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Haskalah and MELITSAH: the Curious Persistence of Rhetoric in Modern Hebrew Literature

Tue, December 18, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 2 Complex

Abstract

Historians and scholars of rhetoric trace the demise of rhetoric to the onset of modernity. Noting, for example, the "replacement of a symbolic religious organization of social and cultural life by rationalized forms", along with the "gradual shift from a stratificational differentiation of society to one that operates along functional axes," Bender and Wellbery tied the "anti-rhetorical bent" of modern thought to the rise of Enlightenment epistemology, and to the "epiphanic" subjectivism of romantic poetry, both of which undermine the social hierarchy that supports the ideology of rhetoric.
Ostensibly, Hebrew rhetoric (or MELITSAH) did not fare much better than its European counterparts. This Hebrew term (which designate eloquent speech, rhetorical figuration as well as rhetorical theory) used to signify in the Middle Ages the much revered ORNATUS or distinction of Biblical style, and it continued to be a focus of intense study during the Renaissance and the Haskalah period. Its decline, and ultimate demise, began only with the rise of the Hebrew novel in the 1850s, and turned into an instinctive literary commonplace with the rise of post-Haskalah neo-romantic theory and poetry in the early twentieth century.
The suggested paper attempt to re-assess the role of Hebrew rhetoric for the Haskalah. Using the alleged "anti-rhetorical bent" of the modern period as a backdrop, the paper looks into the persistent use of rhetoric by two major thinkers of the Haskalah - Naphtali Herz Wessely and Shlomo Levison - whose conception of biblical and modern poetry stressed the crucial role of rhetoric. Arguing against the resounding late nineteenth century attack on the MELITSAH, the paper investigates Wessely and Levisohn's unique employment of rhetorical figures, noting especially the ways by which human speech paradoxically becomes a key moment in the constructing of divinity.

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