Malamud as Modern Midrash

By Zucker, David J. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Malamud as Modern Midrash


Zucker, David J., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


DESCRIBING HIS APPROACH TO WRITING SHORT fiction, Bernard Malamud once suggested that one needs "to say everything that must be said and to say it quickly, fleetingly, as though two people had met for a moment in a restaurant . . . and one had time only to tell the other they are both human, and here, and this story proves it."(1) This kind of brief, but enlightening encounter could describe classical Midrash, the sermons or explications generally of biblical texts as written by the early rabbis. These midrashim were also limited in scope and content, and sought to convey a message about the human condition. Furthermore, the authors of those midrashim would easily resonate with another observation by Malamud when he explained that "writing must be true; it must have emotional depth; it must be imaginative. It must enflame, destroy, change the reader."(2)

Yet, despite these similarities, can one really speak in one breath of Malamud and Midrash? Unlike modern fiction, the midrashim in their formative period two thousand years ago were clearly developed in an oral style. They were spoken, and imparted to the public in public sermons. They were "not designed principally for entertainment but have a strong and self-conscious didactic function."(3) Another difference would be that the midrashists of the rabbinic world "believed that the Bible provided the answer--if not explicitly, then implicitly to every contemporary problem."(4) Such a claim could not be made for most modern writers. In fact, Malamud himself once wrote that the "purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. But without preachment. Artists cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry."(5)

Malamud did not write exclusively for, much less about, the Jewish community. He once explained: "I am not consciously speaking to American Jews; I am speaking to anyone who reads my books."(6) Yet, he wrote with a love for Jews and Judaism. In the last published collection of his short stories he had written that, early on in his career, he realized that "I was glad I was [a Jew] . . . I would often be writing about Jews, in celebration and expiation."(7)

With the exception of his final (and unfinished) novel, which was set in 19th-century America, Malamud's stories were centered in the twentieth century; he wrote in response to contemporary issues, and offered insights and answers. To the extent that this was so, his writing serves as a figurative parallel to the rabbis' use of midrash. They too were concerned with contemporary issues, and offered insights and answers, even though they often located their midrashim in the past.

Yet, even more than these outward similarities between Malamud and Midrash, this article shall show how Malamud often created a kind of midrash in his writing. He utilized figures from the Jewish past and recast them, reclothed them in modern dress. He lived true to his own eponymous self, for Malamud served as midrashic melamed (teacher). An analysis of several of his stories shows just how deeply he was indebted to the midrashic tradition.

Joseph Heinemann offers several characteristics for classical Aggadah (for the purposes of this article, the terms "Aggadah" and "Midrash" are used synonymously). His "three broad types" of aggadot are:

1) Aggadot that are inextricably related to the biblical narrative.

2) "Historical" aggadot which tell of post-biblical personalities and events.

3) "Ethical-didactic" aggadot which offer guidance and outline principles in the area of religious and ethical thought.(8)

Examples of all three of these categories can be found in Malamud's works.

1. Biblical Characters and Themes

JACOB AND RACHEL

The opening story of Malamud's earliest short-story collection, The Magic Barrel, is titled "The First Seven Years."(9) Like all of his works, it can be read on a variety of levels, but one clear understanding is that this is a modern rewriting of the love and seven years of service of Jacob for Rachel. …

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