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Review: Rojtman
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Black Fire on White Fire
by Betty Rojtman

(Independent Scholar)

A review of Black Fire on White Fire: An Essay on Jewish Hermeneutics, from Midrash to Kabbalah by Betty Rojtman, translated by Steven Randall (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1998).

Betty Rojtman’s Black Fire on White Fire is an extraordinary work of detailed scholarship that defies her humble appellation essay. It is not only a significant contribution to the Contraversions series ("Critical Studies in Jewish Literature, Culture, and Society," Daniel Boyarin and Chana Kronfeld, general editors), but also a valuable addition to the literature on general linguistics, semiotics and structuralism, and historical hermeneutics. Kudos, too, to Steven Randall for a brilliant translation.

(As an aside, the title Black Fire on White Fire is a reference to Jewish mystical belief that God wrote the Torah in letters of "black fire on white fire" – Tan’huma, Genesis 1.)

As the subtitle suggests, Rojtman explores the methods of Jewish hermeneutics from midrashic-talmudic exegesis to the mystical interpretations of the Kabbalah. In order to make such a daunting task manageable, she examines the interpretive treatment of the Hebrew demonstrative pronoun (masculine) zeh, (feminine) zot across the spectrum of her hermeneutic field. Even so, such a seemingly limited scope must be further constrained by limiting discussions of the neuter form and omitting the number features (dual/plural) – regrettable but understandable.

Rojtman begins her work with a necessary orientation to historical exegetical and hermeneutic principles held by Jewish interpreters for centuries. These are firmly established principles ranging from the primacy of the oral tradition to readings of scripture at the levels of literal (Peshat), allusive (Remez), parabolic (Derash), and anagogic (Sod) (12).

Addressing the treatment of zeh/zot, Rojtman begins with a concise, lucid explanation of its linguistic function as a demonstrative. She shows that the first levels of traditional Jewish exegesis (literal through parabolic) conform to this "norm" of deictic and anaphoric functionality in the Hebrew grammars and the Midrash (16-22). We quickly move, however, to an unusual (to the non-midrashic mind) extension of the referential function of the demonstrative to an "anaphorization", or, borrowing Ehlich’s designation, "textual deictic" (172, n. 11). That is, "the meaning of the passage is to be sought in a preceding occurrence of Zeh" (172, n.11) – a method used in the Midrash and known in Hebrew as gezerah shavah:

"… one text [is] embedded within the other, the former being connoted by the common term zeh or zot, which occurs in both verses. Here the referentialization is internal, intertextual in the literal sense of the term" (52).

Rojtman gives a plentitude of examples to show this hermeneutic in operation. It amounts to a "semanticization" (50, 51) of the demonstrative and a shift in category from demonstrative to noun, which even in the field of grammaticalization is a reversal, though the comparison is a leap since grammaticalization is diachronic whereas the categorial shifts in focus are synchronic. In terms of semiotics, zeh as the signifier, by reference, is extracted from the text, given significance, and re-inserted as the signifier of a semanticized theme (58). Thus the categorial "shift" is semantic in nature, yet zeh/zot retains the syntactic function of a demonstrative.

As startling as gezerah shavah might be to those of a formal linguistic or conventional exegetical orientation, at least the referents are contextualized and bounded by linguistic content. It is the hermeneutic step away from context and into the Kabbalah that presents more of a challenge. Rojtman acknowledges this divergence by stating that the "level of the interpretation of Sod [is] radically discontinuous with respect to the lower levels of exegesis" (99). Later, after deftly wading through a clarifying exposition of zeh/zot in the Kabbalah, she shows the "discontinuous" nature of these systems evidenced in the treatment of the demonstrative as two "paths":

"On the one hand, on the basis of the structures of the text, a subtle semantic construction develops a series of connoted actualizations. On the other, a network of symbols projects an organized thematic ensemble into each term of the sacred language. "Textual" hermeneutics proper, which brings together the first three levels of exegesis…, is thus radically distinguished, by its semantic relations as well as by the laws of its functioning, from the solutions governed by anagogy" (119).

What rises to the forefront at a number of points in Rojtman’s analysis is the concern for coherence between these seemingly incompatible hermeneutics. And therein is the beauty and skill of chapters three and four; chapter three elucidating the place of zeh/zot within the "secret/coded" language of Sod; chapter four bringing coherence between Midrash and Kabbalah.

As might be expected when examining mystical symbolics, one almost presupposes a lack of logical integrity and a weak, if any, coherence system. Rojtman shows that the "discontinuous" paths followed by "the lower levels of exegesis" and the Kabbalah are actually motivated by surprising consistency and constrained by a logic "beyond the obvious features of the text" (106). Indeed, when one takes on the final two chapters of Black Fire on White Fire, it is like stepping into an area of linguistic/philosophical speculation that tempts the exegetical scholar yet frightens at the same time.

Rojtman’s conclusion is a description of the very coherence system hinted at throughout her work. If one is to question the discoveries explicated throughout the book and finalized in chapters four and five, such questions would have to address the conclusions for coherence first. Here Rojtman states that "the text—the labyrinthine paths of meaning—is only a new modality, another unveiling of this unique underlying structure" (159). Rather than argue that point, it would be a worthy task to examine other hermeneutic systems of the same time (ancient through early medieval) to see if there is additional evidence for a universal, constraining semiotic motivating coherence systems.


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