English, Recent Publications

Recent Publications from Brody and Co.

As tweeted earlier last week, Prof. Brody of Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha has just published, along with Zvi Stampfer and Carmiel Cohen, a new edition of Otzar Ha-Geonim. Stay tuned for an in-depth review in the coming weeks, and, until then, check out the table of contents and introduction here. This new volume is part of a larger project, funded by the Israel Science Foundation, which will eventually fill in all the original volumes B.M. Lewin did not complete, as well as supplement the earlier volumes with more material.

And if you’re already calling the Ofek Institute or your preferred seforim store for a copy, you might want to think about asking them to save you a copy of Prof. Brody’s  Teshuvot Rav Natronai Gaon, first published in 1994, and recently reissued in a brand new edition.

Book Club, English, Recent Publications, Reviews

The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires


Book clubs are not only for Oprah Winfrey fans. While there are numerous forums that assess recent Rabbinics scholarship, including books received, abstract digests, short reviews and review essays, conference papers and sessions, and long and looping footnotes in academic books and articles, there are surprisingly few places where scholars can get together and engage in extensive discussion about recent books of potentially great significance for the field.  The Talmud Blog’s Book Club endeavors to create just such a space. Ultimately, we’re shooting for a new kind of scholarly discourse that is able to take on numerous aspects of a work and do so in a relaxed (though serious), free-wielding conversation between friends.

The first book we’ll discuss is Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity.  Our Book Club etiquette is that we will first hear opening reflections from three readers: Amit Gevaryahu, Eva Kiesele, and Raphael Magarik.  Below you will find their (incredibly astute) thoughts and critiques about the book. They are all worth reading in full, and carefully.  Before reading them you may also want to look at Raffi’s and Amit‘s previous reviews of the book. I will serve as the MC.

For the first day or so comments will be closed to all except Amit, Eva and Raffi. This will give them time to respond to each other, if they so (demonically) desire, and I hope to weigh in as well. After that point, comments will be open to all, though we will be moderating more than normal in order to keep the discussion moving along nicely. We ask that you comment only if you have read the book, and that you direct discussion to the proper target by clicking on “reply” under the comment you want to respond to, or “leave a reply” at the end of the thread for more general reflections on the book.  To stay up-to-date with the discussion, I suggest you subscribe below, where it says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email”.  After a week of discussion, if the author wishes he will have an opportunity to respond.

Let the games begin!

Amit Gvaryahu:

Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires is in fact an inquiry into an unspoken assumption of the liberal arts: that people are, by and large, the same throughout history, and that their fundamental concerns can be discerned by inference from our own.

Rosen-Zvi begins with the philological. This should be an obvious point of departure for anyone who writes on ancient texts; sadly it is not. He surveys the existing literature and categorizes it according to time, place and milieu.

Drawing on the tremendous advances made in the study of rabbinic texts in the last fourty years – the classification of manuscripts, the critical editions, the new grammars and linguistic tools, the consciousness that various strata of a rabbinic text will not necessarily speak the same language – he is able to create a corpus of texts that is comprehensive and complete. This in itself is no mean task. The book could not have been produced without computerized tools such as Maagarim, or at least their predecessors, the Kosovski Concordances.

Rosen-Zvi, as advertised, however, goes further into investigating the origins of the yetzer hara. Not content with just a Tannaitic description of the yetzer, he discusses sugiyot in Palestinian literature (aha! They do exist!) and the Bavli, that typify and reify the yetzer even more. He manages to sketch not only a psychology of the yetzer, but a biography: the road that led the yetzer from its lowly origins to its great mastery of all that is sinful.

All that, however, is merely groundwork for what in my opinion is a groundbreaking and exciting aspect of this work: the isolation of a dialect of late antique koine. By this I mean thus: students of late antiquity are used to seeing boundaries and borders in their world as permeable and flexible. We know from amulets and synagogue floors that Jews and Gentiles both venerated Helios and the God of Israel. We know that the late antique Middle East shared myths and stories from all segments of society. Moses was a known quantity in Greek literature and he and the Jews were credited (or discredited) with various customs and laws that Greeks ridiculed and/or adopted.

Christianity of course made this koine even more monolingual: Jewish scripture in the vernacular was now a common cultural stratum that almost everyone could share (except the Zoroastrians). Literacy meant literacy of scripture and with it the sharing of even more ideas about cosmology and cosmogony, sin and salvation. Concepts and categories, for Jews and gentiles, began to overlap.

Rosen-Zvi’s work on patristic and rabbinic demonology is one locus of this overlap. Religious practitioners of both communities, rabbis and hermits, lived in common fear of evil beings that would entice them to sin, that could be warded off with constant mumbling of holy words. Salvation could be hindered by these beings, and promoted by proper spiritual exercises used against them. This is the koine.

The “Jewish Dialect” of this koine is the Amoraic yetzer. In a situation analogous to the existence of two mutually intelligible but distinct Aramaic dialects side by side in two faith communities, the rabbis reified and typified the Ishmaelian yetzer that they received from their past, into a demon with powers and weaknesses comparable to other demons in the neighborhood. But this rabbinic demon does not live outside the body, like the Christian (and Zoroastrian) demons; it lives inside it. It is the “leaven in the dough”, “a fly that lives between the two openings of the heart”.

And so, within the same semantic field of sin and salvation, with the same tools of adjuration and verbal resistance, and in the same discourse of demonology, the rabbis shaped their own distinct dialect of the late antique koine that is the evil yetzer.

This is the meaning in context of the evil yetzer. And so – to the contemporary context of the book – Rosen-Zvi contends that our own problems in life, for which we turn to Freud or William James, Durkheim or Jung, are not the problems of the ancients. The past is also a different country in the sense that the deepest concerns of its inhabitants are markedly different from ours. The yetzer is not just undeveloped language and a metaphorical image for what our psychoanalysts really know, but rather a window into a multireligious and multiethnic community – of people who were not concerned with a conflicted soul but with salvation from demons; not with mental health and hygiene but with mental and spiritual training. In that sense, Rosen-Zvi speaks Hadot in a Jewish dialect, pointing out that the people whom we (philosophers and Talmudists) identify as our spiritual forbearers are in fact colossally different from ourselves.

Eva Kiesele:

‘Demonic Desires’ is more than just the sum of Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s articles on the yetzer published over the course of a decade. It is supplemented by vast material for cross-cultural comparison, mainly Greek and Syriac patristic literature, and may well become an invaluable source for anyone interested in rabbinic anthropology. In many ways it is a reply to Daniel Boyarin’s ‘Carnal Israel’ and what has been written in its aftermath. It even delivers the famous fourth volume of Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’. But more importantly, it comes as a long due correction to the widespread trend of overreading: Yetzer discourse has for too long been charged with sexual apologetics, and has suffered from highly selective readings and from a tendency to quote from Boyarin’s oeuvre instead of quoting the primary sources. A certain polemical breeze throughout the book might be owed to this fact. ‘Demonic Desires’ undertakes to provide us with comprehensive analysis of all classical rabbinic sources instead, and with a proper blend of cross-cultural comparison, redaction and source criticism, and close readings. However, sometimes I found that in the process, overreading was replaced by underreading. This seems to be the case exactly in the two crucial aspects that are at the basis of most apologetics: dialectics and sexuality. Ishay routinely tones down sexual overtones – e.g., when GenR 22:6 describes a man who beautifies himself and prances around on the streets, he argues to read this as “pride” or “arrogance” (p. 69 and 104). But is not such “pride” simply courtship behavior, especially when (in a parallel) the “bear”- aka Mrs. Potiphar- lurks around the corner? He also spares certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression. This is not meant to refute, though. His basic tenet that sexual transgression is just one out of many sins the yetzer leads to, is certainly convincing. The common construction of Judaism as a sex-affirmative religion via the yetzer cannot be upheld after this book.

More problematic seems to me his reading of sources that present two yetzarim, or those that might shed ambivalent light on the one yetzer. In dealing with the famous homily in GenR 9:7 (והנה טוב מאוד…) he writes, “If anything, it teaches that the evil yetzer is considered as the worst thing on earth” (p. 73). This holds true for the rhetorical question, but certainly not for the following sentence in the homily. Although through redaction criticism Ishay is able to turn down the claim that yetzer meant sexual desire, he is less sensitive to the redactional contexts with regard to possible ambivalence. See, for instance, the following passage (yYom 6:4 43d), which he does not reckon among the dialectic:

“על כל סוכה וסוכה אומר לו: הרי מזון והרי מים – לייפות את כוחו.” [mYom 6:4] למה? שאין יצר הרע תעב אלא דבר שהוא אסור לו. כהדא רבי מנא סלק למבקרה לרבי חגיי, דהוה תשיש. אמר ליה: צהינא. אמר ליה: שתה! שבקיה ונחת ליה. בתר שעה סלק לגביה. אמר ליה: מה עבדת ההיא צהיותך? אמר ליה: כד שרית לי, אזלת לה.רבי חייה בר בא הוה משתעי הדין עובדא: חד בר נש הוה מהלך בשוקא וברתיה עימיה. אמרה ליה ברתיה: אבא, צהייא אנא! אמר לה: אורכין ציבחד. א”ל: אבא, צהייא אנא! א”ל: אורכין ציבחד.ומיתת. ר’ אחא כד מפני מוספא הוה אמר: קומיהון אחינן, מאן דאית ליה מיינוק, ייזיל בגיניה!

The yetzer is no doubt introduced as sin as such; but the anecdote of the sick rabbi gives an almost ridiculous touch to the principle (why would a sick person not be allowed to drink?), and the death of the daughter clearly marks horribly exaggerated practice. While this passage is probably intended to reject asceticism, it does invest the yetzer implicitly with a quality of a drive necessary for survival – and compare this to GenR 9:7, or similarly, the passage in bYom 69b where the יצרא דעבירה gets blinded. A concept of a life-sustaining impulse existed in Stoic thought and was most probably known to the rabbis – s. the Stoically tinged dialogues of Antoninus and Rabbi. The only explanation Ishay offers regarding dialectic sources is that they are probably remnants of some midrash on מעשה בראשית. The text quoted here, however, is not at all related to creation. He pushes his point very hard when he categorically rejects the possibility of a parallel, more ambivalent notion of the yetzer.

Ishay’s review of Greek and Syriac sources is a landmark in understanding the nature and development of the yetzer. The parallels he presents are compelling, both regarding the yetzer’s demonic nature and the process of its internalization. But I do miss a third party to cross-cultural comparison: the Persian sources. The notorious difficulties in their dating aside, they share so many points of contact that it is a loss to exclude them from the picture. Qumranic demonology in general  – the assumed origin of demonic yetzer discourse – is believed by Shaked and others to be influenced by Zoroastrianism. But more specifically: At least in the more sophisticated strata of Zoroastrian literature, demons are characterized by a negative ontology – they are non-existent and “are” non-existence. The way these demons work is not causing illness or mishaps, they are there to deny and destroy religious law and the good creation, or in Ishay’s own terms for the yetzer: sin qua sin. They enter from the outside and occupy people’s minds. And just like in patristic and rabbinic literature, if you neglect religious study you become easier prey to the demons. The development of psychological traits into reified entities is typical of Zoroastrian thought; and these demons are highly “moral”. In chapter 27 of the Bundahišn (the Iranian account of creation), e.g., they are held responsible for such vices as a-rāh (“leaving the proper path”), slander, illicit intercourse, and most prominently: wrath (xešm or aēšma – the model for talmudic Ashmeday), ultimately leading down the slippery slope to heresy. Rings a bell? Yup. These demons also cause you to entertain religious study without a teacher. This said, I am doubtful whether “moral demonology” is in fact a Judeo-Christian contribution, nor is the yeshivish/monastic perspective necessarily so. I would like to make a strong claim that we have to enlarge the demonic koine.

While I do not consider the omission of Persian sources a shortcoming per se (and to be fair, Ishay admits that he leaves these texts for “specialists in the Middle Persian language and Zoroastrian culture” [p. 12]), I do think that ‘Demonic Desires’ is facing a methodological problem here. Yishay’s approach is total analysis in order to reach bold conclusions regarding the notion’s origin and development. But these conclusions may become less reliable if you do not actually consider all relevant data. For example, he describes multiple moves of in- and externalization of the yetzer and finds that the Babylonian yetzer, with its national dimension, quite surprisingly, seems closer to the Qumranic yetzer than to the tannaitic one. Ishay speculates that an “old Jewish tradition [had been] consciously ignored by early rabbis” (p. 80). Would it not be more plausible to assume that an originally Persian concept, which had reached Qumran and from there the rabbis, was revived upon returning home?

In my eyes, the most fascinating parts of the book are the analyses of the yetzer’s functions on a meta-level. There is the yetzer as rhetorical device: certain answers to halakhic lacunae are, although theoretically acceptable, marked off as no-go territory by labeling them as the yetzer’s suggestion. Don’t even think about it – this is yetzer hara! Here we are right in the kitchen of rabbinic cultural policy: the yetzer is used to draw the boundaries of rabbinic identity where it cannot be negotiated by means of argument. Ishay points out that social “others” (heretics, philosophers, matrons, etc.) fulfill a similar function of marking “forbidden” arguments, but that the yetzer is unique in that it is never engaged through dialogue. I am tempted to understand this as: The arguments presented by the yetzer do not actually belong to any “other” that one could argue with, being factually kosher, but the rabbis do not want them to be “us”, either. Awkwardly, they are “us” that is not really “us”. If so, the same mechanism works on both the collective and the individual level: the yetzer is a part of “me” that is not really “me” (cf. p. 129). This construction is a bit unwieldy, but summarizes in the best possible way the underlying dilemma: it is exactly the yetzer that allows the rabbis to legally access not only human actions but their thoughts (s. the chapter on sexuality for this ethical “inward turn”); but it cannot be allowed to “become” a thought – and thus an integral part of “me” – because such would topple the basic positive anthropology. Is this the solution to the problem of human transgression of a society that already has a notion of personal agency and responsibility but not yet a notion of an autonomous subject (into the mind of which transgressive thoughts could be integrated)? Ishay touches here on so far almost untrodden grounds, and he rightly is careful not to use too many philosophical anachronisms. In spite of such restrictions, ‘Demonic Desires’ lays excellent ground for future inquiry into the rabbinic concept of the “self”. And in doing so, it delivers yet another desideratum: beginning to integrate rabbinic literature into Peter Brown’s account of late antiquity.

Raphael Magarik

First off, I’d like to thank Shai and Yitz for asking me to contribute: unlike other participants, I’m only an amateur student of rabbinics, and it’s a great pleasure to be involved in this type of conversation around a great book.

Second, since I’d like to pick up where my review left off. In the review, I identified what I see as the book’s central move, namely shifting the context for yetzer from Hellenistic psychology (in the sense of philosophical study of the psyche) to Patristic demonology. I should say, for the little it’s worth, that the shift seems to me totally convincing.

I then raised two related questions, one internal to the book’s argument and one external. As I’m just an amateur, these will be fuzzy and philosophical — not technical or historically specific — responses.

(1) Is there a functional difference between these two discourses — do demons actually work differently than psyches, or are they just a different metaphorical register? This is a question Rosen-Zvi engages with in a number of ways, most directly when he points out that “there is no true dichotomy between character and being”—that is, between a psyche and a demon—”only a spectrum of levels of reification.”

I’d like to push the point a little: I’m not sure that some of the purported distinguishing features of demons cannot also be attributed to psychological complexes or parts of the soul. Two of those features (I think) are: that the yetzer can be defeated, that it encourages not bodily tempting sins but rather those that are specifically evil (or perhaps those which are marked as “outside” communally). But Freud thought he could cure neuroses, and I believe certain American Christians understand “Free Grace” as indicating that salvation effects a basic personality change in a person. And on the second point, not only psychological entities are bodily (Freud’s id is, but his death-drive, I think, is not), and as the death-drive illustrates, not all psychological desires are continuous with plausibly pleasurable motivations.

Now, to be clear, I’m not questioning Rosen-Zvi’s individual points about rabbinic yetzer — those seem to me astute, novel, and exciting: I’m just curious as to what’s at stake saying something like (my words), “We believe in psychology; the rabbis believed in demons” — can such a statement make a functional difference? Does Freud believe in psyches, or demons? What difference does it make? This question, of course, is a bit of a Pragmatist intervention and blends somewhat into the next one, as I’m not really worried about “whether the yetzer was a demon”: I’m not sure whether the implicit question about rabbinic ontology (what was the yetzer?) is very important at all.

(2) What’s the book’s larger intellectual project — how does Rosen-Zvi’s dispassionate historicization jive with his mentor Boyarin’s “recovery” of a usable rabbinic history? to put that question in less parochial terms, why excavate the demonological context to the yetzer now?

On this point, I’ve said a little in the review, and the question’s not so much even the mild, uncertain critique of (1) — it’s really just curiosity. Antiquarianism (in the strict Nietzschean sense) is not the most common form of socio-cultural history around today. In  footnote 14 on page 136, Rosen-Zvi says something to the effect that even Foucault needs to be problematized — well, from what angle? Do we need to return to traditional questions about the nature of evil? Recognize that the rabbis were more primitive (and their concerns more remote from our own) than we’d like to believe?

Boyarin says somewhere that the goal of writing an academic book is to get people to buy onto your historical story even if they don’t share your philosophical or political agenda — i.e., to argue for a history persuasively. I think that’s right, and I’m curious is a) Rosen-Zvi does — perhaps he takes a more positivist line about discovering the past? and b) if so, what are those commitments? I think that though Boyarin’s right to say that the point of writing history is to persuade the unsympathetic reader (and thus appeals to the commitments are invalid in the argument itself), readers still ought to know (or at least are going to be curious!) what those commitments are.

English, Recent Publications, Talk of the Town

Of Intertexts, Rugelach, and Marginalia: Discussing Boyarin’s Intertextuality upon its Appearance in Hebrew

As noted a few weeks ago on The Talmud Blog, Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash is now out in Hebrew, after a long wait. Last night, students, havrutot, friends, and admirers of Boyarin and Boyarenesque scholarship coalesced at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute to celebrate the appearance of Midrash Tannaim – the Hebrew title of Intertextuality. The three speakers, introduced by Prof. Galit Hasan-Rokem, dealt with different parts of Boyarin’s Torah as it pertains to their own fields of expertise.

Professor Menahem Kahana, a scholar of Midrashic literature and the head of Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha (!), reminisced about the times when he and “Danny” (Hebrew- “Donny“) would engage in philological exploits into the depths of the Mekhilta. Such exploits engendered two very different scholarly tomes- Boyarin’s Intertextuality and Kahana’s Mekhiltot. Kahana, whose praises for Intertextuailty are listed in Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s afterword to Midrash Tannaim, chose to argue for more historical understandings than those presented by Boyarin in his early work. In his own words, “The multi-vocality of history is no less important than the multi-vocality of the text”. Of course, historically attuned readings are quite present in Boyarin’s later work, and the other speakers also struggled with critically engaging a book more than two decades after its initial publication, whose author no longer fully agrees with everything he wrote in it.

Dr. Dina Stein of the department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Haifa University also began with a personal story involving her and Boyarin. Years ago, she had purchased a copy of Todorov’s Symbolism and Interpretation from a used bookstore in Berkeley. She soon realized that the copy in her possession had originally belonged to Boyarin, who had referenced relevant rabbinic passages in the book’s margins, as can be seen in the picture to the right. Yet those passages, to the best of her knowledge, are surprisingly absent from Boyarin’s published work. Stein also pointed out that not only were those stories left out, but the book in which they were cited had left Boyarin’s library, first to a store that is no longer even open, and then, redemptively, to a fellow Rabbinics scholar. Indeed, those changes are perhaps symbolic of a deeper shift apparent in Boyarin’s scholarly output: A move from the semiotics of midrash, of understanding rabbinic hermeneutics to work in “an almost too perfect” way, to historicist readings of the rabbis. As Stein suggested, perhaps Intertextuaility is Boyarin’s Shir haShirim. In his response, Boyarin acknowledged that Socrates might be his Kohelet, but added that that is because the Bavli is the Kohelet of the Rabbis (“בעיניי, הבבלי הוא הקהלת של חז”ל”).

In his distinctly clear yet sharp style, Dr. Joshua Levinson of Hebrew University’s department of Hebrew Literature presented an overview of Intertextuality‘s continued influence on rabbinic studies. Instead of deciding what exegesis is and then asking whether rabbinic midrash fits the criteria, Boyarin took the text’s claim to be exegetical seriously and then asked what its hermeneutic methods are. Levinson then showed how such an outlook affected research into other genres of rabbinic literature, such as the exegetical narratives of Genesis Rabbah- Levinson’s own field of expertise in which he has pioneered new paths of understanding.

Although speakers came from as far away as Berkeley and Haifa, the evening’s overall atmosphere was characteristically Jerusalemite, and not just because of the rugelach from Marzipan or the classically South Jerusalem institution in which it was held. Rather, what created the special ambiance was the very presence of such scholars on the same stage, along with an audience of researchers and students of Talmud, Jewish thought, and literature in what seemed like a mixture that can only come into being in Jerusalem. Despite their differences, and regardless of which ‘Boyarin’ they prefer most, all in attendance seemed more than happy to gather in appreciation of their shared teacher.

English, Recent Publications

Reading List

To the two things that are certain in life, death and taxes, I would add foiled grand plans. My grand plan was to survey recent dissertations that discuss various aspects of purity in rabbinic literature – it seems that purity is the new fad now in rabbinics – but I haven’t gotten around to reading all of them yet.

Instead, in the interim, I present to you some short observations on the new books section at the Mt. Scopus library.

1. Ben Dunning’s Specters of Paul is fascinating. Just like Rosen-Zvi’s work on Sotah, Dunning is not content with merely pointing out androcentrism in Paul. Instead, he asks himself what this androcentrism is and what it does. He finds that androcentrism takes on many shapes and forms in Paul, amounting to a cacophony of voices in the Pauline corpus on what women are, what we can do with them, what sex, gender and “sexual difference” (apparently a term coined by Luce Irigaray) do in various parts of the corpus, and how these rifts played out in the work of later readers of Paul. Dunning’s interest and focus on these later readers is refreshing, and is thankfully removed from the Protestant turn towards  the “Original” texts and their intent. His focus on the contemporary politics of his readings of Paul – and of course the politics of reading Paul at all, what with his being blamed for everything bad that befell the Jews, ever – is a bit overbearing.

2. Liah Keshet wrote a dissertation under Yaakov Zussman on the Aggada of the Yerushalmi. She created a corpus of Aggadot in y. Maas. Shen. and Maas. and contrasted them with the Aggadot in y. Nezikin. The methodology might be a bit dubious – she says as much herself, asking what  an aggada is and how we should collect them – but the result is a wonderful edition and commentary on large swaths of Yerushalmi,  performed meticulously and cleanly in Zussman-like style, copious notes and all.

3. Paul’s Jewish Matrix is a collection of articles edited by Thomas G. Casey and Justin Taylor that comprises a collection of essays of varying quality on Jewish (“Judaic”) elements in Paul. Menachem Kister is conspicuously absent from the list of authors, which does include Daniel Schwartz on a possible halakhic reading of Romans 14:14 and Shaye Cohen on a similar kind of reading of Paul’s stance on intermarriage.  As Yair Furstenburg noted in a comment at the Talmud Blog’s “Academy” (editor’s note: stay tuned for an announcement about this exciting pilot project), there is still much to discover in Paul as far as his halakhic and other Jewish heritage is concerned. This book is not yet the collection of essays that would tackle that problem.

4. Back to reception studies, The Sword of Judith is a delightful panoply of articles on the reception and transmission of the Judith story in the Jewish, Christian, and dramatic traditions (yes, you read that right). It is an interesting approach, bringing together surveys that are very text-oriented (e.g. Deborah L. Gera’s “The Jewish Textual Traditions” with a list of medieval Jewish Judith stories) with the more esoteric, such as “Judith in Baroque Oratorio” (David Marsh). I wonder if there is any possibility for these kinds of studies in other areas – perhaps a book on rabbinics in Israeli film? An study of the reception of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1950s Israel? Roni Shweka, perhaps?

Hopefully, soon, I will make time for the five dissertations that await their rightful place in the blog post about  them, entitled “Purity and Dissertation.”

English, Recent Publications

Boyarin’s Intertextuality Now Available in Hebrew

Last spring, future Talmud blog contributors and other Jerusalemite students of Rabbinic literature were lucky enough to spend a delightful evening with Prof. Daniel Boyarin, discussing Carnal Israel from the hindsight of twenty years. Prof. Boyarin had scheduled his trip to Israel for the release of a translation of his earlier work, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash in Hebrew. Little did we know that only a few months later some of us would be collaborating on a web log. Nor did we fully understand how long we would have to wait for the release of Midrash Tanaim: Intertextualiut viKriyat Mechilta (Hartman, Alma, and Keter 2011).

Truth be told, now that the volume is in my hands, the time spent on its preparation (and its strange recall by the publisher after its initial release…) seems to have been well spent. I only purchased it a few hours ago but I’ve already started plowing through the two new chapters Prof. Boyarin wrote for the Hebrew edition: “Midrash as Anti-Philosophy” and “Rhetoric, Theology and Allegory in Paul and Origen”. Both seem to offer authoritative summaries of some of Boyarin’s scholarship since Intertextuality‘s English release in 1990. Another chapter by Ishay Rosen-Zvi provides an overview of the affect that Boyarin has had on research into Rabbinic literature- “What is Left to Interpret? Thoughts on Boyarin and his Footsteps”. These chapters add significant value to the book, but its main contribution is no doubt the way it makes Boyarin’s scholarship accessible to the Israeli reader. Boyarin has still left plenty of writings to translate, and I hope that we’ll soon see translations of other works of his as well. You can hear Boyarin and other scholars (Menahem Kahana, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Joshua Levinson, and Dina Stein) discuss the book at the Shalom Hartman Institute on November 27 at 8:30pm.

Talmud Bloggers and Boyarin (far right with the wine glass), Spring 2011

English, Recent Publications

Demons in the Outfield

Ishay Rosen-Zvi, the man who brought us the new and improved Sotah ritual, has published his second book, Demonic Desires (not to be confused with another book with the same title). Some of the chapters have previously been published as articles, but the book as a whole gives a full, updated and comprehensive picture of its subject: a detailed and meticulous study of the Yetzer Hara.

The book, in essence, tackles one of the most entrenched myths in the academic study of Jewish sources, since many years before Carnal Israel: that Judaism, historically, is a sex-positive religion.

Rosen-Zvi’s book does not actually say that is what it does – in fact all it claims to do is analyze all the occurrences of yetzer hara in Tannaitic and Amoraic literature (he does not include Tanhuma, for example, or Avot deRabbi Natan). Along the way he comes across three startling conclusions:

  1. The yetzer has a very humble beginning in Tannaitic literature. In the school of R. Akiva, following much of Second Temple Literature, yetzer hara is just another word for “thoughts” or “heart” or “mind”. However, in the school of R. Ishmael, the yetzer is a much more wily and cunning adversary.
  2. This Evil Inclination, the yetzer, is not a rabbinic euphemism for the Freudian Id. It is not part of the person – it is a foreign intruder into the person. It is this yetzer that became current in Amoraic literature.
  3. This yetzer has nothing to do with sex. Nothing at all. It wants people to sin, yes, but it is not a “blind appetite” or just an “inclination” towards the evil; it leads its hosts to every kind of sin it can think of. Most often towards slacking off in Torah study.

This is the claim, and a full review will of course tackle every part of this claim, including the amazing comparative work Rosen-Zvi does with Patristic – especially monastic-literature, expanding on the work of Michal Bar-Asher Siegal. The clincher, however, comes at the end. We know that we think that the yetzer is sexual. So where does that come from? It comes both from the anonymous stratum of the Bavli – both anonymous statements and the give-and-take of the sugya – and from stories in the Bavli. These two come together *in this case* (Rosen-Zvi is careful not to haphazardly say anything about a “Stammaitic Culture”, a very dubious term in his opinion) to form a new image of the yetzer.

The yetzer is turned into sex; but the imagery of the yetzer as a powerful adversary, that can and should be vanquished, that the righteous can kill, and that should be exorcised like a demon, remains in place.

And so, it is no longer really tov meod to have an evil yetzer; it is in fact very bad. When sex is equated with the yetzer, per se, not as a kind of sin, it too becomes very bad. The prayers and admonitions to the yetzer that it leave us alone becomes admonitions not against sin but against sex. Not very positive.

This is, in my opinion, the coolest part of Rosen-Zvi’s exhaustive and authoritative book. Unlike other books in the field, halakha and aggada are discussed together, and all the sources are brought to the table. It can safely be said that it tackles all the occurrences of the term and says something about each one. The various roles and guises of the yetzer are mapped out and neatly laid on a time-line, and also flagged when they fail to fit a neat pattern, which Rosen-Zvi will readily admit (but that happens very rarely; one such instance is the famous mishnah at the end of m. Berakhot on yetzer tov and  yetzer ra; Rosen-Zvi says the “dual yetzer” school of thought is quite marginal in the rest of rabbinic literature).

A real review is in the works for the near future; stay tuned!

Disclosure: Ishay is not only a dear friend, and a teacher and mentor, but also my employer for the past number of years; I have worked on this book, as well as several other projects, for him.

English, Recent Publications, Talmud in the News, Technology

From the Pages of Haaretz

One of the best parts of the holiday season here in Israel is that the local papers have to put out more supplemental material to keep everyone occupied. In addition to the regular weekend magazines, each holiday gets its own special section.  This seems to mean more articles that relate to rabbinic literature, as editors scramble to fill these now numerous weekend and holiday editions. Two of them, from Saturday’s Haaretz, are worthy of discussion here.

In the book section, folklorist Eli Yasif has a review of a recent collection of papers given at the fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies’s session on Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of The Jews. The papers, originally delivered in honor of the passing of one hundred years since the start of the book’s publication, cover a wide variety of topics, some only tangentially related to Legends (videos of the lectures have been available online for quite some time now on Hebrew University’s youtube channel). Together they also provide ample room for Yasif to discuss the “American” characteristics of Legends, and hence the name of the article, “An American Legend”. Yasif seeks to better understand why the work has become a standard on bookshelves across America, often in its shortened Legends of The Bible version, whereas Israelis have for the most part gotten their dosage of aggadah exclusively from Bialik and Ravnitsky’s Sefer ha-Agadah (a point brieflly addressed on the Talmud Blog this past summer). He offers a few explanations, such as Legend‘s size and the lack of a Hebrew translation of the one volume Legends of the Bible. To his reasons I would add that Bialik would have still been a household name in Israel even if he hadn’t co-penned Sefer ha-Agadah. Bialik’s stature clearly played a role in his collection’s success while Ginzberg’s pedigree and position in the Conservative movement in America did not help in Israel. As Yasif mentions, the academic virtues of Legends far exceed those of Sefer ha-Agadah. I would venture that its relative slow appreciation in academic circles in Israel, also noted by Yasif, might be due in part to the rather late appearance of an index to the Hebrew edition. Although a Hebrew edition had already appeared in the sixties, the index was only published in the recent Shechter edition.

The other Haaretz article deals with the technological aspects of the Friedberg Genizah Project. Some of the most exciting parts of the article are its discussions of the project’s breadth and of the technology behinds the “joins” – cases where previously unconnected fragments can be shown to have actually stemmed from one artifact. Amazingly, project director Prof. Yaakov Shweka promises to have 99% of all genizah fragments online by the end of 2012. The article’s discussion of the technology behind fragment recognition is truly fascinating and well worth reading. It turns out that some of the programmers joined the team because of their work developing face-recognition programs for Google and Facebook. Similar technology is being used to recognize and piece together various fragments dispersed in libraries all over the globe. The hope is to one day apply this technology to sift through Qumran fragments as well.

From Tahrir to Ben Ezra, it is exciting to see that even Genizah study is being affected by Facebook.

English, Recent Publications

The Safrai Revolution

We all have our coping mechanisms. I really do enjoy the soaring liturgy of Rosh Hashana, the tunes, the gravitas. But everyone has their limits. To get through the marathon sessions in shul, an interesting book is quite simply, indispensable. This holiday, it was the latest volume of Mishnat Eretz Yisrael tractate Rosh Hashana (2011). Like previous volumes, the book represents the intellectual fruits of study sessions held in the Safrai  family.  The text of the Mishna includes both the ed. princ. alongside the celebrated Kauffman manuscript, which unfortunately is not reproduced in the clearest manner.  The commentary, referred to as the  “Safrai commentary” is historically and sociologically oriented (whatever the latter is supposed to mean). I picked up Mishnat Eretz Yisrael previously, but this Rosh Hashana I had enough time to get through almost the entire volume, start to finish.

There are plenty of readings that I disagreed with, instances that I thought the scholarly judgment was “off,” and many times that I found the commentary stray well beyond the matter at hand. And yet as a cultural phenomenon – a new edition of Mishna that incorporates academic insights and presents them to a non-academic public (that is, beyond the sphere of S. Jerusalem, where as the saying goes, even the milkmen are learned) – I think it is a great accomplishment.  In certain respects, it recalls the Da’at Miqra series. Yes, there are serious and even fatal flaws in the approach taken by the project as a whole and even in some of the better volumes. But the fact remains that the series was successful in introducing certain (selective) aspects of the academic study of the Bible into the Orthodox Jewish sphere.  I have to say that the Safrai Mishna does it much better, and from an Orthodox theology perspective, will encounter far less resistance from the Orthodox public.  It also. I believe, has the potential to travel far beyond the confines of Israeli Orthodoxy, if it is only marketed properly, and if future volumes are just a little prettier.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Footnote’s Footnotes

The latest Jewish Review of Books just arrived in my mailbox today. I have a review, co-written with Elli Fischer, of Joseph Cedar’s talmudic superdrama, Footnote.  We deal with a number of things in the review, including the movie’s “texture” and its use of cinematic footnotes. We also consider some of the gender implications of the movie, especially vis a vis Israeli masculinity (though there was not enough space to deal with the near total absence of women from the film, and the implications of that). Speaking of “gender” as much as possible we tried to get beyond the academic gossip that engendered the film and which the film itself engenders.  It is pretty much all anyone in Jerusalem discusses these days, aside from heavy philology. But fear not, the gossip is still there, if you look for it.

There are other interesting articles in the issue, including a timely one by Moshe Halbertal about law and forgiveness (and narrative) in the Talmud. The two names that lurk at every turn in his reading are “Robert” and “Cover”.  But for some reason, they go unmentioned.

English, Recent Publications

Social Justice

Some of the scholars working in the field of Rabbinics are philologists, some teachers, and some are activists of some sort or another.  Recently, Aryeh Cohen launched a new blog that accompanies his forthcoming book, Justice in the City, due out this month. It looks like it will be a fascinating amalgamation.  From the publisher’s description:

Justice in the City argues, based on the Rabbinic textual tradition, especially the Babylonian Talmud, and utilizing French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ framework of interpersonal ethics, that a just city should be a community of obligation. That is, in a community thus conceived, the privilege of citizenship is the assumption of the obligations of the city towards Others who are not always in view—workers, the poor, the homeless. These Others form a constitutive part of the city. The second part of the book is a close analysis of homelessness, labor and restorative justice from within the theory that was developed. This title will be useful for scholars and students in Jewish Studies, especially Rabbinic Literature and Jewish Thought, but also for those interested in contemporary urban issues.