1. The first essay I read today was Lewis Barth’s “The Midrashic Enterprise”. What I’ll share from that article is that there’s a debate among scholars about the petichta in midrashic literature. What is a petichta? Let’s take Leviticus Rabbah. It’s interpreting a passage from Leviticus. But it introduces its exegesis of the Leviticus passage with a verse from (say) Psalms. Then, it tries to tie that verse from Psalms into the Leviticus passage.
In any case, the debate is over whether the petichta was originally an introduction to a sermon, or was a sermon by itself. I’m not sure what the arguments are for each side. But the debate appears to be this: Was the petichta leading up to the action of interpreting Leviticus and drawing lessons from it, or was the whole process of tying the petichta verse back to Leviticus in itself a sermon, intended to teach the Jewish people lessons? Personally, I like the idea of meandering around and learning stuff along the way.
2. My second reading for today was from pages 68-82 of Saul Lieberman’s Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. What stood out to me from that was Lieberman’s discussion of the exegesis of dreams, and how the rabbis applied some of those techniques to their interpretation of Scripture. But did the rabbis believe that dreams mattered? Lieberman quotes a rabbinic passage stating, “If the contents of dreams which have no effect may yield a multitude of interpretations, how much more then should the important contents of the Torah imply many interpretations of every verse.”
This viewpoint holds that dreams have “no effect” (if I’m interpreting it correctly). And Lieberman notes that the rabbis condemned the superstitious belief that encountering a weasel is a bad portent. They weren’t too big on superstitions! Yet, Lieberman refers to rabbinic statements that dreams were significant. There were rabbis who thought that seeing certain letters in a dream was a good omen. Some maintained that the presence of barley in a dream meant that the dreamer’s sins were forgiven, for the Hebrew word for “barley” sounds like a Hebrew phrase for “sin is removed”.
And so there were rabbis who tried to decode Scripture, and other signs in the universe that may be significant (such as dreams). There were people whom Lady in the Water would call “symbolists”. But there were other rabbis who opposed superstition, and the fear in which it held people captive. They probably looked down on superstition because they believed that God was the ultimate power in the universe, so who cares about your bad dream, or if a weasel crosses your path?
3. I read more of G.A. Kennedy’s New History of Classical Rhetoric. Kennedy refers to Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, in which Socrates says that a guilty person can help himself more if he uses rhetoric—not to get himself let off—but rather to get himself convicted, since then he’s helping himself out more. But Kennedy goes on to say that Socrates wasn’t being overly serious when he made that point, but he was just trying to get Ponus to think.
But Socrates’ point reminds me of some Desperate Housewives plots. Orson ran over Mike Delfino, and his wife, Bree, wanted him to confess his crime and to go to jail. In Season 1, her son, Andrew, accidentally ran over Carlos Solis’ “MaMA” (as Carlos calls her), and left the scene. In the last season, someone was using that to blackmail Bree so she’d sell him her company. Andrew told Bree that it was time for him to pay for running over Carlos’ mother—by going to jail. That demonstrated a lot of growth on Andrew’s part—from the cocky kid of the early seasons to the responsible adult of this past year.
Then there are Dostoevsky novels, such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, in which a character decides to go to jail to pay for what he did, and to let God prune him and make him spiritually fruitful.
Jail can be a place of growth, as one encounters people who have experienced problems, and learns empathy as a result. But it can also be a place that hinders growth. My sister knows someone who went to jail for many years for burning down his fraternity house when he was drunk. When he got out, he dated younger women, for jail had placed him in a sort of time-warp, if you will, in which he was away from society. When he got out, it was like he was the same age as when he went in, in his mind.
The Big Book tells alcoholics that they may need to go to jail as a result of making amends, but not everyone chooses to follow that rule. For some, the best way to make amends is to try to be a better person.
But Socrates was probably criticizing the sort of person who successfully defended himself in court, and learned nothing. He had no intention of using his freedom to become a better person.
I’ll tie into this item my church for this morning. I went to two masses: one at 12:00, and another at 12:30. The Scriptures and the homilies were about forgiveness: the importance of us knowing that we’re forgiven (which, to me, sounds rather Protestant, since some Protestants harp on assurance of salvation), and of seeing every sinner as a potential saint.
4. I read a few essays be Renee Bloch on midrash. Bloch talks about various versions of a midrash about Exodus 1. In one version, the Pharaoh decrees that every newborn baby boy—Egyptian and Hebrew—is to be drowned, for he wasn’t sure if an Egyptian or a Hebrew would deliver the Israelites out of Egypt. According to the midrash, the reason that the Pharaoh chose to kill the babies by drowning them was that the astrologers foresaw “that the Savior of Israel would be punished by water, and they thought that he would drown in the water.” Moses was punished on account of water—he struck the rock and claimed credit for the water coming out of it, rather than speaking to the rock and giving God the glory. But the astrologers misinterpreted what they saw, I guess. And apparently they tried to hasten Moses’ downfall through water—back when he was an infant!
5. While the maintenance man was vacuuming gallons of water from my wet apartment carpet (I’m serious—it was gallons!), I was reading more of Lee Levine’s Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity. In a footnote on page 39, Levine distinguishes between maximalists—who believe that Hellenistic influence was great right before the Maccabean revolt—and minimalists—who believe it was not so great. In the maximalist camp, he has Elias Bickerman and Martin Hengel. In the minimalist camp, he has Victor Tcherikover. He has other names too, but these were the scholars I used in writing my Politeia Paper. And, in retrospect, I find Levine’s characterizations to be accurate. My problem with Tcherikover was that he acted as if the Hellenizers merely changed Judea’s political structure, while leaving the Jewish religion intact. I wondered how that would incite a revolt! Hengel overlapped with Tcherikover on this issue, but at least he argued that the change in Judea’s political structure had profound ramifications, which offended religious conservatives.