Last week I made reference to the postwar German philsopher H.G. Gadamer, who, among others, plays with the tantalizing idea that a text is made complete when it is read–that is, that it remains incomplete until the reader reads it. Gadamer elaborates this idea further in talking about play, both in the theatrical sense and in the sense of games. A play is “open toward the spectator, in whom it achieves its whole significance.” A theatrical production becomes complete when comprehended by the audience; a literary text becomes complete when comprehended, recognized, by the reader.
Play is an exercise bounded by rules, in which the individual identities of the players are constructed and governed by the rules of the game. “Play itself,” writes Gadamer, “is a transformation of such a kind that the identity of the player does not continue to exist for anybody. Everybody asks instead what is supposed to be represented, what is ‘meant.’ The players (or playwright) no longer exist, only what they are playing.” The rules of the game–whether literary or genre conventions, rules of football or rules of ritual–determine the identity of the players within it. Joe Montana becomes a quarterback; Kasparov becomes Karpov’s opponent; Alice becomes a reader.
What delimits these experiences is the consciousness that one is playing a game, that one has expectations of rules that stand apart from the everyday and ordinary. Moving a pawn on a chessboard is only meaningful within the context of playing chess; in and of itself, it is simply moving a pawn on a chessboard. Likewise a dollar bill is only a piece of paper, until it is recognized and valued for its purchasing power.
One of the words that Rashi frequently comments on is the word “ki.” “Ki” in Hebrew can have many meanings, as Rashi reminds us: when, if, because, among others. We often gloss over these comments as seemingly irrelevant, exciting only those interested in the picayune details of grammar. Yet Gadamer reminds us that those details are in fact what make a text, a game, our lives, meaningful.
“Ki” appears seven times at the crucial moment of Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious man/angel in Gen. 32.
And Jacob was left over, by himself, but a man wrestled with him until dawn rose.
He saw that (ki) he was not able to overcome him, so he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh dislocated during his wrestling with him.
He said: Send me away, for (ki) the dawn has risen;
He said: I will not send you away except if (ki) you have blessed me.
He said to him: What is your name?
He said: Jacob.
He said: Not Jacob will your name still be said, but (ki) rather Israel, because (ki) you have striven-for-mastery with Elo-him and with people, and you have overcome.
Jacob asked, saying: Please tell your name!
He said: Why is it necessary for you to ask my name?
He blessed him there.
Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, because (ki) I have seen Elo-him face-to—face and my life was saved.
The run shone for him as he passed by Penuel, with him limping on his thigh.
Therefore The Children of Israel will not eat the sciatic nerve, which is part of the thigh, until this day, because (ki) he touched that part of Jacob’s thigh, the sciatic nerve.
What “ki” does here is signify, create a context for symbols, words, and actions. Ki is used for “because,” explaining the symbol of not eating the hind quarter. It thus makes eating a rule-based exercise, which gives eating rituals meaning. The same is true for Jacob’s naming of Peniel: The name Jacob gives to the place is linked to an experience. It ceases to be a nameless, insigificant place, and becomes a place attached to memory, experience, and aspiration.
These are common uses of ki. More unusual is the use of ki in the moment of Jacob’s renaming: the moment of resignification, when Jacob becomes something else and stands for something new, turns on this tiny word, ki, the word that takes him and us out of our regular experience, pausing the film as it were, and enabling a new layer or meaning to come to life.
What has always struck me about this passage is that it concludes with a ritual signification: in our eating practice, we link ourselves with this moment. That is, Judaism does not leave the the rich game-playing of meaning-making to the realm of the intellectual, but makes it part of our embodied lives. Our lives, in body and mind, take from and contribute to a dense web of signification, of texts and people and ideas that talk to each other through the ages. This reality–and it is a reality, not just an imagined thing–is what makes our tradition so unique and so valuable. It is the 3,000-year old conversation of which we have the honor to be a part, a conversation that begun at the moment of Israel’s naming.