Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer

Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality

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Katharina E. Keim
Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity
  • Boston, MA: 
    Brill
    , November
     2016.
     264 pages.
     $132.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9789004333116.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Katharina Keim’s Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer: Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality is the latest in a line of monographs dealing with Pirqe deRabbi Eliezer (PRE), the enigmatic 8th or 9th century Palestinian Midrash. The book, a revision of Keim’s 2014 doctoral dissertation supervised by Philip Alexander and Renate Smithuis, distinguishes itself from previous scholarship by focusing on the structural and formal aspects of PRE. Attempting to improve on the scholarship relating to these basic questions, Keim sets out to “apply a more rigorous, descriptive text linguistic approach” to the text (2). What emerges is an attentive foray into, as the book’s title suggests, questions of PRE’s structure, coherence, and intertextual engagement with other texts. 

The book consists of five chapters. Following a discussion of previous scholarship in chapter 1, chapter 2 deals with background issues such as provenance and dating, and largely affirms the scholarly consensus that views PRE as a product of the early Islamic period (late 8th to early 9th century CE) in Palestine. 

Chapters 3 and 4, what Keim calls the “heart” of the work, deal with text-linguistic matters of PRE and its “intertextual” relationships with other works, respectively. By “text-linguistic” Keim appears to means how the text functions as a whole. A particular highlight is Keim’s discussion of PRE’s internal coherence (69-140). Here, Keim shows how certain forms, features, and themes appear throughout the text, and that the text is largely a coherent whole. These findings, once more, support the scholarly consensus that PRE was likely the product of a single hand. Additionally, in her chapter on intertextuality, Keim shows that PRE demonstrates numerous correspondences with texts and cultures, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from its time and from earlier periods. 

In providing a study of PRE concentrating on these issues, Keim has done the field a service. Indeed, the book is useful as a reference guide to PRE and contains many helpful charts and tables. In particular, Keim’s sections on the manuscripts of PRE (17-23), its reception within traditional Jewish circles (30-33), and the contents of PRE (37-40) is superior to any other work done. The appendices in the back (205-215) are also quite helpful.

At times, the work feels somewhat isolated from broader discussions within the academic study of rabbinic literature. Her discussion of “intertextuality,” for example, differs strongly from how the term has been employed in midrashic studies. Keim uses it to discuss PRE’s relationship with other texts, not in line with its usual application, as used by Daniel Boyarin (Intertexuality and the Reading of Midrash, Indiana University Press, 1990) and others, to show how Midrashim read texts through the medium of other texts. 

At other points, Keim’s interpretations of familiar phrases from rabbinic literature are idiosyncratic. Thus, in commenting on a passage from PRE chapter 3 that seems to evoke Genesis Rabbah 1:1, she writes that this awareness was given away by “the unusual formula mashelu mashal, ‘they told a parable’” (155). Genesis Rabbah is deemed the most “economical” answer as to where this parable was told, and thus we can deduce this relationship. There is widespread agreement that PRE knew Genesis Rabbah, but the use of that formula is hardly unusual, or, indeed, probative. The phrase “mashelu mashal” or, more specifically, “mashelu mashal l’ma hadavar domeh” occurs many dozens of times in earlier rabbinic texts, and cannot serve as evidence that PRE drew on this passage. 

Additionally, an idea found throughout the book is that PRE was intended by the author to be the “discourse” given by Rabbi Eliezer in the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai. The opening chapters of PRE describe Eliezer giving a discourse, the contents of which are not given. Thus, Keim writes, “the substance of PRE is apparently presented as the substance of that discourse” (48, also at 29, 57, 68, 145, 148, etc.). Elsewhere, Keim claims that the contents of this discourse “are not disclosed elsewhere in Rabbinic literature” (29). However, in the version of Eliezer ben Hyracanus’s origin story found in Genesis Rabbah (42:1, ed. Theodor-Albeck, 398), the contents of Eliezer’s discourse are in fact given. Similarly, Keim claims that the “pataḥ” in the phrase “Rabbi Eliezer pataḥ” that opens the third chapter of PRE “is used in a late sense of opened a discourse rather than in the earlier technical sense of ‘delivered a petiḥah’” (48). This claim would be stronger had Keim engaged Paul Mandel (“`Al 'pataḥ' ve`al ha-petiḥah: `iyun ḥadash,” in Higayon le-Yonah, Magnes Press, 2006) and Burton Visotsky’s (“The Misnomers "Petihah" and "Homiletic Midrash" as Descriptions for Leviticus Rabbah and Pesikta De-Rav Kahana,” JSQ 18, 2011) recent scholarship that has indicated that the phrase “Rabbi X pataḥ” should best be understood as “Rabbi X explicated such-and-such verse.” It is worth noting that this usage would make sense for both uses of that verb in this context in PRE.

In sum, Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer: Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality is useful as a reference guide for the scholar looking at questions of PRE as a whole. Despite the wave of recent critical attention, PRE, like most Midrashim from the end of the first millennium, remains understudied and Keim's volume helps to fill this gap.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua A. Blachorsky is a doctoral student in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
July 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katharina E. Keim is British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute at the same university. She has published articles on Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer s cosmology and literary forms."

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