Author Archives: Robert Alter

Robert Alter

About Robert Alter

Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967.

Reading Genesis as a Book

The following article is reprinted from
Genesis: Translation and Commentary
, with the permission of  W.W. Norton.

Genesis comprises two large literary units–the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the Patriarchal Tales (chapters 12-50). The two differ not only in subject but to some extent in style and perspective.

The approach to the history of Israel and Israel’s relationship with God that will be the material of the rest of the Hebrew Bible is undertaken through gradually narrowing concentric circles: first an account of the origins of the world, of the vegetable and animal king­dom and of humankind, then a narrative explanation of the origins of all the known peoples, from Greece to Africa to Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, and of the primary institutions of civilization, including the memorable fable about the source of linguistic division.

National History against the Backdrop of Universal Origins

The Mesopotamian family of Terah is introduced at the end of this universal history in chapter 11, and then when God calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees at the beginning of chapter 12, we move on to the story of the beginnings of the Israelite nation, though the national focus of the narrative is given moral depth because the universal perspective of the first part of Genesis is never really forgotten.

reading genesis as a bookSome critics have plausibly imagined this whole large process of biblical literature as a divine experiment with the quirky and unpredictable stuff of human freedom, an experiment plagued by repeated failure and dedicated to renewed attempts: first Adam and Eve, then the generation of Noah, then the builders of the Tower of Babel, and finally Abraham and his seed.

Although the Creation story with which the Primeval History begins does look forward to the proliferation of humanity and the human conquest of the natural world, by and large the first 11 chapters of Genesis are concerned with origins, not eventualities–with the past, not the future: “He was the first of all who play on the lyre and pipe” (4:21), the narrator says of Jubal, one of the antediluvians [people who lived before the Flood]. The literal phrasing of the Hebrew here, as in a series of analo­gous verses, is “he was the father of. . .” That idiom is emblematic of the Primeval History, which is really a record of the archetypal fathers. a genealogy of human institutions and of ethnic and linguistic identity.

The Pioneers of Modern Hebrew Literature

Beginning in the late 18th century, newly emancipated Jews in Europe embraced the Hebrew language as a tool for creating a new Jewish culture. However, until then, Hebrew was only used during prayer and religious study. Turning Hebrew into a literary language was a daunting task, which only a very select group of individuals could accomplish. Reprinted with permission from Hebrew and Modernity, published by Indiana University Press.

Who were the people who created this new literature? How did they get a knowledge of the language sufficient to such an undertaking? What were the material conditions in which a literature so anomalous sustained itself? The makers of modern Hebrew literature were, almost without exception, male and the products of an Orthodox upbringing. (In the earlier Haskalah–Enlightenment–a good many still preserved some form of enlightened orthodoxy; later on, the overwhelming majority of the writers were men who had broken decisively with the world of Jewish observance of their childhood.) The gender and the religious background of the writers were determined by the peculiar educational system developed by European Jewry before its entry into modernity; the system, in turn, was associated with the equally peculiar social structure of East European Jewry; and both require a little explanation.

One of the oddest–and most crucial–cultural circumstances of traditional East European Jewry was that its masses, by and large, lived under the conditions of an impoverished peasantry while enjoying almost universal literacy. They were not, of course, a peasantry in being able to work the land: For the most part, they eked out their living as middlemen, petty tradesmen (and often tradeswomen), peddlers, estate managers, and tax collectors, publicans, artisans. But a typical shtetl house, as one can see from photographs and films taken in Poland as late as the 1920s, would have looked not very different from the makeshift quarters of a black sharecropper in the American South: a one‑room shack with dirt floor, without plumbing, crowded by a family with many children, perhaps even with the addition of an old grandparent. One readily understands why Mendele Mokher Seforim, the greatest fictional chronicler of these Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement, should call one of his typical towns Kabtsiel, or Beggarsville.

I have said that these near paupers and actual paupers were mostly literate, but it was a two‑track literacy reflecting a two‑track educational system. The girls were instructed at home to read the vernacular Yiddish, and since the Hebrew prayer book was written in the same Hebrew alphabet as Yiddish, they could also, as grown women, in order to fulfill the impulse of piety, "read" the prayers as well, without however understanding more than isolated words and phrases. The boys began heder, or elementary school, before the age of five, and were immersed in a curriculum that was entirely limited to the close study of Hebrew and, later, Aramaic texts.

The young boys were led through the Pentateuch verse by verse, each Hebrew phrase being given its Yiddish equivalent in a kind of oral interlinear translation. Other books of the Bible might be accorded some attention when preparation was being made for their public reading at the appointed festivals (Song of Songs at Passover, Ruth at Shavuot, and so forth), and biblical texts fixed in the daily prayers, including dozens of Psalms, would be gotten by heart through sheer force of repeated recitation. But there would be no formal teaching of principles of grammar, no vocabulary lists, no exercises in composition. Indeed, the teenage students who happened to get hold of a Hebrew grammar treated it pretty much as underground literature, knowing that their rabbinical mentors would regard as an act of subversion any attempt to study the Holy Tongue systematically, with "secular" tools, as though it were a language just like any other.

By the time a boy reached the age of legal induction into Jewish manhood at 13, if he was an alert pupil and if his schoolmaster had not been totally incompetent (incompetence being more or less endemic to the system), he could read biblical Hebrew with an approximation of understanding, would have had some introduction to the primary rabbinic text, the Mishnah, and to the main medieval Hebrew commentaries on the Pentateuch, and would have a reasonably adequate understanding of the Hebrew of the prayer book. In fact, the extreme unevenness of instruction meant that most products of the heder were functionally illiterate in Hebrew, retaining only the most rudimentary vocabulary and a fuzzy or mangled understanding of particular texts.

After the age of 13, a large part of the student body dropped out, some after a year or more of additional instruction, to become apprentices, to assist in the family business, or otherwise to enter the workforce, and sometimes to be married off by their parents by the time they were 15. The more gifted went on to the yeshiva, or talmudic academy, often having to move to a larger town where there was such an institution. The subject of study at the yeshiva was exclusively the Babylonian Talmud, a vast corpus of texts composed in a mélange of Hebrew and its cognate language, Aramaic; as always, the language of discussion among students, and between students and teacher, was Yiddish.

The school days were long, the demands relentless; students worked over the difficult texts and their commentaries in pairs, and then listened to a general lesson from the yeshiva instructor. The complementary intellectual qualities they were encouraged to develop were a prodigious retention by heart of the talmudic texts and their biblical precedents (beqi’ut) and an analytic sharpness accompanied by ingenuity (harifut). Most boys left the yeshiva by their late teens, some, having received ordination, to take up rabbinical posts, many, having entered into an arranged marriage, to enjoy a period of private learning subsidized by a prosperous father‑in‑law who was willing to pay this price in order to have his daughter married to a man of learning.

From the account I have offered, it must surely seem a mystery that anyone could have emerged from this educational system with a sufficient grasp of the Hebrew language to write an essay, a travel book, a sonnet, or, especially, a novel. The yeshiva population was the intellectual elite of Central and East European pre-modern Jewry. The Hebrew writers produced by the yeshivas were an elite within an elite. In part, I mean simply that they were the equivalent of the A+ students in the system, and certainly the evidence many of them offer of retentive memory and (to a lesser degree) of dialectic subtlety, of beqi’ut and harifut, is formidable. But I am also referring to a rather special mental aptitude which was not necessarily given special value within the system but which would have abundant uses outside the system, something that the Germans call Sprachgefuhl, an innate sense, like perfect pitch in music, for how language should properly sound, joined with a relish for the sonorities and the semantic colorations of Hebrew words in their classical idiomatic combinations.

Minds of this almost preternaturally prehensile cast would catch onto every nuanced collocation, every linguistic particle, in a traditional Hebrew text, both those that were part of the curriculum and those that were not. And as a new Hebrew culture began to shimmer before such unusual students as a radical alternative of Jewish identity to that of the Orthodox system, they would, even in the yeshiva milieu, do a good deal of reaching, often surreptitiously, beyond the curriculum to the parts of the Bible not officially studied, to the medieval philosophers and poets, to those newfangled Hebrew grammars, and, worst of all, to the godless journals, the poetry and fiction, of the new Hebrew literature.

Modern Hebrew Literature: Early Challenges

Reprinted with permission from Modern Hebrew Literature, published by Behrman House.

The fundamental problem of language was for a long time overwhelming: an ancient or medieval Hebrew had to be adapted to modern literary needs, made to reflect the inner and outer world of people who did not even use it as a spoken tongue. It was not only a matter of developing a new lexicon for modern things–having Hebrew words for “locomotive” and “factory” and “pharmacy”–but a new lexicon for feelings and motives, even in certain respects a new syntax to express newly assimilated patterns of conceptualizing.

Finally, Haskalah (Enlightenment) literature was often seriously limited by its ideological character. Imaginative literature with a point to prove–or an axe to grind–often ends up being shaped by a narrow, shrilly insistent imagination, more concerned with laying down a program than evoking a complex world. As the Israeli critic Dov Sadan put it, the Haskalah writer, indignant over the ultra‑Orthodox Jew who wore a filthy kaftan instead of decent modern European dress, was in no position to describe that Jew in loving detail, as a novelist should, down to the last spot of grease on the kaftan.

A touching but artistically crippling quality of earnest naiveté persists in Haskalah fiction to the last: All would end well if only Jews would learn European languages, acquire decently productive professions, observe the laws of decorum and hygiene, in short, follow the path of the good goy who is the positive hero of a good many Haskalah stories. 

mendele mokher seforim (shalom yakov abramowitz)In the 1880s, this whole situation began to change fundamentally. After a century of literary activity, Hebrew writers had at least made a start in developing their own viable traditions, and in learning how to assimilate their European literary models. More important, the old militancy toward the immediate Jewish past relaxed considerably, so that it was easier for a Hebrew writer to do work that was not so insistently ideological. Now it became possible to balance programmatic criticism with intimate insight and affection in rendering the world of Eastern European Jewry, and no one illustrates the artistic advantages of this new inner freedom more strikingly than Mendele Mokher Seforim (Shalom Yakov Abramowitz). Perhaps most important, however, is the sudden forward leap of individual genius, which could not have been predicted and cannot be accounted for merely in terms of broad historical causes. It seems almost as though Mendele waved a magic wand and made modern Hebrew prose possible.

The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Literature

Reprinted with permission from Modern Hebrew Literature, published by Behrman House.

As it gradually became possible during the later 18th century for Jews in Western Europe to leave the walled‑off life of the ghetto and enter into modern European society, some Jewish intellectuals, associated with the merchant and managerial classes, adopted Hebrew as the means of creating a new kind of Jewish culture that might take its place with the cultures of other peoples in a progressive international society of enlightened men. (The progressive cosmopolitanism of the European Enlightenment touched these Jews deeply.) 

In their eyes, Yiddish could not serve this purpose because it was a low “jargon,” associated with their remembrances of the ghetto–and, one might add, linked with their own self‑rejection. To adopt German exclusively, on the other hand, would have meant the renunciation of Jewish cultural distinctiveness–of all the historical memories, associations, and emphases of feeling, that a people stores in its own language. When an 18th-century German Jew, then, decided to write a poem on spring, an essay on educational reform, a satirical sketch, in Hebrew rather than in his native Yiddish or his acquired German, he was strenuously affirming a new relationship as a Jew both to modern culture and to the Jewish past, and through this he was proposing a model for others.

hebrew booksThe Hebrew term itself chosen for “Enlightenment,” Haskalah, suggests both a state of being and an active causative effect on others. A maskil, or proponent of Haskalah, is, according to grammatical context, a person who understands or one who induces understanding in others. This early sense of national purpose, it should be noted, and this effort of cultural self‑definition, continue in radically transformed ways to play an important role in Hebrew writing down to many Israeli contemporaries.

Wherever assimilation became widespread, Hebrew literature quickly disappeared, for the obvious reason that with assimilation the audience of readers who knew Hebrew through the traditional Jewish educational system rapidly dwindled, then vanished. Ha-Measef, the first journal of the Haskalah, founded in Koenigsberg, Prussia, as a monthly in 1783, declined into an annual in the 1790s and by 1797 it had only 120 subscribers. By the 1830s, the main center of Hebrew literary activity had moved eastward from Germany to Galicia (the eastern end of the old Austro‑Hungarian Empire), where the Jewish population was more concentrated and traditional life stronger. A generation or two later, though significant Hebrew writing continued in Galicia, the most important centers had moved still further eastward to Poland and Russia.

Choosing Hebrew

There was, to begin with, a negative reason for the fidelity to Hebrew: most of the writers taught themselves Russian, or German, or Polish in adolescence or after and did not have sufficient mastery of the language of the general culture to write in it. Yiddish, of course, always remained an alternative; but in the minds of many of the writers, it was associated with a culture they sought to transcend, a culture that lacked prestige for them.

To restate this attitude in positive terms, a whole set of values was associated with Hebrew, as the classical language of Jewish culture, that Yiddish, even when it was felt by writers to have the intimate appeal of a native language rich in colloquial nuance, could not offer.

Only Hebrew spanned more than three millennia of national experience and had been used by Jews in all the far‑flung regions of the Diaspora. Only Hebrew was associated with Jewish political autonomy, and the awareness of this association played a crucial role in Hebrew literature long before, and beyond, the emergence of political Zionism. For if Jews were to create a culture like others, not dominated by a clerical establishment and not defined exclusively in religious terms, the great historical model had been cast in Hebrew on the soil of ancient Palestine. The biblical texts, moreover, in their sublime poetry and their brilliant narratives, had a cachet of literary prestige for which Yiddish could offer no equivalent.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the passionate commitment to Hebrew was impelled in shifting proportions by both aesthetic and historical‑ideological motives. On the aesthetic side, Hebrew had always been the most valued language of Jewish culture, if not the most commonly used in everyday life, and had long been the medium of refined literary exercises and epistolary art.

With a certain aestheticization of Jewish culture that was a symptom of modernity, this attitude toward the language became for some a kind of addiction to its beauties, even to its sheer formal properties: one relished a well‑turned Hebrew phrase, an elegant Hebrew sentence, as elsewhere one might relish Mozart or Cimarosa. The abiding delights of this aesthetic addiction could not be replaced for these writers by any other language, not even by their native tongue.