Mythopoetic Imagination and the Hermeneutic Bridging of Temporal Spacing: On Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking

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but always as bound forms—bound to a given genre or occasion or citation from Scripture’’ (p. 308). The ‘‘motor that makes the many myths of Scripture manifest’’ is identified as exegesis, for the interpretive gesture ‘‘extends and transforms older motifs . . . In ever artful ways, new myths and narratives are produced; and in ever creative ways, the resources of tradition (Scripture, Midrash, and Kabbalah) are integrated and projected into transcendental domains’’ (p. 305). It follows, therefore, that the ‘‘exegetical bond between Scripture and myth,’’ which comes to light in the homiletical dicta of the rabbis and the theosophic ruminations of the kabbalists, ‘‘implies that this canonical source conceals a deeper dimension about the acts and nature of God, and thus the language of the readable text is but the surface of another narrative about divine deeds or divine feelings hidden from immediate view. To know how to read rightly is thus to know that the historical character of Scripture is but the verbal outcropping of another narrative—not an account of Israel but of God, and not of the events of the earth but of the hidden acts of the Lord in heaven’’ (pp. 308–09). In Fishbane’s reconstruction of the exegetical trajectory, there is a crucial difference between the rabbis and kabbalists: the former considered Scripture to be the ‘‘measure of myth,’’ whereas the latter, and especially the Castilian circle responsible for the zoharic anthology, maintained that ‘‘Scripture is itself the myth of God.’’ Alternatively expressed, the aggadic explication of Scripture on the part of the rabbis was inspired by the hope of finding ‘‘exegetical proof or warrant for God’s sorrows and sympathies, and for His decision to share in the fate of Israel.’’ To be sure, the kabbalists shared this goal as well, but they went beyond it as their ‘‘ceaseless scriptural exegesis and interpretation of its mysteries’’ constituted ‘‘a mode of mythical living, for there is no separation between living the truth of Scripture and living within the truth of God . . . Scripture suffuses all; for it is the real myth of God, insofar as this is ever or at all sayable in human speech or accessible to the human imagination. God’s truth is refracted in fragments of myth bound by the syntax of Scripture’’ (p. 309). It is not always clear that this distinction can be upheld, and I think it fair to say that Fishbane himself is not unaware of the point of convergence. Indeed, one of the most important ramifications of Fishbane’s study is the narrowing of the alleged gap between midrashic and kabbalistic perspectives. The boldness of the zoharic exegesis notwithstanding, the close readings of midrashic texts offered by Fishbane demonstrate the inherent mythopoeic properties of rabbinic theology, and thus his corrective to previous scholars who have insisted that mythopoeic images employed by the rabbis are merely metaphors or figurative MYTHOPOEIC IMAGINATION—WOLFSON 235 tropes sapped of their mythic vitality. Medieval kabbalists revised the earlier material, but there is good reason to accept their claim that they were explicating secrets embedded in the aggadic dicta. A crucial aspect of Fishbane’s study, indeed a notional pillar upon which the whole edifice rests, although it is not thematized as such, involves the intricate relation between time and hermeneutics. In the remainder of this brief note, I wish to delve more deeply into this matter. Underlying the emphasis on exegesis as the power that energizes and revives older myths is a presumption regarding the dialectic interplay of innovation and preservation, hermeneutical conditions that are correlated with the temporal categories of change and repetition. In one passage, Fishbane addresses the issue by noting that the ‘‘real cultural issue at hand’’ is determining whether or not the mythopoeic activity exemplified in medieval Kabbalah—‘‘a protean exegetical energy that turns biblical verses in every conceivable direction in order to reveal their esoteric truth’’—is ‘‘a new birth or a rebirth of older processes?; and, Is this the return or invasion of alien pagan elements, or the recrudescence and reformulation of inner-Jewish images and topics?’’ (p. 10). The response to these hypothetical questions is unequivocal on Fishbane’s part: the preponderance of myth in kabbalistic doctrine is not a new birth but a rebirth, the mythmaking is not the grafting of some foreign element onto the body of Judaism but a recrudescence, a revivification of creative elements that lay dormant beneath the surface. To appreciate the full force of these claims, we must again raise the issue of time in relation to the hermeneutical presuppositions of Fishbane’s argument. I do not think it disrespectful to say that the book would have been enhanced philosophically had the author offered the reader a sustained discussion of this topic, but even in the absence of such a discussion there is surely enough material to allow the conscientious reader to elicit the conception of temporality that undergirds Fishbane’s hermeneutical orientation. The persistence of mythic structures through time is assumed, but in such a way that they are renewed by exegetical concerns that ensue from the exigencies of particular moments in history. Thus, in one passage, Fishbane writes of the ‘‘anthropomorphic and anthropopathic imagery of Scripture’’ that ‘‘was variously developed and intensified by its midrashic and kabbalistic inheritors, who also received the mythic figures of antiquity and extended them through bold and innovative exegetical strategies’’ (p. 11). Eschewing an approach to myth that would ignore specific historical contexts and cultural locations in favor of atemporal archetypical paradigms