Book Review: Midrash And Multiplicity

Midrash And Multiplicity: Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer And The Renewal Of Rabbinic Interpretive Literature, by Steven Daniel Saks

While I am somewhat familiar with Jewish midrashic literature, I must admit that I am not very familiar personally with the Pirke-de Rabbi Eliezer, one of the earlier texts of the gaonic period, and one that has prompted a great deal of controversy about the nature of the writing of that particular age and its worth. In some ways this is not necessarily a disadvantage. Not being familiar with the text in question, I did not come to this book with any degree of bias for or against the Pirke, and it appears from the author’s writing that a great many people do come to the Pirke with a high degree of prejudice against it, considering the work to have an illogical design (because they do not see the logic in it) and seeing it to be uncreative (because it is not a creation that they view particularly highly). The general approach of the author and, at least from what I could gather, the general approach of the Pirke itself, was pleasing to me in that it allowed me to respect both a work I am not that familiar with and a work about that work that seeks to defend its worth from hostile scholars and their carping criticism.

This book is a bit less than 200 pages and it is divided into four main sections. The book begins with acknowledgements and a short discussion of the place of the PRE within the body of rabbinic literature as a whole, as a text towards the beginning of the Jewish Middle Ages. After that, the first main section of the book covers the literary arrangement of the text, including narratives, lists, thematic discourse, and analogies. After that the second part of the book covers the issue of pseudographical texts, including answering the accusation that the PRE is falsely attributed to Rabbi Eliezer, and whether the gaonic texts as a whole have this problem or whether they have been merely slandered as such. The third main part of the book then discusses the language of biblical text as well as the exegetical approach of the PRE as it relates to the Bible. The fourth part of the book then discusses the relationship between the PRE and the rabbinic literature, including technical vocabulary. The book then ends with a conclusion, a select bibliography, and an index.

One of the greatest aspects of this book is that the way that the author approaches the Pirke is precisely the way that one ought to approach an ancient text that is worth reading. First, the author takes the source seriously. Rather than coming to the Pirke with a predetermined desire to find it worthless and incoherent, the author takes the work seriously as a work that was created for a purpose and that has a logic. Instead of taking the opening chapters of the Pirke as a sign that the source was written under a false name, and instead of finding the reference to unknown sages as a sign of the text’s unreliability, the author does his due diligence and finds the unknown sage to be a reasonable citation given our imperfect knowledge of sages in general, and also finds the references to Rabbi Eliezer to be a demonstration of the anonymous Pirke’s author’s fitness to likewise show his own interpretations of scripture, a claim to authority even after the Talmud had apparently been closed. Moreover, the eclectic citation of authorities within the Pirke, and within gaonic midrashic materials in general, is something that I also find to be of interest given my general disinclination to concede the legitimacy of rabbinic authority over scriptural interpretation in general.

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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