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
- 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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