October 9th, 2013
Review of Dina Stein, Textual Mirrors: Reflexivity, Midrash and the Rabbinic Self. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 216 pages. $79.95
By Lynn Kaye
Dina Stein’s book argues that the dominant discourse of the rabbis, midrash, reflects and constitutes an imagined rabbinic self. This self, and the distinctiveness of midrash, can best be uncovered through analysis of aberrant genres, such as riddles and tall tales, as well as examinations of “reflective figures” or “possible selves” portrayed in midrash, whether in the figures of women, gentiles or Nazirites. These genres and figures, through their difference from the midrash and rabbis, provide the distance necessary to gain perspective on the norm. As she writes of Rabbi Judah Hanasi’s maidservant, she “is an other within, an other who is recognized as being seated at the heart of its being…this stranger within plants seeds of ambiguity” (117). Stein later concludes that these seeds of ambiguity are constitutive of the rabbinic self.
Textual Mirrors is a revisiting of topics that the author originally tackled as individual articles. In hindsight, Stein realized that, together, the articles have something larger to say about midrash. The chapters include references to one another and she adds an introduction and epilogue which describe her theoretical framework of self-reflectivity/reflexivity (Stein defines self-reflectivity as moments of people seeing themselves, while self-reflexivity describes a text referring to itself, but she uses both to refer to ways that the rabbinic self and cultural identities are created by rabbinic texts). While it is clear, especially after having read the epilogue, how the themes explored in each chapter address the topic of self-reflectivity in midrash, I think some of the material in the epilogue might have been helpful to include in the individual chapters themselves, guiding the reader more explicitly in the building of Stein’s case.
What characterizes this rabbinic self, reflected in midrash? It is the tendency to question the underlying foundations of that self, and to tolerate ambiguity and destabilization. Comparing midrash to Walter Benjamin’s observation about how a ruined structure both testifies to a presence and to an absence, Stein closes the book with this:
“it is the self-reflexivity, embedded in the ruin and in the midrash alike, that renders both the image and the rabbinic discourse a powerful, and ultimately vital, cultural force. The power of the midrash as the rabbinic discourse par excellence, one that I consequently identify as the rabbinic self, is derived not only from its ability to grant scripture relevant meaning in the belated rabbinic era. The power of midrash derives, almost paradoxically, from its self-reflective quality, from its capacity to call into question and reflect on the underlying principles – textual, religious and ideological – through which it is constituted.” (124)
In other words, it is Stein’s contention that “self-reflectivity,” which applies to a person’s or character’s self-reflection (“where a person becomes the object of his or her own gaze”) and “self-reflexivity,” which applies to language or texts’ self-reference or self-awareness, are constitutive parts of what makes midrash distinctive and powerful. For this reason, the book’s introduction gives the reader a survey of these concepts and their place in contemporary critical theory. Stein argues that midrash is a particularly self-reflexive genre because of its overt weaving of different sources, that is, its intertextuality, as well as its occupation with language play (4).
The chapters’ text studies are rich in contextual detail, deeply insightful, alive to the thematic connectors within a story and enhanced by introductions of theoretical constructs. In each chapter the author presents a midrash (either classical or late) and gives the reader theoretical background on genre, philosophical and linguistic issues that are raised by it. For example, in the second chapter, Stein explains how a riddle works to question accepted categories, as it “establishes an identity between categories that are usually opposed or distinct from each other. Thus, the riddle shows users of the language that these classifications, insofar that they are reflected in language, are not unassailable…the riddle implies that cultural classifications are arbitrary” (38). This is aptly put, and reflective of the sorts of theoretical observations that occur throughout the book. In the course of a chapter she also expands on what she calls the “co-texts,” the building blocks of a story or possible allusions that are embedded in the narrative, as well as broader contextual detail of the text’s contemporary world. Her close-readings of the midrashim are comprehensive and illuminating, with bursts of extraordinary and spot-on insight both literary and thematic. Her prose is rich, dense at times, and layered with multiple analytical models and referents.
It is a significant contribution to link the midrashic form to rabbinic identity and the emergence of a rabbinic self. The book prompted me to wonder about this “imagined self,” beyond its self-reflectivity, and whether this self is stable in all contexts or shifts and changes. Perhaps certain aspects, such as the self-reflectivity, remain constant while other attributes are more fleeting. This is work for another book, of course. Presenting the individual studies together as a book is also valuable because it enhances the impact of each; the “possible selves” in each narrative, like the Queen of Sheba or Serach bat Asher, reflect one another, not only the normative rabbinic self, leading to new connections and “intertexts” to explore.