What is Bavli: Approaching the Bavli’s Contexts (Pt. 2/3)

In this second part of our “What is Bavli” forum (begun here) Sergey Dolgopolski and Moulie Vidas take on Michal Bar-Asher Siegal and Shai Secunda’s monographs as they think about the Bavli and its contexts. 

Detail from a Lithograph of a 19th century Vendidad. Courtesy of Y S-D Vevaina.

Detail of a 19th century lithograph of the Vendidad. Image courtesy of Yuhan S-D Vevaina.


Sergey Dolgopolski – “Approaching the Bavli’s Contexts: Mapping Talmud Scholarship Between Conceptualism and Contextualism”

Studies in philosophy and on the Talmud have been artificially – and thus not authentically – separated one from another. As the two books, Michal Bar-Asher Siegal’s Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Shai Secunda’s The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014)  collectively help us see, the current state of the field calls for undoing and/or renegotiating that artificial separation of the two fields.  Instead of either conflation or mutual isolation of conceptual and contextual approaches to Bavli, there transpires a possibility and necessity of a well structured correlation between these two approaches.

The Question

Complying with the structure of this forum, my guiding question will concern the relationship between “conceptualism” and “contextualism” (yes, the Oxford English Dictionary says this is a word). This is a separation that the structure of this forum explicitly introduces and, as I hear it, implicitly calls for undoing.

The basic question of conceptualism is “What is Bavli?” The basic question of contextualism is “How did the Bavli come to being?” Which comes first? True to the history of the field, an answer for the first question had been taken for granted based on the conceptions shaped in the nineteenth-century yeshivot, where Talmud was studied and where its meaning had been produced and supplied to those who began asking the “critical” question, namely, the question of the historical genesis of the Talmud. The result was that critical Talmud scholars started by asking the second question, about historical genesis, based on uncritically assuming  an answer to the first question, that of intellectual quality of the Bavli, as if the meaning-production in these institutions had no history of development of its own. However, the two questions are intrinsically complementary to each other. They therefore need to be separated more strictly to avoid an uncritical intermingling of one with another. By the same token, they need to be correlated more articulately than before. As I hope to show, a more careful separation between conceptualism and contextualsim leads to a reconnection between these two approaches to Bavli in a more productive way.

I will make this argument by highlighting the already existing, indeed, crucial crosscurrents in developments in philosophy and literary theory on one hand and those in critical scholarship on the Talmud on the other. My aim is to show how these two fields of inquiry have always been effectively – but perhaps not articulately – connected one with another in terms of concepts they use and develop, despite all the artificially erected partitions between them. As part of this argument I will highlight where in the field of Talmud study crossing the boundaries between the partitions has been already happening more implicitly than explicitly; and how, with two new books on the table an explicit renegotiation of the relationship between the two fields, philosophy/literary theory and the study of the Talmud, becomes an increasingly pressing necessity. Answering to this necessity is also an opportunity. A renegotiation of relationships between Talmud and philosophy is also a heuristically rich opportunity to discern concepts that shape many competing answers on the question of what Bavli is, and thereby define competing approaches to Bavli’s contexts as well.

In the past century, scholars of academic Talmud have focused on questions about the genesis of the Talmud without first working out the question of what the Bavli is. However, in choosing to ignore the more fundamental question they have already unwittingly committed to a certain answer.  For how one answers the question of “what the Bavli is” affects how one approaches questions about the context and genesis of the Bavli.  To make this argument, I will first map out the implicit answers of the question “what is Bavli” that various scholars de facto committed to when answering questions of context and genesis. I will then situate the new books by Secunda and Bar-Asher Siegal on the map.

The Map

This map helps us navigate a variety of theoretical positions in, and orientations for, conceptualizing “what is Bavli.” Each locus on the map will be defined in terms of “person,” “meaning,” and “writing,” and their configurations.  It will proceed from a simple linear model of “person” (author) as preexisting “writing,” and producing “meaning,” which leads to literary-historical contextualization of the Talmud. Then the map will move to models which grant the “rhetorical figures” of “writing” the power to produce “meaning” and to control the “person”; such models lead to literary-formal analysis of the Bavli’s genesis and transformations. The map will conclude with a model that denies the figures of “writing” that power to begin with, leading to a direct negotiation of the relationships between Talmud and philosophy as a way to conceptualize what Bavli is and thus to approach Bavli’s contexts.

In the last century, competing configurations of the concepts of “person,” “writing,” and “meaning” dominated the discourse of critical theory.  These debates, too, tacitly informed various scholars’ conceptualizations of “What is Bavli?”  Thus, romantic literary criticism and its corollary representative in the field of Talmud study, David Weiss Halivni, combines “person” and “meaning” in the concept of a fourth element, intention.  For Halivni, this manifested itself in his figure of the “stammaim,” who, as he sees it – whether as a “person” or a collective entity – historically precede “writing.” In contrast, New Criticism in general theory and its corollary representative in Talmudic studies, Shamma Friedman, locates intention directly in “writing” by making “person” and “meaning” the direct function of “writing.” In doing so, Freedman advances the method of close reading. That is, by avoiding the notion of “stammaim” (who precede “writing”) in favor of the ba’al ha-suya (who is both function and subject of the “writing”), he discerns the authorial intention in the “writing” but not in the preexisting “person” (of the author).

In the next point on the map, “poststructuralist” thinkers, such as Roland Barthes – and for rabbinics Martin Jaffee – posit that the reader (or audience) is the author. Such an approach dismisses the notion of intention either in “writing” or in the “person” of the author altogether.  These critics would consider “meaning” a part of “writing” that is revealed by the “person” of the reader.  Zvi Septimus recent work on reading the Bavli takes up and promotes that line of development further by putting the function of the reader at the center of writing production, construction, and presentation to other readers and/or audiences. In light of a poststructuralist vantage point, Friedman’s position on the map can be further articulated as a new relationship between “writing,” “meaning” and “person.” For Friedman, “writing” controls the emergence of “meaning” in the “person” of the non-critical reader, who remains obedient to the rhetorical figures as they present themselves in the “writing”–even if such a reader is highly analytical.  However, another “person,” that of the critical reader, traces the production (transformation) of the “writing” from an earlier stage to a later one. Thus, critical readers actively undermine the aspiration of the non-critical readership to absorb the “meaning” of the “writing.” Critical readers, on the other hand, by reading the “writing” as a record of transformations from earlier to later versions of the Talmud, provide what they assume to be the authentic “meaning” of the “writing.” For Friedman, therefore, rhetorical figures, such as shaqla ve-tarya or quotation, act on the “person” of the non-critical reader to seduce them into a false sense of the transparency between “meaning” and “writing,” one that is undone by the critical scholar.

The work of Paul De Man on the epistemology of metaphor corresponds to this position of Friedman in the following way. For De Man, the critical reader sees metaphor at work where the non-critical reader (or thinker) does not. What’s crucial is that for De Man all “writing” is a metaphor, whether or not a reader or a “person” notices that. The non-critical reader merely views metaphor as an ornamental element; and the task of the critical reader is to reclaim the power of the metaphor (or other rhetorical figure) which is lost on the non-critical reader. By doing so, the “person” of the critical reader reveals true “meaning” of the “writing” as the work of the transformation. Daniel Boyarin’s early (Hebrew) work on Sefardi Speculation marks a similar position on the map, even though he works with other rhetorical figures (such as homonymy and invention [hiddush])  The “transformations” from the earlier to current versions of the Talmud in Friedman or the sorting out of false homonyms for Boyarin correlate to De Man’s epistemology of metaphor.

At this point, the map of scholarly conceptualizations of “what is Bavli” in terms of “person,” “meaning,” and “writing” transitions to a radically different area. In this neighboring area of the map, “writing” – in the sense of rhetorical figures that produce meaning, such as metaphors – does not have enough power to control “meaning” or “person” because while metaphor seeks to explain something by comparison to another thing, it can only do its work by maintaining its utter distinctness from the thing it seeks to explain through comparison. That means the metaphor depends on, but does not control, the distinction on which it draws the comparison, and therefore the “meaning” conferred by that comparison. Derrida, and, in Talmud study, David Stern and the later [English] work of Daniel Boyarin on intertextuality, make this point. Once Derrida explained that metaphor insufficiently controls meaning, an engagement with explicitly philosophical and/or theoretical perspectives became necessary in order to understand how the Talmud produces meaning for its readers, whether critical or uncritical, for even De Man’s and Friedman’s critical reader is now also in a bind. To turn back to the coordinates of the map, if the rhetorical figures of the “writing” cannot fully control “person” and “meaning,” a direct engagement with the philosophical theory of signification becomes a necessity in thinking about what Bavli is.

In a sense, the field of Bavli scholarship has already turned to directly thinking within the horizon of relationships between the Bavli and philosophy as traditions of thought. The recent work of Christine Hayes, Richard Hidary, and Jenny Labenz, among others, explicitly engages Greek philosophy as a necessary framework to be used for the historical study of the Talmud. Along slightly different lines, Barry Wimpfheimer’s recent renegotiation of the relationship between narrative and law (as well as of the constructed partition of the Talmud into Halakah and Aggadah) has also contributed to this process. Shai Secunda and Michal Bar-Asher Siegal two new books, too, contribute to that engagement, albeit, as I will explain, in an even more radical way.

The Two New Books on the Map

As stated at the outset, how one answers the question of “what the Bavli is” effects how one approaches questions about the context and genesis of the Bavli.  The two new books by Bar-Asher Siegal and Shai Secunda expand the exploration of the genesis of the Bavli by including new contexts for comparative study – namely, Christian monastic and Iranian Zoroastrian contexts.  For these scholars, conceptualizations of “what the Bavli is” informs their overall construction of context. That is, before these scholars begin to read the Christian monastic and Iranian Zoroastrian sources they have already (implicitly) answered the question of “what the Bavli is.”  However, each of these scholars’ answer to the question of “what the Bavli is” belong to different areas on the map. They therefore approach contexts differently from each other.  I will now plot their respective points on the map.

I see Bar-Asher Siegal’s book as both occupying and further extending the space demarcated by Halivni and his notion of stammaim.  This is the location on the map in which “person” combines with “meaning” to form intention that precedes “writing.”  Jeffrey Rubenstein’s work on rabbinic culture also falls within this space on the map because for Rubenstein, too, the collective “person” (redactors) combines with “meaning” to form intention and precedes the “writing” (the Talmud). Based on this approach, he reconstructs the “culture” of the redactors. Similarly, while impressively extending this location on the map to embrace new cultural contexts, Bar-Asher Siegal, in her contextualization of the Bavli within a tradition of monastic literary culture, treats “meaning” as conflated with the “persons” of either the monks or rabbis, who in turn produce “writing.” It is due to her placement of “person” and “meaning” before “writing” that allows her to first see the Talmud as an “anthology” and therefore enables drawing comparisons between the Bavli and monastic anthologies. She thus goes at least two very important steps beyond Halivni and Rubenstein. First she expands the context of cultural comparative exploration to embrace parallels found in monastic literature, thus revealing a “culture” that the monks and the rabbis share. Second, she thereby creates a possibility to explore the reconstructed rabbinic culture in comparison with other cultures.

The crucial point at which Bar-Asher Siegal’s and Secunda’s books differ has to do with their respective commitment, or lack thereof, to the notion of the stammaim. Like Halivni and Rubenstein, Bar-Asher Siegal commits to that notionOn the other hand, Secunda does not have to commit to the notion of stammaim in the first place because he follows Friedman’s conceptualization of the Bavli. I furthermore see Secunda’s work as occupying a different point, or rather drawing a different line, on the map, as compared to Bar-Asher Siegal. That line begins from and threatens to go beyond the territory marked by Shamma Friedman’s approach. Both Friedman and Secunda fundamentally approach the Bavli as “writing” in the sense of the record of its transformations. For Secunda, both the Bavli and the Iranian literatures are to be seen by the “person” of the critic  as one general landscape – what he calls a “text-scape” – which can then be partitioned into segments or corpora, called Bavli, Zoroastrian texts, etc.  In this approach, “writing” becomes the text-scape; “the person” is the critic looking at it from an elevated vista-point to discern the records of transformations; and the “meaning” is a record of the landscape, its segments (Rabbinic and Zoroastrian) and their parallel transformations that the critic discerns or discovers. What connects Secunda to Friedman is his focus on text-scape as a type of “writing” that is a record of its own transformation.  Therefore, though Secunda mentions stammaim, he, just like Friedman, does not have to commit to the concept. What takes Secunda’s program beyond Friedman’s can be further defined as a synchronous diachrony of Iranian and Talmudic texts.  That means Secunda expands Friedman’s model in the following manner: Friedman, whose method is to view the Talmud’s transformation diachronically, focuses exclusively on rabbinic corpora of writings. Secunda makes the next step. He introduces a parallel diachronic processes of transformation in Iranian Zoroastrian writings and compares two diachronic process, the Bavli, and the Iranian Zoroastrian writings, as synchronically developing next to, and in interchange with, one another. These parallel transformations belong to one and the same broader “text-scape,” which – and this is, I think, Secunda’s most important innovation – transcends any given partitions between the corpora, established in the version of Talmudic and Zoroastrian texts which are “le-faneinu,” to use Friedman’s term.

Let me conclude mapping by situating these two books in regard to the last point on the map, the one marked by Boyarin and Derrida. At this point, “writing” as understood in either Halivni or Friedman cannot fully suffice to control “person” or “meaning.” Instead a direct negotiation of meaning-production becomes necessary. Because philosophy has so far been the only discipline to address meaning-production in the full scope of its complexity, in order to conduct such a renegotiation of the Talmud as a certain way of meaning-production scholars must take up the question of relationships between the Bavli and philosophy as modes of meaning-production, and thus as modes of thought. The connection of Secunda with this point on the map is as follows. Because in Secunda’s work synchronous diachrony of textual transformation becomes the guiding principle of contextualization, it brackets both culture and history, concentrating instead on text-scape as the original area of meaning-production, which is prior to either culture or history.

Similarly, Bar-Asher Siegal’s work – even though it commits to culture and history to a much greater extent – no longer aims to learn about the culture of the Talmud based, predominantly, on reconstructing it from the Talmud, but rather compares it with the cultures reconstructed from, or implied by, other literary corpora of the “writing.” That leads to decentralization. Precisely because Bar-Asher Siegal finds no antagonism between monastic and Talmudic anthologies, her research opens up a possibility of departing from the notion of “context” which by definition implies a “surrounding” (culture) and a “center” (the Talmud). Instead, her book enables concentrating the research on an exploration of cultures without necessarily privileging any of them as the center. In that sense, Secunda’s “text-scape” and Bar-Asher Siegal’s “anthologies” perform such a decentralization – indeed nearly a cancellation – of the hitherto predominant notion of the “context.” Thus, “writing,” which these scholars address, extends beyond the traditional centralism of “context.” Needless to say, in light of this new, decentralized, understanding of “writing” the question of the genesis of the Bavli reemerges in new light and with a new power, as well, but that would be a topic of a different essay.  Let me add that Bar-Asher Siegal’s and Secunda’s research opens up new questions about the “person” of a critical scholar and about the “meaning” that the “person” discovers in the “writing” as the record of genesis, thereby drawing new attention to the question of what Bavli is, now in the decentralized environment in which the notion of “context” comes into question anew.

Let me postscript with a clarification inspired by  the question-and-answer session at the AJS. One might ask, does not answering the question of “What is Bavli?” lead to essentialism? Therefore, is not the question to be dismissed on anti-essentialist grounds?  My answer would be that the question of “What is Bavli?” is not the one I advocate for. My argument is only that this question has force. That means answering it — with either explicit or implicit answers — kept shaping thinking about the Talmud beginning from polemics with Karaites through Maimonides etc. My argument is that the question of “What Is Bavli?” continues to execute its force in modern academic Talmud scholarship too, and to that, and only to that extent, the question requires even more attention than it has received so far.


Moulie Vidas – “Approaching the Bavli’s Contexts: Theoretical and Empirical Questions” 

The contextual study of the Bavli has seen its ups and downs, but the two works that serve as points of departure for this presentation constitute a particular moment in the study of the Bavli’s world. The books are very different: one cannot say that Secunda has done with Pahlavi sources what Bar-Asher Siegal has done with monastic sources. And still, both of them can be treated as securing these respective corpora as important comparanda to the Bavli, and they do so in works that present new methodological sophistication and more explicit attention to the significance of contextualization and the ways we may approach it.

Since these two books and other recent works dedicate so much space to justifying and arguing for the very use of non-rabbinic or non-Jewish evidence in the study of the Talmud, at this point I’d already like to emphasize that the contextual study of rabbinic texts is now a fact; those who remain unconvinced by its necessity are probably not going to be convinced any more, and those who have been convinced are probably not going to benefit from further emphasis on this necessity. No longer is the question should the Bavli be studied “in context,” but rather: what are the contexts in which the Bavli should be studied; how should we study the Bavli in context; what does contextual or comparative study of the Bavli offer us in solving existing questions, and defining new questions, for our field.

I am emphasizing this because, it seems to me, there is a danger for the lines of inquiry pursued by these books, and indeed by other works recently published on these subjects, that they will contend themselves merely with demonstrating the existence of parallel texts, of this or that shared motif, of this or that shared legal concept. Calling this a “danger” is controversial, I realize; many people present here might find such projects to be important, and even necessary. To me, it seems that the purpose of such projects, if they limit themselves to the mere demonstration of connection between Jewish and non-Jewish sources, has been well served in the past few decades of scholarship on rabbinic literature. At this point, especially with the publication of books that have given the comparative project such eloquent and sophisticated expression, the purpose of contextual study should be to serve broader questions. Both Secunda’s and Bar-Asher Siegal’s book already go beyond merely demonstrating the context. They probe broader historical, literary, and methodological questions, and the following observations are dedicated to these broader contributions and to where they can lead us in the future.

One of the most interesting questions that comes out of the publication of these two books in chronological proximity is what the two projects – contextualizing the Bavli with Syriac Christianity and contextualizing the Bavli with Iranian and particularly Zoroastrian culture – mean to one another. Now of course, this should never be seen as a zero-sum game. The question is not “should we study the Bavli with Christian or Zoroastrian texts in mind?” That is because communities can be embedded in multiple and complex sets of contexts, and, perhaps even more importantly, because the Bavli does not reflect a homogeneous community – it includes sources from different locations and different times. Still, I think the presence of the Christian element, which scholars working on the Iranian/Zoroastrian side have not always taken seriously enough, should make us re-consider some of the assumptions we make when we study that Zoroastrian or Iranian element.

Let me give for example an analytical perspective that is used and developed by Secunda but which was first applied to Irano-Judaica by Yaakov Elman in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud. Elman suggested that we can place Babylonian rabbis on a spectrum: on the one end are the urban, upper-class cosmopolitan rabbis open to the “outside world,” who are willing to accommodate to Persian culture and were lenient on mingling with non-Jews; on the other end are traditional rabbis, far from the cultural centers of the empire, who resisted this accommodation to foreign culture and people (Elman 2007, 165-197; Secunda 2014, e.g. 3-5, 83).

The consideration of the Christian element complicates this picture considerably. First, we are looking at multiple spectra in which there are multiple cultural options which can be constructed as “upper class” or “outside world.” In other words, one does not need to be a Persianized Jew to be a cosmopolitan Jew in the Sasanian Empire.  Second, the Christian element, especially the non-polemical “shared worlds” which stand at the center of Bar-Asher Siegal’s study, raises the possibility that when Jews spoke unfavorably of Zoroastrian practices they did so not as part of some objection to the outside world or mingling with non-Jews but as a performance of a difference between two culture each equally “foreign.” (To give one prominent example, take the mockery of Zoroastrian “murmuring,” common to both Christian and Jewish sources).

This diversity should warn us against vocabulary employed by Elman, Secunda (and others), of “accommodation” or “acculturation” and “resistance” and mapping these positions into a social distinction between the cosmopolitan upper-class and the more provincial and less aristocratic.

Let me illustrate this with a very brief discussion of a couple of texts. The first is the one which Elman used to make his point, and which Secunda cites; the second is connected to a move Secunda makes at the end of his third chapter. Elman argues that a story about a confrontation between Rav Yehuda and Rav Nahman in b. Qidd. 70a-b was written by “Pumbeditan ‘resisters’,” and they have Rav Yehuda criticizing Rav Nahman for his “elitist, Persianized” language. Indeed, Rav Nahman employs several Persian words, and in each case Rav Yehuda offers him two alternative options “from Mishnaic Hebrew or popular Aramaic.”

But in terms of language choice, this story represents the mirror image of another Talmudic text. A teaching attributed to Rav Yossef (b. Sot. 49b and par.) argues that one should use either Persian or Hebrew, but definitely not Aramaic; in Elman’s text, Rav Yehuda supports either Aramaic or Hebrew, but not Persian. Now, to be sure, a rabbinic passage prohibiting Aramaic is problematic given ubiquitous rabbinic use of the language. But, if we take for a moment at face value, and if we compare it to the story about Rav Yehuda which Elman uses, then both texts seek to limit the use of language shared by Jews and others while endorsing either Hebrew or another foreign language (In Rav Yehuda’s case, we limit Persian, shared by Jews and Persians, in favor of either Hebrew or Aramaic; in Rav Yossef’s case, we limit Aramaic, shared by Jews and Christians, in favor of either Hebrew or Persian).

Is it possible then that just as the Qiddushin story sees as its main threat Persian culture, the teaching attributed to Rav Yossef saw Bar-Asher Siegal’s “shared world” as the main threat? This would shed light on another teaching attributed to Rav Yossef which Secunda employs in which the Persians are portrayed negatively (and let me here assume for the sake of the discussion, with Secunda, that the attributions are reliable). Secunda describes Rav Yossef as a “resister” to accommodation of Persian culture – but, again, given that some negative portrayals of Persians are actually shared by Jews and Christians, this would not necessarily be a comment by an inward-looking Jew resisting non-Jews, but rather by a Jew participating in a conversation about the Persians which was shared by a set of Sasanian elites – the Aramaic speaking set, which included non-Jews.

Furthermore, the juxtaposition of these two texts, Rav Yossef’s teaching on language and the story about Rav Yehuגa and Rav Nahman, shows us that we cannot say that one was written by “resisters” and the other by “accommodators.” Seeing these texts together warns us against using as analytical categories the demarcation which these texts are trying to impose: yes, the character of Rav Yehuda in the story sees Persian as a compromise of Jewish identity, but that’s presumably not true of the character of Rav Nahman and is certainly not true of the teaching by Rav Yossef which recommends Persian; conversely, the teaching by Rav Yossef sees Aramaic as a problem, but Rav Yehuda in the story does not – in other words, it is the story that defines the use of Persian as “acculturation.”

Finally, we should acknowledge that “resistance” often, perhaps even more often than not, comes from those who are most intimately familiar with the culture that is the object of resistance. Elman portrays the author of the story on Rav Yehuda and Rav Nahman as a provincial who resisted the upper class – but in fact, this author knows not only to employ the dialect he resists, but also to paint a compelling picture, complete with fine details of hosting decorum, of the very lifestyle he criticizes. The familiarity and access this story implies problematizes reliance on class or location in our explanation of rejection. The same can apply to Christianity, using Bar-Asher Siegal’s terms: the polemic engagement we find with Christianity in the Bavli is premised on the great deal of non-polemic interaction that she worked to uncover.

Now, for the Christian element in the Bavli itself. Bar-Asher Siegal’s book focuses on “early Monastic literature” as a whole rather than on early Monastic literature composed and preserved in Syriac in the Sasanian Empire. This in itself is the result of the varied and poorly documented nature of chains of transmission in antiquity – after all, even if a text is documented in Syriac, in Ctesiphon, we cannot know that a Jewish storyteller has encountered it. But the broad geographical scope of the book’s Christian sources raises the question of where the introduction of monastic elements took place. Bar-Asher Siegal is able to document definite “monasticizations” that are evident only in the Babylonian rather than in Palestinian versions of certain texts. But does that necessarily mean the modification happened in Babylonia?

I’d like to offer an additional perspective here that focuses less on geographical difference and more on chronological difference. This should not be seen as a mutually exclusive alternative for the geographical considerations offered by Bar-Asher Siegal’s and other recent works – rather, it is complementary (indeed, Bar-Asher mentions this briefly, though it is not her main paradigm to understanding the connections she found). In this perspective, the Bavli represents more “Christianized” or “monasticized” versions of certain texts not just because it is Babylonian, but because it is late. Most of the Palestinian documents we compare with the Bavli are, after all, significantly earlier than it; and late Palestinian documents show much more engagement with Christianity than the early Amoraic documents (as far as the Tannaitic corpus is involved, I’m very skeptical of any claim to see a trace of Christianity). The “lateness” of the Bavli here is important in two respects. First, Christianity and monasticism have been established for much longer. The second, and I think more interesting consideration, is that particularly the editorial strata of the Bavli represent an era when the rabbis had much more popular influence and control than they had before. One possible consequence of this “rabbinization” of Jews might have been “rabbinization” of groups and traditions that were up until that period not part of the rabbinic project, and existed side-by-side the rabbis, but were now brought into rabbinic circles and rabbinic texts as Jewish culture became more and more centered around the rabbinic academy.

Let me now move to contributions these books make that overlap with, but do not strictly belong to, the question of historical context.

First, I’d like to draw out the implications of one of the most significant contributions of Bar-Asher Siegal’s study – the reconsideration not just of the textual affinity between monastic tradition and rabbinic (or “rabbinized” traditions) but also the relationship between the social and cultural phenomena that underlie them. I refer in particular to her study of ascetic behavior in Chapter 3 and more specifically the figure of the monk in Chapter 5. Now, we are far from the days in which Urbach and others, cited by Bar-Asher Siegal, happily distanced Judaism from asceticism. Work by Fraade, Diamond, Kalmin, Satlow, and Rosen-Zvi all showed that askesis, perhaps in a particular rabbinicized form, was important among the rabbis. But Bar-Asher Siegal’s study, because it is based on comparative textual analysis, does much to uncover the voices in rabbinic literature which think of askesis in Judaism and which construct the rabbi in terms closer to the way monastic literature portrays the monk. If Kalmin’s essay on rabbis and holy men centers on texts in which holy men are important, but in which they are portrayed as different from rabbis, Bar-Asher Siegal helps us see what Kalmin suspected, that is, that this is a response not to asceticism beyond or outside the rabbinic movement but rather from within.

Also moving beyond strict contextual questions is Secunda’s final methodological chapter, which includes a wonderful account of rabbinic textuality in general and of the Bavli in particular. The chapter is admirable in its focus on reception rather than invention in tracking the Bavli’s context, looking at modifications of Palestinian traditions rather than texts which are Babylonian ab ovo. This is particularly useful because studying the Bavli in context is different from studying Palestinian rabbinic literature in context: the Bavli contains, and is structured around, Palestinian material; it expects its readers to be intimately familiar with Palestinian geography, with Roman institutions and deities, with some Greek words – and in many contexts it discusses those Palestinian elements more in detail than it does Persian institutions. Secunda’s point – that we must read these Palestinian materials too in a Persian context by looking at their particular Babylonian career – is convincing and important.

The chapter’s most ambitious point is that this means that even when Palestinian traditions are not modified we should supply the Persian context ourselves. This seems to me methodologically problematic but descriptively very true. The reason we focus on modifications is that they are measurable. When we do not have textual variation, or when it is very uncertain where a textual variation was created or what it means, the reconstruction of the text’s context becomes very speculative. It calls for a lot of assumptions of what the author of the text must have known, assumptions that are very difficult to make in the state of our evidence (remember that some sugyot in the Bavli often do not know other sugyot in the Bavli – which makes it difficult to assume that just because certain Zoroastrian traditions can be documented in the Bavli’s time and place, it may be assumed to have been known by the author of a Bavli passage).

But the fact that it is methodologically risky does not mean that the description on which this move is based is not true. In other words: Secunda’s description of how the Bavli worked as a text, his highlighting of the way the Bavli itself is always a reading of tradition that is almost predominantly located elsewhere than where it was reading it, is, it seems to me, a very powerful image of the Talmudic composition process. While it cannot serve as a good guide in reconstructing connections between the Bavli and Iranian texts, it opens new paths for understanding how rabbinic texts worked for their communities.

One response to “What is Bavli: Approaching the Bavli’s Contexts (Pt. 2/3)

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

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