Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Seijas, Guadalupe (ed.), Historia de la Literatura Hebrea y Judía (Madrid: Trotta, 2014). Pp. 976. Hardcover. ISBN 978-84-9879-557-8.

This book constitutes a significant achievement in the often-neglected field of academic manuals or handbooks, especially those aimed at introductory levels of a discipline. The resulting collection is not only a comprehensive handbook, but also a fitting introduction as well as a reference work for anyone interested in Hebrew and Jewish literature. One of the book's virtues is its breadth of scope, reflected not only in its size (over 900 pages) but also in the editor's decision to embrace a very wide definition of “Jewish Literature,” thus creating an inclusive volume that brings together chapters concerned with areas and topics that are usually excluded from literary handbooks, except (perhaps) as short paragraphs or footnotes. It is particularly remarkable, for instance, that a whole chapter is dedicated to ancient versions of the Bible, while others are devoted to topics which transcend the literary level—such as a detailed presentation of Rabbinic academies—but which nevertheless contribute vital information for the interpretion and framing of a variety of literary works.

This editorial decision certainly suits the subject matter well, and also the target audience of the volume. The chapters are arranged according to a mix of criteria and the editor has avoided purely chronological, geographical, or content-related divisions. Although a chronological line forms the basic skeleton of the book and the core periods of Hebrew literature are clearly visible (Biblical, Rabbinic, Medieval, and later Israeli literature), within these overarching sections a variety of approaches has been taken in organizing the subject material. Some are customary, like the division of biblical literature into Pentateuch, Historical Books, Prophets, Wisdom Literature and other poetry; others more creative, like the inclusion of a chapter dedicated to the formation of the biblical canon, which aptly deals with the treatment of deuterocanonical literature and also forms a bridge with the next section on post-biblical and pre-rabbinic literature. Here the choice has also been quite innovative, as no chapter division has been made between Hebrew-Aramaic materials of the period (saliently the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Jewish literature transmitted at that time in Greek and other languages. This provides the reader with a better grasp of the interrelationships and shared dynamics between various Jewish groups at the turn of the era.

In other cases, thematic chapters that span different periods provide a more comprehensive perspective. A relevant example is the treatment of Kabbalah and mysticism. Though placed within the section of the book that deals with the medieval period, the author provides a full treatment of Jewish mysticism since its origins and into the post-Expulsion development of Lurianic Kabbalah. A similar approach can also be seen in the treatment of Jewish literature in other languages: Yiddish, Judaeo-Spanish, and Judaeo-Arabic. The first two appear at the end of the book, the latter within the chapters dedicated to the Middle Ages. However, the placement of these chapters can be explained in terms of the relevance of each body of literature in the given time period, and the authors have provided an overarching view of the literature of the particular language in question from its origins down to the 19th-20th centuries. This approach, as stated above, broadens the scope and contents of the book by providing an enriched vision of the concept and scope of Hebrew-Jewish literature, which is undoubtedly useful for the reader. This same level of comprehensiveness is more difficult to achieve in the section dealing with Haskalah and post-Haskalah literature, since obviously there are many more Jewish writers to acknowledge—each of whom wrote in his or her own language (German, English, etc.)—as well a greater variety of ideas, problems, and inspirations that influenced Hebrew-Jewish production at this time. While the attention given to the wider literary context goes a long way in making up for this (virtually unavoidable) lack of comprehensiveness, a chapter devoted to non-Hebrew Jewish thought and writing in Europe and America in the late 19th-early to mid 20th centuries would have made a good addition in rounding out the volume.

The book is, all in all, coherently structured with footnotes kept to a minimum. A manageable bibliography is also included at the end of each chapter. These features consolidate its value as a handbook by enabling the authors to inform without overwhelming the reader (or producing an unwieldy work which would have required several volumes). This is further supplemented by a superb section of indexes—ideal for use as a reference work—and a dedicated website where a more expansive bibliography may be accessed. This is surely the future for this kind of manual—a solid base work that is connected to an electronic site that can be continually updated, thus increasing the usefulness and life of the work.

Contents-wise, it is necessary to underscore the specialization of the authors in the areas they have written and also to congratulate the editor for bringing together such an eclectic team of Spanish scholars with international standing in their relevant fields of Hebrew and Judaic literature. The result is a truly coherent book. The volume gives a full, up-o-date vision of Hebrew and Jewish literature, it underscores continuity and interrelationships between periods, ideas, and movements, and manages to give due treatment to Spanish Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages in the central section, while balancing this with a fully global vision of Jewish literature. In this regard, translation of the volume into English would arguably fill an important niche in our field of study.

Andrés Piquer Otero, Universidad Complutense, Madrid