After over a year and a half of blogging, last night, for the first time ever, all of the Talmud Blog’s editors and contributors were actually in the same place at the same time. And what better reason could there have been for such a gathering than to attend, along with a diverse crowd of Talmud Blog followers, a presentation by Dr. Ron Naiweld on “The Torah as the Divine Logos in Tannaitic Literature”.
It is our pleasure to present to you the audio of the lecture here. Enjoy, and feel free to offer your comments below.
In a beautifully appointed Jerusalem home, and framed by some Avigdor Arikha, Michal Bar Asher-Siegal led an extremely animated discussion that compared many of the motifs comprising the Bavli’s Resh Lakish story cycle with similar elements from Syriac Christian hagiographical texts. Like those cool guys from Chicago, Michal was on a mission to convince scholars of the significance and necessity of reading the Talmud alongside these (then) very popular Christian works. And in our humble opinion, she succeeded marvelously. For those of you who want to see if you’re convinced, we’ve uploaded the audio of the lecture here, and the handout here. Let us know what you think!
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 mostto 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.
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!
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.
‘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.
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.
As noted a few weeks ago on The Talmud Blog, Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash is now out in Hebrew, after a long wait. Last night, students, havrutot, friends, and admirers of Boyarin and Boyarenesque scholarship coalesced at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute to celebrate the appearance of Midrash Tannaim – the Hebrew title of Intertextuality. The three speakers, introduced by Prof. Galit Hasan-Rokem, dealt with different parts of Boyarin’s Torah as it pertains to their own fields of expertise.
Professor Menahem Kahana, a scholar of Midrashic literature and the head of Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha (!), reminisced about the times when he and “Danny” (Hebrew- “Donny“) would engage in philological exploits into the depths of the Mekhilta. Such exploits engendered two very different scholarly tomes- Boyarin’s Intertextuality and Kahana’s Mekhiltot. Kahana, whose praises for Intertextuailty are listed in Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s afterword to Midrash Tannaim, chose to argue for more historical understandings than those presented by Boyarin in his early work. In his own words, “The multi-vocality of history is no less important than the multi-vocality of the text”. Of course, historically attuned readings are quite present in Boyarin’s later work, and the other speakers also struggled with critically engaging a book more than two decades after its initial publication, whose author no longer fully agrees with everything he wrote in it.
Dr. Dina Stein of the department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Haifa University also began with a personal story involving her and Boyarin. Years ago, she had purchased a copy of Todorov’sSymbolism and Interpretation from a used bookstore in Berkeley. She soon realized that the copy in her possession had originally belonged to Boyarin, who had referenced relevant rabbinic passages in the book’s margins, as can be seen in the picture to the right. Yet those passages, to the best of her knowledge, are surprisingly absent from Boyarin’s published work. Stein also pointed out that not only were those stories left out, but the book in which they were cited had left Boyarin’s library, first to a store that is no longer even open, and then, redemptively, to a fellow Rabbinics scholar. Indeed, those changes are perhaps symbolic of a deeper shift apparent in Boyarin’s scholarly output: A move from the semiotics of midrash, of understanding rabbinic hermeneutics to work in “an almost too perfect” way, to historicist readings of the rabbis. As Stein suggested, perhaps Intertextuaility is Boyarin’s Shir haShirim. In his response, Boyarin acknowledged that Socrates might be his Kohelet, but added that that is because the Bavli is the Kohelet of the Rabbis (“בעיניי, הבבלי הוא הקהלת של חז”ל”).
In his distinctly clear yet sharp style, Dr. Joshua Levinson of Hebrew University’s department of Hebrew Literature presented an overview of Intertextuality‘s continued influence on rabbinic studies. Instead of deciding what exegesis is and then asking whether rabbinic midrash fits the criteria, Boyarin took the text’s claim to be exegetical seriously and then asked what its hermeneutic methods are. Levinson then showed how such an outlook affected research into other genres of rabbinic literature, such as the exegetical narratives of Genesis Rabbah- Levinson’s own field of expertise in which he has pioneered new paths of understanding.
Although speakers came from as far away as Berkeley and Haifa, the evening’s overall atmosphere was characteristically Jerusalemite, and not just because of the rugelach from Marzipan or the classically South Jerusalem institution in which it was held. Rather, what created the special ambiance was the very presence of such scholars on the same stage, along with an audience of researchers and students of Talmud, Jewish thought, and literature in what seemed like a mixture that can only come into being in Jerusalem. Despite their differences, and regardless of which ‘Boyarin’ they prefer most, all in attendance seemed more than happy to gather in appreciation of their shared teacher.
Last spring, future Talmud blog contributors and other Jerusalemite students of Rabbinic literature were lucky enough to spend a delightful evening with Prof. Daniel Boyarin, discussing Carnal Israel from the hindsight of twenty years. Prof. Boyarin had scheduled his trip to Israel for the release of a translation of his earlier work, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash in Hebrew. Little did we know that only a few months later some of us would be collaborating on a web log. Nor did we fully understand how long we would have to wait for the release of Midrash Tanaim: Intertextualiut viKriyat Mechilta (Hartman, Alma, and Keter 2011).
Truth be told, now that the volume is in my hands, the time spent on its preparation (and its strange recall by the publisher after its initial release…) seems to have been well spent. I only purchased it a few hours ago but I’ve already started plowing through the two new chapters Prof. Boyarin wrote for the Hebrew edition: “Midrash as Anti-Philosophy” and “Rhetoric, Theology and Allegory in Paul and Origen”. Both seem to offer authoritative summaries of some of Boyarin’s scholarship since Intertextuality‘s English release in 1990. Another chapter by Ishay Rosen-Zvi provides an overview of the affect that Boyarin has had on research into Rabbinic literature- “What is Left to Interpret? Thoughts on Boyarin and his Footsteps”. These chapters add significant value to the book, but its main contribution is no doubt the way it makes Boyarin’s scholarship accessible to the Israeli reader. Boyarin has still left plenty of writings to translate, and I hope that we’ll soon see translations of other works of his as well. You can hear Boyarin and other scholars (Menahem Kahana, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Joshua Levinson, and Dina Stein) discuss the book at the Shalom Hartman Institute on November 27 at 8:30pm.
Last Monday I received a most fascinating email from Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, MD, of Rome, with a picture of a plaque unveiled just the previous afternoon in the market place of Rome to commemorate when, in 1553, the Inquisitors confiscated every copy of the Talmud in Italy; the search took about nine days. On Rosh Hashanah 5314 (9 September 1553), the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori. Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth-century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in Italy. Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni described this event as “the beginning of the persecution of the Jewish printed book, after that of manuscripts.”
The idea for this plaque placement came after the Boyarin family of Berkeley, California, toured Italy a half-dozen years ago. As Prof. Daniel Boyarin described in remarks delivered at an event celebrating the completion of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’ Talmud translation into Italian at the Campo dei Fiori in November 2010, the idea was conceived “[f]ive years ago when we walked in this beautiful place, [and Chava Boyarin] observed the statue in memory of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom here, and remarked that there was no memorial for the wagon-loads of Talmud manuscripts and books burnt here in 1553.”
Professor Daniel Boyarin’s entire remarks are transcribed below and a recording is available here. At the event last year, it was announced that a permanent plaque would be affixed at that location in time for this year’s Rosh Hashanah, 458 years after the Talmud was burnt at that very location. Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni sent me the picture below of the plaque that now rests on the street of the marketplace in the Campo dei Fiori.
Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni told me that in the week since the plaque has been affixed, many tourists and local residents have passed through the marketplace and have stopped to learn about the event that took place at that very location in 1553. “Many tourists who casually crossed the square yesterday were Jewish,” he wrote to me. “One of them told me that he was a young boy who escaped from Berlin in 1938, so he knew what burning of books means, and he was deeply moved by this commemoration. After 458 years, we remember.”
As you can see in the picture, the text of the plaque is in Italian, with two quotations in Hebrew. The first is a quote from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18a), which offers the Talmudic account of the martyrdom of R. Hannaniah b. Teradyon. The second passage is from the elegy, Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, composed by Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, Maharam of Rothenburg, upon seeing the wagons of Talmudic manuscripts and commentaries burnt in a Paris marketplace in 1242. Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh is among the most powerful elegies read on Tisha be-Av within Ashkenazic communities worldwide.
The Talmudic account of the martyrdom of R. Hannaniah b. Teradyon, who was burnt alive while wrapped in a Torah scroll, has been described by Moshe David Herr, “Persecutions and Martyrdom in Hadrian’s Days,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 23 (1972): 85-125, esp. 110-119 (Hebrew); Gerald J. Blidstein, “Rabbis, Romans, and Martyrdom: Three Views,” Tradition 21:3 (Fall 1984): 54-62; Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Daniel Boyarin, “A Contribution to the History of Martyrdom in Israel,” in Daniel Boyarin, Menachem Hershman, Shamma Friedman, Menahem Schmelzer, and Israel M. Ta-Shma, eds., Atarah Le-Hayim: Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1999), 3-27 (Hebrew); Joseph Dan, “Narrative of the Ten Martyrs: Mysticism and Martyology,” in Hana Amit, Aviad Hacohen, and Haim Beer, eds., Mincha le-Menachem: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Rabbi Menachem Hacohen (Tel-Aviv: haKibbutz haMeuchad, 2007), 367-390 (Hebrew), and broader on The Ten Martyrs, see Jan Wilhelm van Henten, “Jewish and Christian Martyrs,” in Marcel Poorthuis and Joshua Schwartz, eds., Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004), 163-181; and Ra’anan S. Boustan, “The Hagiographic Vita of a Priestly Rabbinic Martyr: The Figure of Rabbi Ishmael in The Story of the Ten Martyrs,” in Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 99-148.
For scholarly discussions on the 1553 burning of the Talmud in Campo dei Fiori, see Avraham Yaari, The Burning of the Talmud in Italy (Tel-Aviv: Abraham Zioni, 1954; Hebrew), reprinted in Studies in Hebrew Booklore (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1958), 198–234 (Hebrew); Kenneth R. Stow, “The Burning of the Talmud in 1553, in Light of Sixteenth-Century Catholic Attitudes Toward the Talmud,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 34:3 (September 1972): 435-449; Kenneth R. Stow, Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy 1555-1593, Moreshet Series, vol. 5 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1977), 49-50, 54-59; as well as the more-recent scholarship by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Censorship, Editing and the Reshaping of Jewish Identity: The Catholic Church and Hebrew Literature in the Sixteenth Century,” in Allison Coudert and Jeffrey S. Shoulson, eds., Hebraica Veritas?: Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 125-155; Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “The Burning of the Talmud,” in The Censor, the Editor, and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Jackie Feldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 32-56, 211-222; Fausto Parente, “The Index, the Holy Office, the Condemnation of the Talmud and Publication of Clement VIII’s Index,” in Gigliola Fragnito, ed., Church, Censorship and Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 163-193, which was drawn to my attention by Prof. Ariel Toaff; and most-recently (in a volume just published last week), in Piet van Boxel, “Robert Bellarmine Reads Rashi: Rabbinic Bible Commentaries and the Burning of the Talmud,” in Joseph Hacker and Adam Shear, eds., The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 121-132 (chapter six), available here.
About the burning of the Talmud during June 1242, see Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 70-99 (Chapter three: “Burning Jewish Books”), and for the text of Maharam mi-Rothenberg’s Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, see Daniel Goldschmidt, ed., Seder ha‐Kinot le‐Tisha be‐Av (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1972), 135-137 (no. 42) (Hebrew), which appears in English translation in Robert Chazan, ed., Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1980), 229-231, and in slightly modified form in Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death, 76-78. The complete entire audio recording of Professor Daniel Boyarin’s remarks at the Campo dei Fiori is available here, and Rabbi Steinsaltz’ remarks are available here.
Five years ago when we walked in this beautiful place, [Chava Boyarin] observed the statue in memory of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom here, and remarked that there was no memorial for the wagonloads of Talmud manuscripts and books burnt here in 1553.
‘Once these books are removed,’ an advisor to the Roman Inquisition had written, ‘it will soon result that the more that they are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and,’ what he calls, ‘the wisdom of the word of God.’ This Inquisitor well understood one thing. He understood that the Talmud and the study of Talmud are what have sustained the Jewish People and kept us against all odds alive and thriving. The wisdom of our rabbis is the word of God, and it this that has kept us faithful to the word of God ’till this day.
In Rome, the Inquisition raged while in the Benedictine monastery at Camaldoli near Arezzo, sat the Florentine humanists who studied the Talmud and Kabbalah together with rabbis. Giordano Bruno, whose own martyrdom, some 20 years after that of the Talmud here, was in large part owing to his having been influenced by those humanists and their interest in Jewish holy books. The placing of this plaque today thus closes the circle and indicates to us that it is not the Inquisition that has won the day, but the spirit of Camaldoli. Today in Rome, Jews and Christians study the Talmud and others of our shared holy books, not only with each other but with Muslims as well. Bruno might have dreamed that this would happen.
Daya le-Chakimah be-Ramiza, “a hint to a Sage is sufficient.” I only had to make the suggestion to the Rabbi of Rome, Rav Riccardo di Segni, and the process was set in motion that has brought us here today. Chazak u-Varukh!
Not only is this a day of mourning; however, it is also a day of celebration. Safadnu Et ha-Talmud Kan, ve-ha-Yom hi-Kimu Yeshiva al-Kivro. We have mourned and memorialized the Talmud in this place, and Rabbi Steinsaltz, shlita, has built a yeshiva on what was intended to be its grave.
The spirit of Bruno has been vindicated, but also the Talmud itself. For while the Inquisition sought to end all Talmud and Talmudic study, more people study the Talmud today than ever before in history, in large part due because of the great, and now completed, Baruch Hashem, project of Rabbi Steinsaltz, shlita.
We mourn the burnt holy books and rejoice together on the completion of this commentary on the Talmud.
Menachem Butler is the co-editor of the Seforim blog. This is his first contribution to the Talmud blog.
At the old Talmud Blog, I kept a log of reviews of Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. And then I couldn’t keep up. Two months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of responding to a paper of Prof. Boyarin’s which was itself a response to two reviews – that of Adam Becker: “Positing a ‘Cultural Relationship’ between Plato and the Babylonian Talmud’ which appeared with Barry Wimpfheimer, “The Dialogical Talmud: Daniel Boyarin and Rabbinics” in JQR 101:2 (Spring 2011), and Reuven Kiperwasser’s in Jewish History, which interestingly enough had at that point not yet been published. Kiperwasser’s important review has finally appeared in the most recent issue (in print) of Jewish History. Hopefully, we’ll get to see a response by Prof. Boyarin at this blog in the future.