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Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Altereity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas.

Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Altereity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas. By Jill Robbins. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991, Pp. viii + 182. $24.95.

Mark C. Taylor's Religion and Postmodernism series continues to provide exciting and provocative volumes that take seriously the dialogical challenge that contemporary literary theory offers to scholars of religious and theological discourse. Robbin's work is no exception. It traces the disruptive presence and absence of the elder brother in the Lukan parable back to its Judaic figuration and forward through the conversion stories of Augustine and Petrarch. Then, in a "re-reading" of Kafka and Levinas, R. presents the pathos and ethics of Otherness as the hermeneutical key that locks and unlocks the time-worn gate between Judaism and Christianity.

While hermeneutics has played an enhancing role in the development of Christian models of interpretation, R. argues that Judaic models have remained in dark shadow. It is this "eclipse" of the Judaic that is her starting point. She moves from a wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated presentation of the ambiguities and difficulties of claiming Hebrew Scripture ("Old Testament") as a prefiguring of the New Testament, to using Midrash as an alternative hermeneutic.

R.'s reading of the conversion stories of Augustine and Petrarch as exemplars of the "detour to the self" that she sees as the core of Christian interpretation is provocative. The prodigal's journey home to individual mercy is repeated and reinscribed in the metanoic aspect of their very different narratives. R. proceeds to focus on the figure of the elder brother as Other, outsider--Jew. Though indispensable to the story, he is presented as jealous, stubborn, blind. With a Midrashic turn, R. reveals the network of internal relationships at play deep within both the parable and the Augustinian/Petrarchan commentary. Rooted in recent poststructural theory, this new reading provides a significantly rich source for additional scholarship.

In what seems the weakest chapter in a strong book, R. explores Kafka's "parables" and his understanding of himself as a Jew among Christians. While her reading of Frank Kermode's reading of Kafka in The Genesis of Secrecy is clever, it fails to convince. Rather, she might have spent even more time on her insightful display of the brilliant work of Levinas and its continuing importance for discussions of Judaism's relationship to Christianity, and to the Other, in hermeneutical relation to both.

Michael Gareffa, S.J.

University of Minnesota
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Author:Gareffa, Michael
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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