Review: Maggie Anton’s Rav Hisda’s Daughter- Guest Post by Ilana Kurshan

At our Talmud Blog-Jerusalem event, we described some of the ways that the TB community can participate in the larger conversation that we hope to foster here. At the top of the list is writing posts for the blog. And so we are happy to present a short review written by Ilana Kurshan, a friend, devoted reader of the blog, and member of the Talmud Blog community, about Maggie Anton‘s latest novel, Rav Hisda’s Daughter. The review was published in Lilith Magazine (Fall 2012; 37.3) and is cross-posted from Ilana’s blog.

Towards the end of Rav Hisda’s Daughter (Plume, $16), Maggie Anton’s eponymous heroine returns to her home in Babylon after four long years in the land of Israel and is greeted by her father with the words, “Blessed are You, Adonai…. Who revives the dead.” Anton has made quite a career out of reviving the dead, first with her trilogy of novels bringing to life Rashi’s three daughters, and now with her imaginative tale of the daughter of the third-century Talmudic sage Rav Hisda.

The novel’s opening scene is closely based on the Talmudic story in which Rav Hisda’s young daughter sits on her father’s lap while his two leading students stand before him. Rav Hisda asks his daughter which one of them she would like to marry, and she greedily responds, “both of them.” One of the students—arguably the more quick-witted—immediately pipes up, “I’ll go second!” This story sets the stage for Anton’s tale, in which Hisdadukh—Anton invents her name, which is Persian for “Daughter of Hisda”—is betrothed first to Rami bar Chama, the love of her youth and the father of her two children. Following Rami’s tragic and sudden death after just five years of marriage, Hisda is betrothed to the other student, the harsh and hardened Rava. The novel follows Hisdadukh not just from one husband to another, but also from her home in the Babylonia, where she is one of two daughters and seven sons in an illustrious rabbinic family, to the Galilee, where she mingles with amulet scribes, early Christians, and the great scholars of Tiberias, Caesaria, and Sepphoris. It is in Sepphoris that Anton imagines that Hisdadukh serves as the model for the iconic “Mona Lisa of Galilee,” a floor mosaic that remains a popular archeological attraction in Israel today.

Many of the conversations and characters in this novel are lifted straight of the pages of the Talmud. But as the Talmud is not a work of history—Anton may be the first to call it “historical fiction”—even these elements of the novel may raise eyebrows: “Everyone knew that the Evil Eye was responsible for a great deal of misery in the world. Rav, Father’s teacher, once went to a cemetery and cast a spell that let him talk to the dead. Ninety-nine told him they’d died from the Evil Eye and only one from bad air.” We must be as skeptical of the historicity of Anton’s account as we are of the Talmud’s narration of this incident in tractate Bava Metzia. And so in terms of authenticity, perhaps Rav Hisda’s Daughter has an advantage over Rashi’s Daughters, since there is no pretense that the former is based on historical sources. When Anton succeeds best, she brings Talmudic debates to life by showing the very human personalities and passions behind the various legal positions. And so when Rami and Rava debate the laws of inheritance, Anton suggests that they are in fact really fighting over Hisdadukh; thus their battle of wits is also a sort of romantic duel.

Anton’s novel is rooted not just in the soil of the Talmudic text but also in the field of academic Talmud study today, which is apparent even without glancing at her impressive bibliography or the list of illustrious international scholars she acknowledges. Hisdadukh is a student of Torah arguably modeled on her Palestinian counterpart Beruria, but she is also an enchantress who makes magical incantation bowls of the sort discovered by archeologists in the area that is now Iraq and Iran. The discussions that come alive in this book are Talmudic as well as academic, which may explain why this novel will have so much appeal for readers like myself who are steeped in the Talmudic text and the scholarship about its context. For readers who do not experience the pleasure of the familiar in its fictionalized form, Anton’s novel celebrates our rich and colorful textual heritage and reminds us that feminist history is often a return to the material and the real – to the beer the scholars drank, the springs in which they bathed, the cycle of blood that dictated their most intimate relationships, and the rooms in which they studied texts that occasionally refer to wives and daughters whose lives we can at best imagine.

The Talmud Blog Hosts Michal Bar Asher-Siegal

In a beautifully appointed Jerusalem home, and framed by some Avigdor Arikha, Michal Bar Asher-Siegal led an extremely animated discussion that compared many of the motifs comprising the Bavli’s Resh Lakish story cycle with similar elements from Syriac Christian hagiographical texts. Like those cool guys from Chicago, Michal was on a mission to convince scholars of the significance and necessity of reading the Talmud alongside these (then) very popular Christian works.  And in our humble opinion, she succeeded marvelously. For those of you who want to see if you’re convinced, we’ve uploaded the audio of the lecture here, and the handout here.  Let us know what you think!

The Talmud Blog Hosts Zvi Septimus

It’s 10:00pm in New York, and, like many others, I’m watching the debate. But there’s one thing that I can’t stop thinking about, and that’s the lecture that I just heard at Drisha by Zvi Septimus, “Was Resh Lakish a Hedonist or an Ascetic? How The Bavli Conveys Meaning”.

For all of those who couldn’t make it, the audio of the lecture is available here, and here’s the audio of the questions and answers (some may want to listen to them before the lecture itself). The sourcesheet is available here. And for those in Jerusalem next week, make sure to come hear Michal Bar-Asher Siegal speak about “The Babylonian Talmud and Christian literature: Resh Lakish and the Monastic Repentant Robber“!

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W(h)ither Rabbinics

As contemporary academics, many of us are both cursed and  blessed with a chronic condition of acute-hyper-self-awareness. We cannot simply do what it is that we do. We must question, prod, examine, and analyze our vocation and ourselves to death. A pair of recent articles published by two prominent Talmudists aid us in this sorry task. Both take on the state of Rabbinics, and interestingly enough arrive at different destinations.  The first essay, by David Stern, “Rabbinics and Jewish Identity: An American Perspective,” appears in the just released Ben Gurion University volume, Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief (ed. Daniel J. Lasker), which is based on a 2010 conference held at BGU (the audio of Stern’s lecture is available here). The second, by Ishay Rosen-Zvi “לחלן את התלמוד” (‘Secularizing the Talmud’) appears in Teuda 23 (2012). We’d like to invite our readers to read these essays, and in the coming days weigh in on the important issues they raise. To get us going we are happy to present a rather provocative reaction by Michael Satlow, who has just joined the Talmud blog as a contributor. Enjoy the essays, read Satlow’s reflections, digest, and then join us in a spirited conversation in the comments section below!

Going…Going…Where? “Rabbinics” according to Google’s ngram

Rabbinics Must Die

In our line of work, the word “rabbinics” hardly raises an eyebrow; it is, after all, what we “do.”  When pressed by our colleagues for a quick word or phrase to describe what we do, many of us (and I include myself here) frequently say that we are “in rabbinics.”  The term has long nagged me.  Recently, though, having read two excellent and complementary essays by our esteemed colleagues David Stern and Ishay Rosen-Zvi on Shai and Yitz’s recommendation, I have finally been able to articulate why I am so uncomfortable with the term.

Stern’s essay is a personal reflection on the trajectory of “rabbinics” that nevertheless advances a strong explanatory argument.  Contrary to all reasonable expectations, the study of rabbinics in America has flourished, both within Jewish studies and more widely throughout the academy.  There are several reasons for this, Stern argues, but the primary one is the distinctive way in which American colleges and universities organize knowledge.  Rabbinics, Stern writes, “has been decisively, fundamentally, shaped  by currents in the American academy and its peculiarly inter-disciplinary – or post-disciplinary – fluidity” (19).  At the same time, this fluidity has brought a wider academic audience to rabbinic literature.

Rosen-Zvi’s essay also focuses on the relationship between the study of rabbinic literature (מחקר התלמוד, which I take to be functionally equivalent to rabbinics) and its wider context, but this time in the Israeli academy.  Rosen-Zvi is most concerned with the blurry line between the “secular” and non-secular study of rabbinic literature.  While on the one hand he appropriately recognizes that the study of this literature, like everything else, can never be entirely “pure” and disinterested, he also calls on his colleagues to remain conscious of the values – if not religious, then cultural, apologetic, or national – that they bring to their scholarship.  The purpose of this awareness, it would seem (although Rosen-Zvi does not explicitly say this), is to make the study of this literature more “secular” or “normal.”

Stern and Rosen-Zvi appear to agree that the application of modern, secular academic approaches to rabbinic literature is intellectually productive and worthwhile; that rabbinic literature has much to contribute to the wider academy; and that there is a (perhaps decreasing) difference between how American and Israeli academics study this literature that is based on both wider cultural issues and the organization of the academies themselves.  While I disagree with a point here and there in these essays, I am fully on board with their larger appraisals.

These essays are more descriptive than prescriptive, but they raise the question of how we might continue to further the flourishing of “rabbinics” within the academy, both in Israel and America.  One thing that I believe we can do to accomplish this is, paradoxically, to kill “rabbinics,” a category that Stern and Rosen-Zvi largely take for granted.

The fundamental problem is that “rabbinics” implies both a body of literature and a distinctive methodology or approach to that literature.  In some quarters in Israel this perhaps accurately describes, for good or bad, how rabbinic literature is studied (e.g., philologically in a “department” of Talmud).  In the American academy, however, “rabbinics” is not a discipline.  Those of us who primarily use rabbinic literature are situated in departments of religious studies (most frequently), language and culture, and history.  We are scholars trained in a particular discipline who use rabbinic texts for our data.  I do not “do rabbinics.”  I “do” Jewish history in antiquity, using rabbinic texts as one (even if it is the primary) set of sources.

This might seem like the kind of inconsequential terminological squabble in which scholars regularly engage, but I think that there really is something at stake.  To assert, even in a lazy and casual way, that there is a distinct area of study called “rabbinics” works against our desire to normalize rabbinic texts and their study within the academy.  When a colleague says that I work in “rabbinics” they are also implicitly asserting that I do not primarily work in “late antique religions” or history.  Despite the many successes rightly held up by Stern, the study of rabbinic literature and its authors remains fairly tightly circumscribed within the academy:  few scholars who specialize in rabbinic writings, for example, can be found in comparative literature or philosophy departments, although both disciplines can profitably be applied to them.  To see oneself, and to be seen, as a scholar of literature who specializes in rabbinic texts presents a different profile than as one who does rabbinics.

Here we might draw a lesson from our colleagues who used to be in the field called “patristics.”  Over the last few decades, the scholars in this field have themselves largely killed it, transforming it into the study of “late antiquity.”  They find themselves as scholars of religious studies, history, and classics (an academic division with its own complicated problems).  They have largely left it to the theologians to preserve the traditional modes of reading the Church fathers.  I think that most would consider this terminological and conceptual transformation to have been largely successful; it has both enlarged their own conception of their academic field and has helped them to grow within the context of the American academy.   I think that we have something to learn from their experience.

I am not arguing that those of us who apply different disciplinary frameworks to rabbinic literature have nothing in common and cannot learn from each other, only that the supercategory “rabbinics” obscures boundaries that ultimately are useful to us.  As Stern emphasizes, the American academy allows and at times encourages academic work across traditional disciplinary boundaries.  (I will leave it to my Israeli colleagues to comment on how this plays out in their context.)  Just as there is an organization that facilitates discussions among those who utilize Shakespeare in different disciplinary frameworks, so too we should continue to facilitate interdisciplinary discussions among those who deal with rabbinic literature.  And just as the North American Patristics Society brings together secular and religious academics, so too frameworks exist to enable this kind of discussion among those who work on rabbinic literature.  Let’s just, as Rosen-Zvi urges, be clear about what we are doing.

“Rabbinics” has led a long and productive life.  It is now time, however, for it to pass the way of patristics.

Introducing the ‘Real’ Talmud Blog: Two Events in NYC and Jerusalem

The Talmud Blog is a place – a virtual one, that is – where regular writers and guest authors gather to talk about everything and anything relating to classical rabbinic literature and its effect on Jewish culture. Ultimately, we hope that the blog serves as a kind of scholarly community – a virtual one, that is – for specialists and interested laypeople alike. But there is no doubt that virtual space can sometimes seem cold and impersonal.

For that reason we’re happy to announce two upcoming ‘real’ events that we’ll be hosting later in October on both sides of the Atlantic. Both events will feature two young and cutting-edge scholars of the Babylonian Talmud, an opportunity to socialize with the people you may know only virtually, and a chance to hear about some of The Talmud Blog’s plans. We ask you, loyal reader, to join us for an event (if you live nearby) and to spread the word to potentially interested friends and colleagues.

Join our growing list of co-sponsors for only a hundred dollars. Contributions of other sizes are, of course, also welcome. Those interested are invited to contact us at thetalmudblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • On Tuesday, October 16, at 7:15pm, Zvi Septimus will be leading a discussion on “Was Resh Lakish the Gladiator an Ascetic or a Hedonist? How the Bavli Conveys Meaning” at Drisha, 37 West 65th Street, 5th Floor, New York.
  • On Tuesday, October 23, at 8pm, Michal Bar-Asher Siegal will be leading a discussion in Hebrew on “The Babylonian Talmud and Christian literature: Resh Lakish and the Monastic Repentant Robber”. The event is being graciously hosted by the Pomrenze family at their home, 6 Crémieux Street, German Colony, Jerusalem.

PLEASE JOIN US AND RSVP either by emailing us at thetalmudblog at gmail dot com, or by signing up on the Facebook event pages (New York event page; Jerusalem event page).