One pesuk, two pesuk, three pesukim more…- Guest Post by Michael Satlow

In the Babylonian Talmud, authority comes in variety of flavors.  Sometimes a tradition, heard from and cited in the name of a teacher, carries the day.  At other times, logic wins.  The behavior of a rabbi, the opinion of an expert, or the common practice of a community sometimes drive a discussion about law or ethics.  But the trump, as anyone who has spent any time with the Bavli knows, is the Bible, especially the Torah.  While it is certainly true that rabbis often turn and twist biblical verses as origami masters might, it is always better to have a verse on one’s side.

How, though, did the rabbis of late antiquity “know” the Bible?  Did they have the whole thing memorized?  Did they consult scrolls?  Did their versions look like ours?  Did they gravitate toward certain verses or sections, or steer clear of others?  If so, why?

For me, these questions arose quite incidentally about a year ago in the context of an informal Talmud reading group.  I figured that at least the empirical questions were easy to answer.  Somebody, somewhere, must have compiled a list of the biblical verses in the Talmud and counted them up in various ways.

If such a study exists, though, I still cannot locate it.  There are tools that indicate where in the Talmud a particular verse is discussed, but no charts, tables, and graphs that I could find helped very much when it came to quantifying the Talmud’s use of the Bible.  So as a side project I began to assemble the data.

This turned into a more involved undertaking than I anticipated, but it is very close to completion.  My crack research team – my son Dani Satlow and Elijah Petzold, a very talented Brown undergraduate – has now logged every biblical verse cited in the Bavli in a spreadsheet.  The method for doing this was not perfect: we went copied the indices of each of the tractates published in the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud.  We corrected obvious errors (mainly typos) as we went, but I suspect that the indices contain additional mistakes that are now incorporated into our spreadsheet (while undoubtedly introducing new ones of our own).  Nevertheless, given the mainly quantitative goals of the project and the large numbers present, these errors should not significantly distort the results.

My next step is to figure out good ways to use this data (which I will make freely accessible, probably by the end of the semester), and here I welcome your advice.  The three top questions on my list are:

  • What is the most commonly cited verse in the Talmud?
  • Are there verses, chapters, or books that the Talmud never cites?
  • What is the density of biblical citations per tractate?

What would you like to know?

I generated the above image using Wordle, with random text from the beginning of the Talmud.  Wordle might itself be useful for research; perhaps a future post on that.

Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University and has been a mentor and sounding-board for the New Talmud Blog from the beginning.  This post was crossposted from his own blog, Then and Now.

Updates Regarding the TBBC

As announced a few weeks ago, starting February 6th we’ll be discussing Zvi Septimus’ article “Trigger Words and Simultexts: The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” in Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, ed. Wisdom of Bat Sheva: In Memory of Beth Samuels (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009). Thanks to Barry, Zvi and other friends of The Talmud Blog, we’ve been able to make a PDF of the article available here for anyone who wishes to take part in the discussion.

Our two main respondents will be Dr. Dina Stein of Haifa University and Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky, who is a PhD candidate in Ben Gurion University’s Department of Hebrew Literature. With the article now easily accessible online, we hope that you will respond as well.

Vered Noam on Josephus and the Rabbis

Tomorrow at 10:30 Prof. Vered Noam will deliver a paper entitled “The Story of King Jannaeus in b. Qiddushin 66a—A Pharisaic Reply to Sectarian Polemic”. The lecture is part of the Orion Center‘s Greenfield Scholars Seminars and will take place in room 2001 of the Rabin building on Mt. Scopus.

אגדת ינאי (בבלי קידושין סו ע”א): כתב הגנה פרושית כנגד טענות כיתתיות

בסוגיית קידושין (סו ע”א) משוקעת אגדה המתארת את הקרע בין ינאי המלך והפרושים. מקבילה קרובה של אגדה זו מצויה בקדמוניות היהודים ליוסף בן מתתיהו. האגדה נידונה הרבה במחקר בשל חשיבותה להבנת המתחים הפוליטיים והיריבות הכתתית בתקופת המדינה החשמונאית, ובשל קרבתה המסקרנת לעדותו של יוספוס. נדמה לי, עם זאת, ששני היבטים של סיפור זה טרם מוצו – הסגנון והמינוח המשמשים בו, והרמיזות המקראיות שהוא נוקט. מאפיינים אלה עשויים לשמש מפתח למוצאו ולמגמתו של הסיפור, שהוא, לדעתי, שריד נדיר של מסמך פרושי פולמוסי.

Noam, along with Tal Ilan, is currently working on “A Literary-Historical Investigation of the Parallel Traditions in Josephus and in Rabbinic Literature”, and this lecture seems to be a part of that larger project. Shai and I hope to be in attendance and plan on reporting back.

[On this story see, most recently, Richard Kalmin, Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine pp. 53-60.]

And speaking of Tel Aviv U (where Noam is a professor), Ishay Rosen-Zvi has just announced two nice scholarships ($5000) for qualified international students to come and study (in English) towards an MA in Jewish Studies at Tel Aviv U. For more information, click here.

Clearing out the Living Room

As the Talmud Blog’s first Book Club winds down, we are happy to present you with the author’s response to the discussion. His words will only make sense if you first read the comments, and his response appears here and not down there so as not to confuse the “author” and “reader” functions. Although you may be tempted to put down your coffee cups and saucers and clear out of our virtual living room, please do not take this as a hint to end the discussion!

We also wish to announce that the Book Club’s next book will be Talya Fishman’s Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures  (a very recent recipient of the National Jewish Book Award). The club will be open in about two months time. But in the meantime we will inaugurate the ‘Book’ Club’s first discussion of an article – Zvi Septimus’ “Trigger Words and Simultexts: The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” in Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, ed. Wisdom of Bat Sheva: In Memory of Beth Samuels (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009).  Zvi’s paper at this past year’s AJS conference created quite a stir, and his research, first set out in his recently filed dissertation, is to my mind at the cutting edge of the application of critical literary theory to the reading of the Bavli. We plan on talking about the article on Febuary 6th, and Zvi has agreed to ‘update’ his argument and respond to your comments and questions.

And now, for Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s response:

I was thrilled to read the discussion, the praises, the critique and especially the analysis. The engagement is serious and thorough, and this is ultimately the most that an author can hope for: fostering a serious discussion. It is also a delight to enter into such discussion without the need to first clarify misrepresentations (well except maybe Eva’s suggestion that I “spared certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression”, which calls for substantiation).

As for Eva’s arguments about the place of dialectic approach to the yetzer in rabbinic literature and the possible distinction between “yetzer” and “yetzer hara” in this context, I have detailed my arguments in the book and it’s up to the reader to be more or less convinced. Let me just say that I was very surprised to find out what I did. I entered into this project as part of my interest in rabbinic sexuality, and especially the famous rabbinic “dialectic of desire”, and was quite shocked not to find all this in the rabbinic sources, especially, as I try to show in the book, in their earlier stratum.

Persian sources? Sure (after all this is Shai Secunda’s blog, and one has to be a mannerly guest). Their absence from the book is due to my old (old-old) schooled principle not to engage sources which I cannot read in their original language (I tried to be totally straight forward about that in the introduction). But I must add that the secondary literature I did read (and I read quite a lot) gave me the impression of much more generic similarities than the ones I found in the Patristic sources, where I could identify not just phenomenological parallels but specific traditions, images and idioms. The Persian equivalent is still to be shown. Eva: I hope you will pick up the gauntlet.

I believe Amit is right that this book ultimately strives to show how foreign the rabbis are to us, and to resist (and correct) the temptation to read our own post-Freudian conceptualization of self and personality into these sources. Rafael notes the same phenomenon but with a discontent (the famous Freudian discontent?). ‘What is the ultimate goal of such an enterprise?’ he asks.  Well, my most honest answer is that this is what the history of ideas is about. Can it make any change? It might, as any historical research, first and foremost by contextualizing, historicizing and thus de-essentializing, our own most basic conceptions about ourselves (our “selves”). I believe this is what Foucault means when he says that showing the Person (or the Author, or Sexuality, or Humanities) was born sometime (and not very long ago) means that it can also, sooner or later, die.

Does rabbinic ontology, anthropology and cosmology matter? To whom? Is the only way to make history relevant through recruiting the past to became “a usable past”? I do not believe so, and have tried to make my point, especially with regard to gender studies, in several places (see for example “Misogyny and its Discontents”, Prooftexts 25 [2005], pp. 198-208). But this leads us way beyond the scope of my book to the most basic questions  about Humanities and their “usefulness”; questions that admittedly become more and more acute in our anti-intellectual atmosphere, especially (if I may) in today’s Israel. But that’s, I guess, for another club to discuss.

Two New Online Resources (Around the Web-January 11, 2012)

We’ll be back to blogging as usual, although the discussion of Demonic Desires will continue.  Stay tuned for Ishay’s response and for announcements regarding the next Book Club.

A group of mainly British scholars have started to put together an online resource for the teaching and study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations.  From the announcement:

The complex relationship between Jews and non-Jews lies at the heart of teaching Jewish Studies at university level.  A new online teaching resource provides access to a broad range of primary sources and high-quality commentaries by experts in the field, addressing the perceived lack of an easily accessible body of sources, which specifically deal with relations between Jews and non-Jews from a historical and contemporary perspective.

Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony of Hebrew University’s department of Comparative Religion and its Center for the Study of Christianity has officially announced the release of two online bibliographies available on the Center’s website: one on Christianity in Palestine/Eretz-Israel and the other on Syriac Christianity.  The four separate browse options (author, year, keyword and era) and the search option mean that the bibliographies are quite easy to navigate.

The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires

UPDATE: THE BOOK CLUB IS NOW OPEN FOR COMMENTS!

Book clubs are not only for Oprah Winfrey fans. While there are numerous forums that assess recent Rabbinics scholarship, including books received, abstract digests, short reviews and review essays, conference papers and sessions, and long and looping footnotes in academic books and articles, there are surprisingly few places where scholars can get together and engage in extensive discussion about recent books of potentially great significance for the field.  The Talmud Blog’s Book Club endeavors to create just such a space. Ultimately, we’re shooting for a new kind of scholarly discourse that is able to take on numerous aspects of a work and do so in a relaxed (though serious), free-wielding conversation between friends.

The first book we’ll discuss is Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity.  Our Book Club etiquette is that we will first hear opening reflections from three readers: Amit Gevaryahu, Eva Kiesele, and Raphael Magarik.  Below you will find their (incredibly astute) thoughts and critiques about the book. They are all worth reading in full, and carefully.  Before reading them you may also want to look at Raffi’s and Amit‘s previous reviews of the book. I will serve as the MC.

For the first day or so comments will be closed to all except Amit, Eva and Raffi. This will give them time to respond to each other, if they so (demonically) desire, and I hope to weigh in as well. After that point, comments will be open to all, though we will be moderating more than normal in order to keep the discussion moving along nicely. We ask that you comment only if you have read the book, and that you direct discussion to the proper target by clicking on “reply” under the comment you want to respond to, or “leave a reply” at the end of the thread for more general reflections on the book.  To stay up-to-date with the discussion, I suggest you subscribe below, where it says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email”.  After a week of discussion, if the author wishes he will have an opportunity to respond.

Let the games begin!

Amit Gvaryahu:

Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires is in fact an inquiry into an unspoken assumption of the liberal arts: that people are, by and large, the same throughout history, and that their fundamental concerns can be discerned by inference from our own.

Rosen-Zvi begins with the philological. This should be an obvious point of departure for anyone who writes on ancient texts; sadly it is not. He surveys the existing literature and categorizes it according to time, place and milieu.

Drawing on the tremendous advances made in the study of rabbinic texts in the last fourty years – the classification of manuscripts, the critical editions, the new grammars and linguistic tools, the consciousness that various strata of a rabbinic text will not necessarily speak the same language – he is able to create a corpus of texts that is comprehensive and complete. This in itself is no mean task. The book could not have been produced without computerized tools such as Maagarim, or at least their predecessors, the Kosovski Concordances.

Rosen-Zvi, as advertised, however, goes further into investigating the origins of the yetzer hara. Not content with just a Tannaitic description of the yetzer, he discusses sugiyot in Palestinian literature (aha! They do exist!) and the Bavli, that typify and reify the yetzer even more. He manages to sketch not only a psychology of the yetzer, but a biography: the road that led the yetzer from its lowly origins to its great mastery of all that is sinful.

All that, however, is merely groundwork for what in my opinion is a groundbreaking and exciting aspect of this work: the isolation of a dialect of late antique koine. By this I mean thus: students of late antiquity are used to seeing boundaries and borders in their world as permeable and flexible. We know from amulets and synagogue floors that Jews and Gentiles both venerated Helios and the God of Israel. We know that the late antique Middle East shared myths and stories from all segments of society. Moses was a known quantity in Greek literature and he and the Jews were credited (or discredited) with various customs and laws that Greeks ridiculed and/or adopted.

Christianity of course made this koine even more monolingual: Jewish scripture in the vernacular was now a common cultural stratum that almost everyone could share (except the Zoroastrians). Literacy meant literacy of scripture and with it the sharing of even more ideas about cosmology and cosmogony, sin and salvation. Concepts and categories, for Jews and gentiles, began to overlap.

Rosen-Zvi’s work on patristic and rabbinic demonology is one locus of this overlap. Religious practitioners of both communities, rabbis and hermits, lived in common fear of evil beings that would entice them to sin, that could be warded off with constant mumbling of holy words. Salvation could be hindered by these beings, and promoted by proper spiritual exercises used against them. This is the koine.

The “Jewish Dialect” of this koine is the Amoraic yetzer. In a situation analogous to the existence of two mutually intelligible but distinct Aramaic dialects side by side in two faith communities, the rabbis reified and typified the Ishmaelian yetzer that they received from their past, into a demon with powers and weaknesses comparable to other demons in the neighborhood. But this rabbinic demon does not live outside the body, like the Christian (and Zoroastrian) demons; it lives inside it. It is the “leaven in the dough”, “a fly that lives between the two openings of the heart”.

And so, within the same semantic field of sin and salvation, with the same tools of adjuration and verbal resistance, and in the same discourse of demonology, the rabbis shaped their own distinct dialect of the late antique koine that is the evil yetzer.

This is the meaning in context of the evil yetzer. And so – to the contemporary context of the book – Rosen-Zvi contends that our own problems in life, for which we turn to Freud or William James, Durkheim or Jung, are not the problems of the ancients. The past is also a different country in the sense that the deepest concerns of its inhabitants are markedly different from ours. The yetzer is not just undeveloped language and a metaphorical image for what our psychoanalysts really know, but rather a window into a multireligious and multiethnic community – of people who were not concerned with a conflicted soul but with salvation from demons; not with mental health and hygiene but with mental and spiritual training. In that sense, Rosen-Zvi speaks Hadot in a Jewish dialect, pointing out that the people whom we (philosophers and Talmudists) identify as our spiritual forbearers are in fact colossally different from ourselves.

Eva Kiesele:

‘Demonic Desires’ is more than just the sum of Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s articles on the yetzer published over the course of a decade. It is supplemented by vast material for cross-cultural comparison, mainly Greek and Syriac patristic literature, and may well become an invaluable source for anyone interested in rabbinic anthropology. In many ways it is a reply to Daniel Boyarin’s ‘Carnal Israel’ and what has been written in its aftermath. It even delivers the famous fourth volume of Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’. But more importantly, it comes as a long due correction to the widespread trend of overreading: Yetzer discourse has for too long been charged with sexual apologetics, and has suffered from highly selective readings and from a tendency to quote from Boyarin’s oeuvre instead of quoting the primary sources. A certain polemical breeze throughout the book might be owed to this fact. ‘Demonic Desires’ undertakes to provide us with comprehensive analysis of all classical rabbinic sources instead, and with a proper blend of cross-cultural comparison, redaction and source criticism, and close readings. However, sometimes I found that in the process, overreading was replaced by underreading. This seems to be the case exactly in the two crucial aspects that are at the basis of most apologetics: dialectics and sexuality. Ishay routinely tones down sexual overtones – e.g., when GenR 22:6 describes a man who beautifies himself and prances around on the streets, he argues to read this as “pride” or “arrogance” (p. 69 and 104). But is not such “pride” simply courtship behavior, especially when (in a parallel) the “bear”- aka Mrs. Potiphar- lurks around the corner? He also spares certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression. This is not meant to refute, though. His basic tenet that sexual transgression is just one out of many sins the yetzer leads to, is certainly convincing. The common construction of Judaism as a sex-affirmative religion via the yetzer cannot be upheld after this book.

More problematic seems to me his reading of sources that present two yetzarim, or those that might shed ambivalent light on the one yetzer. In dealing with the famous homily in GenR 9:7 (והנה טוב מאוד…) he writes, “If anything, it teaches that the evil yetzer is considered as the worst thing on earth” (p. 73). This holds true for the rhetorical question, but certainly not for the following sentence in the homily. Although through redaction criticism Ishay is able to turn down the claim that yetzer meant sexual desire, he is less sensitive to the redactional contexts with regard to possible ambivalence. See, for instance, the following passage (yYom 6:4 43d), which he does not reckon among the dialectic:

“על כל סוכה וסוכה אומר לו: הרי מזון והרי מים – לייפות את כוחו.” [mYom 6:4] למה? שאין יצר הרע תעב אלא דבר שהוא אסור לו. כהדא רבי מנא סלק למבקרה לרבי חגיי, דהוה תשיש. אמר ליה: צהינא. אמר ליה: שתה! שבקיה ונחת ליה. בתר שעה סלק לגביה. אמר ליה: מה עבדת ההיא צהיותך? אמר ליה: כד שרית לי, אזלת לה.רבי חייה בר בא הוה משתעי הדין עובדא: חד בר נש הוה מהלך בשוקא וברתיה עימיה. אמרה ליה ברתיה: אבא, צהייא אנא! אמר לה: אורכין ציבחד. א”ל: אבא, צהייא אנא! א”ל: אורכין ציבחד.ומיתת. ר’ אחא כד מפני מוספא הוה אמר: קומיהון אחינן, מאן דאית ליה מיינוק, ייזיל בגיניה!

The yetzer is no doubt introduced as sin as such; but the anecdote of the sick rabbi gives an almost ridiculous touch to the principle (why would a sick person not be allowed to drink?), and the death of the daughter clearly marks horribly exaggerated practice. While this passage is probably intended to reject asceticism, it does invest the yetzer implicitly with a quality of a drive necessary for survival – and compare this to GenR 9:7, or similarly, the passage in bYom 69b where the יצרא דעבירה gets blinded. A concept of a life-sustaining impulse existed in Stoic thought and was most probably known to the rabbis – s. the Stoically tinged dialogues of Antoninus and Rabbi. The only explanation Ishay offers regarding dialectic sources is that they are probably remnants of some midrash on מעשה בראשית. The text quoted here, however, is not at all related to creation. He pushes his point very hard when he categorically rejects the possibility of a parallel, more ambivalent notion of the yetzer.

Ishay’s review of Greek and Syriac sources is a landmark in understanding the nature and development of the yetzer. The parallels he presents are compelling, both regarding the yetzer’s demonic nature and the process of its internalization. But I do miss a third party to cross-cultural comparison: the Persian sources. The notorious difficulties in their dating aside, they share so many points of contact that it is a loss to exclude them from the picture. Qumranic demonology in general  – the assumed origin of demonic yetzer discourse – is believed by Shaked and others to be influenced by Zoroastrianism. But more specifically: At least in the more sophisticated strata of Zoroastrian literature, demons are characterized by a negative ontology – they are non-existent and “are” non-existence. The way these demons work is not causing illness or mishaps, they are there to deny and destroy religious law and the good creation, or in Ishay’s own terms for the yetzer: sin qua sin. They enter from the outside and occupy people’s minds. And just like in patristic and rabbinic literature, if you neglect religious study you become easier prey to the demons. The development of psychological traits into reified entities is typical of Zoroastrian thought; and these demons are highly “moral”. In chapter 27 of the Bundahišn (the Iranian account of creation), e.g., they are held responsible for such vices as a-rāh (“leaving the proper path”), slander, illicit intercourse, and most prominently: wrath (xešm or aēšma – the model for talmudic Ashmeday), ultimately leading down the slippery slope to heresy. Rings a bell? Yup. These demons also cause you to entertain religious study without a teacher. This said, I am doubtful whether “moral demonology” is in fact a Judeo-Christian contribution, nor is the yeshivish/monastic perspective necessarily so. I would like to make a strong claim that we have to enlarge the demonic koine.

While I do not consider the omission of Persian sources a shortcoming per se (and to be fair, Ishay admits that he leaves these texts for “specialists in the Middle Persian language and Zoroastrian culture” [p. 12]), I do think that ‘Demonic Desires’ is facing a methodological problem here. Yishay’s approach is total analysis in order to reach bold conclusions regarding the notion’s origin and development. But these conclusions may become less reliable if you do not actually consider all relevant data. For example, he describes multiple moves of in- and externalization of the yetzer and finds that the Babylonian yetzer, with its national dimension, quite surprisingly, seems closer to the Qumranic yetzer than to the tannaitic one. Ishay speculates that an “old Jewish tradition [had been] consciously ignored by early rabbis” (p. 80). Would it not be more plausible to assume that an originally Persian concept, which had reached Qumran and from there the rabbis, was revived upon returning home?

In my eyes, the most fascinating parts of the book are the analyses of the yetzer’s functions on a meta-level. There is the yetzer as rhetorical device: certain answers to halakhic lacunae are, although theoretically acceptable, marked off as no-go territory by labeling them as the yetzer’s suggestion. Don’t even think about it – this is yetzer hara! Here we are right in the kitchen of rabbinic cultural policy: the yetzer is used to draw the boundaries of rabbinic identity where it cannot be negotiated by means of argument. Ishay points out that social “others” (heretics, philosophers, matrons, etc.) fulfill a similar function of marking “forbidden” arguments, but that the yetzer is unique in that it is never engaged through dialogue. I am tempted to understand this as: The arguments presented by the yetzer do not actually belong to any “other” that one could argue with, being factually kosher, but the rabbis do not want them to be “us”, either. Awkwardly, they are “us” that is not really “us”. If so, the same mechanism works on both the collective and the individual level: the yetzer is a part of “me” that is not really “me” (cf. p. 129). This construction is a bit unwieldy, but summarizes in the best possible way the underlying dilemma: it is exactly the yetzer that allows the rabbis to legally access not only human actions but their thoughts (s. the chapter on sexuality for this ethical “inward turn”); but it cannot be allowed to “become” a thought – and thus an integral part of “me” – because such would topple the basic positive anthropology. Is this the solution to the problem of human transgression of a society that already has a notion of personal agency and responsibility but not yet a notion of an autonomous subject (into the mind of which transgressive thoughts could be integrated)? Ishay touches here on so far almost untrodden grounds, and he rightly is careful not to use too many philosophical anachronisms. In spite of such restrictions, ‘Demonic Desires’ lays excellent ground for future inquiry into the rabbinic concept of the “self”. And in doing so, it delivers yet another desideratum: beginning to integrate rabbinic literature into Peter Brown’s account of late antiquity.

Raphael Magarik

First off, I’d like to thank Shai and Yitz for asking me to contribute: unlike other participants, I’m only an amateur student of rabbinics, and it’s a great pleasure to be involved in this type of conversation around a great book.

Second, since I’d like to pick up where my review left off. In the review, I identified what I see as the book’s central move, namely shifting the context for yetzer from Hellenistic psychology (in the sense of philosophical study of the psyche) to Patristic demonology. I should say, for the little it’s worth, that the shift seems to me totally convincing.

I then raised two related questions, one internal to the book’s argument and one external. As I’m just an amateur, these will be fuzzy and philosophical — not technical or historically specific — responses.

(1) Is there a functional difference between these two discourses — do demons actually work differently than psyches, or are they just a different metaphorical register? This is a question Rosen-Zvi engages with in a number of ways, most directly when he points out that “there is no true dichotomy between character and being”—that is, between a psyche and a demon—”only a spectrum of levels of reification.”

I’d like to push the point a little: I’m not sure that some of the purported distinguishing features of demons cannot also be attributed to psychological complexes or parts of the soul. Two of those features (I think) are: that the yetzer can be defeated, that it encourages not bodily tempting sins but rather those that are specifically evil (or perhaps those which are marked as “outside” communally). But Freud thought he could cure neuroses, and I believe certain American Christians understand “Free Grace” as indicating that salvation effects a basic personality change in a person. And on the second point, not only psychological entities are bodily (Freud’s id is, but his death-drive, I think, is not), and as the death-drive illustrates, not all psychological desires are continuous with plausibly pleasurable motivations.

Now, to be clear, I’m not questioning Rosen-Zvi’s individual points about rabbinic yetzer — those seem to me astute, novel, and exciting: I’m just curious as to what’s at stake saying something like (my words), “We believe in psychology; the rabbis believed in demons” — can such a statement make a functional difference? Does Freud believe in psyches, or demons? What difference does it make? This question, of course, is a bit of a Pragmatist intervention and blends somewhat into the next one, as I’m not really worried about “whether the yetzer was a demon”: I’m not sure whether the implicit question about rabbinic ontology (what was the yetzer?) is very important at all.

(2) What’s the book’s larger intellectual project — how does Rosen-Zvi’s dispassionate historicization jive with his mentor Boyarin’s “recovery” of a usable rabbinic history? to put that question in less parochial terms, why excavate the demonological context to the yetzer now?

On this point, I’ve said a little in the review, and the question’s not so much even the mild, uncertain critique of (1) — it’s really just curiosity. Antiquarianism (in the strict Nietzschean sense) is not the most common form of socio-cultural history around today. In  footnote 14 on page 136, Rosen-Zvi says something to the effect that even Foucault needs to be problematized — well, from what angle? Do we need to return to traditional questions about the nature of evil? Recognize that the rabbis were more primitive (and their concerns more remote from our own) than we’d like to believe?

Boyarin says somewhere that the goal of writing an academic book is to get people to buy onto your historical story even if they don’t share your philosophical or political agenda — i.e., to argue for a history persuasively. I think that’s right, and I’m curious is a) Rosen-Zvi does — perhaps he takes a more positivist line about discovering the past? and b) if so, what are those commitments? I think that though Boyarin’s right to say that the point of writing history is to persuade the unsympathetic reader (and thus appeals to the commitments are invalid in the argument itself), readers still ought to know (or at least are going to be curious!) what those commitments are.