Home > History, Judaism > Sustain Me With Raisin-Cakes

Sustain Me With Raisin-Cakes

  • Anisfeld, Rachel A.
  •   Sustain me with raisin-cakes : Pesikta deRav Kahana and the popularization of
  •  rabbinic Judaism / by Rachel A. Anisfeld.
  •     p. cm. — (Supplements to the journal for the study of Judaism ; v. 133)
  •   Includes bibliographical references and index.
  •   ISBN 978-90-04-15322-6 (hardback : alk. paper) 1. Pesikta de-Rav Kahana.
  • 2. Midrash—History and criticism. 3. Rabbinical literature—History and criticism.
  • I. Title. II. Series.
  •   BM517.P36A55 2009
  •   296.1’406—dc22
  • 2009001094
  • ISSN 1384-2161
  • ISBN 978 90 04 15322 6
  • Copyright 2009 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, ?e Netherlands.
  • Koninklijke Brill NV incorporates the imprints Brill, Hotei Publishing,
  • IDC Publishers, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers and VSP.

On  the  third  new  moon . . . on  that  very  day  (Ex  19:1):  R.  Lazar  said:  It  is like a king who wanted to marry a woman of noble descent. He said: I will not  ask  for  her  hand  in  marriage  without  offering  anything  in  exchange. Only  after  I do her some good deeds will  I  ask  her  to marry me. He saw her  at  the  baker’s,  and  he  filled  her  arms with  delicate, white  bread;  at the  tavern-keeper’s,  and  he  gave  her  spiced  wine  to  drink;  at  the  shop  of one  who  force-feeds  birds,  and  he  filled  her  arms  with  force-fed  birds;  at the shop of a dealer in figs, and he filled her arms with dried figs (Pesikta deRav Kahana 12.11).

This mashal  compares God  at  Sinai  to  a  king wooing  a  noblewoman with various indulgent treats like spiced wine and dried figs. the nimshal which follows  this excerpt makes the connection to  the  food and drink God  provided  for  Israel  in  the  desert,  understanding  these  provisions as  part  of God’s  courtship  of  Israel  in  preparation  for  their  marriage  at Sinai. This midrash is striking in its depiction of an intimate relationship between God and Israel  at Sinai. Whereas  the  biblical account of Sinai, with its thunder and lightning and prohibition from getting too close to the mountain,  emphasizes  distance  and  awe,  our midrash,  by  focusing on the nurturing provided prior to Sinai, manages to create an image of intimacy and personal connection, the private moment of a man offering treats to his beloved in the hopes of marriage.

The intimacy in this midrash is characteristic of the religious language used throughout the midrashic collection Pesikta deRav Kahana (henceforth PRK). Here in PRK we find a gentle God who speaks directly and personally to Moses and to Israel and who speaks in the personal language of emotions, addressing the people’s fears and worries with words of com-fort and love. This language is a new homiletical language not present to the same extent in earlier tannaitic midrashim, where the emphasis is more on  the  intellectual  rigors  of  exegetical  and  halakhic  queries  and  on  the related thematic concerns of authority and obedience. Indeed, the tannaitic midrash Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael also has a mashal about God at Sinai, but it imagines God as  a ruler establishing his authority over his people rather  than  as  a  suitor wooing  his  beloved. Mekhilta’s  ruler  convinces the  people  to  accept  his  authority  through  a  process  of  rational,  logicalpersuasion, demonstrating to them that he would make a good ruler by protecting  them  from  enemies  and  providing  an  easily  accessible  water supply.1 By  contrast, PRK’s  lover  does  not  engage  so much in  a  process of logical persuasion but instead tries to win his beloved’s heart through  extravagant treats like spiced wine and dried figs.

The process of emotional persuasion through the use of indulgent treats which we  see  in  this mashal is an apt parable for the work of PRK as  a whole. PRK too  is  involved  in  a project  of wooing. Its new homiletical language of emotion and intimacy is a kind of indulgence when contrasted to the serious rigors of  the  halakhic  and  technical  exegetical  concerns of  tannaitic midrashim. Moreover, PRK’s  new  language  has  additional traits  that  make  it  indulgent. There  is  a  frequent  flattery  of  the  people  in PRK, as we witness in this mashal in the use of the term “woman of  noble descent” (bat tovim ubat ganasim). And there is a general movement  away from rebuke and judgment toward a more relaxed, forgiving attitude  concerning  sin  and  religious  obligation.  This  new  language  of  intimacy  and  indulgence  is  the  indulgent  treat  that  PRK  offers  its  readers. And  it  is my contention in  this book that these treats are part  of  a  historical  process  of  wooing,  the  rabbinic wooing of  the many non-rabbinic  Jews  of the time. Here is where text and history meet.

This study has three goals: first, to define PRK’s special discourse; second, to show that its discourse is new in the history of rabbinic midrash; and third,  to  place  this new special  discourse  into  its  historical  context.

This last task  involves  asking  the basic question: Why then? What  factors  led  to  the development of  this new intimate  indulgent  language  of  PRK at this particular point in history? Perhaps the question can even be widened a bit, as PRK represents one manifestation of a larger sea change  in the history of rabbinic midrash. It is one of the first of the “aggadic”  midrashim, midrashim which deal primarily with non-legal topics, even  when analyzing legal biblical passages. And it is also one of the first of a  new genre of midrash known as  “homiletical  midrash”  whose  organizational  structure  is  based on the  synagogal  parashah  readings  as opposed  to  the  exegetical midrashim which  offer  a  verse-by-verse  commentary.  PRK’s new language is thus part of a larger movement of change within rabbinic midrash. What historical developments account for this particular  development of PRK’s  discourse  as well  as  this  larger  shift  in  midrashic  interest and style?

PRK is an amoraic midrash which scholars think was redacted around  the  fifth century  C.E.  As  such  it comes at  a  point  in  the  history  of  the  rabbinic movement  that may  be  seen  as  a bridge  period  between  the tannaitic  and  the  geonic  periods.  For  according  to  the  current  revised  understanding of  the process of  popularizing  rabbinic Judaism,  during  the  tannaitic  period  the  rabbis were  still  a  small  elite  group  and  it  was  not  until  the  geonic  period  that  the  rabbinic movement  achieved  great  popularity  as  the  major  institutional form of  Judaism. What happened  between the tannaitic period of elitism and the geonic period of popularity  remains a mystery; how the rabbis managed to achieve such wide-spread  popularity and influence when they began as a peripheral group of scholars  is unclear. The development of an enticing and accessible rhetoric like the  emotional and indulgent language of PRK and like the genres of aggadic  and homiletical midrash in  general may be part  of  the answer.  Scholars  have indeed pointed to the third through fifth centuries—that is, the end  of the tannaitic through the amoraic periods—as a time during which the  rabbis seem to have shifted focus, showing a greater interest and involvement  in  the  large  non-rabbinic  Jewish  population  and  its  characteristic  institution,  the  synagogue,  and  becoming  more  lenient  in  certain  legal  arenas. However, most  of  the  scholarship  has  concerned  shifts  in  legal  activity  and  official  involvement  in communal  affairs. This book adds  the rhetorical piece of the puzzle, suggesting that it was also through the  development of a new more appealing rhetoric like the one we see in PRK  that the rabbis began to win broader popularity and influence. It wasn’t just  that the rabbis were actually easing certain legal restrictions and making  religious obligations slightly less onerous, but also that they were involved  in a public relations campaign to make their form of Judaism seem more  indulgent and attractive. PRK is one example of that effort.

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