- Lamentations Rabbah:Trauma, Dreams, and Riddles
A midrash on midrash, The Web of Life is a hermeneutic analysis of a hermeneutic book, the midrash Lamentations Rabbah. Galit Hasan-Rokem carves her study like a Chinese puzzle ball, a sphere within a sphere, and each chapter adds upon the exegesis of the other. Most of its chapters revolve around a single folklore form—the riddle. At first glance, her choice of this brief, often humorous, form may be a puzzle in and of itself. Would not the tales of war and despair, the historical testimonies, and the allegories of heroism that recur throughout Lamentations Rabbah be more appropriate for the analysis of a midrash that narrates the trauma of national destruction? Indeed, later in the book Hasan-Rokem analyzes such stories as well. However, in reading her book it becomes apparent that she has selected the folklore form that corresponds best to the theological-historical question that the Book of Lamentations itself poses in the face of the totality of national and religious ruin and that its Hebrew title epitomizes: Eikhah, "how could it happen?"
Midrash Lamentations Rabbah is one of the earlier amoraic Palestinian midrashim, edited, likely, not later than the fifth century. It is an interpretive midrash expounding the Book of Lamentations verse by verse. Its five sections are preceded by thirty-six proems (petiḥot), a number that represents the numerical value of the letters of Eikhah in Hebrew. The midrash appeared in print first in 1519 in Pesaro, Italy, and its scholarly edition, upon which Hasan-Rokem relies, was prepared by S. Buber and appeared in Vilna in 1899. While the Book of Lamentations mourns the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., its midrash [End Page 399] unfolds the horrors of the wars that culminated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and with the decimation of the Jewish population following the Bar-Kokhba rebellion in 132-135 C.E.
These were traumatic events in Jewish history. Midrash Lamentations Rabbah is their primary amoraic literary representation. Yet surprisingly, only a few studies examine the book as a whole. Surely, some of its tales and forms drew intensive scholarly attention. For example, the martyrdom story of the mother and her seven sons that occurs in this midrashic book is the subject of continuous scholarship,1 and the distinct meshalim (parables) of Lamentations Rabbah are the subject of specific analysis in a book about this literary form.2 But after S. Buber published his edition at the turn of the previous century, only a few scholars reexamined the book. Paul David Mandel has begun a textual-philological study of the midrash, which is so far limited only to its Third Parasha.3 Shaye J. D. Cohen explores the representation of the Destruction as it has transformed from the Book of Lamentations to its midrash Lamentations Rabbah, pointing out that the latter is a more hopeful—his word is "cheerful"—book, manifesting the rabbis' messianic belief.4 And Alan Mintz has analyzed the rhetorics of the amoraic coping with the theological crisis of the Destruction. For them the pain of the experience has abated, but the open wound of faith has remained. They seek healing in the construction of an empathetic God, extravagant sins of the people, and evidence for consolation.5 Galit Hasan-Rokem shifts the analysis of Lamentations Rabbah from the rhetoric of the theological to the discourse of narrative.
Her book has seven interpretive chapters, and each is constructed like a midrashic sermon: a proem, a presentation of a text, its analytical interpretation, and a conclusion that returns the readers to current social or theoretical issues. The field of folklore offers Hasan-Rokem the broad disciplinary framework for her interpretation, and in each chapter she explores selected texts in the context of a different method: literary, generic, comparative, folkloric, social, religious, and historical.
This methodological diversity does not fragment the book. Rather, like variations on a theme, each chapter explores new possibilities...