What is Bavli: A Forum

In light of the recent publication of four books on the Bavli, a session (modeled after a  predecessor on What is Mishnah) entitled “What is Bavli” was organized this past December at the annual Association of Jewish Studies conference. The panel considered recent developments in scholarship on the literary structure and cultural context of the Bavli, and discussed the possibilities opened by these developments; the broad historical, literary, methodological, and conceptual questions which they raise or imply; and the problems which the field currently confronts. The session was divided into two halves: “Approaching the Bavli’s Structure” and “Approaching the Bavli’s Contexts.” Continuing the round-robin tradition of the ‘What is Mishnah’ symposium, the authors of two new books on the Bavli’s context, Michal Bar-Asher Siegal and Shai Secunda, focused on books by Sergey Dolgopolski and Moulie Vidas which are animated by questions of form, while Dolgopolski and Vidas took on Bar-Asher Siegal’s and Secunda’s monographs, which are animated by questions of context. Then, Christine Hayes responded to all four papers. The result was a robust conversation about current scholarly interests and new scholarly horizons; in a way, a meditation on what we talk about when we talk about the Bavli. The Talmud Blog will be publishing the papers of this session over the next two weeks, and a PDF of the entire forum will be available for download when the forum is completed.  We invite our readers to use the comments section to continue the conversation that was begun in Baltimore, and which will surely take us into the years ahead.

“The Anonymous Redactor,” Netanel Bollag, 2014

I. Approaching the Bavli’s Structure (Pt. 1/3)

Michal Bar-Asher Siegal – “What is Bavli? Historical, Literary and Ideological Outlooks”

The two books I was asked to address for today’s session are Sergey Dolgopolski’s Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud (2012) and Moulie Vidas’ Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud (2014). These two exciting projects are a continuation, and in a sense a culmination, of recent academic trends in which the final product of the Talmud and the work of its editors are given full attention.

In my overview I want to talk about these two books, but in relation to the other two books that stand in the focus of this panel, namely, Shai Secunda’s The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context and my own Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud. I see these four books not as two vs. two, as the structure of this panel seems to suggest, but rather as four books in a continuum with differences in focus. All four books try to juggle two different goals: The first is the careful use of methodological and philological tools in the study of rabbinic texts in general and the Babylonian Talmud specifically: From lower philological critical approaches and the use of manuscripts; critical editions of texts and linguistic examinations; to the higher criticism of texts including a strong emphasis on the layering of Talmudic texts.  On the other hand, all four books, and maybe even more so Vidas’ and Dolgopolski’s, attempt to address “the bigger questions”: How was the Talmud written and why? All four books use textual examples to prove their claims. They offer careful and close readings of Talmudic passages but at the same time remember to lift their gaze above the page of the Talmud and look at the world in which these texts were produced, and at their authors who lived in these times.

The topics these books engage can be outlined as (a) the historical question, (b) the literary question and (c) the ideological question. The historical perspective outlines the way in which the Bavli is a product of its time. The literary one tries to describe how the Bavli was written and in what way was it redacted. And the ideological inquiry deals with the authors or redactors’ agendas.  In the different books the ratio between these questions change: Secunda’s and my own book put the historical question at the center: How is the Bavli part of its time and general culture, whether Christian or Persian. On the other hand, Vidas and Dogopolski focus extensively on the ideological aspect: What can we learn about the purpose of this corpus from its current form?

As a matter of fact, Secunda’s and my own book deal with the other two questions as well. For example, the editorial perspective is naturally present when an external parallel to a talmudic sugya sheds new and surprising light on the literary editing of the Bavli passages. And the ideological issue is very much present in these discussions when the “melting pot” nature of the Bavli is revealed by these examinations: The amount and variety of the sources used in the Talmud is found to be much larger than previously thought, thereby strongly illuminating the agenda of redactors using these materials, their interactions with the world around them, and their choices when shaping this magnificent creation they were preserving for generations to come.

Vidas and Dolgopolski center their arguments on the ideological question and offer two new perspectives on it: Dolgopolski uses (at times very technical) philosophical terms and theories to treat the final literary structure as means for discussing remembering and thinking. The rhetoric and dialectics of the Talmud should be viewed as collective thinking about the Mishnah. Vidas views this very structure as an attempt to construct a Talmudic figure invested in the project of innovation instead of simply recitation; עוקר הרים rather than סיני. But both books reflect on the other questions as well. The historical question is very much present in Vidas’s book in his chapters on Persian parallels and even in his consideration of the Hekhalot literature. Vidas, at the same time, pushes the historical reading aside when he claims that the layers of the Talmud are NOT a product of historical transmission of texts through the ages, but rather a product of a sophisticated rhetorical editing. But as he clearly shows, the mere attempt to use these rhetorical tools is in fact a historical product of the redactors’ times. Dolgopolski, on the other hand, criticizes Halivni and Friedman for the historical descriptions their research produces. He comes out against their work by undermining their philosophical assumptions. Dolgopolski contends that by viewing the Talmud’s sages and its various editors and “montagists” as historical subjects they were looking at textual phenomena and offered a historical scenario for their creation. The options are not, and should not be, limited to identifying their misrepresenting ancient traditions due to either intentional manipulation or mere mistakes. Dolgopolski deals in fact with the historical question by suggesting that a different philosophical understanding of these Talmudic entities will lead to a more accurate historical description, by which they should be treated as non-thinkers rather than thinkers; a collective thinking by remembering. We got the history wrong because we failed to understand how modern thinking and remembering is so much different than ancient ways of thinking and remembering.

Notice, however, that I just assumed a very wide definition of the historical question. In fact, a comparison between the four books reveal that they address a slightly different historical question: Secunda’s and my own book assume historical factors that left their marks on the texts – marks that we can recognize by using textual, literary and philological tools. But Vidas and Dolgopolski look to the final and complete form of the texts in order to offer a historical description of its creation. In other words, Secunda’s book and my own look for the cracks, the discordances, and the inconsistencies to reveal the complex creation of the text. Vidas and Dolgopolski, on the other hand, seek to turn their gaze to the final form: What it tried to achieve and what it does to the traditions it is clearly trying to preserve for both the people who preserved them and to those who read them to this day. Using a different analogy from Dolgopolski’s discussion of film theory: While the former try to dismantle the theatre scenery to reveal what’s behind the curtains (מאחרי הפרגוד), the latter try to enjoy the façade of the theatre in all its glory.

As for the literary question: How was the Bavli redacted and in what way? Vidas and Dolgopolski obviously deal with that as well. As I mentioned earlier and as is evident in both their books, both Vidas and Dolgopolski look at the final product of the Talmud as a complete literary creation. They assign great importance to the final product and the intention behind its creation, and in a sense come out against the local inquiries of Talmudic sugyot without the ramification for the larger question of the corpus’ redaction. Vidas, more so than Dolgopolski, handles the details of the redaction and, for example, brilliantly show that not only does the Bavli not offer a literary structure ex nihilo for the existing traditions, but it actually replaces one structure for another. Vidas suggests that this is done for the purpose of giving itself the critical distance from the texts they are transmitting and allowing for innovation.

Obviously, the ideological question stands at the center of both Vidas’ and Dolgopolski’s books. The ideology they assign to the redactors of the Bavli shares the same starting point, though it ends up in very different places. Both put at the center of their focus the Bavli’s goal of preserving earlier traditions. They both acknowledge the centrality of this concept and the self-evident importance of this goal in the creation of the talmudic corpus. However, Dolgopolski articulates a position that wishes to limit our understanding of these actual talmudic figures to simply transmitters of the traditions – “Placeholders for textual traditions,” as he calls them. They should not be evaluated as “actual persons” in the sense that they should be understood as thinkers and there is no significance to the structure or content of their own actual arguments. There is, in fact, no real dialogue in the Talmud and the “author” is fictional. We must evaluate what we read as “choreographed roles” in a larger collective thinking project. Vidas on the other hand, starts with this same point of departure – namely, the preservation of past traditions – but pushes us to see the Talmud’s redactors as transmitters of tradition as well as taking an ideological stand towards these traditions that they are transmitting. They purposely differentiate themselves from what they are transmitting. The comparison to the Palestinian Talmud shows a deliberate creation of layers, a creation of an intentional literary gap between the past and their own present. In other words: if Dolgopolski wishes to stress the non-thinkers, Vidas wants us to look for the thinkers.

The shared sense of intentionality in the literary creation of the Talmud’s final form, as well as some kind of unified purpose to the whole corpus, stand at the core of both books. This stance, rather than allowing explanations based on elements of random historical accumulation or even the possibility of multiple descriptions of text creation, will undoubtedly stand at the center of debate with other Talmudists dealing with these same questions. How much intentionality can we assume in the creation of a text? And how realistic is it to ask scholars to abandon the historical inquiry into an obviously layered text in favor of Dolgopolski’s movie-like montage? But for this Talmudic scholar, the experience of reading these two innovating and exciting research projects mostly signal a promise for much renewed interest in the big question that is: What is Bavli?

 

Shai Secunda – “What is Bavli? From the Art of Memory to Contemporary Film Art”

In his review of Moulie Vidas’ Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, Itai Marienberg-Milikowsky noted how a number of new works on the Bavli (including those considered in this session) attempt to look beyond their particular research project and gesture towards the greatest question of all, namely, “What is the Bavli?”  This question is necessarily ponderous, as it concerns a nearly two-million word compilation which has itself spawned a labyrinthine commentarial tradition of near-impossible proportions. Yet in practice, the query may also be approached in the still, small voice of the individual sugya. On more than one occasion I have found myself in the classroom prodding philologically-minded students to take a step back and consider, for just a moment, what exactly the textual artifact before them is, how it presents itself, and how it relates to the times and settings from its protracted formation to the moment it rests on their desks. Even after retracing the steps from hasty pre-class photocopying to digital transcription; printed editions; manuscript codices; ancient scrolls; crystalized recitations; earlier, freer, oral “redaction,” all the way to some kind of talmudic “big bang,” I press them further: Still, apart from its historical development what is this thing? What does it reflect and how? Better, how does it present itself to the world? At this point the conversation becomes more abstract – as it surely must for physicists inquiring into the early moments of our universe’s existence – and the technical vocabulary that generally serves academic Talmudists so well begins to fail.

Sergey Dolgopolski’s Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud is an ambitious attempt to look at this unwieldy question. It is a necessarily difficult book for Talmudists, and not only because most Talmudists lack a solid background in Heidegger. The Open Past develops a critical approach to critical Talmud research and so must by definition stand outside the conventional discourse in order to re-consider what exactly the Talmud does in the sugya and how the Talmud’s various figures (from named authorities to unnamed discussants; and from editors who frame the material and those who manipulate the texts to “montagists” who juxtapose the Talmud’s larger sections) should be assessed. If this were a standard work of the field, one might have assumed that Dolgopolski’s interrogation of the common equation between the different talmudic voices with “real” autonomous thinking-subjects located in history was just another reassertion of Neusnerian skepticism about attributions and historical reliability. But it is surely not. Apart from challenging Western philosophy to reconsider notions of subjectivity, thinking, and remembering in light of Talmud, Dolgopolskiis asking us Talmudists to probe the basic axioms of our discipline and consider whether the constant attempt to read for historical subjects who either misunderstood or manipulated their received traditions is both anachronistic and ill-suited for appreciating what the Talmud actually is.

The focus of The Open Past’s inquiry concerns authorship and its potential location(s) in the sugya. By now any contemporary Talmudist worth his salt could rattle off a basic bibliography on the inapplicability of modern notions of authorship to the Talmud, which would surely include Barthes, Foucault, and the likes of Martin Jaffee. Dolgopolski argues that it is still not enough to uncritically replace modern authorship with a final-stage anonymous stammaitic collective, since both cases presume an overarching thinker (or group of thinkers) who from within and without the text actively use the mind to orchestrate the sugya’s discussion – an anachronistic idea. Instead, he argues that the sugya presents itself as late antique intellectual specimen where thinking about the Mishnah does not occur within the individual minds of its historical editor/redactors, rather it collectively emerges among the text’s virtual figures who practice a largely non-mnemonic art of memory whereby the Mishnah, alongside parallels, is actualized (that is, “remembered”) by way of heavy-hitting dialectical discussions that ultimately support it. The poetics of the sugya are then fascinatingly compared to film, a cultural artifact similarly oriented towards an assumed audience whose gaze experiences the pairing of (film-)cuts from an assumed position in front of the screen. While it might be interesting to occasionally ponder the filmmaker and her external historical position in relation to the figures depicted within the film, this is surely a marginal pursuit. It is not for naught that that we expect film criticism of The Godfather to focus on its compelling cinematic artistry and not the historical manipulations of Francis Coppola as he tells the story of mid-century Mafiosos from the vantage point of 1970’s Hollywood. Why then do we Talmudists generally assume that our primary task is to trace a sugya from its early Palestinian kernel as it is manipulated by anonymous redactors who rework conversations of prior sages from the position of sixth century Babylonia?

If my brief account seems opaque, it is not only because I cannot possibly, adequately, summarize the book’s highly complex and lengthy argument in the space allotted, but also since it again constitutes an attempt to step outside our dominant Cartesian paradigm wherein the main action worthy of interest in human affairs takes place in a succession of thinkers who collectively produced the Talmud “from the outside” over the course of an historically-defined time period. The result of The Open Past is fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, yet to my mind not enough to push Talmudists to suddenly abandon their preferred disciplinary focus. Yes, it is indeed a strange accident in the history of scholarship that what interests many of us is still the production of this incredible piece of literature in a specific time and place from within a specific culture. And yet we will continue to reach for that cultural moment(s) – if now with a more self-aware posture – at virtually any cost.

What might “post-Open Past-critique” Talmud scholarship look like from within the discipline? I would like to think the answer can be found in Vidas’ Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud. Apparently, this book was not written with knowledge of The Open Past, yet it nevertheless develops a related, critical stance towards the assumptions modern Talmudists have made about the contribution of the Stam. Specifically, the Stam has been conceived of as a historical force that quite actively reframes earlier textual kernels in an attempt to continue a glorious rabbinic heritage in the contemporaneous moment. The main event is to be found in the Stam’s anonymous layer, which with its distinctive Aramaic idiom directs the action as a voice-over might narrate the events in a documentary film. Vidas challenges this view of the Talmud’s textual history by engaging in cultural archeology that demonstrates how the Talmud’s editors are actually quite opposed to a full-throated celebration of older tradition in the present. The strongest moments in the book are Vidas’ examples of sugyot that appear to contain late directorial voice-overs, yet which are shown in fact to be cinematographic tricks of the eye. The activities uncritically attributed by Talmudists to the Stam may in fact be a contrived poetic devise that deliberately manufactures distance between older sources and invented traditions.

If this sounds like post-modern film, well then…it is. I read Vidas’ book after finishing Doךgopolsky’s chapter on “The Talmud as Film.” I also kept on thinking about my favorite contemporary film artist, Omer Fast, whose work I have enjoyed at exhibitions in his native Israel and adopted Germany. Fast is animated by some of the same questions as Vidas is: The inevitable assumptions audiences make about authoritative accounts, especially where such a narrative is expected to uncomplicatedly frame the action presented to the viewer. If you have the time, go see his work housed in collections in Berlin, Jerusalem, and around the world. If you prefer the comfort of your computer-chair, look at this clip from his 2011 “Five Thousand Feet is Best”:

In the film, a former drone operator details the procedure of releasing a missile towards a human target while the movie follows a child riding a bicycle in an environment that is both manifestly different yet eerily equivalent to the one described by the operator (previous and subsequent cuts in this work contain similar, disturbing pairings). A worthwhile exercise would be to try, if you dare, to produce a diachronic analysis of the various elements in this film – something along the line of Shamma Friedman’s system for visually marking tannaitic sources, amoraic statements, anonymous material, etc.  What would become clear, I believe, is that in both Fast’s work and the Talmudic sugya the achieved, sometimes vertiginous effect is intentional and should be read not as a straightforward historical-produced compound, but as a friction-producing poetic device. Put differently: The history of production is marginal. The real story is the art.

Stay tuned for the next two installments, first from Moulie Vidas and Sergey Dolgopolski, and then Christine Hayes’ response.

8 responses to “What is Bavli: A Forum

  1. One comment to Shai, if I may:

    “While it might be interesting to occasionally ponder the filmmaker and her external historical position in relation to the figures depicted within the film, this is surely a marginal pursuit. It is not for naught that that we expect film criticism of The Godfather to focus on its compelling cinematic artistry and not the historical manipulations of Francis Coppola as he tells the story of mid-century Mafiosos from the vantage point of 1970’s Hollywood. Why then do we Talmudists generally assume that our primary task is to trace a sugya from its early Palestinian kernel as it is manipulated by anonymous redactors who rework conversations of prior sages from the position of sixth century Babylonia?”

    The analogy here is not quite accurate: a Talmud scholar is not like a film critic, but rather should be paralleled with a film scholar – and much academic scholarship of cinema is engaged precisely with the “history of production” or the filmmaker’s “external historical position”. Granted, there can be an academic discourse of art that does not historicize, but this is a debate taking place within the various disciplines of the arts in academia (e.g. Rita Felski’s “Context Stinks!”) and should be taken into account. So instead of asking “why we Talmudists” one might as well ask “why we academicians”. This is a valid question to be sure, but thinking of the Talmud “as art” does not enable us to bypass the problem.

    What troubles me here – and in the concluding sentence that “the history of production is marginal. The real story is the art” – is that such statements run the risk of reducing art into something that should be holistically “experienced” rather than analyzed. Surely, aesthetic experience is a vital component of art – and arguably of the Talmud as well – but positing a stark dichotomy between a marginal “history of production” and the “real story” that is art is deeply problematic. The two can hardly be divorced from each other, and not just in post-modern films. Obviously, the suggestion that Talmudic studies have something to learn from the arts is one that I heartily embrace, but for that to happen, “the arts” need to be taken not as an image uncritically celebrated (at the same time as it is unwittingly reductive), but rather as a compound of processes – some, and maybe all, of them historical – interwoven into the fabric of the piece, its aesthetics, and reception.

  2. Yair, thanks for your insightful comments. You are right to call me out on the binary distinction between art and history of production, one I made largely (and perhaps disingenuously) for rhetorical reasons. For one, Dolgopolski (and Vidas) are certainly not calling for a purely aesthetic reading, rather a philosophical/literary theoretical approach that includes quite a bit of very serious analysis. And I am certainly not making an equation between Talmud study and the (historically limited) “art for art’s sake” movement. My metaphor is there to shock us out of our normal mental pathways when thinking about what it means to be a “Talmudist” – not a historian of Babylonian Jewry nor one of Jewish law. I am surely not suggesting that Talmudists abandon all historical inquiry, nor that historians of Babylonian Jewry are doing something illegitimate by reading for history. But after reading The Open Past I remembered how curious it is that the “practice” of Talmud today (and its practitioner, the Talmudist) focuses almost solely on the -internal- historical evolution of the text as it presents itself (again, if you haven’t already try the exercise I recommend on the movie clip) instead of the dynamic functions of the text, as it unfolds in history. In any case, this is not a zero-sum game.

    Incidentally, I wrote an earlier post on the Talmud blog about how art history and the presentation of art in many museums is troubled by similar problems.

  3. Let me add two more things. (1) The problem raised by the two books is not that history is inconsequential, rather that it is highly problematic when deduced solely from looking at the text itself. That’s why I linked to Omer Fast’s video. Imagine that that is all we had to reconstruct the history of production based on. So yes, film scholarship would be great for Talmud, but could only truly work on that level if we had access to external information with which to tell the story of the “text”. In the case of the Talmud, we really don’t.

    (2) I don’t think it’s simply about academicians. There are two different academic cultures: Talmudists normally lean heavily on the side of analysis for history of production, while literary scholars often (though surely not always and it has a complicated history of scholarship) lean more towards the text as a cultural, aesthetic artifact, even when production is taken into account. Why?

  4. Pingback: What is Bavli: Approaching the Bavli’s Contexts (Pt. 2/3) | The Talmud Blog·

  5. Shai, why not “art for art’s sake?” I came across a passage yesterday (Yevamot 41b, and see 36a parallel) where I was thinking just that. It is certainly a more positive or productive spin on the “argument for argument’s sake” model the Talmud is sometimes accused of.

      • The Talmud says, let’s use this to disprove R. Yohanan. It then asks, “But didn’t we do that already?” “Yes. But let’s do it again.” So the point of the activity is the activity itself, not its results. And the activity in this instance seems more creative than argumentative.

  6. Pingback: What is Bavli: A Response (Pt. 3/3) | The Talmud Blog·

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