Melitsah, Rhetoric, and Modern Hebrew Literature: A Study of Haskalah Literary Theory

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Associated with translation (Genesis 42: 23), figurative speech (Proverbs 1:6), and prophecy (Genesis Rabbah 44:1), melitsah was a venerable term in medieval, renaissance, and Haskalah literary thought. Designating rhetoric, eloquent speech, poetry, and rhetorical theory, it was a focus of considerable attention during the period of European Haskalah (1780-1880). Since the mid-nineteenth century, and increasingly since the rise of neoromantic and nationalist literary ideologies, the poetic practice of melitsah became a target of severe attacks, which ultimately led to a sematic change in its meaning. While brief scholarly studies of this term have been undertaken, its evolving history, as well as its potential for critique of modern literary practice, have been completely overlooked by scholars of modern Hebrew literature. The present article attempts to study the concept of melitsah outside the framework of the massive denunciation it suffered due to the rise of competing literary discourses. Stressing the deep affinity between Hebrew melitsah and Renaissance rhetoric, the article demonstrates that, rather than an instrument for assimilating Hebrew literature to Enlightenment ideas of knowledge, poetry or politics, maskilim employed melitsah-based theory for defending and upholding ancient Hebrew scriptures as vessels of theological, poetic, and political difference, which they saw as contributing to a critique of dominant Enlightenment ideas. Associating melitsah with a recent paradigm shift in the study of Jewish Enlightenment, this article follows key maskilim who studied the melitsah, showing that their veneration of the scriptural Hebrew is not an expression of blindfolded cult of biblical commonplaces, as many scholars have believed, but an attempt to glean from Hebrew scripture-through poetic analyses, readings, and adaptation-a host of theological, poetic, and political ideas that, couched as they are in the figurative language of scripture, supplements and displaces ideas whose origin is not textual.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)238-277
Number of pages40
JournalProoftexts - Journal of Jewish Literature History
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Religious studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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