“Beneficent Incision”: Midrash and the Contemporary Critical Moment – By Adam Zachary Newton

Adam Zachary Newton August 5, 2014 1

Adam Zachary Newton on Dina Stein’s Textual Mirrors: Reflexivity, Midrash, and the Rabbinic Self

Dina Stein, Textual Mirrors: Reflexivity, Midrash, and the Rabbinic Self, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 216pp., $79.95

Dina Stein, Textual Mirrors: Reflexivity, Midrash, and the Rabbinic Self, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 216pp., $79.95

In a deeply learned set of essays collected under the title The Vulnerable Text (1986), Renaissance literature scholar Thomas Greene discussed what he called textual vulnerability — the way a poem “wins its status as a literary text partly because it accepts a beneficent incision.” Greene quotes this verse from Paul Valéry’s “Aurore” (1922) as a specimen: “Il n’est pour ravir un monde. De blessure si profonde. Qui ne soit au ravisseur. Une féconde blessure [to carry off a world, no wound is so deep that it is not for the pillager a fecund wound].” Such wounding, the incision that is both poetic form and the generous reading it invites, would be the cut — like Greek krinein, from which we get “crisis,” “criteria,” and “criticism” — incised not only by endless iterations of reading and recontextualization but also by the baseline fact of a text’s situatedness and self-exposure, its mutable life in the world of words. For Greene, four conditions of the poetic artifact explain such vulnerability: its historicity (the temporary, contingent status of all cultural production); its dialogic participation in genre and tradition, the skein of intertextual voices woven in and through it; the semantic gap or lag between representation and meaning; and the presence of tropes and figures which, Greene says, bestow their own “beneficent wound”: semantically unstable, sometimes indeterminate, always elusive.

Beyond these constitutive modes of susceptibility, any text, says Greene, “runs its own risks.” Its fate is always on consignment — not only to unexpected crossings with other texts and kinds of texts over distance of time and space but also to the material impingement of unpredicted communities of readers and their reading practices. Simply by dint of its tenancy in the world, we approach what Greene poignantly, but I think quite correctly, names a text’s humanity: fragile, dependent, aleatory. But also so positioned that “a wounding may confer, in Valéry’s language, a waking alertness, a power, a fecundity.” Nevertheless, it is just as plainly true that literary artifacts “reach us as vestigial fragments of a once-living civilization we are unable to reconstruct in its dynamic fullness. We are condemned to labor to restore a power to the symbols and the density to the codes of an inherited text that will never fully overcome its estrangement.”

Greene’s nod to Valéry’s modernism as a gloss on Renaissance texts by the likes of Erasmus, Petrarch, and Maurice Scève dovetails with the contemporaneous move (ca. 1980s) in theory circles that applied postmodern analytical categories to rabbinic midrash. What we know as midrash is itself the strong reading of Biblical verses through the creative interpolation of narrative and commentary amidst a fusion of Biblical, Greco-Roman, and even Egyptian and Byzantine textual elements. But one legacy of the theoretical appropriation merely bears out Greene’s point about the estrangement bequeathed by historicity, which would seem to establish the initial limiting condition for critical analysis in this case. The pathos that Greene locates between a work’s (or in this case, a whole genre’s) risks and its survival becomes particularly vivid for the kind of intellectual culture that stands behind rabbinic literature in only semi-transparent guise. Since we can only partially access its institutional predicates, the micro-history of its underpinning ideas, we must extrapolate them — sometimes with the corroborative help of inner-rabbinic material, sometimes with the élan of intuitive conjecture. In command of both strategies, Talmudist Alon Goshen-Gottstein has persuasively argued that the greatest challenge rabbinic literature presents to the modern reader — and it presents plenty of them — is identifying the ideological presuppositions and institutional structures that gave birth to the literature in the first place.

And what of an analysis that seeks dialogical partners drawn from a wholly different language game than the one practiced by the exegetes and compositors of the midrashic canon? Such partners would be not only rhetorically Other but also — and this is essential — institutionally so. Either the interpretive hazard increases or its practitioners become the agents, and we the beneficiaries, of a beneficent incision that may result in a text refreshed and rejuvenated. One of the great pleasures, then, of Dina Stein’s Textual Mirrors: Reflexivity, Midrash, and the Rabbinic Self is the imaginative and refracted light it casts upon the waking alertness, power, and fecundity of the midrashic enterprise tout court.

We have been here before. The year Greene published his essays on textual vulnerability, by sheer coincidence, also happens to be the same year in which the famous Hartman-Budick volume Midrash and Literature appeared. Even if its impact within humanities departments eventually proved vulnerable to shifting critical trends, the aggregate essays by Bible and rabbinics scholars like Michael Fishbane, Joseph Heinemann, Judah Goldin, James Kugel, David Stern, Joseph Dan, etc., punctuated a spike in interdisciplinary crosstalk between rabbinics and literary studies. The ripple effect can still be discerned for a subsequent generation of scholars like Stein (whom we might style the Ammoraim — that is, second period rabbinic interpreters (ca. 200-500 CE) — to their Tannaitic — first period rabbinic teachers (up to ca. 200 CE) — antecedents of the 1980s and 1990s), whose expertise in classical Jewish sources cannot help now but demonstrate a skilled and programmatic reflexivity of its own across disciplinary boundaries.

One is also reminded of the valuable dialectical distinction between interpretive mastery of the sources (exegesis), on the one hand, and a manner of reading them (performativity), on the other, recently adumbrated by Steven Fraade in Legal Fictions (2011) and confidently demonstrated by Prof. Stein in her own valuable study. The ambient surround for Stein’s book would also include the recent monographs of Jenny R. Labendz, Socratic Torah: Non-Jews in Rabbinic Intellectual Culture (2013); Moshe Simon-Shoshan’s Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah (2012); Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories (2011); Joshua Levinson, The Twice-Told Tale: A Poetics of the Exegetical Narrative in Rabbinic Midrash (2005); Azzan Yadin, Scripture as Logos Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash (2004); and Alon Goshen-Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac: The Rabbinic Invention of Elisha ben Abuya and Eleazar ben Arach (2000).

As to Stein’s specific framework and argument, one can begin at the beginning by simply highlighting the syntax in the subtitle where the word “midrash” nestles between “reflexivity” and “the rabbinic self.” Perhaps a compressed intellectual narrative surfaces there. As Hartman and Budick’s Midrash and Literature began under the auspices of the Center for Literary Studies at Hebrew University (1983-1985), so Stein’s acknowledgments reflect a similar incubation for her project in a seminar on “Literary Aspects of Religious Discourse in the Middle Ages” convened by the Institute for Advanced Studies, again at Hebrew University (2004-2005). Of course, the title for Textual Mirrors invokes a theoretical matrix of its own, echoing Lucien Dällenbach’s seminal 1977 work, Le récit spéculaire: essai sur la mise en abîme, translated into English as The Mirror in the Text. One might even hear an acoustic shadow of the British literary journal Textual Practice, inaugurated with an article by Linda Hutcheon on postmodernism, the same Linda Hutcheon who receives prominent mention in Stein’s preliminary footnotes. (A more up-to-date study — on 17th through 21st century French literature by Joyce Lowrie — Sightings: Mirrors in Texts — Texts in Mirrors (2008) goes unmentioned in the bibliography; its range, however, would support Stein’s contention that self reflexivity is by no means limited to the discursive realm of postmodernist fiction.)

What is “reflexivity,” as Stein deploys the concept? At the level of both textual poetics and practice, it denotes “an aspect of any text that comments on itself as a text and as language, or on its processes of production and reception.” Contextually speaking, reflexivity identifies the process by which “hermeneutical and institutional discourses become [themselves] the object of reflection” with implications for extra-textual values like “the identity of the Sage, the hegemony of the rabbinic institution, or the authority of midrash as scriptural interpretation.” Clearly, authorization informs all three of these dimensions, which, together, constitute “the rabbinic self,” construed according to the dynamics of subject-formation, both real and ideal.

Why midrash as opposed to, say, mishnaic narrative or jurisprudential aggadah, which have lately become their own object of theoretically-inflected scrutiny? Stein answers that the very discourse and practice of midrash is predicated on reflexivity: it thematizes reflexivity as a distinctly rabbinic hermeneutic as well as strategy of self-fashioning. And perhaps even more importantly, it emblematizes and meta-poetically performs it: liminal figurations that project a split positionality, both inside and outside the Biblical source text, show midrash to be “the dominant form in the rabbinic poly-system, [not only] a discursive model to which the rabbis adapted other genres” [but also] “a generative and metonymic model of rabbinic hermeneutic practices in a wider sense.” This dialogical quality has already been keenly elucidated in an important essay by rabbinics scholar Joshua Levinson, entitled “Dialogical Reading in the Rabbinic Exegetical Narrative.”

That overarching claim about the plasticity of the medium (which leans heavily on the work of Daniel Boyarin) suggests not only a syntax of specular structures — reflexive, reflective, self-reflexive, self-reflective — but a platform for the crafting, by the anonymous midrashic authors, of possible rabbinic selves. By way of visual analogy, the mirroring we see disclosed by these readings might call to mind classical exercises in specular representation like Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656) or Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage (1434). But given the multiple levels of reflexivity and reflection Stein analyzes here, from fairly straightforward plot elements to more oblique allegories of rabbinic self-fashioning, one may be forgiven for also summoning up the climactic scene from Orson Welles’s 1946 film The Lady from Shanghai. For indeed, several of Stein’s midrashim suggest a veritable hall, or at least the rabbinic prozdor (Hebrew for vestibule), of mirrors — in particular, the midrash about narcissistic self-regard (“Simon the Just and the Nazirite”) in chapter 1. (Stein reframes the narrative components of this midrash as analyzed by David Weiss Halivni in 1967, “On the Supposed Anti-Asceticism or Anti-Nazritism of Simon the Just.”) But such replicability actually redounds to the concept’s methodological advantage. If self-reflective moments “bring us, as it were backstage in rabbinic theaters, where the participants comment on the play being enacted onstage,” then backstage dressing rooms with more than one mirror attest to midrash’s multi-functionality. “The power of midrash,” Stein concludes in her epilogue, “derives, almost paradoxically, from its self-reflective quality, from its capacity to call into question and reflect on the underlying principles — textual, religious and ideological — through which it is constituted.” If biblical discourse, by Auerbachian measures, is fraught with background, midrash shimmers with foreground, a textual restlessness that makes it improbably contiguous (on one side at least) with a proto-modern text like Baudelaire’s Petits poèmes en prose. (A study that happens, uncannily, to share a number of features with Stein’s project is late critic Marie Maclean’s Narrative as Performance: The Baudelairean Experiment [1988].) And if one must “rub the text to arrive at the life it conceals,” as Emmanuel Levinas once proposed, then midrash as einfache Form exemplifies a small-scale category of discourse that already frictionalizes itself. In David Banon’s Levinasian phrase, authors of midrash exploit une herméneutique de la sollicitation, a self-interpreting agitation.

Fighting at Babel: Detail of illumination of the Haggadah for Passover, reflecting on Genesis Rabbah 38:10 (c. 1325) – Image via the British Library

At this juncture, a small cavil could be made about the book’s assemblage of examples, which are drawn from later midrashic compilations (though all prior to the 8th-9th centuries) and aggadic narratives in the earlier Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds. Textual Mirrors is modest in size (124 pages, exclusive of notes and appendix), and its sample of midrashim (fewer than ten) accordingly restrictive. Like many academic monographs of this kind, the composition process was admittedly segmented: four of the five chapters were published in different form as separate articles and, while the transitions between them obey a certain logic, all of them work more or less as self-contained units. Such features do not necessarily make a book less than the sum of its parts; in this case, Stein’s chapter-length analyses stand on their own as always lucid and provocative. Still, it’s worth pondering the caveat Eva Kiesele registered in her MRB review of Labendz’s Socratic Torah about the generalizability of selected rabbinic examples that may still need to pass the test of representativeness.

Having now introduced the cavil, however, I’m not sure that Stein would go as far as to say that in midrash lies the hermeneutic key to rabbinic subjectivity as such. That claim would mark the point where reflexivity stops short of mise en abîme because “the rabbinic self” is itself a performance — the gestures and dramaturgy of backstage midrashic theater. To redirect the metaphor as economic, the signifying practices of midrash are to both the Biblical source text and real-world rabbinic agency as the Monopoly board game is to an actual title deed for the B&O Railroad or a property on Baltic Ave. Stein’s bibliography does not include Daniel Boyarin’s essay about the rabbinic politics of exchange and valuation, “The Bartered Word: Midrash and Symbolic Economy,” which mobilizes the economic metaphor as an instructive complement to Stein’s midrash-as-theater. To the extent that we have been shown the backstage door, then, the separate readings of a small sample of midrashim lay the groundwork for further exploration of this book’s central insight about midrash as both reflective mechanism and performative practice, or as Stein likes to say, “as both the propagator and object of reflection.”

The “rabbinic self” is itself a performance — the gestures and dramaturgy of backstage midrashic theater.

A glimpse into one of those chapters may be helpful here. I choose the epilogue, partly on account of its compact proportions, partly because of the meta-midrashic exegesis at work, and partly because it enables me to come full circle. In tractate Berakhot, the Bavli discusses various blessings to be recited upon witnessing phenomena including houses of Israel that stand in an abandoned or desolate state. Thus on folio 58b, ‘Ulla and Rav Ḥisda engage in conversation about the now-ruined house of R. Ḥana, son of Ḥanilai. The dialogue contains two midrashim, both repeated in the name of R. Yoḥanan, the first a platitude about grief that invokes the Prophets (Ezek. 21:11-12), the second — after Rav Ḥisda’s sighs continue unabated and even amplified — an attempt at consolation that envisions the Temple’s rebuilding, reality restored on a far grander scale (Ps. 125:1). The attempt fails, and ’Ulla’s inability to settle (using the Semitic root YTB / YŠB) R Hisda — to assuage his mourning — is mirrored in the language of the midrash itself by means of inflections from the same grammatical root. An almost perfect instance of herméneutique de la sollicitation, the story both describes and enacts agitation. Stein’s reading, however, pinpoints the relationship between midrash and ruins, the textual capacity to foreground conditions of vulnerability that at some level allegorize the unstable place or fate of literary procedures (as well as their producers) in the world. I quote the summary reading at length:

The geographical, social, and cosmological are thus deemed homological, so that, paradoxically, the coherence of a system of images of ruins grants meaning to what otherwise might be conceived as isolated fragments of destruction. ‘Ulla’s final words thus suggest that his midrash can, if nothing else, provide fragmented cohesion.By implication, this may suggest that Rav Ḥisda’s physical wholeness, his subjective self, can only be attained by not denying his vulnerability, by accepting a fragmenting sigh. Fragmented cohesion is what characterizes the narrative as a whole as it wavers between the initially failed comforting attempts of ‘Ulla and a meta-poetic, cosmologically aesthetic resolution. Then again, we do not hear Rav Ḥisda’s response to ‘Ulla’s final words. As far as resolving the initial human crisis with which the story began, the culmination of the plot is left ambiguous.

Midrashic storytelling is parasitic on larger, more comprehensive narrative structures, which it renders in the form of separate verse fragments. It is, moreover, so obviously elliptical in structure itself. Inasmuch as midrash, according to Stein, thus exposes “the seams” of discourse, it reads out ruin, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of allegorical reflection, as its own enabling condition. Stein’s correlative term for this discursive reflexivity is liminal, which she takes to signify both the ambiguous half-inside/half-outside machinery of the genre itself, and the precarious status of the collective “rabbinic self” and consequently, the constructed (thus vulnerable) status of its institutional authority. And much like ‘Ulla and Rav Ḥisda in the face of perishable reality on the story-level of this exemplary midrash, to recall Thomas Greene, “We are condemned to labor to restore a power to the symbols and the density to the codes of an inherited text that will never fully overcome its estrangement.” The restorative labor on display in the very rich heuristic readings that comprise Dina Stein’s book offers her readers the kind of counterweight to forces of estrangement we call “criticism.” And like works of art, exemplary criticism “should always teach us that we haven’t previously seen what we are seeing” (Paul Valéry).

Also Recommended from MRB:


  • Abba Tudela

    I am afraid I can barely understand a single sentence of this review!