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Review of Deborah A. Green, The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature

January 24th, 2013

Review of Deborah A. Green, The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and LiteratureUniversity Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. 304 pp. $69.95.

By Yehudah Cohn

ybc212@nyu.edu

The Hebrew word צרי, often translated as balm, first makes its appearance in the book of Genesis, where Joseph’s brothers encounter a caravan of Ishmaelites carrying it down to Egypt on their camels, along with other aromatic products. Some chapters later their father Jacob also has his sons take a little צרי to Egypt – as part of a gift-package to the powerful man who will turn out to be none other than their long-lost brother Joseph, who had earlier been sold to those same Ishmaelite traders. Much later, in a line that appears in both Talmuds and is repeated in the Jewish prayer book, we are told in an entirely different context that the otherwise mysterious balm bearing the name צרי is “nothing other than the resin that drips from balsam trees”. But despite the apparent put-down the precise identity of צרי is no small matter, as the omission of this or any other ingredient from the recipe for incense burned in the Jerusalem temple, is said in these late-antique sources to be punishable by death. Not the least of the virtues of Deborah A. Green’s book is that it leads the reader to rethink such texts on pleasing scents and their impact, even when, as here, they are beyond her purview.

In her own description, the book “examines rabbinic imagery of fragrance and explores how the ancient rabbis employed aromatic images to propagate their social, theological, and religious claims” (p. 2). In reality however it offers far more, and as a general matter one might say that Green occasionally seems to deliver more than she has led us to expect, to the point where her own summaries of sections of the book actually turn out to be a little confusing.

After a brief introductory chapter Green starts by investigating evidence of all kinds for the use of perfumes and incense in Palestine in the classical rabbinic period, together with an assessment of relevant material remains and literature from the wider Roman culture within which the rabbis were embedded. (Her survey may now be augmented by Catherine Hezser’s book Jewish Travel in Antiquity [Mohr Siebeck, 2011], with its intriguing suggestions of rabbinic involvement in the spice trade.) This second chapter of Green’s book is of the essence, one might say, in laying the groundwork for what follows, and a nice element in the chapter is the inclusion of several figures of vessels used in fragrance consumption in the Roman period. In Chapter 3, entitled “Election and the Erotic,” Green discusses the importance of aroma in the Israelite cult, as well as its use in the imagery of the Hebrew Bible. She highlights the role of perfume and incense in pleasing both humans and God, and usefully breaks down the biblical material into three major sections (Priestly Contexts and Concerns, Erotic Descriptions, and Prophetic Formulations), and numerous sub-sections.

The fourth chapter is entitled “Spicy Ideologies: Fragrance and Rabbinic Beliefs.” Here, and in the following chapter, Green primarily addresses midrashim from Song of Songs Rabbah. The use of aroma-imagery in the Song of Songs itself (discussed in Chapter 3) is compounded in this rabbinic work on the biblical book, making it a particularly suitable text for the author’s purposes, and other midrashim, especially from the earlier Genesis Rabbah, are also presented. The chapter is organized around the four themes of The Garden, The Other (usually female), Rabbinic Values, and Historical Moments (as depicted in the Bible), and here I found the categories to overlap, and consequently to be a little less useful than in Chapter 3. Green shows how the various characteristics of aromas – ephemeral, pleasing, lingering, sensual etc. – are used in rabbinic interpretations to engender the overall messages imparted in the relevant midrashim. The short fifth chapter, “Soothing Odors: Death, Suffering and Sacrifice,” continues in the same vein, with a focus on martyrdom narratives, and a brief concluding chapter on “Ephemerality and Fragrance” rounds out the book.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously remarked that animals are chosen for totems not because they are good to eat (as Bronislaw Malinowski had argued), but rather because they are “good to think with.” Green’s book shows us how the rabbinic authors of the midrashim she discusses, as well as texts of the Bible itself, used aromas in their imagery to think with, and not (merely) because they smell nice.

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