Category Archives: Book Club

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.

Definite Article – The Book Club II

The ‘stammaitic consensus’, like many so-called consensuses, has paradoxically not yet achieved a total consensus. Still, aside from persistent skepticism emanating mainly from Israeli scholars, the stammaitic ‘toolbox’ has virtually become the source-critical method in use among academic Talmud scholars working in the field today.

There have in recent years been two interesting challenges to the stammaitic theory of redaction (I do not consider skepticism interesting – even if it is well placed). One, by Moulie Vidas,  questions why anonymity has become synonymous with “lateness” and a final editorial layer if we occasionally find the Stam actively removing attributions – apparently in order to create a distancing effect. Vidas asks source-critics to consider the literary function of anonymity and not only its presumed editorial function.  As of yet, we only have a few examples of the phenomenon of Stammaitic ‘tampering’, but it remains a very interesting argument worth following.

In Zvi Septimus’ recent research, we find another sort of challenge. Zvi questions one of the basic methodologies of “stammaitists”; namely, the attempt to chart a kind of redactional narrative across different sugyot which develops – ever so cleanly - from a set of literary kernels into a masterful and final talmudic mosaic. Like Vidas, Septimus is also interested in literary function – though here not of textual anonymity rather the experiential process of reading the Bavli. As he points out in his “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” one can read source-critically and still discover a far more interactive and far less teleological process of talmudic production that questions some basic axioms of contemporary talmudic source criticism. This realization points in the direction of an implied reader, which in turn can go a long way in explaining what the Talmud is ‘really’ about. I won’t give it away, however, since you should go read it here, and then listen to what our participants have to say, below.

Septimus’ article is the subject of the Talmud Blog’s second Book Club not only because it has implications for redactional theory, a pet interest of this blog. The piece is a nice example of how to read the Bavli from the perspective of contemporary literary theories.  Surprisingly, while there are many scholars interested in the “literary” parts of the Talmud, there are very few actively producing readings informed by literary theory. As such, we’ve invited two scholars, Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky and Dina Stein, who are  engaged in just such an ongoing project of reading rabbinic literature as… literature (!), and who are also interested in the processes of reading Talmud. We also strongly encourage our readers to respond to the article and to the respondents. And finally, we’ve invited the author of the article himself to rise from his theoretical death and respond to Dina and Itay’s remarks. Fear not, since you need not take anything he says into account.

Dina Stein (Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature; Haifa University):

Zvi Septimus should be congratulated on several accounts – for his instating the word “experience” into the practice of reading the Bavli, as well as for his breaking through the narrow quarters of the sugya as the widest possible signifying context in the Bavli. And above all – for writing an incredibly lively, thought provoking essay.

Zvi proposes to replace the diachronic perspective of source criticism with a synchronic perspective of inter (or rather intra-) textuality within the Bavli, indicated by “trigger words”/”simultexts”. Placing himself as somewhat of a (monstrous) heir to Fraenkel he too assumes closure – albeit closure of the entire Bavli. Here, the notion of Iser’s “implied reader” is called upon, so as to rule out any confusion regarding a concrete, historical reader (and to avoid of course historical questions such as when was the Bavli as a whole first recognized, and by whom, and so on). No, the reader is an immune textual construct.

Yet, both “experience” and the new horizons that Zvi offers are not devoid of problems. The “experience” of reading is somewhat misleading since the reader is a hypostasized entity that could hardly be credited with “experience.” More important, the emancipating notion, that the framework within which a given tale should – or can – be read is as vast as the Bavli itself, maybe less liberating than it appears at first. Why should the boundaries of the Bavli be canonized (Zvi explicitly compares the Bavli’s self-glossing poetics to the poetics of the Bible a la Boyarin et al!) in order for the intra-textual principle to function as hermeneutic tool? It is not necessary in my view. It may even raise more problems than it solves.

Twenty five years ago Galit Hasan-Rokem published an article called “The Snake at the Wedding: a Semiotic Reconstruction of the Comparative method of Folk Narrative Research” (ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 43 [1987]: 73-87). There are striking similarities between that article and Zvi’s recent project (they even share some “trigger words”), insofar as both consciously shift the lens from philological, diachronic perspectives to a synchronic reading/construction of meaning. Hasan-Rokem employed tools developed originally by the philological-diachronic perspective of the geographical-historical school of folkloristics, i.e. the tale-type and the motif. Following the semiotician Yuri Lotman who wrote about “sign signals” (to other texts), motifs and fixed bundles of motifs amounting to “tale types” served her to construct possible intertexual environments within which a given text – in this case the story of the bridegroom who dies on his wedding night (Vayiqrah Rabbah 20:3) – signifies. Now Hasan-Rokem addressed texts that are not confined to a single composition or to the rabbinic corpus per se, thus allowing for a more fluid context. By referring to motifs and tale-types as “semiotic markers,” her model also implies that the intertextual framework includes oral traditions, which most of rabbinic literature was.

Applying Hasan-Rokem’s model to Zvi’s argument would shift the very heavy burden lying on the shoulders of the (implied) reader to the realm of cultural semiotics in which different texts share “trigger words” (and themes). The legitimacy for reading these texts in relation to each other would not be compromised. Moreover, the hypostasized “reader” need not be chained to what is assumed to be a fixed canonized composition. “Trigger words” in the Bavli can indeed help us reconstruct cultural associations without necessarily erecting yet another set of (imperializing) boundaries, or imagining closure.

Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky (Department of Hebrew Literature, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev).

Zvi Septimus’s article “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli” adds to a growing body of research that attempts to chart a path between two nearly opposite approaches to the talmudic text: the first emphasizes the foreignness of its elements, resulting in a long and dispersed process of creation; the second highlights the aesthetic quality of the final edited form, which gives it a seemingly uniform appearance. The first leans upon evident, necessarily partial seams, meant to merge distinct sources; the latter draws its strength from the success of the act of sewing, which makes the Babylonian Talmud a stylized, comprehensive text. A careful, self-aware movement between such different modes of discourse must lead to a third approach – and indeed Septimus suggest a very coherent one. By means of an extensive and thorough (and surprising!) analysis of a relatively ‘entangled’ story in the forth chapter of Kiddushin tractate (70a-b), the author demonstrates a new reading method, based on two fundamental claims: (A) The source-critical approach (represented here, and not by coincidence, by the work of Shamma Friedman), does not reflect the (non-critical) reader’s experience, therefore, even if it may explain some stages in the evolution of the talmudic text, it will never supply a theory of reading. (B) The “literary” approach (represented here, again by no coincidence, by the work of Jonah Fraenkel), which ignores the fact that the Babylonian Talmud, as a literary complex, constantly breaches the ‘segirut’ (I find ‘closure’, suggested by Jeffrey Rubenstein, the closest translation of the concept) of the story embedded in it,  when connecting it to other stories from different suggiyot. The combination of the two approaches defines the “Septimusian” reader: He is guided by “trigger words” to simultaneously read text-fragments that were originally far from each other, not in order to decompose them into its primary and secondary components, but to illuminate one another as wholes, in their final design; (ונמצאו “דברי תורה עניים במקומן ועשירים במקום אחר” (ירושלמי ראש-השנה, פ”ג ה”ה

This approach is definitely thought-provoking and requires a lengthier discussion; yet in the limitations of this blessed “Virtual Beit midrash” of which I am a new guest (I take this opportunity to thank Shai Secunda and Yitz Landes for their generous invitation), I will have to suffice with short words of evaluation of some of the theoretical choices made by the author, and maybe suggest possible alternatives.

The attempt to read different Talmudic stories together calls into question the aforesaid assumption, associated with Fraenkel, of ‘segirut’. This assumption, discussed in recent years by Jeffrey Rubenstein and Joshua Levinson, considers Fraenkel a prominent representative of New Criticism in the study of Rabbinic literature. Accordingly, and according to Fraenkel’s words, segirut has “external” and “internal” aspects: its mere existence renounces any affinity to non-literary fields (historical, biographical, etc.), and at the same time to inter-literary contexts (textual sequences, parallels). The two aspects combine into one: they are different expressions of “unity” or “cohesion”, which justify reading the Talmudic text through the “hermeneutic circle” – all these are key phrases – meaning, a story ought to be understood from within itself, as a unique artistic expression (and not, Fraenkel emphasizes, a variant of a pre-existing structure). Septimus, sailing away from Fraenkel’s model, does not doubt the segirut as a hermeneutic category, but raises it from a low order to a higher one: from the single story to the Babylonian Talmud as a whole. But the segirut of a short story does not resemble that of an enormous complex text; whereas the latter reflects a tendency of a loosely unified literature, well known to every learner of the Bavli, the former claims something as for the precise, condensed and focused “aestheticization” of the literary expression, randomly set in its pages (it is no coincidence that New Criticism was most fertile when analyzing poetry, especially lyric poetry, rather than prose; its fruitful use with rabbinic literature is made possible primarily thanks to the minimalistic nature of the aggadic story).  The two types of segirut are as two dimensions of the creative story-telling work of the Bavli, which are active simultaneously, and are competing for the establishment of its meaning and its poetic design: the “Narrative art” on one hand, and the “Art of Narrative Connections” (to the local suggya or to the Bavli as a whole) on the other hand.

Is the reading experience of the Bavli – be it imaginary or abstract – necessarily a harmonious experience? Considering the aforesaid, it is possible to suggest another possibility that corresponds to Septimus’ proposal. I believe that a slightly different adaptation of Fraenkel and Friedman’s point of view could pave the third, different way (that could coexist with some post-structuralistic reading practices). This approach may be of aid while attempting to perceive the Talmudic text as a “dynamic” literary framework, in which something “occurs”: a frame within which different creative motivations act as forces. Thus, for instance, instead of converting an obvious axis of development between two stories in the Bavli (Friedman) into pointing out a “static” intertextual relation between them (Septimus), perhaps we should see the intertextual mechanism as one of the strategies (poetic, rhetoric, or in this case – connective) that the Suggiyot use to try and control the meanings of the stories embedded in them, and navigate these meanings to serve the Suggiya’s needs. At the same time, instead of converting the segirut of the single story (Fraenkel) into the segirut of the Bavli as a whole (Septimus), perhaps we should see both types of segirut as if they are challenging each other, revealing the interplay between control and resistance (thanks to the existence of the single tailored story as an independent aesthetic object, with an inner consistency and a distinct ideological world. This description must not be misunderstood; I emphasize here that I do not refer to any polarized manner of “control” and “resistance” relations, nor a strict binary categorization which ranges from “hegemonic discourse” and “subversive discourse”, but to much more meaningful and intricate games of meaning; as Bakhtin teaches us: two shades of understanding can still engage in a dialogue). Surely, the dynamism of the text is obvious when one thinks of it in a diachronic perspective. However, identifying with Septimus’ criticism of the difficulties inherent in basing a reading theory on source-criticism, my suggestion is to see the synchronic reading as a performative act of reading that reflects the inner dynamism of the Talmudic text. Following this line of thought, in the case of the story discussed in the article, an interesting question concerns its violent nature, the (carnivalesque) manner in which it goes “out of control”, and the reciprocal relations between this literary process, and the first subject of the chapter, which deals with different and sometimes problematic personal statutes (‘asara yochasin’); ואכמ”ל .

Septimus successfully uses Iser’s “implied reader” to ensure, among other things, that the reader whose experience the article wishes to restore is not an actual, historical subject, but an imaginary construct, supposedly produced by the Talmudic text itself, out of the connections that weave together its different parts. This is probably one of the most intriguing “implied readers” one could think of, and the inspiring power of the hermeneutic model that Septimus suggests will prove that. However, side by side with this implied one, perhaps we can revive something of the “actual” reader – if it is still appropriate to mention him or her – that exists within every implied reader, and the Bavli reader in particular: the reader experiencing the Bavli over and over again as an incoherent work, with its internal relations, close and distant, are not always clear; the doubting and struggling reader, who dwells on the contradiction in the text, or simply the obscurity of it, on the wondering and the awe, just before trying to settle it all.

Updates Regarding the TBBC

As announced a few weeks ago, starting February 6th we’ll be discussing Zvi Septimus’ article “Trigger Words and Simultexts: The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” in Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, ed. Wisdom of Bat Sheva: In Memory of Beth Samuels (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009). Thanks to Barry, Zvi and other friends of The Talmud Blog, we’ve been able to make a PDF of the article available here for anyone who wishes to take part in the discussion.

Our two main respondents will be Dr. Dina Stein of Haifa University and Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky, who is a PhD candidate in Ben Gurion University’s Department of Hebrew Literature. With the article now easily accessible online, we hope that you will respond as well.

Clearing out the Living Room

As the Talmud Blog’s first Book Club winds down, we are happy to present you with the author’s response to the discussion. His words will only make sense if you first read the comments, and his response appears here and not down there so as not to confuse the “author” and “reader” functions. Although you may be tempted to put down your coffee cups and saucers and clear out of our virtual living room, please do not take this as a hint to end the discussion!

We also wish to announce that the Book Club’s next book will be Talya Fishman’s Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures  (a very recent recipient of the National Jewish Book Award). The club will be open in about two months time. But in the meantime we will inaugurate the ‘Book’ Club’s first discussion of an article – Zvi Septimus’ “Trigger Words and Simultexts: The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” in Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, ed. Wisdom of Bat Sheva: In Memory of Beth Samuels (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009).  Zvi’s paper at this past year’s AJS conference created quite a stir, and his research, first set out in his recently filed dissertation, is to my mind at the cutting edge of the application of critical literary theory to the reading of the Bavli. We plan on talking about the article on Febuary 6th, and Zvi has agreed to ‘update’ his argument and respond to your comments and questions.

And now, for Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s response:

I was thrilled to read the discussion, the praises, the critique and especially the analysis. The engagement is serious and thorough, and this is ultimately the most that an author can hope for: fostering a serious discussion. It is also a delight to enter into such discussion without the need to first clarify misrepresentations (well except maybe Eva’s suggestion that I “spared certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression”, which calls for substantiation).

As for Eva’s arguments about the place of dialectic approach to the yetzer in rabbinic literature and the possible distinction between “yetzer” and “yetzer hara” in this context, I have detailed my arguments in the book and it’s up to the reader to be more or less convinced. Let me just say that I was very surprised to find out what I did. I entered into this project as part of my interest in rabbinic sexuality, and especially the famous rabbinic “dialectic of desire”, and was quite shocked not to find all this in the rabbinic sources, especially, as I try to show in the book, in their earlier stratum.

Persian sources? Sure (after all this is Shai Secunda’s blog, and one has to be a mannerly guest). Their absence from the book is due to my old (old-old) schooled principle not to engage sources which I cannot read in their original language (I tried to be totally straight forward about that in the introduction). But I must add that the secondary literature I did read (and I read quite a lot) gave me the impression of much more generic similarities than the ones I found in the Patristic sources, where I could identify not just phenomenological parallels but specific traditions, images and idioms. The Persian equivalent is still to be shown. Eva: I hope you will pick up the gauntlet.

I believe Amit is right that this book ultimately strives to show how foreign the rabbis are to us, and to resist (and correct) the temptation to read our own post-Freudian conceptualization of self and personality into these sources. Rafael notes the same phenomenon but with a discontent (the famous Freudian discontent?). ‘What is the ultimate goal of such an enterprise?’ he asks.  Well, my most honest answer is that this is what the history of ideas is about. Can it make any change? It might, as any historical research, first and foremost by contextualizing, historicizing and thus de-essentializing, our own most basic conceptions about ourselves (our “selves”). I believe this is what Foucault means when he says that showing the Person (or the Author, or Sexuality, or Humanities) was born sometime (and not very long ago) means that it can also, sooner or later, die.

Does rabbinic ontology, anthropology and cosmology matter? To whom? Is the only way to make history relevant through recruiting the past to became “a usable past”? I do not believe so, and have tried to make my point, especially with regard to gender studies, in several places (see for example “Misogyny and its Discontents”, Prooftexts 25 [2005], pp. 198-208). But this leads us way beyond the scope of my book to the most basic questions  about Humanities and their “usefulness”; questions that admittedly become more and more acute in our anti-intellectual atmosphere, especially (if I may) in today’s Israel. But that’s, I guess, for another club to discuss.

The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires

UPDATE: THE BOOK CLUB IS NOW OPEN FOR COMMENTS!

Book clubs are not only for Oprah Winfrey fans. While there are numerous forums that assess recent Rabbinics scholarship, including books received, abstract digests, short reviews and review essays, conference papers and sessions, and long and looping footnotes in academic books and articles, there are surprisingly few places where scholars can get together and engage in extensive discussion about recent books of potentially great significance for the field.  The Talmud Blog’s Book Club endeavors to create just such a space. Ultimately, we’re shooting for a new kind of scholarly discourse that is able to take on numerous aspects of a work and do so in a relaxed (though serious), free-wielding conversation between friends.

The first book we’ll discuss is Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity.  Our Book Club etiquette is that we will first hear opening reflections from three readers: Amit Gevaryahu, Eva Kiesele, and Raphael Magarik.  Below you will find their (incredibly astute) thoughts and critiques about the book. They are all worth reading in full, and carefully.  Before reading them you may also want to look at Raffi’s and Amit‘s previous reviews of the book. I will serve as the MC.

For the first day or so comments will be closed to all except Amit, Eva and Raffi. This will give them time to respond to each other, if they so (demonically) desire, and I hope to weigh in as well. After that point, comments will be open to all, though we will be moderating more than normal in order to keep the discussion moving along nicely. We ask that you comment only if you have read the book, and that you direct discussion to the proper target by clicking on “reply” under the comment you want to respond to, or “leave a reply” at the end of the thread for more general reflections on the book.  To stay up-to-date with the discussion, I suggest you subscribe below, where it says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email”.  After a week of discussion, if the author wishes he will have an opportunity to respond.

Let the games begin!

Amit Gvaryahu:

Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires is in fact an inquiry into an unspoken assumption of the liberal arts: that people are, by and large, the same throughout history, and that their fundamental concerns can be discerned by inference from our own.

Rosen-Zvi begins with the philological. This should be an obvious point of departure for anyone who writes on ancient texts; sadly it is not. He surveys the existing literature and categorizes it according to time, place and milieu.

Drawing on the tremendous advances made in the study of rabbinic texts in the last fourty years – the classification of manuscripts, the critical editions, the new grammars and linguistic tools, the consciousness that various strata of a rabbinic text will not necessarily speak the same language – he is able to create a corpus of texts that is comprehensive and complete. This in itself is no mean task. The book could not have been produced without computerized tools such as Maagarim, or at least their predecessors, the Kosovski Concordances.

Rosen-Zvi, as advertised, however, goes further into investigating the origins of the yetzer hara. Not content with just a Tannaitic description of the yetzer, he discusses sugiyot in Palestinian literature (aha! They do exist!) and the Bavli, that typify and reify the yetzer even more. He manages to sketch not only a psychology of the yetzer, but a biography: the road that led the yetzer from its lowly origins to its great mastery of all that is sinful.

All that, however, is merely groundwork for what in my opinion is a groundbreaking and exciting aspect of this work: the isolation of a dialect of late antique koine. By this I mean thus: students of late antiquity are used to seeing boundaries and borders in their world as permeable and flexible. We know from amulets and synagogue floors that Jews and Gentiles both venerated Helios and the God of Israel. We know that the late antique Middle East shared myths and stories from all segments of society. Moses was a known quantity in Greek literature and he and the Jews were credited (or discredited) with various customs and laws that Greeks ridiculed and/or adopted.

Christianity of course made this koine even more monolingual: Jewish scripture in the vernacular was now a common cultural stratum that almost everyone could share (except the Zoroastrians). Literacy meant literacy of scripture and with it the sharing of even more ideas about cosmology and cosmogony, sin and salvation. Concepts and categories, for Jews and gentiles, began to overlap.

Rosen-Zvi’s work on patristic and rabbinic demonology is one locus of this overlap. Religious practitioners of both communities, rabbis and hermits, lived in common fear of evil beings that would entice them to sin, that could be warded off with constant mumbling of holy words. Salvation could be hindered by these beings, and promoted by proper spiritual exercises used against them. This is the koine.

The “Jewish Dialect” of this koine is the Amoraic yetzer. In a situation analogous to the existence of two mutually intelligible but distinct Aramaic dialects side by side in two faith communities, the rabbis reified and typified the Ishmaelian yetzer that they received from their past, into a demon with powers and weaknesses comparable to other demons in the neighborhood. But this rabbinic demon does not live outside the body, like the Christian (and Zoroastrian) demons; it lives inside it. It is the “leaven in the dough”, “a fly that lives between the two openings of the heart”.

And so, within the same semantic field of sin and salvation, with the same tools of adjuration and verbal resistance, and in the same discourse of demonology, the rabbis shaped their own distinct dialect of the late antique koine that is the evil yetzer.

This is the meaning in context of the evil yetzer. And so – to the contemporary context of the book – Rosen-Zvi contends that our own problems in life, for which we turn to Freud or William James, Durkheim or Jung, are not the problems of the ancients. The past is also a different country in the sense that the deepest concerns of its inhabitants are markedly different from ours. The yetzer is not just undeveloped language and a metaphorical image for what our psychoanalysts really know, but rather a window into a multireligious and multiethnic community – of people who were not concerned with a conflicted soul but with salvation from demons; not with mental health and hygiene but with mental and spiritual training. In that sense, Rosen-Zvi speaks Hadot in a Jewish dialect, pointing out that the people whom we (philosophers and Talmudists) identify as our spiritual forbearers are in fact colossally different from ourselves.

Eva Kiesele:

‘Demonic Desires’ is more than just the sum of Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s articles on the yetzer published over the course of a decade. It is supplemented by vast material for cross-cultural comparison, mainly Greek and Syriac patristic literature, and may well become an invaluable source for anyone interested in rabbinic anthropology. In many ways it is a reply to Daniel Boyarin’s ‘Carnal Israel’ and what has been written in its aftermath. It even delivers the famous fourth volume of Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’. But more importantly, it comes as a long due correction to the widespread trend of overreading: Yetzer discourse has for too long been charged with sexual apologetics, and has suffered from highly selective readings and from a tendency to quote from Boyarin’s oeuvre instead of quoting the primary sources. A certain polemical breeze throughout the book might be owed to this fact. ‘Demonic Desires’ undertakes to provide us with comprehensive analysis of all classical rabbinic sources instead, and with a proper blend of cross-cultural comparison, redaction and source criticism, and close readings. However, sometimes I found that in the process, overreading was replaced by underreading. This seems to be the case exactly in the two crucial aspects that are at the basis of most apologetics: dialectics and sexuality. Ishay routinely tones down sexual overtones – e.g., when GenR 22:6 describes a man who beautifies himself and prances around on the streets, he argues to read this as “pride” or “arrogance” (p. 69 and 104). But is not such “pride” simply courtship behavior, especially when (in a parallel) the “bear”- aka Mrs. Potiphar- lurks around the corner? He also spares certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression. This is not meant to refute, though. His basic tenet that sexual transgression is just one out of many sins the yetzer leads to, is certainly convincing. The common construction of Judaism as a sex-affirmative religion via the yetzer cannot be upheld after this book.

More problematic seems to me his reading of sources that present two yetzarim, or those that might shed ambivalent light on the one yetzer. In dealing with the famous homily in GenR 9:7 (והנה טוב מאוד…) he writes, “If anything, it teaches that the evil yetzer is considered as the worst thing on earth” (p. 73). This holds true for the rhetorical question, but certainly not for the following sentence in the homily. Although through redaction criticism Ishay is able to turn down the claim that yetzer meant sexual desire, he is less sensitive to the redactional contexts with regard to possible ambivalence. See, for instance, the following passage (yYom 6:4 43d), which he does not reckon among the dialectic:

“על כל סוכה וסוכה אומר לו: הרי מזון והרי מים – לייפות את כוחו.” [mYom 6:4] למה? שאין יצר הרע תעב אלא דבר שהוא אסור לו. כהדא רבי מנא סלק למבקרה לרבי חגיי, דהוה תשיש. אמר ליה: צהינא. אמר ליה: שתה! שבקיה ונחת ליה. בתר שעה סלק לגביה. אמר ליה: מה עבדת ההיא צהיותך? אמר ליה: כד שרית לי, אזלת לה.רבי חייה בר בא הוה משתעי הדין עובדא: חד בר נש הוה מהלך בשוקא וברתיה עימיה. אמרה ליה ברתיה: אבא, צהייא אנא! אמר לה: אורכין ציבחד. א”ל: אבא, צהייא אנא! א”ל: אורכין ציבחד.ומיתת. ר’ אחא כד מפני מוספא הוה אמר: קומיהון אחינן, מאן דאית ליה מיינוק, ייזיל בגיניה!

The yetzer is no doubt introduced as sin as such; but the anecdote of the sick rabbi gives an almost ridiculous touch to the principle (why would a sick person not be allowed to drink?), and the death of the daughter clearly marks horribly exaggerated practice. While this passage is probably intended to reject asceticism, it does invest the yetzer implicitly with a quality of a drive necessary for survival – and compare this to GenR 9:7, or similarly, the passage in bYom 69b where the יצרא דעבירה gets blinded. A concept of a life-sustaining impulse existed in Stoic thought and was most probably known to the rabbis – s. the Stoically tinged dialogues of Antoninus and Rabbi. The only explanation Ishay offers regarding dialectic sources is that they are probably remnants of some midrash on מעשה בראשית. The text quoted here, however, is not at all related to creation. He pushes his point very hard when he categorically rejects the possibility of a parallel, more ambivalent notion of the yetzer.

Ishay’s review of Greek and Syriac sources is a landmark in understanding the nature and development of the yetzer. The parallels he presents are compelling, both regarding the yetzer’s demonic nature and the process of its internalization. But I do miss a third party to cross-cultural comparison: the Persian sources. The notorious difficulties in their dating aside, they share so many points of contact that it is a loss to exclude them from the picture. Qumranic demonology in general  – the assumed origin of demonic yetzer discourse – is believed by Shaked and others to be influenced by Zoroastrianism. But more specifically: At least in the more sophisticated strata of Zoroastrian literature, demons are characterized by a negative ontology – they are non-existent and “are” non-existence. The way these demons work is not causing illness or mishaps, they are there to deny and destroy religious law and the good creation, or in Ishay’s own terms for the yetzer: sin qua sin. They enter from the outside and occupy people’s minds. And just like in patristic and rabbinic literature, if you neglect religious study you become easier prey to the demons. The development of psychological traits into reified entities is typical of Zoroastrian thought; and these demons are highly “moral”. In chapter 27 of the Bundahišn (the Iranian account of creation), e.g., they are held responsible for such vices as a-rāh (“leaving the proper path”), slander, illicit intercourse, and most prominently: wrath (xešm or aēšma – the model for talmudic Ashmeday), ultimately leading down the slippery slope to heresy. Rings a bell? Yup. These demons also cause you to entertain religious study without a teacher. This said, I am doubtful whether “moral demonology” is in fact a Judeo-Christian contribution, nor is the yeshivish/monastic perspective necessarily so. I would like to make a strong claim that we have to enlarge the demonic koine.

While I do not consider the omission of Persian sources a shortcoming per se (and to be fair, Ishay admits that he leaves these texts for “specialists in the Middle Persian language and Zoroastrian culture” [p. 12]), I do think that ‘Demonic Desires’ is facing a methodological problem here. Yishay’s approach is total analysis in order to reach bold conclusions regarding the notion’s origin and development. But these conclusions may become less reliable if you do not actually consider all relevant data. For example, he describes multiple moves of in- and externalization of the yetzer and finds that the Babylonian yetzer, with its national dimension, quite surprisingly, seems closer to the Qumranic yetzer than to the tannaitic one. Ishay speculates that an “old Jewish tradition [had been] consciously ignored by early rabbis” (p. 80). Would it not be more plausible to assume that an originally Persian concept, which had reached Qumran and from there the rabbis, was revived upon returning home?

In my eyes, the most fascinating parts of the book are the analyses of the yetzer’s functions on a meta-level. There is the yetzer as rhetorical device: certain answers to halakhic lacunae are, although theoretically acceptable, marked off as no-go territory by labeling them as the yetzer’s suggestion. Don’t even think about it – this is yetzer hara! Here we are right in the kitchen of rabbinic cultural policy: the yetzer is used to draw the boundaries of rabbinic identity where it cannot be negotiated by means of argument. Ishay points out that social “others” (heretics, philosophers, matrons, etc.) fulfill a similar function of marking “forbidden” arguments, but that the yetzer is unique in that it is never engaged through dialogue. I am tempted to understand this as: The arguments presented by the yetzer do not actually belong to any “other” that one could argue with, being factually kosher, but the rabbis do not want them to be “us”, either. Awkwardly, they are “us” that is not really “us”. If so, the same mechanism works on both the collective and the individual level: the yetzer is a part of “me” that is not really “me” (cf. p. 129). This construction is a bit unwieldy, but summarizes in the best possible way the underlying dilemma: it is exactly the yetzer that allows the rabbis to legally access not only human actions but their thoughts (s. the chapter on sexuality for this ethical “inward turn”); but it cannot be allowed to “become” a thought – and thus an integral part of “me” – because such would topple the basic positive anthropology. Is this the solution to the problem of human transgression of a society that already has a notion of personal agency and responsibility but not yet a notion of an autonomous subject (into the mind of which transgressive thoughts could be integrated)? Ishay touches here on so far almost untrodden grounds, and he rightly is careful not to use too many philosophical anachronisms. In spite of such restrictions, ‘Demonic Desires’ lays excellent ground for future inquiry into the rabbinic concept of the “self”. And in doing so, it delivers yet another desideratum: beginning to integrate rabbinic literature into Peter Brown’s account of late antiquity.

Raphael Magarik

First off, I’d like to thank Shai and Yitz for asking me to contribute: unlike other participants, I’m only an amateur student of rabbinics, and it’s a great pleasure to be involved in this type of conversation around a great book.

Second, since I’d like to pick up where my review left off. In the review, I identified what I see as the book’s central move, namely shifting the context for yetzer from Hellenistic psychology (in the sense of philosophical study of the psyche) to Patristic demonology. I should say, for the little it’s worth, that the shift seems to me totally convincing.

I then raised two related questions, one internal to the book’s argument and one external. As I’m just an amateur, these will be fuzzy and philosophical — not technical or historically specific — responses.

(1) Is there a functional difference between these two discourses — do demons actually work differently than psyches, or are they just a different metaphorical register? This is a question Rosen-Zvi engages with in a number of ways, most directly when he points out that “there is no true dichotomy between character and being”—that is, between a psyche and a demon—”only a spectrum of levels of reification.”

I’d like to push the point a little: I’m not sure that some of the purported distinguishing features of demons cannot also be attributed to psychological complexes or parts of the soul. Two of those features (I think) are: that the yetzer can be defeated, that it encourages not bodily tempting sins but rather those that are specifically evil (or perhaps those which are marked as “outside” communally). But Freud thought he could cure neuroses, and I believe certain American Christians understand “Free Grace” as indicating that salvation effects a basic personality change in a person. And on the second point, not only psychological entities are bodily (Freud’s id is, but his death-drive, I think, is not), and as the death-drive illustrates, not all psychological desires are continuous with plausibly pleasurable motivations.

Now, to be clear, I’m not questioning Rosen-Zvi’s individual points about rabbinic yetzer — those seem to me astute, novel, and exciting: I’m just curious as to what’s at stake saying something like (my words), “We believe in psychology; the rabbis believed in demons” — can such a statement make a functional difference? Does Freud believe in psyches, or demons? What difference does it make? This question, of course, is a bit of a Pragmatist intervention and blends somewhat into the next one, as I’m not really worried about “whether the yetzer was a demon”: I’m not sure whether the implicit question about rabbinic ontology (what was the yetzer?) is very important at all.

(2) What’s the book’s larger intellectual project — how does Rosen-Zvi’s dispassionate historicization jive with his mentor Boyarin’s “recovery” of a usable rabbinic history? to put that question in less parochial terms, why excavate the demonological context to the yetzer now?

On this point, I’ve said a little in the review, and the question’s not so much even the mild, uncertain critique of (1) — it’s really just curiosity. Antiquarianism (in the strict Nietzschean sense) is not the most common form of socio-cultural history around today. In  footnote 14 on page 136, Rosen-Zvi says something to the effect that even Foucault needs to be problematized — well, from what angle? Do we need to return to traditional questions about the nature of evil? Recognize that the rabbis were more primitive (and their concerns more remote from our own) than we’d like to believe?

Boyarin says somewhere that the goal of writing an academic book is to get people to buy onto your historical story even if they don’t share your philosophical or political agenda — i.e., to argue for a history persuasively. I think that’s right, and I’m curious is a) Rosen-Zvi does — perhaps he takes a more positivist line about discovering the past? and b) if so, what are those commitments? I think that though Boyarin’s right to say that the point of writing history is to persuade the unsympathetic reader (and thus appeals to the commitments are invalid in the argument itself), readers still ought to know (or at least are going to be curious!) what those commitments are.