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  • Response
  • Robert Alter

A response by the author of The Art of Biblical Narrative to the preceding articles.

The main thing I should say is how deeply gratified I am by all these generous responses to my work. I think the keenest satisfaction a writer can have is to discover he has good readers, and these seven richly various essays are evidence that I have had very good readers indeed. Some of the essays show that their authors have understood me, at least in some respects, better than I understand myself. Others place my work on the Bible in revelatory contexts that had not clearly occurred to me, or carry it in new and surprising directions.

I had not at all thought of Herder when I was writing The Art of Biblical Narrative, but of course we are all inescapably creatures of the large historical era that we inhabit, and the correspondence between my project and Herder's that Jonathan Sheehan proposes seems to me both persuasive and instructive. As for Mara Benjamin's illuminating discussion of Buber and Rosenzweig, though I avowed my debt to their concept of Leitwortstil in my book, I was less conscious of the broader connections she so ably delineates between what they aspired to do and what I was doing. I am especially taken with what she says about the invocation of Midrash in their work and in mine as a gesture of "grant[ing] legitimacy to a literary tradition that has only recently been understood as worthy of secular attention." My own continuing engagement since adolescence in the Hebrew literary tradition has proved to be a frequent intellectual resource for me, and I definitely wanted to make that clear to readers, implicitly arguing against the [End Page 365] notion once cherished in English departments (and egregiously articulated by T. S. Eliot) that the Western literary tradition is essentially Christian. In recent years, moreover, when I found myself in the unanticipated role of exegete, I discovered that Rashi and ibn Ezra and the Midrash Rabba were often more useful to me than Gunkel and Noth, and hence the commentary I wrote is, at least in my eyes, definitely a Jewish commentary.

Two essays here by former students and dear friends, Ilana Pardes and Robert Kawashima, vividly show me aspects or implications of my work that had largely eluded me. I am also pleased, never having wanted to create disciples, to note in what different directions they go both from each other and from me. Ilana is right in seeing my view of Job as a touchstone for the literary approach to the Bible that I have attempted to trace, and I like the idea of Melville as well as Herder anticipating my own project precisely in regard to this defining text. Robert's notion that the existence of certain literary universals provides the ground for comparing ancient and modern is a clearer and more cogent rationale for the critical procedure than I myself offered. At the same time, as a few of the contributors indicate, I have been engaged in a kind of literary archeology, trying to unearth certain distinctive literary conventions, long buried, that inform biblical narrative and poetry. I was struck by the phrase near the end of Robert's paper that my work is "a sober refusal of intellectual fashion and fantasy." That goes to the heart of my whole critical enterprise, including my writing on the novel, and I would like to return to this notion when I comment on Steven Weitzman's framing essay.

Chaya Halberstam's application of some of my categories of analysis to biblical law is a surprising development for me, and her skillfully attentive treatment of the two passages suggests that this could turn out to be a productive new area of literary investigation. Finally, I am delighted to see that after a long hiatus Menakhem Perry has come back to the study of biblical narrative. His essay, which introduces ideological considerations absent from his early work, is original, ingenious, provocative, and, as he surely knows, in some respects debatable. Rather than embark on a debate, I would like to register here my debt to...


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pp. 365-370
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