English, Reviews

Weiss and Stav’s “The Return of the Missing Father”

Haim Weiss and Shira Stav, The Return of the Missing Father: A New Reading of a Chain of Stories from the Babylonian Talmud (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2018) – Review by Mira Balberg

“Talmudic stories are amazing!” I promised a class of fifteen college freshman who, two years ago, took a seminar with me on the cultural history of marriage. By this point in the course we had already read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, and other world-class masterpieces: I was finally about to introduce them to my little corner of the world and read with them stories about marriage from the Babylonian Talmud. It was only natural to pick the seven stories in Kettubot 62b-63a, which all relate to the tension between marriage and family life on the one hand, and the study of Torah (which usually involves long absences from home) on the other hand. But the group of students – all brilliant and highly enthusiastic students hand-picked for an honors program in the Humanities – were not impressed. The discussion, which has normally been lively and exciting, was languid and the students’ comments were predictable and trite. When I pressed, one courageous student said: “I don’t really know what there is to say about these stories. They are so… short.” And another said: “I just feel like I got it after the first story. It’s good to study Torah but don’t neglect your wife. That the message, right?”

There are surely many reasons why these stories did not strike a chord with my students. These students lacked the necessary cultural and historical context, had no previous exposure to this difficult literature, and were confounded by the foreign-sounding names that all sound alike (although admittedly they managed to love The Tale of Genji without knowing anything about courtly culture in medieval Japan). The most fundamental reason, however, has to do with their preexisting expectations of what they identified as a “religious” text. Religious texts, they assumed, are by definition didactic and propagandistic: if the authors of a religious text tell us a story, it is ultimately in order to make a normative claim on our lives. Once we understood the “moral” of the story, we understood all that there was to understand, and there is nothing more to discuss. Frustrated as I was by my students’ dogmatic approach to rabbinic narratives, I could hardly blame them: after all, this has also been the prevalent approach toward rabbinic narratives in most Talmudic scholarship of the 20th century.

Thankfully, the study of rabbinic narratives has become much richer and more sophisticated over the last 25 years or so. The pioneering work of Yonah Fraenkel put forth the then-revolutionary proposition that while rabbinic stories are ultimately geared toward a didactic and moralistic message, remarkable literary and poetic artistry is put to use in order to convey this message. Later scholars such as Jeffrey Rubenstein, Daniel Boyarin, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Joshua Levinson, Dina Stein, Barry Wimpfheimer, and others, went further and steered away from the notion that rabbinic stories are reducible to a “message” and are as moralistically simple as they may seem. Instead, scholars began to read rabbinic narratives as uncovering conscious and unconscious cultural tensions, as working through ambivalences and anxieties, and perhaps most important, as sites in which rabbinic normative codes and moralistic principles are sometimes subverted or entirely collapse. In this new wave of literary readings of rabbinic narratives, the sugya in Kettubot 62b-63a (with which I hoped to provoke my students) is one of the most extensively studied and discussed Talmudic texts. Its popularity is understandable: the stories in this sugya are all built around a collision of opposing worlds (study house/family home, men/women, celibacy/sexuality, Torah/everyday life), and they are highly dramatic, in some cases even tragic. These stories thus touch upon some of the most charged junctures in rabbinic culture, and present a level of intensity and emotionality that is not very common in rabbinic literature.

After twenty-odd years in which these seven stories (some more than others) have been on the “greatest hits of the Talmud” list and have been studied and closely examined multiple times by many prominent scholars, one could be skeptical as to whether there can be anything new to say about them. While most of us would (I hope) object to my students’ simplistic notion that the stories are reducible to a naive pietistic message, my sense is that rabbinicists (myself included) did assume that they had these stories largely figured out around the theme of “Torah vs. marriage” and maintained that this theme had by now been exhausted in scholarship. But The Return of the Missing Father (in Hebrew: שובו של האב הנעדר), co-authored by Haim Weiss and Shira Stav and recently published by Mosad Bialik, shows just how much we have missed, and how valuable a fresh perspective on a seemingly well-trodden set of texts can be. This small and unpretentious book offers a new reading of the seven said stories in Kettubot (alongside multiple relevant intertexts), and it succeeds in uncovering aspects of these stories that went unnoticed so far. This may sound like a rather modest contribution – providing some compelling nuggets of insight on familiar passages – but in my view this book does much more than that. In its unassuming way, it urges us to reassess some of our most established habits when reading rabbinic literature, and to be much more courageous, methodologically and analytically, in reading Talmudic texts as literature.


Weiss and Stav’s point of departure is seemingly simple: they note that while the ostensible topic of the seven stories in Kettubot is relations between husbands and wives, in five of these seven stories the central drama is actually taking place between father and son or father and daughter (in a sixth story – the famous narrative of Rabbi Akiva and his wife – the husband/wife relations are at the center, but the story features multiple inter-generational interactions as well). The halakhic context of the sugya, namely M. Kettubot 5.6 that inquires how long one can deprive one’s wife of sexual intercourse (and relatedly, how long a man can be absent from his home), has led almost every single scholar who discussed this sugya to assume that all these stories are in some way or another about marital relations. This assumption was fortified by the fact that the first story in the sugya, about Rav Rehumi and his wife who dies waiting for him, indeed features only a husband and a wife and no other characters. What Weiss and Stav’s book reveals is that this combination of halakhic context and opening story created what cognitive scientists call “an anchoring bias,” leading scholars to focus almost exclusively on the tension between marriage and Torah learning as a single key to the entire chain of stories, and thereby letting a whole lot that is happening in these stories slip under their radar.

The book’s title, The Return of the Missing Father, is purposefully a double entendre. On one level, it refers to a common trope in those stories, of a father coming back home after a long absence and reencountering his now-adult children; on another level, however, this title points to the more overarching absence of fathers (qua fathers) from cultural discourses, and to the ways in which these Talmudic stories – in a rather exceptional way – actually make fathers present. Commenting on influential psychoanalytic approaches (mainly Freud’s and Lacan’s) to the figure of The Father as the embodiment of culture itself, Weiss and Stav observe: “it seems that the alleged existence of the father as a symbol, as the principal marker of authoritative power – to the extent of comparing the deity himself to a father – in fact strengthened and fortified the tendency to obfuscate the father and to underplay his importance as a concrete character in family life […] [But] when one examines the father as a flesh-and-blood human figure, with a body and with certain characteristics […] the other dimensions of the father are exposed, as well as the practical importance –  not just the symbolic or archetypal [importance] – that he might have in the lives of his sons and daughters” (9-10, my translation). The sugya in Kettubot, the authors suggest, is a unique textual tapestry insofar as the different fathers it features shift between absence and presence, distance and proximity, symbolic manifestation of cultural values and very concrete interactions with their family members. As such, this sugya touches on the very dynamics of patriarchy as a social and symbolic order – but also examines it, as it were, “on the ground” – in the lives of very real, albeit literary, characters.

The two stories that speak most directly to these issues, and present a sophisticated interplay between the father’s absence and his presence, are the fourth and fifth stories in the chain, which are also most squarely stories about a return of a missing father. The chapters that discuss these stories are also, in my view, the strongest ones in the book. In particular, the fifth chapter, which analyzes the story of Rabbi Hama bar Bisa and his son R. Oshaiah, presents a masterful literary reading, informed by cultural and psychoanalytic theory. In this story, Rabbi Hama bar Bisa steps into the study house upon his return from his long absence and encounters his son, whom he does not recognize. He admires the learnedness of the young man and is filled with regret over his own absence that deprived him of a son “such as this.” Only at the end of the story does the wife/mother intervene and reveals to the father and to the son each other’s identity. Weiss and Stav’s beautiful reading sheds new light on what Boyarin famously identified as the rabbinic desire for self-replication through instruction and learning and on the relations between the paternal generative model and Talmudic study culture. They observe that in order for the father to perpetuate himself through his son, the father must actually be absent from his life in a physical sense and exist only as an idea, as a law, as a name: paradoxically, the rabbinic (and biblical) fantasy of men giving birth to men in their own image and likeness depends on the father remaining a largely imaginary figure.

The fourth story in the chain, of R. Haninah b. Hakhinai and his daughter, also features the theme of “the name of the father” in a powerful way. R. Haninah b. Hakhinai, who was absent from his home for twelve years (during which he did not communicate with his family), is a reverse Odysseus of sorts: he returns to his hometown but recognizes nothing and no one, and cannot even find his way home. He stands at the bank of the river until he hears that one of the girls who came to draw water is called “daughter of Hakhinai,” assumes that she is his daughter, and follows her home. All that remains from this absent father is his name, which the daughter bears, but his name is actually his own father’s name in this case. Here, Weiss and Stav astutely observe that the scene of encounter between the father and the daughter (who do not recognize each other) is implicitly structured as the quintessential biblical type-scene of encounter between lovers, namely, a meeting by the well where the woman comes to draw water. The encounter between the father and the daughter has subtle erotic tones, and the daughter in the story replaces her own mother, in some ways, as the one to whom the father actually returns (indeed, the mother quite literally dies the minute her husband steps into the house). At work in this story is not just the husband-wife dynamic, but the complex triangle of father, mother, and adult daughter.

Indeed, one of the most dominant themes in the book, and surely the one that most stands to make it controversial, is the theme of the father’s claim on and tacit desire for his daughter’s sexuality. The authors identify this dimension in all the stories in which fathers and daughters appear, and also enhance their discussions by bringing in additional Talmudic texts that resonate with this theme. Obviously, such analyses can make one quite uncomfortable: any implication that the relations between a father and his daughter are not entirely devoid of eroticism might be readily interpreted in terms of “incest,” the ultimate cultural taboo. I suspect that some readers will reject Weiss and Stav’s readings under the premise that there are some things that religious texts just won’t do and just won’t talk about, and that it is impossible that Talmudic authors would even conceive of a sexual dimension of father-daughter relations as something to reckon with. Yet I think Weiss and Stav show clearly and convincingly that this dimension does exist, and is worked through in these stories in subtle but nonetheless unflinching ways. They do not propose a crude generalization such as “fathers secretly want to have sex with their daughters/daughters secretly want to have sex with their fathers,” but rather explore how the dynamics of patriarchy, in which fathers take charge of their daughters’ sexuality and indeed own it until it is deposited with the daughter’s husband, create complex psychological entanglements which come to the surface in quite a few rabbinic stories, in this sugya and beyond it. Furthermore, in two of the stories that address father-son relations (the third and the seventh in the chain), we see that fathers also seek to control their sons’ sexual relations with their wives, thus extending the father’s reach to his daughters-in-law as well. The second story in the chain, about Rabbi Yannai and his son-in-law Rabbi Yehudah, is perhaps the most extreme example of the patriarchal sexual claim, as R. Yannai is described as keeping track of R. Yehudah walking home at the end of every week in order to have intercourse with his wife (R. Yannai’s daughter). This uncanny setting, in which a father is in the somewhat voyeuristic habit of confirming his daughter and son-in-law’s intimate encounter, has not been accounted for by scholars who commented on this sugya.

Weiss and Stav’s readings bring to the surface not only the places in which these stories lightly touch on sexual taboos, but also – and perhaps much more importantly – the violence that underwrites these stories, particularly violence toward women. The first, third, and fourth stories in the chain all involve the death of wife or daughter-in-law; the second story ends in the death of a son-in-law (which is also, by extension, violence perpetrated on his wife). In many ways, the women in these stories are disposable, and their lives and bodies quite literally dissipate into those of the men who control them. This is yet another dimension of patriarchy which these stories reveal and address in powerful ways, and one that earlier readings of the story did not fully address.  Weiss and Stav should be commended, however, for the fact that their analysis of these stories is not in the least sensationalist. They present a model of candor, sensitivity, and openness in addressing issues that are mostly silenced, but remain constantly committed to a rich, multilayered, and highly responsible scholarly presentation, devoid of any accusatory or judgmental tone. The book is meticulous in its textual work (comparing parallels, tracing manuscript variants, considering issues of redaction and different versions, etc.), but it does not – as is so common in the field of Rabbinics – sacrifice the content of the stories for all their complexities and uncomfortable and confounding elements for the sake of a single argument – be it historical, sociological, philological, or aesthetic.

Herein, I contend, lies the greater contribution of this little book. In this book, Weiss and Stav’s ultimate topic of study is not “The Talmud” and not “The Rabbis”: it is this particular set of texts, along with related parallels and intertexts, as works of literary art. As scholars of literature, they are not concerned with the question whether the rabbinic authors of these stories were aware of the themes that underlie the narratives, or with the question of what the rabbis intended to do and how the stories served particular rabbinic agenda. Rather, Weiss and Stav take it for granted that in works of literature much more is happening than what the author was necessarily cognizant of, and they also maintain that in works of literature every detail is meaningful and every detail merits scrutiny and analysis, even if it does not fit with what we think the story is ultimately “about.” The very collaboration of the two authors – Weiss is a specialist in rabbinic literature whereas Stav specializes in modern Hebrew literature – attests to the state of mind of its authors, namely, that one can and should treat rabbinic stories as complex expressions of a host of psychological and cultural issues, in the same way that one would read modern prose or poetry. Would any of us argue that it is impossible for Sylvia Plath to touch on issues of incest, or for Leo Tolstoy to present marriage as a treacherous and violent institution? Of course not: we assume that literature, at its best, engages with the entire gamut of possibilities of human existence, even with its darkest perimeters. But does taking rabbinic literature seriously as literature not mean that its dark and uncanny corners need to be explored, too?

As scholars who specialize in rabbinic literature as such – and again I do not exclude myself from this generalization – we have a tendency to read rabbinic narratives as rhetorical means of saying something, of dealing with a particular pertinent issue, and we assume that once we understood why a particular narrative was told we have the story figured out: “this story is about asserting the superiority of Babylonia over Palestine”; “this story is mocking Christianity”; “this story is about hierarchical relations within the study house.” The brevity of the stories easily steers one in this direction, making it seem like the rabbis tried to be efficient with their medium: this brevity is exactly what made my students think that the stories were uninteresting once one registered their “message.” What Weiss and Stav show extremely well is that this brevity is deceptive, and that there is much more going on in rabbinic narratives than the working out of a single issue.

To be sure, Weiss and Stav never deny that the tension between Torah study and marriage is indeed a central issue in these stories: what they show, first, is that scholars have read these stories only through the lens of this issue and thus missed much else, and second, that scholars have tended to overlook or trivialize some of the more difficult and dark themes that arise from these stories. Their book offers a different way of reading a particular set of stories, but also a different way – less reverent, more committed to subtlety and subtext – to engage with rabbinic literature.

Unquestionably, literary readings and interpretations have a subjective element to them, and different readers of the book will find some more compelling than others. Responses to particular readings can range from “wow” to “maybe” to “definitely not,” and that is exactly what makes this book valuable, in my view, in the greater landscape of the study of rabbinic literature. It does not claim to be the authoritative book on Kettubot 62b-63a, nor does it seek to be the authoritative book on fathers in the Babylonian Talmud: it mainly seeks to open new possibilities of reading, new directions for thinking, and new questions to ask, and I think it is quite successful in doing so. Thinking back to that class, and to my students who felt like there was not much to say about rabbinic narratives once you “figured them out,” I now wish that I had read The Return of the Missing Father before I had assigned these texts: not only because the book made me see so much more in them than I previously had, but also because the book provides a model of open-ended conversation which is genuinely inviting to non-specialists. We can all benefit from more books like that.

Mira Balberg is Professor and Endowed Chair in Ancient Jewish Civilization in the Department of History at UC San Diego. Her most recent book is Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature (University of California Press, 2017).


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