The Book of Genesis tells us that soon after Abraham (then still called Abram) arrived in Canaan, the land to which God had sent him, famine forced him to leave the Promised Land for Egypt. But his trials and tribulations were not over. Crossing a geographical line, Abraham confronted another set of boundaries, those delineating his sovereign masculinity. According to the biblical narrative, Abraham fears that Pharaoh will kill him in order to obtain Sarai (later Sarah), his beautiful wife. He therefore instructs Sarah to declare that she is his sister, not his mate—meaning that she is unattached and available to Pharaoh. Unsurprisingly, the Sages of the early centuries of the Common Era, the authors of the corpus of rabbinic writings that includes works of midrash (rabbinic exegetical reading of scripture), were troubled by this episode in the life of the Jewish people's founder. They retold the story placing reflection, or self-reflexivity, at the center:
[Abram and Sarai] went. As they arrived at the pillars of Egypt and stood at the Nile, Abraham saw the reflection of Sarai in the river and she was like a radiant sun. From this our Sages learned that all women compared to Sarah are like monkeys compared to human beings. [Abram] said to her: "Now I know what a beautiful woman you are" (Gen. 12:11). From here one learns that prior to that, he had not known her as a woman. He said to her: "The Egyptians are immersed in lewdness as it is written 'whose flesh was like that of asses' [Ezek. 23:11]. Therefore I will put you in a casket and lock it, since I am frightened for myself that the Egyptians might see you."
This short narrative, from Midrash Tanḥuma, explicates Gen. 12:11, "As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, 'Now I know what a beautiful woman you are.'" Since by this time, they had been married for many years, Abram would certainly have noticed by this point that his wife was beautiful. The anecdote addresses this apparent quandary by adducing a reflective episode in which Abram gains a new insight, one that changes the nature of the biblical narrative. According to this midrashic tale, the pious Abram had never actually looked at his wife prior to this event and thus had not had intimate relations with her. Struck by her radiance, he "knows" her for the first time (perhaps implying that he not only sees her face but actually knows her in the biblical sense). At this very instant, he realizes that her radiant beauty may be a danger to him. If they know that Sarai is his wife, the Egyptians are likely to kill him in order to obtain Sarai for themselves. Clearly, the tale seeks not only to gloss the odd phrasing of the biblical verse ("Now I know what a beautiful woman you are") but also to mitigate the dubiety of Abram's decision to conceal Sarai's relationship with him.
According to the midrash, that moment at the Nile was one of transformative epiphany, possibly coupled with shock. Newly enlightened, Abram was impelled to take preventive measures. But, according to this retelling, his first move was not, as the biblical narrative has it, to tell Sarai to declare herself his sister. Here, the reflective moment—Abram literally sees his wife's reflection in the river—implies new awareness on Abram's part, one that informs his subsequent actions. Notably, Abram does not see his own reflection—he sees Sarai's. It is nevertheless a moment of actual reflection that transforms not only her identity (as she is perceived by her husband) but his as well. He views himself differently thereafter—as the husband of a desirable woman. Moreover, the reflective gaze recognizes desire itself. Only when Abram himself desires his wife can he realize that the Egyptians, known for their lustfulness, will desire her as well. Desire and danger become the rationale for the continuation of the midrashic narrative.
Identity, narrative, and midrash, as this example teaches us, are inextricably connected to reflection and self-reflection. Self-reflectivity, it tells us, not only informs the identity of the figures in the tale but directs the text, motivating its chain of events. In the most basic sense, the mirroring moment is a crucial point, on which the identities of the evolving figures and the text as a whole hang. Moreover, the reflective moment is directly associated with a textual practice: Abram immediately cites scripture, and thus his scriptural source of knowledge becomes in part analogous to that of the Sage, who couches this entire tale as an exegesis of the biblical narrative in Genesis 12. Abram's self-reflection is mirrored by textual self-reflexivity.
In reading the story, I used the term "self-reflectivity," since it refers to the human—animated—domain where a person becomes the object of his or her own gaze. The reflection of another (Sarai) implies, as I suggested, self-reflection, and it is clearly human reflection that is at play here. There are but few instances of explicit human reflection in rabbinic literature—stories in which characters see their own or someone else's reflection. But, as I will argue in this book, self-reflexivity—a meta-poetic aspect of a text whereby the text refers to itself—operates in, and is central to, rabbinic texts that do not necessarily involve an explicit image of reflection. However, because I address the text as a staged "self" and see it as a cultural animated "self," I use the terms "self-reflectivity" and "self-reflexivity" interchangeably.
In the chapters that follow, I will point out mirroring moments that serve as pivotal discursive underpinnings of rabbinic textual production. That is, I will suggest that when rabbinic hermeneutical and institutional discourses become the object of reflection, they become central to the formation of rabbinic cultural identities. For us, as readers, they shed light on an underlying process that may otherwise be seen only at its endpoints—be it the identity of the Sage, the hegemony of the rabbinic institution, or the authority of midrash as scriptural interpretation. These apparent endpoints constitute what we recognize as the identity of rabbinic culture(s). Mirroring, self-reflective moments bring us, as it were, backstage in rabbinic theaters, where the participants comment on the play being enacted onstage. These comments not only undermine the unity of the apparent, seemingly coherent, performance but also, paradoxically, facilitate it. Human (or textual) performance is contingent on self-reflexivity, or, as Kenneth Burke put it, it is through "the reflexive capacity to develop highly complex symbol systems about symbol systems that humans act upon themselves and others." Put differently, in the narrative about Abram discussed above, self-reflectivity involves Eros, an animating force that motivates the character and his actions. In this story, Eros determines Abram's identity and the "identity" of the entire tale. Self-reflexivity, then, when it appears in a text, can be seen as its underlying, facilitating force.
Self-reflexivity is an aspect of any text that comments on itself as a text and as language, or on its own processes of production and reception. Self-reflexivity, as I use the term here, refers to those ways by which rabbinic texts look at their own textual and discursive principles. The question of self-reflectivity, of how one sees oneself when one becomes the object of inquiry, has long since expanded beyond the realm of individual psychology. Since the notion of identity has become suspect, whether it is the identity of a text, a social identity of a given group, or an identity of an academic discipline, self-reflexivity has become part of any discussion that looks at discourse as culturally constructed. Here, it relates to rabbinic discourse as the object of reflection.
Midrash and Self-Reflexivity
Rabbinic texts offer a particular example of self-reflexivity because of their specific intertextual nature. They constantly, and explicitly, refer to other texts, biblical and rabbinic, and such references expose their means of production as well as the textual and linguistic concepts implicated in such a productive process. Midrash is composed of two explicit layers: scripture and rabbinic commentary. The Talmud is likewise built from two layers: Mishnah and Gemara, with those two layers containing, in addition, numerous midrashic expansions. In other words, the seams of the rabbinic cloth are, at least partly, sewn on the outside, making visible the process by which it was made. I suggest that this intertextual quality of rabbinic texts is a marker of self-reflexivity.
The most basic form of self-reflexivity in rabbinic texts is their covert awareness of their linguistic constitution. That is, the overall midrashic-citational quality of rabbinic texts evinces, by its very nature, an awareness of the linguistic operations that form the texts. Within that general awareness, there are specific diegetic (that is, the characters or speakers in the text are aware that they are narrating a story or participating in a text) as well as nondiegetic, overtly self-reflective, narratives. These overtly self-reflective narratives will be the focus of this book.
In addition to the two layers of scripture and rabbinic explications that characterize midrash, its intertextuality is further enhanced by its unique strategy of reading scripture. By linking together different scriptural sources, midrash anchors its authority in scripture. Scripture is taken to contain its own interpretative keys. The Sage, the interpreter—unlike his predecessors of the Second Temple period—does not hear a ministering angel (as does the author of Jubilees), nor does he record a firsthand account of Jacob's sons (as in the Testaments of the Patriarchs). His authority derives from the text itself, which situates him simultaneously inside the text and outside of it.
Midrash, as I have noted, is the cornerstone of rabbinic culture not only as it is found in the practice of direct explications of biblical law and lore but also in the model that such exegesis posits (mutatis mutandis) for subsequent texts, namely, the talmudic explications of the Mishnah. And, as the dominant form in the rabbinic literary polysystem, midrash was also a discursive model to which the rabbis adapted other genres. Such was the case with the Second Temple rewritten Bible, comprising certain apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical excanonical texts that retold biblical stories. When the rabbis engaged in these kinds of retellings, they did so in midrashic fashion, with textual citations and fragmented narrative. To be sure, a general characterization of rabbinic culture as a scriptural-exegetical culture may at first seem trivial. It also may seem to subsume a multifaceted enterprise under one single practice. Nor is it possible to reduce a corpus of texts that span six hundred years and different geographical and cultural environments to a single rabbinic culture. Yet the importance of the rise of midrash as a central, distinctively rabbinic, hermeneutic method cannot be overstated. For it was "the early rabbinic choice of scriptural commentary as a communicative medium" that distinguished the rabbinic exegetical enterprise from earlier traditions. That is not to say that midrash was created ex nihilo by the rabbis, but rather that in the rabbinic corpus, it occupies a central nexus that informs the entire rabbinic textual system. As such, it becomes the distinctive hallmark of rabbinic literary creativity in a manner that sets it apart from earlier protomidrashic practices (for example, Qumranic Pesharim or Philo's scriptural exegesis).
Midrash is a propagator of reflection in and of itself, as well as being a generative and metonymic model of rabbinic hermeneutical practices in a wider sense. For the Sage, the midrashic stance of being inside and outside the (biblical) text at the same time implies a position of liminality. It is precisely this liminality that is inextricably connected to self-reflection. If we understand self-reflection to be directed at categorical boundaries and at systemic shortcomings, the source of reflexivity should emerge from those very same ambiguous or liminal categories. Put differently, it is through liminal states that "we come to know ourselves and our world, to know how we know, and to reflect on our own interpretative process." Rabbinic discourse(s), so heavily saturated with midrash and the liminality it entails, are hence self-reflective by definition, rendering the texts self-reflexive.
Modern scholars have noted the liminal, betwixt-and-between position of midrash. The impetus (and paradox) of early rabbinic hermeneutics has been described as a demand to be both "the same and other than scripture"; similarly, the poetics of amoraic (later rabbinic) midrash has been explained as an expression of "a certain type of dialogical consciousness, of being both inside and outside the text at the same time." These characterizations, although they do not say so explicitly, imply that rabbinic midrashic discourse produces a liminal, hence reflective, subject. And, of all rabbinic discourses, scriptural exegesis—midrash—has most frequently elicited discussions of self-reflexivity. Moshe Halbertal, for example, has demonstrated that rabbinic exegetical practice is a self-reflective cultural project; Christine Hayes has argued that the rabbis, from a very early stage, reflected on contextual versus non-contextual exegesis; and David Stern has instructively characterized the rabbinic exegetical stance as a conscious "belatedness," implying self-reflexivity.
The Boundaries of Rabbinic Reflection, Self-Reflexivity, and Self-Reflectivity
Self-reflection, is (or was, in the wake of postmodernism) "too fashionable a concept to be endorsed unreflectively." One question that the concept elicits has to do with the scope and range of such reflexivity: Can rabbinic discourse extend beyond its own boundaries? To put it differently, to what extent can one talk about self-reflexivity without the reflected self being incorporated into the reflective gaze? David Stern has noted that "any consideration of the relationship between theory and midrash might do well to begin with the self-reflexivity of contemporary theory—thought turned upon its own operations—and that of midrash, in which even theoretical statements about exegesis are couched in the language of scriptural exegesis." Accordingly, the ultimate superiority ascribed to the Torah as the arch-paradigm in the system of interpretation precludes any self-reflective statement that is situated beyond its hermeneutical boundaries.
Daniel Boyarin devotes his book Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, which addresses the notion of rabbinic self-reflexivity, to breaching and ridiculing these same hermeneutical frameworks. His book, like this one, stresses instances where epistemological uncertainties are reflected upon in the rabbinic corpus. It also implies, as I am suggesting, the notion that there is a self that is the object of reflection. Boyarin offers a provocative thesis that seeks to account for the unique character of the Babylonian Talmud, for its mixing together of what Boyarin sees as the serious and the comic, the holy and the grotesque. He posits that this mixed bag, especially the outlandish biographical narratives of the rabbis, come from the Hellenistic Menippean literary tradition, which combines the lofty with the debased, the spiritual with the physically grotesque. What is of particular interest in the context of our discussion is that this (deliberate) hybridity of subject matter is used to criticize paramount cultural practices. In the Hellenistic context, the object is philosophical discourse, while in the Jewish context it is rabbinic Torah study and legal-exegetical discourse, with its implied claim of truth. In other words, the Menippean aspect of the Babylonian Talmud, as presented by Boyarin, displays self-reflectivity (and self-reflexivity) regarding its own knowledge or lack of knowledge, and it is, as he repeatedly suggests, a critique from "within" that does not delegitimize the foundations of the Babylonian rabbinic enterprise. In this sense, the self-reflexive texts are a form of a carnivalesque expression that is embraced and manipulated by the establishment.
Boyarin, although not addressing the issue explicitly, struggles with the distinction between self-reflexivity and self-reflectivity, between the (meta-)textual, self-reflexive, markers of the Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) and an equally reflecting (rabbinic) agency to which these markers may attest. The Menippean tradition, with its ridicule of the philosophical pursuit of Truth, as it manifests itself in the Talmud, is ultimately ascribed by Boyarin to an implied author or, more accurately, to two implied authors (to which the different materials correspond). The complex, detailed argument that Boyarin makes to support this assertion is crucial for his understanding of the cultural forces at play and for his explanation of why specific texts were chosen, consciously or unconsciously, for inclusion in the Talmud. Are the texts self-reflexive, and/or are the authors self-reflective? Are the rabbis in control, or are they not? Boyarin concludes that the texts are self-reflexive and that the agency that is implied by the texts is equally self-reflective.
These two points of Boyarin's—the boundaries of rabbinic (self-)critique and the relationship between textual self-reflexivity and human self-reflectivity in the Bavli—are crucial for my analysis. Boyarin restricts himself (if "restricts" is indeed the right word) to the Babylonian Talmud, particularly to its final editorial stamp, and to specific outrageous—and, at times, seriocomic—narratives. The biographical legends that serve Boyarin are very different in tone and texture from the narratives that will be the focus of the following chapters. The comic or humoristic component of some of the narratives discussed in this book does not derive from an exaggerated, grotesque style. Clearly, then, Boyarin is addressing a different literary phenomenon of self-reflexivity. In addition, the texts that I read reside in a wide variety of rabbinic compilations. Yet I would argue that the self-reflexivity that Boyarin identifies in the Bavli is but one case of the basic self-reflexivity of rabbinic texts in general. My claim is that the exegetical premise of rabbinic practice (midrash) opened it up, to begin with, to this specific Menippean mode of self-critique. The question of the ability of the self-reflexive text to transcend the reflective gaze in which it is couched becomes a nuanced question when applied to self-reflexive texts that do not bear—by and large—outlandish traits and that cannot be ascribed to one particular milieu (or "editors"). As the following chapters will show, the self-reflexive and self-reflective boundaries are simultaneously breached and maintained, while any implied agencies ascribed to the texts are deemed obscure, even more so than the ghost-like dual figures of Boyarin's Bavli. However, as mentioned earlier, since the text's self-reflexivity operates, in my view, as a self that is reflected on in a wider, cultural, sense (but not as a specific social group), I use "reflexive" and "reflective" interchangeably.
Self-Reflexivity and an Imagined Rabbinic Self
Self-reflexivity is applied in this book to a body of texts. The object of my observations is not the human psyches of specific characters within the texts. Instead, the self I address is an emergent entity that results from rabbinic discourses and discursive processes. These processes, in turn, explain, argue for, negate, and validate. In short, they produce moments of cultural subjectivity. But there is another aspect of the cultural self that I am interested in, one that is ostensibly "given" rather than constantly constructed and one that is an object of reflection. I have suggested that one central rabbinic discourse, that is, one discursive self, is midrash. Since this pivotal rabbinic discourse implies self-reflexivity in and of itself, it is not surprising to find midrash as an object of reflection. In this case, the exegetical rabbinic discourse itself becomes a theme of discourse and is provided with an array of reflective lenses through which it is examined. Indeed, most of the texts examined in this book involve, in some way or another, a reflection on midrash. The last chapter addresses rabbinic discourse in a broader sense, as an institutionally governed enterprise. It, too, should be seen in relation to rabbinic discourse's overall propensity, triggered by midrash, for self-reflexivity.
My claim that there is an imagined rabbinic-discursive self that, in turn, becomes an object of reflection should be viewed in the context of much current work on rabbinic cultures. Recent cultural studies of rabbinic texts have tended to question the pure, clear-cut contours of rabbinic identities. Cultural heterogeneity has been explained, for instance, by the discursive mixture of "folk" and "elite" elements, or by the underlying contact between distinct but not entirely separated ethnic and religious groups. Bakhtinian social-literary polyphony and postcolonial theory's hybridity have provided rich frameworks for discussing rabbinic identities: Galit Hasan-Rokem has demonstrated the polyphony in rabbinic texts, and Joshua Levinson has argued for their hybrid identities. While their premises ring true and their specific readings convincingly indicate that rabbinic cultures were anything but monolithic, these studies may overlook a crucial aspect of (rabbinic) identity formation: they do not necessarily acknowledge that a sense of an essentialized self is an immanent aspect of identity formation without which an individual—or here, a culture—cannot function. The notion of a unified self, as some have argued, may rest on a misguided, insatiable nostalgic yearning. But to deny the experiential components that give rise to such an imagined entity is to overlook a powerful engine of identity formation. To dismiss these experiences as individual or cultural fantasies would mean overlooking a central rabbinic force in which a unified self is imagined. That is not to say that a unified cultural self is an exclusively rabbinic fantasy; nor is it to say that it ever existed beyond any textual boundaries. Also, quite clearly, religious and ethnic external others played a key role in self-reflexive processes and cultural identity formations of Judaism in late antiquity. Thus, to offer but one example, rabbinic Judaism reflected on and formed itself in relation to Christianity—to an external (or gradually externalized) synchronic other. As Christine Hayes notes, external and internal others in rabbinic literature "serve as means by which a group can explore its own internal ambiguities, experiment with alternative possibilities, embrace negativities." In the following chapters, I refer to some of the characters and discourses as "others." Yet these, I suggest, should be construed within the conceptual framework of possible selves, which accentuates their role in a self-reflective, introspective process.
Rabbinic Possible Selves
Rabbinic self-reflexivity resides in, and is triggered by, its pivotal practice of midrash. This midrashic capacity is further enhanced by reflective figures that populate rabbinic narratives. The textual mirroring points of the narratives engage a variety of characters who serve as discursive junctions through which the main, however tentative, discourses are reflected upon. Where these figures come from, what they do, what they say, and how they say it constitute their performative persona: they may originate in bygone biblical and Second Temple days, occupy a lowly social position, belong to the female gender, speak in riddles, or think magically. The figures may seem to resemble rabbinic contemporary prototypes or they may be imagined, initially, as their virtual opposites. Embodying an ambivalence of sameness and otherness, their appearance in the rabbinic corpus plays out alternative choices and ideas, constituting what Hillis Miller terms "possible selves." According to Miller, the characters that operate in a narrative allow the reader to whom it is addressed to "experiment with possible selves and to learn to take . . . place in the real world, to play . . . [a] part there." However, for the sake of discussion, I have modified Miller's insightful term by differentiating between what can be seen as the main self in a given text and other figures that not only represent other possible selves but also comment on that main—however tentative—self. Furthermore, while the concept of a possible self applies to the characters in the text, it can be carried further, beyond the personified principle suggested by Miller, since the rabbinic self—a midrashic self—is a discursive self. Accordingly, discourses that have distinct structural and thematic features but that are not necessarily centered on a character—such as the genre of tall tales (Chapter 3)—might also be seen as an experiment with possible selves, or as ways of reflecting with this genre on the midrashic self of a rabbinic text.
From a Nazirite to a Maidservant: Five Readings of Self-Reflexivity
This book is composed of five readings of rabbinic texts in which self-reflexivity plays a prominent role. The chapters were written separately, over the course of the last fifteen years. It is only in hindsight that I realized that they addressed similar issues. Their shared themes derive from my idiosyncratic interests. Yet without ignoring the book's (auto)biographical component (or fallacy), something in the texts themselves has always drawn my attention to their self-reflexive quality. In retrospect, I see that I sought to understand the self-reflexive impetus of rabbinic texts that I, in turn, identified with their midrashic core. As I reflected on essays that I had written in the past and on my ongoing project, it became clear to me that reflexivity is a driving force in rabbinic literature and that the notion of a self is important in the formation of cultural identity.
The readings draw on different methodologies—mainly, literary theory, folklore, semiotics, and anthropology. While following basic philological guidelines concerning matters such as the dating of texts and lexical meanings, my readings at times transcend what may seem indisputable (or seemingly safe) philological grounds. As we have learned from Mikhail Bakhtin, a text—any text—produces meaning via its relation to other texts (what I term in Chapter 2 its "co-texts"). It does not stand alone. The reconstruction of possible "echo chambers" that not only form the background to a given text but that determine its meanings is contingent on reading practices. What are the relevant texts that one may consider when reading a given text? The answer is not simple, and it at least partly relates to the space—or abyss (depending on the eye of the beholder)—that lies between strict philological criteria and possible wider semiotics. In this context, we should also bear in mind that rabbinic texts that provide the basis for philological pursuits are only the tip of the iceberg insofar as they are remnants—maybe only partial in and of themselves—of a predominantly oral culture (this largely holds true also for the later texts I discuss). The rabbinic worlds that are both revealed and veiled by the texts stretch beyond any possible philological reconstruction. The readings I propose suggest cultural spaces that, although they sometimes cannot be proved philologically, are nonetheless plausible semiotic frameworks that should be considered. Likewise, the strictly philological premise is supplemented by an alternative hermeneutical model when I (albeit infrequently) use late traditions for elucidating earlier texts: later traditions may tease out potential meaning that are embedded in earlier texts, by making them explicit or by solving earlier textual ambivalences or uncertainties.
The texts are taken from an array of rabbinic compilations, including Palestinian compilations, the Babylonian Talmud, and late midrash. "Late midrash," a term that refers to a diverse body of works composed after the rabbinic period (dating roughly from the seventh to the tenth or eleventh centuries in different geographical settings), is clearly situated beyond the rabbinic period. Late midrashic works introduce poetic innovations: they offer novel compositional frameworks and themes unknown from earlier rabbinic traditions. Yet they are still quite bound to rabbinic models and especially to the midrashic component that characterizes the classical rabbinic corpus. Late midrashic texts are thus still also part of a rabbinic literary tradition and, as such, are generated by—and, to a large extent, still modeled on—rabbinic midrashic narratives. They display the dynamics afforded by earlier rabbinic works, although they are clearly situated within a different literary poly-system and novel historical contexts. While taking into consideration the different historical and cultural backgrounds of the texts, my emphasis nonetheless remains transhistorical in the sense that I address what I recognize to be continuous aspects of an imagined rabbinic self. The heterogeneity of the texts extends beyond their different cultural contexts, for they are also generically varied—a historical legend, a riddling tale, tall tales, and a retold biblical narrative. They all, however, involve the telling of a story, and it is in the telling of a story that reflections of a narrating self emerge. That is not to say that rabbinic self-reflexivity is restricted to narratives (as noted earlier, rabbinic self-reflexivity also comes out in exegetical and legal discussion). Nor does it indicate that all rabbinic narratives are equally self-reflexive. It shows, rather, that these rabbinic narratives—with their intricate dynamics of plot and character—include a self-reflexive aspect that is particularly poignant when the reflective process is thematized in the narratives. Such are the texts that are addressed in this book.
In Chapter 1, I read the rabbinic version of the Narcissus tale. This rabbinic meta-reflective narrative centers on Simon the Just, the high priest, and a Nazirite. The midrashic self reflected on in the story and the meta-poetic aspects of the text are articulated masterfully in this narrative, in which two characters—possible selves—are deployed in a web of shared identities. Midrash is the endpoint of the tale and the point at which the high priest is finally "rabbinized." Yet the processes that the story posits deny the possibility of postulating a stable, if only tentative, self, be it midrashic or other.
Chapter 2 deals directly with midrash as a reflected, and problematized, self, through the genre of riddles and the characters that act in a riddling tale. A midrashic narrative on the Queen of Sheba and her riddles is read as a reflective text that argues for the necessity, and insufficiency, of midrash. The riddling tale yields a progressive inquiry into the question of identity, ending with a seemingly triumphant climax of (male) religious-cultural identity, an identity that involves midrash. However, the plot leading to this resolution and the uncanny resemblance between riddles and midrash cast a shadow on the climatic triumph of Solomon the Sage.
Chapter 3 offers a close reading of a sugya (long passage) in tractate Bava Batra of the Babylonian Talmud. In this passage, scriptural exegesis is set alongside and against tall tales and mini-travelogues, thereby reflecting on the efficacy of textually based epistemology. Travelogues and tall tales, on the one hand, and scriptural exegesis, on the other, are shown to compete here as two hermeneutical, institutional, and experiential principles.
Although midrash plays a part in the narratives addressed in Chapters 4 and 5, it is not the only self reflected on. In Chapter 4, Seraḥ, daughter of Asher, as portrayed in Pirke deRabbi Eliezer (and earlier sources), embodies an alternative to the patriarchal-hegemonic discourse. While the latter is understood to be a mediated textual praxis, her hermeneutic discourse and linguistic skills imply an immediacy that rabbinic textual practices may lack. However, she is not situated in opposition to midrash per se because she at times engages in it. Thus, she can be said to reflect critically on aspects of a rabbinic-midrashic self, or, alternatively, she can be viewed as encapsulating a midrashic ideal.
Chapter 5 takes up tales about Rabbi Judah the Patriarch's (R. Yehudah haNasi's) maidservant. Being at her master's beck and call, her acts of reflection have to do with institutional hegemony. While she engages in midrashic mimicry, the rabbinic self that she reflects on is not exclusively a midrashic self: the institution of the Sages, whose faults and weaknesses she exposes, is primarily identified as a male, closed-off enterprise. Here, it is rabbinic authority as it relates to knowledge—mainly, textual knowledge—that is being reflected on. Midrash is part of that hegemonic praxis and self, as some of the narratives that involve her figure state. Yet what is at stake in this reflective gesture is not only the rabbinic-midrashic self but rather rabbinic discourse as literally an institutional discourse. What is implied by the very term "discourse"—its social, institutional premise—is what is being reflected on here.
Rabbinic texts continually look into the mirror. What they see depends on the lens through which they reflect on themselves. The lens can be a terrified Abram, in fear of his life, frightened by the animating force that he has just recognized (Eros). In the tale from Midrash Tanḥuma, he immediately projects his own menacing desire onto an externalized other, the Egyptians. In staging a moment of actual self-reflection, the rabbinic tale displays two major features that are at play in rabbinic textual self-reflexivity: thinking with and through a possible self (the Egyptians); and employing the practice of midrash. That these features are uniquely rabbinic and that they produce a highly self-reflexive text may be better appreciated if we briefly compare the Tanḥuma narrative to two other texts that address Abram's less than worthy conduct in Pharaoh's land. The first is an earlier text, dating from the Second Temple period, known as the Genesis Apocryphon. It suggests a dream as a transitional point in the biblical plot:
I, Abram, dreamed a dream, on the night of my entry into Egypt. And in my dream, I saw a cedar and a palm tree . . . . Some men arrived, intending to cut and uproot the [ce]dar and to leave the palm tree by itself. But the palm tree shouted and said: "Do not hew down the [ce]dar because both of you are from root . . . ." And the cedar was saved, thanks to the palm tree, and was not [hewn down]. blank I woke up from my slumber during the night and said to Sarai, my wife: "I have had a dream [and] I am alarmed [by] this dream." She said to me: "Tell me your dream so that I may know it." And I began to tell her the dream, [and I told her the interpretation] of th[is] dream. [I] sa[id:] " . . . they want to kill me and leave you alone. This favor [o]nly [must you do for me]: in every place [we reach, say] about me: 'He is my brother.' And I shall live under your protection and my life will be spared because of you." (1Qumran Genesis Apocryphon 20)
The Apocryphon belongs to the Second Temple genre of the "rewritten Bible" and, as such, tells a continuous narrative. That is, even if its underlying exegetical motive is to comment on the scriptural story, it nonetheless presents itself rhetorically as an independent, self-contained tale. In the passage above, Abram recounts his story as a first-person narrative. The narrative is thus granted authority by his own firsthand testimony, and it is through revelation—in a dream—that Abram is informed of the impending danger and consequently resorts to extreme measures. It is here that the authority of the narrative and the authorization of its protagonist's acts converge: the narrative is, as it were, directly revealed by a witness, who retells a long, successive narrative and in turn is granted a divine revelation via a dream. Unlike the rabbinic Abram, the Genesis Apocryphon's Abram does not, and cannot (given the epistemology of the narrative), cite verses. His source of knowledge is a dream, an epistemology of revelation. He does engage in interpretation—otherwise, he would be unable to conclude that the two trees are coded images of himself and of his wife. Yet, whatever basis there may have been for his interpretation, it is not made part of the narrative. This is a narrative, let me again stress, that draws on the authority of a first-person narrator, Abram, who was "there." Abram is granted direct knowledge, and the Apocryphon ostensibly relies on the direct testimony provided by the biblical figure. It is in this unequivocal premise—of a narrative that draws on testimony and of a figure who acquires knowledge but not self-knowledge—that textual self-reflexivity and the self-reflectivity of its protagonist are excluded. Unlike this Second Temple Abram, Abram of the midrash is a reflective figure who echoes the very reflexivity with which midrash as an exegetical discourse is imbued. He, like the narrator of the Tanḥuma text, cites verses and is situated in the liminal-reflective position implied by midrash.
Likewise, narrative style, grounding of knowledge, authorial position, and the reflexivity that they entail emerge in the second, later, example, from Sefer hayashar, a medieval or Renaissance Jewish work that recounts biblical events from the Creation until Joshua's conquest of Canaan. In the introduction, its author tells a long story in which he vouches for the text's antiquity. It is, he claims, an authentic ancient document saved by a Roman official from a hidden library in the ruins of Jerusalem. As in the earlier Genesis Apocryphon, we are presented with a continuous narrative; but this time, the tale is told by a third-person narrator who is granted authority by the putative authenticity of the supposedly ancient book. Not quite impersonating Abram, as the Apocryphon does, but still appealing to an extra-textual source of authority, a textual relic, this is Sefer hayashar's version of Abram's reflective moment: "And Abram and all his chattels went down to Egypt because of the famine, and they were at the river of Egypt, and they dwelled near the river to rest from the voyage. And Abram and Sarai walked on the bank of the river of Egypt. And Abram looked at the water and he saw how very beautiful Sarai his wife was. And Abram said to Sarai: After God had created you with this good appearance, I am afraid that the Egyptians might kill me and take you, for there is no fear of God in their place."
This rendering offers the reflective scene but one stripped of its midrashic component. Not only is there no underlying exegetical framework for this tale, as there is in the Tanḥuma, but when providing a rationale for later hiding his wife, Abram does not cite scriptural verses. He simply states that "there is no fear of God in their place." Here, the reflective moment is translated immediately into the divine. Sarai's beauty points to God's Creation, and it is the Egyptian's lack of "fear of God" that will endanger him. In this rendering, the reflection in the river does not lead to self-reflection but still serves as an animating force that determines the ensuing action. But Abram, immediately upon recognizing Sarai's beauty, ascribes it to divine Creation. In doing so, he divests responsibility from himself and hands it over to God. He therefore states his fear of the Egyptians in theological terms. I would suggest that the lack of self-reflection on Abram's part, the suppression of Eros, is also tied up with the lack of self-reflexivity of the text: in the Tanḥuma text, the verse from Ezekiel makes "lust" (projected onto the Egyptians) an explicit theme of the tale. More important, it is not only part of Abram's self-reflective moment; it is a moment of textual self-reflexivity, thus associating the portrayal of the human subject and the discourse that constructs him.
Of course, the two examples—one predating rabbinic textual practices and the other attesting to new forms of medieval or Renaissance Hebrew fiction—deserve to be appreciated for their own poetic merits (and maybe even for their own aspects of self-reflexivity). In this context, however, they clearly underline the heightened mode of self-reflexivity that I ascribe to midrash as a generative force in rabbinic texts, resulting, in the Tanḥuma text, in a self-reflective protagonist.
The reflecting mirror and the reflected picture in rabbinic texts vary. It depends on whether the texts see themselves through the intertwined figures of the high priest and the Nazirite, the Queen of Sheba, or a lowly maidservant, or through riddles and tall tales. Their sense of self is reinforced and doubted simultaneously. It is this double, if contradictory, gesture that allows for vital, continuous, and effectively evolving cultural selves that are indeed polyphonic and hybrid, adapting to changing circumstances, be it Hellenistic culture, the rise of Christianity, or circulating noncanonical local traditions. Yet the historical dynamics that give rise to the variety of rabbinic shared identities cannot be fully appreciated (or take place) without an imagined self, and it is this introspective gaze that will be the focus of the following chapters.