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 , 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.