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.

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10 thoughts on “W(h)ither Rabbinics”

  1. Well I never did “rabbinics”. In Israel I was in a Talmud department and when I came to the States they wanted to call my chair the Herman and Sophia Taubman Chair of Rabbinics. I asked if we could change it to Chair of Talmudic Culture and the answer I got was as long as I leave the stuff before Chair alone I could call it what I like. But my field is Talmud and that’s what I’ll continue to call it, just as someone might identify their field as Chaucer or Dante.

  2. But isn’t there a meaningful difference between patristics and rabbinics in the size of the swath of time implied in the two terms? If I study Mishnah through Midrash, I cover a huge range of time and geography that the periodization language (e.g. “late antiquity”) can’t effectively cover.

  3. We have the same problem in “modern Jewish philosophy,” a designation that seems to have left the field stuck in Weimar Germany and outside broader and more contemporary currents of theoretical discourse.

  4. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    THIS IS VERY INTERESTING. SATLOW”S TAKE-AWAY IS THIS: “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.”

  5. Reblogged this on Sacramentalities:
    http://www.sacramentalities.org/2012/10/12/disciplinarity-jewish-studies-vs-rabbinics/

    From the standpoint of someone who wants to enter the field (whatever it’s called) rather than someone who’s already in it, such debates have more pragmatic than intellectual stakes. After all, when it comes to decisions which actually shape the field, like publications, hires, and tenure, senior scholars don’t need to apply labels like “Rabbinics” in order to evaluate new contributions. As the sociology of knowledge shows more generally, these key judgments are actually made at both more broad levels (“Does this contribution address fundamental problems?”) and more specific ones (“Are its claims novel and defensible within one of the current paradigms or, more charitably, within its own framework?”). In stark contrast, statements like “Her [sic] work is excellent, but though it’s about the same stuff, it’s just not what ‘we’ do” are usually “disciplinary” in a Foucaultian sense: attempts to seize a center by arbitrarily marking a periphery.

    To avoid this tendency, perhaps the broad label (why not just “rabbinic Judaism”?) should be used as a tool for communicating with outsiders, helping to support the field’s continued existence by reassuring them that it possess intellectual capital (including that amorphous juju also known as prestige). On the other hand, within the field’s boundaries thus circumscribed, decisions should be strictly meritocratic rather than disciplinary, with the understanding that “merit” is relative to the shifting norms and politics of the scholarly community.

  6. I think there’s another piece to this as well, namely the continued trajectory of rabbinic literature beyond late antiquity into the Middle Ages, Modernity and on. Viewed in that light, tgebrubric of Rabbinics may still afford a helpful rubric (certainly as regards cultural history) – as long as it steers clear of the kind of insularity and fuzzy-at-the-edges ahistoricism that Mike, if I read him correctlly, is wisely urging us to avoid.

  7. In re Mirsky; again in Israel that’s exactly what “rabbinic literature” means, namely the post-late-antique while the term literature of the Sages is reserved for the Late Antique. Seems a useful distinction.

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