Conference Review: Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History: Late Antique and Medieval Transformations, University of California, Berkeley, April 23-24- Guest Post by Marc Herman

I confess that I arrived at the conference last week with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Though billed as a treatment of “Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History,” I worried that the conference’s subtitle and chronological frame, “Late Antique and Medieval Transformations,” lightly masked a correlation of Islamic:Medieval and Jewish:Late Antique.  As I reviewed the schedule in advance, I noticed that the symposium poster announced scholars of classical rabbinics in conversation with scholars of medieval Islam.  How, I wondered, would this create a valid historical conversation?  And if history is not the goal, why study late antique Judaism alongside medieval Islam?  Would the goals be ecumenical?  Philosophical?  The theoretical study of law?

When Lena Salaymeh, one of the organizers, opened the symposium with a nod to the above disparity, it began an honest discussion of the challenge of placing Islamic and Jewish law in synchronic conversation.  The pride of place of rabbinics in both Jewish Studies and the popular Jewish imagination leads to a concomitant lack of emphasis on the medieval transmitters and interpreters of rabbinic culture.  Even among those who have studied medieval Rabbanite law, far greater work has been done on Jewish law in Latin Europe than on its counterpart in Arabic lands.  Recent decades have seen a resurgence of interest in Geonica, but surprising lacunae include Jewish law in Muslim Andalusia, North African halakhists, and even, relatively speaking, the legal writings of Maimonides.  Many books could be written about these and other topics, both from an “internal” perspective and by understanding them in light of their Muslim contexts.

This is not to say that the conference papers did not contribute to the study of Muslim and Jewish law in concert.  While previous scholarship has acknowledged connections between Sasanian-era rabbinic and nascent Islamic legal systems, these connections await thorough scrutiny.  G. Libson and others have long championed S. D. Goitein’s “Mediterranean society” view of medieval Judaism and Islam, but scholarship has not always appreciated regional or contextual factors in medieval Jewish legal history.  Developments in the study of Sasanian culture will improve the study of both Geonic-era Islamic and Jewish legal cultures.  Yaakov Elman’s paper, to nobody’s surprise, served as a good touchstone for that project. Only in teasing out what I like to call the “late antique soup” of the pre-Geonic world will we properly understand the rise of Islamic law.

Phenomenologically, I was most excited by the papers of Steven Fraade and Mohammad Fadel.  Fraade analyzed rabbinic traditions that valorize legal pluralism, while Fadel focused on the unusual positions of Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), who lived at the end of Muslim hegemony in al-Andalus and rejected the “normative pluralism” of medieval Sunni orthodoxy.  Though it went unmentioned, it is highly suggestive that as a religious minority, Geonic culture famously downplayed the multivocal vision of the rabbis, conceivably for similar reasons to Ibn Hazm.

A good conference is marked by the questions it poses and the avenues it opens, and this conference was no exception.  In her closing review of the proceedings, Talya Fishman outlined three areas of Jewish studies that could be enhanced by greater understanding of Islamic law: (1) the consolidation of legal traditions in the Geonic period; (2) a change in the “technology” of the law (from oral to written Torah); and (3) Geonic epistemology and treatment of both aggadah and halakhah.  To this list one may add the lacunae mentioned above, as well as scholarly understanding of Karaism (something this blog has recently highlighted).  Ultimately, Judeo-Islamic studies remains a young and exciting field.

Marc Herman is a graduate student in The University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Religious Studies.

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2 thoughts on “Conference Review: Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History: Late Antique and Medieval Transformations, University of California, Berkeley, April 23-24- Guest Post by Marc Herman”

  1. “as a religious minority, Geonic culture famously downplayed the multivocal vision of the rabbis,”

    Presumably, the Amoraic culture was also a religious minority. Or are you thinking of the Karaites?

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