Reading List

If you find yourself foraging for what to read on the final Saturday afternoon of daylight savings time, here are some exciting-looking articles that recently came out. Enjoy, and feel free to leave your comments below.

Yair Furstenberg, “Am ha-Aretz in Tannaitic Literature and its Social Contexts,” Zion 78:3, pp. 287–319 (Heb.):

This article re-examines the historical significance of the rabbinic term am ha-aretz. More than any other halakhic term, the uniquely rabbinic am ha-aretz has long served historians as a primary category for describing Jewish society in Palestine during antiquity. This group is characterized by its specific neglect of purity laws and tithing, and has come to represent the ‘common Judaism’ and the religious orientation of those outside rabbinic circles. The laws pertaining to am ha-aretz have been utilized to describe rabbinic policy towards these other groups, which reflects rabbinic awareness of their marginal status. However, all such discussion has been based on the assumption that the term am ha-aretz designates in rabbinic literature a more or less defined historical group, and that the laws concerning it reveal some of their characteristics. This perspective, however, is erroneous, since am ha-aretz functions first and foremost within a well-defined halakhic discourse.
Thus, one cannot infer directly from the halakhic ruling to the specific social setting. At the same time, through a close analysis of this system of laws from a source critical perspective we learn of the fundamental changes which took place in this field during the tannaitic period, as the rabbis attempted to incorporate it into a changing social setting.
The article traces three stages regarding the laws of am ha-aretz which assume diverse social frameworks. The contrast between the impure am ha-aretz and the pure Pharisee, which appears in the earliest rabbinic sources, is based directly on Ezra’s separatist model. At this stage, rabbinic laws of separation regarding trade, fellowship and marriage with am ha-aretz closely resemble sectarian rulings with a characteristic Pharisaic twist. These laws of separation were directed towards the haver, associate, who was assumed to be pure, as all Pharisees were. This sectarian-like framework was to be completely redesigned in later laws pertaining to the haver. Here, the separation from am ha-aretz has been minimized, and one was required to undergo a training period in order to become a haver, skilled in matters of purity. This fundamental change reflects the attempt to reset early legal traditions of separation within second century Galilee. In this context, purity played no role in shaping social contours, thus the laws of separation were finally redirected towards an alternative halakhic issue. Only at this stage was the am ha-aretz characterized as being neglectful in matters of tithing. This charged issue may have roughly corresponded to contemporary social demarcations, and as such served the rabbis in their attempt to map out their undefined social surroundings. Consequently, tithing annexed the laws of separation from the am ha-aretz.

Moulie Vidas and Mira Balberg, “Impure Scholasticism: The Study of Purity Laws and Rabbinic Self-Criticismin the Babylonian Talmud,” Prooftexts 32:3, 312-356:

This article explores the meanings and themes associated with the scholarly field of purity and impurity in the Babylonian Talmud, as condensed in two distinct phrases (which correspond with names of specific tractates in the mishnaic Order of Purities): “Nega‘im and Oholot” (lesions and tents) and “Uqtsin” (stalks). We examine the occurrences of these two titles in rabbinic texts, the contexts in which they are invoked, and the practices and behaviors with which they are associated, and argue that these subfields of purity and impurity function in the Babylonian Talmud as metonymies for the rabbinic study-culture itself. We show that this specific curricular engagement functions as a manifestation of certain capabilities, accomplishments, and methods of learning, which the rabbis simultaneously valorize and problematize. We propose that the choice of purity and impurity as the halakhic theme through which the rabbis engage in this critical self-reflection is not incidental, and derives from the nature of this field as one that is “man-made,” given more than any other area of legislation to scholastic manipulation. In the final section of this paper, we show that these Talmudic passages share a number of features with monastic criticism of the East Syrian school movement, and that these shared tropes point to the complexities and inner conflicts of the rapidly evolving intellectual culture of late ancient Mesopotamia.

Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal, “Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic: Five Decades after E. Y. Kutscher and his Influential Methodology”, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 163, 341-364:

E. Y. Kutscher emphasized that the goal of the scholarship on Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (= JBA) is to reconstruct the historical language of the Jews speaking Aramaic in Babylonia in the first millennium ce. Given this task, the philologist must consider all forms and constructions that appear in the textual evidence of this dialect in order to determine what reflects the original language and what results from textual corruptions during the transmission of the texts. This methodology became the scholarly consensus for the academic study of JBA. However, no one who follows Kutscher’s methodological tradition ever provided clear criteria for recognizing what should be considered original JBA. Therefore, this paper tries to piece together the methodological assumptions behind this quest to identify the original language. However, when considering the sociolinguistic model of diglossia, and the various types of developments that could take place in the transmission of the texts it becomes clear that those criteria are not decisive, and that the same phenomena can be explained in various ways. Consequently it is proposed that: 1) We may have to be satisfied with the fact that it is not always possible to determine which phenomenon is original. Often it is only possible to raise the various options regarding each and every form; 2) It is not advisable to determine generally which one of the manuscripts provides the most reliable textual evidence for all the linguistic phenomena (the so-called “best manuscript”), as this may change in each case. Consequently, it is suggested, instead, to discuss phenomena rather than sources, and focus on internal relations between forms and structures.

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