Sunday, May 17, 2009

My UCLA Talk

My UCLA talk ("Literature, the Holocaust, and the Midrashic Impulse") can now be heard online. You can even hear my post-illness smoker's voice. There were lots of lovers and haters in the audience, which is evident in the question/answer session. I never really thought of my work as being so provocative until this talk, but I realize now that typically, people either love or hate what I'm doing.

One female scholar of Rabbinic Midrash (who I actually respect and admire quite a bit) told me I should abandon the idea of midrash altogether. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that it will be very difficult to persuade some people to accept the use of a sacred term ("midrash") outside of its sacred context. I don't aree with this woman, but it's certainly something to think about.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Discovering Agnon and his Doubters and Skeptics

I was recently introduced to the writer S.Y. Agnon by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who also gave a talk last night, which I attended. Agnon has been on my "need to read" list for a few years now, but I kept pushing him back onto the shelves. I've only read a couple of his stories so far, but I'm hooked--he's compelling on so many different levels.

As Rabbi Bouskila suggested, while Agnon's work utilizes the language of the Talmud and Midrash, he explores something that is radically missing from these sacred texts: emotional states of being, and the ambivalence of emotion that often characterizes the authentic human experience. To be anchored in one world, but long for another is a theme dutifully explored by Agnon.

A number of Agnon's stories--including "Fable of the Goat," which we read at the talk last night--play with Talmudic stories, flipping them upside-down and intricately re-telling them in the context of modern/postmodern questions and quandries. And I suppose this is the primary reason I find Agnon so compelling. His grappling with the sacred texts shows (in my reading) his love for them, even if he feels the need to respond to them with literary re-inventions of his own. Rabbi Bouskila called one story a midrash on a prior Talmudic tale--I think he's right.

And here's something I love. In Afar Eretz Yisrael, Agnon writes: "The doubters and skeptics, and all who are suspicious of things--they are the only people of truth, because they see the world as it is." The "truth" is not typically black and white, as I was taught to believe. Truth is always already subject to scrutiny and interrogation, or it is not truth. And it must be so, if only that we might never fall into the trap of thinking that truth does not evolve along with us.

It reminds me of something E. L. Doctorow once said, and to which I return again and again, even on this blog: "True faith cannot answer the intellect with a patronizing smile."