English, Reviews

Protestant Mishnah

Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther, 1529.

A serendipitous combination of circumstances brought Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine and Hanan Gafni’s Peshutah shel Mishnah to my shelf side by side. Gafni’s brand-new book, based on a dissertation written under the supervision of Jay Harris at Harvard, is written in beautiful and clear Hebrew and attempts to introduce the uninitated reader into the complex and fraught world of Mishnah scholarship in its infancy.

The Mishnah has two strands of textual tradition: the Babylonian and the Palestinian. Yaakov Zussman, through his command of the Mif’al Hamishna, claims  that there are no Mishnah  manuscripts that follow the tradition of the Bavli. This is no coincidence, per Zussman: the Babylonian tradition – of which all extant Jewish communities are heirs – did not prize the study of Mishnah on its own. The Mishnah was to be studied in conjunction with the Bavli. When Maimonides wanted to write a commentary on the Mishanh, he had to use a Palestinian Mishnah manuscript and sometimes update it to keep it in line with the Mishnah or the halakha of the Bavli.

The first edition of the Mishnah was printed in Naples, in 1502, with Maimonides’ commentary. Ovadia of Bertinoro published a commentary in Venice, in 1549. Study of the Mishnah on its own regained some ground in Kabbalistic circles in 16th century Safed – R. Joseph Karo’s supernatural Maggid was in fact the Mishnah personified.

But Gafni’s study begins in earnest somewhat later, scouring Kabbalistic works from the Lurianic school for oblique references to “Peshat and Derash” in the Mishnah. These references – that give his book its name – were the seedling that allowed Mishnah scholarship to begin in the school of the Vilna Gaon.

Gafni surveys scholars by geography, beginning with Safed, then Lithuania, Italy, Galicia, Germany and then, finally, Vienna. Scholars are selected, described and their work is discussed. Each chapter ends with an example, that is useful for understanding the real meaning of the figure’s work – often readers of such books end up knowing so little about the actual substance of the work. Many of the debates important to the interface between Jewish studies and Jewish people in our time are echoed in these sketches: should scholars be engaged in the issues of their communities? Should they bring their religious agendas to their work with them?

But for me – reading Smith at the same time – the striking point was the Protestantism of it all. The idea that these early Mishnah scholars had, that at some time in Jewish history there was a moment of purity, of clarity, when everything was pristine and not mangled up by the Talmud and its casuistry strikes a note that Smith hears elsewhere. Just as early study of religion was focused on highlighting the “uniqueness” of the one Religion – i.e. Apostolic Christianity, through a Protestant lens- so perhaps early study of Judaism by Jews was marked by their aversion to the Talmud (read: Bavli), its embarrassing complication, superstition, and stringency. The Bavli was the repository of choice for the shame Jews had of their own religion; as the protestants blamed the “rabbins” for the Jews and their strangeness, the Maskilim blamed the Bavli. Then, when they began to study the Mishnah as a work unto itself, this added another layer of embarrassment: really, the Bavli couldn’t understand the Mishnah at all!

The field in fact took over a century to recover. Only David Halivni and Eliezer Rosenthal, neither a “natural” heir to this tradition, both steeped in traditional talmudic study that they did not hate, were able to bring the Bavli back into the limelight. Numerous lessons were learned from this retreat from the Bavli, as well: first, that there are other texts besides the Bavli, and second, that the Talmud is neither stupid or superstitious. It is an interesting and complex product of its time and place – and that it is, on a most basic level – still not really understood.

Around the Web, English, Technology

Outsourcing Scholarship

parking ticket...avoided. Valuable Information...acquired.

The joys of New York City had me sitting in a car, waiting for a 9-10:30am spot to become legal on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. No matter, I had my laptop and the BBC playing, where I learned of an Oxford University project to outsource papyrological work to the public. They have built a simply incredible website to invite the general, non-scholarly, non-Greek reading public to help transcribe the cache of Greek papyri found at Oxyrhynchus over a century ago.  The tools are impressive, though I still find it hard to believe that most fragments will be properly transcribed by people untrained in the papyrological arts. Could we use this for talmudic research?

English, Recent Publications

RSK’s New Book and Paradigms of Gender Research

In a recent review at the Review of Biblical Literature, Gail Streete looks at Ross Shepard Kraemer‘s newest book, Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.  It is a fascinating take on how one of the foremost gender theorists working on Ancient Judaism has changed her views over the past few decades. In many ways, RSK’s (if you’ll pardon my French) evolution mirrors some of the debates still current among Talmudists, where feminists like Charlotte Fonrobert and, it seems to me, Daniel Boyarin, claim that female voices can be discovered in rabbinic works by reading closely for disturbances in the textual architecture, and scholars like Ishay Rosen-Zvi who have despaired of ever accomplishing such  “recoveries.”

In other reviewing news, Josh Lambert over at Tablet Magazine, lists a number of interesting recent and forthcoming publications on identity and conversion, including Matthew Thiessen’s Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity, and an edited volume entitled Sacrifice, Scripture and Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity. Also of some interest is Yoel Finkelman’s forthcoming book on Artscroll (scroll down).

Around the Web, English, Technology

Digitally Humanizing Jewish Studies

RAMBI has added RSS feeds (=RAMBIRSS)

The past week has seen some updates in the digital humanities side of Jewish Studies.

For those of us who like wasting time constructively online, RAMBI has added some 17 RSS feeds of recently published articles. Each feed is dedicated to different categories of the catalog.

In its newest version, The Friedberg Genizah Project added another 70,000 images or so to its database. Most of the images are of fragments located in the Cambridge University and British Libraries. The FGP also made some significant “website improvements”, such as a redone “browse by collection function”, a unified advanced search, an expanded text search, joins display, and more (I hope in a future post to provide guidelines for getting the most out of FGP).

Around the Web, English, Talmud in the News

Reading the Talmud in…

The South Korean ambassador to Israel visiting a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, earlier this month (picture from ynet, courtesy of the municipality of Bnei Brak)

The South Korean interest in Talmud has been a real hot-topic over the past few months. This piece outlines the phenomena, but as a simple Google search will show, there are many, many more articles on the subject (see also Menachem Mendel’s coverage).

But what does Talmud Study in South Korea actually look like? Perhaps a recent op-ed by Mario Blejer in the Korean JoongAng Daily, one of South Korea’s three daily English-language newspapers, may help answer that question. Commenting on the current debt crisis in Greece, the former governor of the central bank of Argentina and former director of the Bank of England seeks to find a solution in “the Talmud, the ancient repository of Jewish legal commentary – and one of the oldest sources of human thought on morality and economic activity”.  He then goes on to summarize the sugya of “kofin oto ad she-yomar rotze ani” as it appears in Bavli Kiddushin (50a) in order to “show that there are mechanisms that can – and should – be used to place pressure on the parties in the interest of obtaining superior voluntary outcomes.”

The article’s title, “The Talmud and Greek Debt”, is quite reminiscent, interestingly enough, of studies penned by Saul Lieberman.

Conferences, English, Recent Publications

Bar Ilan Talmud Conference Proceedings

Back in 2007, I attended a Talmud conference at Bar Ilan University. It was an international meeting, and included a nice variety of scholars from both sides of the Atlantic, along with a “continental” Talmudist or two. The proceedings have recently been published by Bar Ilan University Press under the title Malekhet Mahshevet: Studies in the Redaction and Development of Talmudic Literature (eds. Aron Shemesh and Aron Amit).   Although the volume does not include all of the original papers, I’ll quote Uriel Shklunik by saying that the volume is like finely sifted flour.  Some highlights are the ongoing debate about the dating of the Stam between Robert Brody and Shamma Friedman, Yaakov Elman’s continued research of the introduction to talmudic tractates, and Steven Fraade’s preliminary probe: “Anonymity and Redaction in Legal Midrash.” For an English table of contents, see here.

Announcements, Around the Web, English, Events

Talmud in the New World

The first- all-American- attempt at a critical edition of the Talmud

Since the early decades of the twentieth century, the bond between academic Talmud and America has been a strong one.  To name but a few highlights, Julius Kaplan published his  pioneering work on the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, Solomon Shechter took up residence in the great city of New York, while Henry Malter published the first ever (semi-) critical edition of part of the Babylonian Talmud in Philadelphia in 1928.

The four current authors of this blog normally live in Israel, but are all visiting the United States for the summer.  We are all in transition.

Just the other day, Alan Brill responded to Tomer Persico and his classification of Brill’s blog as “American,” by wondering what it means to  be American, Israeli, or Maltese (added in honor of Henry) in a globalized, fiber-opticized world.   Brill also wondered how (and whether) the Talmud Blog is American, Israeli, or something else.  Some similar questions were raised back on the old Talmud blog, and they are crucial not just for sociological speculations, but related to this blog’s preoccupation with context.  Shai thought then, and continues to maintain, that regardless of the radical changes in our world, context continues to matter.

A lot of what the new wave of “contextual Talmudists” do, is make connections between textual (that is, non-material) things and probe their significance.  It’s a messy business and often difficult to argue or articulate which parallels are worth pursuing and what is a strangely coincidental set of characteristics. The problem plagues virtually every area of comparative historical research, but particularly of ancient times.  If everything in the room that I am now sitting in will vanish (as it one day will), save for a few, arbitrary objects, will anyone be able to reconstruct the feeling of sitting where I sit and breathing the air I breathe, watching the flashes of lightening across a charred Gotham sky, the pitter-patter of a soaking summer rain on the fast streets below? And yet scholars do it all the time, and occasionally get somewhere with the few things that remain. Of course the real interest is not in the texture of banal living, but in the world of thoughts, ideas, and religion. Against all odds, even this sometimes works.

Since we are traveling we would like to: a. ask for help from our Israeli readers; b. apologize for a relative slack in posting; and c. announce some upcoming Talmud Blog events.  Traveling and fasting (some of us preferred to do this simultaneously) has taken a toll and it will be a few days until we get back to a normal posting schedule. Regardless, we’ll have a tougher time keeping tabs on Talmudic goings-on in Israel, so we would appreciate if readers there could keep us posted via email of upcoming events in the Holy Land. For readers in the greater Teaneck area- Shai will be delivering a few shiurim at Congregation Rinat Yisrael on Shabbat Hazon. Yedidah and Amit can be heard on Tuesday nights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at Mechon Hadar. Before I host Shai in Teaneck, I’ll be at Princeton for two weeks, where I hope to blog from Tikvah’s Undergraduate Summer Seminar.

For further discussion, see here. Also- don’t miss Manuscript Boy‘s exciting updates (days 1, 2, and 3) from the Books within Books colloquium on the European Genizah.

English, Reviews

Sifre Bemidbar, Ed. Kahana!

In 1982, when he completed his doctoral dissertation, Menahem Kahana wrote:

In the first stages of preparing this dissertation, over a decade ago, I naïvely thought that I could quickly finish the menial work of collecting the material and collating it.

He ends his preface with a prayer

It is my hope and prayer that as I was able to complete these Prolegomena, I will, with God’s help, be able to publish the edition itself. (M. Kahana, “Akdamot le-hotsaa hadasha shel sifrei bemidbar”, PhD Diss., Jerusalem 1982)

Prof. Kahana recently fulfilled half of his prayer: his impressive edition and exhaustive commentary on the first half of Sifrei Numbers, the midrash on Numbers of the school of Rabbi Ishmael.

This is not the first critical edition of Sifre Numbers. The first attempt at a critical text and commentary was made by Meir “Ish-Shalom” Friedmann, of Vienna in 1864. This was not a critical edition in the sense that we use today: Friedmann just corrected the textus receptus of the Sifre according to Yalkut Shimoni, and added a commentary. The second attempt came shortly afterwards, in 1907, when Haym Saul Horowitz published Sifre Numbers (and Sifre Zutta Numbers) as the first volume in the series Corpus Tannaiticum: Pars Tertia, published by the Gesselschaft för die Wissenschaft Des Judentums in Berlin. (Prima and Secunda of the Corpus were the Mishna and Tosefta, which were never published; J. N. Epstein was commissioned to do the former but “only” managed to produce the Prolegomenon that he then translated into Hebrew). This edition had a real apparatus criticus and a short commentary, a real step up from Friedmann’s. Horowitz also almost completed the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael and started work on Sifre Deuteronomy – both were published posthumously by Haym Rabin and Louis Finkelstein, respectively. The latter work was the last publication of the Gesselschaft, in October 1939.

Horowitz’s editions, however, suffer from three serious drawbacks. Their text is eclectic, based on ed. princ. (better than the textus receptus in Friedmann’s editions, but still not a good text), and it did not make use of all the manuscript material, which was not all known to Horowitz. Ed. Kahana, published a mere 104 years after ed. Horowitz, rectifies these problems: Kahana knows all the mss material – and has better knowledge than anyone of all the medieval citations and quotations of the Sifre as well – and strictly adheres to the best-text method of editing critical editions.

This method is not without its critiques – Peter Schäfer and Chaim Milikowsky both come to mind – but in the case of the Sifre it is probably the best one, because, as Kahana attempts to prove in his dissertation, all of the MSS of the Sifre represent a single text-type, unlike, say, Bavli Karetot or Moed Katan, or Hekhalot literature.

The commentary (for half the Sifre) spans two volumes. Kahana notes that he attempted to follow Saul Lieberman’s model in his exhausitve Tosefta Ki-feshuta, in that he tries to expand the discussion beyond the correct reading of the text, while paying close attention to these readings, believing that they hold the key to a correct understanding of any rabbinic text.

However, Kahana differs from Lieberman in two respects. The first is an outcome of the text Kahana chose, Sifre Numbers. Unlike Lieberman, who had two MSS and one ed. Princ. to work with, plus a smattering of Geniza fragments and citations in Medieval Authorities – and no medieval commentaries on his work at all, Kahana’s text has five whole MSS,  fragments, some from the Geniza (all discovered after the 1982 dissertation, and one, styled ב1 in the edition, discovered two summers ago by Ezra Schwat), two medieval commentators (R. Hillel b. Elyaqim  “from Greece”, the “Raavad”, in fact a Tosafist, and countless citations in later biblical commentaries on Numbers.  On top of that, the Sifre was emended more often and more freely than either Mishnah or Tosefta, often according to a parallel in the Bavli – other times according to other works. The production of a critical edition is thus more complicated, fraught, and methodologically nuanced for the Sifre than for Tosefta.

The second respect in which Kahana differs from Lieberman is his eye for matters of style, patterns, ring compositions and other such rhetorical devices. Kahana has published several papers on these devices in other works, and is happy to employ these tools when he can. This is but an indicator of the great generational shift in Talmudic studies, from a philological-historical approach to a philological-literary one.

Being half a work has some disadvantages. The three-volume set has no index, for example. This is probably going to be appended to volume 6 (or whatever the final volume turns out to be), but in the meantime, readers have no way of finding the amazingly useful surveys of terminology of the Sifre that dot almost every line of the commentary, or discussions of other midrashim and their manuscripts. Kahana did append the text of the entire Sifre to the edition, but without the apparati that are – in his own words – essential for understanding the text. Scholars, beware of citing the second half of ed. Kahana without reading through the manuscripts! Time will of course heal all wounds, and the remaining volumes of the text will have a complete edition and indices to everything. In the meantime, you can buy a searchable PDF edition of the work for a mere 300 NIS (150 if you already spent 200 NIS on the book!). The set also comes with Kahana’s Prolegomena which are actually still quite important and useful, and not found in most libraries outside of Israel.

Reviews will of course be published of this impressive (half a) work, but for the moment we can simply be content with a piece of advice cribbed from Kahana himself (about Lieberman’s TK). From now on, when you’re learning a rabbinic text, try to find a parallel in the first half of Sifre Numbers. Then at least you’ll  know what you don’t know.

Conferences, English, Guest Posts

SBL Conference Day 2 – Guest Post by Ari Lamm

  continued from day 1

I got a bit of a later start on Tuesday than I had on Monday.  Busy packing up our London apartment for our move back to New York – my wife and daughter had already made their way home a week earlier – I ended up missing the first two lectures of Tuesday’s initial block of sessions.  Fortunately, I managed to attend several fantastic lectures over the course of the day.

As soon as my Northern Line train pulled into Waterloo Station I navigated my way through the complex maze of underpasses leading to the King’s College campus, and dashed upstairs to the “Non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls: Themes and Perspectives” section. This session was convened specifically to address the topic, “Images of the Feminine in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” I arrived just in time to get my laptop ready for Claire Ruth Pfann’ (University of the Holy Land) presentation entitled, “Women at Qumran: Fact or Fiction?” Making use of what she referred to as a revised version of De Vaux’s chronology of the site, Pfann concluded that throughout the history of habitation at Qumran, finds that might indicate the presence of women (e.g. hairnets, feminine fabric patterns, jewelry, spindle whorls, etc.) are absent. During the period Pfann has designated IIb (66-68 CE), however, we begin to find in sealed loci possible indicators of female habitation of the site. These finds continue to appear in layer III (post-73 CE). Pfann thus sees evidence for Revolt-related female habitation at Qumran just prior to the revolt (during a period beginning in 66 CE), but not beforehand.

The discussion period following Pfann’s presentation produced the most heated exchange that I had seen at SBL to that point. Jodi Magness (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) questioned Pfann’s decision to posit a separate stage of habitation commencing in 66 CE, rather than a single period beginning some time early in the reign of Herod Archelaus (i.e. around 4 BCE). Pfann’s view, doggedly defended during the subsequent session break by Stephen Pfann (University of the Holy Land), is that an observable change in material culture before and after 66 CE – as well as the eventual presence at the site of Revolt-era coins (97 from Year 2, and 3 from Year 3) – is sufficient to suggest a separate habitation, which may be dated to 66 CE. Magness countered – as far as I could understand (and hear…things got pretty tense!) – that no “change in material culture” in fact occurred. Instead, the original inhabitants from approximately 4 BCE simply adapted to evolving tastes in dishware and the like. In other words, Magness strenuously insisted, no evidence exists that should force us to suggest a fresh habitation of the site in 66 CE.

Once presentations resumed following the break, I returned to the same section only to encounter my least favorite presentation of the conference: Paul Heger’s (University of Toronto) paper entitled, “The Status of Women in Scripture, Rabbinic and Qumran Literatures.” At the risk of oversimplifying things (although this tendency was precisely my problem with the paper itself), Heger argued that while the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature all more or less agree that women possess a subordinate legal status, the Rabbis venture even further in saddling women with a subordinate social status as well.

Paul Gaugin, "Eve - Don't Listen to the Liar.' 1889. Watecolor and paste. Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. courtesy of wikicommons.

Heger introduced his lecture by presenting what he saw as a simple, unbiased reading of the Fall from Eden narrative. In Heger’s view, the text does not fault Eden any more so than Adam for sinning against God; in fact, as Heger implied at several points during his talk, the biblical narrative may even skew against Adam on occasion.

Heger then seemed to assume that the soundness of his reading should be readily apparent to most, perhaps all those who engage the text. Given this, Heger employed his reading as the standard against which both Qumranic and rabbinic  interpretations should be measured. Heger then proceeded to highlight commentary on this narrative from various Dead Sea Scroll sources, which he noted tended to see this episode as a cautionary tale against man’s lustful and generally sinful nature. Eve, he noted, is not implicated as a villain in these readings.

In contrast, Heger pointed to a slew of rabbinic texts, culled from sources as diverse as the Tosefta, Genesis Rabbah, and the Bavli, that cast Eve, especially her feminine sexuality, as the primary culprit in humankind’s Fall. Although noting that exceptions exist, Heger viewed this as the dominant depiction of Eve within rabbinic literature, and as such an indicator that the Rabbis went further than other erstwhile Biblical interpreters in marginalizing women. Heger noted, however, that the Rabbis may not have been directly concerned – at least in this context – with women’s social status per se. Their excessive social demotion of women, therefore, may have been a mere byproduct of an earnest inquiry into the dangers of sexual temptation for males concerned to avoid transgression.

I found Heger’s paper deeply unsatisfying from both a methodological and interpretative perspective. During the discussion period I raised several points with respect to the former. First, I asked that we consider the hazards of attempting to create a coherent programmatic statement out of rabbinic texts drawn from a variety of disparate geographical and chronological contexts. On a related note, I pointed out the problematic nature of referring to “the Rabbis” – as if reducing several hundred years of complex and multivalent development into a single corporate identity somehow makes things simpler instead of vastly more complicated. Finally, I commented that some of the texts to which Heger pointed over the course of his analysis (BT Yoma 18b, in particular) have actually been noted for their reflection of a specifically Sasanian milieu, rather than as merely several points on a broad, rabbinic continuum.

Heger responded rather forcefully that by no means had he suggested that “the Rabbis” only had negative things to say about women. The denigration of Eve, however, is so pervasive throughout rabbinic thought that, in Heger’s view, we may deduce the rabbinic view of women (or some part of it) from the texts in which it appears as a theme. I did not feel at all that this answer addressed my question.

Following Heger’s paper, those who stayed until the end of the morning session were treated to a phenomenal paper by Shani Tzoref (listed as University of Sydney, but announced beforehand as affiliated with the Israel Antiquities Authority). This paper remained my favorite of the conference. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to cover this paper, along with the rest of the lectures I attended throughout the remainder of Day 2, in a subsequent post.

Ari Lamm is concluding a year as a Fulbright scholar based at University College, London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.