The method of the rabbis applied to literary criticism

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Midrash and Literature, edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 412 pp. $28.50. ``Turn it and turn it again, for everything is contained therein.'' This saying, from the early commentary on the Bible known as the Mishna, expresses the midrashic approach to the sacred texts. Poring over the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, the rabbis would ask questions: What motivated Cain to kill Abel? Why did God allow it to happen? And they would offer tentative answers, seeking closely in the words -- sometimes even in the individual letters of the text -- for clues as to how to interpret what was written . . . and what was not.

When we consider the salient features of today's advanced literary criticism -- ingenuity, sophistication, subtlety, complexity, and creativity -- it is hardly surprising that a number of leading critics should have become interested in the forms of biblical exegesis first practiced by rabbis at the dawn of the Christian Era. Midrash -- the word has a root meaning to seek out or inquire -- includes explanations of puzzling passages, meditations upon individual verses, and stories and legends filling in what was seemingly left out by the laconic biblical narrative of the Hebrew scriptures.

Probably the best known collection of midrashic writings may be found in the Passover Haggadah, the text recalling the story of the exodus from Egypt that is read at every Jewish seder (annual ceremonial meal).

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The continuing dialogue between written text and reader/interpreter became part of the tradition it studied. This tradition, as Prof. Geoffrey Hartman notes in his introduction to ``Midrash and Literature,'' was largely ignored by ``authorized interpreters'' of Western culture, but left its traces in the works of great poets like Milton.

The attraction of midrash for avant-garde academic critics can be explained in part by the high value both kinds of interpreters place upon the text. Both consider it a source of seemingly endless interpretative possibilities. Yet the rabbis, however ``creative'' their interpretations, doubtless had a more innocent understanding of what they were doing. They held the text to be sacred, and therefore saw their work as an ongoing attempt to uncover truths. Although what they did was, in effect, innovative, they did not see themselves primarily as innovators, but as transmitters of tradition. What makes them so attractive to the modern critic is how their very faithfulness (rather than a modern concern for originality) led them to become ``creative'' critics. This suggests that originality is more than an advertisement for oneself: that it is also a way of keeping tradition alive and flexible. In order to keep the sacred words open to changing conditions, the rabbis had to take an active role, establishing a living dialogue between past and present, text and reader. The applications of this paradigm go beyond biblical exegesis and beyond secular literary tradition to political documents, like the American Constitution. The history of constitutional law reflects the generative tension between permanent values and the value of being open to unforeseen change.

The essays in ``Midrash and Literature'' focus on the more literary elements of interpretation. The contributors are an international group of scholar-critics specializing in such fields as English, Hebrew, French, and Spanish literatures, religious history, and philosophy. The contents range from scholarly articles on midrash, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and biblical narrative to essays on midrashic aspects of Milton, Defoe, Wordsworth, Keats, Borges, Kafka, S. Y. Agnon, and Paul Celan. This is a rich, informative, ambitious, variegated volume aimed at readers already somewhat acquainted with the subjects. The reader in search of a more accessible introduction to these largely unfamiliar texts will find one in ``Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts,'' edited by Barry W. Holtz.

Apart from the intrinsic merits of scholarship, analysis, and fresh perspectives to be found in ``Midrash and Literature,'' a collection like this is also a positive sign of the times. In it can be discerned a fine balance between the sweeping tide toward the assimilation of small groups into the larger cultural life of a civilization and the powerful undercurrent that draws people back to their ``roots.'' Perhaps we can only understand roots after we've attained a certain distance from them; certainly this is so if cultural identity is ever to be more than mere ethnic, religious, or racial chauvinism.

In the concluding essay, Edmond Jab`es ponders the relationship between his own identity as a writer and a Jew in a series of epigrammatic meditations. One of these might well stand as emblem of this -- and many another -- literary enterprise: ``To be what you write. To write what you are. These are the stakes.''

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