The Name Of The Mekilta, by Jacob Zallel Lauterbach
This may be one of the most odd books that I have ever reviewed, in that it consists of material that the author would have put in the introduction to a book that I have already read and reviewed (review forthcoming) but with space limitations decided to write independently. While that might be odd enough, it is even more odd that the material that makes up this book is itself a discussion about why the book in question (the Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael) as the title it does. Most of the time, the title of a book is not an issue. Authors choose a title, and the title is either shortened or remembered as the author would wish. Yet titles in the ancient world are not as straightforward as this, and this book is a reminder that titling a work and having that title endure is far from a straightforward manner when one is dealing with ancient works that survive in complicated forms and that are sometimes combined or recombined with works in unexpected ways. You would not initially think that a writer could have written nearly 30 pages of material about the name of a book, but that is exactly what we have here.
As one might expect if one is familiar with the writings of the author, this particular book has a lot of critical things to say about other scholars. One of the things one comes to expect from critical scholars is that they will do a lot of criticizing. I suppose that ought to be expected. At any rate, the author comments that previously the title of the Mekilta has been misunderstood and that the book was originally titled something else (Sifre) as part of a collection of similar midrashic materials extending through the Torah. Apparently, at some point the material was viewed in the plural that all of these collections belonged together, and the book eventually got its present name because of its opening lines, at some point hundreds of years after the book was originally written. The author not only explores the original name of the book that he translated, but also what the term Mekilta means and how it got attached to this particular midrashic collection. The book manages to do what the author sets out to do, and one wishes that it had been included in the main material of the first volume of the book itself as it certainly belonged there.
When reading a book like this, it is easy to wonder who exactly the intended audience for this work is. Jewish law is a particularly obscure and difficult area of study to begin with, and when one considers that this is supplementary material to a collection of obscure midrashic texts, the potential audience of this book shrinks even further. On top of that, the author’s clear biases as a critical scholar who does not take the biblical law seriously enough means that even among those who might be interested in midrashic texts as a whole, many of those readers (myself included) would not be willing to entirely trust the author’s point of view itself. Admittedly, though, this is a solid collection in that the author is able to spend his time and effort criticizing previous scholars for tautological reasoning or failing to take into account the evidence concerning the nomenclature of ancient midrashic texts, rather than criticizing the ancient writings and positing evolutionary and bogus humanistic interpretations of them. Even so, while those who are looking to know about the name of the Mekilta will find it here, I cannot think that many people will even be interested in the question.