Intertextuality and Midrash

by Tzvee Zahavy

Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, by Daniel Boyarin. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990. Pp. xiii+161. $27.50. Reviewed in the Critical Review of Books in Religion, vol. 5, 1992, pp. 356-359.

Classical rabbinic midrash is a complex and diverse sort of writing compiled and written over a period that spans several centuries and fills many discrete volumes. Midrash most frequently takes the form of a commentary to biblical verses. There are brief narrative segments embedded in midrash compilations. But even the most casual reader of midrash knows that this form of textual expression bears little sustained resemblance to the genres of fiction and poetry common to western literature.

Midrash harps on national themes, dwells on theological issues, and bears barely concealed political messages. In contrast to the biblical text it purports to illuminate, one rarely finds a hint of major themes of literature and verse. Midrash is hardly interested in human stories of love or hate, war or peace, loyalty or duplicity, or in the personal struggles of individuals in a society of open choices. Nearly all the messages of rabbinic midrash are rigorously controlled within structured religious schemata.

Accordingly a scholar who deems it appropriate to apply the general methods of literary criticism to the corpus of midrash texts ought first to make the case to justify such effort. Boyarin in the study under consideration makes no such argument. He merely assumes that current literary theory may be used to illuminate the meanings of midrash.

The author calls this volume an "essay." Indeed Boyarin says on page 19, "Let us begin," and concludes on page 129. Throughout, bright sounding ideas are liberally thrown around but rarely developed or defended. Important scholarly and literary names are invoked lavishly: Stefan George, Friedrich Gundolf, Vladimir Propp, Michael Riffaterre, Hayden White, Bakhtin, Dostoevski, T.S. Eliot, Erich Auerbach, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman and others. While a carefully argued book drawing on such diverse figures ought to make interesting reading, this volume is a slipshod 129 page "essay" that dares to summon such figures together in the ostensible task of understanding the manifold textual corpus of rabbinic midrash. In short, the volume reads not like a mature study, but rather like an extended grant proposal for a sabbatical leave.

The book comes up short in substance and in style. Unfortunately the tone of pretentiousness and self-importance of this author distracts us severely from some of the valid and stimulating insights of the work. "I am a twentieth-century Western-educated Jewish intellectual," he says (p. ix). Though he is an Orthodox Jew he asserts, "I wish to have a way of reading midrash which will make sense for me as a member of Western culture." One wonders: are congratulations due to someone who finds noteworthy this conjunction of Orthodoxy and membership in culture at large? One finds further difficulty with Boyarin's claim, "The theoretical context in which this essay is undertaken is the philosophical project of Jacques Derrida (p. x)." To any reader who has struggled with Derrida, Lyotard and other giants of literary and cultural criticism, this slim book of intellectual indulgences will be baffling at best.

The pretensions of the author continuously come through in the way he drops names out of the literary critical cosmos. Out of nowhere, for instance, in chapter two we are treated to a sentence like this on the poetics of quotation: "The Acmeist poetics of Mandelstam and Akhmatova, T.S. Eliot's work, and the critical texts of Walter Benjamin all provide parade examples of this practice (p. 37)." Boyarin deposits these references and then departs, without explanation, for other terrain.

More important than the stylistic drawbacks of the book are its shortcomings of substance. Boyarin quickly and with little defense dismisses or ignores the scholars and scholarship most relevant to the literary critical study of midrash. Handelman and Faur are dismissed without discussion (p. xii). Kugel is passed over in virtual silence (pp. 13-14) and an entire book by Neusner is treated in one page with contempt (p. 14). Thus when one says, "Boyarin's book has no bibliography," the reader may take that both as a literal statement and as a judgment of the book's scholarly merits in the area of contemporary midrash studies.

Deeply troubling: The goal of the book set forth early on is both imprecise and pretentious and anyhow ignored by the author in the development of the volume: "I hope by the end of this essay to have provided material for a much more nuanced and rich understanding of the interplay between history and interpretation—both in the special method of Jewish reading called midrash, and by implication, in the hermeneutics of culture in general (p. 21)." Nowhere in the book does Boyarin deal meaningfully with the history of rabbinism or its interplay with midrash.

When one looks closely at the substance of each chapter one is disappointed at the paucity of the midrash texts cited and analyzed. The materials are drawn almost exclusively from Mekilta, a midrash-compilation to the book of Exodus. No attempt is made to survey and compare other compilations or even to systematically investigate this single compilation. And so the entire discussion in chapter 2 relies on a scant six texts. The arguments of chapter 3 rest on but five examples. Boyarin admits that the major point of that chapter relies on two texts: "My claim is that midrash (as practiced at least in the Mekilta) is a method of strong reading of the gaps of the text, filling them, as it were, by inserting the intertext into them (p. 56)."

The conclusions of the various chapters constitute no new discoveries. Midrash fills gaps and builds on ambiguities. We knew that. We also knew that midrash contains parables and allegories and, "Only certain plots and certain associations are allowed (p. 92)." We would like to know what ideology and values are carried within midrashic materials in Mekilta, Sifra, Sifré, Genesis Rabbah and so on. We also might want to know why the rabbis chose their agenda. Systematic and substantive work on such issues has been done quite recently by Jacob Neusner in studies of all the major midrashim. Apparently Boyarin found all this of no interest. There is no evidence that he read anything by that scholar beyond the one volume that he summarily dismissed.

Chapter six ends with this statement: "Reversing the Lacanian dictum, we can say that language is structured like a psyche and the reading of sign systems can have the same dynamic dimensions as the reading of the negotiations of the conscious and unconscious in the individual (p. 104)." I think he means in this sentence that we may find deep historically conditioned meanings beneath the surface of midrash-texts. Stripped of the jargon, this and most of the conclusions of the book are nothing short of obvious and superficial observations about the nature of midrash or any text of antiquity or of modernity. All texts of every kind in every culture have gaps, ambiguities and potentially deeper meanings.

One sympathetic reader warned the author that the exercise, "Reads like a celebration of midrash (p. xi)." No doubt the book conveys the message that Boyarin truly enjoys reading modern literary theory and studying midrash. Does he advance our knowledge in the discipline? Mostly the book degrades and obscures our vision of the complex and vigorous writings of the rabbis of late antiquity and the middle ages. Unconsciously perhaps, at the end, the author knows no progress has been made in the preceding eight chapters: "We have come full circle," he says in the epilogue (p. 128). We find that Boyarin has enthusiastically ingested a lot of literary criticism and some midrash and unfortunately has equally energetically regurgitated bits and pieces for us in this book. To be fair, Boyarin admits some of his own tendencies. "My use of terminology and concepts may appear eclectic to some readers (p. x)." I would agree that his treatment is not a "grab bag or smorgasbord." In honesty, images of a landfill or a strudel come to mind as one tries to navigate through the convoluted, dense arguments of this book. Few readers will have the patience to wade through its murky chapters. One senses he has much more to contribute in future work if he can come to the tasks with more humility in place of his jargon-laden-convictions and with greater industry added to his well-intended-ambitions.

Tzvee Zahavy

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455