Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews: Ancient Jewish Folk Literature Reconsidered

By Perelmutter, Renee | Western Folklore, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews: Ancient Jewish Folk Literature Reconsidered


Perelmutter, Renee, Western Folklore


Louis Ginzberg 's Legends of the Jews: Ancient Jewish Folk Literature Reconsidered, edited by Galit Hasan-Rokem & Ithamar Gruenwald. (Wayne State University Press, 2014. 224 pages, $44.99 hardcover)

The edited volume grew out of two plenary sessions at the 15th Congress of the World Association of Jewish Studies (2009), which celebrated a hundred years since the publication of the first volume of Ginzberg's influential Legends of the Jews. Editors Galit Hasan-Rokem and Ithamar Gruenwald bring together a foreword, introduction, and seven articles (five of which were originally presented at the Congress) on Ginzberg's monumental achievement. Ginzberg trained and self-identified as a folklorist, and many of the articles in the present volume are firmly engaged with folkloristic aspects of the work.

The Introduction by Rebecca Schorsch situates Ginzberg's endeavor, which draws on both nationalist and anthologizing impulses with the aim of revitalizing the religious and spiritual life of Jewish Americans. Ginzberg's work is hybrid in nature, presenting both narratives and scholarly annotations which trace the sources used in the storytelling parts. The duality of Ginzberg's work mirrors his personal history: a descendant of the Vilna Ga'on. Ginzberg was considered a child prodigy and received traditional Jewish education before choosing to pursue Western-style education. Various articles in the volume remark upon the hybrid nature of Ginzberg's work, and on his position between these two worlds.

David Golinkin's "The Legends of the Jews in the eyes of Louis Ginzberg and in the Eyes of Others" contextualizes Legends by exploring the history of its composition and reception, as well as Ginzberg's reflections on his work. Golinkin demonstrates that Ginzberg, while valuing Legends, considered his commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud to be his greatest accomplishment. Golinkin makes interesting conjectures as to why Ginzberg preferred this work, examining him as a scholar rooted in both worlds of traditional Jewish learning and Western academy: the commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud was geared toward Talmudic scholars, was written in Hebrew, and dealt with Talmud and Halacha (Jewish law), thus connecting Ginzberg to his ancestor, the Vilna Ga'on.

Hillel I. Newman's "Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, and the Church Fathers" addresses the importance of the study of Christianity in Ginzberg's work. As a student in Strasbourg and then in Heidelberg, Ginzberg studied the aggadah in the works of the Church Fathers. His dissertation on this topic was later published in two books and four articles. Newman discusses overlaps between these publications and Ginzberg's notes to Legends, showing Ginzberg's deep familiarity with patristic literature, which he used as a source for the midrash / aggadah material included in Legends.

Daniel Boyarin's "An Unimagined Community: Against the Legends of the Jews" situates Ginzberg's Legends alongside other 19th / 20th-century projects which aimed to produce national folk epic-like texts to position the Jews within the tenets of nationalism. Critiquing Ginzberg (or rather, the nationalist-folkloric enterprise as a whole), Boyarin proposes an alternative model to consider "the relations between the so-called folk and high literatures, and... the relation between Jewish and other literatures" (67). Boyarin draws on the concept of ecotypification to propose a vision of a multicultural, folkloric milieu within which the transmission of texts blurs the boundaries of high and low, Jewish and non-Jewish. …

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