What Shall We Do with Myth: History and Midrash in the Retelling of the Exodus Story by an Israeli Writer

By Jacobson, David C. | Shofar, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

What Shall We Do with Myth: History and Midrash in the Retelling of the Exodus Story by an Israeli Writer


Jacobson, David C., Shofar


In her novella The Miracle Hater (Sone hanissim), Israeli writer Shulamith Hareven presents a reading of the biblical story of the Exodus that comes across as both history and midrash. Hareven's blending of historical and midrashic elements in The Miracle Hater corresponds to what she considered to be the only appropriate way to approach Israeli national myths. She believed that each myth must be submitted to an historical-critical approach that questions the factual nature of the myth and seeks to discern something of the historical reality behind the mythic narrative, but that such a myth must also be developed by means of a midrashic approach that transforms it into a contemporary myth that sheds light on the meaning and significance of contemporary Israeli existence.

Recent discussions of the relationship between the novella The Miracle Hater (Sone hanissim),1 by the Israeli writer Shulamith Hareven (1930-2003), and the biblical story of the Exodus on which it is based have included references both to "midrash" and to "history." Yael Feldman considers this work and the other two novellas that together with The Miracle Hater comprise the trilogy Tfetrsf. (Tsima'on) as "counterhistories . . . [that have] indirectly entered the conversation over the 'rewriting of history,' which was begun in Israel [in the 1980s] by both historians and novelists."2 At the same time, Feldman acknowledges the affinity between the trilogy and classical Jewish midrash, noting that one of the "stylistic hallmarks of the trilogy" is"Hareven's creative use of the biblical intertext ... [a method which Hareven] repeatedly insisted . . . was not new, since the Jewish midrashic tradition had always enjoyed creative freedom' of this sort."3 Ranen Omer-Sherman agrees with Feldman that the trilogy Thirst "offers an elaborate counterhistory," while it also "participates in the ancient Jewish midrashic tradition of retelling the sacred text in ways that creatively accommodate the shifting paradigms and perceptions of the present."4 In her analysis of The Miracle Hater, Leah Mazor declares it to be a "modern midrash," and she quotes classical midrashic texts that may have served as sources for Hareven's adaptation of the biblical text in this work.5

We usually think of history and midrash as incompatible. History inquires into the realities of the past, while midrash engages in the imaginative retelling of the past. So how did Hareven manage to present a reading of the biblical story of the Exodus that comes across as both history and midrash, and why would she attempt such a reading? Hareven's blending of historical and midrashic elements in The Miracle Hater is very much in keeping with what she considers to be the only appropriate way to approach Israeli national myths, especially one that is as central to Israeli national identity as the Exodus. On the one hand, she has asserted that such a myth must be submitted to an historical-critical approach that questions the factual nature of the myth and seeks to discern something of the historical reality behind the mythic narrative. On the other hand, she has argued that such a myth must be submitted to a midrashic approach diat breathes new life into the mythic narrative and transforms it into a contemporary myth that sheds light on the meaning and significance of contemporary Israeli existence.6

An Ambivalent Attitude Toward Myth

In the essay" What Shall We Do With Myth?" ("Mah na'aseh bemitos?" 1989),7 Hareven discusses the positive and negative roles that myth may potentially play in the development of human culture. Myth, she argues, can play an invaluable role in the establishment of cultural identity by providing "a story that to a great extent establishes [for a culture] ... a sense of belonging, collective consolidation and the codes for such consolidation, and a common cultural subtext" (WS 157). At the same time, she believes, it is important that myths be subjected to the kind of critical historical inquiry that challenges die truth that they purport to present. …

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