Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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Fourth- through sixth-century Palestinian Ju d a ism was much
more culturally alive, productive, creative and aggre ss ive than
Graetz ’ antiquated picture o f su ffer in g and oppress ion . T h e d e ­
velopment o f m idrashic form s as well as specific themes in R ab­
binic homilies need to be seen in conjunction with the em ergence
o f piyyut (liturgical poetry), the expansion o f free targum , the
establishment o f fixed cycles o f T o rah and H a fta rah read ings , the
construction and reconstruction o f synagogues and the utilization
o f mosaic decoration . Rabbinic m idrash shou ld also be viewed
against a much more comp lex background o f conflict and interac­
tion with Imperial O rthodox Byzantine Christianity and various
Palestinian non-O rthodox Christian religious and literary cul­
tures. It is no longer necessary to de fend the Rabbis against the
Church Fathers or re-fight their battles. Both g ro u p s o f religious
leaders are long dead , and the dam age done to Western civiliza­
tion by their often vicious an tagon ism , concretized in literature , is
better rem ed ied by modern pro fessionals in interfaith activities.
Rabbinic m idrash and agg ad ah flourished in a rem arkab le reli­
gious epoch , one o f ex traord inary biblically-based literary, hom i­
letic and poetic activity. Congregationa l aud iences , whether Jew ­
ish or Christian , were steeped in biblical lore; allusion to Scrip ture
was a delight for them. T h a t fact should rem ind us that the
literature o f the Rabbis as well as o f the Church Fathers was
religious. Its primary intent was rhetorical: T o p u rsu ad e and to
deepen the adherence o f the persuaded to their religion and
Viewing m idrash in this perspective it seem s necessary to f ind a
reasonab le balance between recent tendencies in scholarship
which may originate in attempts to ju stify the study o f m idrash in
the university setting. T h e effo r ts to see m idrash and aggad ah as
belles-lettres is m isplaced; agg ad ah was not written by To lstoy , as a
perceptive Israeli scholar recently commented. Th is comment is
not meant to discourage the application o f techniques o f literary
analysis or o f insights into the structure o f folk tales to Rabbinic
literature , but to p lace the results o f such analysis in the rhetorical
perspective o f the religious community.
Th e best exam p le o f such an attempt is David M. S tern ’s unpub ­
lished doctoral dissertation Interpreting Parables: the Mashal in