The Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature

Download The Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature

Post on 14-Mar-2017




0 download

Embed Size (px)


<ul><li><p>Harvard Divinity School</p><p>The Phoenix in Rabbinic LiteratureAuthor(s): M. R. NiehoffSource: The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (Jul., 1996), pp. 245-265Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity SchoolStable URL: .Accessed: 10/11/2014 08:24</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Cambridge University Press and Harvard Divinity School are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserveand extend access to The Harvard Theological Review.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 08:24:22 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>lthe Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature* </p><p>M. R. Niehoff The Hebrew University of Jerusalem </p><p>g ontact between cultures is a complex phenomenon that often involves \_accepting foreign ideas until these become new ways of self-expres- sion. The case of the phoenix is of special interest in this respect, because in antiquity it was associated with the sun temple at Heliopolis and miracu- lous forms of rebirth.1 The phoenix motif also appears in a variety of early Jewish and Christian writings, thus allowing for a comparative appreciation of its rabbinic reception. In light of these other intercultural encounters, it becomes clear that the rabbis were familiar with the details of the Helle- nistic phoenix myths,2 and not only adapted the story to their own values </p><p>*I delivered an earlier version of this essay at the Institut fur Judaistik at the Freie Universitat Berlin (May 1995, at the invitation of Prof. Peter Schafer), at the Institutum Judaicum at the University of Tubingen (December 1995, at the invitation of Prof. Martin Hengel and Prof. Herman Lichtenberger) and at the Agyptologisches Institut at the University of Heidelberg (December 1995, at the invitation of Prof. Jan Assmann). I thank all those who attended for the stimulating discussions. I also wish to thank Professors Michael Fishbane, Moshe Idel, and Yehuda Liebes for their helpful comments on a draft of this paper. </p><p>IFor a survey of the ancient sources, see R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix According to Classical and Early Christian Sources (Leiden: Brill, 1972). </p><p>2Saul Lieberman established the notion of rabbinic receptiveness to Hellenism for this century, thus reviving a concept that had been generally accepted in the nineteenth century. See esp. Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950); idem, Greek in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1942); and more recently also Z. W. Harvey, "Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Philosophy," in Herman G. Blumberg, et al., eds., "Open Thou Mine Eyes. . . " Essays on Aggadah and Judaica Presented to Rabbi William G. Braude on His Eightieth Birthday and Dedicated to His Memory (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992) 83-101. </p><p>HTR 89:3 (1996) 245-65 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 08:24:22 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>246 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW </p><p>but even enhanced its mythological dimension. In this way, the rabbis con- tinued the Hellenistic practice of reactivating an ancient Egyptian myth.3 In contrast to the symbolic approach of early Christianity, the rabbis charac- teristically chose to accommodate the phoenix on a literal level, interpret- ing it mythopoeically, that is, by creating myth. Their interpretation of the phoenix moreover illuminates important, yet hitherto unnoticed aspects of rabbinic mythology. </p><p>The nature and significance of these rabbinic interpretations emerge especially clearly in light of early Christian reactions toward the phoenix.4 While Jews and Christians engaged in reciprocal controversies on such subjects as the Song of Songs and the Akeda,s the two communities parted ways regarding the phoenix. The church fathers interpreted the pagan myth as a symbol of the dogma of Jesus' resurrection, while the rabbis accepted the Hellenistic stories in their literal sense and numbered the phoenix among other primordial monsters. The rabbis, moreover, enhanced the ontological status of the myth by refusing to confine the phoenix to Urzeit and eschaton and insisting that he is rather a part of their own life experience. Indeed, the rabbis' own inclination toward mythical thinking shaped their reception of the Hellenistic phoenix motifs. </p><p>In order to appreciate properly the rabbinic interpretations of the phoe- nix, it is initially necessary to clarify the notion of rabbinic mythology. I shall subsequently outline the early Christian interpretations of the phoenix and then examine the rabbinic sources, focusing especially on two herme- neutic moments: the initial adaptation of the phoenix story to a specifically Jewish framework and the secondary reinvestment of the story with mytho- logical force. This transformation of a Hellenistic myth into a rabbinic myth illuminates important aspects of rabbinic mythopoesis, which differs from the type of mythology found in scripture. </p><p>1111 Rabbinic Myth Modern scholarship has from its inception in the late eighteenth century </p><p>been fascinated with the question of myth in Judaism,6 initially from the </p><p>3Hans Blumenberg called this type of myth "art myth"; see Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985) 174-214. </p><p>4Compare Dan Pagis, who deals in his study of the phoenix with a variety of rabbinic sources. He focuses, however, on such late and unusual works as the Alphabet of Ben Sira and Genesis Rabbati and evaluates rabbinic sources as an expression of the same, mostly symbolic idea found in Christian and modern literature. Dan Pagis, "The Bird of Immortality: The Motif of the Phoenix in the Midrash and the Aggadah," in The Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusalem: Jubilee Book (Jerusalem: The Association of the Friends of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusa- lem,l962) 74-90 [Hebrew]. </p><p>sSee esp. Reuven Kimelman, "Rabbi Yochanan and Origen on the Song of Songs: A Third Century Jewish-Christian Disputation" HTR 73 (1980) 567-95; and Alan F. Segal, The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity (Providence: Brown University Press, 1987) 109-30. </p><p>6Johann Gottfried Eichhorn introduced the notion of the myth to the academic study of the Hebrew Bible. Relying on Heyne's psychological-phenomenological investigations into clas- </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 08:24:22 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>M . R . N I EHOFF 247 </p><p>point of view of the Bible and more recently from that of kabbalah.7 Both of these fields seemed, at least in the eyes of some beholders, to contain obviously mythological material. Scholars, however, often excluded rab- binic sources from the discussion of myth in Judaism. Even the more Romantic treatments of aggadah in the nineteenth century tended to define rabbinic stories as "saga" and "legend" but not as myth.8 In the second half of the nineteenth century, Max Grunbaum and to some extent also Ignac Goldziher explored new avenues for the research of rabbinic aggadah. Both defined aggadah as a particularly rich form of mythology that revives sto- ries suppressed by the biblical narrators.9 The achievements of these two scholars, however, have not received sufficient acknowledgment. Rational- istic approaches to rabbinic aggadah prevailed instead in the twentieth century. </p><p>The notion of rabbinic mythology has resurfaced in recent scholarship. It is perhaps not surprising that its main proponents, Michael Fishbane and Yehuda Liebes, have been trained in the respective fields of Bible and kabbalah. Approaching rabbinic aggadah from these comparative perspec- tives, both scholars have made important contributions that deserve closer consideration. </p><p>Liebes demonstrated the importance and continuity of myth throughout Judaism.l He understood myth as a sacred story about the deity and high- lighted the affinity between kabbalistic and rabbinic myth, regarding the latter as a less systematic predecessor of the former. For Liebes, the most significant development from biblical to kabbalistic myth is an increasing internalization of divine activity: whereas biblical myth depicts God in fights with external forces such as the monster leviathan, rabbinic and especially kabbalistic myth projects such confrontations increasingly into God's inner life. The rabbinic sources mark an intermediate stage of this ongoing process and constitute a significant step toward the full emergence of the kabbalistic notion of the ten sefirot or emanations of God. Liebes's </p><p>sical mythology, he defined myth as a story with a historical kernel that expresses the primi- tive worldview of ancient peoples. See esp. his seminal study of Genesis: D. Johann Philipp Gabler, ed., Johann Gotttried Eichhorns Urgeschichte (Altdorf and Nurnberg: Monath &amp; Kussler,1793). See also Christian Hartlich and Walter Sachs, Der Ursprung des MythosbegrifOfes in der modernen Bibelwissenschaft (Tubingen: Mohr, 1952). </p><p>7See esp. Gershom Scholem, "Kabbala und Mythos," in idem, Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 117-58. </p><p>8See M. R. Niehoff, "Zunz's Concept of Aggadah as an Expression of Jewish Spirituality," Tarbi; 64 (1995) 423-59 [Hebrew] (the English version is forthcoming in Leo BaeckInstitute Yearbook). </p><p>9Max Grunbaum, Beitrage zur vergleichenden Mythologie aus der Haggadah, in idem, Gesammelte Aufsatt.e tur Sprach-und Sagenkunde (ed. Felix Perles; Berlin: Calvary, 1901) 1- 237. See also Ignac Goldziher's youthful and somewhat fantastic book Mythology among the Hebrews (1877; New York: Cooper Square, 1967). </p><p>tSee esp. Yehuda Liebes, "Der Natura Dei: On the Development of the Jewish Myth," in idem, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism (New York: SUNY Press, 1993) 1-64. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 08:24:22 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>248 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW </p><p>discussion naturally focuses on mythologoumena which are relevant to later kabbalah. His work deserves continuation with a view to types of myth that are specifically characteristic of rabbinic aggadah. </p><p>Fishbane, meanwhile, examined the nature of rabbinic mythopoesis in the context of biblical exegesis.ll Highlighting the hermeneutical dynamics of midrash, he showed how midrash often invests earlier texts with a mytho- logical dimension. He also investigated the mythopoeic interplay between exegesis and its nontextual inspiration, such as fearsome events in nature, and demonstrated the occurrence of the reverse process of domesticating original nature myths in the rabbinic framework. 12 Two converse hermeneutics thus emerge, and it becomes clear that, while the rabbis often mythologize the biblical texts, certain tensions might arise between tradi- tional rabbinic values and nature myths. </p><p>Rabbinic aggadah contributes to Jewish mythopoesis in a variety of ways. The rabbis initially continue the biblical type of myth stories depict God as an all-too-human figure subject to both external limitations and internal conflicts,63 enriching God's personality with specifically postbiblical fea- tures. The rabbis thus attribute to God deep sorrow, a sense of shame and humiliation in face of the destruction of his temple,64 as well as humor, when generously agreeing to the rabbis' blunt appropriation of his Bible.15 Rabbinic sources enhance the notion of divine struggle against competing forces including, for example, the mythological dimension of the biblical verse regarding humanity's creation in the image of God. 16 Taking the plural expression ';let us make man in our image and in our likeness" as a reference to a controversy with his heavenly entourage, the rabbis depict </p><p>l ISee esp. Michael Fishbane, "'The Holy One Sits and Roars': Mythopoesis and the Mid- rashic Imagination," in idem, ed., The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought and History (New York: SUNY Press, 1993) 60-77; idem, "Arm of the Lord: Biblical Myth, Rabbinic Midrash and the Mystery of History," in Samuel E. Balentine and John Barton, eds., Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 271-92; Michael Fishbane, "The 'Measures' of God's Glory in the Ancient Midrash" in Ithamar Gruenwald, et al., eds., Messiah and Christos. Studies in the Jewish Origins of Chris- tianity Presented to David Flusser on the Occasion of His Seventy-Fifth Birthday (Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1993) 53-74. </p><p>See esp. Fishbane, "'The Holy One Sits,"' 62-66. I3See also David Stern, "Imitatio Hominis: Anthropomorphism and the Character(s) of </p><p>God," Prooftexts 12 (1992) 151 -74. Stern stresses the prevalence of anthropomorphism in the rabbinic sources and rightly interprets this phenomenon as an indication of the r2bbis' posi- tive, prephilosophical attitude toward anthropomorphism. Stern nevertheless betrays a ratio- nalistic tendency when separating the issue of anthropomorphism from mythology and insisting on the difference between anthropomorphic expressions (found in rabbinics) and anthropo- morphic conceptions of God (not actually found in rabbinics). </p><p>4Eikha Rabbah, proem 24. lsb.B.Me.59b. </p><p>'6Gen 1:26-27. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 08:24:22 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>M. R. NIEHOFF 249 </p><p>God as literally fighting with Truth, who objected to the creation of hu- manity.l7 God can only proceed with the plan to create humanity by knock- ing down his adversary. Yet instead of acknowledging God's victory, the heavenly company criticizes God for humiliating his prime principle, and God consequently has to rehabilitate Truth.l8 </p><p>Rabbinic myth is, however, not confined to stories about God. It in- cludes other imaginative stories that reflect in culturally significant ways upon supernatural or other existential issues.l9 The rabbis thus tend to animate and personify nature. The earth is, for example, a female figure who is "bewildered and astonished" at...</p></li></ul>