From Tradition to Commentary


From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy, by Steven D. Fraade. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. xviii+343.

There has been a recent spate of studies of rabbinic texts like this one examining midrash, as suggested on the back cover of the present work, "In relation to the perspectives of literary and historical criticisms." The author focuses on the texts of a major rabbinic book of commentaries to Deuteronomy. The text has been worked on thoroughly by scholars of note. Saul Lieberman did the critical edition (Sifre to Deuteronomy, reprinted New York, 1969) and Jacob Neusner completed a modern English translation (Sifre to Deuteronomy: An introduction to the Rhetorical, Logical and Topical Program, three volumes, Atlanta, 1987). Accordingly much of the foundation for higher level analysis and criticism for the text has been solidly set.

Serious work setting forth the principles of critical methodologies for midrash study have also been published recently. They range from a variety of essays collected by Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick (Midrash and Literature, New Haven, 1986) to more specialized critical inquiries by, again, Jacob Neusner. His Invitation to Midrash, New York, 1989 and The Midrash: An Introduction, Northvale, 1990, summarize many of the principles for critical study.

The present volume is supposed to develop "a model for a dynamic understanding of the literary structure and socio-historical function of early rabbinic commentary." Fraade pays attention at the outset to other Judaic alternatives such as the pesharim of the Dead Sea community and the Hellenistic Jewish commentaries of Philo of Alexandria. He focuses on how Sifre presents the revelation at Sinai, the role of the rabbi, legislator and judge. The book is clearly the result of many years of research and great erudition. It has over a hundred pages of footnotes and thirty pages of bibliography. The author has done his homework on the subject of midrash, there is not doubt.

The author promises to take the reader, "On a series of firsthand textual tours of some of the most striking landscapes, always with an eye to their broader cultural and socio-historical settings, both within the larger text of the Sifre and without (p. 1)." The book does this and so satisfies many of the needs of the midrash sightseer.

Unfortunately, the book does not make any tangible advance in the scholarly study of rabbinic texts. With all its ostensible erudition it suffers from far too many minor flaws and major methodological misconceptions. Here are a few examples ranging from the picayune to the serious...

The last sentence of the concluding chapter (p. 162) reads as follows:

The student of the redacted text of commenatary (!), struggling to make sense of its polyphony while moved along slowly by its plot, tastes something both of the originary (!) revelation and of final redemption in the very midst fo (!) text and time, both of which linearly progress even as they continually and complexly (!) turn back upon themselves.

Proofreading errors abound in the notes as well. The hundreds of footnotes do contain numerous references to the scholarly literature. The reader plowing through all this material eventually may wonder why the articles and monographs are cited. Most of the explanation for all this work is left at the "On ... see" or "For ... see" level. That is to say, "On such-and-such a subject, see the learned article by so-and-so." We do not know in most cases why we would want to see the literature or whether some essays are more valuable than others or even, briefly at least, what they say.

The book remains on the level of an academic travelogue throughout. There are surprisingly few references to some active scholars in the field of Midrash studies and little cognizance of larger issues in the field. We would like to know what the author thinks of the form analysis of Sifre in Neusner's studies. Does he agree with Neusner's sense of the basic propositions of the book about God and Israel and of the implied propositions of the compilation?

According to Fraade, a major recurring theme in the work is the notion that the rabbis who wrote Sifre proposed that its words were Torah. Fraade's book thus says amazingly obvious things many times in a slipshod way. This makes it hard for us to judge the work an advance of significance in the domain of midrash-scholarship.

Despite these reservations there will be many occasional tourists who find this an enjoyable book. The bibliographic work makes it well worth the investment as long as one takes care to double check the information before making use of the references.

Professor Tzvee Zahavy