Story Master from Ashkenaz

By Moshe Simon-Shoshan
Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Today, the use of literary theory and criticism to study Midrash and Aggadah—non-legal and interpretive rabbinic literature—is a well-established and even popular endeavor.  Each year sees the publication of numerous books and articles seeking to understand rabbinic texts as literary and cultural artifacts and many more academic, religious, and popular courses and lectures on similar themes.  But this was not the case when the young Talmud teacher Jonah Fraenkel first entered Hebrew University in the mid-1950s.  In those days, the study of Midrash and Aggadah belonged to historians and philologists.  No one thought these texts should be viewed through the same lens used to understand Shakespeare or Dostoevsky.

Jonah FraenkelPerhaps more than any other individual, Jonah Fraenkel, the Hebrew literature professor and Israel Prize laureate who died last week at the age of 84, was the moving force behind this dramatic shift in the study of Midrash and Aggadah in the academy and the broader Jewish culture.  With the 1991 publication of his magnum opus, the two-volume Darkhei Ha-Aggadah VeHa-Midrash (The Ways of the Midrash and the Aggadah), an encyclopedic guide to the study of these texts, Fraenkel established himself as master of all their forms and genres.  Fraenkel made his greatest impact, however, through more than  three decades of studies culminating in his Sippurei Ha-Agaddah—Ahdut shel Tokhen ve-Zurah (The Aggadic Narrative—Harmony of Form and Content), focusing on the single genre of “rabbinic sage” stories, which record the deeds and lives of the Tannaim and Amoraim—the rabbis whose teachings make up the Talmud.

In the 19th century scholars saw these stories as sources of historical information.  They believed that if they could clear away the layers of distortion and interpolation that had been added over the years, the stories would provide a front row seat at many events in the rabbis’ lives and allow scholars to reconstruct the history of the rabbinic movement as a whole.  Frankel completely rejected this idea.  He argued that the stories must first and foremost be treated as literary works.  Moreover, the tools needed to analyze the texts lay in the theories and methods developed and practiced in academic departments of literature.  

Fraenkel developed a method of formal analysis and “close reading” akin to the practices of the New Critics whose methods dominated the Anglo-American critical scene in the mid-20th century.  For Fraenkel as for the New Critics, the literary text is a closed hermeneutic structure in which artistic form and ideological content are inexorably intertwined.  Fraenkel showed that the “sage” stories were not artless anecdotes but miniature works of narrative art that deserved the same careful attention often lavished on more extended stories.  He particularly emphasized the way in which the rabbinic storytellers infused their works with irony and paradox in order to shed light on the fraught nature of interpersonal relations and the human condition itself.

Fraenkel was born in Munich in 1928 to an Orthodox family in the best German tradition of Torah im Derekh Eretz.  He grew up immersed in the study and practice of both Torah and the best of Western culture and scholarship.  In 1937, when Fraenkel was nine, his family fled the impending Nazi doom and moved to Palestine.  Fraenkel attended Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriah’s yeshiva at Kfar Haroeh, the progenitor of Religious Zionist yeshivot in Israel today. There he studied Talmud with Rabbi Yitzhak Gilat, who would become a leading scholar of halakhic history at Bar Ilan University.

Fraenkel’s roots in the world of cultured German Orthodoxy informed much of his life, scholarship, and teaching.  He was a consummate Yekke, insistent on punctuality, decorum, and abiding by the rules.  More importantly, he held himself and his students to the highest possible standards. It was not always easy or pleasant to be Fraenkel’s student.

For Fraenkel there was no distinction between academic work and engagement in Talmud Torah: His scholarship was both an act of religious devotion and a search for the truth as he defined it.  In his readings of the Talmud, the Tannaim and Amoraim were, like Fraenkel himself, non-mystical and focused on matters of ethics and interpersonal relations.  In particular Fraenkel was skilled at drawing out the educational themes in rabbinic stories, arguing that many stories concerned the teacher-student relationship.  Fraenkel was himself a consummate teacher; over the course of his long career he taught every level of student, from elementary school children to doctoral candidates. 

Fraenkel’s commitment to the lost heritage of his childhood was even more pronounced in his academic studies dealing with the culture of Ashkenaz, the Jewish community that arose in the Rhine valley and lasted a millennium until it was obliterated by the Nazis.  Fraenkel’s first book, based on his dissertation, was a monumental study of the methodology of Rashi, the greatest scholar ever produced by the yeshivot of western Germany.  Fraenkel also devoted considerable energy, especially toward the end of his career, to the study of Ashkenazic liturgy and piyyut (liturgical poetry).  After the death his father-in-law, Daniel Goldshmidt, the great scholar of liturgy and a fellow product of Germany’s enlightened Orthodox community, Fraenkel continued Goldschmidt’s project of creating critical editions of Makhzorim for festivals, motivated both by his commitment to his father-in-law and to the collective history of Ashkenaz, of which he was among the last remnants.

Fraenkel also had a progressive side to him.  He was an early and enthusiastic adopter of Macintosh computers in an Israel that is still heavily dominated by Windows.  More significantly, he was a strong proponent of teaching Talmud to women and girls.  He personally his trained his daughters in Talmud just as he did his sons.  After the death of his wife Chava, he created a women’s Gemara class in her memory.

By the time I arrived at Hebrew University to study with Fraenkel in the early 1990s, his rationalism and formalism had begun to look quaint.  Yet it was around this time that his work began to have perhaps its greatest impact.  A younger generation of scholars, such as Daniel Boyarin and, later, Jeffery Rubenstein, began to integrate Fraenkel’s insights into new and different approaches.  Thus, Fraenkel’s work assumed a place in the next generation of scholarship.  

Fraenkel himself remained steadfast in his commitment to formalist, ahistorical readings.  However, my sense is that Fraenkel well understood that as a teacher, his job was to help students reach a stage at which they could develop ideas and approaches of their own.  If only we, his students, could be blessed with his unstinting commitment to Torah, scholarship, and the pursuit of truth, which for him, of course, were all one and the same.

Moshe Simon-Shoshan teaches rabbinic literature and biblical interpretation at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. He is the author of Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah.


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