From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy

From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy

From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy

From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy

Synopsis

This book examines Torah and its interpretation both as a recurring theme in the early rabbinic commentary and as the very practice of the commentary. It studies the phenomenon of ancient rabbinic scriptural commentary in relation to the perspectives of literary and historical criticisms and their complex intersection. The author discusses extensively the nature of ancient commentary, comparing and contrasting it with the antecedents in the pesharim of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the allegorical commentaries of Philo of Alexandria. He develops a model for a dynamic understanding of the literary structure and sociohistorical function of early rabbinic commentary, and then applies this model to the Sifre to the oldest extant running commentary to Deuteronomy and one of the oldest rabbinic collections of exegesis.

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Excerpt

Standing at the conclusion of the book that follows, I can barely recall when and how it began. I first engaged, in a serious way, the Sifre's commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy during the 1975-1976 academic year in a midrash text seminar taught byJudah Goldin at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was then a graduate student. We focused our attention on the Sifre's commentary on the lection Ha˒azinu, or the Song of Moses (Deut. 32), several parts of which proccupy me again in the course of this book. Although I had and would study in like detail many other rabbinic texts, midrashic as well as nonmidrashic, the Sifre took a special hold on me that it has still not loosened. Why that was and continues to be I am not sure. My guess is that it has to do with two combined features of the Sifre's commentary to Deuteronomy, with which I trust the reader will soon become abundantly familiar: the beckoning depths of its teaching and the beguiling complexities of its text.

When, upon revising my doctoral dissertation as my first book (Enosh and His Generation: Pre-Israelite Hero and History in Post-Biblical Interpretations, SBLMS 30 [Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1984]) I sought to set my sights on the next major project, I set them on the Sifre, turning from the history of tradition across many texts of biblical interpretation to the configuration of many traditions within a single text of biblical commentary. I have been pursuing this project now for eight years, leading from its first, tentative fruits (Sifre Deuteronomy 26 [ad Deut. 3:23]: How Conscious the Composition? HUCA 54 [1983]: 245-301) to the present, fuller harvest, having turned aside frequently along the way to till adjacent fields. Those adjacent fields, however, have been not only topical and textual but also methodological, and this book represents as much the fruits of such disciplinary cultivation, especially in the unabashedly eclectic intersection of historical and literary criticism. That restless intersection is best denoted as cultural history, and it is toward an as yet unattempted cultural history of ancient Judaism in general, and of ancient rabbinic Judaism in particular, that this study seeks to take a first step. Because of the length of time that I have thus labored both in the text of the Sifre and in the interdisciplinary honing of the methodological tools of that labor, many individuals and institutions have sustained me in my slow progress, and they are now to be thanked.

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