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A Theological Commentary to the Midrash, Pesiqta deRab Kahana Volume I by Jacob Neusner (Studies in Ancient Judaism: University Press of America) Pesiqta deRab Kahana constitutes a whole that vastly exceeds the sum of the parts. The theology of the document is stated by that whole, on its own but also through the parts. The components of the document derive from the common theology of Rabbinic Judaism. Most are interchangeable, serviceable for other documents of a comparable character. The theology particular to this document comes to expression only when the entirety of the composite comes into view. But in stating what is in fact the conclusion of the twenty‑ninth chapter, Neusner skipped a few steps in my presentation and analysis of the data. Let me begin from the beginning.

This theological commentary to the Rabbinic Midrash explores a simple proposition, in three parts:

The reading of Scripture by principal parts of the Rabbinic Midrash is formed by compositions and composites' that are animated by a cogent theological system. Next, these primary components of the Midrash‑compilations, further, are in part' aimed at systematic demonstrations of theorems of a theological character. These demonstrations constitute rigorous, philosophical proofs of religious truths, truths of a systematic character based upon established facts of Scripture (or nature or the social order). Finally, while part of a large theological structure and system, each document is unique. What is unique Pesiqta deRab Kahana has already been stated and will be spelled out in the shank of this book.

In Introductions to each of the principal documents of the canon of Rabbinic Judaism in its formative age Neusner has argued that in one way or another every one of the documents is unique. His task, here as in the succeeding volumes of this theological study, is to show how that is the case: what constitutes the unique aspect or dimension of the several documents, respectively. What is clear up front is that the documents share a vast corpus of theological ideas. I demonstrate how that is the case for Pesiqta deRab Kahana. What requires study in conclusion is how, out of the familiar, received body of thought, the several documents make each its own distinctive statement.

The commentary proposes to demonstrate a fundamental point in the study of Rabbinic Judaism. It is that a critical, reasoned mode of thought about universally acknowledged facts of Scripture (and nature and the social order) yields a cogent and coherent theological construction. It is one in which each document finds a distinctive place for itself, but in which all documents participate harmoniously in making a coherent statement. The commentary is more elaborate at the outset, but, the main points having been instantiated and reasoned out time and again, it is abbreviated toward the end. That is possible because the method of the Midrash compilation is consistent throughout. There is only one mode of thought, analysis, and argument. Once we see clearly the working of that mode, there is no reason to repeat the same points for new data.

What of the contents, the theology of the document and the Midrash-canon? The emergent theological program realized in Rabbinic Midrash-compilations ‑ we should call it, in modern categories, "Judaism" ‑ hardly presents a surprise for anyone acquainted with Rabbinic Judaism. For, in that Judaism, Israel meets God in the Torah, and the Midrash defines the rules of engagement. The intellectual outcome of that on‑going meeting is embodied in the theology of Rabbinic Judaism. Hence the theological reading of the Midrash asks of the Rabbinic documents questions that to begin with are primary to the discourse of those same documents ‑ their question, answered their way, not our question, resolved in our manner. It is, as Neusner argued in Theology of the Oral Torah, a biblical theology, a working forward from the givens of Scripture to further truths, propositions founded upon those givens and logical extensions and amplifications thereof. If, then, a single theological system animates every line of every rabbinic document of an Aggadic character, as I argue is the case, which is because the received Torah, the written Torah, governs beginning to ends

But that allegation requires that the question answered here bear its own focus. It is not on the systematic description, analysis, and interpretation of the theological structure of Rabbinic Judaism viewed whole, all its documents all together. The generative issue here is, rather, as follows: may we truly characterize the Rabbinic Midrash as theological not in theme alone but also in intent and focus? And may we describe that theological component as cogent and coherent? And for answers to those critical questions, we must turn to the details: the individual documents.

Web of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature by Galit Hasan-Rokem (Contraversions: Jews and Other Differences; Stanford University Press)


Web of Life: deals with rabbinic literature‑the largest textual body in Hebrew literature, as well as the most influential in Jewish life since its creation and until today. The modern reader, and particularly one lacking religious erudition, may construe the world of the Talmud and the Midrash as strange and inaccessible. In truth, however, rabbinic aggadic literature includes many fascinating and complex works, capable of moving and enchanting contemporary readers.

Lamentations Rabbah, the Midrash that will be at the focus of attention in this book, was composed in Palestine, approximately in the middle of the first millennium C.E. This Midrash weaves a rich and varied web of life, beautiful and poignant, around the biblical Book of Lamentations. It conveys experiences of loss and destruction but also of love between men and women, parents and children, as well as details of everyday life‑food, clothing, trades, and pastimes.

Some approaches claim that patterns of study prevalent at the academies, reflecting the scholars' intense exegetical concerns, had a decisive influence on the artistic form assumed by the texts. Other approaches emphasize the influence of the public sermon at the synagogue‑an institution that stressed such values as public education and oral artistic communication. My own approach is to show how both of these formative bodies‑the academy and the synagogue‑were also open to other socializing institutions, above all, the family, rural and urban public spaces, and the political, commercial, and artistic discourse of the time.

The voices expressed in the text represent both the elite and the broader layers of society. Multivocality and collective articulation, characteristic fea­tures of rabbinical literature, are also conveyed in the rich representation of genres and forms of discourse usually identified with folk literature. The marks of oral creativity are revealed as the building blocks of the written text. Contemporary thinking, particularly cultural and literary theory, pro­vides the starting point for my study of Jewish ancient literature as a mani­fold and multicontextual system of artistic communication.

The structure suggested for this book is meant to create and substantiate methods for analyzing and interpreting folk‑literary material in aggadic Midrash. The most crucial and specific feature of folk literature is, in my view, its constant re‑creation in changing contexts. I have therefore chosen to analyze the folk‑literary material in relation to the relevant cultural contexts where this re‑creation process takes place. In principle, all the material is obviously linked, to some extent, to all the contexts introduced into the discussion. For the sake of clarity, however, I have tried to place each text discussed here in the specific context that best illuminates its characteristics, as well as its uniqueness of form and content.

The separate analysis of the various contexts is not meant to challenge the approach underlying this study, which views culture as a complex and encompassing system. The discussions of the different contexts are meant as heuristic steps, aiming to show the complexity and the comprehensiveness of the culture through an analysis of folk literature, informed by the scholarly and hermeneutical approaches outlined as the theoretical background of the study.

The order of the discussion that follows proceeds from what I considered the most easily discernible contexts to those that seemed subtler to infer. In determining this order, I did not take a stand on the importance of the contexts for the understanding of these texts, or on the extent of their impact on the creation of these texts. Each discussion is preceded by an exposition of the central concepts used in the presentation and analysis of the text in that particular context, highlighting the relevant theories and research methods.

Chapter 2 introduces the literary context, which seems to be the most visible within the general framework encompassing the folk literature included in aggadic Midrash. A discussion of this context requires us to consider, as background, the interpretation of literary works in general. The text at the center of the discussion was thus chosen because of its literary qualities. The novelistic folk narrative of a tragic human destiny at the time of the destruction of the Temple‑which in the course of the chapter will emerge as "anti‑novelistic"‑unfolds in the Midrash, after its literary re‑creation, as a masterful work of art.

Chapter 3 presents the genre context. The example I chose to consider allows for a complex approach to the subject, because the text involves a chain of stories, all of them linked to a non‑narrative folk‑literary genre, the riddle. A rich intergeneric cluster is thus created. The generic character of the text is examined in its formal aspects, as well as in the meaning it bestows on the general literary context of the Midrash.

Chapter 4 examines folk literature in its comparative context. More than all others, this context may have determined the traditional methods of folk literary research: the narrative type and the folk motif used in intercultural comparisons. The riddle stories discussed in Chapter 3 from the viewpoint of genre will be examined here from a comparative perspective. The comparison serves to establish the perception concerning cultural links and an intercultural discourse.

Chapter 5 presents the folkloristic context of folk literature, which maintains close links with other expressions of folk creativity: practices, beliefs, texts, and arts. The folkloristic context illustrated here is the practice of dream interpretation. Texts of stories about dream interpretation are examined here in the specific cultural context of the spiritual world of Palestinian amoraim, in a culture where dream interpretation is part of the interpretation of Scripture. This chapter thus addresses the operation of a powerful cultural mechanism directed to the search and articulation of the subtle border between the known and the unknown.

In Chapter 6 we encounter the social context of folk literature. All ages, genders, and classes create folk literature at all layers of society. In this chapter, folk literature in aggadic Midrash is presented as opening up options for changing the conventional picture of rabbinic literary creativity as an institutionalized male expression of academy scholars. In the representations of folk literature in aggadic Midrash we also hear the varied voices of people who are not part of the establishment creating the written text, the voices of those whose contact with the authors of the text is through oral literary channels. The chapter focuses specifically on the female voices speaking in the folk narratives included in the work. Through that perspective, the narrative interaction between various religious traditions, in this case Jewish and early Christian, is also set in focus.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the religious context of aggadic folk literature. At the center of rabbinic literature is a religious experience, conveyed through the sustained relationship with the texts that present God's revelation to the people of Israel: the Scriptures. Even events that occurred during the lifetime of the creators of this literature are interpreted in these texts as evidence of God's presence in the world. The religious attitude of the authors of the Midrash is not unquestioning. It exposes a complexity that includes belief, doubt, love, awe, and anger. The striking quality of the imagery on the subject results from the frequent use of intimate language and family rela­tionships to portray religious experience.

The final context, discussed in Chapter 8, is the historical context of the aggadic Midrash. Folk literature has traditionally functioned as an impor­tant source for the history of the period. In the course of exposing the distinctive features of folk literature in the midrashic stories, this chapter sheds light on the complex mutual relationships between characters and images, between events and narrative plots, between memory and history, between vision and reality.

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