The Modern Study of Ancient Rabbinic Literature: Yonah Fraenkel's Darkhei ha'aggadah vehamidrash
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The Modern Study of Ancient Rabbinic Literature: Yonah Fraenkel's Darkhei ha'aggadahvehamidrashDarkhei ha'aggadah vehamidrash by Yonah FraenkelReview by: RICHARD KALMINProoftexts, Vol. 14, No. 2 (MAY 1994), pp. 189-204Published by: Indiana University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20689391 .Accessed: 13/06/2014 05:17
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The Modern Study of Ancient Rabbinic Literature: Yonah Fraenkel's Darkhei ha'aggadah vehamidrash
Yonah Fraenkel. Darkhei ha'aggadah vehamidrash. Givatayim, Israel: Yad latalmud, 1991, 777 pp.
In this monumental work, Yonah Fraenkel presents the results of a lifetime of careful study of ancient rabbinic texts from a modem literary perspective.1 The book focuses on what Fraenkel calls the "classica!" period of midrashic and
aggadic (nonlegal) creativity, from roughly the first or second century b.c.e., when the earliest named midrashic and aggadic authors lived, until the redaction of
Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah) and Pesikta de-Rav Kahana approximately seven hundred years later. The major sources cited in the book are the Mishnah and Tosefta, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and midrashic compilations such as Bereshit Rabbah (Genesis Rabbah).
The book methodically catalogs and describes the contents and methods of rabbinic scriptural interpretation and storytelling. What techniques do the Rabbis use to explicate Scripture? What literary devices are helpful in interpreting their stories? What principles govern the redaction of midrashic and aggadic materials?
What theological, moral, and philosophical principles inform these texts? The book is directed both to a scholarly and nonscholarly audience, to
educated nonspecialists who seek the knowledge and tools necessary for learning midrash and aggadah as modern readers, and to Jewish studies scholars who want a total picture of their subject (p. 1).
The present essay surveys and critiques each of the book's four parts. We
begin our discussion with part 3, which contains the book's most important contribution. Part 3 fruitfully applies the techniques and conceptual tools of modem literary criticism to the study of rabbinic stories, proverbs, and epigrams.
The following discussion of part 3 focuses mainly on Fraenkel's treatment of rabbinic sage stories (chapter 9), and thus reflects my own major area of interest. Part 3's rich and provocative treatment of other aggadic forms, however, espe cially chapter ll's discussion of rabbinic proverbs (masha?), could easily form the
subject of a separate essay. Fraenkel observes that modem literary theory recognizes three types of
literature: epic, lyric, and dramatic. The three are distinguishable primarily by the
way they "relate to the surrounding world."
Epic, Fraenkel maintains, relates to the world as a static entity. Epic considers details about the physical world mtrinsically interesting and worth describing
PROOFTEXTS14 (1994): 189-204 ? 1994 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
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even when they impede the development of plot. Lyric, in contrast, views reality as raw material enabling the lyricist to express his or her emotions. Drama sees in human reality oppositions and conflicts between people and circumstances. Every detail either contributes toward the development of plot, hints toward the future, or interprets the past.
Clearly, observes Fraenkel, rabbinic stories are not lyrical, but are they epic or dramatic? Before answering this question, he attempts to establish their character as works of art. Artistic creations, observed Aristotle, cannot begin and end
randomly, but must be ordered and measured properly, without accident
(pp. 238-39). Do rabbinic stories have these characteristics? Fraenkel claims that they do, and cites the following story, found on b. Gittin
58a, to illustrate his point:2
Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of the verse, "And they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance"
(Mie. 2:2)? It once happened that a man laid eyes on the wife of his master; he was a
carpenter's apprentice. One time his master needed to borrow money. He said to rum, "Send your wife to me, and I'll lend her the money." He sent his wife to him. She stayed with him for three days.3 The man went ahead and came to him. He said to him, "My wife, whom I sent to you, where is she?" He said to him, "I sent her off immediately, but I heard that the boys abused her on the road." He said to him, "What shall I do?" He said to him, "If you listen to my advice, divorce her." He said to him, "Her marriage settlement is large." He said to Yum, "I'll lend you the money, and you pay her marriage settlement."
This one got up and divorced her, and the other went and married her. When the time came and he had no money to pay him, he said to him, "Come and work off your debt." So they sat, eating and driruong, and he stood and poured for them. And tears fell from his eyes into their wine cups, and at that moment the verdict was sealed.
The story involves a master, his wife, and an apprentice, and Fraenkel argues that the movement of these characters throughout the story reveals it as a
carefully structured unity. The owning scene places all three protagonists in the house of the master, and the closing scene places them all in the house of the
apprentice. In between, each scene is marked by movement of at least one of the
protagonists: scene 2 finds the husband at home and the other two characters in the house of the apprentice; scene 3 finds the husband and apprentice in the
master's house and the wife in the house of the apprentice; scene 4 returns to the
setting of scene 2. The verse that opens the story, "And they oppress a man and his
house, a man and his inheritance," emphasizes the connection between person and dwelling, and lends weight to Fraenkel's claim that the shifts of scene betray intentional design (p. 241).
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What other factors indicate this story's character as an artistic creation? Fraenkel maintains that a work of art must be self-contained and self-understood. It must supply, he argues, all of the information necessary to be understood, and its various sections should explicate one another. Artistic stories should also have closure: the end should refer back to the begmriing and provide the story with a circular structure (p. 261).
The story of the master and the apprentice exhibits these characteristics. "It once happened that a man laid eyes on the wife of his master," the story begins, and ends with a description of tears falling from the master's eyes into the cups of his wife and former apprentice. The story has closure, therefore, since it opens and closes with the motif of "eyes" and with mention of all three protagonists.
The use of language, Fraenkel observes, is also an integral part of the artistry of rabbinic stories. For example, stories use unusual syntax or plays on words
(paronomasia) to express the emotional states of the characters, and repeat words or phrases to express tensions, oppositions, and ambiguities (p. 271).
The master-apprentice story, for example, uses sirrdlar-sounding verbs in similar situations to deepen our understanding of the apprentice's character. The
apprentice says to the master, "Send [shager] your wife to me," and the text informs us that "he sent [shiger] his wife to him." Subsequently, the apprentice tells the master, "If you listen to my advice, divorce her [garshena]," and the text informs us that he divorced her [gershah]. The words ; and una express the
apprentice's desire to remove the woman from the domain of the master and take
possession of her himself. The verb "to divorce" harks back to the verb "to send," and the story's use of paronomasia underlines the plotting premeditated nature of the apprentice's actions from start to finish.
The story, therefore, is well composed and ordered. It is not a random list of isolated events, but a tightly structured unity, fulfilling one of Aristotle's basic criteria of a work of art. Is the story, however, and are rabbinic stories in general, epic or dramatic?
We noted above that epic loves details, even those that interrupt the narra
tive, but descriptions are rare in rabbinic stories. Tension and opposition are fundamental to both drama and aggadah, Fraenkel claims, establishing a strong case for the rabbinic story's dramatic character.
The story of the master and apprentice, full of contrasts and oppositions, once
again illustrates this point. The master and apprentice reverse roles, it will be
recalled, and as the story progresses the scene gradually shifts from the house of the master to the house of the apprentice. The setting and configuration of characters is the same in scenes 2 and 4, but this similarity highlights a crucial difference between them. In scene 2, the master tWnks his wife has gone to the
apprentice's house only to borrow money, and her prolonged presence there is a secret. In scene 4, in contrast, her presence there is public knowledge.
The climax of the dramatic tension comes when the master asks the appren tice, "What shall I do?" and the apprentice answers, "If you listen to my advice, divorce her." At this point, it is still possible for the husband to reveal the truth about the apprentice and save himself from his wicked designs. He fails, and the
plot rolls relentlessly on to its conclusion.
Having analyzed the stnicture of the story and described its dramatic nature, Fraenkel turns to its interpretation. What is the story's point, and does the analysis of structure contribute to our understanding of the story's mearting?
Crucial to Fraenkel's analysis is his claim that stmcture and form are keys to the understanding of content. Applying this theory to the present story, he argues that the contrasts between the husband's ignorance in scene 2 and his awareness in scene 4, the apprentice's deception in scene 2 and his openness in part 4, depicts an encounter between truth and falsehood, innocence and wickedness, and
openness and concealment. The apprentice's eyes motivate his actions; the mas ter's eyes are blind throughout, until the end, when they finally see the evil truth.
Until the divorce, the apprentice lies and conceals, and the master, unable to understand the truth, falls deeper and deeper into the trap set by the apprentice. The apprentice disguises himself as an upright person, pretending to lend money out of kindness and concealing the fact that he committed adultery. After the
divorce, the apprentice no longer acts secretively, and by the conclusion, the master fully understands what transpired.
The story, claims Fraenkel, contrasts the wicked, crafty, and successful
apprentice to the innocent, naive and unfortunate master, and presents the destruction of the Temple as the result of the victimization of the innocent by the wicked.
In Fraenkel's view, rabbinic sage stories are concerned fundamentally with the oppositions and tensions that result from opposing understandings of reality. The sages know that reality is ambiguous and admits of diverse interpretations, and they depict individuals struggling to uncover the truth and decide between various options, each of which presents itself as a correct understanding of reality. If reality were easy to understand, Fraenkel concludes, it could be described
epically. Since it is not, the dramatic form is much more appropriate (p. 266). Fraenkel errs, however, by seeing uniformity where there is actually tremen
dous diversity. Sometimes the stories show the characteristics he sees as paradig matic, but it is a mistake to view them as reflecting a uniform worldview or a consistent way of interpreting reality. As we will note repeatedly, Fraenkel tends to interpret the sources monolithically, to assert without proof that the few sources that he analyzes in detail are representative of the whole.
In addition, the very sophistication of the critical apparatus that serves Fraenkel in such good stead in interpreting certain aspects of a story often causes him to misinterpret other aspects. He approaches the material ^vith a precon ceived literary theory, and too often allows the theory to deterrnine his interpreta tion. One who approaches the material without such heavy baggage is likely to
interpret differently. Despite Fraenkel's claim to the contrary, the master in the story is anything
but innocent. He sends his wife to the house of another man to transact business for him. Three days go by and she hasn't returned home, yet the master fails to visit the apprentice and inquire as to her whereabouts. The apprentice goes to the master4 and tells him she has been raped, and without bothering to corroborate the story, the master immediately contemplates divorce. His only thought is to the size of his wife's marriage settlement, although it is his fault she was out on the road alone, and as far as he knows, his wife did nothing wrong.
The story, therefore, describes what happens when society's masters lack the moral strength to stand up to the evil of their underlings. It depicts a stupid and wicked master allowing his wicked apprentice to gain the upper hand. When masters are evil, claims the story, and society's customary roles are reversed, God's "edict of destruction" is sealed, i.e., society is ready to collapse under the
weight of its own evil. God's punishment is simply the final seal placed on
something that the community already brought upon itself. In contrast to the
Bible, which conceives of the people's sin and God's purtishment as separate entities, this story views God as virtually inactive, simply allowing the Jews to
bring about their own ruin. God declares a final halt to the proceedings, deciding only when the final curtain is ready to be brought down.
This story also emphasizes the importance of proper treatment of one's fellow, and an important point of the story is lost, I believe, if we assume that the
apprentice and wife engaged in adultery. Very likely, there was no adultery, and the apprentice's sin was his "oppression" of his master. Admittedly, this aspect of the story is ambiguous, but Fraenkel should have noted the story's ambiguity rather than assert his interpretation as the only legitimate one.
Another example of Fraenkel's tendency to let theory determine his exegesis is a passage in which R. Yonatan and R. Hiyya discuss whether the dead "know," i.e., are aware of what goes on around them in the world.5 The pivotal passage is R. Hiyya's rejoinder to R. Yonatan's claim that the dead are unaware, which he bases on Qoheleth 9:5 ("And the dead do not know anything"):
He [R. Hiyya] said to rum, "You know how to read [Scripture] but you don't know how to interpret. "For the living know that they will die" (Qoh. 9:5), these are the righteous who even in their death are called living. "And the dead do not know anything" (Qoh. 9:5), these are the wicked who even
during their life are called dead.
Where in the verse does R. Hiyya find the idea that the dead are aware, asks
Fraenkel, and claims that his description of two midrashic techniques helps answer this question. The two techniques are (1) the uncovering of opposition and tension between two parts of a verse, when in reality none exists, and
(2) midrashic doubling of a verse, i.e., interpreting a verse as if it were written twice.
According to Fraenkel, R. Hiyya transfers the end of the verse to its begin ning. Instead of reading "And the dead do not know anything'' as the latter half of the verse, R Hiyya reads it as part of the first half of the verse and reverses its
meaning ("The dead know something''). R. Hiyya understands the phrase "the dead" as the righteous who even in death are called living. The first half of the verse, therefore, means "The living righteous know that they will die and when
they die they are as if living i.e., they are aware of what goes on in the world." R. Hiyya, daims Fraenkel, performs a similar interpretive exercise on the
second half of the verse, transferring the first half of the verse to the second half and reversing its meaning. This second half therefore means, "The dead wicked, who have no portion in the next world, don't know anything. While alive they are
wicked, and they therefore do not know, i.e., they do not want to remember, that
they will die" (pp. 150-51). My point in describing Fraenkel's discussion in detail is not simply to show
that his interpretation of a particular text is impossibly convoluted. More impor tant, the above discussion shows that Fraenkel often applies his theories and
classificatory schemes even when they are not appropriate, and his exegesis suffers as a result.
It is important to note that Fraenkel's insight into the artistic nature of many rabbinic stories has yet to receive the full scholarly acceptance it deserves. His treatment of a story on b. Sotah 49b will serve as an example of the impact of his
approach on our evaluation of the historicity of rabbinic sources. The story is as follows:
Our Rabbis taught: When the kings of the Hasmonean house fought one
another, Hyrcanus was outside and Aristobulus inside. Each day they low ered denars in a basket, and raised up [animals for] the continual offerings. An old man was there, who was learned in Greek wisdom. He spoke to them with Greek wisdom, saying, "As long as they carry on the [Temple] service, you will never capture them." The next day they lowered denars in a basket, and they raised up a pig. When it reached halfway up the wall, it stuck its claws into the wall, and the land of Israel was shaken for four hundred
parasangs in either direction. At that time they said, "Cursed be a man who raises pigs and cursed be a man who teaches his son Greek wisdom."
Fraenkel observes (p. 236) that Josephus reports a similar story, with Hyr canus and his men laying siege to Jerusalem while Aristobulus and his men defend the city. In Josephus's version, the besiegers ask an extremely high price for animals to be used in the sacrificial cult, and when money is lowered down from the city wall, they break their word and refuse to supply the promised animals. As a result, claims Josephus, God punishes Hyrcanus and his men by sending an evil wind that destroys crops throughout the country and causes the
price of wheat to skyrocket. The rabbinic story, observes Fraenkel, is a brief, self-contained account of a
single event. It describes only what is necessary to understand the story's message: the destructive power of Greek wisdom. The Josephan account is clearly distinct from that of the rabbinic author, since Josephus presents the story as one
episode in a continuous narrative. Granted that rabbinic stories are not historiographical, but are they true?
Examination of parallel versions of these stories, Fraenkel argues, shows that rabbinic authors exercised tremendous freedom in altering their sources, allowing their imaginations free rein to mold events and personalities to suit their message.
Fraenkel cites as an example the Yerushalmi's version of the above story,6 which differs from that of the Bavli (see above) in significant ways:
R. Simon in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: "In the days of the Greek
kingdom they would lower down two baskets of gold and would raise up
two lambs. One time they lowered down two baskets of gold and were
raising up two goats. At that time the Holy One blessed be He enlightened their eyes and they found two unblemished lambs in the [Temple] store of lambs."
Said R. Levi, "Also in the days of the wicked kingdom [Rome] they would lower down two baskets of gold, and would raise up two lambs. Finally they lowered down two baskets of gold and raised up two pigs. They had reached less than halfway up the wall when a pig became stuck and jumped forty parasangs of the land of Israel.7 At that time, sins caused the daily sacrifice to be suspended and the Temple to be destroyed."
Fraenkel observes that the Bavli and Yerashalrni most likely preserve two different versions of the same account, and that storytellers in the two Talmuds reworked the narrative in different ways. The Bavli's version focuses on the event as a civil war between rival Jewish groups during the Hasmonean period. According to the Bavli, Jews who followed after "Greek wisdom" are to blame for the catastrophe. The Yerushalmi's version describes the destruction of the Temple by the wicked Romans as a result of the sins of the nation. The Yerashalrni's account, in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi, idealizes the Hasmonean period as a time when God suddenly "enlightened the eyes" of Israel and brought about salvation (pp. 235-38).
Detailed examination of one case in which Fraenkel distinguishes his methods from the philological-historical approach of Saul Lieberman will further illustrate the uniqueness of his approach.8 Lieberman argues that rabbinic texts often present an accurate picture of institutions, practices, or customs current in the ancient world. In Fraenkel's view, Lieberman and many other scholars fail to account for the distorting effect of the rabbinic sources' character as artistic creations and as vehicles for the expression of a religious message.
For example, Fraenkel cites a mashal found in Pesikta derav Kahana9 which
compares God's giving of the Torah
to a king who married off his daughter, and established a kratesis [decree] at sea and said, "Romans should not go down to Syria, and Syrians should not
go up to Rome." But when he married off his daughter he rescinded his decree. Sirnilarly, before the Torah was given, "The heavens are the heavens of God, and the world He gave to people" (Ps. 115:16), but after the Torah was
given from heaven, "Moshe ascended to God" (Exod. 19:3), "And God descended on Mount Sinai" (Exod. 19:20).
Lieberman prefers the version of the mashal found in a work by the medieval
author, R. Yitshak Aramah. According to this version, which Lieberman character izes as "more logical and understandable," the comparison is to
a king who decreed for his kingdom that Romans should not go down to
Syria and Syrians should not go up to Rome. One day, the king wished to
marry a woman from Syria. He arose and annulled his decree and said,
"From now on, Romans shall go down to Syria and Syrians shall go up to
Rome, and I will begin/'
Lieberman claims that the mashal alludes to the historical fact of Septimus Severus's marriage to a Syrian woman, in violation of the law forbidding marriage between a Roman citizen and a foreign woman. Lieberman's historical claim follows from (or, perhaps in part, motivates) his acceptance of R. Yitshak Aramah's version, since the Pesikta has the king's son rather than the king himself
marrying the foreign woman, and therefore cannot refer to Septimus Severus's
marriage. In contrast to Lieberman, Fraenkel argues on aesthetic grounds in favor of the
Pesikta's version as the original. This version, he claims, is more successful
literarily than the alternative version and is therefore more likely to be early. The Pesikta visualizes the Torah as God's daughter, who leaves her home in heaven to
marry a husband, Israel, who lives in an entirely different realm. The Pesikta, Fraenkel claims, teaches a profound religious truth about the earthly and heav
enly nature of the Torah, which is missing from the comparatively impoverished version of R. Yitshak Aramah.
The latter version compares the giving of the Torah to a marriage between the
king and his distant bride, and therefore lacks the Pesikta's idea of a true union between the earthly and heavenly domains. God (the king) leaves heaven to
marry Flis earthly bride (Israel), who in rum ascends to heaven to marry her
heavenly spouse, but the two realms unite only temporarily. God's primary residence remains heaven, and Israel's earth, and the Pesikta's "profound reli
gious truth" of the dual nature of the Torah is lost. Lieberman, therefore, uses historical criteria to decide which version is
authentic, while Fraenkel argues on aesthetic grounds and arrives at markedly different conclusions. Lieberman apparently prefers R. Yitshak Aramah's version because of its close correspondence to Roman history. According to Fraenkel, R. Yitshak Aramah's version is a medieval watering-down of the original story and is not a rabbinic echo of Septimus Severus's marriage to a foreign woman centuries earlier. The correspondence between the medieval mashal and the actions of the ancient emperor, according to Fraenkel, is mere coincidence.
Fraenkel's claim that stories often need to be evaluated on artistic grounds is
extremely persuasive, as is his claim that many exegetes fail to pay sufficient attention to such factors and are led astray as a result. In the particular case under consideration here, he is probably correct that the Pesikta's version is earlier, due to its use of Greek and Aramaic as well as its obscure reference to kratesis at sea.10
His claim, however, that the superior work of literature is most likely original is highly doubtful. Fraenkel's evaluation of the relative artistic merits of the two versions may be correct, but his preference for the Pesikta's version rests on the
unproven assumption that the Rabbis' literary powers diminished drastically after the classical period of midrashic and aggachc creativity, and that the medievals
were incapable of producing works of high aesthetic quality. In addition, Fraenkel's tendency to interpret rabbinic sources almost entirely
on literary and aesthetic grounds, and to ignore historical and polemical factors, is one-sided and incomplete. Again his discussion of the master-apprentice story on b. Gittin 58a will serve as an illustration.
In a story so sparse in detail, the curious identification of the apprentice as a
carpenter stands out. The phrase identifying him as such is most likely a later
addition, as Fraenkel noted, since it is the only Aramaic in an otherwise Hebrew
story. What is the purpose of this addition?
Fraenkel, consistent with his tendency elsewhere, interprets the phrase solely in terms of the closed universe of the story itself, rather than as a reference to a historical phenomenon outside of the story. In Fraenkel's view, the phrase serves to clarify the relationship between the story's protagonists, to explain that we are
dealing with a master and his apprentice rather than a teacher and his student.
Alternatively, however, the Aramaic addition perhaps reads the story as an
allegory about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The carpenter's apprentice is Jesus, representing Christendom, the master is the Jewish people, and the wife, perhaps, represents apostate Jews (although perhaps the allegory was not fully worked out and not every character stands for something else). According to this interpretation, the story views with alarm the growing Chris tianization of the Jewish people. A late glossator took a story that tried to explain a
painful and perplexing ancient event (the destruction of the Temple), and gave it a
stunning contemporary relevance. The point is not that my interpretation is correct and Fraenkel's is incorrect.
Rather, my claim is that Fraenkel's analysis is impoverished as the result of his refusal to consider an entire category of interpretation and to insist upon literary interpretation as the only legitimate alternative. Here, as at so many points throughout the book, Fraenkel approaches the sources with a preconceived exegetical theory and imposes artificial uniformity on the material.
Granted that rabbinic storytellers frequently distort facts and sources, do they do so all the time? Do they do so to varying degrees, such that some stories are useless as historical evidence but others are useful? The stories cited above describe the second Temple period (pre-70 C.E.), regarding which the rabbinic sources are notoriously unreHable. The Rabbis know very little about this very early period, and their sources are heavily colored by legend, polemical bias, and the authors' desire to teach a moral lesson or make a theological point. Very likely, rabbinic sources regarding later periods are far more accurate. Perhaps brief stories tend to be more accurate than lengthy stories. Perhaps geography plays a
role, with Babylonian authors distorting more than Palestinian authors. Fraenkel never considers these possibilities, because of his tendency to view the material
Continuing our survey of the various sections of the book, we turn now to
part 2, which Fraenkel considers, together with part 3 (see above), to form the heart of the book. Part 2, based on the work of Yitshak Heinemann, exhaustively catalogues rabbinic methods of midrashic interpretation. In Fraenkel's own
words, this part of the book describes the techniques used by the Rabbis to derive new meaning from the biblical text, to interpret the Bible other than in accordance with its contextual meaning, or peshat.11 Part 2 applies the terminology and
classificatory system of grammar and linguistics to the study of rabbinic midrash,
but unfortunately does not advance the discussion much beyond that of Yitshak Heinemann over forty years ago.12
To a significant extent, the relative importance of parts 2 and 3 is traceable to Fraenkel's varying abilities as an interpreter of midrash and aggadah. His earlier work revolutionized the study of rabbinic stories,13 and by far the more profound and powerful chapters in the present book deal with aggadah. The author's treatment of midrash is industrious and somewhat plodding, but when the subject turns to stories, as well as to proverbs (which the author ingeniously evaluates as a kind of story), the author's passion, skill, and intensity become palpable.
The author's problems with midrash begin with his attempt to define it.14
According to Fraenkel, midrash searches the Bible for new and unexpected meanings (p. 11). Midrashic statements (1) cite biblical passages and (2) express new ideas that derive from the author of the midrashic comment (the darshan). Midrash establishes an interpretive link between the biblical verse and the author's new idea (p. 12). The midrashic author's idea is "new" in the sense that it differs from the contextual meaning of the biblical verse (the peshat), and the author is aware of this difference. The midrashic author understands the text's contextual meaning claims Fraenkel, and self-consciously adds to this meaning.
Fraenkel's definition is problematic, however, first because it leads to the
strange conclusion that not all ancient rabbinic Bible commentary is midrash.
According to Fraenkel, many scriptural interpretations found in the classical midrashic compilations such as Bereshit Rabbah are not midrash. Rabbinic
authors, for example, sometimes assert that their interpretations accord with the Bible's contextual meaning. Such interpretations are not midrash, claims Fraenkel, because the rabbinic author does not self-consciously add new meaning to the biblical text. The ancient Rabbis themselves, however, would very likely not have drawn such a distinction, and Fraenkel, ostensibly offering a definition that arises out of the ancient sources, actually imposes modem categories onto the material.
Even more problematic is Fraenkel's claim that midrash starts with an awareness of the contextual meaning of Scripture and consciously seeks new
interpretations. The author thus denies the exegetical function of much midrash, its tendency to respond to real problems in the text and frequently (but by no
means always) to pose legitimate solutions to these problems. According to
Fraenkel, in other words, midrash is essentially horruietical rather than exegetical, a dubious characterization of the literature as a whole.15
The author bases his definition on the tendency of many midreshei halakhah
(legal midrashic statements) to open with interpretations that agree with modem
understandings of the Bible's contextual meaning. These statements typically explain, through citation of real or imagined textual anomalies, why the initial
interpretations are incomplete. Here and throughout the book, however, the author exhibits an unfortunate reluctance to quantify his claims, to provide hard facts to support his generalizations. How frequently do rabbinic and modem
interpretations coincide? Fraenkel does not bother to find out. The author notes that midreshei aggadah (nonlegal midrashic statements) routinely present midrashic
understandings as the only legitimate alternatives (p. 84). Midreshei aggadah, therefore, which constitute fully half of our extant midrashic statements, do not
bear out Fraenkel's claim that midrash starts with an awareness of peshat, from which it consciously departs.
Fraenkel's claim becomes the basis of a fascinating, but ultimately unconvinc
ing theory about rnidrash's character as a kind of game (pp. 83-85). According to Fraenkel, the conflict between literal and midrashic exegesis is similar to the conflict between the real world and the world described, presupposed, and derived by the Rabbis through midrashic exegesis. We do not perceive the world as a combination of fire and snow, but midrash does. We do not perceive of the south wind as bearing a curse, but midrash does. Similarly, we do not read the book of Genesis as iriforming us that "our father Jacob never died," but midrash does. We understand the biblical plague of "frogs" against Pharaoh and Egypt as a swarm of the creatures that covered the land and choked the rivers; rmdrash understands it as a single gigantic frog mte^reting the Hebrew word zefardea ("frog" in the singular) hyperliterally.
Midrash resembles a game, therefore, since creators of a game establish rules that differ from those governing the real world but that have validity within the controlled environment of the game. Midrash creates a world that resembles but
clearly differs from the real world, a world with religious significance and order, for example, in which the wicked suffer and the righteous receive their reward.
Just as midrash does not accurately describe the real world and is therefore
gamelike, so, too, midrash does not correctly describe the Bible, i.e., does not conform to the contextual meaning of the biblical text. The Rabbis never assert that the "real world" of the Bible is false and the rnidrashic world true, or vice versa, but rather regard both worlds as true, as having validity witrtin their own limited spheres.
Fraenkel's theory is attractive and intriguing, an ambitious attempt to move
beyond analysis of individual passages to generalization about the literature as a whole. Unfortunately, it is also one of numerous instances in which the author relies on dogmatic assertion rather than proven fact and fails to make note of alternative explanations. There is no proof, for example, that the Rabbis set out to create their own world by devising rules divorced from the world of nature. There is no proof that the Rabbis were aware of a distinction between the real world and the world presupposed by their rnidrashic texts. More likely, they were poor scientists, with little interest in empirically testing their theories about the natural
world. In all likelihood, the Rabbis resemble the proverbial ancient sage who wished to know the number of teeth in a horse's mouth. Rather than simply open the horse's mouth and count, the sage constructed an elaborate theory of the
origin and meaning of the universe, from which he inferred the answer to his
Returning to our overview of the contents of the book, part 1 is mtroductory, begmrdng with a useful survey of the ancient rabbinic works that contain midrash and aggadah. Part 1 also contains the book's most sustained discussion of one of Fraenkel's central claims, namely that midrash and aggadah, no less than halakhic texts, are the product of learning in the study house. Midrash and aggadah, in other words, are an integral part of ancient rabbinic learning and not simply light
diversions or popular entertainment. Aggadah should not be dismissed as margi nal or inconsequential, as has been the case for centuries in the yeshiva world, where aggadah has either been ignored altogether or dismissed as popular fluff and not worthy of the attention of serious scholars. Aggadic texts, Fraenkel
argues, are subtle, complex, and beautiful, written by sages addressing other
sages, rather than popular folktales or synagogue sermons delivered by sages before a popular audience.
Fraenkel's interest in the question of Sitz im heben is not primarily historical, but exegetical. In Fraenkel's view, our answer to this question detenrdnes our
interpretation of the rabbinic texts. Fraenkel raises the issue on page 2 of the introduction, several times throughout the book, and in the very last paragraph (p. 561), where he describes his answer to this question as the book's most
important contribution. In Fraenkel's view, the stakes are as follows: If midrashic and aggadic sources
originate in the study house, they should be read as works of art, as the product of learned geniuses intended strictly for the enjoyment and edification of sages. If the sources originate in synagogues, they should be interpreted instead as popular sermons intended for a nonscholarly audience (p. 2). A third possibility is that
midrash and aggadah should be interpreted as folklore, created by the people rather than the educated elite. Fraenkel rejects the second and third possibilities, and argues decisively in favor of an academic origin for virtually all rabbinic sources.
An example illustrating Fraenkel's argumentation is in order. On Vayikra Rabbah 20:3 we find the following:16
Said R. Pinhas: It happened that one of the great men of Kabul was
marrying off his son. On the fourth day he made a meal and invited
guests. He said to his son: "Go up and bring them wine from the upper chamber." When he went up a serpent bit him and he died. When they saw [that he
delayed], they said, "Let's go up and see what's happened to the boy." When they went up they found him dead, a serpent wound around his heel.
He was silent until they ate and drank. After they ate and drank he said to
them, "My masters! Why have you come? To say the bridegroom blessing for my son. Say the mourner's blessing. Have you not come to escort my son to the bridal canopy? Come, escort him to his grave."
Fraenkel notes that the motif of the groom who dies on his wedding day, and the mortal danger that lies in wait for a person in the hour of his greatest joy, is found in folklore throughout the world. The story's linkage of death and mar
riage, its treatment of diverse rites of passage as different manifestations of the same phenomenon, is likewise common in many folk literatures. Does it follow, Fraenkel asks, that Vayikra Rabbah in this and other contexts preserves popular folktales?
Fraenkel claims that it does not. The above story uses folklore motifs, he
argues, but rabbinizes them by enlisting them in the service of a didactic story that
reflects the values of the scholarly elite. The father accepts without complaint the
apparently senseless death of his son, and the story teaches that the truly pious man, even in the face of tragedy, maintains his love of God and continues the
proper observance of mitsvot. The presence of folk motifs in rabbinic literature tells us nothing about its Site im Leben, Fraenkel claims, but reflects instead the rootedness of the rabbinic authors among the Jewish people. The Rabbis absorbed the same cultural heritage as did the people, and maintained a living link to the
people, struggling to lead them and to influence their behavior and values
(pp. 282-S5). As noted above, Fraenkel also argues against viewing these stories as
synagogue sermons. They are simply too complex and sophisticated, he claims, to have been intelligible to a popular audience. They therefore originated in the
study house and were intended by scholars for scholars. Has Fraenkel successfully located the Sitz im Leben of these materials, and if
so, has he improved our ability to interpret them? The answer to both questions is
"partly yes, partly no." On the one hand, without question Fraenkel demonstrates that many aggadot and rrddrashim are extremely well crafted masterpieces, proper understanding of which depends on sophisticated application of modem tech
niques of literary criticism. He has a masterful discussion of the difference between some of this literature and folklore, and has proven that many of these texts, as they presently stand, most likely were not delivered as synagogue sermons.
On the other hand, here and throughout the book the author provides only a few examples to illustrate his point and proceeds as if he has proven that ail of the
material follows the same pattern. He does not take seriously the possibility that some of the material derives from an elite group of sages, scholars, and artists, while some of it is far more simple and unrefined, perhaps with roots in or borrowed directly from folk literature, or originally addressed by scholars to common people in a synagogue setting. The book contains no systematic surveys of a randomly selected sample of material, but rather carefully selected examples illustrating the author's theories. The author gives us no help in detem?ning
whether his examples are representative of all or only part of the literature. I question, furthermore, whether most rabbinic stories demand the Sitz im
Leben of the study house rather than the synagogue, and whether it is impossible to discern the outlines of a folktale beneath the surface of many stories. Stories such as that of the master and apprentice, analyzed in detail above, indicate that Fraenkel's dichotomy between works of art on the one hand, and popular sermons and folktales on the other, is overdrawn. Despite Fraenkel's daims to the
contrary, stories can simultaneously be works of art and products of the syna gogue or folk, since artistry need not be the exdusive reserve of the scholarly elite.
Fraenkel's daim that rabbinic literature does not derive from the synagogue, furthermore, is problematic on other grounds. First, piyyutim, liturgical poems, are
extremely complicated and allusive, and yet were used in synagogues throughout the Middle Ages and continue to be used today, despite the congregation's inability to understand them. Second, as Fraenkel himself notes (p. 267), artists in
every era face the problem of appealing to diverse segments of the population with varying tastes, interests, and levels of education and sophistication. The
successful artist appeals simultaneously to different audiences on different levels. One person enjoys a story as a simple romance or a didactic tale of good triumphing over evil; another understands the learned allusions to biblical and rabbinic texts, a trdrd appreciates the story's complexities, subtleties, and moral
ambiguities. A further problem is Fraenkel's failure to consider the possibility that
midrashic texts have a prehistory, i.e., a history before they reached their present form. Very likely, the stories' artistry and sophistication at least sometimes derive from late redactors, and a simple, popular story lies behind the finely crafted work of literature presently before us. This possibility could have been tested through comparison of different versions preserved in the various rabbinic compilations, and in the absence of such a study, Fraenkel's conclusions are premature.
Failure to consider the sources' prehistory leads Fraenkel to several far fetched interpretations, and leads to another methodological problem with his work. He cites several stories that claim that R. Akiba and others uttered their statements before the tstbur (public) and the hihaia (congregation). Based on the usual meaning of these terms, the stories explicitly show sages addressing complicated midrashim to a popular audience, but Fraenkel insists that the
references, even here, are to scholarly gatherings (pp. 21-23).17 Fraenkel is forced to interpret in this fashion because he assumes that the
sophisticated niidrashic statement attributed to Akiba in this context must be identical to the original statement he uttered before the tstbur. Later redactors, however, working centuries after Akiba's death, may have reworked what was
originally a very simple statement. The sophistication of the sources as they presently stand, in other words, is
difficult to use as evidence for the Sitz im L?ben of the original statements. It needs to be proven, or at least established as likely, that R Akiba made the statement attributed to rdm. The author of the above narratives may have wished to present Akiba's sophisticated midrash as origmating before a popular audience, and the entire story may have no basis in reality whatsoever. Fraenkel's analysis, there
fore, is flawed by an uncritical acceptance of the historicity of some rabbinic sources.
Given Fraenkel's theories about the historicity of rabbinic stories, the latter conclusion is perhaps surprising. As noted above, Fraenkel frequently displays a much more criticial attitude, arguing that rabbinic stories must be evaluated on artistic rather than historical grounds. Fraenkel characterizes the rabbinic authors as artists who bend the truth, who mold or fabricate events and personalities to suit the requirements of their narrative and the message they wish to deliver.
At other times, however, apparently relying on his ability to distinguish between works of art and more prosaic sources, Fraenkel trusts the accuracy of statements and the reliability of attributions. He often, although not always, assumes that particular statements or actions attributed to Hillel or Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, for example, very early sages whose traditions are par ticularly problematic historically, reliably attest to the earliest stages of rabbinic
midrash and aggadah. Fraenkel nowhere explains the methodological basis for his
differing approaches to the historicity of the sources, leaving his precise stand on this issue an enigma.
Concluding our brief outline of the various sections of the book, part 4
compares ancient rabbinic and nonrabbinic methods of midrash and Aggadah, and surveys post-talmudic scholarship on the question of the proper study of midrashic and aggadic methods. Nothing of the scope or magnitude of Fraenkel's
important survey has ever before been attempted, but his decision to ignore scholarly contributions of the past several decades is a major deficiency. The author passes directly from Yitshak Heinemann to Yonah Fraenkel, a gap of
approximately four decades, asserting that in recent years many "strange and
peculiar things have been written" about midrash and Aggadah that are not
worthy of explicit rebuttal (p. 3 of the introduction). The problems noted through out the present review, I think, show plainly that Fraenkel's book would have benefitted enormously from attention to and explicit dialogue with the best of current scholarship, not all of which is worthless.
Ultimately, the success or failure of Fraenkel's book depends on our answer to one simple question: Does the book improve our ability to interpret rabbinic sources? The answer is a qualified "yes."
On the one hand, the book clearly defines, classifies, and provides examples of countless midrashic and aggadic techniques. The book enhances our apprecia tion of the rabbinic authors' sophistication and artistry, and trains us to search the sources for evidence of dramatic tension and deliberate craftsmanship, such as
alliteration, paronomasia, and closure of a story signified by repetition of an
image, theme, or motif introduced at the beginning. Fraenkel's theories and
interpretations are intriguing and original, and the breadth of his learning remarkable. This book transforms the way we read ancient sources, enabling us to
approach them with added depth, sophistication, and insight. Although his
interpretations are often less than fully satisfactory, no future student of rabbinic literature can ignore his contribution.
On the other hand, Fraenkel too frequently overinterprets, or interprets arbitrarily, finding brilliant and subtle insights on the basis of extremely slender or nonexistent textual cues. Too often, he proceeds as if determining the correct text is a simple matter, allowing his interpretation to determine his choice of the correct text. Too often, he fails to do justice to the ambiguity of the material, basing his arguments on one of a number of equally plausible interpretations.
One puts down this extremely erudite work having learned a great deal about an astounding number of subjects, ranging from modem literary criticism, linguistics, and grammar, to ancient poetics, history, and folklore. The book has enormous problems, however, in large part because of its attempt to survey a
vast, variegated, and intractable subject within the confines of a single volume. In
short, Darkhei ha'aggadah vehamidrash is a significant and useful but highly flawed work by one of the pioneers of the modem study of rabbinic literature.18
RICHARD KALMIN Department of Talmud and Rabbinics The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
1. The earlier review of Menahem rlirshman, "On Midrash As an Art Form: Its
Creators and Its Forms" [Hebrew], Madacei hayahadut 32 (1992), pp. 83-91, helped clarify my thinking about several issues.
2. Fraenkel returns to this story repeatedly throughout his chapter on sage stories
(pp. 241-42, 250, 260-61, and 271), and views it as an excellent example of his method.
3. See Meyer Feldblum, ed., Dikdukei soferim, masekhet gittin (New York, 1966), notes on line 46.
4. The Hebrew phrase kadam urn etslo perhaps indicates that the master goes to the
apprentice. According to this understanding, the master's lack of concern is less outrageous, but our basic evaluation of his conduct remains unchanged. In any event, Fraenkel
understands the phrase to imply that the apprentice goes to the master, and his theory
regarding the movement of characters from scene to scene depends upon this interpretation. Once again, FraenkeTs theory determines his interpretation.
5. Yer. Berakhot 2:3 (4c-d). 6. Yer. Berakhot 4:1 (7b). 7. The meaning here is obscure, and perhaps the text is corrupt. 8. A representative work by Lieberman is Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York,
1962). 9. Piska Bahodesh 11, ed. Mandelbaum, p. 212.
10. R. Yitshak Aramah's version is probably a later Hebrew translation of the original Aramaic, a phenomenon often found in later midrashim, for example, Shemot Rabbah.
11. The term contextual meaning refers to an interpretation that "takes cognizance of [a
verse's] historical, linguistic, and literary context." See Edward L. Greenstein, "Medieval
Bible Commentaries," in Back to the Sources, ed. Barry W. Holtz (New York, 1984), pp. 217-23; and Stephen Garfinkel, "Applied Peshat: Historical-Critical Method and Religious Mean ing," The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 22 (1993), pp. 21-22, for a discussion of the
term contextual meaning and why it is to be preferred as a translation of the Hebrew word
peshat to terms such as "plain meaning," or "literal meaning." 12. Yitshak Heinemann, Darkhei ha'aggadah Jerusalem, 1949-50). 13. See, for example, Yonah Fraenkel, cIyunim Wolamo haruhani shel sippur ha'aggadah
(Tel Aviv, 1981). 14. In fairness, however, it should be noted that much ink has been spilled by modern
scholars other than Fraenkel in an effort to define the term midrash, but no definition has won widespread acceptance. See the attempt of Gary G. Porton, "Defining Midrash," in The
Study of Ancient Judaism: Mishnah, Midrash, Siddur, ed. Jacob Neusner (New York, 1981); and the refinement of Porton's definition by Anthony Saldarmi, "Reconstructions of Rabbinic Judaism," in Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters, ed. Robert A. Kraft and George W. E.
Nickelsburg (Philadelphia, 1986), pp. 445-46. Compare Daniel Boyar?n, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington, Ind., 1990). Some scholars even advocate elimination of the
term midrash from scholarly discussion altogether. See, for example, Shaye J. D. Cohen, From
the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia, 1987), p. 205. 15. See, for example, Boyar?n, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, the introductory
chapter. 16. Fraenkel's analysis is on pp. 282-85.
17. Fraenkel notes that in several of these stories, Rabbis are explicitly mentioned as
present in the audience. This proves nothing, however, for is it surprising that students
should attend their teacher's public lectures?
18. I would like to thank the editors of Prooftexts for offering several valuable suggestions.
Article Contentsp. p. 190p. 191p. 192p. 193p. 194p. 195p. 196p. 197p. 198p. 199p. 200p. 201p. 202p. 203p. 204
Issue Table of ContentsProoftexts, Vol. 14, No. 2 (MAY 1994), pp. 103-204Front MatterFiery Wisdom: Logos and Lexis in Deuteronomy 4 [pp. 103-139]On the Reception of Buber and Rosenzweig's Bible [pp. 141-165]What's Jews? Isaac Bashevis Singer's Androygenus [pp. 167-188]REVIEWSThe Modern Study of Ancient Rabbinic Literature: Yonah Fraenkel's Darkhei ha'aggadah vehamidrash [pp. 189-204]