Jewish Studies Rabbinic Exegesis (Midrash) and Literary Theory
Samuel Catlin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0226


In the early 1980s, the academic study of rabbinic exegetical literature—chiefly midrash and some talmudic texts—underwent a drastic shift as a direct result of the field’s exposure to structuralist and poststructuralist literary theory. A generation of rabbinicists challenged the hegemony of philological methods in their field, producing a number of publications that treated rabbinic literature qua literature by applying new methods drawn from literary studies. Around the same time, a small group of mostly American literary theorists became interested in the same rabbinic corpora, which they regarded either as analogous to or historically related to their own literary theories. The result was an exemplary instance of interdisciplinary encounter at a moment in American academic history when interdisciplinarity, enabled by the phenomenal ascendancy of “theory,” was at the vanguard of humanities research. This “midrash-theory connection,” as it was retrospectively named by David Stern, was temporarily solidified by a major two-year research symposium convening scholars from American, Israeli, and French institutions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. However, despite the initial burst of excitement from both Jewish studies and literary studies about the midrash-theory connection, it was marked early on by persistent and serious methodological and thematic differences between rabbinics and literary theory. Namely, rabbinicists tended to regard literary theory as instrumental, a means to the end of better understanding rabbinic texts and hermeneutics using the most up-to-date methods, whereas literary theorists were more invested in articulating similarities and continuities between midrash and “theory.” Consequently, by the mid-1990s, publication at the intersection of rabbinics and literary theory declined significantly, with literarily-inclined rabbinicists turning toward the methods of “the New Historicism,” cultural studies, and gender and sexuality studies, while literary critics moved on from the poststructuralist “theory” popularized in the 1970s–80s and, with it, the rabbinic texts to which “theory” had been linked. To review the midrash-theory connection bibliographically is thus not only to consider the major publications resulting from this interdisciplinary encounter as scholarly accounts of their respective objects (rabbinic literature and literary theory), but also to consider these publications as illustrating the historical rise and decline of the encounter itself. Note that, because of the peculiarly American milieu in which the midrash-theory connection took place—see the section Historical Overviews—the majority of sources in this bibliography are in English; a bibliography tracking related interdisciplinary intersections in, e.g., Modern Hebrew- or French-language scholarship would look rather different.

Historical Overviews

The following works treat two historical phenomena: (1) the rise of literary theory (or just “theory”) in the United States, partly due to local factors and partly due to transatlantic intellectual transmission from French philosophers; and (2) the development of the academic study of midrash, the primary rabbinic object of the interdisciplinary encounter between literary theory and rabbinics. Cusset 2008, Carton 2004, Jones-Katz 2021, and Redfield 2016 are recommended for readers unfamiliar with the intellectual history of “theory”; Teugels 2000, for readers unfamiliar with the history of the academic study of midrash. Stern 1996 offers a concise historical discussion of the midrash-theory connection itself, as described by one of the major participants. On rabbinic literature and midrash more generally, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles “Rabbinic Literature” and “Midrash.”

  • Carton, Evan. “The Holocaust, French Poststructuralism, the American Literary Academy, and Jewish Identity Poetics.” In Historicizing Theory. Edited by Peter C. Herman, 17–48. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

    Carton’s essay, included in a valuable edited volume of intellectual-historical essays on the “theory” phenomenon, charts the relationship between the figure of “the Jew” in post-Holocaust French philosophy and the “Yale School” of literary theory (especially Geoffrey H. Hartman and Harold Bloom). Carton does not treat the midrash-theory connection per se, but he helpfully describes the intellectual context that allowed the connection to take place in the 1980s.

  • Cusset, François. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Translated by Jeff Fort, et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

    Originally published as French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis (2003). Cusset offers a French perspective on the phenomenon of “theory” in the American academy from the 1960s through the “Sokal Affair” of 1996, emphasizing how the mediation of French philosophy by literature departments (and, pointedly, not philosophy departments) determined its reception and in some cases significantly distorted it.

  • Freer, Alexander. “Faith in Reading: Revisiting the Midrash-Theory Connection.” Paragraph 39.3 (2016): 335–357.

    DOI: 10.3366/para.2016.0205

    The most recent academic article on the midrash-theory connection, and the only one—unlike, e.g., Stern 1996—not written by a participant in the connection. Freer frames the connection in light of 21st-century hermeneutical debates over the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (see Ricoeur 1970, cited under Literary Theory). He suggests that one important lesson of the midrash-theory connection is its promise of other interpretative goals than simply being “right” (see also Hartman 1985, cited under Geoffrey H. Hartman).

  • Jones-Katz, Gregory. Deconstruction: An American Institution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226536194.001.0001

    Unlike Cusset 2008 and Carton 2004, Jones-Katz’s intellectual history deemphasizes the transatlantic itinerary of deconstruction in order to focus on the local social, political, economic, cultural, and institutional factors that made “theory” possible at American universities in the 1970s. The chapter on feminism (pp. 190–237), especially, offers a much-needed corrective to earlier accounts. The most historically thorough account of “theory,” and a recommended entry point for newcomers.

  • Leonard, Miriam. Socrates and the Jews: Hellenism and Hebraism from Moses Mendelssohn to Sigmund Freud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226472492.001.0001

    An intellectual-historical study tracking the trope of the Hellenic/Hebraic dyad from the German Enlightenment through the early twentieth century, Leonard’s book helpfully reconstructs the assumptions about Jews and Judaism which persist in the uptake of midrash by literary theorists in the 1980s. Authors discussed include Mendelssohn, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Strauss, Renan, Arnold, Nietzsche, and Freud. See also the section Hellenism and Hebraism.

  • Redfield, Marc. Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.

    Less an intellectual history than a deconstructive philology of the signifier “theory,” Redfield’s monograph explores the emergence, circulation, inflation, fetishization, and mediatization of this signifier in the academic press as well as in the American mass media. He pays special attention to the linking of “theory” with the so-called “Yale School.” Because Redfield’s own idiom is heavily indebted to deconstruction, his book is not ideal for those seeking an introductory account.

  • Stern, David. Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

    The introduction (pp. 1–14) to Midrash and Theory comprises a thoughtful reflection on the “midrash-theory connection,” as Stern terms it (p. 1), from the perspective of rabbinics. Stern narrates the shifts in Jewish studies that motivated his own interest in theory and explains the disagreements that prevented literary theorists and rabbinicists from finding common ground. As Jones-Katz 2021 with does deconstruction, Stern emphasizes the specifically American context of the midrash-theory connection.

  • Teugels, Lieve M. “Two Centuries of Midrash Study: A Survey of Some Standard Works on Rabbinic Midrash and Its Methods.” Nederland Theologisch Tijdschrift 54 (2000): 125–144.

    Teugels’s survey is a lucid and insightful introduction to some major works on midrash from the days of the Wissenschaft des Judentums through the 1990s. It will be especially helpful to those outside the field of rabbinics. Among the works discussed in detail are major publications by Leopold Zunz, Isaac Heinemann (see Heinemann 1970, cited under Rabbinics), Daniel Boyarin (see Boyarin 1990, cited under Daniel Boyarin), and Jonah Fraenkel.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.