Page 17 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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vidual sage s, and compositions written by the author/compiler(s).
Much o f the traditional material was originally oral; the recon ­
struction o f its p rocess o f transm ission is an importan t area o f
scholarly inquiry. However, the frustration implicit in dea ling
with an accumu lated literature has often moved scholars to reject
the possibility o f p ropo s in g mean ingfu l hypotheses about the
au thor/com p iler(s)’s intent, o r the historical setting o f these
works. On the other hand , attempts to summ arize Rabbinic
thought, such as Ephraim U rbach ’s The Sages: their Concepts and
Beliefs, have been wrongly criticized for their necessarily non-
historical exposition .
Two other em phases have em erged in recent years: studies
have focu sed on form s in m idrash , or on m idrash as an exam p le
or source fo r the History o f Religion. In the last h a l f o f the last
century and in ou r own several monograph s and articles have
been devoted to a description and evaluation o f the proem
(petihta), a homiletic form o f which over two thou sand examp les
are found in published texts and manuscripts. Most often these
proem s, one or more o f which app ea r at the beg inn ing o f each
“ literary serm on ,” begin with the explication o f a verse from the
Prophets or Writings chosen seem ingly at random . Th is verse is
interpreted in a variety o f ways and then cleverly tied up with the
first verse(s) o f the T o rah or H a ftarah read ing . N um erou s varia­
tions o f this pattern have been discovered, described and histori­
cally traced; scholars have debated whether these proem s are
introductions to sermons o r whether each is a complete sermon in
itself. T h e late Jo se ph H einem ann sugge sted that p roem s were
sermons delivered p rio r to and in o rder to introduce the T o rah
read ing , an idea which had its origins in the articles o f Leo Baeck
and ear lier writers. Baeck , however, was more in terested in con­
tent than form , and a rgu ed that anti-Christian polemical and
apo logetic intent was the key to understand ing m idrash in gen ­
eral and p roem -sermons in particular.
T h e interrelationship o f ideas in antiquity and the Jew ish in­
teraction with Christians and their scriptural exegesis is much
more comp lex than Baeck portrayed it. Nevertheless, such at­
tempts to p lace ideas, im ages , themes and tendencies o f in terp re­
tation in some living historical perspective need to be encouraged .