All posts by Ron Naiweld

BenGurionSeder

On the Israeli Seder: Four Fragments

Back in July I posted some thoughts on the National Library’s final event of the series “נפגשים בבלי”. I wrote how I was pleasantly surprised to see that the event did not uncomplicatedly celebrate the new place of the Talmud in Israeli society, rather it satirized it, problematized it, and productively questioned it. What follows are some sharp thoughts in that vein by the blog’s resident cultural critic- S.S.
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Rabbinic Spiritual Capital: A Review of ‘Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity’

Oppenheimer volumeBenjamin Isaac and Yuval Shahar (eds.), Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012).

This volume is a collection of seventeen articles presented at a 2009 conference held at Tel Aviv University in honor of Aharon Oppenheimer on the occasion of his retirement. Oppenheimer is known to scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity thanks to his work on a vast range of topics, many of which are represented by the articles in this book. Continue reading

On the Margins: A Review of E. Marienberg’s ‘La Baraïta de-Niddah’

Description: Description: C:\Users\Evyatar\Dropbox\Evyatar docs\Livre - BdN\Final Book\Cover-Front-jpg.jpgEvyatar Marienberg, La Baraïta de-Niddah ברייתא דנידה. Un texte juif pseudo-talmudic sur les lois religieuses relatives à la menstruation (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sciences Religieuses 157; Paris : Brepols, 2012).

The Baraita deNidah is one of those compositions that should trouble anyone who is interested in the study of rabbinic literature. Its very existence, history of transmission and reception defy traditional views of the rabbinic corpus on both ideological and Halakhic respects. The recent edition of the text by Evyatar Marienberg, with its excellent reproduction of the witnesses and the extremely rich and helpful introduction, is therefore an exciting event. This book is a revised version of the second part of the author’s doctoral dissertation, published in French a decade ago as Niddah. Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la menstruation (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003).

The Baraita de-Nidah made its first appearance in the field of modern rabbinic studies with the edition of Haim Meir Horowitz. An Orthodox Jew from Frankfurt, Horowitz owned a bookshop where he sold new and old Jewish books as well as some manuscripts. He published several rare rabbinic texts, among which was our “Baraita” in 1890. Marienberg reproduces the main manuscript upon which Horowitz based his edition (the manuscript itself is now lost). Also published here are all of the other witnesses of the text, which are much shorter. The longest among them is preserved in manuscript Parma Palatina 2342 (De Rossi 541) where our text is entitled הלכות נידה and occupies two out of 284 folios. Other witnesses are found in some medieval rabbinic works such as the Kol Bo, Likkutei ha-Pardes and ha-Rokeah. Each one of the ten witnesses is described by the author and even more importantly, is transcribed by him separately and then in a synoptic edition. Four witnesses contain the story of the birth of Rabbi Ishmael, which is also known from another sources. Based on a philological analysis, the author concludes however that this story did not figure in the original version of the Baraita.

The text, or more precisely the family of texts (one is almost tempted to use here the term “macroform”) offer a series of halakhot in matters of nidah which are far stricter than the ones we find in “normal” (and normative) rabbinic literature. Particularly, the menstruating woman’s capacity to defile is extremely exaggerated when compared to talmudic sources. This lead some scholars to link the Baraitha to the Zoroastrian environment of Babylonian Jewry (p. 66). The problem with this hypothesis, as indicated by the author, is that most scholars believe that our text was redacted in Palestine– it is written in Hebrew and mentions only Palestinian sages. However, as Marienberg argues, one should not rule out a non Palestinian origin of the text (he proposes Italy and the Byzantine Empire). Of course, a Babylonian origin is still possible. Marienberg mentions Ephraïm Kanarfogel and Sharon Koren who connect the Baraita to Heikhalot literature. If we situate the origin of the latter in Babylonia, it may be used as another argument to support a Babylonian origin of the tractate.

Marienberg mentions several theories concerning the reasons the text was written in the first place. Some of them were already raised by Horowitz, particularly the possibility that the small tractate was a Karaite composition since some of its teachings resemble Karaite practices. Thus, it is conceivable that the tractate was written either in order to mock the talmudic tradition or to criticize it by showing that the rabbis of the talmudic period shared some of the ideas that were defended by the Karaites. However, Horowitz himself ruled against the possibility of a Karaite origin, as did most of the scholars who later dealt with the question. This interesting debate together with some others related to the date and the Sitz im Leben of the text are summarized by Marienberg in his introduction. In general, Marienberg is very cautious and quotes Daniel Sperber’s conclusion from the article dedicated to the Baraita in the revised edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, according to which neither the date nor the author of the text can be determined with certainty. Marienberg does, however, suggest that the text was redacted after the talmudic period.

In another important part of the introduction the author discusses the reception and influence of the text after its composition. The rarity of manuscripts shows that at least the two long recensions (Horowitz and De Rossi) were not well-diffused in the Jewish world. However, we do find references and even quotations of the text in some popular medieval books and commentaries. The most famous example is probably Nahmanides’ exegesis on Genesis 31:35 which quotes some of the teachings of the tractate and refers to it as ברייתא של מסכת נידה.  According to one of Marienberg’s conclusions, the tractate was used and quoted mainly by authors living in a Christian environment. He proposes to connect this phenomenon to the absence of a direct confrontation with Karaites in the Ashkenazi world – since the teachings of the tractate are close to some karaite practices, rabbinic authors from Islamic environments, where the karaite movement was relatively strong, felt much less comfortable using it.

Finally, Marienberg proposes to see the Baraita as one of the “minor tractates” whose status in the rabbinic corpus is somewhat liminal. He reminds us that one of the reasons that these tractates came to be considered as belonging to the talmudic corpus is the fact that they were included in the 19th century Romm edition of the Bavli. Horowitz edited the text after the publication of the Romm edition. Thus, Marienberg raises the possibility that an earlier publication of the Baraita, and its subsequent inclusion in the Romm edition, would have changed its place in the rabbinic corpus, enhancing its status as an official rabbinic text. This question is left open. Given the great anxiety pronounced by the author of the Baraita towards menstruating women, maybe it is for the best that this extremely misogynistic text was left outside the “official” edition of the Talmud.

This important publication adds another element to the debate regarding the limits of the talmudic corpus and talmudic culture in general. That is why the thesis about the relationship between this text and Heikhalot literature is so compelling – if we consider, together with Michael Swartz and more recently Moulie Vidas, that the Heikhalot corpus was redacted inside the walls of the Babylonian Yeshiva but not by the same authorities that produced the Babylonian Talmud, we can ask whether the status of the tractate as semi-rabbinic text reflects the position of its authors who acted somewhere on the margins of what became the normative rabbinic discourse.  This may provide us with a multidimensional picture of the early medieval rabbinic movement, in matters of authority, scholarship, Halakha and of course – gender.

What is a Redactor?

We are often told that a good scholar has to consistently and continually question the validity of his/her basic assumptions. The problem is that many times an assumption is so inherent to our thinking, that it is easy to mistake it for a universal, objective truth and not an assumption, which is by definition subjective. One way to locate these assumptions, in order to  question them, is to look at their “signs” – the habits in academic writing, the terms we use matter-of-factly. Once we shed light on a term of this sort, we can see which view it represents, and ask ourselves whether we can or should justify its use.

After all, we all have our writing habits. Some are the fruits of extensive academic training, but others are simply the expression of personal preferences. This seems particularly true when it comes to terminology. For example, some scholars, when writing about Roman Palestine, will use the term “Eretz Israel” rather then “Palestine”. Some will use the term stammaic and others will instead use post-amoraic. There are numerous other examples. Choosing one term over another signifies a (silent) agreement with a certain view, position, thesis, theory, or politics.

So, one of my terminological habits, as I realized recently, is to write “redactors” almost each time I refer to the, well, redactors of a talmudic or midrashic text: The redactors of the sugiya, the redactors of the teaching, the redactors of the pericope, the redactors of the midrash. I don’t know exactly when we started using this term in talmudic scholarship but it seems to me a relatively recent convention that some scholars follow quite religiously while others not so much or not at all. I belong to the first group, more or less.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but something has drawn my attention to this writing habit, and signaled it as one. Maybe it is the fact that my fellows in the research center, who work on other, non-Jewish and non-rabbinic texts from late antiquity, never use this term when talking about the people who produced their texts. And it made me wonder – what does my and others’ use of the term “redactors” say about our conception of the agency behind rabbinic texts?

I realized that when I use the term “redactors” I have two others terms in mind, from which I do not wish to chose – author and compiler. Using the term “author” would assume that there is a person or a group behind the text, that has an intention, a message to transmit. This person or group is “responsible” for the text, and as Michel Foucault has shown, this responsibility creates a subject, who can be admired, criticized or condemned. Using the term compiler, on the other hand, would assume a very feeble agency behind the text. The person or group who compiled a text do not bear full responsibility for it. They have simply chosen all the texts that were available to them and put them together. They do not constitute a subject. In the terms of Roland Barthes, they are more “writers” than “authors”.

The problem is that rabbinic texts are both “authored” and “compiled” – the people behind them had a message to transmit, but at the same time they were compiling old traditions and edited them inside their own text. They did not only represent themselves, but also a tradition that they inherited, as well as invented. In the texts they authored, they had to include teachings for which they were not responsible, even when they did not agree with them.

This is perhaps the nature of the activity of those who produced the rabbinic texts, from the level of the midrashic unit, and even the single pericope or saying, to the level of the well developed sugiya.  A rabbinic text can be more compiled or more authored, but often it is both. It is a text that has a variety of agents behind it; each one of them is trying to convey a message that has to be understood in a particular context. It is a text which is a battleground, staged by the final redactor, of several views, often including that of the redactor himself.

Some scholars, and the first name that comes to my mind is Barry Wimpfheimer, have studied and examined the techniques and methods used by the redactors in order to negotiate between the different views and to create their own legal and ideological narrative. But it seems to me as important and fruitful to think of the activity of the redactor himself in these terms, as a hybrid author/compiler whose job is, indeed, a different job than that of the pure author or the pure compiler. In order to fully understand the inherent tension that characterizes rabbinic texts we have to understand that it reflects a drama inside the redactors’ mind who, on the one hand wants to conserve a culture and on the other hand wants to invent one, or to adapt the old culture to their experience, to their views.

The redactors of the rabbinic text always oscillate between tradition and invention in order to create something that is both old and new. Their responsibility for the text is, therefore, multilayered and complex; it is dialectic, as is the text itself.

Reading the Talmud in France

File:Armoiries république française.svgMany people ask me why I chose France when I decided to write my PhD dissertation on rabbinic literature. It is a very good question since there are only a handful of Talmud specialists in this country, and they are hardly read by people outside of France (or inside it for that matter…). France, in that respect, cannot be compared to Israel, the US, the UK or even to other European countries such as Germany or Italy where the situation is somewhat better.

I always found this state of affairs very sad. After all, it is a country with a long history of great talmudic scholarship – Rashi and many of the Tosafists, not to mention the scholars from Provence… I’m not saying that no one reads the Talmud in France. On the contrary, there are many yeshivot and community centers where the Talmud is studied in the traditional way. It goes without saying that only or mainly Jews attend these Talmud classes (in some synagogues women can join too). When an academic approach is at stake, however, one seems to go up a blind alley.

There are many explanations to this sad state of affairs. Of course, we can go back to the 13th century “Dispute de Paris” with its horrific outcome – the burning of hundreds of Talmud manuscripts found all over the French Kingdom, or the decision to expel all the Jews from France in the following century. But for the purpose of this post let’s stay within the limits of the last century, which, in the very beginning saw the promulgation of the “law of 1905” that decreed the separation of the church and the state, and promoted the value of the “laïcité” (secularism), so precious to the French. The “laïcité” in France is much more than a concept. It is a social and cultural value, whose roots are to be found already in the period of the French “Lumières” that defined themselves against religion in a very provocative and combative manner (contrary to the German Aufklärung). As a proof for its importance one can cite the fact that this value is promoted and used by ALL of the main candidates in the upcoming presidential election, even by Marine Le Pen. Of course, the latter, and to a certain extent all the candidates from the political center, use this value in order to defend the Catholic values that are so imbedded in French culture that no one sees them as “religious” any more. No one, that is, who is from a Catholic background. In other words, as some French sociologists have already pointed out, French secularism is a modern form of Catholic Christianity, in which Catholic values (and customs to some extent) are being stripped of their theological load in order to be presented as neutral, humanistic and universal.

In the context of French Academia, the 1905 law had some very significant consequences. Since most French universities are public, the law implied that they could not host departments of theology which in many cases (as in Germany, for example, or in some private universities in the United States) constitute a serious academic platform for religious studies and research. A few such enclaves still exist, as for example in some universities in the Alsace and Loraine Regions that were not part of France in 1905, or in the rare private universities such as the Institut Catholique de Paris. Some fields in religious studies, such as New and Old Testament studies and Patristics, were already imbedded in French universities so that the impact of the law of 1905 was not fatal in their regard. Those specialists found their way to departments of history, philology and so forth. To some extent this is also true regarding medieval Jewish Studies (the first scientific translation of ‘The Guide to the Perplexed’ was produced in French by Solomon Munk in the middle of the 19th century). But as for the nascent field of Talmudic studies, it did not gain enough prestige and importance in order to be integrated in one of these “laic” departments. There were (and still are) departments of Hebraic or Jewish studies in some French public universities, yet most of the specialists that crowded them worked on ancient (biblical, second temple), Hellenistic or medieval Judaism, while the Talmud was  for the most part left aside.

And then there was Levinas. Yet here too, his Lectures Talmudiques were delivered mainly within Jewish circles, and were not viewed as an integral part of his academic work or his philosophy (a trend that may now be changing). Sure, it leads to the fact that we can find some references to the Talmud in the writings of Levinas’ interlocutors, like Derrida or Lacan, but these are by no means the work of specialists, and neither did they influence the heavy apparatus that is the French university to give more importance and space to talmudic studies.

The Talmud is still viewed today in French culture as a religious corpus, intended mainly for religious purposes. I am not saying that this state of affaires is unique to France, but I am still always disappointed to find out that in the country of Derrida or Foucault, who wrote the most interesting and rich critiques on western philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, the Talmud, which offers something that can be viewed an anti-philosophical thought, is mostly ignored by the intellectual circles.

There is also a very practical aspect to this problem – for the French reader there is no complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud, the Mishnah, or the Midrashim. As for the Palestinian Talmud – this was indeed translated in the 19th century by Moïse Schwab, though in an admittedly beautiful (I think) yet highly problematic rendition.

The few specialists that are working in France are of course aware to this situation and are working on changing it. The best example is a project I am proud to participate in, which consists of a scientific edition of the Mishnah, and its first complete translation into French – a project led by Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

I have to admit, if I chose Paris as the place to work on my PhD on the “ethics of the self” in the Talmud, it was not because I wanted “to bring light to the Gentiles” but mainly because back then I was still under the “spell” of French Theory (which is after all a much more American notion, not to say invention, than a French one). Ever since, I realized how neglected the Talmud is by the rich intellectual discourse that is going on in this country, and I started to refer to my work as a mission, or at least a very important job. Talmudic thought, when studied in its historical context (that is to say not in a Levinasien way), can shed light on many subjects that occupy western societies in general and the French one in particular. Its “realistic” approach (“no law can be imposed on the public unless it can endure it”), its anti-mystical attitude, and its general ethical demand – to live an individual life of virtue without retreating from the social, day-to-day world – all these and other values discussed in the rabbinic corpus can contribute much to the problems French society has to deal with these days. Of course, it will not be possible to integrate talmudic texts into the public discourse here unless we show that they are not more or less “religious” (in the modern sense of the word) from the founding texts of western civilization. This job is still in its infancy, and with some naivety (some may say pretention), I promise to keep you posted on the developments.

I Know it was the Blood

I was invited to participate in a workshop that takes place about three times a year in Paris and Strasbourg. Each time the organizers choose a biblical verse or pericope, and then invite five people to talk about the way these verses were read in different traditions – normally Patristics, rabbinic/ancient Judaism, medieval/ renaissance Christianity, and sometimes also Islam. The next workshop will deal with Leviticus 17:10-12, or in other words:

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּמִן-הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם, אֲשֶׁר יֹאכַל, כָּל-דָּם–וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת אֶת-הַדָּם, וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתָהּ, מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ.  כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם:   כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר. עַל-כֵּן אָמַרְתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ מִכֶּם לֹא-תֹאכַל דָּם; וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם, לֹא-יֹאכַל דָּם.

I have to admit that even though I accepted the invitation gladly, I had some serious doubts about the potential of the talk to be more than a mere compilation of ancient Jewish traditions, commentaries and exegesis about these verses. After all, the prohibition to eat blood, important as it is in the Bible, does not share the symbolic weight of the interdiction against eating pork, for example. But it turns out, as it often does, that the ancient rabbis will always find a way to surprise you.

I started by asking myself the following question: how come a prohibition that is found no less than seven times in the Pentateuch, and whose punishment, as is clear from our verses, is kareth, becomes almost marginal in what we can call the Jewish collective consciousness. The most obvious explanation, perhaps, is related to the fact that unlike other commandments or prohibitions (eating pork, Sabbath, circumcision…) this prohibition cannot be used as an identity marker. After all, the first biblical figures that are commanded to refrain from blood eating are the sons of Noah (Genesis 9:4), and this prohibition is one of the four commandments kept by Jesus’ apostles in Acts 15:20. In the late antique world, if you don’t eat blood you are not necessarily a Jew. So perhaps the rabbis simply found it pointless to underline this prohibition; in any case it couldn’t help them to promote their version of a distinct Jewish identity (then again, the rabbis did not include it in the seven noahide laws, and interpreted Genesis 9:4 as a prohibition to eat flesh from a living animal. So they did consider the interdiction to eat blood as applicable only to Jews).

The prohibition to eat blood occupies an important place in pre-rabbinic Jewish texts as the book of Jubilees and in the Temple Scroll (see for that matter Cana Verman’s 1994 article in Tarbiz). In other words, the rabbinic “marginalization” of this prohibition is not such an obvious move – other Jewish currents did insist on its importance and elaborated on it a lot.

What is at stake is not only the fact that the rabbis, contrary to the author of Jubilees for example, gave little place in their legal system to discuss the blood eating prohibition, but also the fact that they limited the prohibition to only one type of blood. If the author of Jubilees underlined the fact that the prohibition is in effect for all types of blood (6:13), the sages of the tannaitic period (with the exception of Rabbi Yehuda) hold that only the “blood of life” (דם הנפש) is punished by kareth, whereas other types of blood are not. The main distinction, at least in Torath Kohanim, is between two types of blood (the Mishnah in Karetot 5:1 distinguishes between more than two types) – the “blood of life” (דם הנפש) and the “blood of essence” (דם התמצית). The first one is the blood that  “sprays” out of the animal throat when it is slaughtered. It is called the blood of life since it is the blood with which the life of the animal is taken away (the mishnah calls it דם השחיטה). The blood of essence is the blood that drains from the animal after its slaughter (when it is already dead).

In order to understand this distinction we need to go back to the verses from Leviticus and especially to the reason they give for the blood consumption prohibition – the blood was given by God as a means of expiation since the “life of the flesh is in the blood”. For the rabbis, then, only the blood that has “life” in it, i.e. the blood with which life was taken from the animal, is the blood that was given by God in order to expiate our sins. And since only this kind of blood expiates sins (in Torath Kohanim we read – “אם נתן מדם התמצית לא עשה כלום”), its consumption is strictly forbidden. 

asked some colleagues of mine here, who work on Greco-Roman religions, if such a distinction between types of blood exists in Greco-Roman cults. They said no (but I should examine it further). As far as I know, this distinction does not exist in Second Temple sources either. Did the rabbis invent it, or maybe they inherited it from pharisaic circles?

Another possibility is that the distinction existed in pre-rabbinic circles and was then accentuated by the rabbis as a response to Christianity. After all, saying that only the “blood of life” expiates can be regarded as a critique of Christians who claim that their sins were expiated by Jesus’ blood, as does the author of Hebrews 9. The point of the rabbis might have been the following: since only the “blood of life” of a slaughtered animal expiates, then Jesus’ blood, which the author of Hebrew equals to the blood of sacrificed animals, cannot expiate – he was not slaughtered! So can we say that we are dealing here with yet another rabbinic response to Christianity? On the other hand, the entire midrash of Torath Kohanim on Leviticus 17:10-12 seems like a series of rabbinic responses to the way the author of Jubilees handles the blood prohibition. First of all, the distinction between two types of blood with only one of them expiating (and thus forbidden) is in contrast to Jubilees 6:13 which forbids all types of blood; Second, the midrash emphasizes that only the blood eater will be punished with kareth, not the one who made him eat, not his father nor his son. This stands in contrast to Jubilees that says that all the descendants of the blood eater will go down to sheol (7:28). In general, the rabbis insist on the individual responsibility of the blood eater whereas the author of Jubilees has a much more “collective punishment” attitude.

In any case, it is interesting to note that the inclusiveness of the prohibition that we find in Jubilees is the result of its theory that all types of blood can expiate sins. The same approach is expressed already in Leviticus on the one hand, and by the author of Hebrews 9 on the other. So perhaps we can talk here about a Sadducean/Christian approach (expressed in Leviticus, Jubilees, Temple Scroll and Hebrews) and a Pharisaic/Rabbinic one? Methodologically this possibility is very interesting, since it reminds us once again of how dangerous it is to use the categories “Christian” and “Jewish” as two monolithic entities in the context of the tannaitic period. The rabbinic text can be regarded as a response to both a Christian text (Hebrews 9) and a Sadducean one (Jubilees). Probably it is a response to both, or more precisely to a general approach defended and promoted by the two texts (Jubilees and Hebrews), diverse as they are. Who did the rabbis have in mind when they redacted their exegesis of Leviticus 17:10-12 – a non-rabbinic Jew or a Christian? It is not possible to answer this question and anyway there is no need to. We have the text of the Sifra to speak for itself, to resonate tensions and conflicts that its redactors had in mind, or in the back of it.

Why Do I Read the Talmud?

About a year ago I was asked to write an article for a French Jewish Studies Journal – Tsafon (published by the University of Lille), that would offer to the French scholar a status quaestionis of Talmudic studies. I wrote this article in French and it can be accessed here, but I would like to summarize its main point that I tried to develop in its second half.

The title of the article is “Why one reads the Talmud Today?”. It echoes a very interesting volume edited by Matthew Kraus in 2006 – How Should Rabbinic Literature Be Read in the Modern World. In the article I don’t try to answer this question, but to point out the importance of asking it when we read the Talmud; the importance of being aware of the variety of possible answers, of the one that we come to choose, and of the reasons that lead us to this choice.

It seems pretty obvious today to almost everyone that there is no such thing as objective reading and that the way we read the text is influenced by many personal and subjective factors. The problem is that most of us just nod when hearing this and then go ahead to develop our objective statement, thesis or theory. In other words, we do not learn (in any case I didn’t) how to overcome the problem of our subjective bias. What we do instead is to silently acknowledge the existence of subjective factors in our scientific judgment, without really accounting for the nature of the bias, and the way it actually biases our perspective. In the case of Talmud scholars – we do not always understand (or will to admit) how the reason for which we read the Talmud influences what we read in it (Boyarin’s preface to Borderlines is one, among several, rare exceptions).

There are some obvious examples for this unconscious bias. One of them is described in the interesting contribution of Seth Schwartz to the Cambridge Companion to Rabbinic Literature, published in 2007. Schwarz attributes the position of many Israeli scholars, according to whom rabbinic Judaism was dominant in first centuries Palestine, to their Zionism. Of course, a similar claim can be made on Schwartz as well – the idea that the rabbis occupied a minor position in ancient Jewish society, held by many American scholars like himself, may be influenced by their situation as Jews in the American diaspora. Hillel Newman makes a similar claim in his article “The Normativity of Rabbinic Judaism: Obstacles on the Path to a New Consensus”. And we haven’t even started to speak about questions of gender and sexuality and the way they bias a scholar’s perspective on his/her subject matter.

So what can we do? On the one hand we cannot ignore the fact that our social, psychological, economic, religious, and political positions influence our scientific work. On the other hand we do not want to fall into a post-modernist caricature, where “truth” only exists in our individualistic hearts.

The thinker that helped me most to think this problem through is the French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, especially in several passages from his book The Logic of Practice. Bourdieu writes about the work of the anthropologist, who tries to understand societies other than her own. But his ideas can and should apply to us as well, because just like the anthropologist, we too are facing an object produced by people who are not us, and our job is to understand this object, and through it, perhaps, understand the people who created it. Thus, the advice, or maybe even prescription that Bourdieu gives to the anthropologist may be relevant to us as well – according to Bourdieu we should not only acknowledge the fact that we have a subjective relation to the research object, but we should also objectify it. In other words, our own relation to the object (the Talmud in our case) has to be regarded in an objective way. Of course, it is always easier to objectify the bias of someone other than oneself – in a sense that is what I tried to show by referring to the claims of Schwartz and Newman. However, if we want to try to produce objective knowledge (and yes, I still think this is possible), we have to take into consideration, in an objective way, our own relation to the subject matter.

Some questions I find worth asking when I try to objectify my relation to the text I study are: Why did I choose this text and not another? How does the (short) history of my research influence my reading? Do I read the text only to prove I was right, or to understand it better? What is my relationship (real or imaginary) with others who studied the issues I tackle in my research? These questions do not find their way to the paper, but asking them before and during research and writing often proves itself extremely helpful.