Green on Midrash and Deconstruction

I’m taking my rabbinic comprehensive exam today, on June 13!  But I’m actually writing this post before then, on June 6.  So, over the course of this week, you will be reading posts that are from my study for my rabbinics exam, even though they will appear after I have taken it.

Here’s the reading on which I will comment: William Scott Green, “Romancing the Tome: Rabbinic Hermeneutics and the Theory of Literature,” Semeia 40 (1987) 147-168.

As you can see here, the last time that I blogged about this article, I really did not understand it.  But, after reading it just now, I have no earthly idea why I didn’t understand it.  But I understand it better now, and that’s the important thing!

Green is essentially taking on those who view rabbinic midrash as similar to contemporary literary approaches to texts, such as deconstruction.  In rabbinic midrash, diverse interpretations of the biblical text are present, and even the meaning of a word can be variant, for a single word can be used in different ways—and with different meanings—throughout the Hebrew Bible.  Consequently, a word in a particular verse can have a variety of possible meanings and implications, which entails that the verse itself can have a variety of meanings.  For some, in rabbinic midrash, language is indeterminate, diversity is allowed and preserved, and there is no authority saying that the text absolutely must mean only one thing.  This sort of anti-authoritarianism and belief in the freedom of language is characteristic of deconstruction, which is open to different (and sometimes subversive) meanings of a text.

But Green disagrees with those who regard midrash as similar to deconstruction.  His overall point is that rabbinic ideology shapes how the rabbis interpret the texts.  Because the rabbis believe that God spoke to Moses and not Aaron, for example, they disregard or seek to subvert texts in which God spoke to Aaron, claiming that the text actually means that God spoke to Aaron through Moses.  So not all interpretations are created equal!  Moreover, in Tannaitic halakhic midrash, there is a formula saying that one might think something, but Scripture teaching something different, and so one must go with Scripture, even if it appears to be illogical.  In such cases, Green argues, the rabbis are not allowing the text to mean anything and everything; rather, they are trying to eliminate error, which is the opposite of pluralism.  They are imitating their priestly predecessors, whose cult could not tolerate ambiguity.

Green’s points should definitely be kept in mind.  But there is still diversity and pluriformity within rabbinic literature.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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