Book Review: Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: Volume One

Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael:  Volume One, translated by Jacob Z. Lauterbach

It is not my usual habit to read multi-volume books in reverse order, but that is precisely what happened here.  To be sure, this was not due in any way to desiring to read in the manner of Caroline Bingley, but rather because the first volume of this collection of midrashic materials (mostly haggadic in nature, moreover) that I received was the third and final volume first, and then the second volume, and finally the first, which was in a different binding and includes some annotations and markings itself from the book’s first owner, who bought the book in 1941 and appeared to take issue with some of the author’s translations and interpretations of the biblical law being discussed.  As Lauterbach was a liberal Jewish strongly influenced by bogus critical scholarship, this is not too surprising that the more orthodox owner would take umbrage at Lauterbach’s lack of fidelity to the biblical text and its clear meanings.  Indeed, I found myself feeling the same way myself, appreciating the text that was translated but viewing the translator’s bias with some degree of skepticism and doubt.  Even so, this is an immensely worthwhile if deeply obscure work in Jewish biblical interpretation.

The contents of this book consist of three parts.  The first part is a lengthy introduction of more than sixty pages by the translator, who discusses the complex textual history of the Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (and presumably implying that the biblical material itself is equally complex in its textual history) and commenting on the mix of materials from the school of Rabbi Ishmael and that of Rabbi Akiba, a rival teacher.  These materials are largely of interest to readers who have an interest in early Jewish history.  After that, the bulk of this book is taken up by the Tractate Pisha, which looks at the law relating to the Passover and discusses and interprets this story in considerable detail, discussing issues like circumcision and calendar matters like intercalinary days.  Finally, the book consists of the Tractate Beshallah, which looks at the exodus of Israel out of slavery until they get to the Red Sea, and which is considerably shorter than the material about the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread.  The particularly book I have for this volume includes a few notes by the author where he demonstrates his piety in writing about G-d in an indirect fashion and corrects some of the interpretations and readings of the translator.

I am unsure of how interesting this book would be to a majority of readers.  The book, like the others in this series, is a diglot between a critical Hebrew transcription that is biased towards the received versions rather than what is contained in the manuscript itself and an English version that has considerable interpretation from its somewhat unreliable translator.  Likewise, the interpretations given in these pages are themselves based on Jewish tradition of a complex nature, and as a Christian nature the interpreters seem to miss obvious messianic implications of the material being discussed, which is fairly common when one deals with the Hebrew scriptures and their understanding.  Despite all of this, though, this book is definitely of interest if one has an interest in the Hebrew scriptures and in the midrashic as opposed to mishnaic approach to biblical law.  While I am aware that this may be a very small selection of potential readers, those who appreciate having a critical text of an obscure book with some noteworthy and deeply interesting interpretations of the biblical law would do very well to check out all three volumes of this text for themselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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