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Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology, by Kristen H. Lindbeck.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.  241 pp.  $26.50.


Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology, by Kristen H. Lindbeck, is a study of the corpus of thirty-eight stories of the Babylonian Talmud that feature Elijah. Rabbinic traditions transform the biblical prophet Elijah into a semi-divine angelic figure who plays various roles: rabbinic master, savior, ethical teacher, miracle worker and divine messenger. Lindbeck collects, categorizes, and discusses these traditions and attempts to understand their function and meanings within rabbinic society and the culture of the Bavli.

The book includes five chapters. Chapter One, “The Study of Rabbinic Narrative,” reviews prior studies of Elijah and then discusses methodological issues. Lindbeck proposes to employ methods drawn from folklore studies, oral-formulaic studies, and form criticism, following in the paths of Dan Ben-Amos and Eli Yassif. By “folklore” Lindbeck, consistent with recent theory, does not mean oral literature of the folk as opposed to literate elites, but any and all oral literature circulated within a given social group. Linbeck also draws on the form-critical studies of Jacob Neusner and Catherine Heszer, and claims that the Elijah stories of the Bavli can be divided into six form-critical categories: two moral exempla, seven legal or moral precedent stories, eight pronouncement stories, three “extended pronouncement stories,” and thirteen legends. In addition, one story is sui generis, and a few others share characteristics of pronouncements stories and legends.

Chapter Two continues the discussion of methodology, especially the role of orality in rabbinic culture and the implications of this phenomenon for analyzing the literary texts that have come down to us. Here Lindbeck also attempts to articulate her own methodology with more precision. She invokes John Foley’s theory of metonymy in oral-formulaic studies, in which “one thing potentially stands for a related one,” and consequently “phrases and structures are supercharged with meaning” (p. 34). This is important because it allows Lindbeck to expand the corpus of texts relevant to her project to include other sources that share phrases, motifs, or plot structures with the Elijah stories themselves, even if they do not mention Elijah specifically. It also provides a mechanism to relate Elijah stories to each other, which makes for a more unified corpus of tradition. But Lindbeck is certainly a methodological pluralist, drawing also on ethnopoetics and anthropological theory, on Daniel Boyarin’s “new historicism” (though for some reason she does not mention that term), and on other scholars of folklore and morality.

Chapters Three and Four are the heart of the book. In Chapter Three Lindbeck tries to understand how Elijah differs from angels, the angel of death, and the bat qol, which also are sent on divine errands or disclose the divine will. She argues that, despite some overlap, these figures or devices are not interchangeable but have discrete roles and functions. Elijah, for example, brings God’s message to individuals whereas the bat qol relays God’s words to groups of people; Elijah often appears in disguise to help people whereas angels generally do not (a useful table of similarities and differences is provided on pp. 58–59). Elijah also shares more in common with the sages than do angels or the bat qols, as he seems to have more free will and is depicted as a holy man or ideal teacher himself. Indeed, that Elijah “often interacts with the Sages as a senior sage” distinguishes him from other supernatural mediators and helps explain his religious function, namely to provide “a greater connection to God without impairing God’s authority.” The chapter concludes with a longish section comparing stories of Elijah with traditions of the Greek god Hermes (pp. 74–94). Like Elijah, Hermes is portrayed as a divine messenger, traveler, and trickster and “master of clever stratagems of all kinds.” The correspondences Lindbeck presents are impressive, but her claim that certain Elijah legends in the Bavli were “created under the influence of, or in competition with, attributes of the Greek god Hermes” fails to persuade me. Much more evidence is needed to demonstrate influence than the fact that Jewish sources evince some, or even considerable, knowledge of Hermes and the identification of a number of parallel motifs. While the extent of hellenization of the Babylonian sages has been much debated in recent years (see Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis and the plethora of critical reviews), it seems unlikely to me that Babylonian sages would have been so influenced by Hellenistic religion in this respect.

In Chapter Four Lindbeck provides an alternative taxonomy for the Elijah stories to the form-critical categories presented in Chapter One, dividing them into three “generic groups.” This term, also borrowed from Eli Yassif’s folkloristic approach, is a way of categorizing traditions that share phrases, plots, and themes. The generic groups of Elijah stories are (1) Elijah ceases to visit or never visits someone to express disapproval, (2) Elijah appears in disguise, usually to rescue someone, (3) Rabbis ask Elijah questions, usually legal or theological. The identification of generic groups, Lindbeck argues, is a way of getting “behind” the stories themselves so as to reveal the shared rabbinic beliefs about Elijah, and thus to arrive at a more accurate composite picture of Elijah in rabbinic culture. Each group also conveys discrete meanings and lessons. The first group, in which Elijah functions as a teacher, emphasizes the need for respect and kindness among all people, especially between sages and their social or intellectual inferiors. Stories in the second group feature the supernatural Elijah breaking into the natural to resolve a crisis; in five of the seven stories rabbis are saved from hostile non-Jews. Stories of the third group, which contain the phrase “R. So-and-so found Elijah” have Elijah answer a rabbi’s questions. They function to “express central convictions of rabbinic Judaism,” such as that the exercise of rabbinic authority is deeply pleasing to God (in the famous “Oven of Akhnai” story.)

In general Lindbeck’s scholarship is solid, and the division into these generic groupings helps us to get a handle on the common features of many Elijah stories. I have two main reservations, however. First, at times Lindbeck works too hard to find a common meaning to all of the stories in the “generic group.” Despite the shared phrases or even motifs, the stories are much more diverse than Lindbeck would like. This requires Lindbeck to move to a very high level of generality in an effort to find shared meanings, which becomes unconvincing and less helpful in understanding what any of the stories are actually about. So to say that a story in which Elijah restores the vision of a sage who disobediently gazed at the chariot of Rabbi Hiyya “encourage[s] human freedom, even the freedom to run risks” seems very far afield to me. Second, time and time again I found myself disagreeing with Lindbeck’s interpretation of a story. In fact Lindbeck does not really offer much literary analysis or argumentation, or even a “close reading” to justify her claims; she simply asserts her interpretations as if they emerge directly from the text. This is not to say that my interpretations are necessarily better or less subjective, but that readers deserve more analysis to be persuaded that Lindbeck’s readings have merit.

              The fifth chapter traces some of the developments in Elijah traditions in post-Talmudic times, including the well known ritual of the “Cup of Elijah” at the Passover Seder and the “Seat of Elijah” at circumcisions. An appendix provides translations of the thirty-eight Elijah stories of the Bavli.

Overall, this is a fine book, especially the chapters on methodology and the application of oral-formulaic and folkloristic methods to talmudic research. All subsequent research on the role of Elijah in Bavli stories will be indebted to Lindbeck’s comprehensive work.

Jeffrey L. Rubenstein

New York University