What is Bavli: A Response (Pt. 3/3)

In this final installment of the “What is Bavli?” forum, Prof. Christine Hayes responds to the four panelists. See here for part 1, and here for part 2. As mentioned, we plan on releasing all three installments as an ebook in the coming weeks.

Christine Hayes – What is Bavli? Response to Panelists

As several of their authors have observed, the four books under discussion today adopt different emphases in their study of the Babylonian Talmud.  Dolgopolski provides useful labels for these two emphases: “conceptualism” – which he describes as focusing on the intellectual quality of the Bavli – and “contextualism” – which he describes as focusing on the genesis of the Talmud. He argues that the separation of these approaches is artificial and thus inauthentic.  Classical Talmudic scholarship of the last 150 years, Dolgopolski tells us, has been contextualist, seeking to understand the genesis of the Talmud; only recently has the field witnessed a greater interest in conceptualism, which seeks to know what the Bavli is. Classical scholarship’s disinterest in conceptualism is myopic, Dolgopolski maintains, because contextualism cannot proceed without conceptions of what constitutes the Bavli’s proper context, and that in turn requires some prior concept of what the Bavli is. If I understand Dolgopolski correctly, since concepts precede contexts, since I must have some concept of a thing before I can locate it and appropriately analyze it, then there is first order conceptual work to be done before contextual analysis can proceed. For 150 years, then, scholars of Talmud have put the cart before the horse.

There is some truth in what Dolgopolski says: it is true that in studying the context — the genesis and formation of the Bavli — we make conceptual assumptions about what the Bavli is.  But this is an inevitable condition of the pursuit of knowledge. I cannot analyze or investigate anything without some prior concept of what it is I am investigating. Without a prior concept of the thing I wish to investigate, I cannot even select my analytical tools. What worries Dolgopolski, then, is not that critical scholarship has no conceptions about the Talmud (because he is right, the two cannot actually be separated) but that critical scholarship has not consciously crafted its conceptions of the Talmud and therefore its conceptions are generally wrong.

But I confess that I am somewhat less worried than Dolgopolski about the state of critical scholarship.  There is a great difference between a tacit – which is to say an unexamined, unconscious, and usually fixed and rigid – conception of the text on the one hand and, on the other, a working hypothesis, which is a conception of the text that is fluid and susceptible to modification and refinement as investigation proceeds.  I think it is the first – the unexamined and rigid conception to which the text must yield – that worries Dolgopolski, and rightly so. It is the danger of the fixed and unconscious preconception that motivates his criticism of the classical contextual study of the Bavli’s genesis and formation, but the second – the fluid and continually adjusted working hypothesis that yields to and is reshaped by the text it theorizes – this is the very condition for the advancement of knowledge. And on the whole, classical critical scholarship has not been devoid of working hypotheses that have been revised as analysis proceeds.

To speak in specific terms for a moment: very early critical scholars who broke with traditional ahistorical conceptions of the Bavli and conceived of it as a chronologically layered text preserving neat and distinct historical strata, developed analytical tools to expose those layers. But those tools uncovered contradictions and irregularities that raised questions about the historicity of attributions, and the role of rhetoric and ideology in the construction of these data which in turn challenged the very concepts that had led to their discovery, necessitating a more sophisticated account or concept of the relationship among the text’s component parts. David Halivni’s account of the relationship among the component parts was grounded explicitly in positivistic conceptions of the modus operandi of the historical persons who produced the text (the amoraim and stammaim), and corresponding conceptions of certain textual features as the result of error and aporia. His conception of the text suggested the adoption of particular analytical tools to understand its genesis and formation, but the data uncovered by these tools offered new challenges to Halivni’s underlying conceptions and Halivni himself has offered refinements of his working hypothesis. Shamma Friedman offered a concept of the Bavli that was less historical and more literary. His account of the relationship among the Bavli’s textual components mandated different, more literary methods of analysis. And in Friedman’s case, too, as analysis has uncovered irregularities and unexpected elements, there has been some refinement of the original working hypothesis or conception.

If we look at the arc of critical scholarship over the past 60 years as a whole, we see that it has tacked back and forth between concept and context (to return to Dolgopolski’s terms), revising, correcting, reframing, and recalibrating each in light of the other. Viewed in this light, the more recent approaches of Vidas and Dolgopolski continue this pattern. Certainly, they push for a conceptual revision that is more radical than those we have seen in the past, but this is a difference in degree not in kind. As Shai Secunda has pointed out, Vidas adopts a critical stance towards scholarly conceptions of the contribution of the stam, focusing on the mechanisms by which the stam manufactures distance rather than harmony between itself and the earlier sources and invented traditions that it orchestrates. This leads Vidas to very different analyses of the Bavli’s component parts and very different understandings of how the Bavli came to be what it is.  Even more radical, Dolgopolski considers any attempt at reading the Bavli for thinking historical subjects – whether named tradents (like individual amoraim) or unnamed discussants said to misunderstand or manipulate received traditions (like stammaim) – to be anachronistic and ill-fitting to the text. He conceives of the Bavli as a kind of collective memory, a thinking about thinking continually performed by a virtual identity. Warning: this book is not for the philosophically faint of heart and I confess that on more than one occasion lo yaradti lesof da’ato.  My point is, however, that even radical reconceptualization represents not so much a break with the previous tradition of critical scholarship as a continuation of the process of tacking back and forth between concept and context, revised concept and revised context, and so on. Thus, armed with new and different concepts of the text, scholars like Vidas and Dolgopolski will identify anew the most appropriate and inappropriate contexts for its study, the most apt tools for its analysis and interrogation.  And no doubt irregularities and inadequacies in their approaches, as in all prior approaches, will arise and lead to new conceptualizations and new contextualizations.

The working hypothesis, then, is alive and well and it is the place where the conceptual and the contextual approaches not only find common ground and make common cause, but also recognize their deep and inevitable interdependence.  The conceptual and the contextual are not best imagined then as first order and second order tasks. For just as our analyses of the text arise in some way from our concepts about it, surely our concepts about the text are not plucked from the air but arise in some way from our encounters with and analyses of the text or things like the text. The conceptual and the contextual evolve in tandem. Knowledge advances only when we are willing and able tirelessly to tack back and forth between concept and context, between hypothesis and data, between synthesis and analysis – in a continual feedback loop.

I offer, therefore, a friendly amendment to Dolgopolski’s suggestion that it is the contextualist who seeks to understand the genesis of the Talmud but it is the conceptualist, and the conceptualist alone, who seeks to know what the Bavli is. I suggest that contextualism and conceptualism as practiced in the field of Talmudic studies are synchronous approaches both of which can be subsumed under and subtend the larger question: What is the Bavli?

The contextualist, no less than the conceptualist, seeks to know what the Bavli is. The two simply approach the question from different angles of vision based on different intuitions about how the question is best answered. But the two are joined at the hip and are interdependent.  It should be the aspiration and I hope the accomplishment of this generation of scholars to recognize this interdependence and to benefit from the synergy it creates.  Let me make my meaning plainer.

The question on the table is “What is the Bavli?” It seems to me that human beings in general have a tendency to approach the question “What is X?” in two different ways.

For some, to ask “what is X?” is precisely to ask how X came to be, based on a strong intuition that the key to comprehending a thing’s character lies in understanding its origin, growth, evolution and formation.

For some, to ask “what is X?” is precisely to ask what X does, based on an equally strong intuition that the key to comprehending a thing’s character lies in understanding its function measured in terms of how it is experienced by or affects those who interact with it.

The four books under discussion today can be divided along this axis: Michal Bar-Asher Siegal and Secunda bring us closer to answering the question What is Bavli? by focusing on how the Bavli came to be while Vidas and Dolgopolski bring us closer to answering the question What is Bavli? by focusing on how the Bavli functions, how it is experienced by and affects its readers.  Now this rough division, like all heuristic devices, is imperfect and at times each pair of scholars plays briefly in the sandbox of the others. As Bar-Asher Siegal has pointed out, to varying degrees and with varying emphases all four books use philological tools, lower critical and higher critical methodologies to understand how Talmudic texts came to be what they are. At the same time, all four books, again to varying degrees and with varying emphases, lift their gaze from the page of the Talmud in an attempt to answer bigger questions about the very nature and purpose of the text.

I want to dwell for a moment on the “bigger question” these books all address in one way or another and that is the question of redaction, the Bavli’s final form. All four books assume intentional redaction and seek to expose the purpose or agenda behind that redaction, and yet despite this important similarity, the scale of their questions about redaction differs in an interesting way. And this might point to a conceptual difference that explains their methodological differences.

Bar-Asher Siegal’s and Secunda’s questions about redactional purpose are local — what is the agenda of the redactor of this particular sugya or perhaps, set of related sugyot?  Vidas’s and especially Dolgopolski’s questions about redactional purpose are global — what is the agenda of the redactor not just of this sugya but the Bavli as a whole, what is the voice of the Bavli?  This would seem to be because Vidas and especially Dolgopolski have a stronger concept of the Bavli as an entity that can be grasped as a whole and if so, we may ask: is that view based on certain convictions about a sustained and global redaction of the Bavli? If so, what is the evidence for such a sustained and global redaction? Of course, it would be legitimate to respond that evidence for redaction (local or global) doesn’t matter — we choose to treat the Bavli as a single large entity simply because it functions as one for its readers, and function is pre-eminent in defining what the Bavli is and how it should be read. To turn the question around, do Bar-Asher Siegal and Secunda focus on local intentions and purposes because they have a weaker concept of the Bavli as an entity and view it as a thing that is best grasped in pieces? If so, is that view based on certain convictions about the incremental and local redaction of the Bavli, and if so what is the evidence for this kind of redaction? Does the choice to treat the Bavli as a congeries of local redactions arise from a conviction that rather than function, the process by which it has come to be as reflected in its redactional messiness is pre-eminent in defining what the Bavli is and how we ought to read it?

It would be interesting to hear the authors of these four books address this methodological difference of local vs. more global claims and consider whether it stems from different basic conceptions of the work of the Bavli’s redactors.

As has been emphasized by several of the papers, these works have different foci – Vidas and Dolgopolski are more focused on the performance on the screen and Bar-Asher Siegal and Secunda are more focused on appreciating the process by which the final performance was created.  Neither is the only possible focus. And as I have said the fact that each pair of scholars plays at times in the sandbox of the other, signals at the outset that these approaches are not mutually exclusive; they are joined at the hip, so that together they bring us closer to an understanding of what the Bavli is. There is therefore no need to speak of abandoning one approach in favor of the other.  On the contrary, even if we as individual scholars inhabit one angle of vision more than the other, we can acknowledge the need for both angles of vision to avoid a crippling myopia. I will end on this point momentarily – but first one additional observation:

It is not only conceptualists and contextualists who must resist the temptation to see themselves as pitted against one another in a zero sum game. Different kinds of contextualists (those who seek to know what Bavli is by better understanding how it came to be) must resist a version of the same temptation.  Vidas points this out in his discussion of Secunda’s contextualization of the Bavli with the Pahlavi sources on the one hand and Bar-Asher Siegal’s contextualization of the Bavli with monastic sources on the other.  Vidas notes that the question should not be whether the Bavli is to be studied in relation to Christian OR Zoroastrian texts because communities are embedded, and indeed the Jews of Babylonia were embedded, in a multiple and complex set of contexts. This insight is gaining increasing currency among an even younger generation of scholars, many of whom seek to understand what the Bavli is by better understanding the rabbis’ simultaneous negotiation with overlapping social and cultural contexts.  For Bar-Asher Siegal and Secunda this is no doubt a congenial idea since neither claims to have identified the sole context in which the Bavli must be read. Other recent and emerging scholarship, points to the multi-cultural diversity of the Sassanian empire. Yishai Kiel, for example, triangulates Talmudic, Zoroastrian and Eastern Christian sources to explore attitudes towards repentance; elsewhere he relies on Manichaean and Zoroastrian materials to explain the Bavli’s refashioning of older Enochic traditions. Dissertations currently underway at Yale explore the Bavli’s differential interactions with surrounding cultures (Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Christian and older Ancient Near Eastern materials) and heed Vidas’s call to revisit the question of the rabbis’ social location both within their own communities (casting doubt on the entire question of elite-mass relations) and within the larger Empire (where they might be better conceptualized as one minority group among others in a shared imperial setting). Pardon the Yale focus – these are simply the dissertations I know best. I have no doubt that equally exciting dissertation are being written elsewhere.

This openness to diverse, complementary, not mutually exclusive comparative contexts as well as the recognition of the interdependence of conceptual and contextual approaches leads me to a final observation that will come as no surprise to those who have studied with me (and here I echo an observation made by Vidas but now applied more broadly). I offer this observation because the hope springs eternal in me that scholars of the generation represented by these books will avoid, or dare I hope cure our field of, what I consider to be an egregious, tiresome and very expensive (in terms of intellectual resources and time) affliction: the idea that someone has to be wrong in order for me to be right.

I have been plying my trade for more than two decades, and I was rather quickly converted to the firm conviction that in the Humanities it is rarely the case that someone must be wrong in order for me to be right and that scholarship is best served when its practitioners do not understand themselves to be engaged in a zero-sum game. For the most part, I think that’s true of the books discussed today.  Of course, there will be and there must be healthy disagreements among scholars. Of course there must be debate. Of course we have to employ the arts of persuasion and the canons of interpretation to present our conceptions of the data and bring others to see and understand what we see and understand. We are nothing if not explainers. That’s really all we do and of course, we will not convince everyone of our explanations and interpretations and we will not be convinced by everyone else’s.  But when argument and persuasion turn into assertions not only that one is unequivocally right and that ipso facto almost everyone else must be wrong, scholarship does not advance. Rather it retreats, as scholars take up entrenched positions and devote enormous intellectual resources into defending these positions simply in order to be perceived as right, constructing impenetrable barricades that ensure they are talking only to themselves and their like-minded disciples.

Scholarship advances and disciplines mature when scholars drop their pretty defenses, stop protecting their turf, and embrace the invitation to be engaged in something bigger and more enduring than their own careers – when they recognize that they are part of a multi-generational intellectual quest the demands of which exceed the abilities of any one of us but perhaps do not exceed the collective abilities of all of us. Such scholars seek out common ground that can become the basis for dynamic synergies and collaborations, instead of gleefully seizing upon  minute differences that lead only to defensiveness and willful deafness. Such scholars applaud rather than fear and delegitimize those who pursue alternative avenues towards the common goal of knowledge – alternative avenues based on a different skill set or training or just a different intellectual temperament. To the extent that this spirit has prevailed among the four scholars featured on this panel, I applaud them.

So What is Bavli? We haven’t arrived at an answer that can be tweeted in 148 characters or fewer, and I hope we never will because I need a reason to keep getting out of bed in the morning, but I do know that we have come some further distance toward appreciating the multiple possible answers prompted by the question, and I am confident that we will continue to do so as long as we encourage approaches to the question from different directions: because after all, it seems entirely intuitive and entirely plausible that in order to know what the Bavli is someone needs to explore how it came to be AND someone needs to explore what the Bavli does – they might be the same or they might be different “someones.” We need context and we need concepts, and we need them to function simultaneously and interdependently in a feedback loop. Scholarship, the pursuit of knowledge, is not and never should be perceived as an inherently zero-sum game. If we think we have to flatten and destroy before we can build, we’ll never get much higher than the ground floor.

One response to “What is Bavli: A Response (Pt. 3/3)

  1. Have you put together the ebook of this discussion yet.

    Peter S. Knobel Rabbi Emeritus Beth Emet the Free Synagogue 1224 Dempster Street Evanston, Il 60202 847 982 9559 Home 847 869 4230 Office 847 644 1881 mobile

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