New Dissertations in the Field

Each year, numerous dissertations are defended on various aspects relating to rabbinic literature. And each year, the variety of angles and approaches to this literature only increases. The most recent crop nicely reflects the participation of women in the study of rabbinic literature, which though certainly higher than decades prior, still seems to lag behind the rest of the human sciences.  There are other things to note. More and more theses are grappling seriously with theory.  Editions of rabbinic texts continue to be produced, though perhaps not at the level that they should be.  New areas of research, like Talmudo-Iranica, are well represented in this list.  And gender remains a focus. Below is a list of recent dissertations (from 2011 and some from 2010) with abstracts, where available. Readers aware of other dissertations of interest to this blog should contact us. 

NOTE: The list will be updated over the next few days.

Yonatan Adler, “Archaeological Evidence for the Observance of Ritual Purity in Erez-Israel from the Hasmonean Period until the End of the Talmudic Era (164 BCE – 400 CE),” (PhD Dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011).

The ancient literary sources indicate that the laws of ritual purity played a crucial role in the halakhic discourse of the late Second Temple period. Intensive discussion of this issue is found in the books of the Apocrypha, in the works of Philo and Josephus Flavius, in the documents from the Judean desert, in the books of the New Testament and in the early strata of the Tannaitic literature. The laws of purity continued to remain in the center of halakhic debates even after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E., at least within the circles of the sages from whom we have inherited the early rabbinic literature.

These literary sources present us with a number of fundamental questions: To what extent were the laws of ritual purity observed amongst the greater Jewish population of Ereẓ-Israel? What place did these laws occupy in the daily lives of those who observed them? Were there differences in the level of observance of these laws between various segments within contemporary Jewish society? Were there regional differences with regard to the observance of these laws? What kind of developments and changes occurred over time in the field of ritual purity observance? These research questions, which are of utmost importance in any attempt to understand the religious and social histories of Jewish society in Ereẓ-Israel during the late Second Temple era and during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, are the focus of the present study.

There are three major types of archaeological finds that reflect on the scope and the nature of ritual purity observance during the historical periods under discussion. The first is stepped water installations, which should be identified as the “miqwa’ot” mentioned in early rabbinic sources, ritual baths that were used for ablutions. Another type of archaeological find that evidences the observance of purity laws is chalk-stone vessels, used especially by those who kept the purity laws due to the insusceptibility of these vessels to ritual impurity. Important additional data may be culled from a study of the distribution of imported pottery as these vessels were considered inherently impure, and as such we may learn about the observance of purity law by examining the extent to which these vessels were either used or avoided.

Tali Artman-Partock, “Dialogue and Dialogism in Rabbinic Literature: Parrhesia in Theory and in Practice in Rabbinic Literature and in Contemporary Christian literature,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

Mira Balberg, “Recomposed Corporealities: Purity, Body, and Self in the Mishnah” (PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2011).

The purpose of this dissertation is to trace and analyze the ways in which the rabbis who created the Mishnah, a Palestinian rabbinic legal codex whose final compilation is dated to the first half of the third century C.E., developed a unique notion of a bodily self in their remaking of the biblical laws of purity and impurity. By examining some of the fundamental innovations that the rabbis introduced to the system of purity and impurity that they had inherited from their predecessors, I show that questions of subjectivity and consciousness profoundly shape the concepts of purity and impurity as those are developed in the Mishnah, ultimately presenting the self as a new focal point in the discourse of ritual impurity. In particular, I emphasize the ways in which the human body, which is the main and most critical site in which the drama of purity and impurity takes place, is negotiated in the Mishnah as both subject and object, both as identical to the self and as disparate from it. Through my analysis of various themes in the mishnaic discourse of purity and impurity, I demonstrate that the rabbis constructed the daily engagement with impurity and the ongoing pursuit of ritual purity as closely reflective of one’s relations with one’s self, with one’s human and non-human environment, and with one’s body.

The rabbis of the Mishnah radically expanded the realm and repercussions of impurity, thus shaping the most mundane daily interactions, encounters, and activities that constitute one’s physical presence the world as situations in which one is constantly confronted with the possibility of contracting impurity. In the Mishnah, being in a body means being vulnerable to impurity, in such way that the management of impurity and the incessant awareness of it are defining aspects of the self’s relations with his material surroundings and with his own body. The mishnaic subject, however, does more than simply respond to the world of impurity and attempt to manage his precarious state in it; he is also the one who is shaping this world through his consciousness and deliberation. The rabbis introduce a surprising conceptual innovation, according to which only objects – and persons – that harbor significance have any consequences in terms of impurity. In other words, only things that matter to someone, and in which one has presumably invested some sort of subjective thought, intention, or deliberation, can affect one in terms of impurity.

The notion that the mishnaic self is capable both of being pure and of being impure is what inscribes this self’s activities and encounters in a world pervaded with impurity with a constant quest for the attainment of purity. The quest for purity is manifested in a series of practices, most notably practices of self-examination and self-reflection, and in an unrelenting awareness of the possibility of impurity and of the commitment to maintain a state of purity, in such way that the attainment of a status of purity profoundly depends on one’s relations with oneself. Only one who is capable of mastering himself and being held accountable to oneself, and one who is deeply dedicated to purity and willfully nurtures this dedication, can attain a status of purity. The pursuit of purity is thus constructed in the Mishnah as a process in which the self both exhibits the desired character traits of self-knowledge and self-control and cultivates these qualities. Thereby, the very effort to be pure acquires cultural value in and of itself.

The self, that is, the human subject who is capable of reflection on himself and on his surroundings, is thus in many ways the ultimate point of reference of the discourse of purity and impurity in the Mishnah. Impurity is constructed as shaped by subjective processes, whereas purity is constructed as attained through the development of one’s religious commitments and mental capacities. All this by no means does away with the physical-like and even mechanical way in which the rabbis understand the workings of impurity; however, this does allow the system of purity and impurity to acquire a new and central dimension in the rabbinic discourse, a dimension which, I propose, made this system more meaningful and more relevant in a world in which it was likely to become more and more obsolete.

Meir Ben-Shahar, “Biblical and Post-Biblical History in Rabbinic Literature: Between the First and Second Destruction,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

Itamar Brenner, “A Hermeneutic Study of the Interpretive Aspect in the Babylonian Talmud (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2010).

Binyamin Elbaum, “Midrash Abba Gurion on Esther: The Version and its Redactions,” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011).

Shmuel Faust, “Criticism in Sage Stories from the Babylonian Talmud,” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2010).

David Flatto, “Between Royal Absolutism and and Independent Judiciary: The Evolution of Separation of Powers in Biblical, Second Temple and Rabbinic Texts,” (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2010).

Even as Jewish political sovereignty waned during Late Antiquity, Judaism experienced a profound flourishing in the legal sphere. Confronting a changing political landscape, while encountering distinctive Greco-Roman power structures, Jewish thinkers and exegetes responded by developing bold and novel juristic conceptions. While much scholarship has examined the loss of Jewish power, this study shifts the focus to a crucial question which has been largely ignored: how did Jews think about power and authority in the absence of power, and how did this inform the nature of the societies they constructed in the absence of power? My essential answer is that they drew on their rich legal tradition to focus on law and legal authority as a unique political alternative to traditional rule. This thesis offers a wide-ranging exploration of this crucial dimension of the Jewish legalimagination in its formative stages.

In particular, this study examines representations of legal authority in seminal Jewish texts from the Second Temple and rabbinic periods. Given the primacy of law within Judaism, Jewish sages, thinkers, interpreters, transmitters and jurists from this era grappled with the ideal nature of the administration of justice and produced an impressive array of juristic schemes. Nevertheless, certain essential overriding themes pervade this diverse body of material.

Whereas ancient jurisprudence presumes that law emanates from the seat of power–with an absolutist king or emperor commanding authority in all realms, including the legal domain–a distinctive strand within Jewish jurisprudence advances a different paradigm. Although Ancient Near Eastern and much biblical literature project the king as the supreme judge, Deuteronomy 17 (the primary normative text about kingship and legal authority) dramatically revises this approach by establishing independent judicial officials operating beyond the reach of the king. This seminal, if anomalous, text assumes heightened significance in post-biblical literature.

Elaborating on Deuteronomy 17, post-biblical commentators present a variety of models of judicial administration. Philo attempts to harmonize Deuteronomy with the dominant biblical attitude toward kingship by restoring the monarch’s judicial role. Various Qumran texts seek to circumscribe the sovereign, and largely locate justice outside of the royal domain in priestly quorums. Moreover, certain writings build upon the Deuteronomic foundation in striking ways. A leading voice within tannaitic literature extends and institutionalizes the role of the judiciary and seeks to purge the legal edifice from additional influences of power (beyond royal intervention). At the same time, tannaitic writings elevate the distinct political responsibilities of a sovereign. A very different voice in early Jewish jurisprudence, especially manifest in Josephus’s writings, aims to eliminate political authority altogether and reconstitute the ideal polity upon the foundation of the rule of law. Abandoning the regnant notion of imperial law, such writings advance robust visions of law’s empire.

Proclaiming the supremacy of law and widening its scope, post-biblical writers insist that a legal system must operate independently of powerful political rulers. Without a land, sovereign authority, or coercive powers, and with restricted legal jurisdiction, leading Late Antique Jewish writers promote legal constructs which diverge from the surrounding cultures, and in certain remarkable ways prefigure–or even eclipse–ideas that only enter into Western political and legal tradition centuries later. This dissertation demonstrates that Jewish legalism is not an inevitable, or even a reluctant response to disempowerment, but rather a deeply-rooted ideology revolving around the centrality of law and its profound potential to structure a society and a polity.

Yair Furstenberg, “Eating in a State of Purity during the Tannaitic Period: Tractate Teharot  and its Historical and Cultural Contexts,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

No other religious phenomenon shaped the daily conduct of many during the latter part of the Second Temple period such as eating in the state of purity. Purity, as a way of life, was shared by most groups and, at the same time, marked the discursive dividing lines between parties and sects. In Rabbinic circles, these purity regulations continued also after the Temple destruction. However, fundamental  changes took place during next two centuries. Whereas in early generations “purity burst”, as time went on the practice of eating in purity decreased until it practically disappeared during the third century. Indeed, eating in the state of purity played a central role in fashioning contemporary world view, including notions of contamination and danger within the private sphere and social status and structure in the public domain. Therefore, examining the factors which shaped and reshaped purity practices during the Talmudic period is of utmost importance for pursuing a clearer view of the rabbinic religious and cultural world and the transformations it went through. Much scholarly progress was made in the last years in the field of purity in antiquity. This was enhanced by the publication of Qumran texts, the reinterpretation of early Christian sources, and new archaeological finds. Also anthropological theories devoted to social aspects of purity regulations enriched the historical endeavor. However, the largest source which systematically surveys all levels of purity laws and includes most of our knowledge of contemporary purity customs has not received the proper scholarly treatment, this is the tannaitic corpus.

This dissertation examines central aspects involved in the reshaping of the field of purities during the tannaitic period, as they are reflected in Tractate Teharot of the Mishna, devoted to food purity. This and other texts offer a novel view of the subject, which stand in contrast to biblical and Second Temple concepts of impurity and contamination. Through careful examination of this literature we can track a trajectory of purity in the rabbinic circles.  The systematic study of the tractate includes four levels of examination, corresponding to the four parts of the dissertation. (I)  The textual framework: How the varying methods of subject arrangement reflect the ways the topic of purity was learned and its sitz im leben (II) Purity management in an impure environment: What are the differences between the various devices for managing purity in  the shadow of impurity which are found in Second Temple and tannaitic sources, and how they uncover different perceptions of impurity and its threat.  (III) Purity laws as social markers: In Second Temple period purity laws were clearly designed to  differentiate social groups and create a clear hierarchy:  haver and  am-ha’aretz, priest and layman. Thus we ask, how did purity function as a social marker as the extent of the phenomenon decreased. (IV) Conceptual development: How the ongoing development of food purity laws and the creation of the ‘grades of impurity’ system by the Tannaim contributed to the evolution of a new concept of impurity and contagion.

Thus we encounter a living process, in which conceptual structures and social relations intertwine and transform drastically, imprinting their influence on the emerging sources.

Tamar Jacobowitz, “Leviticus Rabbah and the Spiritualization of the Laws of Impurity,” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2010).

This dissertation is a literary analysis of three sections in Leviticus Rabbah (LR), an aggadic compendium of midrash on the book of Leviticus, compiled in the Amoraic period. The study demonstrates that the rabbinic authors of LR transformed the levitical laws of purity into a set of exegetically generated reflections on God, the people Israel, and ethical relations. In the first chapter, I explore how LR parashah 14 injects theology into Leviticus 12’s purification ritual for a woman who has given birth. I consider the ways in which the rabbis’ theologizing discourse intersects with a discourse about gender, amplifying God’s role in childbirth at the expense of the mother. In the second chapter on LR parashah 16, I show that the rabbinic composers bring a concern for proper speech and ethical behavior to their reading of Leviticus 13-14’s ritual for the metsora (leper). In this parashah, the rabbis deepen and extend a tenuous biblical link between tsara’at (leprosy) and lashon hara (evil speech), substituting the ritual trappings of the notorious condition with a concern for building an ethical community. In the final chapter on LR 17, I study a related levitical topic, that of house diseases, and argue that the rabbis utilize the Leviticus verses to affirm the ongoing election of Israel from among the nations. Taken together, these three LR parshiyot suggest that the LR composers were engaged in an elaborate project of allegorization. Without undermining the Leviticus verses or contravening their legal import, the LR rabbis launched a way to read levitical purity so that it yielded contemporary meaning.

David Chaim Kalir, “An Edition and Comprehensive Commentary on Chapter II of Tractate Rosh-Hashana in the Babylonian Talmud,” (Hebrew; PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011).

Jonathan Kaplan, “A Divine Love Song the Emergence of the Theo-erotic Interpretation of the Song of Songs in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity,” (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2010).

Jewish and Christian communities have classically understood the Song of Songs as a statement of divine love for God’s chosen people: Israel or the church, respectively. I adopt the term “theo-erotic” (in contrast to the more commonly used term “allegorical”) to describe this interpretive mode and then chart the hermeneutical and rhetorical shape of Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Song in the first centuries of the common era. The Song portrays an ideal world in which the lovers can be understood as archetypes with which other lovers can be identified, thus enabling theo-erotic interpretation. I argue that the Song’s transmission and translation in the Septuagint, the Qumran manuscripts, references to the Song’s use in Josephus’s Against Apion , 4 Ezra , Mishnah, and Tosefta, and purported allusions to the Song in numerous works from the Second Temple period provide limited evidence for the theo-erotic interpretation of the Song. The first verifiable allusions to and echoes of the Song appear in 4 Ezra and Revelation. I argue that these texts make use of a theo-erotic reading of the Song (as part of a complex of allusions) that recasts the Song into eschatological time and apocalyptic space in describing the community’s ideal and affective relationship with God. Rabbinic texts that record traditions from the Tannaitic Period (ca. 70-200 C.E.) interpret the utterances of the Song typologically as prefigurations of ideals in Israel’s relationship with God. The twenty-five passages that contain interpretations of the Song in Mekilta de-Rabbi Yishmael exemplify this mode of interpretation. In Mekilta the sages historicize and connect many of the Song’s verses with the period of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the divine revelation at Sinai, understood in ideal terms as the period of Israel’s betrothal to God.

In this reading, Israel adopts the woman’s praises for her lover and reciprocates God’s fidelity through acts of devotion, expressed in characteristically rabbinic ways as the mitzvot , or divine commandments.

Baruch Kehat, “‘The Burden of Proof Lies with the Claimant'” in Rabbinic Literature,” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2010).

Yishai Kiel, “Selected Topics in Laws of Ritual Defilement: Between the Babylonian Talmud and Pahlavi Literature” (English; PhD dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2011).

One of the most promising and intriguing areas in the emerging interdisciplinary interest in Sasanian literature concerns the contextualized study of the Babylonian Talmud and Zoroastrian literature in Middle Persian. As it stands, Pahlavi literature has proven to be an indispensible source for the study of the Babylonian Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud in turn has proven to be no less of an illuminating and insightful tool for the study of Pahlavi literature.

In this study I hope to have contributed to the scholarly efforts invested in the exploration and elucidation of Irano-Talmudic connections. On the first level, situated in the broader field of comparative culture, this study attempts to reveal the similarities and differences between the rabbinic and Zoroastrian legal systems. On the second level, situated in the realm of developmental intellectual history, the study engages in a more specific attempt to unearth interreligious connections that may have taken place in the Sasanian period – whether stemming from a more direct discourse or from coexistence in the same cultural milieu.

The study focuses on several legal topics relating to ritual defilement, which reveal intriguing examples of similarity and affinity. Not only the contents of rabbinic and Zoroastrian ritual instructions are addressed, but also the analytical and methodological tools, and the philosophical, legal and anthropological theoretical constructs that are displayed in the detailed discussions of the Babylonian Talmud and Pahlavi literature.

The introductory chapter includes a detailed survey of previous scholarship pertaining to Irano-Talmudic research and the study of ritual purity in rabbinic and Zoroastrian cultures. A detailed account is given regarding the philological tools that are utilized throughout the study, concerning the study of the Babylonian Talmud on the one hand and Pahlavi literature on the other. This chapter also includes a discussion of the comparative methodology that underlies the philological work that is carried out throughout the study.

Chapter one includes a critical edition and comprehensive commentary on Pahlavi Vīdēvdād 3.14. The chapter explores the relations between ritual impurity, religious liability and punitive consequences in Zoroastrian law; the role of knowledge and intention in establishing religious liability; the question of constraint while performing a religious transgression; the categories of carrying, shaking and touching dead matter; doubts that arose with regard to ritual defilement; and the question of aggregation and separation of consecutive sins. Chapter two is devoted to several rabbinic parallels relating to Zoroastrian material addressed in chapter one. The chapter explores the legal categories of carrying, shaking and touching impurity; shared responsibility in the case of transgressions that were performed by two persons; the role of cognition of sin and punishment in establishing legal liability; and doubts that arose with regard to impurity and sin.

Chapter three is devoted to the defilement of implements in Zoroastrian and rabbinic law from a comparative perspective. The chapter focuses on the legal classification of various materials in terms of their susceptibility to ritual impurity, and particularly the classification of glassware and bone implements. The chapter also considers the role of preparedness of articles for use in determining their level of susceptibility to ritual impurity. Chapter four, also devoted to the defilement of implements, focuses on the issue of internal and external contamination of vessels as discussed in rabbinic and Zoroastrian law. The unique legal position which distinguishes the defilement of the exterior from that of the interior is rigorously analyzed and contextualized within a broader discursive framework.

Chapter five is devoted to the matter of legal connectedness and the spread of impurity in Pahlavi literature. The chapter discusses the connectedness of articles and substances to the ground; the inner connectedness of various materials; a legal distinction between solid and powdery substances; and the connectedness of different parts of agricultural produce. Chapter six provides the rabbinic counterpart on the matters of legal connectedness and the spread of ritual defilement and engages in a systematic comparison of rabbinic and Zoroastrian texts pertaining to this matter.

Jenny R. Labendz, “Socratic Torah: Non-Jews in Rabbinic Intellectual Culture,” (PhD dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, May 2011).

Yifat Monnickendam: “Halakhic Issues in the Writings of the Syriac Church Fathers Ephrem and Aphrahat” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011)

Michael Pitkowsky, “‘Mipenei Darkhei Shalom’ (Because of the Paths of Peace) and Related Terms: A Case Study of How Early Concepts and Terminology Developed From Tannaitic to Talmudic Literature,” (PhD dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011).

There are numerous sources within Tannaitic literature and the Talmuds that describe situations in which rabbis justified legal rules on the basis of their concern about the effect that laws might have on relations between different groups-between Jews and other Jews, and between Jews and Gentiles. The majority of the time that there was such a concern, the rabbis used one of three terms: mipenei darkhei shalom (“Because of the paths of peace”), meshumeivah (“Because of enmity”), or hillul ha-shem (“The desecration of God’s name”). By using these terms, they were acknowledging the role of extra-textual considerations in the legal decision making process.

This dissertation examines the sources within Tannaitic and Talmudic literature in which one of these terms was used. These sources have been examined by previous scholars, but most of their analyses focused on a small number of the sources, or did not subject them to the proper philological and textual analysis that is required before one makes any conclusions about rabbinic texts or terminology. I examined these texts within their textual, legal, political, and social context, before attempting to make any conclusions about their role in Tannaitic or Talmudic discourse.

It is impossible to generalize about the ways in which these terms were used. They are found in different rabbinic corpora, quoted by different authorities, and used in different ways. Sometimes they were used to justify a new law, while in other instances they were used as a justification for either overturning or modifying an existing prohibition. The common thread throughout all of these sources was the expressed desire to place a high value on the relationships that existed between different groups of people and the potentially negative effect that Jewish law and practice might have on these relationships.

Michael Rosenberg, “‘I am Impure’/’I am Forbidden:’ Purity and Prohibition as Distinct Formal Categories in the Laws of Niddah” (PhD dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011).

This dissertation uses the menstrual laws (laws of “niddah”) in the Bible and Rabbinic literature as a lens for thinking about the relationship between the legal categories of impurity and prohibition. The menstrual laws, it is argued, are a particularly
beneficial topic of inquiry because of their appearance both in the first half of Leviticus (Lev 12 and 15), in the context of concerns of ritual impurity, and in the second half of Leviticus (Lev 18:19 and 20:18), in the context of the Holiness Code legislation, in which the legal rhetoric is one of prohibition rather than impurity.

It is argued that a careful analysis of both the content of Rabbinic rulings regarding the laws of niddah as well as the language used to express these rulings reveals a change over time in Rabbinic thinking. Whereas Tannaitic and early Amoraic Rabbis rarely if ever express awareness of a hard-and-fast formal distinction between categories of impurity-law and of law-framed-as-prohibition, later Babylonian Amoraic Rabbis as well as anonymous editors make use, explicitly and implicitly, of these formal categories. At the same time, however, the content of Rabbinic rulings is not necessarily constrained by awareness or lack of awareness of such a clear conceptual distinction.

Chapter One considers the situation in the Pentateuch and argues that the Bible has two different models of the relationship between impurity-law and prohibition-based-law vis-à-vis niddah. Lev 15 and Lev 20:18, when read together, treat impurity and prohibition as separate categories of law; that is to say, Lev 15 makes no mention of prohibition and Lev 20:18 makes no mention of impurity. Lev 18:19, however, conflates the two categories, defining a prohibition using purity-terminology. These two different approaches are both found in Rabbinic literature about niddah. In Chapter Two, we treat Rabbinic rulings about immersion and show that while Tannaitic and early Amoraic Rabbis express no explicit awareness of a clear divide between impurity and prohibition-related consequences of immersion, late Babylonia editing of earlier sources reveals both an awareness of such a divide as well as anxiety about it. Chapter Three considers the topic of internal inspections performed to determine a woman‟s menstrual state. Here we see that although Tannaitic and early Amoraic Rabbis once again share a common discourse, insofar as they do not generally distinguish between impurity law and prohibition-based law, while late Amoraic Rabbis and anonymous editors use a discourse in which purity and prohibition are clearly demarcated as separate legal categories, the actual rulings of Tannaitic Rabbis in fact have more in common with the rulings of late Amoraic Rabbis and anonymous editors than with early Amoraic Rabbis. Finally,
Chapter Four considers the topic of hymenal blood and argues that we have here a case of precisely those Rabbis most aware of conceptual distinctions between impurity and transgression conflating the two in order to achieve particular legal ends.

Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, “Literary Analogies in Rabbinic and Christian Monastic Sources,” (PhD dissertation, Yale University, 2010).

My research examines literary parallels in Christian and Jewish sources, culminating in an in-depth analysis of previously un-studied parallels between Christian monastic texts, the Apophthegmata Patrum (“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”) and Babylonian Talmudic traditions. My findings introduce a new type of interaction of Jews and Christians in Babylonia, and suggest, contrary to prior academic views, that this interaction was direct, interdependent, non-polemic and very much literary-based. These Monastic analogies shed a new light on the surprisingly inclusive nature of the Talmudic corpus.

Chapter one recapitulates recent academic findings relating to the setting in which the Talmud was composed and surveys previous literature regarding the Christian background of the Babylonian Talmud. It also suggests a new reading of a passage in BT Avoda Zara 4a, which seems to indicate an isolation of Babylonian rabbis from the Christian population of their time. This chapter concludes with a methodological discussion of the nature of research based on parallel texts. Chapter two introduces the monastic text chosen for this parallel study, the Apophthegmata . I survey the history of the formation and early transmission of the literary traditions collected in the Sayings and then illustrate the transmission routes that would have enabled its literary connection with the Babylonian Talmud. The importance of the monastic movement in the Persian Empire during the time and geographical location of the composition and redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, makes a connection between the two religious populations a great probability. Chapter three surveys a broad list of parallels between the texts of the two religious movements and identifies points of contact and difference. Chapters four and five focus on specific detailed examples that feature a rabbinic borrowing of monastic literary elements: the BT Rashbi traditions (Shabbat 33b) and the Elazar b. Dordya story (Avoda Zara 17a).

This dissertation has the potential to change the way we look at the research of both rabbinic and monastic texts: it changes our perception of the source materials used by the redactors of the Talmud, and teaches us about the circulation of monastic traditions in eastern Syriac circles.

Zvi Septimus, “The Poetic Superstructure of the Babylonian Talmud and the Reader It Fashions,” (PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkely, 2011).

This dissertation proposes a poetics and semiotics of the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud)—how the Bavli, through a complex network of linguistic signs, acts on its implied reader’s attempt to find meaning in the text.  In doing so, I advance a new understanding of how the Bavli was composed, namely as a book written by its own readers in the act of transmission.  In the latter half of the twentieth century, Bavli scholarship focused on the role of the Stam (the collective term for those people responsible for the anonymous voice of the Bavli) in the construction of individual Bavli passages (sugyot). Stam theory details how sugyot were crafted out of pre-existing sources and how the Stam works to control those sources in the service of a particular worldview.  This dissertation locates a different force at work in the construction of the Bavli as a single unified book, an authorship that is above and against the work of the Stam—a Superstam.

By examining the effect of the Bavli’s use of rare and ambiguous terminology, I expand the unit of inquiry from the individual Bavli passage (sugya) to the Bavli in its entirety.  I argue that, for the Bavli’s implied reader, meaning is not found in the work of the Stam.  While the Stam conveys meaning for a local reader, the global reader I explore does not artificially divide the Bavli into its constituent parts.   For this reader, the Superstam acts to subvert the controlling work of the Stam through the placement of key words throughout the book.  These words, when rare or ambiguous, direct the reader to other sugyot in which they appear.  These sugyot, when read simultaneously, work to convey, for the reader, an expression of ambivalence on the part of the Superstam toward those moments of Stammaitic certainty.  I conclude that Super-stammaitic activity itself is the result and product of readers who are trained how to read by the Bavli’s own expectations.  In this way, the Bavli is a text authored by its own readers who, in transmitting the text, become writers again and again.

Shana Strauch-Schick, “Intention in the Babylonian Talmud: An Intellectual History” (PhD dissertation, Yeshiva University, 2011).

This study examines the legal concept of kavvanah, or intention”, and attempts to establish the history of how it was conceptualized and applied by the Amoraim- the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli). Since the Bavli addresses both religious and civil law, it devotes much attention to the role of intention. However, the sources which discuss intention, both explicitly and implicitly, are scattered throughout the Bavli. Nevertheless, it is possible to construct an intellectual history of intention by considering the following: the views of the authors of relevant statements; the time in which they lived and their cultural environment; their affiliations and schools of thought. I attempt to sift through the varied material presented in the Bavli and construct an intellectual history based on each of the various sources which touch on the role and importance of intention. This work focuses primarily on the third and fourth generations of Amoraim who lived during the first half of the fourth century; a period during which it seems the Babylonian Amoraim evinced an increasing interest in the subject. The talmudic redactors who followed in the subsequent centuries continued along the lines laid out by the fourth- generation Amoraim. They addressed numerous issues pertaining to intentionality, applied existing principles to new cases, and formulated explicit principles, which perhaps lay implicit in the amoraic dicta.

Eliezer Treitl, “Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer: Text, Redaction and a Sample Synopsis,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

Dov Weiss, “Confrontations with God in Late Rabbinic Literature” (PhD dissertation, The University of Chicago, 2011).

This dissertation provides the first full-scale literary and theological treatment of the motif of humans confronting God in rabbinic literature. The sages do not challenge God directly, but indirectly by placing moral critiques of God into the mouths of various biblical heroes. These exegetical dialogues provide a safe space for the rabbis to articulate their own ethical struggles with the divine as they present themselves not as originators of the confrontation but only as their transmitters. In this way, the sages are removed from the picture as they place sole responsibility for the protest onto a particular biblical character.

While this rabbinic topos surfaces in fifth-century C.E. rabbinic texts, it reaches its zenith within the late scriptural commentaries of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (sixth and seventh century C.E. Byzantine Palestine). Their authors not only generate a plethora of new confrontations with God, but also intensify and radicalize older ones. The ubiquity and boldness of these encounters highlight Tanhuma’s literary proclivity to produce dramatic narratives of tension and suspense. Although scholars have already noted Tanhuma’s privileging of narrativity over homily, they have ignored the content-related implications of this “genre revolution.” This study begins to fill this scholarly lacuna by demonstrating how Tanhuma’s dramatic rewriting of the scriptural narrative provides an excellent locus to extract its distinctive ethical commitments and theological presuppositions.

Beyond tracing and detailing those moral values that drove Tanhuma authors to construct a critique of God, this thesis–more significantly–uncovers a radical Byzantine theology of human power and divine fallibility. Many Tanhuma passages depict God as revising His laws, justice system or cosmic governance only after being ethically challenged by a biblical hero. Indeed, these texts accentuate how rabbinic conceptions of God can be more accurately captured by rabbinic retellings of the scriptural narrative than by their theological maxims or normative formulations.

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5 responses to “New Dissertations in the Field

    • The usual way…at your local academic library, which may have either the physical dissertation itself, or access to proquest, which has some of the dissertations electronically. Alternatively, you could contact the authors and ask them for a copy.

  1. “Mazel Tov” to all of you. The list of dissertations bodes well for the health of scholarship in tis crucial area. Michael M. Eisman, Ph.D., Ancient History and Classical Archaeology, Department of History, Temple University, Philadelphia

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere (08.19.2011) | Near Emmaus·

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