May 19, 2019

‘Midrashic Impulse’ Meets the Holocaust

Theodor Adorno famously insisted that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and Primo Levi introduced his readers to a fellow inmate at Auschwitz who had scratched a similar warning into his tin plate: “Do not seek to understand.” Both of these phrases serve as a stern caution to anyone who writes about the Holocaust.

Both Adorno and Levi are invoked in the pages of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma” by Monica Osborne (Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield). Osborne’s brilliant and important book may carry a sober and scholarly title, but it is both lively and daring. She is willing to enter into an argument with Adorno and Levi, and she suggests that it is possible to understand the inner meanings of the Holocaust, not through history but through art and literature. Remarkably, the key to her argument is the ancient rabbinical technique of biblical exegesis known as midrash.

“[W]e are caught in the twilight between Adorno’s decree and the moral imperative of memory,” Osborne writes. Midrash, as she explains, is “an esthetic loophole that allows artists to avoid running afoul of Adorno’s representational proscription” while, at the same time, serving as “a witness to the trauma of the Holocaust.”

Osborne, a scholar of Jewish studies at Pepperdine University and a contributor to the Jewish Journal, sets out to answer a challenging and daunting proposition: “In an era in which no collective tragedy has been treated as often and as thoroughly as the Holocaust, we continue to generate art and scholarship that explores the darkness of these years,” she writes. “We simply cannot seem to get enough of the Holocaust, and despite the knowledge that there is no answer to the resounding question of ‘why?’ we persist in pursuing one through endless artistic and intellectual explorations.”

The method that she uses to penetrate these mysteries of history is the tool of interpretation known as midrash, the same approach that the ancient rabbis and sages used “to respond to the gaps, ambiguities, inconsistencies, and even what we might call wounds in the biblical text.” Osborne points out that the original practitioners of midrash sought to “deepen” and “fill out” the biblical narrative, and she characterizes the work of contemporary authors — Cynthia Ozick (“Heir to a Glimmering World”), E.L. Doctorow (“City of God”), Ann Michaels (“Fugitive Pieces”) and Dara Horn (“In the Image”), among many others, both Jewish and non-Jewish — as exemplars of novelists and short story writers who have applied the same midrashic techniques to the Holocaust.

Monica Osborne makes a careful distinction between representational and nonrepresentational approaches to writing about the Holocaust.

Osborne makes a careful distinction between representational and nonrepresentational approaches to writing about the Holocaust or, for that matter, any other “collective trauma.” She points out that Ozick’s “Heir to a Glimmering World” embraces “tentativeness and caution” when describing the life of a Holocaust survivor, as an example, because it’s an approach that Osborne calls a “paradoxical impulse both to write about the Holocaust and not to write about the Holocaust.”

Adorno’s caution hangs like a threatening storm cloud over Osborne’s book. One way to understand Adorno’s decree is that one should write about the Holocaust only as history and not as poetry, thus heeding Simon Dubnow’s equally famous call to his fellow victims of Nazi mass murder to “write and record.” Osborne herself acknowledges that “a mythologization of history is dangerous,” and especially when it comes to “collective tragedies and atrocities.” She values hard facts, and she warns against “the dangers of representation” by insisting that any author’s aspiration to write “a complete and authentic story of the Holocaust” is “an illusion.”

To her credit, Osborne notes that the Holocaust is hardly only the catastrophe that defies description or understanding. She invokes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the events of 9/11, and she wonders out loud about what is happening in Syria today. “Will the numerous gruesome images of destroyed Syrian towns and mutilated children’s bodies give us the false assumption that we understand the depth of brutality and loss endured by people about whom we know very little?” she wonders.

Similarly, Osborne points out that “the midrashic impulse” is not confined to Jewish texts or Jewish authors. “I prefer to think of midrash as the most organic way of thinking and of storytelling, and as a mode of thinking that, though not concretely identified anywhere other than in the Jewish tradition, emerges, if subtly and in a manner that is more mystical than philosophical, within cultures and communities that maintain no apparent link to the world of Judaism.”

By way of example, she points out how midrashic thinking “shows up in American Indian culture,” a fact that she does not find surprising. “Notably, the written and oral work of both cultures often grows out of a traumatic past, which always leaves in its wake wounds and silences that must be encountered and read,” she explains. “Indeed we must learn how to bear witness to the trappings of the said in order to bear witness to the transcendence of the saying.”

Osborne is fully aware of her own audacity. “Midrash and contemporary American literature — it seems the unlikeliest of pairs,” she concedes in passing. And yet she makes a convincing case that we can only begin to glimpse the moral enormity of the Holocaust if we look at it obliquely. That is the real power and utility of midrash — “a way of reading, understanding, and responding to the world and its darknesses,” as she puts it.

Indeed, “The Midrashic Impulse” will send the reader back to the original texts just as the earliest efforts at midrash send us back to the Bible. Thanks to Osborne, our second reading will be illuminated by her powerful and radiant insight.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.