The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

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9780812243161: The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies (Jewish Culture and Contexts)
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Why should we be excluded from the history and literature of Judaism because the world of our fathers and mothers became a secularized one, Geoffrey Hartman asks, or because religious literacy, whatever our faith or community affiliation, has gone into relative decline? And why, he asks, do those who have no trouble finding pleasure and intellectual profit in the Greek and Roman classics or in the literary and artistic productions of two millennia of Western Christianity not easily find equal resonance and reward in the major texts in the Jewish tradition? For if Christianity and the classical inheritance stand as two pillars of Western civilization, surely the third pillar is the Jewish tradition.

In The Third Pillar Hartman, one of the most influential scholars and teachers of English and comparative literature of recent decades, has brought together some of the most important and eloquent essays he has written since the 1980s on the major texts of the Jewish tradition. In three groupings, on Bible, Midrash, and education, Hartman clarifies the relevance of contemporary literary criticism to canonical texts in the tradition, while demonstrating what has been—and what still remains to be—learned from the Midrash to enrich the interpretation of commentary and art, sacred or secular. "The map of the discipline [of Jewish studies] is still being drawn," Hartman writes. "Barely known areas tempt the explorer, and major reinterpretations remain possible. This third pillar of our civilization . . . is only now being fully excavated: we have discovered something but not everything about its structure and upholding function."

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About the Author:

Geoffrey Hartman is Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature and Faculty Advisor to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. Among his many books are Beyond Formalism and Criticism in the Wilderness. The Geoffrey Hartman Reader, which he coedited with Daniel T. O'Hara, was awarded the 2006 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

This collection of essays has benefited from the riches of Jewish studies as they began to flourish in the 1960s, especially in the universities of North America and Israel. It is dated, then; yet I hope it is not entirely out of date. My contributions are, on the whole, neither erudite nor highly specialized, but rather essays; and my hope is that they still interest as snapshots of an exciting moment that has not completely faded. They are also, inevitably, part of a personal bildungsroman, about which I must add a few words.

I was born into a German Jewish family that had disintegrated by the time I was nine. David Hartmann, my grandfather on my mother's side, was a rabbi who received his doctorate in Oriental studies toward the end of the nineteenth century with a dissertation on midrashim to the Book of Ruth. It was clearly indebted to the Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism) movement. He did not serve a congregation but became a teacher of religion at the Frankfurt Philanthropin (the oldest secular Jewish school in Germany) and used the family's apartment to house a few boys studying at that school. He died when I was a year old, and I retain his image only through a couple of photos.

My mother divorced after eight years of marriage around the time (1930) of grandfather's death. I was, as already mentioned, a year old, and so have no living sense of my father either. He never got in touch with me, but from his relatives we know he emigrated to Argentina, married again, had a son, and at some point after the war returned to Germany, settling in Berlin.

As was not unusual at that time, my mother had only a passive knowledge of Jewish practices; and her father's death, her divorce, and the necessity to eke out a living in the difficult circumstances of the 1930s left her without a guide in that respect. Given the disappearance, because of forced emigration, of uncles I had rarely met, I received a bare minimum of Jewish education. I entered the Philanthropin at age six, and one or two years later I was placed in a Stiftung, originally for orphans, but—with what was happening to the Jews in Germany after 1933—also for boys whose parents were imprisoned or had left the country because of the Nazi persecution. I do not recall any regular synagogue visits or Jewish activities, although the increasingly menacing 1930s, including attacks on us on the way to school, made a sense of Jewishness unavoidable.

Looking back, I do have one dreamlike memory. It is of waking in the dark and being brought to a large, festively lighted and richly furnished room, full of books, where Shabbat or something like it was being celebrated. I associate that mental picture with grandfather and an absent Jewish presence.

I have a scarcity of memories of the time before my mother left in December 1938 (a month after the pogrom of Kristallnacht) for the United States. She had assured my safekeeping with the Stiftung and knew I would be evacuated to England with the other boys via a Kindertransport. She planned to bring me to the States as soon as she had the necessary funds and permissions. As expected, I went with the Stiftung to England in March 1939; but once the war broke out and the submarine menace became too dangerous, I was not allowed to join her in America till the war in Europe ended in 1945. My grandmother, ill with diabetes, could not leave Germany: in 1941 or 1942 she was deported to Theresienstadt, where she must have died.

The rescue of the Flersheim-Sichel Stiftung was arranged by James and Dorothy de Rothschild. They not only sponsored the transport to England of its twenty or more boys, but maintained all of us and a caregiver family. We were lodged in the Buckinghamshire countryside at The Cedars, a spacious house in the hamlet of Waddesdon, adjacent to the Rothschild estate with its extensive farms, wonderful park, and famous manor. The Stiftung in Frankfurt was eventually dissolved by the Nazi authorities, and its youngsters and guardians deported to eastern ghettos and concentration camps where they died or "disappeared." I still startle at the word verschollen.

In England we received a respectable minimum of Jewish observance: each Saturday a rabbi imported from London for a short service and a Bible talk, attention to the major holy days (Chanukah with its gifts was especially important), and a celebration of each youngster's bar mitzvah. The situation did not change after my arrival in the States. None of my relatives was particularly observant, and no guide, natural or supernatural, appeared, so I was nourished by the rhythms and locutions of the King James version of the Bible, marveling at its "stories" in the same way as those found in Homer or the large, exotically illustrated volume of Tausend und eine Nacht (that is, Arabian Nights) I had smuggled out of Germany. My mother worked all day and I was left to my own devices, holding down a part-time job at Gimbels, taking a course or two in literature at Hunter College evening school (recently opened to men, so as to absorb an overflow of demobilized GIs), and, finally, having been admitted to CUNY's Queens College, studying there from 1946 to 1949 for a B.A. in comparative literature.

During that period my Jewish education did not advance. The Hillel organization at the college, with Daniel Thursz as its most active member, was mainly a group of kids offering occasional social aid to urban New York, far from a still bucolic campus. Even during my time from 1949 to 1953 as a graduate student at Yale, the university's hole-in-the wall Hillel, with a learned but well-sequestered rabbi, frustrated me. But at the end of a Fulbright year in France (1951-52) I spent a month by myself in Israel and absorbed firsthand not only its ancient sites but its incredible mixture of Kibbutzniks, Haredim, Safed mystics, Arabs, and Sabras. Back at Yale I did start to read the Talmud—in German, for some reason—and I remember puzzling anthropologically over how closely, as recorded in the Tractate Berakhot, the heavens were watched to determine the exact times for saying the Shema, and how the priests' every ceremonial action while the Temple remained standing was detailed. What motivated this ritual precision, and such prayer punctuality in general? Was it a way of keeping the memory of the Temple alive (and so creating a Memory Temple) in every detail? I became a star gazer, too, but the "stars" were the central, mysterious Jewish practices themselves, including Shabbat. Several years later, as an instructor at Yale, I gave my first public talk, or sermon, rather, on the Shabbat, exalting it as a liberation from unceasing labor.

In A Scholar's Tale, I outline a further gradual emancipation from ignorance. During my first years as a teacher at Yale, I conceived an impossible project, eventually abandoned: a History of Interpretation. My turn to Judaism, then, was not that of a ba'al teshuvah but motivated by a quiet if persistent intellectual nostalgia. I wanted to include in my "History" a Jewish corpus of texts and interpretive methods missing from the academic program of most secular universities. Studying the Book of Job with a Holocaust survivor's help during my army service in Germany (1953-55), a class in Midrash with Nehama Leibowitz (though I barely knew Hebrew or Aramaic) while teaching the Romantic poets at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (fall of 1958), a summer course in Talmud at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, lucky to audit a seminar with Judah Goldin at Yale circa 1960, and intense discussions of the Psalms with Marcel Mendelson, my oldest friend from days at Queens College (like myself a German refugee who also graduated with a doctorate from Yale but settled in Israel teaching art history), these were modest yet confirmatory steps in my exodus from ignorance.

A second, parallel path, never quite abandoned, came from poetry. I started a poetic drama on the story of Saul and David, and also wrote lyric experiments to revive interest in the midrashic mode of interpretation through a hyperbolic kind of imagistic pastiche. Although I failed to finish the drama, I did publish a book of poetry, Akiba's Children, in 1978; and still occasionally write in an allusive mode so effective in Yehuda Halevy—whatever became of it in my hands.

Baby steps turned into a leap forward when Bartlett Giamatti, a colleague in the English Department, was appointed president of Yale. In 1980 he asked me to head a major fund-raising drive to develop a significant program of Judaic studies. Yale's single professorship (or two nontenured positions) within religious studies quite obviously did not provide true coverage of a most important and still evolving culture. Encouraged by many colleagues, including William Hallo in Babylonian studies (also the translator of Franz Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption), I accepted the challenge and even added to it by finding support for what was to become the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. Over the next six years most of my time was spent in these tasks, which included formulating academic policy and recruiting as well as fund raising—but which also informed me about the extent and depth of the Jewish learning tradition. During that time, indeed for the many years he stayed at Yale, David Ruderman, the first professor to be newly appointed, proved to be an essential and eloquent presence.

I cannot forbear mentioning some of the scholars outside of Yale who helped me to find my way (and sometimes to risk losing it): Harold Fisch, Michael Fishbane, Moshe Greenberg, Daniel Boyarin, Moshe Idel, Uri Simon, David Stern, Arthur Cohen. Many of them said they wanted to know more about literary methods of study, and we did have good conversations on that basis. Yet it was I, the 'am ha'aretz, who gained; and the example of Akiva's belated entry into a life of learning, immodestly applied to my own situation, often kept me going. Not all my initiatives were successful. A light-hearted proposal to institute an annual Midrash day on Mayday lasted all of two years. A new magazine, Orim, launched in 1984 with the help of David Ruderman and Rabbi James Ponet, also did not survive.

My reason for mentioning these details is that they disclose one significant role of Judaic studies as a new field in the university. Why should we be excluded from the history and literature of Judaism because the world of our fathers and mothers had become secularized? Or because religious literacy, whatever our faith or community affiliation, was neglected? Surely even a belated knowledge of a religious tradition, acquired in the critical, nonsectarian, and nonconfessional atmosphere of the university, is a good thing?

Students may not be able to enter the Pardes or Sacred Jungle of biblical interpretation, given its formidable requirements and ecstatic lures. But scholarship is scholarship, and those who would have no trouble finding pleasure and intellectual profit in Western Pagan studies (I mean the Classics) should have the possibility of learning, by way of Judaic studies, a subject whose history reaches into the contemporary world, and whose text legacy is, in many ways, different from the Hellenic.

There is still room for a field of study with internally so ancient a canon, and externally so varied a people scattered among a multitude of nations in the diaspora and now also building the nation-state of Israel. Most of the legitimation problems Judaic studies faces, the other humanities have also faced. Consider the example of history.

There used to be those who went so far as to think, wittily enough, like the educator and literary thinker I. A. Richards, that "history oughtn't to have happened." He spurned it as an academic subject and in 1910 entered the "Moral Sciences" (that rubric translated "Geisteswissenschaften"). Richards's youthful position might be compared to someone saying today that "the Holocaust shouldn't have happened," hence shouldn't be made into a separate disciplinary field. Indeed, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi has emphasized in his book Zakhor how in Jewish communities to this day the liturgical memory is far more important than historiographical knowledge. History is always close to senseless catastrophe; yet the liturgical and collective memory, sustained by the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, can have a restitutive and even a healing function.

Often, no doubt, ideological motives help to legitimate a subject matter. In England, immediately after the Great War, the aroused national spirit turned against the German system of graduate education whose cult of expertise had fashioned an elite of professors and bureaucrats while neglecting the mundane skill of independent judgment. What Richards would have liked most, a course of studies and a degree in English, was not obtainable at either Oxford or Cambridge until after World War 1. The argument finally prevailed that great works of vernacular literature existed, and that these were as useful as the Greek and Roman classics in forming the minds of the younger generation. "Reading" became a charged word and began to mean more than grammar, rhetoric, and quasi-scriptural exegesis. F. R. Leavis invested the new Cambridge program of study with ethical purpose and talked it up as the "English School."

The entry, then, of Judaic studies into the curriculum, though belated, was predictable. With a lessening of antisemitism in higher education circles, the falling away of numerus clausus restrictions in American private universities, a growing number of Jewish students and professors, and a sense, more acute with the passing of time, of the devastation caused by the Holocaust—given all these conditions an audience eager for a vast field of learning appeared.

I realize that the existence of an audience does not by itself legitimate an academic field. Nor was there, for a time, more demand than for a supplementary course or two in social studies, history (including the Holocaust), and literature. Yet scholarship had burgeoned, especially in Israel. An Institute of Jewish Studies was inaugurated in Jerusalem in 1924, a year before the Hebrew University itself. Great scholars, pedagogues, and personalities, like Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Hugo Bergmann, and Ernst Simon, explored Jewish life and its mentalities in the diaspora, from medieval times to the Yishuv, and Israel as a modern state. A river was rising, a reservoir was being filled to overflowing; and it was the most natural thing in the world to provide students access to this intellectual energy.

The rebirth of Hebrew created for the first time a freestanding literature seeking to escape the commentary tradition, though sometimes, as in the Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon also raiding it to fashion an intricate, intertextual idiom. Hebraism became a recovery movement of tremendous scope, equivalent to the Hellenism that had traversed other nations in the Renaissance. Scholarship's retrieval and recycling of ancient texts was not antiquarian but vividly contemporary in its affect. The Hebrew revival movement competed with a flourish...

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