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  • The Midrashic Impulse by Monica Osborne
  • Emma Berg Saavedra (bio)

Monica Osborne opens her monograph The Midrashic Impulse with a brief anecdote. She recalls an occasion in which the American novelist E. L. Doctorow read an extract from his novel City of God (2000) at a Holocaust conference at Yale University in 2002. Asked to speak about the Holocaust, Doctorow gave an unexpectedly succinct reading: he took the stage to recite a list of varied items related to the Nazi genocide, such as prayer books, candelabra, and garments. In other words, rather than telling a story, as most would have expected, Doctorow merely listed a set of items, remnants of total dereliction. This episode is worth mentioning, since it captures the core of The Midrashic Impulse: the preeminence of nonrepresentational language over representation as a more appropriate response to trauma. Osborne's book explores what she calls the midrashic impulse as a mode of writing that deals with gaps, fissures, silences, and ambiguities. Her monograph examines the presence of the midrashic impulse in post-Holocaust Jewish-American literature. Thus, The Midrashic Impulse shows the connections between contemporary literature and midrash—the rabbinical method of biblical exegesis employed by the rabbis from the early centuries of the Common Era to the fifteenth century—as well as the compilation of such interpretations.

The Midrashic Impulse is part of a series of academic works written on literature and midrash in the last decades. In fact, Osborne locates The Midrashic Impulse within this academic context in the introduction and the first chapter. Modern study on literature and midrash took hold with the publication of [End Page 241] Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick's edited volume Midrash and Literature (1986). Midrash and Literature envisaged midrash as an open-ended method of interpretation and drew attention to its intertextual nature. Similarly, Daniel Boyarin's Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (1990) stressed the open-ended nature of midrash and built on Derrida's analysis of Saussure's writings on the sign. David Stern's Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Study (1996) also aimed to bridge midrash with contemporary literature and theory. And Michael Fishbane's edited volume The Midrashic Imagination (1993) examined midrashim from antiquity to the Renaissance, taking into account their historical context. Broadly speaking, these texts share Osborne's concern with interpretation and the relationship between midrash and literature. Like Osborne, they do not consider midrash to be confined to rabbinical times.

Despite their similarities, The Midrashic Impulse differs from these texts in its focus on the Holocaust and post-Holocaust Jewish-American literature, as well as, to a lesser extent, non-Jewish authored writing, film, and painting. Osborne, who uses the term "Holocaust" (instead of "Shoah") in her book, examines a series of writings that share a midrashic mode of writing as an ethical response to the Holocaust. As she explains in the introduction, The Midrashic Impulse is in some ways a response to Adorno's famous injunction, " To still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric." Osborne reads Adorno's injunction as an indictment against representation: "Attempts to represent the Holocaust violate its memory" (xv). For her, representation entails an attempt to describe and offer a detailed account of events. Osborne interprets this injunction to be against a particular form of writing, rather than against writing itself. She agrees with Adorno that representational language is not suitable for dealing with trauma. According to her, midrashic writing is a humbler response to representation, since midrash does not claim full understanding of an event. As she puts it, midrash "implies the failure of the sources from which it comes to ever evoke a final or absolute answer" (xix). The existence of midrash is predicated on the open-ended nature of its source, as well as on its own inability to provide a definitive explanation. Midrash attests to its own failures and asks us to reinterpret texts incessantly.

In addition to the introduction and the conclusion, The Midrashic Impulse is divided into five chapters. The first chapter discusses the relationship between midrash and contemporary...


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pp. 241-244
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