Midrash and Theory

Midrash and Theory is a short collection of essays by David Stern, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Stern is one of the co-authors of the wonderful anthology, Rabbinic Fantasies – a collection of fantastic narratives from the rabbinic tradition – the ancestors of 20th and 21st century writers of Jewish fantastic literature including Shai Agnon and Michael Chabon.

Midrash and Theory summarizes the brief flirtation between the academic study of rabbinic literature and literary theory; a hot couple on the intellectual scene for a brief moment before breaking up in a drama of misunderstanding and realization that they were never as close as they appeared on the surface.

The first chapter tells the story of the short and fractious romance. Reading Stern’s sociological and intellectual recent history, explicitly and a bit between the lines, there were tribal loyalties and cultural mis-affinities that led to actual unpleasant dissension between real people in the different disciplines. Plus, intellectual gaps between Judaic studies specialists, who knew their texts deeply and were offended by what they felt to be naive misreadings, and literary specialists, who found the Judaic specialists to be hidebound and blind to some of the implications in the material because of their historicist methodological routines. And last but perhaps most important to Stern, the Rabbinic texts themselves are resistant to some of the kinds of theorizing that literary academics wished to impose upon them, and the nature of the texts in fact reveal some gaps in the purported multiculturalist universality of deconstructive readings.

Stern seems a bit professionally disappointed by the falling out of fashion of the literary study of Rabbinics, and aware of the belatedness of the approach. Despite this, he sees insight to be gained, and proceeds to present a set of four essays looking at a set of key themes and genres in Rabbinic literature from a literary perspective. It may not be fashionable anymore, Stern seems to say, but there is learning to be had from this approach, and I will continue to develop it.

In the first chapter, Stern takes on midrashic polysemy, the love of proliferating meanings. This enthusiasm for multiplied interpretation is unlike other contemporary and later traditions of more directional interpretation. Stern’s insight in the chapter is that midrashic polysemy was always an ideal. The heart of the chapter is a gorgeous reading of a Talmudic story where the interpretation itself is happily polysemous, as is the ideology of the characters in the story, but the frame story of the narrative shows the situation to be painfully political. Students visit an exiled teacher, who lost a notorious political battle; the teacher encourages the students to to tell him new interpretations from the academy from which he has been exiled. At the end of reading the story, we are left with both pictures simultaneously, which is the gift of literature; the happily creative practice of interpretive polysemy, and the zero-sum, compromised, ironic and somewhat painful outcomes of wordly, agonic politics.

In the second chapter, Stern looks at one common genre of Rabbinic literary writing, the parable/mashal. Stern looks at the mashal from a perspective that is literary, and infused by the flavor of political intellectual history that is the fingerprint of Conservative movement academic orientation. “The mashal is an ideological narrative, and the Rabbis used it, as they used scriptural exegesis, to impress upon their audience the validity and authority of their view of the world.” Stern explains that some mshalim are concrete illustrations of abstract topics, while some are esoteric shields guiding secret meaning. But the main literary form of the mashal, argues Stern, is rhetorical.

This chapter examines interprets a mashal of a woman, seemingly abandoned by her royal husband, who looks to her ketubah (marriage contract) as a trust that he will return; the woman is Israel, who looks to the Torah in the absense of God in exile. Stern highlights the shifting of focus in Rabbinic Judaism from God directly to Torah. He also looks at the narrative and theological issues raised by the fact that the return of the husband is described in terms that are understood to be eschatalogical. The end of the story is in present tense in the mashal, but the language is understood to represent the end of time. So the narrative encapsulates within itself both consolation that the husband will return, and complaint that the woman is abandoned. Stern glosses that the act of interpretation itself is part of the meaning of the mashal, it is interpretation which enables the text to be understood as a promise of consolation.

In the third chapter, Stern talks about homiletic midrashim. He maps out the classic midrashic form that starts with one text and weaves its way through many twists and turns to connect it to the eventual, and expected subject. The form is a tour de force showing how anything can be connected to anything. This is a form that continues to this day in well-done drash as a popular genre. When taken out of context and reapplied in other intellectual contexts, it strikes people familiar with linear topical discourse as virtuosic. It is interesting and cool to read the specific history of the form in these ancient collections of homiletic writings.

In Chapter 4, Stern uses literary readings to explore Rabbinic theology, looking at two midrashim from Eichah Rabbah in which the character of God is anthropomorphised to an extreme. Stern rightly reads the anthropomorphic treatment not philosophically – as a question of whether or not the Rabbis believed God had human form – but literarily – as an illustration of God’s character and role. Stern summarizes the theological impact with a terse and pregnant statement. “There is no reason for us, the Rabbis’ modern readers, to believe more or less then they did.” The Rabbis didn’t take their texts literally, and neither should we. I agree with Stern’s admonition against naive literalist reverence, but in reading these portraits, I would go further than Stern does.

For in the first narrative, God exhibits florid and exhorbitant mourning for the destruction of the temple and the humiliation of Israel; and in so doing God feels sorry for Godself, not for the exiled, starving, physically brutalized people. In the second narrative, God appears cold, indifferent, resistant to every plea from the patriarchs in the name of god’s justice, except the last, when Rachel makes God see, by analogy to her own overcoming of jealousy for Leah, that he was acting out of jealousy for pagan dieties, and therefore to relent and promise to redeem the people.

The two forms of literary characterization that Stern examines are essential and role-based; but the characterization that seems most compelling to me is psychological. In both cases the God character comes across as abusive – in the first story, an abusive parent or partner who feels sorry only for himself when viewing the damage he has caused; in the second story, an abuser who feels no regret at his cruelty and can only relent with an appeal to his own ego.

Far from setting up the God character as the epitome of attributes of goodness, as in a philosophically oriented theological treatment, this portrayal casts god as a pathological narcissist – and the Rabbis as deeply angry at the perpetrator of Israel’s humiliation. The text is Eichah Rabbah – a text belonging to a time of mourning that is identified and isolated in the calendar – a set of feelings that one feels and moves past, and returns to cyclically. So I would not necessarily look at the god of this midrash the one true portrait, and thus to consider the rabbis view of God as a precursor to Kafka. I would look to views of God in other seasons of the psychological landscape as well, before drawing any conclusions. And I would expect to see a variety of portraits illustrating different psychological states and traits.

Overall, Stern concludes that Rabbinic texts are not very tractable by systematic theory. Rather than possessing a hermeneutics that enables forumulaic decoding, the midrash has a narrative of interpretation, and the goal of a theoretical study of midrash is to understand how that narrative operates. in other words, instead of interpreting a narrative, you look at the narration to understand how interpretation works. Which is itself one of the flavors of literary theory.

In the introduction, Stern talks about the impulse to use literary reading to reclaim Rabbinic literature for modern readers. On the one hand, it is always a bit of a shock to re-encounter the axioms and tropes of the rabbinic worldview – the making of meaning through explication of sacred texts whose every word and piece of punctuation has meeting, the primary relationship between god and israel, the narrative arc of exile and redemption, the evaluative axes of prohibited and forbidden, worthy of praise and blame.

And yet, the secularized metanarratives of alienation, of imputation of meaning through creative interpretation, the capturing of authority through reading, carry over and seep into other domains. They already have, and they are a distinctive set of practices and implied beliefs, as secularized and absorbed as the figure of the hero from different traditions, as secularized as the figures of redemption in various political schemes. In Stern’s introduction, he talks about whether this move is valid. Whether or not it is valid, he’s done it in this book; he does it sensitively and well.

I really like the way Stern reads Rabbinic texts. Stern has has a great feel for the beauty and weirdness of rabbinic narratives. There are other contemporary thinkers who read Rabbinic literature from a literary/academic perspective, including David Kraemer and David Frank who domesticate and organize the strangeness of rabbinic narrative. Stern stays with and explicates the strangeness in terms that seem related to and descended from the text without growing ideas from the text that seem like monsters to me. The psychoanalytic schools strike me that way; Bloom’s anxiety of influence and parricide; various Freudian and Lacanian readings. Don’t get me wrong, rabbinic narrative is full of weird power and gender and sex dynamics, but psychoanalytic schematics that seem bolted on to me. This is, of course, an esthetic judgement; I find Stern’s readings more congenial to the text.

The gaps Stern finds and explicates seem justified in a reading of the text on its terms, a traditional reader might find the same gaps though would bring a different flavor of explication. A slightly more radical reader like me might push a bit harder at the psychological and theological consequences. It seems to me that the openings he finds are ones the rabbis put there.

Stern is at Penn, not the Jewish Theological Seminary, but his ideology and intellectual tradition seems to come from that tradition; the Conservative ideology says that the rabbis completely transformed Judaism from temple cult to text and synagogue-based religion, maintaining and thoroughly reinterpreting the tradition. Following this move, modernists reinterpret one more time; Mordechai Kaplan takes the reinterpretation the next step to secularism.

Analytically, Stern concludes that midrashic & lit-theoretical polysemy are not and cannot be the same, because the principle that animates midrash is a divine presence with many faces, and literary polysemy is motivated by the lack of any given meaning. Personally, I’d take a humanist approach to both; Kaplan said that god is the sum total of goodness in the world, where goodness is what people do, and I might add that god is the sum total of meanings, where meanings are what people create.

Frum radicals, Rabbi Nachman and his postmodern disciple Ouaknin, will revel in the alternation and co-presense of faith and doubt. The conservatives and the humanists focus on the human action of feeling doubt and choosing to make meaning. This perspective may be out of fashion, it was already out of fashion when Stern wrote it fifteen years ago, but it’s as close as I may get to theology.

As a nonprofessional, I look at the academic-world sociology as a spectator. I watched the drama out of the corner of my eye through my adult intellectual life – when I started noticing it heading to college in the early 80s it was actually starting to happen, and when it was apparently in full bloom I had friends launching academic careers under the rubric. The careerist academic implications – how easy it is to get one’s paper’s published or to get jobs, are remote to me. These ideas have been and are deeply influential for the way that I think. I don’t have to care whether it’s professionally fashionable or not – I can learn from it and enjoy it.

For others who are interested in connections between Rabbinic and contemporary thought, I strongly recommend this book.

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