English, Guest Posts, Methodology

It Functions, and that’s (almost) All: Another Look at “Tagging the Talmud”


Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky is currently a visiting scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Narratology, Universität Hamburg, where he conducts his post-doc research entitled “The Rise of  Narrativity in Talmudic Literature: Computational Perspectives.” This is our third post in an ongoing series on Digital Humanities and Rabbinic Literature.

In Alfred Döblin’s famous novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz, a certain Franz Biberkopf rejoins the modern city after a prolonged incarceration, where he is astonished by the relentless, alienating pace of change. In time, Biberkopf gradually becomes entrapped in a net of forces stronger than himself, and his bewilderment is reflected in the splitting of his voice – or, maybe, the narrator’s voice – into two (if not more) contradictory points of view. Thus, the telegraph is described in one sentence as “astonishing, clever, tricky,” while in a subsequent sentence, we read: “It’s hard to get enthusiastic about all this; it functions, and that’s all” (p. 76). Continue reading

English, Guest Posts

Natural Language Processing of Rabbinic Texts: Contexts, Challenges, Opportunities

The Talmud Blog is happy to continue our series on the interface of Digital Humanities and the study of Rabbinic Literature with a post by Marton Ribary of University of Manchester.

I read Michael Satlow’s enthusiastic report on the Classical Philology Goes Digital Workshop with great pleasure. I am delighted to see how the study of Rabbinic literature moves towards the use of digital tools and especially Natural Language Processing (NLP) methods. Below I shall sketch the background of NLP methods applied to Rabbinic literature and what we can learn from projects concentrating on other classical linguistic data, notably Latin. I shall briefly discuss the enormous obstacles Rabbinic literature poses even compared to Latin, which means that our expectations to achieve meaningful results in standard 3-5 year research projects should be very moderate. Nevertheless, I shall argue that we should dream big and aim for courageous projects accompanied by an outward-looking strategy in order to attract big corporate money. Continue reading

English, Guest Posts

Digital Humanities and Rabbinic Literature

The Talmud Blog is happy to be hosting a series on the interface of Digital Humanities and the study of Rabbinic Literature. Our first post comes from Prof. Michael Satlow, of Brown University. 

The other week I attended a workshop called Classical Philology Goes Digital Workshop in Potsdam, Germany. The major goal of the workshop, which was also tied to the Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities, was to further the work of creating and analyzing open texts of the “classics”, broadly construed. We have been thinking about adding natural language processing (including morphological and syntactic tagging – or, as I learned at the workshop, more accurately “annotation”) to the Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine project. While we learned much and are better positioned to add this functionality, I was most struck by how far the world of “digital classical philology,” focused mainly on texts, has progressed, and it got me thinking about the state of our own field. Continue reading

English, Postscripts

Forked Lightning

On Shabbat Shuva 5777, the incomparable scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, returned to his Maker. From his histories, to his comprehensive translations and studies of rabbinic texts, his biographies, his thematic studies, his theologies and taxonomies, introductions and invitations, personal ruminations and reflections, interfaith writings, methodological and theoretical treatments, and, of course, his vigorous polemics, Neusner’s output was simply astounding. Continue reading

Around the Web, English

A Synopsis of the Entire Talmud

Few texts present philologists with as many difficulties as the Babylonian Talmud, whose complicated transmission history – oral and written, spanning centuries and continents – has created countless conundrums that we are only now beginning to understand. At the same time, scholars dispute the proper way to understand the development of the text of the Bavli, meaning that opinions vary with regards to the proper way in which one should explain a difference in the Talmudic text: Is this event a consequence of fluidity during an early stage of oral transmission, or is it perhaps a later interpolation of a learned scribe? Such differences between textual witnesses of the Bavli are countless, and the different scholarly attempts to approach them are related to different ways of understanding how the Talmud developed over time. Thus, the close study of thousands of differences between manuscript versions of the Bavli not only helps explain the sugya at hand, but also sheds light on the development of the Bavli itself. Continue reading

Dissertations, English

Dissertations and Theses, 2015

In keeping with The Talmud Blog tradition, here’s our fifth (!) annual Dissertations and Theses listing. If you know of anything that should be added, please email the reference, preferably along with an English abstract, to thetalmudblog [at] gmail [dot] com. We apologize for only getting it up now. Things have been a bit busy for the editors here at The Talmud Blog, but we hope to get more content to you soon enough. Until then, congrats to all the recent graduates – Talmud Blog editors included! 

Ilaria Briata, “Derek Ereṣ Rabbah and Derekh Ereṣ Zuṭa: Two Deuterotalmudic tractates on savoir-vivre,” Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, 2015 (Italian)

The dissertation concerns the Rabbinic tractates Derek Ereṣ Rabbah (DER) and Derekh Ereṣ Zuṭa (DEZ). These two late compilations are traditionally included among the Minor Tractates of the Babylonian Talmud and deal with etiquette and ethical instruction. The term derek ereṣ, as understood in the texts themselves, can be translated as manners or courtesy – in other words, the behavioral features that most immediately and evidently distinguish a member of the Rabbinic élite conducting a sage-like way of life. Etiquette prescriptions in DER and DEZ address various areas of everyday life, such as table manners and hospitality, but also cover apparently more trivial matters such as behavior in toilet and public baths. Both the tractates collect gnomic maxims, practical prescriptions and exempla that are partly original and partly excerpted from Talmudic and Midrashic sources. The Derek Ereṣ corpus underwent a complex textual history, so that it is impossible to date precisely its composition. However, the main stages of redaction have probably occurred during the 7th – 10th centuries.

The redactional issues of DER and DEZ are exposed in Part II of the dissertation. The basis for the textual inquiry is the only critical edition of the two tractates, prepared in the ’30s by Michael Higger. Higger’s hypothesis regarding subdivision of the materials into earlier independent literary blocks and regarding different lines of transmission and versions of the texts is discussed in detail.

Although it is impossibile to draw certain conclusions about date and place of redaction of the tractates, studying the transmission of the texts in manuscripts and in indirect quotations from later literary sources has been a productive tool in order to understand the significance of reception of DER and DEZ by Rabbinic Judaism in Medieval Europe. Part III tries to frame the Derek Ereṣ corpus into the context of etiquette literature developing in Christian Europe in late Middle Ages. My investigation presents the state of art of current scholarship on savoir-vivre manuals and suggests a theoretical structure which could take into account and explain otherwise merely exotic documents as the Rabbinic works DER and DEZ. In this sense, the concept of derek ereṣ itself is illuminating, as it seems partially to overlap to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, i. e. the peculiar style, learned through practise, that distinguish a social group. The literary reception of the  Derek Ereṣ corpus attests the need for codification of a socially distinctive lifestyle – a need shared by both Christian and Judaic élites during the historical phase of cultural textualization in Europe (11th – 13th centuries).

The main bulk of the research is devoted to the Derek Ereṣ texts themselves (Part IV). DER and DEZ have been translated into Italian for the first time. The Italian version is completed by a commentary comprehending linguistic and philological annotations, analysis of parallels in Rabbinic literature, explanations on particular ideas and concepts raised by the texts. When pertinent, considerations extend also to a comparison with sorrounding cultures, such as Graeco-Roman world, Christian Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. The translation is based on manuscript JTS 2237 (Provence, 1271) for DER and DEZ 10 – 11 and manuscript Oxford 896 (Lybia, 1203) for DEZ 1 – 9. The Hebrew text is transcribed in Part V.  A  list of all the manuscripts attesting the Derek Ereṣ corpus is also compiled (Part VI).

As appendix (Part VII), I present a comparative examination of a set of narrative passages on the topic of good manners taken from DER and from the Christian compilation Apophthegmata Patrum (Egypt, 5th – 6th centuries). Even though belonging to distant cultural settings, the selected stories represent late literary developments of the chreia, a widespread Hellenistic narrative model which was adopted in Late Atiquity by various intellectual or religious élites (such as the rabbis and the Egyptian monks) as a rhetoric instrument for self-representation and instruction.

Noah Bickart, “Tistayem: An Investigation into the Scholastic Culture of the Bavli,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2015

This dissertation investigates the meaning and usage of a particular set of linguistically related Talmudic terms in order to show how and in what cultural context the Talmud began to take shape in the emerging scholastic centers of rabbinic learning in late Sassanian Babylonia. The term tistayem is here defined as meaning, “let it be promulgated” and is thus shown to be inherently redactional in nature. By its very meaning and the way it is employed it speaks to the ordering of extant traditions in new literary frameworks. This term has analogs both in early sources dating from Amoraic disciple circles, in which an analogous term was used to indicate the process by which different reports of statements could be combined to achieve a more authoritative version of a tradition, and in later texts from Geonic times in which the term comes to denote a specific kind of scholastic practice in which traditions were ordered for easy memorization and promulgation. Additionally, parallels to these terms are found in the literatures of Syriac speaking Christians providing avenues for comparisons between these scholastic cultures which shared scripture, language and similar modes of study as worship. Finally, this study demonstrates the ways in which increasing sophistication in usage of these terms mirrors increasing academization during the Talmudic period. As such, evidence is marshalled in support of a more gradual model of the redaction of the Talmud.

Shmuel Fink, “The Impact of Technology on the Study of Talmud,” Nova Southeastern University, 2014

The study of Talmud has experienced a virtual explosion. Aside from many benefits that can be gained from the daily study of Talmud,it facilitates life-long learning behaviors. The creation of life-long learners is especially crucial in today’s job market, where the introduction of new technologies makes it essential for employees to constantly update their skills.

In particular, the idea of studying a page of Talmud a day, known as Daf Yomi, conceived in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, has become common practice. Although once the purview of Orthodox males, it has been proposed this practice has extended to females, Jews of all denominations, and even some non-Jews. Paralleling this practice, there has been an explosion of technology based resources created for the Daf Yomi student. The last known study of these resources was in 1990 and focused exclusively on the one resource available, a telephone call-in system.

Based upon the many developments in computing technologies in the past 25 years, the time has arrived to determine what types of additional resources currently exist, how they are being used, and who is using them. These methods were documented in a single, current resource to enable both people who learn Daf Yomi to easily determine what resources are available, and those designing the programs to better take the needs of the customer into account.

In addition, the demographic of those using these resources is largely undocumented. The study attempted to discover if the increase in technological tools has caused the study of Talmud to expand to a much larger segment. It was found that many people are currently studying Daf Yomi for the first time. Woman, Conservative Jews, and non-Jews are involved in Talmud study; many for the first time ever. Many attributed the technological tools available to them as the reason for their study.

Shimon Fogel, “The Orders of Discourse in The House of Study (beit midrash) in Palestinian Rabbinic Literature: Organizing Space, Ritual and Discipline,” Ben-Gurion University, 2014 (Hebrew)

My study is a delineation of the “Map” of the study hall (Beit Midrash), as it is revealed in the discourse of the early rabbinic sources. This “map” shows the conventions, hierarchies, ideologies and conflicts of the study hall.

The first discussion deals the rabbinic arrangements regarding entrance into the study hall, using the tools provided by the field of “ritual studies”. These texts, and the discourse surrounding them, shape the image of the learning space, separate it from the outside and define the various roles of its inhabitants, as well as the relationships between them.

The second issue is the connections between the way in which study hall participants sit in its space, the discourse which takes place within its walls and the statuses and hierarchies which combine and collide in it. Thus, as part of the developing trend of studying rabbinic literature from the perspective of spatial studies. Alongside tools whose origin is in the study of architecture and geographical studies and the idea of ‘Heterotopia” (Termin coined by Foucault). The resulting picture is one of a system which aims to impose an order based on Torah knowledge, although it is not completely devoid of the influence of political and economical systems.

The third discussion relates to exiting the study hall and the issue of expulsion of participants. Excommunication, particularly in its study hall context, is examined from a perspective of the theory of punishment, and its roles in shaping the boundaries of society and of its discourse. I suggest an understanding of banishment as a practice whose boundaries are not clear or organized. Similarly, it is unclear who holds the authority to use banishment in the study hall. This lack of clarity regarding the boundaries of the study hall discourse can create a constant feeling of threat and supervision.

Eliashiv Fraenkel, “Meetings and Conversations of Sages in Stories Regarding Halakhic Background in the Babylonian Talmud,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015 (Hebrew)

This thesis discusses a literary genre within the Babylonian Talmud—the halakhic tales, and the halakha-based tales. Over the past two generations, beginning in the late twentieth century, dramatic advances have been made in the study of aggadic tales. In contrast, the halakhic tales “fell between two stools”, as the aggada scholars identified them (justifiably, to an extent) as “halakha”, whereas the halakha scholars classified them as stories (equally justifiably), thus the discussion and the literary analysis remained neglected by both sides. As a result, we see only a few tales of this genre having received the appropriate attention and an actual scholarly literary analysis.

The halakhic tales discussed in this thesis are examples of artistic storytelling and, as such, display these three characteristics: concise language, literary devices and, especially, dramatic tension. This dramatic tension is characteristic of each and every one of these tales, and is the most prominent indication that these are indeed stories worthy of literary analysis. Our greatest challenge in this thesis was pinpointing and describing the dramatic tension, similar to the dramatic tension in the aggadic tales. Concise language is used in these tales, especially in conversations between sages, as this conciseness is often found as well in amoraic dicta and in give and take that take place in “regular” halakhic discussions that are not dramatic tales. In some of the tales we found literary devices, thus we may define them as literary narratives. However, the great brevity found in some of the stories does not always make it possible to clearly define the devices, beyond a mere general structure of the tale indicated.

The halakhic component that exists in these tales is borne out mainly through the conversation between sages appearing in them, a conversation that either stems from a situation in which the sages find themselves, or within the context of a specific halakhic discussion.

The concept bet midrash (study hall) has a rather broad sense in the Babylonian Talmud–and in this thesis as well–and is not confined to any concrete structure. A bet midrash is defined as the place in which study takes place, and this can be a lone individual reflecting on his studies while travelling, or any place where a group of scholars sit around their teacher in joint study. Subsequently, such conversations, just as any halakhic discussion, may take place “in” the bet midrash (where one exists) or outside of it—e.g. in a doorway, on the road, or even in the course of visiting another town, and so on and so forth.

What do these description of halakhic conversations propose to transmit, stories or law? It is our contention that whatever halakha is present in the halakhic tales, this halakha is, in effect, the platform and the foundation for the story. In the absence of any particular halakhic theme, and without the sages discussing halakha, usually there would be no cause for any discussion to develop or be reported. We stress, however, that contrary to the halakhic sugya, where the halakhic give and take is the main focus, in the tales—halakha is the matter from which the story was created, but is not its primary objective. Without exception, in all of these tales, the halakha could have been removed from the story and presented independently, devoid of the dramatic events surrounding it. Having fully comprehended the halakhic theme, and after we exhausted the halakhic queries and the halakhic backdrop for the discussion, we focused on the dramatic components of the story, which, we contend, are the primary element of the tale and are not halakhic (in the common sense of the word) at all.

The central foundation for this study is the recognition of Torah-study as a supreme value in the world of the sages. The value, which is that very core of the spiritual world of our sages, is for us an Archimedean point in the analysis of the conversations contained in the halakhic tales. Any action, or inaction, that contributes to the study of Torah, will be evaluated in Talmudic literature (either by the sages themselves or by narrators) favorably. Conversely, anything that prevents the development of Torah study, and intentionally or unintentionally hinders it, will be evaluated critically. This criticism may be harsh or mild, direct or indirect, but it is always present.

We did not resolve conclusively whether or not the halakhic tales did in fact occur as described in the Talmud. On the one hand, we have the argument that there is an inverse relation between art and “artistic”, verses realistic and historic. The halakhic concepts in these tales are consistent with normal halakhic discourse, and the scenario discussed is realistic. On the other hand, the more artistic a tale is, so too does it distance itself from the rules of a bona fide presentation of the historical reality. In this thesis we have shown time and again that the moral values permeating in the halakhic tales are very similar to those which we discussed in aggadic tales, especially the genre referred to as “The Tales of Our Sages” (ma’asei chachamim). And, like any artistic text, the tales are even analyzed in a manner familiar to us from the analysis of aggadic tales. At the same time, it is evident that these are not imaginary mythical legends about which scholars are in consensus that they are not historic. The halakhic tale genre (which is the subject of this thesis) stands in between hundreds of bet midrash events recounted in the Talmud, for which there is no compelling reason to argue that they did not occur exactly as told, and aggadic tales, where the opposite should be assumed. In other words, the question remains, whether the halakhic treatment of the tales, and the sense one gets that these tales were the product of actual bet midrash events, detracts in any way from their being literary or artistic.

The chapters of this thesis

In the introduction, we discussed at length the topics presented above, as well as further questions relating to the degree to which the halakhic tales remain independent of the halakhic discussion in which they appear. We set an exact definition of a halakhic tale and the distinction between these and halakhic events, of which thousands appear throughout the Talmud. We presented a structural outline for these tales, as well as addressing the question, when were they composed, which relates to the realism question mentioned above. In the introduction we also recorded the history of the research. We presented in brief the major change that took place in the latter half of the twentieth century with regards to the Talmudic tales—both aggadic tales and halakhic tales. We found only a few scholars who treated the halakhic tale genre as literature, and we compared their work. Amongst the scholars cited in the introduction were Urbach, my late father and mentor Jonah Fraenkel, and Ofra Meir—of blessed memory— as well as my mentor Prof. Shamma Friedman, Rubenstein, Kalmin, and Ruhama Weiss. My own thesis, which discussed “Ishtik” sugyot in the Babylonian Talmud, was also cited in this section.

In the first chapter of the analysis of the tales, we discussed tales dealing with remaining silent in the study hall. I discussed silence at length in my thesis, and in this chapter I selected several oft-recurring devices mentioning a sage remaining silent. We also interpreted several slightly longer tales in which silence is mentioned, either explicitly or surreptitiously within the discourse among sages. Silence does on occasion reflect a crisis in the relationship between sages studying with one another in the bet midrash. This outcome is actually a type of death. Conversely, in other instances, silence leads to the reorganization and rehabilitation of the relationship between the sages, all in the interest of preserving the bet midrash situation.

In the second chapter we discussed tales of encounters between sages and figures that we labeled as “other”, that is to say figures who are not a part of the regular milieu of the bet midrash scholars. Such an “other” figure may be an unfamiliar sage from another town, and agent who is not part of any group of sages, or one of the sages from whom we understand—as we conclude from the tale—that we ought to distance ourselves because he is in effect an “other”.

In the third chapter we discussed halakhic tales of sages on the road. Certain situations and occurrences create dramatic tension in the relationship between the sages, which affects their ability to study together. An error in behavior—deliberate or not–by one of the sages, may also damage the relationship between the sages, and this in turn damages their ability to study together and jeopardizes the survival of the bet midrash institution.

In the fourth chapter we discussed tales that take place at the dinner table. We showed that these tales, and the conclusion we reached in discussing them, are not essentially different from the other halakhic tales cited in the other sections of this thesis. The drama that at unfolds around the dinner table, which is expressed in the halakhic tales, is yet one more facet of the drama existing in other encounters between sages, and the deliberations as to how one should conduct oneself during the meal are among the dilemmas that beleaguer the sages in other situations as well.

In the fifth and final chapter, we collected all of the pirka tales in the Babylonian Talmud. One of the first challenges was to ascertain the proper wording of each and every tale; this due to grave discrepancies found in several of the tales in the various manuscripts and printed edition. For each tale we proposed the optimal wording, and then we analyzed the purpose of each tale, and showed where they differ and what they have in common. In addition to the pirka tales, we further included several accounts of sages who decided to leave the bet midrash and their studies within it (usually temporarily) and we showed the reaction of the narrator to these decisions.

Throughout all the chapters, for those tales for which we found a parallel in the Jerusalem Talmud, we cited and analyzed it. We found that at times the account in the Jerusalem Talmud was less developed, and the tale less dramatic, than in its Babylonian parallel. On the other hand, in quite a few instances we saw that the Babylonian account showed a decline in the literary value of the tale. We refrained from any bias, as one never knows a priori which account will be better from a literary standpoint, the one in the Jerusalem Talmud or the one in the Babylonian, not until we examine each case individually and arrive at informed conclusions for each case.

Having analyzed scores of accounts of halakha-based conversations within the Talmud, we have proven the existence of this genre, which is, on the one hand, an additional (but distinct) division of tales in the Babylonian Talmud and, on the other hand and at the same time, part and parcel of halakhic literature.

David Grossberg, “The Meaning and End of Heresy in Rabbinic Literature,” Princeton University, 2014

In this dissertation, I critically reexamine the category of heresy as scholars have applied it to the study of rabbinic literature, and I propose an alternative approach to rabbinic polemic and rhetoric of exclusion and inclusion. I suggest that the category of heresy is too multivalent and imprecise to allow for a rigorous historically-contextualized study of the rabbis and is best considered to be just one species of a broader phenomenon of polemical exclusion or boundary-drawing between communities in antiquity. Heresy and heretics are, properly considered, elements of a narrow technical lexicon that functions in the context of heresiology as an early-Christian literary genre rather than trans-historical archetypes for the entire endeavor of rhetorically delegitimizing those perceived as outsiders.

Approaching the rabbis in this way reveals significant diachronic shifts in the predominant rhetorical strategies that characterize various texts or textual strata of the classical rabbinic corpus. I argue that earlier rabbinic texts and textual strata tend to deploy a type of exclusionary polemic that aims to represent its targets as in some significant sense illegitimate and therefore rhetorically excluded from the Jewish community. This type of exclusion is typical both of polemic generally and of early Christian heresiology specifically and for this reason has been the primary focus of scholarly interest in this subject. However, a close analysis reveals that later rabbinic texts and textual strata tend to deploy an innovative type of polemic that is actually inclusionary in its immediate effect, rhetorically including even sinners and recreants within the Jewish community, but polemical in its implications, targeting those with different conceptions of the Torah by which this community is bound than that promulgated by the rabbis. I argue that this shift from exclusionary to inclusionary polemic reflects developments in the rabbinic movement’s social structure between second century Roman Palestine and seventh century Sassanid Persia. Although earlier scholarship tended to presume a unified and authoritative rabbinic community throughout this period, my dissertation supports the growing scholarly consensus that the development of a unified rabbinic self-conception and the achievement of practical judicial authority actually occurred gradually over the classical rabbinic period.

Ruth Haber, “Rabbis on the Road: Exposition En Route in Classical Rabbinic Texts,” The University of California, Berkeley, 2014

Throughout classical rabbinic texts, we find accounts of sages expounding Scripture or law, while “walking on the road.” We may well wonder why we find these sages in transit, rather than in the usual sites of Torah study, such as the bet midrash (study house) or `aliyah (upper story of a home). Indeed, in this corpus of texts, sages normally sit to study; the two acts are so closely associated, that the very word “sitting” is synonymous with a study session or academy. Moreover, throughout the corpus, “the road” is marked as the site of danger, disruption and death. Why then do these texts tell stories of sages expounding en route?

In seeking out the rabbinic road, I find that, against these texts’ pervasive notion of travel danger runs another, competing motif: the road as the proper – even necessary – site of Torah study. Tracing the genealogy of the road exposition (or “road derasha “), I find it rooted in traditional Wisdom texts, which have been adapted to form a new, “literal” metaphor. The motif of sages expounding en route actualizes the Proverbial “Way of Wisdom” making it a real road upon which sages tread. That way is paved by a (literalized) reading of the Shema’s command, “speak [these words] as you walk on the road…”

In the first part of my study, I consider the motif’s setting, asking what rabbinic texts tell us about this site. I find that danger is the keynote of discourse about the road; indeed the multitude of dangers and risks indicate that this is a far from suitable place for Torah study. Rabbinic discourse about the road seems to preclude discourse while on the road. The second part of my work focuses on teachings that (in spite of this pervasive sense of road danger) actually adjure travelers to study en route, declaring that Torah study protects travelers on the way. Not only do these teachings seem to justify the accounts of road exposition, but they also point the way to the roots of the motif; by closely reading each teaching and its links to the larger corpus, I mark the way to the Wisdom tradition in which the motif is grounded, and which it transforms. Finally, in the last part of my study, I consider a text containing many road derashot – and of which the main theme is the journey. This text, which concerns esoteric wisdom, complicates our motif, for here (instead of guiding and protecting us on the way), Wisdom is considered a dangerous path, from which we are warned away. And yet, even against warning and prohibition, it seems that the imperative to “speak [these words] on the way” is still in force. For here too, we find sages expounding on the way – accounts that are emblematic of the text’s larger discursive journey towards this dangerous wisdom.

Katharina Esther Keim, “Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer: Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality, and Historical Context,” The University of Manchester, 2015

The present dissertation offers a literary profile of the enigmatic Gaonic era work known as Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer (PRE). This profile is based on an approach informed by the methodology theorized in the Manchester-Durham Typology of Anonymous and Pseudepigraphic Jewish Literature, c.200 BCE to c.700 CE, Project (TAPJLA). It is offered as a necessary prolegomenon to further research on contextualising PRE in relation to earlier Jewish tradition (both rabbinic and non-rabbinic), in relation to Jewish literature of the Gaonic period, and in relation to the historical development of Judaism in the early centuries of Islam. Chapter 1 sets out the research question, surveys, and critiques existing work on PRE, and outlines the methodology. Chapter 2 provides necessary background to the study of PRE, setting out the evidence with regard to its manuscripts and editions, its recensional and redactional history, its reception, and its language, content, dating, and provenance. Chapters 3 and 4 are the core of the dissertation and contain the literary profile of PRE. Chapter 3 offers an essentially synchronic text-linguistic description of the work under the following headings: Perspective; PRE as Narrative; PRE as Commentary; PRE as Thematic Discourse; and Coherence. Chapter 4 offers an essentially diachronic discussion of PRE’s intertexts, that is to say, other texts with which it has, or is alleged to have, a relationship. The texts selected for discussion are: the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic Literature (both the classic rabbinic “canon” and “late midrash”), the Targum, the Pseudepigrapha, Piyyut, and certain Christian and Islamic traditions. Chapter 5 offers conclusions in the form of a discussion of the implications of the literary profile presented in chapters 3-4 for the methodology of the TAPJLA Project, for the problem of the genre of PRE, and for the question of PRE’s literary and historical context. The substantial Appendix is integral to the argument. It sets out much of the raw data on which the argument is based. I have removed this data to an appendix so as not to impede the flow of the discussion in the main text. The Appendix also contains my entry for the TAPJLA database, to help illuminate the discussion of my methodology, and a copy of my published article on the cosmology of PRE, to provide further support for my analysis of this theme in PRE.

Andrea Lobel, “Under a Censored Sky: Astronomy and Rabbinic Authority in the Talmud Bavli and Related Literature,” Concordia University, 2015

Until the last few decades of the twentieth century, research on Judaism and astronomy and related celestial sciences tended to emphasize the medieval and Second Temple periods. To date, with the exception of analyses of the Jewish calendar and its development, few studies in the history of science have focused upon the rabbinic period, although a growing number of scholars, including Annette Yoshiko Reed, Noah Efron, and Menachem Fisch, have begun to address this gap.
The emerging sub-field of the history of rabbinic science ca. 70-750 C.E., spans the fields of both Jewish studies and the history of science. This dissertation represents an original contribution to knowledge, demonstrating both the richness of celestial discourse in the Babylonian Talmud and the nuanced play of differing typologies of rabbinic authority articulated by Avi Sagi, Michael S. Berger, and other scholars, particularly epistemic and deontic authority. These are shown to interact strongly with rabbinic discourses addressing the overlapping celestial concerns of astronomy, astrology, astral magic, astrolatry, and cosmogony. By examining these astronomical topics together in a study of this kind for the first time, I demonstrate a recurrent pattern of tight rabbinic controls over the celestial sciences preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. This is of importance to the trajectory of Jewish scientific thought due to the enduring centrality of the Bavli.
I also underscore an idealized portrayal of rabbinic legal deontic authority over these sciences, and a focus upon shows of honour and prestige associated with the rabbinic station itself in the Bavli. Further, I highlight the ways in which these preserved talmudic portrayals also serve to illuminate the self-presentation of the rabbis as inheritors of the interpretive and legislative powers bequeathed to them by God, the cosmic lawgiver, at the time of creation and at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Yoel Kretzmer-Raziel, “The Category Muqse and its Development in Amoraic Literature,” Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2015 (Hebrew)

This dissertation follows the development and categorization in the halakhic field of handling and consumption of objects on Sabbath and festivals, including the evolution the concept muqṣe (set aside) in Amoraic Literature.

The dissertation is comprised of three sections: Chapters 1-2 deal with the pre-amoraic base of the prohibitions of handling and consumption on Sabbath and festivals, in the Hebrew Bible, in works from Second Temple times and in Tannaitic Literature. Chapters 3-6 discuss the hermeneutic, conceptual and perceptual developments in this field in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds (Hereafter: Yerushalmi and Bavli). Chapters 7-9 analyze the crystallization of the concept muqṣe itself from the Mishnah and Tosefta, through the Yerusahlmi and primarily in the Bavli.

The Dissertation follows five major routes:

1. Textual and Hermeneutic Development: The biblical instruction, ‘they shall prepare that which they bring in’ (Ex. 16:5) and the prohibition to carry burdens (Jer. 17) provided formative conditions for the creation of norms that restrict the consumption of foods and the carrying of objects on Sabbath and festivals. These can first be traced in the Damascus Document and in fragments from Qumran. In Tannaitic Literature there are detailed proscriptions against consuming and carrying, however an overt effort to link them to Scripture is lacking. The affinity to Scripture may be traced in the tannaitic usage of the term mukhan (prepared), echoing the verb ve-hekhinu (they shall prepare). The Amoraim deal extensively with the laws of consuming and carrying, with a seemingly hermeneutic focus, attended at the interpretation of tannaitic sources, rather than at new cases arising from reality. Even when it seems that the Amoraim are discussing a new case, often it can be shown that the cases at hand have been imported from texts in other fields of law, chiefly Purity law. Close affinity may be found between the two Talmuds and repeatedly it seems that the Babylonian Sugya, with its concepts and principles, is a processed form of the Palestinian one.

2. Regulating the Chaos: The laws of consuming and carrying on the Sabbath in the Mishnah and Tosefta seem textually and conceptually chaotic. The primary strategy of the Bavli in coping with this chaos is to analyze the sources according to their acceptance of the principle of muqṣe and to divide them into two groups – those that accept the principle are ascribed to the tana R. Judah and those that reject it are ascribed to R. Shimon. This procedure generates a polarization of the views at hand, as the tannaitic consensus regarding the notion that there are objects that may not be handled or consumed on the Sabbath, the Bavli portrays a dispute on this very idea.

3. Categorization: Selection, Branching out and Specification: The term mukhan which appears in the Damascus Document plays a central role in Tannaitic Sabbath law, despite its foreignness to Mishnaic Hebrew. This “frozen” term receives a new sense, relating to the status of an object at the commencement of the Sabbath. Albeit its centrality, the concept mukhan is not and underlying principle for all tannaitic restrictions on handling and consumption on the Sabbath. In Amoraic Literature two processes occour parallel. On the one hand, tannaitic concepts are widely developed (e.g.: mukhan > hakhana, keli > keli she-melakhto le-issur). On the other hand, a marginal term in Tannaitic Literature (muqṣe) assumes a central role and branches out in several directions. In some cases it seems that muqṣe replaced lengthier terms, due to ‘word ecology’, driving to selection of concise forms. However, muqṣe does not replace other terms exclusively. The abstraction of muqṣe commences in the Yerushalmi and does not culminate in the Bavli, in which the term muqṣe relates primarily to consumption of goods and hardly ever to handling. The only utensil that the Bavli applies the term muqṣe to is the oil lamp.

4. The Influence of Purity Laws: Amoraic discourse regarding the laws of muqṣe is heavily influenced by tannaitic purity laws. Talmudic discussions in this field widely borrow cases (e.g.: ‘heads of beams’), linguistic forms (‘a base [for a forbidden object]’, ‘prepared for-‘, ‘[muqṣe] on the acoount of-‘) and distinctions (‘placed/forgot’) from the order of Purities. The deepest influence appears in the form of the ‘mental turn’. While tannaitic law takes account of physical criteria in determining whether objects may be handled on the Sabbath, in both Talmuds there is a tendency to examine objects according to one’s thought or awareness towards it. Casuistic rulings are worded utilizing mental criteria and in the same manner earlier sources are interpreted or rephrased. The vocabulary of these mental criteria as well as their ritual function point directly to tannaitic purity laws.

5. Function and Significance: The term muqṣe is elusive and analysis of all its occurrences in the Bavli does not easily produce one simple definition thereof. On the one hand, it is clear that muqṣe is not merely a paradigmatic case, useful for legal analogy. On the other hand, in contrast to post-Talmudic sources, in the Bavli muqṣe is not a code for all prohibitions of handling and consuming on the Sabbath, nor is it synonymous to ‘set aside from one’s mind’. We could view muqṣe as a “family-resemblance concept” or more accurately as a “prototype concept”, with a dominant sense, as well as marginal meanings. Instead of defining the concept, it seems useful to describe its function. Lexically, muqṣe often replaces eino min ha-mukhan as the antonym for mukhan. Therefore, we cannot talk of a conceptual revolution replacing the notion of preparedness with that of setting aside. From a discursive perspective, muqṣe functions in the Bavli chiefly as a tool for taxonomy of texts – determining whether a text adheres to the principle of prohibition of consuming or handling of unprepared goods on the Sabbath and festivals or not.

Daniel Reifman, “​The Role of Rationales in Halakhic Adjudication: A Semiotic Approach,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015

This dissertation seeks to address three fundamental questions regarding the use of rationales in halakhic discourse: 1) What types of statements do we expect and/or accept as rationales for halakhic rules or rulings?  2) Do halakhic adjudication and interpretation necessarily mandate the formulation of a rationale for a given rule?  3) To what extent does the rationale for a halakhic rule determine its range of application?  We approach this topic through a series of typological examples, longitudinal analyses of the development of specific laws and their rationales from the rabbinic period through the modern era.

We use semiotic theory to argue for a distinction between analogies and rationales as the two fundamental axes of halakhic reasoning.  Analogical reasoning is central to the interpretation of most rabbinic texts, where casuistic laws – laws formulated in terms that are sufficiently specific and concrete to serve as a practical guide for popular (i.e., non-professional) legal behavior – are juxtaposed with little or no conceptual explanation.  In Saussurian terms, analogical reasoning is the process of determining the value, or semantic range, of a given legal formulation, which by definition involves comparison and contrast with other similar legal formulae.  From a semiotic perspective, legal analogy is not merely a tool for adjudication and legal reasoning; rather, it is the essential means of constituting a cohesive discourse out of disparate legal formulations.

However, value is only one dimension of meaning, that aspect which is generated internally within a system of signs, based on the patterns of similarity and difference between the sign-units of that system.  A semiotic model also posits a second aspect of meaning which is generated by our ability to substitute any sign in the system with a different sign from outside the system (e.g., a translation into another language), referred to as the interpretant.  This is the dimension of meaning that is established by providing a rationale or explanation for a given casuistic law: fundamentally, what enables a statement to serve as a rationale is not that it is more general or abstract than the law it is invoked to explain, but rather that it comes from an external source or discourse.  We may define a legal rationale as a signifier that is not part of a system of casuistic laws which serves as an interpretant for one or more casuistic laws within that system.  Every statement that serves as a legal rationale must have one or more form features that mark it as not belonging to the semiotic network of casuistic laws: its form must be either non-legal (e.g., moral precepts, descriptions of fact, consequentialist concerns), non-casuistic (e.g., legal principles or other conceptual formulations) or non-tannaitic (citations from biblical law codes). 

This definition has numerous implications for the use of rationales in halakhic reasoning. For example, the fact that there can be any number of interpretants for a given sign determines that no single explanation can be the exclusive or authoritative rationale of a given casuistic law, and hence that no rationale is essential to that casuistic law’s functioning as a unit of legal discourse.  When rationales are invoked within halakhic discourse, their function is almost always to justify distinctions within the law: to account for a difference between two casuistic rulings (or a debate between two authorities about a certain case), to explain why a broadly formulated law does not apply to a specific case, or to rationalize a ruling that breaks with established practice. On the other hand, a judge will rarely invoke a rationale when she is merely extending an established precedent or practice to a new case; in such instances, the analogy between the precedent and the target case is typically considered sufficient basis for the decision.  Moreover, the meaning of the rationale is not fixed, and may evolve over time, either in concert with the law or in divergence from it.  We demonstrate these points through a close analysis of the laws of shehiyah – leaving food on a heat source from before Shabbat – in Shabbat, chapters 1 & 3, and their subsequent development in the post-talmudic period, up until their application to contemporary stovetops.

The latter chapters of the thesis apply this model to two types of rationales which feature prominently in contemporary halakhic discourse: moral precepts and scientific propositions.   We again use typological examples of sugyot which contain moral and science-based rationales to draw out some of the fundamental differences between legal semiotic systems on the one hand and moral and scientific semiotic systems on the other.

Yakir Paz, “From Scribes to Scholars: Rabbinic Exegesis in Light of the Homeric Commentaries,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2014 (Hebrew)

The main argument of this research is that the Homeric commentaries, as representatives of Hellenistic scholarship, had a major impact on the formation of rabbinic biblical commentaries and their modes of exegesis. This impact is discernible not only in the terminology and hermeneutical techniques used by the Rabbis, but also in their perception of their canonical text as a literary product, their learning methods, editorial principles and aesthetic sensitivities. In fact, it is the influence of Greek scholarship which can help explain the drastic difference between earlier biblical commentaries from Palestine, such as the Pesharim, and the rabbinic scholastic Halakhic midrashim (from the 3rd century AD). Yet, as I point out in the first chapter (introduction), the vast corpora of Homeric commentaries has to date received very limited attention by scholars of rabbinic literature.

The second chapter discusses the various ways the commentators implemented their concept of the canonical text as the source of all knowledge. Thus, both Aristarchus and R. Yishmael assume that the text itself teaches the commentator how to clarify obscure words. There is also a significant resemblance in the didactic lessons drawn by the Homeric commentators (of the bT scholia) and the Rabbis. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the way the commentators from both communities rescripturize traditions, that is, they wish to prove that a word or verse in the canonical text triggered later traditions.

The difference between extracting lessons from and returning traditions to the text is essentially rhetorical, since the goal of both exegetical efforts is to bind knowledge to the canonical text through identical fixed terms (διδάσκει, מלמד ; ἐντεῦθεν PN φησι/φασι, מכאן היה ר’ פלוני אומר/מכאן אמרו ). This scholarly practice marks a significant change in the role of the commentator (or editor) in the rabbinic literature in comparison to earlier biblical commentaries.

The third chapter deals with approaches to various redundancies in the canonical texts: repetitions, synonyms, resumptive formulae and conjunctions. The school or R. Yishmael usually views redundancies as stylistic features whereas the school of R. Akiva strives to prove that what seem to be redundancies actually convey new content. I argue that one should regard this dispute between the two schools as part of a contemporary aesthetic dispute documented also among Homeric scholars and Jewish Hellenistic commentators. Furthermore, the Rabbis deal with the same biblical redundancies as Alexandrian Jewish commentators. This might indicate that the Rabbis were exposed to these scholarly practices through the mediation of Hellenistic-Jewish scholars.

In the final section of this chapter, I argue that the rabbinic focus on conjunctions as self-standing semantic entities should be viewed in light the rise of grammar as an independent science in the first centuries CE and the systematic efforts to classify conjunctions.

The fourth chapter focuses on the use of questions and answers in an exegetical context. Question and answers are ubiquitous in the Midrash, as well as in the Greek commentaries and Jewish-Hellenistic authors, but are not at all documented in the Dead Sea scrolls. The many similarities between the Homeric commentaries and Midrash are highlighted through a wide range of questions such as “Whence did he know (πόθεν οἶδεν? מנין היה יודע?) and “Whence did he have?” (πόθεν αὐτῷ? מנין היה לו?) alongside questions dealing with contradictions and verisimilitude. Both the rabbinic and the Homeric scholars also present very similar answers, reflecting common reading strategies. These similarities point to an impact of the Greek scholarship on the Rabbis most probably through the mediation of Jewish-Hellenistic commentators.

In the fifth chapter the various ways in which the commentators deal with ambiguity are discussed. Both the Rabbis and the Homeric scholars often present explicitly their dilemmas between two possible readings. The first part of the chapter demonstrates how both deal explicitly with the same three kinds of syntactical ambiguities: homonyms; uncertainty as to the subject of the verb, or to which noun the adjective refers. Not only do the commentators recognize the same ambiguities but they also tend to solve them in similar ways: either by the immediate context or by using another verse. The second part of the chapter compares two scholars of the second century CE, Nicanor and Issi Ben Yehuda, both of whom assume that there are cases where one cannot adjudicate between two possibilities of punctuation and hence one should present both alternatives as grammatically valid. The striking similarities between the Rabbis and the Homeric scholars in both identifying and resolving the ambiguities seem to point to a shared grammatical discourse.

The main part of the sixth and final chapter is dedicated to word-transpositions as an exegetical method. I demonstrate how the rabbinic method of seres is borrowed from the Greek rhetorical tropes of hyperbaton and reversal of the natural order of events (τάξις). The Greek commentators assumed that in a literary text the author might change the order of the words or events for rhetorical purposes. Therefore, one can use such methods also exegetically in order to solve various problems in the text. Similarly, I argue that the assumption underlying the use of seres by the Rabbis is not that the text is divine and hence it could be read in various word orders. On the contrary, the rabbis assume that the Torah is written as a literary text using various rhetorical tropes, one of which is word-transpositions.

The second part argues that the Rabbis formulated their rhetorical maxim  ראשון ראשון ואחרון אחרון  (“first, first and last, last”), i.e. that one should answer the first question first, as a polemical response to the Aristarchian principle of reversed order, later known as ὕστερον πρότερον Ὁμηρικῶς (“last first in the Homeric style”). Finally, I suggest that the common maxim among the Homeric commentators dealing with simultaneity – ἅμα πάντα λέγειν ἀδύνατον (“it is impossible to say everything at once”) – stands in background of the rabbinic interpretation that the ten commandment were said simultaneously (בדיבור אחד) by God. But whereas for the Homeric scholars this maxim described the limits of the narrator (unlike the painter), the Rabbis reinterpreted it as pointing to the essential difference between the divine and human narrators.

Sara Ronis, “‘Do Not Go Out Alone at Night’: Law and Demonic Discourse in the Babylonian Talmud,” Yale University, 2015

This dissertation focuses on the modes of controlling, avoiding, and appropriating demons in the Babylonian Talmud, with particular attention to rabbinic legal discourse. Though scholars have largely overlooked demons as a source of information about rabbinic legal discourse, cross-cultural interaction, and theology, this dissertation has asked how the inclusion of rabbinic demonology enriches our picture of rabbinic discourse and thought in Late Antique Sasanian Babylonia.

I analyze rabbinic legal passages relating to demons within their larger textual, redactional, and cultural – Zoroastrian, Christian, and ancient Near Eastern – contexts, in order to uncover and highlight the discursive choices made by Babylonian rabbis in their legislation regarding demons, and in their constructions of the demonic. I argue that the rabbis constructed demons as subjects of rabbinic law in ways that adopt, adapt, and reject particular cultural options available to them. This act of cultural bricolage results in the creation of a uniquely rabbinic perspective.

The first chapter reviews previous scholarship on demons in ancient Judaism and religious studies more broadly and lays out the theoretical model for my study of those ancient texts which deal with demons. The second chapter examines one extended passage in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Pesahim 109b-112a) using source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism, in order to create a basic model of Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse. I argue that the Babylonian rabbis neutralize demons by turning them into subjects, informants, and teachers of rabbinic law, thus subjugating them to the legal system. The third chapter highlights those areas where the Babylonian rabbis differed from the Jewish traditions they inherited, by comparing demonic discourse in the law and narratives of the Babylonian Talmud with those of Second Temple literature and the Palestinian Talmud. I suggest that this differentiation was a crucial element of Babylonian rabbinic self-formation as an elite distinct from their Palestinian confreres. The fourth chapter contextualizes Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse within early Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, Zoroastrian, Armenian, and Syriac Christian literatures, as well as the Babylonian incantation bowls. I show that Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse aligns in content with ancient Sumerian and Akkadian understandings of the demonic, and adopts only the form of legal discourse from the contemporaneous Zoroastrian elite. My conclusion advocates for a more nuanced understanding of rabbinic interaction with non-Jews and non-rabbinic Jews which takes into account both past and present cultural traditions, as part of the construction of rabbinic identity as an elite group empowered over and against other Jews.

My understanding of the role of demons in Talmudic law also suggests one way for scholars of monotheistic religion more generally to understand the historical attitude towards and construction of semi-divine beings within monotheistic systems as part of a broader holistic theological and legal worldview. My work also contributes to a refinement of broader theories of demons, magic, and religion by situating demonological concerns within the realm of normative religion and not that of non-normative magic.

Daniel Rosenberg, “Short(hand) Stories: Unexplicated Story Cues in the Babylonian Talmud,” New York University, 2014

There is an uncommon phenomenon in the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) of stories that are referred-to, but are not told. The phenomenon has been noted beginning in the medieval period, and explained using various justifications: that the stories were censored (because of gender bias against women subjects or because of externally-objectionable content), that they were too common to need explication, or that they were forgotten. However, these arguments seem inconsistent in comparison with the rest of the Bavli, and they are made on the basis of only a few stories in each case.

This dissertation systematically examines all fourteen unexplicated cues in the Bavli. It uses redaction criticism tools developed by David Weiss-Halivni and Shamma Friedman, together with thorough “horizontal” philological analysis, to identify the historical provenance of each cue within its Babylonian sugya context. It examines manuscript and medieval commentarial witnesses to the state of the Bavli text, and confirms that explicated solutions to these cues were never in the text of the Bavli. The manuscript examination also attests to general textual stability of the sugyot, an established indicator for text dating and demonstration of textual non-interference by later authorities.

Once it has been established that the cues were never in the written Bavli text, the dissertation discusses scholarly work on geonic history and relationship to the Bavli text. In light of the pervasive orality that typifies geonic academic learning prior to the shift to writing, the partially-inscribed text is also examined with the contributions of theories of oral performative cultures and their relationships to writing. The amoraic and geonic academic cultures were less fundamentally opposed to writing than popularly depicted. The act of partial inscription makes sense within a primarily oral culture that utilizes secondary written adjuncts (in non-declamatory settings). Unexplicated cues appear to preserve an early stage of the writing of highly-condensed oral structures, and their solutions (contrary to most such cases in the Bavli) were never inscribed – and were either kept as solely oral geonic traditions or lost.

Avram Shannon, “Other Peoples’ Rituals: Tannaitic Portrayals of Graeco-Roman Ritual,” The Ohio State University, 2015

This dissertation looks at the ways in which the Tannaitic Sages portrayed and discussed non-Jewish ritual. Although this has been traditionally characterized as “idolatry,” this dissertation argues that that is not a category which would have been applied by the Sages of the Mishnah, Tosefta and the Tannaitic Midrashim. In fact, the Sages did not consider worship of avodah zarah, as it is called in this text, as something which was wholly different from their own ritual. The Tannaitic Sages conceived of non-Jewish ritual and Jewish ritual to be part of a single category of ritual. This category ultimately derived from the ritual practices of the Jerusalem Temple, which meant that rituals which were performed outside of that context were sacrilege and an affront to the God of Israel. It was precisely the similarities, rather than the differences, between Jewish and non-Jewish ritual which gave the Tannaitic Sages pause. These similarities, however, also gave the Sages tools for controlling non-Jewish ritual. They did this through a quest for plausible contexts for non-Jewish ritual behavior. Through establishing these contexts, the Tannaitic Sages are able to control what does and does not qualify as the worship of avodah zarah.

Peri Danit Sinclair, “When Rabbis Conceive Women: Physiology and Gestation in Leviticus Rabbah Chapter 14,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2014

This dissertation explores the language employed by the editor(s) of Leviticus Rabbah in their articulation of women’s physiology and gestation in chapter 14. Established as a compilation of aggadic literature from 4 th and 5th century Palestine, Leviticus Rabbah reflects the social construction of the community of that geo-cultural setting. Divorced from the halakhic -legal strata, Leviticus Rabbah presents us with a glimpse of rabbinic community and gender construction that substantially differ from the picture painted in the legal corpus.

This thesis analyzes the rabbis’ choice of language and construction of metaphors relating to female physiology and procreation. These lexical preferences are compared to other recurring metaphors within the rabbinic corpus, as well as with appearances of the same metaphors in rabbinic, Greco-Roman and Early Christian traditions. The overall conception of women emanating from chapter 14 of Leviticus Rabbah, as interpreted by the author, expresses rabbinic wonder and marvel at the woman’s ability to actively engage in creation through gestation and birth.

Reading rabbinic literature as the interaction of the rabbis with the Biblical text in light of their individual experiences, we expose Leviticus Rabbah as a porthole through which we might glimpse the views of a particular community at a given historical era, conveying a rhetorical reality and socio-cultural ideologies rather than traditional historical fact.

A close reading of chapter 14 deconstructs the workings of rabbinic ideology, revealing the prevailing cultural assumptions while shedding light on tensions and struggles regarding concepts of gender within rabbinic society as it encountered its broader milieu. This reading sheds light on competing discourse regarding the female body which existed within rabbinic thought.

Agnes Veto, “Rabbinic Conceptualization of the Male Body as Reflected in the Halakhic System of Male Genital Emissions,” New York University, 2015

This project seeks to understand how the rabbinic impurity legislation of the male genital emissions of shikhvat zera (mildly-defiling, potentially-procreative emission) and zivah (strongly defiling non-procreative emission) contribute to the construction of gender. The work begins by delineating how Leviticus 15 describes these two male genital emissions in terms of their definition and defilement properties: they seem to be categorized by two different taxonomies. One of these taxonomies focuses upon the manner in which each emission is exuded and its concomitant impurity level. The other taxonomy involves the ability (or lack of ability) of each emission to facilitate procreation. While both shikhvat zera and zivah were ritual impurities, zivah, the stronger defiler, shared a particular characteristic with moral impurities—the ability to defile the Temple from afar. The study next examines whether rabbinic legislation maintained or departed from biblical legislation. It concludes that although the rabbinic impurity laws use the same taxonomies as the biblical ones, they redefine the emissions and the ways in which the emissions are understood to defile. On the one hand, in rabbinic legislation the distinctly separate characters of shikhvat zera and zivah show signs of blurring; on the other hand, each category itself is more thoroughly elaborated. The importance of shikhvat zera—the mildly-defiling, potentially-procreative emission—increases as its relationship to sexuality is increasingly emphasized. As part of this process the emission acquires a new type of impurity that is moral. These developments are evident in the representation of semen in metaphors that illuminate or complement legal discussions. In a parallel development, zivah—the strongly-defiling, non-procreative emission—is understood as not precipitated by stimuli that usually impact the body, such as food or drink, physical exertion or sexual thoughts or visual experiences. Zivah will be used as a least common denominator of maleness: even a questionably male person is marked by his ability to be subject to zivah. A complementary part of the project demonstrates that female emissions and their power of defilement were not necessarily sites of more rabbinic legal innovation than male emissions and their power of defilement. It acknowledges that distinct hierarchies of male and female prerogative and privilege undoubtedly existed in terms of the practical implications of the purity laws, hierarchies that advantaged men and excluded women. However, contrary to previous scholarship—which asserts that rabbinic use of metaphors to describe female impurity and rabbinic law concerning female impurity were motivated by a desire to objectify and exclude women—this study proposes that metaphorization, objectification, and the introduction of some external supervision served to further nuance the laws and thus consolidate the power of the rabbis. The study reveals that male emissions were also metaphorized, and that the male body was also objectified as a consequence. Rabbinic treatment of emissions reveals a gender bias only in that men were less subject to supervision than were women. This lesser degree of supervision elicited some resistance from men, here interpreted with reference to Foucault’s idea of subject constitution via subjugation by power and the responses to that conceptualization by Butler and Mahmood.

Rebecca Wollenberg, “The People of the Book Without the Book: Jewish Ambivalence Towards Biblical Text After the Rise of Christianity,” The University of Chicago, 2015

This dissertation argues that, contrary to popular conceptions and the current scholarly consensus, rabbinic Jewry did not become a people of the book, or even the people of the Book, until the high middle ages. For in the classical rabbinic period, many rabbinic authorities appear to have been suspicious of reading as a source of information and ambivalent about the written text of the Hebrew Bible, a document that had proven a problematic manifestation of God’s covenant when it made possible the growth of a rival biblical religion in Christianity. In place of this promiscuous and easily misunderstood written record of the covenant, a less threatening iteration of the biblical tradition took on the mantle of revelation in many early rabbinic circles, a memorized oral formula of the Hebrew Bible–to which intangible object rabbinic thinkers attributed all the qualities of transcendence, comprehensiveness, and multiplicity that they associated with the divine and found lacking in the bald written transcript of revelation.

Chapter 1 examines early rabbinic descriptions of late antique literacy practices and concludes that many rabbinic authorities viewed sight reading for information as an alien mode of engaging with written signs practiced by non-Jews and heretics. Rabbinic practitioners, in contrast, ‘read’ the Bible by reciting memorized oral formulas from memory with (or more often without) reference to a written text. This mode of engaging with the biblical text required two distinct transcripts of the biblical tradition to circulate in classical rabbinic circles: a memorized oral formula and a written consonantal transcript. Chapter 2 argues that classical rabbinic thinkers came to conceive of these two transcripts as independent, and even conflicting, witnesses to the biblical revelation. This chapter suggests that many early rabbinic authorities came to see the memorized oral transcript of the Hebrew Bible as a more authentic record of the biblical revelation than the written consonantal text. Chapters 3 and 4 compare rabbinic descriptions of childhood literacy education with narrative and material evidence concerning late antique reading education in the Greek and Roman Mediterranean. These chapters argue that rabbinic practitioners were taught to engage with the written text of the Bible using a cross-cultural pedagogical system that cultivated a combination of highly circumscribed phonetic literacy and extensive literary memorization. Chapters 5 and 6 track the growth of classical rabbinic ambivalence towards the biblical text as a reaction to Christian claims on that document.

Jael Yaffe, “The Relevance of Text Structure Instruction for Talmud Study: The Effects of Reading a Talmudic Passage with a Road-Map of its Text Structure,” Columbia University, 2016

This study investigates the effect of access to a visual outline of the text structure of a Talmudic passage on comprehension of that passage. A system for defining the text structure of Talmudic passages was designed by merging and simplifying earlier text structure systems described for Talmudic passages, following principles taken from research on text structure. Comprehension of two passages were compared for students who did traditional reading of a Talmudic passage (the passages had punctuation added, and a list of difficult words and their meanings was appended) (the control condition), and students who read the passage with these same materials as well as with an outline of the text structure of that passage (the experimental condition). Seventy-two 10th and 11th graders participated. After a brief training on text structure, students were randomly assigned to the control or experimental condition for Passage 1. All students took a comprehension exam on Passage 1. In the next session, all students who read Passage 1 in the control condition read Passage 2 in the experimental condition, and all students who read Passage 2 in the experimental condition read Passage 2 in the control condition. Students then took a comprehension exam for Passage 2.

The text structure outline improved students’ ability to comprehend Passage 2, but no benefits were seen on Passage 1. The results provide evidence that awareness of the text structure of a Talmudic passage helps readers when the passage is concrete and somewhat well organized.

MA Theses

Hillel Gershuni, “Early Anonymous Material in The Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Sotah and Avodah Zarah,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2015 (Hebrew)

Yitz Landes, “Studies in the Development of Birkat ha-Avodah,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2015 (Hebrew)

Shira Shmidman, “The Levirate Bond and Levirate Betrothal in Rabbinic Literature,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015 (Hebrew)

Dissertations, English

Daniel Boyarin’s Dissertation on b. Nazir

The field of academic Talmud study has its share of myths and legends, including works of research that were thought lost to the world. One of these is Daniel Boyarin’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America dissertation on tractate Nazir, which to our knowledge is not available in any public or university library. To that end – and in honor of the daf yomi cycle again reaching Nazir – we are happy to present a pdf of the dissertation, along with some reflections by the dissertation-writer himself. We thank Prof. Boyarin for allowing us to make the dissertation available here and for sharing with us a few words of introduction:

Nazir, which is in many ways an atypical tractate in its literary form as well as its transmission, since it was not studied during the period of the Geonim, as is well known, presents particular textual problems. The text, along with several other Tractates, called the Special Tractates, evince a different dialect of literary Babylonian Aramaic, as well as a different set of technical terms, such as תיבעי for תיקו. The latter and more usual term means, “Let it stand,” i.e., the question stands open, while the term used in Nazir means, “Let it [remain] a question.” The import is the same but the words are different. The Aramaic of Nazir and its fellows is a more literary Aramaic, apparently less close to the spoken forms of Babylonian Aramaic that we find in the other Tractates. All this suggests that the Stamma of Nazir and its fellow tractates belong to a different redactorial group (set of stammaim??) than the main body of the Talmud.

What is most fascinating, however, and what animated the dissertation that you can read here (desperately needing updating after forty years! – I have begun updating it, with some recently published – an currently accessible at Google Books – in the Yaakov Elman Festschrift) is how much the text was liquid well into the period of the Rishonim, or perhaps, better put, how much the Rishonim were active in forming the text that we see in front of us. This is, of course, true to a certain extent with all the Talmud but with Nazir we palpably see the text being formed before our eyes, as it were; that is, I suggest that we see with Nazir something like the textual processes that formed the main body of the talmudic text hundreds of years earlier, of the final form, so to speak, of the text being formed in the discussions of commentators. It was the discovery of this aspect of the text, aside from the fascinating content of the Tractate and the excitement of studying a new dialect of Aramaic that animated my work on the dissertation, lo those decades ago. I hope that the learners can find something of value in this גולם.

English, Guest Posts

E. Bar-Asher Siegal – A Response to M. Morgenstern

A Response to Matthew Morgenstern’s Review of My Book, Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic – Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal

One of my philosophy professors once advised us on how to read an academic text: first, have a question in mind and try to see how each sentence in the text addresses it. When you read the text for the second time, he said, have a specific question that is based on your first reading. This, he suggested, is the beginning of your own research. I followed the professor’s advice: reading Matthew Morgenstern’s review of my Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic for the second time, I had formed my question: is the fact that he consistently misrepresents what I wrote the result of dishonesty or of a lack of comprehension?

Matthew Morgenstern recently published a highly critical review of my Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (see here for the book’s table of contents). Nobody likes their hard work criticized, but in this case it is not my hard work that was criticized; Matthew Morgenstern misrepresented what I wrote and criticized that misrepresentation. I would like here to set the record straight, and note just a few examples of this dynamic (of which, apparently, my books is not the only victim). It seems, surprisingly, that his review is a response not to my book but to another paper of mine, which raises serious methodological questions reflected in his own work. I will argue that instead of seriously grappling with these questions, Morgenstern only chooses to restate his opinion.


Examples of Misrepresentation of My Claims

Morgenstern ascribes to me the following claim: “In his view, the Talmud was written in the higher-valued language (H-language) of a diglossia, not reflecting a genuine ‘spoken’ JBA of the less-valued domain (L-language), and hence colloquial Babylonian dialectal features should not be taken as an indication of linguistic primacy.” (p.38)

Morgenstern does not give any reference to the book for the claim, and I could not find it in my book or in my articles. I refer the reader to pages 30-31 in the book or to my paper, ‘Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic: Five Decades after E. Y. Kutscher and his Influential Methodology’, ZDMG 163 (2013), 341–64, where it is clear that this way of thinking is as distant as can be from the methodology I use throughout the book. The main point that I make throughout the book and articles (contra Morgenstern) is that it is impossible in most cases to evaluate what the origin and character of a given form is. I repeatedly emphasize that we must be careful not to make unjustified assumptions about either the text’s register or the content of the original language, since different registers and dialects can be in play from the start.

In contrast with the view that Morgenstern ascribes to me, that the Talmud was written in a high register, the model that I propound in fact suggests that, as is usually the case with old texts, we may posit two historical stages—stage A: composition of the texts in the context of diglossia, with differences between the written and spoken languages; stage B: transmission of the texts—and assume that various sorts of changes occurred in stage B during the transmission of the texts (adaptations to the spoken language; adaptations to grammars of both higher and lower registers; misunderstandings of the original language; and mistakes). I also stress that when a feature appears to reflect the spoken language, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether the feature is a manifestation of diglossia in stage A, or of changes in stage B. Likewise, when there is a feature that reflects “classical” grammar, the question is whether it is an indication of the Aramaic of stage A (either in the written or the spoken register), or a later adaptation in stage B to a different grammar representing a higher register. I do not argue (strenuously or otherwise) that we must assume a higher register; I claim only that this is an option that must be considered. This is the same claim that I made in the book.

Furthermore, Morgenstern quotes from my article: “With regard to phonology, other sources are closer to the original Babylonian texts, while the E[arly] E[astern] M[anuscript]s better reflect the spoken language – as was the case with regard to the pharyngeals and the anaptyctic vowel.” His comment: “It is unclear on what basis he determines the grammatical profile of these unattested texts” (p. 39). Indeed, if this were what I was saying, Morgenstern would be completely correct. However, a few lines later I clarify: “The goal of the last few paragraphs was not to argue fiercely for the alternative picture, but only to demonstrate how different plausible explanations for the same data are possible simultaneously, and that we do not have definite criteria how to choose between them” (p.361). Morgenstern was quoting nothing more than an intellectual exercise, meant to show that two alternative solutions are possible, and thus that neither can be assumed to be true.

I have a distinct feeling that Morgenstern read little more than some of the introduction, and probably took a quick look at some tables with forms. He clearly did not even have the patience to read the notes following these tables, or to read the entire paragraph. For example in n. 23, he mentions that I note אונא as an example of the elision of /d/, whereas in fact it is an example of an assimilation. Had he continued a few lines later on page 67 in my book, he would have read the discussion as to whether it is a token of an assimilation or of an elision. Similarly, Morgenstern ridicules my claim that I find myself in agreement with the conclusions of Margolis (1910) and Levias (1930), taking this as evidence of the backwardness of my approach to manuscript variation. Had he actually read the book, he would have realized that all the topics on which I agree with Margolis and Levias deal with syntactic analysis, and specifically in cases where there are no significant variations between the manuscripts.


Possible Interpretations of Morgenstern’s Review

Morgenstern seems to be responding not to my book but to my paper (‘Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic‘), which advances strong arguments against the methodology Morgenstern uses in his own book (M. Morgenstern, Studies in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Based upon Early Eastern Manuscripts [Harvard Semitic Studies, 2011]). I am afraid that instead of dealing with the theoretical problems that I raised in that paper, Morgenstern chose to set up a straw man and argue against it. Morgenstern has employed similar tactics before, against authors greater than myself (see e.g. his critiques against Margolis in Studies, p.12 and Sokoloff’s Dictionary [!] ibidem, p. 36).

Yet, perhaps Morgenstern did not understand me correctly? Perhaps he actually believes that I argue for the H language, since he believes that “the Talmud was formulated in a semi-formal or informal literary register abounding in linguistic features that may be assumed to be closer to the vernacular than they are to a formal literary standard” (Review, p.39). In his mind, perhaps, whoever disagrees with him must take the other side in the dichotomy. Unfortunately for him, I have actually never participated in this debate or accepted this dichotomy. According to the methodology that I actually used, we must document all forms and try to understand their origin. Once we have a clear picture of the nature of the texts and their transmission, it is very often impossible to provide a simple answer, but we can, and should, only tell competing stories. We simply cannot be certain a priori about the nature of the text in front of us, and as noted in my paper, it is hard to even determine whether we are seeking the original language or the original text. Therefore, we do not deal with questions of the yes/no type.

Consider also this quote: “Criteria for establishing what an excellent textual witness might be have been much discussed in the literature, but Kutscher’s methodology has provided the guiding light for all subsequent research” (Review, p.38). I welcome a debate on methodology, and would be happy to participate in such a debate, but unfortunately this is not what this review offers. Instead it reasserts assumptions going back fifty years, and restates as fact what is in truth debatable: in my paper I argued that the validity of these criteria was not really discussed in the literature, casting doubt on subsequent scholarship. Noting that Kutscher’s approach has become established tradition is not much of an argument.


A Note for the Users of the Grammar

Morgenstern is worried that whoever reads my book may be misled by the forms and remain ignorant of the achievements of scholarship over the last five decades. To alleviate this concern, I hereby issue this advice: please read the book. More specifically, please read carefully the comments after the tables of forms, which include all attested forms. The subsequent discussions mention almost everything found in the secondary literature, and they often suggest alternative interpretations. Readers will of course have to exercise more caution in their methodological assumptions, and realize how very often it is hard to decide between various alternative proposals, but this is hardly a drawback. If you continue after chapter six, you will be treated to the discussions of the syntax of this dialect, an experience that, as far as we can tell from the review, Morgenstern did not avail himself of.

And, as Morgenstern says on p. 41, this book does pose a dilemma to philologists: they will have to decide between Morgenstern’s approach that considers only a simple dichotomy and a more sophisticated one. I hope the ease of the former does not overshadow the great rewards promised by the latter. I thank Morgenstern for characterizing the book as sui generis, but I wholeheartedly hope it does not remain so.

Readers who are interested in reading reviews written by scholars who have actually read the book are invited to see the review by Aaron Koller and Tzvi Novick’s review (in Hebrew).

Elitzur A. Bar-Asher Siegal holds the Sidney and Betty Sarah Berg Senior Lectureship in Hebrew Language at the School of Language Science and in The Department of the Hebrew Language at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also a member of the Language Logic Cognition Center.

Conferences, English

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.

Conferences, English

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.