The Walls of Jerusalem: An Excursion Into Jewish History.
by Chaim Raphael.
Knopf. 230 pp. $6.95.
Chaim Raphael, it might almost be said, has invented a new genre of historical writing. Taking the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. as the great traumatic experience of Jewish history, and the haunting of the Jewish imagination by that destruction as the most conspicuous thread that runs through all subsequent Jewish life and thought, he has explored his theme through a discursive commentary on the Midrash on Lamentations. The biblical Book of Lamentations is a threnody on the destruction of Jerusalem; the Midrash on Lamentations, in Mr. Raphael's words, “reflects the memories, perplexities, and dreams that the rabbis—mostly of the second and third centuries of the Christian era—centered on this awesome event, giving their minds free rein as they sat discussing the Bible in synagogues and study rooms, at weddings and funerals, or indeed anywhere and on any occasion, private or public, which lent itself to discourse or simple conversation.” Mr. Raphael's book is thus cast in a characteristically rabbinical form—a commentary on a commentary. But the nature of his commentary is quite untraditional.
The introductory section tells the story of his own involvement with the Midrash on Lamentations, in an engaging free-associational manner that combines autobiography with a great range of illustrative references from Shakespeare to Saul Bellow, from Judah Halevi to William Carlos Williams, from the siege of Masada to the Battle of Britain. (Sometimes his genial ease of reference leads him into error: he talks of the significance of the battle of Culloden for the Scots when clearly he means the battle of Flodden.) Here we recognize the Raphael of Memoirs of a Special Case, which first showed his ability to give autobiography a dimension of cultural history. It is, incidentally, interesting to compare this kind of history-through-autobiography with the kind represented by Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City and Starting Out in the Thirties. Kazin is involved with his generation in America, Raphael with the history and imagination of the Jewish people. Not that Raphael refrains from using material from his own childhood and youth in England and from his long stay in America: but for him the present is conditioned and colored and flavored by a past which stretches back unbroken to biblical times, while Kazin is (in a wholly honorable way) much more self-centered, concerned with his own life as illustrating his own times and with his own times as illustrating his own life.
The book of Lamentations refers to the first destruction of Jerusalem, by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. It gives little or no historical detail, painting in somber poetry a tragic picture of mourning and desolation. But the rabbis interpreted it to refer to both destructions, the history of the second of which we know in much greater detail—detail which, while not known to the rabbis from historical sources, was available to them through folk memory and the folk imagination, often in distorted, embroidered, or symbolic form. In his second section Mr. Raphael explains the relationship between history and imagination in the rabbinical mind by the way in which he paints in the historical background, especially the story of the Roman conquest and the final revolt of Bar Kokhbah. He weaves together his account of the historical facts and his explanation of how they were to appear to the Jewish mind in retrospect, using historical works from Josephus to modern scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls and a great variety of talmudic and midrashic material. This is a wholly successful chapter, in which Mr. Raphael performs the feat of simultaneously separating historical fact from later fanciful intepretation of it and demonstrating how history itself determined the nature of that later fanciful intepretation. Throughout two thousand years, the Jews were the prisoners of history in a way hard to parallel among other peoples, and this was because they constructed the prison themselves by the way they interpreted their own past.
The third section (which concludes the first part of the book) is essentially a history of the development of midrashic activity with some account of the environment out of which it arose. Whether a satisfactory picture of the nature, sources, and growth of this extraordinary mixture of folklore, homily, anecdote, ethical discourse, historical chat, biographical reminiscence, and textual explication by the use of every conceivable kind of parallel, analogy, punning, letter counting, and intellectual gymnastics ranging from the puerile to the downright fantastic, can be provided in just over thirty pages is doubtful. Certainly, the reader who has not a prior interest in the subject might well find this section, with its thickening footnotes, rather heavy going. Mr. Raphael has not quite found a way here of integrating his knowledge and insights into a rich yet free-flowing narrative, independent of scholarly interruptions and exceptions. Perhaps this is an impossible ideal, but it is a pity that a writer as attractive and lively as Mr. Raphael should in this part of his book occasionally sound like a Ph.D. candidate.
The second part of the book consists of passages from the Midrash on Lamentations “arranged under subjects, to echo the historical story,” in Mr. Raphael's own translation. It is divided into six sections; the first collecting passages on such topics as “How angry was God?” and (in Mr. Raphael's subheading) “Why Does Everybody Hate Us So?”; the second assembling passages relating to earlier biblical history (King David, Nebuchadnezzar, the part played by the archangels in the first destruction of Jerusalem); the third a scrap-book of passages of nostalgic folk memories of life in Jerusalem before the Roman destruction; the fourth about the Roman destruction itself; the fifth about Bar Kokhbah's revolt; and the sixth and last, entitled “Life Goes On,” showing the adjustment to a life of endless waiting in endless hope for the Restoration. Each section has an introduction in which Mr. Raphael chats pleasantly and often wittily about the kind of imagination at work in the passages that follow.
What are we to make of the Midrash? It reveals a mental world very foreign indeed to that inhabited by most modern readers. Its assumption that the whole text of the Hebrew Bible exists simultaneously and contemporaneously as a unified work in which any passage of any date and by any author can be used to explain or amplify any other passage would be outrageous to modern scholars. Its habit of illustrating something simple by something complicated, as when a rabbi explains a simple and moving outburst of grief in Lamentations with parallels from the prophets, anecdotes about God, or stories about a king who gave a party or dismissed his wife or took up his infant son who dirtied his pants so that the king hastily put him down again—all this, we sometimes feel, positively destroys the moving eloquence of the book that is being “explained.” Or again, the positively obsessive concern with the destruction of Jerusalem as a punishment, involving searching out and cataloguing with masochistic relish the abominations practiced by the Jews before God let Himself be provoked sufficiently not only to allow, but positively to plan, the destruction of His City and His Temple—this may seem ethically offensive, and surprising, too, in the light of the protest made in the Book of Job against the view that suffering implies prior sin. Mr. Raphael's comments always pick out and emphasize the human elements, the analogies with modern Jewish jokes or with life in occupied France in 1940. He cocks a quizzical yet sympathetic eye at this extraordinary gallimaufry. After all, it is a profound part of the Jewish reaction to tragedy. The resilience is there as well as the self-condemnation. Rabbi Akiba will laugh aloud, while his companions weep, at some gruesome and specific evidence of the destruction, because for him it is a guarantee that if the prophecy of destruction was fulfilled so will the prophecy of restoration eventually be also. A rabbi tells a story about a king who married a woman and refused to let her have any contact with her neighbors: when her neighbors turned against her as a result, the woman said to the king that it was all his fault for if he had not insisted on her behaving so standoffishly she would not have made enemies. It's the same with Israel, the rabbi goes on: God insisted on their keeping themselves separate, so it's God's fault if their neighbors treat them cruelly. “Surely—thou hast done it!”the rabbi says to God, concluding his interpretation of the phrase “that thou hast done it” in Lamentations 1:21. There is grief, and self-reproach, and a pervasive nostalgia for a lost glory; but there is also a humorous or indignant familiarity with God which surprises not only by its tone but by its rank anthropomorphism. The God of the Midrash is indeed remarkably human.
In a sense it could be argued that the Midrash, like rabbinic commentary generally, destroys the Bible by its combination of literalism and unhistorical license. The rabbis saw the Bible as an inexhaustible quarry from which a dedicated hewer could hew almost anything. They were as opposed as Professor Wimsatt to the “intentional fallacy”—but for very different reasons. Not for them any investigation into what a biblical author meant when he uttered certain words. The question was, What did God mean by arranging to have these words set down, alongside all the others, in His holy book? It can all be very exasperating, yet it is fascinating too. And if we read it with Mr. Raphael looking over our shoulder to show us what to look for, we see in it something desperately, touchingly, sometimes almost unbearably human. I have observed that the God of the Midrash is remarkably human. So are the Jews of the Midrash. And we know that Jews in general are human like other people, only more so. Perhaps it is that “more so” that accounts for everything, not only the Midrash but also Jewish history.