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Midrash, Testimony, and the Angel of Interpretation: Geoffrey Hartman in Jewish Studies

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 129-132 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0014

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The field of Jewish studies has witnessed many types of growth over the past three or four decades. The sheer number of scholars, the range of methodological approaches, the crowded map of institutions with well-developed programs—all attest to the movement of Jewish studies from the periphery to the center of academic life in North America. What was so desperately desired in Europe before the Holocaust— the integration of Jewish studies into the university—has been fully achieved here. Jewish studies is now an accepted fact of life and standard fare in the American academy.

Another important sign of the field’s growth, in qualitative terms, is its attractiveness to practitioners of other disciplines: literary scholars, historians, philosophers, and sociologists among others. The sources of attraction vary from the interpretive dynamism of the Jewish textual tradition to the status of Jews as a model diaspora people possessed of great skills of cultural adaptation. The resulting interest has allowed for the kind of ongoing fertilization of the field that bears resemblance to Franz Rosenzweig’s agenda for his Frankfurt Lehrhaus, an institution in which he sought to attract nonspecialists whose “new thinking” (neues Denken) could help introduce a renaissance of Jewish learning.

Among those who have brought knowledge and methods derived from outside of the field of Jewish studies, Geoffrey Hartman deserves pride of place. Not only did he play an important institutional role in the development of Jewish studies at Yale University. Along with his fellow Yale colleagues Harold Bloom and Robert Cover, he crossed the border from his primary academic specialization to enter the precincts of Jewish studies. A native of Germany who fled in 1939 as a child on the Kindertransport, Hartman came to the United States in 1945, where he took up the study of comparative literature. After receiving his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale in 1953, then serving in the US Army for two years, he joined the faculty at that institution in 1955 and developed over the course of his career into one of the most distinguished literary critics in the United States. Hartman gained renown both as a penetrating reader of poetry, especially the Romantics (and Wordsworth, in particular), and as a literary theorist who contributed to the Yale School of Deconstruction, of which Paul de Man was the most important figure.

Coming from the intersecting worlds of literature and literary theory, Hartman has played an important role in two distinct subfields of Jewish studies for at least thirty years: Holocaust studies and Jewish literary studies. In the former case, Hartman was centrally involved in the Fortunoff Video Archive of Video Testimony at Yale, assuming the position of project director in 1982. Hartman not only solicited testimony from survivors but studied and theorized testimony, analyzing its potential and limitations with the tools of an exceptionally sophisticated literary critic. In the latter case, Hartman evinced a deep interest in the genre and practice of midrash, reveling in what he called, in a 1986 volume, Midrash and Literature, “a variety of ‘open’ modes of interpretation, a life in literature or in scripture that is experienced in the shuttle space between the interpreter and the text.” Marked by a rare combination of qualities—vast erudition, a lyrically poetic sensibility, penetrating analytical acuity, and a sincere recognition of the limits of his own knowledge—Hartman has come from the periphery and enriched Jewish studies.

This issue’s forum acknowledges the importance of Geoffrey Hartman’s border crossing, both as an act of intellectual enrichment and as a model of Rosenzweigian neues Denken. The three essays here offer probing insights into different aspects of Hartman’s intellectual formation, sensibility, and judgment. At once reverential and critical, they constitute an invitation to further inquiry into the work of one of the great literary scholars of our time.

The first essay in the forum, Vivian Liska’s “Winged Words and Wounded Voices,” sheds light on the important relationship between Hartman’s work on Holocaust testimony and his explorations of midrash. While seemingly disconnected from one another, Liska suggests that Hartman’s interest in each is linked by an animating tension—between the unintelligibility of the Absolute...

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