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The Ascent by Stu CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Cultivating Justice and Hope amid Different Worlds: An Interview with Silvana Rabinovich

Following this path, I intended to do a non-punitive reading on Cain’s wandering by presenting it as God’s opportunity to cultivate the land while moving around the territory. This view of the nomad seeks to rehabilitate another type of relationality with the Earth by recovering its dignity in different horizons.

This interview serves as the introduction to the first issue of Political Theology’s 25th edition. The issue includes peer-reviewed articles from Tony Alimi on “Augustine on Temporal Law and Virtue” and Yuki Schwartz on “Model Minority Melancholia: Mourning and Resisting Anti-Asian Violence.” It also contains a roundtable discussion on the Catholic Worker Movement’s relationship to political theology, with contributions from Brenna Cussen-Anglada, Henrietta Cullinan, Lincoln Rice, and Jack Downey, with an introduction from Jacques Linder. Finally, Mary Fairclough reviews Emily Dumler-Winkler’s work Modern Virtue: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Tradition of Dissent and Michael Weinmann reviews Yotam Hotam’s work Critiques of Theology: German-Jewish Intellectuals and the Religious Sources of Secular Thought.

Silvana Rabinovich’s forthcoming book, Notes for a Decolonial Political Theology” (Routledge, 2023), is a unique contribution to the field as her reflections stem from a heterodox Jewish reading of the biblical text while building upon decolonial Latin-American thinkers like Anibal Quijano or Enrique Dussel. In this conversation, she shares with us the central aspects of her innovative project to decolonize political theology. Above all, this discussion is a testimony of a thought in motion that has the potency to inspire practices that could tear down borders. Namely, one that crosses the disciplinary boundaries established by secularism while generating bonds across communities that lie “on the same side of different walls.”

Mario Orospe Hernández: Could you explain why you think that to de-Orientalize politics should be the first step towards a decolonial political theology? 

Silvana Rabinovich: As we know, Carl Schmitt posed his political theology as a critique of the disciplinary separation between religion and politics imposed by the Enlightenment. However, his project, originating in a peculiar reading of Hobbes’ Leviathan, always assumed the perspective of the nation-state and the need to secure its domination. Hence, his perspective could be seen as orientalist because the political community he seeks to defend is placed in front of the menace of an imaginary other, very often portrayed as dangerous, failed, and chaotic.

As famously characterized by Edward Said, Orientalism depicts the other, particularly the non-European, under a contrasting image where the rational and the orderly lie on one side and the irrational and chaotic on that of the other. It is as if the community’s anxieties get displaced and projected into an enemy. In that way, to de-Orientalize means questioning our own right to judge them. Namely, to interrogate from where and on which basis we raise those judgments over its nemesis condition. I think this question redirects our understanding of the community toward heteronomy instead of articulating it around its sovereignty.

Yet, this redefinition implies overcoming the vision of heteronomy as opposing autonomy, namely, to debunk the modern praise for self-sufficiency. The lessons we inherited from thinkers like Emanuel Levinas in ethics or Jacob Taubes in politics is that the nomos that originates from the other should not be interpreted as the submission to oppressive rules imposed from the outside, constraining our individual freedom. Instead, they should be understood as the injunction to realize a different kind of justice: one attending the calls from those who have been expelled and those who cannot enter our established orders. In short, de-orientalizing involves rediscovering the community from its vulnerability and remaining loyal to the ethical task of amending all forms of domination over those left out of it.

Mario Orospe Hernández: Could you comment on why a reinterpretation of nomadic life helps us de-Orientalize political theology? Particularly, I was captivated by your liberatory re-reading of Cain’s damnation to becoming a “restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:11–16).

Silvana Rabinovich: Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught us to read biblical stories that are usually interpreted as punishment in a liberating way. For example, he presents the story of the Tower of Babel as a tale of divine protection against one-dimensional thinking rather than the doom of an authoritarian God. Everyone used to speak the same language before building the tower, so uniformity prevailed. Thus, the dispersion of languages actually made plurality and decentralization in thought and practice possible. This alternative reading casts a non-paternalistic God enabling new capacities and possibilities for us, which moves away from its hegemonic version that had made him an instrument of land appropriation, authoritarianism, and guilt.

Following this path, I intended to do a non-punitive reading on Cain’s wandering by presenting it as God’s opportunity to cultivate the land while moving around the territory. This view of the nomad seeks to rehabilitate another type of relationality with the Earth by recovering its dignity in different horizons. For instance, we must understand that nomadism has to do with natural forms of displacement. Everything moves in nature. As nomads teach us: if you want to orient yourself in the desert, you better trust the stars since they are more fixed than the dunes. If you guide only using the landscape, you will easily get lost because the ground moves. Hence, nomadism can be seen as the capacity to move with the land while leaving light traces on it.

Even today, the situation of the Bedouins in southern Palestine is anchored to this prejudice because the settler-colonial state of Israel tells them: “To become citizens before the law, you need to establish. In exchange, we will build cities for you and give you protection”. This discourse is a well-known tactic of inclusion to exclude. Historically, nation-states have sought to include nomads in their territories to disable them, as Ivan Illich would say.

When we turn to a 14th-century work of philosophy of history, such as Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, we see that nomadic life had not always been minimized in front of sedentary life, but rather their difference used to be accepted. In this sense, we can see that nomadic people worldwide, such as the Comcaac nation in the Sonoran Desert of northern Mexico or the Sahrawis in Western Sahara, have not experienced nomadism as a punishment. Instead, it has been assumed as another way of living without exhausting the soil. So, I tried to evoke those other ways of relating with the Earth. 

Mario Orospe Hernández: How do you then conceive the task of the translator, and why does it implicate an ethical imperative in decolonizing political theology?

Silvana Rabinovich: Indigenous nations are cunning in knowing how to play with translation. Instead of victimizing themselves for having to be read on the terms the nation-state and its secularism have imposed on them, they have often managed to use these words in their favor. For example, one of my research projects was hosted by the Comcaac nation, they showed me that the sacred is very different for them, as it is felt and touched, not something inviolable and protected, as the punitive legacy of legalistic and biblical prohibitions taught us. However, they say, “well, we need to defend the mountains and the water so that the mining companies do not exploit them. They see mineral resources there but do not realize that for us, they are our source of nurture and even healing as we gather our medicinal plants there. They are taking our lives with them”. So, they play with translation without prejudices, cross the borders of secularism and carnivalize the walls of its legal apparatus to coin terms such as “the right to the sacred” in their dispute for life.

So, it is vital to put victimization aside, move on to something more joyful, and say: “there is hope for life here.” I have continuously tried to mimic this gesture in my translations, as when I read the revelation of the name of God in Exodus 3:14. In that passage, Moses asks: “if I am going to free the enslaved people before Pharaoh, on whose behalf shall I tell sent me?” And then God gives an answer, which the institutionalized reading that considers the Tetragram an authority too dreadful to be named has interpreted as “I am who I am.” Those who know a little Hebrew understand that this is not a good translation because there is no verb to be in the present tense in that language. That is why, as a child, when I was learning to read Hebrew with my grandfather, I realized it could also be read as: “I will be whomever I might be.” That translation marks a stark departure from the authoritarian image of God, enabling instead a horizontality where the other, whomever they might be, moves us to become outraged by injustice, organize and act to affirm life, and even defend the persistence of the dead.

In a similar way, when I think Mahmoud Darwish’s poem Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man, which I used as the matrix of my book, I find an example of a heteronomous translation of the highest quality. Darwish, a Palestinian translator-poet, shows us how to convey the enduring lessons of dispossession, from Al-Andalus to the Nakba, and recount these experiences in the voice of a native facing colonization in America. So, he yokes these testimonies across traditions, oceans, and centuries to show colonizers a mirror they intensely dislike. Yet, his translation is so generous that he tells them: “I show you this mirror because I know you can change. You can be otherwise.”

In short, to me, the translator must be someone who allows himself to be utterly crossed by the other. Someone who knows how to make holes in the walls in order to rehabilitate the language of the other. This means, first of all, accepting that we will never master any language, not even our “own.” Thus, when we translate different ways of living on earth, we don’t do it to become experts or appropriate them. On the contrary, it is precisely about an effort to escape from the logic of ownership, letting go, and opening space to the other’s speech: that is, to give it all the freedom to spread and germinate in all possible places. This is heteronomy in its ethical sense.

Mario Orospe Hernández: As a closing, could you reflect on how fieldwork has also helped you reimagine political theology in a decolonial key?

Silvana Rabinovich: My initial work made me understand that the prophets, when read in political events of the present as Martin Buber or his friend Gustav Landauer did, gave voice to tremendous pain while they tried to stop tragedies afflicting their people. But they had the humility of not pretending to speak on their behalf when announcing liberation. What moved them was a power not in their hands but from which they recognized as being mere intermediaries.

However, we can only receive the prophetic imperative that makes us responsible for the justice of the other when we open our ears and listen. So, we must recognize the importance of ethnography and fieldwork as they allow us to remain close to people and realize what is at stake in our debates. In this sense, I found my work model in a two-voice cosmopolitical translation, namely, the book “The Falling Sky“. This work bears witness to a thirty-year exchange in the Amazon between the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa and the ethnologist Bruce Albert, in which they were imagining utopia together.

Following these influences, I became open to various contemporary experiences of exile and nomadism, to listen in the field to the voice of refugees in Western Sahara, Bedouins in Naqab, newly settled Comcaac in Sonora, and mothers looking for their missing sons taken away by the organized crime in Mexico. These exchanges took place within the framework of cosmopolitics, that is, as cultivation of perplexity, as Marisol de la Cadena has beautifully defined it. I have found here a place to foster hope and utopia, that is, by moving across multiple ways of inhabiting the cosmos and addressing the interaction between humans and other-than-humans.

It is also in this halfway amid worlds where perhaps political theology will be able to undermine its reduction to a mere legitimization of the nation-state’s sovereignty. However, we must assume that we will never fully understand the other as the truth emerges in our coming and going of speeches. Consequently, no solution to achieve heteronomous justice will ever be definitive. Yet, we must be committed to respecting each other’s differences, or in other words, recognize that, in contrast to border walls, which are made to be demolished, the dignity of the other is indestructible.

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