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  • The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies
  • Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Geoffrey Hartman, The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 236 pp.

A scrupulous reader of complex texts, Geoffrey Hartman stands out among literary scholars of the past half-century for the reach and refinement of his critical intelligence as well as for his uncommonly broad erudition. From the publication of his earliest books — The Unmediated Vision (1954) and Wordsworth’s Poetry (1964) — to such subsequent volumes as Beyond Formalism (1970), The Fate of Reading (1976), Criticism in the Wilderness (1980), Saving the Text (1981), and Scars of the Spirit (2002) — Hartman has been drawn to reflect deeply about literature as a source of intellectual and spiritual insights and about literary criticism as a mode of thought that can illuminate such richness. Poetry in particular — Wordsworth and the other great Romantics, but also a range of French, German, and American poets — has drawn him powerfully, and his prose reveals the innate touch of the poet-in-the-critic. Writing in a finely-honed heuristic style that can be alternately contemplative and playful, Hartman seeks to discover and reveal what he calls a text’s “essences.” He identifies these with his sense of the wondrous, or numinous, in great literature, and his life-long task as an interpreter of such literature is to clarify “the tangled ties of poetry and divinity”1 — the latter grasped not so much in the conventional as the artistic sense. To gain an intimate connection to truth as it is reflected in literary language — a direct, or unmediated, line to what ultimately matters — is a persistent, if sometimes elusive, dimension of Hartman’s writings over the decades.

This quest seems essentially religious in character, yet Hartman has pursued it in most of his scholarly work in terms that are emphatically secular and humanistic and not tied to any one religious tradition. With the publication of his most recent book, however, the author’s aim of identifying the points of intersection between the religious imagination and the creative imagination has been enhanced by his deepening ties, if not to Judaism per se, then to recognizably Jewish traditions of textual commentary.

The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies collects 13 previously published essays under three headings: “Bible,” “Midrash,” and “Education.” In the book’s opening chapters, Hartman offers intricately crafted readings of two familiar biblical narratives — Jacob’s wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:1–33) and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (“The Akedah,” Genesis 22). Both stories are [End Page 163] so well known and have drawn such copious commentary by others that to say anything significantly new about them historically or theologically is hardly possible. What a curious, skillful interpreter can do — and Hartman does it admirably — is pay careful attention to the literary aspects of these texts and raise questions about the art of composition in biblical narratives. Hartman is not the first to focus an experienced critical eye on the formal, or aesthetic, elements of these writings (he acknowledges the work of Erich Auerbach, Roland Barthes, Robert Alter, Harold Bloom, and Northrop Frye, among others); nonetheless he shows how rewarding it can be to bring such formidable exegetical skills to an engagement with the Hebrew Bible. His readings tease out of the texts he studies subtleties of tone and texture that will not be readily apparent to most readers. Brought to light, these nuanced, rarely noticed elements enable Hartman to raise questions not only about what is in the texts but what may have been suppressed or dropped out of them. Proceeding in this way, he makes a convincing case for a long-deferred project of reclamation:

The Hebrew Bible’s place in our predominantly secular culture is peculiar. The book from which, in good part, our idea of a canon exists is not part of the canon. If it is read at all by the secular-minded, they do not bring to it the same quality of attention accorded a great work of fiction. Precisely because the Bible is not meant to be fiction, because it is “sacred,” we include it out.


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