ai”), I ‘have’ cold (“j’ai” froid), I ‘have’ hot.” (“j’ai” chaud), In Hebrew, to say “I have,” you always say “yesh,” “there is,” “li” in me. The world exists, and it influences us. It’s not me feeling the cold; there is cold descending into me. That’s how you say, “I am cold.”
Heidegger adds that new prophets are Jewish journalists.
Dana Shem-Ur: In the word “nabi” (prophet), there is the word “ba” (comes). I missed talking about metaphysics with you; it’s a great privilege. We’re in the “news, news, news, news.” I manage to read, but especially, war puts us in a certain understanding of life and death, how history is not linear, and there are cycles. We really see misfortune up close. I’m not religious, but I believe in something, and especially how a second Holocaust could happen. The world is truly terrifying.
How do you feel about living in Greece ?
Dana Shem-Ur: You can never escape; we live it everywhere; there’s something that connects us all. Bret Stephens of The New York Times says that everyone knows someone who lost a loved one in the September 11 attacks. Everyone saw what was happening. But Israel is such a small country; we’re furious at the army for not arriving on time, wondering why them and not me. We have the guilt of being alive. We can’t create anymore. We no longer understand the meaning of all this. We have nightmares. It’s a second Holocaust. There were people hiding in small rooms. You can’t imagine that happening today. We know that the window of international support is very narrow. An American says that the world doesn’t like Jews when they’re dead. When they suffer, yes, but the speed at which the world denounced Israel is incredible.
When I completed my first doctorate in Geneva, I met someone who told me about a scholarship; it was before Covid, before the war. I was able to learn Russian and Chinese. I didn’t like the university. I was able to meet my professor with whom we read texts every week. She lived in Los Angeles; her mother-in-law abused her, and her husband was accused of being a spy for Japan during the war. She was part of the Chinese aristocracy. She knew all the classics. She didn’t have children. Her husband forced her to have an abortion. Today she is recognized as the most famous Chinese writer of the 20th century. She is heavily influenced by the West, describing Westerns. Her writings are very humane; she describes human misfortunes. She talks about sex and love. Since Covid, there are no more Israelis in China. The Chinese saved many Jews during World War II. They are philo-Semitic and often said that Jews are intelligent people. For them, Jews are like Einstein.
Dana Shem-Ur: An Israeli spent 20 years in Paris, married Jean-Claude, a Catholic philosopher, with whom she has a son who attends the École Normale Supérieure and doesn’t speak Hebrew. They go to Puglia to meet a famous writer. I wanted to describe her internal journey. The Jewish people are in migration, like birds. It’s a people with a land, but it’s a fantasized land. And now that Israel has its home, it receives criticism that pushes it to want to migrate again. I’ll be back; it’s a condition shared by many Jews who lack a home. There, you don’t always feel at home; there’s always a discomfort.
About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery since 2005. He lives and works in Paris.