Seek and Ye Shall Find: On Federico Dal Bo’s Feminist Commentary on Karetot

Federico Dal Bo, Massekhet Keritot. A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud V/7. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013. IX+487 pp. €129

Massekhet KeritotFederico Dal Bo is a very talented individual. This is the impression the reader gets not only from his unassuming biography on page II (two PhDs in unrelated disciplines awarded four years apart!), but also from even a cursory perusal of his new commentary on one of the most neglected corners of the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Karetot. It takes talent, and courage, to undertake a project as audacious and comprehensive as the title promises. When I picked up the hefty volume, I couldn’t help thinking that what I would really like is just a commentary on Karetot; the feminist observations could wait for later, when I could understand what I was reading, and try to understand why it was created.

Dal Bo plods through the tractate, first the Mishnah, then the Talmud, locating places which are “gender relevant,” and offers first “general observations,” and then “feminist observations.” He does so meticulously, offering texts in the original for the reader to peruse (he scrupulously notifies the reader that these are taken from the Bar-Ilan Responsa project, p. 27). Dal Bo does his homework in other areas as well. The special forms of Babylonian Aramaic found in the “canonized” manuscript family of the tractate are discussed and explained using Yohanan Breuer’s 2007 article on the subject (pp. 19-24). Dal Bo is also probably the only person outside of Dr. Yoav Rosenthal’s Talmud Seminar who has read the latter’s PhD from cover to cover, and discusses at length the gender-related implications of the variant form of the sugiya Rosenthal found in a JTS genizah fragment he designated G2 (pp. 25-27) . This is an ingenious, if somewhat tenuous, use of what some might term “boring” material for exciting and – if correct – important implications. To all this Dal Bo adds nearly 50 pages of an introduction, first on the basic concepts governing the tractate, and then on his “method,” which he bills as a combination of the “Brisker method,” (pp. 31-38) and deconstructionism (pp. 38-41), and an appendix on the relevant parallels in the Yerushalmi.

Soon I discovered that Dal Bo and I shared the same issues with the tractate. We are both bewildered by the technical language, the many improbable examples used to illustrate theoretical cases (e.g. “his wife and his sister are with him in the house. He mistakenly slept with one, but he does not know with which one of them he slept.”, m. Kar. 4:1 – Dal Bo thinks that the fact that the women are not asked means they are not reliable in this matter; I am skeptical). The central place assigned to sexual transgressions in the scheme of “36 kareitot, excisions, in the Torah,” is puzzling, and the divergence between rabbinic – and biblical – sexual mores and our own is at times disturbing.

In the blurb to the book, however, Dal Bo advertises that he found that both Mishnah and Talmud do not discuss women as independent sexual agents, that like scripture they are more concerned with the sexual rights of men over women than the sexual rights of the women actually violated or compromised in the acts of incest discussed with such impunity in Karetot. Additionally, Dal Bo finds that the rabbis privilege heterosexual sex and heteronormative mores, and that they do not perceive of sex between consenting men as a legitimate sexual choice. He repeats these conclusions in numerous locations throughout the commentary. Be the importance of these findings what they may, they are not what is important about this book, and what its potential might have been. A good “feminist commentary,” at this stage of scholarship should have been a presentation of those passages the author considered relevant to gender studies, their translation, and a concise commentary, highlighting those aspects which are more pertinent to the discipline. This would have allowed access to the Babylonian Talmud, and especially this obscure tractate, to the wider scholarly community.

Dal Bo’s book in fact contains that book, to which it adds many layers of commentary and editorializing. Dal Bo offers the reader 9 (!) pages on the etymology of the term KRT and eponymous punishment of excision, only to notify the reader, on p. 10, that the tractate “neither deals with the procedure of excision…nor explains its rationale and theological presuppositions.” Similarly, it seems that the (questionable) comparison of man-on-man sex with bestiality could easily have been discussed in a short footnote, and the lengthy discussion of the rabbinic conception of “heterosexuality in nature” could have been omitted completely (pp. 176-178). The long discussion of blood rituals as social markers could have been omitted as well, as the tractate discusses no blood rituals. He sometimes feels that he must write on matters not present in the text at all, like female converts and nazirites (pp. 78-82). The comparative material he chooses to offer is usually irrelevant (absent additional evidence, contacts between Rabbis and Hittites were scant at best; see pp. 43-44), and the relevant material is overlooked. In this context, two Zoroastrian institutions stand out. The first is the counting and classification of sins, and the second is “Xwēdōdah,” “next of kin marriage,” which carries the power to crush many sins and create much merit. More merit is created the more consanguineous the marriage is; cf. the Bavli’s discussions (b. Kar. 15a) of “his sister who is his father’s sister who is his mother’s sister,” explaining that a man, רשיעא בר רשיעא, slept with his aunt, who is both his father’s daughter and his mother’s daughter. (I wonder if the name רשיעא is a pun on a similar sounding Persian word) See also the series of riddles in b. Yev. 97 a-b and on them Yaakov Elman, “‘He in His Cloak and She in Her Cloak’: Conflicting Images of Sexuality in Sasanian Mesopotamia,” in Rivka Ulmer, ed., Discussing Cultural Influences: Text, Context, and Non-Text in Rabbinic Judaism: Proceedings of a Conference on Rabbinic Judaism at Bucknell University, Lanham, Maryland, 2007a, pp. 129-164. “Zoroastrian,” and “Persian” do not even appear in the index.

The writing is often convoluted, and a volume this size should have been properly edited for style and content prior to its publication. This would also have picked up some embarrassing mistakes in the book.

pp. 178-183: Deuteronomy 23:18 states that the payment of a whore and the price of a dog may not be used as sacrifices. Ancient Jewish interpreters, and in fact all ancient interpreters I was able to find, read “dog” as just that: a dog. This law is reiterated in Mishnah Temurah and codified by Maimonides. However, The NJPS translation, following another, later, interpretation, reads “dog” as “male prostitute” (see e.g. Avrabanel ad loc. who attributes this interpretation to himself and marks it as against the simple meaning). Dal Bo dubs the latter interpretation the “traditional rabbinic interpretation”, and proceeds to debunk it using not only contemporary biblical scholarship but (surprise!) the Mishnah in tractate Temurah. What Dal Bo marks the “traditional” interpretation is in fact nothing of the sort.

pp. 82-84: Dal-Bo’s cursory discussion of m. Kar. 2:2 on pp. 82-84, where he does not notice that the Mishnah is referring to Lev 19:20, on which he himself delivered a paper at an SBL convention, should have been redacted out of the book. An editor would also have been able to clean up the relatively numerous typographical errors and inconsistencies (nazirite or nazarite?). A book this size is not a simple production, but should constitute a lasting contribution to scholarship. That is what this series purports to be, and it should be more diligent about these things.

Sometimes a poetic soul shines through: Dal Bo’s discussion of רחמנא as the feminine aspect of the Law, with a Derridian flourish, kabbalistic evidence, and a quotation of Lévinas, is inspiring (but dubious; there is no evidence to suggest that רחמנא means anything other than “God,” and the form is unequivocally masculine). Another inspring moment is found in the erroneous interpretation of אם למקרא as “scripture embracing scripture’s interpreters,” in which the feminine רחמנא (may she forgive me) and Lévinas make yet another appearance (pp. 387-389).

At the end of the tractate, Dal Bo tries to tie the closing formula תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם to the tractate itself. “It is not incidental,” he writes, “that such exaltation of the disciples of the sages is extant in texts particularly involved in gender issues” (p. 424) but it seems that in fact it is; those who recited this tractate wanted to end it with something nice. As he notes (p. 422) several other such formulary endings exist, in four other tractates. Similar endings abound, and vary from manuscript to manuscript. Dal Bo’s long excursus on the gloss added in some MSS,אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך (absent not only from G6 and two other MSS [M and V2], which he notes, but also from O, which Dal Bo himself claims is the “original copy” of the tractate) should perhaps be read as part of this tradition. (I cannot resist pointing out that בוניך is not used in a “paraphrase” of Isaiah from Qumran but is in fact a bona fide manuscript of the book of Isaiah – 1QIsa, as Dal Bo notes – and also that it has nothing to do with builders, but means “understanders,” from the root בונ, whence also בינה, wisdom. This is why the sages, those who understand, increase peace in the world. The homily is meaningless otherwise, except when quoted by Franz Rosenzweig)

At the end of the book, I remain with the same questions: what really motivated the Tannaim to create this hodge-podge of a tractate? What is its structure? Why is sexual misconduct specifically the target of so much “excision” in scripture? What is the relationship between Mishnah Karetot and the scriptures that undergird it? And, I think most importantly in this context, what does the Babylonian Talmud do with these and parallel materials? Is there another agenda at play in that work? How is the exegetical work connected with specifically Babylonian concerns, and how can these concerns be found in the text? These questions are not the focal point of a feminist commentary. But they are puzzling to students of the Bavli, including both Dal Bo and myself. Dal Bo’s often unclear explanations of what exactly is going on in the text is a sure sign that they must be grappled with before any other analysis is applied to the text.

Under the layers of erudition – and verbosity – Dal Bo treats us to, lies a genuine and legitimate bewilderment with this work. Perhaps if he had exposed his questions, he would also have exposed the good book that is hiding inside this feminist commentary on Bavli Karetot: a list of, and a short commentary on the “gender-relevant” sections of this obscure tracate of Bavli, which he has done an admirable job of trying to understand and make accessible to others.

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