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  • Reading by the Rivers
  • Burton L. Visotzky
Jeffrey Rubenstein , Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, xvi + 436 pp.

Rabbi Shimʿon said, Woe to that person who says, "the Torah comes to show us mere narratives and common matters . . ." for the narratives of Torah are the very garment of Torah . . . Now, when fools see a person in a beautiful garment, they look no further. But the real importance of the garment is the body which it covers, and the importance of the body is the soul which it contains . . . Fools only see the garment, that is to say the Torah narratives, and know nothing more. . . . That garment is made up of tales and stories; and we, we are bound to penetrate beyond.1

Few today believe that these words were actually spoken by Rabbi Shimʿon ben Yoḥai in the Land of Israel in the second century, even though the Zohar quotes him as its protagonist. For most modern readers, particularly academic readers, the Zohar is a medieval work that has pseudepigraphically attributed much of its narrative to its fictional hero, the legendary Rabbi Shimʿon. So, however lovely the quote we have just read may be, it has nothing to do with the history of Roman Palestine and must be read as medieval Jewish mystical literature. Perhaps academic readers will read the words of Rabbi Shimʿon as a window into the history of ideas, but even then, not the ideas of the second century, but those of a millennium later. Whatever the fruits of such a reading, it is a far more exciting venture to unlock the literary qualities of the Zohar and its characters, for as a work of fiction, it is indeed a book of splendor. [End Page 340]

As this latter-day Rabbi Shimʿon tells us, we must look beyond the narrative world to understand the Torah that the text has to teach. If we are truly discerning critics, we will penetrate not only beneath the garment, but within the body of literature to its very soul. What Rabbi Shimʿon teaches in the Zohar is true, of course, for all Jewish literature. One wonders, then, why it took some fifteen hundred years to apply this lesson to the literature where Rabbi Shimʿon first made his appearance, rabbinic Oral Torah.

Rabbi Shimʿon is an austere and unusual character in the broad didactic narratives of rabbinic literature. There he reads the Written Torah as though context makes a difference to the meaning of verses, something that sets him apart from his more midrashically minded colleagues. Further, he is consistently depicted as arrogant: it is he who says that his merit is su3cient to have exempted the world from punishment for all sins from the time of creation to his own day (B. Sukkah 45b). It is he who is reported to have said: "there are four things that God hates, and I'm not crazy about them either" (Leviticus Rabba 21:8).

Slowly, slowly we have learned to stop reading the stories of Rabbi Shimʿon and his compatriots as history and have begun to treat them as Hagiographa, didactic literature, our own "Lives of the Saints." The question that faces Jewish scholarship now is simply how to read the lives of our own saints. And while we may engage in literary iconoclasm, it behooves us to be sensitive to the spiritual needs of our students and readers (as well as to be sensitive to our own spiritual needs and, therefore, biases). As new methods are developed for the reading of Oral Torah-most particularly, the aggadic narrative that makes up such a large part of that Torah-we must take care to read in such a way that the narratives are not "mere narratives and common matters." We must also seek the essence of Torah wrapped in the garment of the narrative-the body and soul of Judaism. To teach and write without attention to the "soul of the soul of the Torah" is to entirely miss the point of its teaching. We are obligated as scholars to combine Wissenschaft des Judenthums with Torah...


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pp. 340-349
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