All posts by Shai Secunda

Researcher and lecturer in the Talmud and its contexts.

Shave and a Hair Cut

In a piece just published at Tablet Magazine, I briefly discuss the Purim Triumph panel at the famous synagogue in Dura Europos. The art at the Dura synagogue is significant for many reasons, one of which is the way it echoes extra-biblical Jewish traditions - aka midrash. There seems to be a bit of this in the Purim fresco: In the left side of the panel, Haman is dressed something like an Iranian stable-boy leading a royally garbed Mordecai on a white horse. It is possible that Haman’s attire points to the lowly position of stable-boys  in Iranian life and particularly in epic literature. Continue reading

Difference and the Iranian Talmud

One of the foundational concepts to emerge from twentieth century linguistics is that meaning is produced through difference. Ferdinand de Saussure’s now banal idea that there is no inherent connection between a particular linguistic sign and the object it refers to was path-breaking at its time. It has echoed across countless intellectual and cultural endeavors which emphasize how the relationship between signifiers and their signified is essentially constructed and maintained only relationally. Continue reading

Finance in Religious Law: A Comparative Conference

imageThe legal systems of Judaism, Islam, and Catholic Christianity each regulate financial transactions in the light of a divine ethical imperative to avoid lending at interest. Yet each has also developed practical, legal means to facilitate a wide range of investment opportunities. The convergence of common ethical aspirations and practical concerns, and the divergence in historical experiences, together present a nearly unique opportunity for comparative study. Continue reading

Postscript: Prof. Zvi Arieh Steinfeld

Last week, the Israeli Talmudist Zvi Arieh Steinfeld passed away. He lived a life filled with religious and intellectual achievements (here is a description from a Festschrift edited in his honor at Sidra, the journal he founded and edited during its first decade), yet for those of us lucky enough to have known him personally, his greatest quality was encapsulated in an infectious smile that conveyed both a self-deprecating humility and a zest for a life dedicated to lernin’.  He was one of the sweetest souls I have ever encountered. Continue reading

Talmudic Culture and its Discontents: The NLI’s Series on the Talmud and Israeli Society

From its beginnings, classical Zionism dreamed not only of resettling the Land of Israel but also of re-occupying classical Jewish language and literature.  For most Zionists, the language was Hebrew and the literature, the Bible.  After all, it is the Hebrew Bible that is concerned with Israelites fighting wars, settling their promised land, and tilling the good earth. The Talmud may very well have been the focus of more intellectual energy than any other book in Jewish history – but it is still the handbook of a powerless, landless people written in the dark and confused tongue of the Babylonian Diaspora. Continue reading

Livestream: The Talmud and its World

Check back here at 5pm Jerusalem Time (10am Eastern Standard Time) for a Live Stream of the fourth Talmud blog event:

The Talmud and its World:
Reading the Bavli Alongside its Late Antique Neighbors

A Text-based Conversation with Iranist Yuhan Vevaina (Stanford) and Mandaic Scholar Charles Häberl (Rutgers). Facilitated by Shai Secunda (Hebrew University).

The handouts are available here: Charles’, Yuhan’s. Questions for the speakers can be left in the comments section below.

Black Like a Raven: Menstruation and Aesthetics

With my book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) in production and due out later this year, I have finally been able to return to research I first conducted for my dissertation, which looked at the rabbinic laws of menstruation in light of Zoroastrian parallels. I hope to use the space of the Talmud Blog to think “out-loud” through some of the issues – large and small – that I suddenly find myself confronting as I turn this project into a book.  What I will be presenting are readings, meditations about gender, and (formerly) personal thoughts connected to the larger questions of meaning that one is not really “allowed” to ask in academic discourse. I hope readers will indulge me this virtual confession booth, and that you will chime in with your thoughts and reactions along the way.

Filipp Malyavin, "Whirlwind" (1906)
Filipp Malyavin, “Whirlwind” (1906).

Writing in the humanities is a consciously aesthetic form of expression. Yes, the register is critical, even “scientific.” But the truth is that most scholars study people and their cultural productions because humankind is at heart, beautiful and tragic, and ultimately, tragically beautiful. When the charity is absent, the writing does not just fall flat. It bubbles with a venom and scalds the reader.

What happens when the beauty of a certain facet of humanity – especially a religious phenomenon – comes off as unsavory and even disgusting to nearly everyone but the scholar who is totally devoted to its study?  I carried this heavy feeling with me while writing my dissertation on the rabbinic laws of menstrual impurity in light of corresponding Zoroastrian texts.  Why menstruation? Why impurity? Why gender politics and strange Zoroastrians, and the darkness of Babylonia, the distances between men and women, and particularly, the messiness of niddah with its rags, spotting and colors?

I recently came across a poignant midrash that I must have learned before yet it somehow never really registered. The text speaks foremost of the ever-relevant conundrum of finding something meaningful to say when the wellsprings have all dried up. I am sure it still speaks to contemporary rabbis racking their brains for sermon ideas during the harsh winter Sabbaths of Leviticus.

Leviticus Rabbah 19.3 ed. Margalioth 424   

ר’ שמע’  בר’ יצחק  פתר קרייה בפרשותיה שלתורה, אפעלפי שהן נראות כאילו כאורות כאילו שחורות לאומרן ברבים, כגון הלכות זיבה ונגעים, אמ’ הקב’ה הרי הן עריבות עלי.  הה”ד  וערבה  לי”י  מנחת  יהודה  וירושלם. תדע לך שהוא כן שהרי פרשת זב וזבה לא נאמרו באחת, אלא זו בפני עצמה וזו בפני עצמה,  “איש  איש  כי  יהיה  זב  מבשרו”, “ואשה  כי  יזוב  זוב  דמה”.

R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq explained the verse [“(His locks are…) black as a raven” -Song of Songs 5:11] as referring to portions of the Torah.  Even though they can seem as if they are ugly, as if they are too black to discuss in public – for example the laws of discharges and skin diseases – the Holy One blessed is He said: “They are pleasing (ʿarevot) to me”.  This is what is said: “Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing (ʿarvah) to the Lord” (Malachi 2.15). You should know that this really is true. For the portion dealing with the zav and zava were not said as one, rather this one by itself and this one by itself: “When any man has a discharge issuing from his member” (Leviticus 15:2); “When a woman has had a discharge of blood” (Leviticus 15:25).

Leviticus Rabbah is a homiletical Midrash, which according to one school of thought means that – even if only very distantly – it reflects a form of public discourse that took place in the quaint synagogues of late antique Palestine.  One can almost see R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq struggling mightily to find some comforting message for local synagogue attendees as they read Leviticus 15, with its bloody and seminal discharges.  In frustration, he nearly admits that these parts of the Bible are nothing short of revolting – they are as “black” as a raven.

The genius of this passage is the way it non-judgmentally establishes a distinction between human and Divine aesthetics, yet at the same time questions the validity of the human view. The passage turns on the modifier “seem” and the question of aesthetic “truth.”  In rabbinic aesthetics, black is seen as unattractive. Yet this beauty judgment is simultaneously turned on its head. The classical interpretation of the Songs verse “I am black but beautiful” is not far from “black is beautiful” since it calls into question the original aesthetical claim that black is not beautiful.

It is just as difficult to talk about hideous skin diseases, various bodily functions, and their governing rituals today as it was in the fourth century C.E. – although the reasons for this, in a secular age, may be different.  Even in late antiquity there were rabbis who wished that Leviticus 15 was shorter (something not too difficult to achieve, given its chiastic structure of a. irregular male discharge; b. regular male discharge; a’. regular female discharge; and b’. irregular female discharge). Yet God is depicted as lovingly lingering over the very topics that humans prefer to rush through. The message of this midrash is that human revulsion at menstruation is understandable, but ultimately misguided and immature. God is able to recognize the beauty of these topics which people incorrectly see as “black.” Of course the midrash does not suggest how one is to gain an appreciation of the “pleasing” nature of menstruation.

There has been much writing about the laws of Niddah since the feminist turn in Jewish studies (which I suppose dates back to the 1970s). Some of the scholarship is apologetic, some openly hostile, and while some succeeds in striking a balance of sorts. I suppose the fact that these laws were – and remain – profoundly meaningful sites of religious experience for many women (and men?) should somehow lead the way to seeing its beauty.  Even if the writing must be critical, and the male power-plays not shoved under the rug, there must be a way to achieve a beautiful, productive sympathy.

A Talmud Lecture in the Knesset

At the Talmud blog, we are interested in the Talmud wherever it is to be found – primarily in the academy but also in more traditional settings, midrashot for women, secular Israeli institutions, on Israeli televisions dramas, in South Korea, France, in the Islamic Republic of Iran….

This week, history was made when Dr. Ruth Calderon, a graduate of the Hebrew University Talmud department and head of Alma College, taught a passage of from the Bavli in her inaugural lecture in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament. Facebook and the Twittersphere have been abuzz with the news. Needless to say, the Knesset channel generally gets even less attention than C-Span does in the US. As one friend of the blog wondered, when was the last time a Talmud shiur went viral like this?

I am sure that the Talmud has been mentioned before in the Knesset, but I am equally sure that it has never been the center of a speech by an intellectual, non-Orthodox female Talmud scholar. Calderon is a master teacher, and though the passage was ultimately used to deliver a (humane) political message – it is the Knesset after all – it was done with genuine class and pedagogical skill. Calderon used an old volume from the grandfather of the head of her party – Yair Lapid – the quintessential, upper middle-class secular Israeli. She spoke forcefully of the need for all Israelis to return to the Talmud after a century in which the Bible had displaced its privileged place in the Jewish canon.

The image of a poised, learned woman teaching Talmud out of a weathered tome on the floor of the Israeli parliament was nothing short of inspiring. Many of us in Israel dream that Calderon will succeed in her goal of creating an educated Jewish Israeli public of both genders that is in touch with the one text that has sustained their people for so long. Let us hope.

Coverup: Two Examples of Censorship, Then and Now

Censorship, which is supposed to conceal, has the habit of doing just the opposite: To censor is to cover up, and covering up is conspicuous. Here are two cases in point that I recently stumbled upon:

(1) I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few early mornings a week studying at Havruta, a unique Beit Midrash located on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. A few days ago a student came over and pointed to a strange formulation at bPes 113a:

שבעה מנודין לשמים ואלו הן: יהודי שאין לא אשה, ושיש לא אשה ואין לא בנים, ומי שיש לא בנים ואין מגדלין לתלמוד תורה ומי שאין לא תפילין בראשו ותפילין בזרועו וציצית בבגדו ומזוזה בפתחו והמונע מנעלים מרגליו וי’א אף מי שאין מיסב בחבורה של מצוה

According to this passage, which is reproduced above from the Vilna edition, the first in the list of people divinely excommunicated is ‘a Jew who does not have a wife’. Since it is more than clear that the Talmud’s target audience is made up of (rabbinic) Jews, the emphasis on the lifelong bachelor’s Jewish identity is strange. Note also that this marker does not appear in the rest of the passage, which goes on to list the other offenders without noting their religious persuasion. A look at the manuscripts reveals that none record the reading “a Jew”, and even early prints omit it as well. Dikdukei Sofrim points out that the first printed edition that contains this ‘emendation’ is the Basil ed. and that it reflects an act of censorship.

Some scholars might say that this reading has no real philological value, but surely it is still useful for understanding the habits of early modern censors. In this case, the change is more than the usual fare. It does not respond to an unflattering portrayal of Christians or Jesus. Rather, it reveals someone troubled by the Talmud’s internal discourse. Here, the very assertion that not getting married is grounds for divine excommunication is seen as a threat to Christianity. Clearly, the passage negates the view that the celibate life is the good life, yet I doubt that it was directed at Christians. By adding the word “a Jew”, the censor attempts to limit the scope of the talmudic statement to the Jewish community, and the lady doth protest too much, methinks.

In his Demonstrations, the fourth century church father Aphrahat felt the need to respond to Jewish views about virginity that irked some Christians (His second, carefully argued demonstration on the topic is worth reading in full, and should be compared with early Jewish biblical traditions, as Naomi Koltun-Fromm has recently done). Apparently, what Jews said about celibacy bothered at least one censor, over a millennium later. And the evidence remains in a variant in the classic, Vilna edition.

(2) On a dark, misty, and rainy day the other week, I participated in what could only be described as a Gothic tour of Beit She’arim together with my home institute. Beit She’arim was the place to be buried in ‘early’ late antiquity, whether you were of rabbinical or non-rabbinical bent, a Jew who heartily embraced figural art, or one who was less than enthusiastic about it. On the way out of the site, I came across a sign whose top, Hebrew half had been skillfully covered by a shiny, screwed-in piece of plastic:

beitshearim censorship

One can still easily read the English text, which nicely highlights the mixing of Jewish and pagan themes in the funerary art. The fact that the English text remained undisturbed means that the censor, whoever he is, was only concerned with the ‘purity’ of (mono-lingual) Hebrew speakers. It was a cold day to begin with, but seeing this act of censorship, not in premodern Basil, but here in contemporary Israel, was chilling. Unlike Ophir’s example of ad-hoc censorship described in an earlier post, at Beit She’arim the censor’s perfectly cut, shiny piece of plastic screwed into an official sign had a certain authoritative feel. Apparently, someone at the parks authority permitted the censor to commit his sorry act. But what exactly the censorship reveals about the place of critical observations at Israeli historical sites – or lack thereof – I cannot know…

Redacted Intertextuality – An Addendum

When I go abroad, I like to see art. Usually, something with presence and gravitas, as you might find at Washington’s National Gallery – a museum in which I once spent a precious 3.7 minutes with children before being asked by a guard, firmly but not unkindly, to leave. He was right. We were disrupting the quiet, spiritual serenity of taking in Great Art. A museum like that is a temple. The emotions swell, and sometimes, tears threaten.

Subtle, well thought-out modern art has a different set of effects. Even for an uneducated amateur like me, it can hit you deep in the gut and keep your thoughts back in the gallery long after your eyes have readjusted to the glare outside. Last week I found myself in the contemporary section of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle to see an exquisite exhibit entitled “Lost Places”.  It was, really, a psychological thriller.

A lot of contemporary art uses what might be described as explicit, closed expressions of intertextuality to get the mind’s wheels turning. One type includes works that are sub-divided into different components and then given to develop certain, suggestive connections between the various parts. A work that has stayed with me from “Lost Places” is a video installation by Israeli artist, Omer Fast. Like some of his other pieces, Nostalgia I-III (2009) performs this sort of intertextuality remarkably well. The three sections of the installation had videos going simultaneously with surprising and unexpected connections. Here is the way the museum’s curator describes the piece, followed by a clip (until 3:00) that because of the limitations of the medium cannot do much justice:

Omer Fast (*1972, Jerusalem / Israel) explores the shifting meanings of places and the resultant unravelling of apparent certainties. A key stylistic device in his films and video works is the interview, which – as a seemingly realistic format – holds the promise of authenticity, but is invariably staged with actors. The three-parts of Fast’s video installation Nostalgia I-III (2009) are linked by the motif of a trap: in Nostalgia I (first room) we see a gamekeeper attempting to construct a trap using bent branches. Nostalgia II (second room, 2 monitors) shows a conversation between two actors in an office of the immigration authorities, whereby the issue of building a trap also becomes the pivotal point of the narrative. Nostalgia III (cinematic projection) is a 30-minute feature film in which the current geopolitical constellation has been inverted: in this scenario, Africa is the only safe place left in the world. Europeans try to enter an unnamed African country through a system of tunnels and repeatedly find themselves in situations where they are trapped and subject to the arbitrary practices of the police and other authorities. The multiple narrative levels of Fast’s Nostalgia deconstruct the apparent objectivity of history, nationality, justice and injustice.

For many, ‘explicit intertextuality’ is really no intertextuality at all, since intertextuality is a framework for understanding the complex and non-explicit relationship between widely disparate ‘texts’ realized synchronically. As Daniel Boyarin noted in Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, ‘sources and traditions’ approaches cannot really be understood as employing a method of intertextuality. There are also problems with thinking about intertextuality when its realization is confined to a limited canon, like rabbinic literature, or especially to a single work of art.  Instead, in works like Fast’s installation, the effect of the interconnections must be to remind viewers that the carefully curated intertextuality of the piece simply reflects the intertextuality of the everyday – or if you are religious, God’s intertextuality.

Regardless of what we’ll call them, theoretical methods that seriously probe the intersections between various parts of rabbinic literature on an intertextual axis can be nicely related to some of these expressions of contemporary art. Last year, I mused about how the redaction of the Bavli and its relationship to the culture that produced it can be illuminated by YouTube’s Life in a Day. Now, it occurs to me that Life in a Day‘s canvass is far too wide and overpopulated. Maybe its worth thinking about the redaction of the Bavli and its suggestive juxtapositions along the lines of a contemporary video installation like Fast’s, which take place within a single space. Within the confines of a tractate or pereq, the Talmud has multiple screens going, which you view when you walk into different ‘rooms’ or see things from different angles. The videos on the screens frequently intersect despite apparently broadcasting separate films. If you’ve joined daf yomi and have followed the tides of some of the early aggadot in the first chapter of Berakhot, you can see this with certain reocurrences, like the tangible presence of night and its various articulations. Reoccurrence  however, is not merely restatement, and when one text is read in light of the other, sparks fly. The flip-side, of course, is that maybe like in Fast’s Nostalgia, the illuminations are little more than a trap. But that too is an illumination.