Readings

Moses in the Pesach Haggadah?

One of the most peculiar traits of the traditional Pesach Haggadah is the absence of Moses. Interestingly enough, in some modern versions of the Haggadah Moses’ role is restored, as for example in the Peasach Haggadah of the Kibbutz Ha’artzi, the association of Kibbutzim that belong to the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement.

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Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.59.40 PMThis Haggadah, first published in this form in 1964, features numerous innovations, including references to the agricultural aspects of Pesach, the arrival of spring, the Holocaust, and  Zionism. No less significant are its exclusions; Indeed, the very name of God is taken out of the narrative, as seen in the Haggadah’s version of the והיא שעמדה text:

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Here the people of Israel are not saved by God, rather they are simply saved (ואנו נצלים מידם, in the Hebrew passive mode). The image may hint that they are praying to the sun. At any rate, the editors were kind enough to note that this is a נוסח חדש (a new version) of the text.

Yet there is another Moses in this Haggadah, namely, Moses Ibn-Ezra, the celebrated Hebrew poet from Granada, Spain who lived in the twelfth century. Like the editors of the Bavli, this Haggadah’s editors remain anonymous. Still, one thing we can know about them is their fondness for poetry, which is evident throughout the text. One can find piyyutim by late antique poets such as Elazar Birabi Qilir and Yose ben Yose, as well as a beautiful poem by Moses Ibn Ezra entitled כתנת פסים לבש הגן (“The garden put on a coat of many colors”). Here is the poem in the original, followed by an English translation by T. Carmi:

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The garden put on a coat of many colors and its grass garments were like robes of brocade
All the trees dressed in chequered tunics and showed their wonders to every eye
The new blossoms all came forth in honour of Time renewed, coming gaily to welcome him
But at their head advanced the rose, king of them all, for his throne was set on high
He came out from the guard of leaves and cast aside his prison-clothes
Whoever does not drink his wine upon the rose-bed that man will surely bear his guilt.

Why did the editors include this work by Ibn Ezra? Truly, it is a beautiful poem that describes the blooming of the spring (a very important motif for the culture of the Kibbutzim), and it also calls for the drinking of wine. But there seems to be another more subtle allusion, namely, to the story Joseph. The closest reference to Joseph is the mention of the chequered tunic, like the one Joseph had, as mentioned in Genesis 37:3 (although Tamar also wore one after she was raped by her brother Amnon as told in 2 Samuel 13:18). Of course in the poem, the coat of many colors is ostensibly a metaphor for the colorful garden. Yet, the allusive use of the specific biblical phrase כתנת פסים is still quite striking. What is more, later on the blooming of the rose metaphorically describes a king restored to his throne after he cast aside his prison cloth, again resembling the story of Joseph in Egypt. Moreover, there is another possible connection to Pesach in the poem. Ibn-Ezra concludes his poem with a biblical quotation from Numbers 9:13 ״חטאו ישא האיש ההוא״  (that man shall bear his sin), a verse that deals with a person who did not offer the pascal sacrifice and therefore is condemned to death. The allusion to that verse in the poem is certainly humorous because the sin of not drinking wine is not really a sin and in reality the biblical context is not entirely necessary in order to understand the poem, yet the accumulation of possible references to Egypt and the Exodus narrative is quite striking. It is no wonder then that Aharon Mirksy, the scholar of medieval Hebrew poetry, suggested in one place that this is the correct reading of the poem, although the accuracy of his reading is disputable.

At any rate, according to this interpretation, the choice of the poem by the editors of the Haggadah would make sense because in that way the poem would be referring to the spring, to the drinking of wine, to the Pesach sacrifice and also to a major biblical figure associated with the narrative of exile and redemption from Egypt.

Finally, another remark concerning the beautiful artwork of the Kibbutz Ha’artzi Haggadah. Those familiar with Israeli children’s literature might recognize the distinctive style of the artist. It is none other than Shmuel Katz, who drew the classic דירה להשכיר (An Apartment for Rent) by Leah Goldberg.

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We conclude with the blessing for the fourth cup of the Haggadah, written in a socialistic mode:

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Chag sameach to all our readers, and le’chaim!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Conferences, English

What is Bavli: A Forum

In light of the recent publication of four books on the Bavli, a session (modeled after a  predecessor on What is Mishnah) entitled “What is Bavli” was organized this past December at the annual Association of Jewish Studies conference. The panel considered recent developments in scholarship on the literary structure and cultural context of the Bavli, and discussed the possibilities opened by these developments; the broad historical, literary, methodological, and conceptual questions which they raise or imply; and the problems which the field currently confronts. The session was divided into two halves: “Approaching the Bavli’s Structure” and “Approaching the Bavli’s Contexts.” Continuing the round-robin tradition of the ‘What is Mishnah’ symposium, the authors of two new books on the Bavli’s context, Michal Bar-Asher Siegal and Shai Secunda, focused on books by Sergey Dolgopolski and Moulie Vidas which are animated by questions of form, while Dolgopolski and Vidas took on Bar-Asher Siegal’s and Secunda’s monographs, which are animated by questions of context. Then, Christine Hayes responded to all four papers. The result was a robust conversation about current scholarly interests and new scholarly horizons; in a way, a meditation on what we talk about when we talk about the Bavli. The Talmud Blog will be publishing the papers of this session over the next two weeks, and a PDF of the entire forum will be available for download when the forum is completed.  We invite our readers to use the comments section to continue the conversation that was begun in Baltimore, and which will surely take us into the years ahead.

“The Anonymous Redactor,” Netanel Bollag, 2014

I. Approaching the Bavli’s Structure (Pt. 1/3)

Michal Bar-Asher Siegal – “What is Bavli? Historical, Literary and Ideological Outlooks”

The two books I was asked to address for today’s session are Sergey Dolgopolski’s Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud (2012) and Moulie Vidas’ Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud (2014). These two exciting projects are a continuation, and in a sense a culmination, of recent academic trends in which the final product of the Talmud and the work of its editors are given full attention.

In my overview I want to talk about these two books, but in relation to the other two books that stand in the focus of this panel, namely, Shai Secunda’s The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context and my own Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud. I see these four books not as two vs. two, as the structure of this panel seems to suggest, but rather as four books in a continuum with differences in focus. All four books try to juggle two different goals: The first is the careful use of methodological and philological tools in the study of rabbinic texts in general and the Babylonian Talmud specifically: From lower philological critical approaches and the use of manuscripts; critical editions of texts and linguistic examinations; to the higher criticism of texts including a strong emphasis on the layering of Talmudic texts.  On the other hand, all four books, and maybe even more so Vidas’ and Dolgopolski’s, attempt to address “the bigger questions”: How was the Talmud written and why? All four books use textual examples to prove their claims. They offer careful and close readings of Talmudic passages but at the same time remember to lift their gaze above the page of the Talmud and look at the world in which these texts were produced, and at their authors who lived in these times.

The topics these books engage can be outlined as (a) the historical question, (b) the literary question and (c) the ideological question. The historical perspective outlines the way in which the Bavli is a product of its time. The literary one tries to describe how the Bavli was written and in what way was it redacted. And the ideological inquiry deals with the authors or redactors’ agendas.  In the different books the ratio between these questions change: Secunda’s and my own book put the historical question at the center: How is the Bavli part of its time and general culture, whether Christian or Persian. On the other hand, Vidas and Dogopolski focus extensively on the ideological aspect: What can we learn about the purpose of this corpus from its current form?

As a matter of fact, Secunda’s and my own book deal with the other two questions as well. For example, the editorial perspective is naturally present when an external parallel to a talmudic sugya sheds new and surprising light on the literary editing of the Bavli passages. And the ideological issue is very much present in these discussions when the “melting pot” nature of the Bavli is revealed by these examinations: The amount and variety of the sources used in the Talmud is found to be much larger than previously thought, thereby strongly illuminating the agenda of redactors using these materials, their interactions with the world around them, and their choices when shaping this magnificent creation they were preserving for generations to come.

Vidas and Dolgopolski center their arguments on the ideological question and offer two new perspectives on it: Dolgopolski uses (at times very technical) philosophical terms and theories to treat the final literary structure as means for discussing remembering and thinking. The rhetoric and dialectics of the Talmud should be viewed as collective thinking about the Mishnah. Vidas views this very structure as an attempt to construct a Talmudic figure invested in the project of innovation instead of simply recitation; עוקר הרים rather than סיני. But both books reflect on the other questions as well. The historical question is very much present in Vidas’s book in his chapters on Persian parallels and even in his consideration of the Hekhalot literature. Vidas, at the same time, pushes the historical reading aside when he claims that the layers of the Talmud are NOT a product of historical transmission of texts through the ages, but rather a product of a sophisticated rhetorical editing. But as he clearly shows, the mere attempt to use these rhetorical tools is in fact a historical product of the redactors’ times. Dolgopolski, on the other hand, criticizes Halivni and Friedman for the historical descriptions their research produces. He comes out against their work by undermining their philosophical assumptions. Dolgopolski contends that by viewing the Talmud’s sages and its various editors and “montagists” as historical subjects they were looking at textual phenomena and offered a historical scenario for their creation. The options are not, and should not be, limited to identifying their misrepresenting ancient traditions due to either intentional manipulation or mere mistakes. Dolgopolski deals in fact with the historical question by suggesting that a different philosophical understanding of these Talmudic entities will lead to a more accurate historical description, by which they should be treated as non-thinkers rather than thinkers; a collective thinking by remembering. We got the history wrong because we failed to understand how modern thinking and remembering is so much different than ancient ways of thinking and remembering.

Notice, however, that I just assumed a very wide definition of the historical question. In fact, a comparison between the four books reveal that they address a slightly different historical question: Secunda’s and my own book assume historical factors that left their marks on the texts – marks that we can recognize by using textual, literary and philological tools. But Vidas and Dolgopolski look to the final and complete form of the texts in order to offer a historical description of its creation. In other words, Secunda’s book and my own look for the cracks, the discordances, and the inconsistencies to reveal the complex creation of the text. Vidas and Dolgopolski, on the other hand, seek to turn their gaze to the final form: What it tried to achieve and what it does to the traditions it is clearly trying to preserve for both the people who preserved them and to those who read them to this day. Using a different analogy from Dolgopolski’s discussion of film theory: While the former try to dismantle the theatre scenery to reveal what’s behind the curtains (מאחרי הפרגוד), the latter try to enjoy the façade of the theatre in all its glory.

As for the literary question: How was the Bavli redacted and in what way? Vidas and Dolgopolski obviously deal with that as well. As I mentioned earlier and as is evident in both their books, both Vidas and Dolgopolski look at the final product of the Talmud as a complete literary creation. They assign great importance to the final product and the intention behind its creation, and in a sense come out against the local inquiries of Talmudic sugyot without the ramification for the larger question of the corpus’ redaction. Vidas, more so than Dolgopolski, handles the details of the redaction and, for example, brilliantly show that not only does the Bavli not offer a literary structure ex nihilo for the existing traditions, but it actually replaces one structure for another. Vidas suggests that this is done for the purpose of giving itself the critical distance from the texts they are transmitting and allowing for innovation.

Obviously, the ideological question stands at the center of both Vidas’ and Dolgopolski’s books. The ideology they assign to the redactors of the Bavli shares the same starting point, though it ends up in very different places. Both put at the center of their focus the Bavli’s goal of preserving earlier traditions. They both acknowledge the centrality of this concept and the self-evident importance of this goal in the creation of the talmudic corpus. However, Dolgopolski articulates a position that wishes to limit our understanding of these actual talmudic figures to simply transmitters of the traditions – “Placeholders for textual traditions,” as he calls them. They should not be evaluated as “actual persons” in the sense that they should be understood as thinkers and there is no significance to the structure or content of their own actual arguments. There is, in fact, no real dialogue in the Talmud and the “author” is fictional. We must evaluate what we read as “choreographed roles” in a larger collective thinking project. Vidas on the other hand, starts with this same point of departure – namely, the preservation of past traditions – but pushes us to see the Talmud’s redactors as transmitters of tradition as well as taking an ideological stand towards these traditions that they are transmitting. They purposely differentiate themselves from what they are transmitting. The comparison to the Palestinian Talmud shows a deliberate creation of layers, a creation of an intentional literary gap between the past and their own present. In other words: if Dolgopolski wishes to stress the non-thinkers, Vidas wants us to look for the thinkers.

The shared sense of intentionality in the literary creation of the Talmud’s final form, as well as some kind of unified purpose to the whole corpus, stand at the core of both books. This stance, rather than allowing explanations based on elements of random historical accumulation or even the possibility of multiple descriptions of text creation, will undoubtedly stand at the center of debate with other Talmudists dealing with these same questions. How much intentionality can we assume in the creation of a text? And how realistic is it to ask scholars to abandon the historical inquiry into an obviously layered text in favor of Dolgopolski’s movie-like montage? But for this Talmudic scholar, the experience of reading these two innovating and exciting research projects mostly signal a promise for much renewed interest in the big question that is: What is Bavli?

 

Shai Secunda – “What is Bavli? From the Art of Memory to Contemporary Film Art”

In his review of Moulie Vidas’ Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, Itai Marienberg-Milikowsky noted how a number of new works on the Bavli (including those considered in this session) attempt to look beyond their particular research project and gesture towards the greatest question of all, namely, “What is the Bavli?”  This question is necessarily ponderous, as it concerns a nearly two-million word compilation which has itself spawned a labyrinthine commentarial tradition of near-impossible proportions. Yet in practice, the query may also be approached in the still, small voice of the individual sugya. On more than one occasion I have found myself in the classroom prodding philologically-minded students to take a step back and consider, for just a moment, what exactly the textual artifact before them is, how it presents itself, and how it relates to the times and settings from its protracted formation to the moment it rests on their desks. Even after retracing the steps from hasty pre-class photocopying to digital transcription; printed editions; manuscript codices; ancient scrolls; crystalized recitations; earlier, freer, oral “redaction,” all the way to some kind of talmudic “big bang,” I press them further: Still, apart from its historical development what is this thing? What does it reflect and how? Better, how does it present itself to the world? At this point the conversation becomes more abstract – as it surely must for physicists inquiring into the early moments of our universe’s existence – and the technical vocabulary that generally serves academic Talmudists so well begins to fail.

Sergey Dolgopolski’s Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud is an ambitious attempt to look at this unwieldy question. It is a necessarily difficult book for Talmudists, and not only because most Talmudists lack a solid background in Heidegger. The Open Past develops a critical approach to critical Talmud research and so must by definition stand outside the conventional discourse in order to re-consider what exactly the Talmud does in the sugya and how the Talmud’s various figures (from named authorities to unnamed discussants; and from editors who frame the material and those who manipulate the texts to “montagists” who juxtapose the Talmud’s larger sections) should be assessed. If this were a standard work of the field, one might have assumed that Dolgopolski’s interrogation of the common equation between the different talmudic voices with “real” autonomous thinking-subjects located in history was just another reassertion of Neusnerian skepticism about attributions and historical reliability. But it is surely not. Apart from challenging Western philosophy to reconsider notions of subjectivity, thinking, and remembering in light of Talmud, Dolgopolskiis asking us Talmudists to probe the basic axioms of our discipline and consider whether the constant attempt to read for historical subjects who either misunderstood or manipulated their received traditions is both anachronistic and ill-suited for appreciating what the Talmud actually is.

The focus of The Open Past’s inquiry concerns authorship and its potential location(s) in the sugya. By now any contemporary Talmudist worth his salt could rattle off a basic bibliography on the inapplicability of modern notions of authorship to the Talmud, which would surely include Barthes, Foucault, and the likes of Martin Jaffee. Dolgopolski argues that it is still not enough to uncritically replace modern authorship with a final-stage anonymous stammaitic collective, since both cases presume an overarching thinker (or group of thinkers) who from within and without the text actively use the mind to orchestrate the sugya’s discussion – an anachronistic idea. Instead, he argues that the sugya presents itself as late antique intellectual specimen where thinking about the Mishnah does not occur within the individual minds of its historical editor/redactors, rather it collectively emerges among the text’s virtual figures who practice a largely non-mnemonic art of memory whereby the Mishnah, alongside parallels, is actualized (that is, “remembered”) by way of heavy-hitting dialectical discussions that ultimately support it. The poetics of the sugya are then fascinatingly compared to film, a cultural artifact similarly oriented towards an assumed audience whose gaze experiences the pairing of (film-)cuts from an assumed position in front of the screen. While it might be interesting to occasionally ponder the filmmaker and her external historical position in relation to the figures depicted within the film, this is surely a marginal pursuit. It is not for naught that that we expect film criticism of The Godfather to focus on its compelling cinematic artistry and not the historical manipulations of Francis Coppola as he tells the story of mid-century Mafiosos from the vantage point of 1970’s Hollywood. Why then do we Talmudists generally assume that our primary task is to trace a sugya from its early Palestinian kernel as it is manipulated by anonymous redactors who rework conversations of prior sages from the position of sixth century Babylonia?

If my brief account seems opaque, it is not only because I cannot possibly, adequately, summarize the book’s highly complex and lengthy argument in the space allotted, but also since it again constitutes an attempt to step outside our dominant Cartesian paradigm wherein the main action worthy of interest in human affairs takes place in a succession of thinkers who collectively produced the Talmud “from the outside” over the course of an historically-defined time period. The result of The Open Past is fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, yet to my mind not enough to push Talmudists to suddenly abandon their preferred disciplinary focus. Yes, it is indeed a strange accident in the history of scholarship that what interests many of us is still the production of this incredible piece of literature in a specific time and place from within a specific culture. And yet we will continue to reach for that cultural moment(s) – if now with a more self-aware posture – at virtually any cost.

What might “post-Open Past-critique” Talmud scholarship look like from within the discipline? I would like to think the answer can be found in Vidas’ Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud. Apparently, this book was not written with knowledge of The Open Past, yet it nevertheless develops a related, critical stance towards the assumptions modern Talmudists have made about the contribution of the Stam. Specifically, the Stam has been conceived of as a historical force that quite actively reframes earlier textual kernels in an attempt to continue a glorious rabbinic heritage in the contemporaneous moment. The main event is to be found in the Stam’s anonymous layer, which with its distinctive Aramaic idiom directs the action as a voice-over might narrate the events in a documentary film. Vidas challenges this view of the Talmud’s textual history by engaging in cultural archeology that demonstrates how the Talmud’s editors are actually quite opposed to a full-throated celebration of older tradition in the present. The strongest moments in the book are Vidas’ examples of sugyot that appear to contain late directorial voice-overs, yet which are shown in fact to be cinematographic tricks of the eye. The activities uncritically attributed by Talmudists to the Stam may in fact be a contrived poetic devise that deliberately manufactures distance between older sources and invented traditions.

If this sounds like post-modern film, well then…it is. I read Vidas’ book after finishing Doךgopolsky’s chapter on “The Talmud as Film.” I also kept on thinking about my favorite contemporary film artist, Omer Fast, whose work I have enjoyed at exhibitions in his native Israel and adopted Germany. Fast is animated by some of the same questions as Vidas is: The inevitable assumptions audiences make about authoritative accounts, especially where such a narrative is expected to uncomplicatedly frame the action presented to the viewer. If you have the time, go see his work housed in collections in Berlin, Jerusalem, and around the world. If you prefer the comfort of your computer-chair, look at this clip from his 2011 “Five Thousand Feet is Best”:

In the film, a former drone operator details the procedure of releasing a missile towards a human target while the movie follows a child riding a bicycle in an environment that is both manifestly different yet eerily equivalent to the one described by the operator (previous and subsequent cuts in this work contain similar, disturbing pairings). A worthwhile exercise would be to try, if you dare, to produce a diachronic analysis of the various elements in this film – something along the line of Shamma Friedman’s system for visually marking tannaitic sources, amoraic statements, anonymous material, etc.  What would become clear, I believe, is that in both Fast’s work and the Talmudic sugya the achieved, sometimes vertiginous effect is intentional and should be read not as a straightforward historical-produced compound, but as a friction-producing poetic device. Put differently: The history of production is marginal. The real story is the art.

Stay tuned for the next two installments, first from Moulie Vidas and Sergey Dolgopolski, and then Christine Hayes’ response.

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English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Right of Reply: Azzan Yadin-Israel Responds to Amit Gvaryahu’s review

My thanks to The Talmud Blog for inviting me to respond to Amit Gvaryahu’s review of Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. I find myself in the odd position of responding to a review that is generally positive and in certain passages very generous in its praise. Nonetheless, in what follows I will address some of the points Gvaryahu raises in his review, and, more importantly, those that he does not. (Due to space considerations, I have abbreviated some of the Sifra passages I cite).

In his introductory comments Gvaryahu praises me for engaging “refreshingly in textual scholarship” (his italics), so it is no surprise that most of his comments involve close readings of individual passages. Some of his comments merit, I think, response of one kind only: thank you. Gvaryahu is absolutely correct about the translation (read: my mistranslation) of halalim in §2.6, and he has also found a number of textual errata that I hope to have the opportunity to correct in a future revision. However, other of his comments leave me less convinced. Thus, I cite as §2.1 the opening gloss of a derashah:

“בוהק … טהור” מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

“a rash … is pure”—this teaches that a rash is pure.
Gvaryahu contends that we ought examine the entirety of the derashah, which “is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning.” To this I would respond in two ways. First, the opening gloss should stand on its own merits, especially as it uses the term melammed to link the biblical terms to their conclusion, though it is not clear how the gloss does what it claims to do. As it stands, it extracts two words from the verse to create a brief phrase, then glosses with the identical phrase: read innocently, it is a tautology; read in light of the interpretive issues Gvaryahu raises (e.g., the ambiguous referent of the second הוא in the verse), it is a midrash that suppresses its own interpretive arguments, with the result a tautological gloss. Second, Gvaryahu’s elaboration of the full derashah merely rehearses the claims of the Sifra. Thus, Gvaryahu writes of “the two occurrences of הוא, which are read as limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched”—all this from בהק הוא (“it is a rash”) and טהור הוא (“it is pure”). But why does the word הוא function in this manner; why does is limit these legal cases and not others, etc. This may be a cogent argument in Gvaryahu’s eyes, but I suspect we have simply grown accustomed to the Sifra’s (more accurately: the anonymous Sifra’s) hermeneutic caprice.Finally, I wonder what the force of Gvaryahu’s claim is. After all, §2.1 is followed by other examples:

  • 2.2 “Raven”—this refers to the raven. (Shemini pereq 5.4)
  • 2.3 “Large lizards”—these are the large lizards. (Shemini parashah 5.7)
  • 2.4 “… all living creatures that move in the water”—to introduce (lehaviʾ) the fish. (Shemini pereq 12.6)

The first two are literal restatements of the language of Scripture; the third a midrashic expansion that “introduces” the most self-evident conclusion—that “all living creatures that move in the water” includes fish. Setting §2.1 alongside these derashot lessens the burden placed on it (calling one derashah into question does not do invalidate the broader point), and also makes the “tautology” reading more compelling (it is one of several Sifra glosses that, literally or substantively, merely restate the language of the verse).

The same holds for Gvaryahu’s response to §2.6. While I, again, gratefully acknowledge his correction regarding halalim, the point of my analysis there is the odd structure of the Sifra’s reading of בני אהרן הכהנים: it first proposes a reading (yakhol) concerning בני אהרן as though הכהנים were not stated right there, and rejects it due to the presence of הכהנים; then proposes a reading concerning הכהנים but rejects it due to the presence of בני אהרן. Why raise a possibility excluded by הכהנים to begin with, when the word is modifying בני אהרן? And why repeat the procedure, artificially ignoring the presence of בני אהרן only to then draw the phrase back into the conversation as a foil to the proposed reading? Even if the Sifra is concerned with redundancy, why address it in such a convoluted manner?

But it is unlikely that the Sifra is concerned with redundancy at all, since §2.6 is not the only place this commentary “hides” one of the words in the verse only to “rediscover” it later (what I call a fort-da derashah):

  • 2.7 “… the anointed priest …”: “Anointed”—might this refer to the king? Scripture teaches, saying “priest.” (Hovah parashah 2.6)
  • 2.8 “And if anyone … hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten”: I know only regarding a bird that may be eaten, whence regarding an animal that may be eaten? Scripture teaches saying “an animal or a bird that may be eaten” (Ahare pereq 11.4)
  • 3.1 “The elders of the community …”: “The elders”—might this refer to elders of the marketplace? Scripture teaches, saying “the elders of the community.” (Hovah pereq 6.1)

Here too, the additional examples buttress the claim that §2.6 is a fort-da derashah, even as they lower stakes if any one derashah is excluded from this set.

There are other nits to be picked in the review (section D ignores the structural issues with Sifre Deuteronomy §357 and the cultural dependence of lectio dificilior as I argue in Chapter 7, and more), but my main concern is with what Gvaryahu does not touch on. As it stands, the review suggests that I am not convinced by certain Sifra arguments and so cast the work as engaged in ex post facto reconstructions. This omits, rather unfairly, the philological core of the book: the claim that there is a semantic incongruity in the hermeneutic terms of the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and the named Rabbi Akiva sources, on the one hand, and the anonymous Sifra, on the other:

1. Perhaps the most dramatic shift is evident in the phrases ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv. In the Mekhilta to Exodus 12:45 we read: “Miʿet ha-katuv the time of eating [the paschal lamb] … But will you argue thus about the contribution offering concerning which ribbah ha-katuv the time of eating …?” (Pisha 15). If we bracket for a moment our familiarity with the dominant sense of these phrases in the Sifra, it is evident that the Mekhilta is contrasting the relatively narrow timeframe the Torah allots the consumption of the paschal offering and the relatively wide timeframe it allots the contribution offering. Here ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv, then, refer to the relative breadth and narrowness of biblical categories, respectively; they do not midrashically derive them. This sense is preserved in a number of Sifra derashot, as when we are told that “Scripture has multiplied copious commandments [ריבה הכתוב מצוות יתרות]” with regard to priests, but has not done so with regard to Israelites (§2.35, ʾEmor pereq 1.1-3). What this means is nothing more (and nothing less) than that the Torah contains many more commands concerning priests than non-priests—it is not a midrashic interpretation. In the anonymous Sifra more broadly, however, ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv indicate an interpretive move that introduces or excludes, respectively, legal elements not found in Scripture. That these formulas, the interpretive core of the anonymous Sifra, represent a subtle but profound revision of an established tannaitic usage, is very significant, but goes unnoted in the review. (Indeed, Gevryahu’s criticism that I do not recognize [in §4.18] that both Sifra Hovah 9.8 and Mishnah Shevuʿot 3.5 employ the phrase ribbui ha-katuv misses the point entirely: they do use the same phrase but it means something different.)

2. The yakhol and minayin derashot also undergo a dramatic shift. First, note that the proliferation of ribbui and miʾut in the now-standard sense (“to introduce,” “to exclude”) disrupts the hermeneutic system of the Sifra, since ribbui arguments are now pragmatically identical with minayin derashot, and miʿut arguments with yakhol derashot:

  • 3.9 “On the seventh day”: Might this mean (yakhol) either in the daytime or at night? Scripture teaches, saying “day”—not at night. (Metzoraʿ pereq 2.1)
  • 3.10 “On the first day”: In the day, not at night. (ʾEmor pereq 16.3)

The above derashot differ rhetorically—§3.9 is a yakhol … talmud lomar argument, while §3.10 a miʿut gloss—but are pragmatically identical: the word “day” precludes the broader reading that includes nighttime. Pragmatic redundancy is a strong indication that a “non-native” element has been introduced into the hermeneutic system.

More importantly, the yakhol and minayin derashot in the anonymous Sifra (broadly speaking—I note exceptions) differ from the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and most named tannaitic derashot in that they conclude with the same verse that initiates the discussion. This is a deeply problematic issue: if verse X legitimately raises the possibility of interpretation P, how can the same verse then exclude P (“X” yakhol P … talmud lomar “X”)? Or, vice versa, if verse X excludes reading P, how can it be the verse that raises the possibility of that very reading? (Gvaryahu’s  suggestion that yakhol and minayin derashot establish the hermeneutic markedness of a term is incorrect: hermeneutic markedness precedes and legitimizes derashot; where it is employed, it is a condition of legitimate interpretation not a conclusion).

3. Mikan ʾamru: in the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim, the phrase generally refers to derashot whose conclusion is explicitly identified by the Mishnah as a derashah, or can plausibly be construed as one. In the Sifra, mikan ʾamru often claims midrashic basis for teachings that the Mishnah characterizes as non-midrashic (testimony, “they said,” etc.).

I cannot, of course, go into detail here. However, it is important to introduce these arguments because they are the philological core of Scripture and Tradition’s first section, and, moreover, because they speak directly to some of the issues Geveryahu raises in his review. To wit, my claim that the (anonymous) Sifra reworks extra-scriptural halakhot into a midrashic form is supported by a series of arguments regarding the interpretive techniques of this collection. It is not a sense of aporia that leads me to adopt this conclusion, but rather a positive, philological thesis concerning the workings of the Sifra. Like all critical scholarship, my thesis is subject to debate and criticism (“Let the conversation begin”), but for that to happen the review needs, at a minimum, to present the book’s thesis.

The same problem attends the review’s treatment of Scripture and Tradition’s concluding chapters. The argument, in brief, is that rabbinic scholarship has failed to offer a satisfactory account of the relationship between midrash and halakhot because it has consistently sought diachronic models, when a synchronic one is more appropriate to the sources. I cannot go into a detailed justification of this thesis, nor of its ramifications, but at least as far as my intent is concerned (Nota bene: everyone is a skeptic about authorial intent until it comes to their book…), it was not offer “somewhat of a postscript.”

It is evident that Amit Gvaryahu has read Scripture and Tradition with care and has offered me some important correctives and points of consideration. Any scholar worth his salt wants readers of this sort. My sense that some of the book’s core arguments were not properly represented in the review, does not diminish my gratitude to Amit for his engagement of my book, and to The Talmud Blog for affording me the opportunity to respond.

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Review of Tabory and Atzmon, ‘Midrash Esther Rabbah’

For a number of years now students of aggadah have been waiting to see the publication of a number of scholarly editions of classical midrashim. Some of the most anticipated volumes include Tamar Kadari’s edition of Canticles Rabbah, Paul Mandel’s edition of Lamentations Rabbah, Marc Hirschman and Reuven Kiperwasser’s edition of Ecclesiastes Rabbah, and Joseph Tabory and Arnon Atzmon’s edition of Esther Rabbah. All of these editions are part of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Study’s Midrash Project, and some of the synopses are already available online on the project website. The recent publication of Midrash Esther Rabbah is the third volume of this ambitious series to come out. Now, we can continue to enjoy the fruits of this endeavor and whet our appetite for future volumes.

Tabory and Atzmon’s volume is elegant, and inviting to professional scholar and lay learner alike. The print is clean, the layout is (certainly for a scholarly edition) blessedly uncluttered, and the commentary is crisp and generally to the point. The reading experience could be best described as streamlined. One can hurry along the text at a nice clip, glancing just below to check parallels in rabbinic literature (both “classical” and the later collections); look further down to consider major differences in the manuscripts, and then, on to the bottom of the page, consult a conveniently organized commentary.

Midrash_Ester_Rabah

Though the presentation is effortless, it is obvious that each of these sections reflects an enormous amount of work. The edition is eclectic and based primarily on the six major (relatively late) manuscripts of the midrash to have survived. The variae lectiones collected in the relevant section are a selection of only those variants which the editors deemed to be important. But philologists have no fear (unless, as one prominent scholar recently complained to me, you are Shabbat observant and it is Saturday), you can access the complete synopsis online. In an introductory chapter the editors describe each witness and also propose a stemma for understanding the relationship between them. They argue that the extant manuscripts descend from one textual parent, since all the manuscripts share the same group of clear mistakes. Though I did not check the accuracy of the transcriptions against images of the manuscripts, all around the textual reasoning seemed sound.

Sometimes, the editors propose changes to the text even when these are not attested in the surviving manuscripts. It is not entirely clear when such changes are seen as so obvious as to justify alternations in the main text, and when they are not. For example, riffing on the word פרס  at Esther 1:3 the Midrash offers the following, fascinating insight into Iranian imperial expansion (p. 45 lines 198-200):

פרס – למה קורין אותה פרס? שקבלה את המלכות פרוסות פרוסות, אחד בימי תרדה, ואחד בימי ארדכיאן, ואחד לעתיד לבוא הה”ד: והיה זה שלום אשור כי יבוא בארצנו.

The readings תרדה and ארדכיאן are almost surely mistakes. As the editors note in the commentary, ארדכיאן is quite possibly a reference to the last Parthian king, Ardavan (who indeed shows up elsewhere in rabbinic literature as the subject of Rav’s lament). In fact, the better (though still inexact) form ארדביאן is recorded in MS Cambridge. Similarly, תרדה is likely a reference to a king named Mithradates (there are a number of candidates, as this was a popular name for Iranian-named kings – Parthian and otherwise) and should probably read מתרדה. While one appreciates the editors’ caution by keeping the problematic readings, given the eclectic nature of the edition I would have expected that these readings would be corrected in the main text, and then accordingly marked as emended.

The commentary’s modest and unassuming style notwithstanding, it contains many insightful suggestions, including interpretations where others have previously stumbled. Esther 1:1 refers to Ahasuerus’ kingdom spanning the world, all the way from India to Ethiopia. The midrash surprisingly remarks that הודו and כוש are easily governed, presumably because of their proximity (p. 29 lines 39-41):

והלא מהודו ועד כוש דבר קל הוא? אלא כשם שמלך מהודו ועד כוש, כך מלך על שבע ועשרים ומאה מדינה

In his magnum opus, Eliezer Segal, discusses a parallel in the Babylonian Esther Midrash (bMeg 11a) and uses the apparent #GeographicEpicFail to make a large claim about the construction of the pericope both in the Bavli and in Esther Rabbah. Without drawing much attention, Tabory and Atzmon nonchalantly suggest that the rabbis understood the verse to refer to the Northern Indian hill country, known as Kush. Indeed, when teaching the Babylonian Esther Midrash a few years ago I realized that the official name of the two neighboring provinces during Sasanian times were Hindustan and Kushan.

In the Bavli’s version, the identity of הודו and כוש is in fact debated between Rav and Shmuel (one of whom correctly identifies כוש with Ethiopia). There is nothing at all surprising about a Babylonian amora knowing a thing or two about the technicalities of Sasanian geography and thereby making the initially surprising association between כוש and Kushan.  There would be something a bit strange about a Palestinian midrash making the link for no obvious reason. In other words, this is one of the myriad of instances where questions of influence and its direction between rabbinic corpora could be raised. This, however, is emphatically not the purpose of the new edition of Esther Rabbah.

Indeed, while some scholars will reach for this volume “for its own sake,” others will often be animated by questions of literary history. When was the Esther Midrash put together? Where? How? In the above example, did the redactors of the midrash simply rework a tradition that is attributed in the Bavli to a first generation Babylonian amora? Or did the Bavli borrow from Esther Rabbah? Was their a common source? Was there a large pool of related yet distinct traditions that both corpora pulled from? For general questions like these the reader can consult the comprehensive chapters at the beginning of the edition.  There one finds alongside clear discussion of the midrash’s structure (as it turns out, the original midrash is top heavy and covered in 6 parshiyot just the first two chapters of the biblical book) lengthy essays on other midrashim to the Book of Esther, the diffusion of Esther Rabbah in medieval times, and other, related sundry topics. Importantly, these are not merely of tangential interest, since the existence of so many Esther midrashim, for example, greatly complicates the recovery and dating of the Esther Rabbah. What is more, these parallel Esther midrashim are not at all static, and we often find traditions move to and fro between the corpora. Needless to say, such a fluid situation makes the reconstruction of Esther Rabbah extremely challenging.

Apropos matters of dating, the editors wisely steer clear of tying themselves down to anything too early or too late. Many of the well-known debates are appropriately cited, though it can be a bit frustrating when the issues are presented in ventriloquy through the mouths of Zunz, Albeck, and Co. The upshot is that when it comes to questions of literary relations, one normally has to suffice with the editors’ basic references to parallels, and very occasional discussion in the commentary. Tabory and Atzmon quite obviously made an editorial decision here to cut down on verbiage and produce a neater volume, instead of shooting for something like the Theodor-Albeck Genesis Rabbah. That is good and fine. They have provided us with a gorgeous edition with room for our research to grow.

Overall, this new edition is a great pleasure to work with – and to learn from, beginning to end. No doubt it will be the fountainhead from where all future research on the literary history of Esther midrashim begin. When read on its own, this midrash will ever-beguile you with its playful hermeneutics (another valuable introductory chapter outlines Esther Rabbah’s many different interpretive strategies) and surprising traditions. When you get a chance to look at the copy, enjoy the Antinonus and Rabbi story on p. 43. And in honor of Purim (and Bibi’s speech in congress), here’s a trivia question for you: Which nation does Esther Rabbah think scratches the most, and why? First person to  cite the correct answer in the comments wins.

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Guest Posts

The ‘Status of The Talmud’ on Sefaria

Like many Jewish text geeks, I’ve been following the goings-on at Sefaria closely. Beyond providing free versions and translations of oodles of Jewish texts, Sefaria has made them available through a stunning, extremely accessible platform that allows for an expansion of the community of learners and an enrichment of the dialogue within that community. I’ve asked Sefaria’s Ari Elias-Bachrach to share his recent report on the status of the Talmud on Sefaria and to invite our readers to share what they would most like to see on the website. – Y.L.

Sefaria is a non-profit organization that is creating a massive library of interconnected Torah texts. It is all free and all in the public domain. To do this we’ve done a number of things including importing text from other open source projects on the web like WikiSource, and digitizing public domain sefarim and putting them on the web. One of the things we’re working on is building a Talmud that gives a better learning experience than anything that comes before it. Our goal is to have the standard Talmud text with not just Rashi and Tosafot, but also other major commentators all in the same place. Additionally, citations from things like the masorat hashas and ein mishpat will be linked so you can see the relevant halachot automatically.

Our Talmud text comes from WikiSouce, and we’ve been correcting it to ensure it matches the text of the Vilna shas. We realized that given the number of mefarshim we plan on having, an amud was simply too large a unit of measure to reasonably use. When we did the Tanach it was comparatively simple – the commentators usually comment on specific verses, so any given verses just needs to link to those commentaries. However, a single amud might contain 100 comments from Rashi Tosafot, the Rosh, and the other major commentators. Without breaking up the amud into smaller units, there’s no way to know which subset of those 100 commentaries to display. When you click on a pasuk in the Torah, you see all the commentaries on that pasuk in Torah. We wanted something similar here – when you click on a sentence in the Talmud, we wanted to display the relevant commentaries on that sentence. The conclusion was clear – we needed a way to break up the dapim. Thankfully Koren Publishers graciously allowed us to use their punctuation to break up the amud. Each line of the amud now corresponds to a grammatical phrase (not a line of the Vilna printing). We undertook a massive project to segment all of shas in this manner, and finished in the fall of 2014. In the process we also double checked the text we had from WikiSource to make sure it matched the Vilna shas. (As a side note, we found a significant number of errors in the WikiSource Talmud in both the Talmud text and the Rashi and Tosafot. These errors have unfortunately propagated to many sites across the web, and in many cases it is clear we’re the first people to actually check the text for accuracy).

Next up of course is the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot. Now that the Talmud was segmented, we needed to make sure to associate each comment with the appropriate line. One of our wonderful volunteer developers Noah Santacruz made a commentary poster – a program that looks at the dibur hamatchil and tries to place the comment in the right place. Unfortunately, it cannot place every comment based solely on that information, as sometimes the text of the dibur hamatchil will appear multiple times in a daf, or it might not match at all if there are roshei teivot in use, or the commentator decides to abbreviate the text in some other fashion. To fix those, we’ve had people going through manually learning the appropriate masechtot and placing the commentaries where they belong. At the same time they’ve also been checking the contents of the comments against the Vilna shas to make sure our text is accurate. So far we’ve finished Brachot, Megillah, and Taanit. Kiddushin and Ketubot are in progress. Those of you doing Daf Yomi will be happy to know we’ll be keeping the Ketubot progress in front of the Daf Yomi cycle, so you don’t have to worry. This is still an ongoing process and while we’re looking for ways to improve our automation, we’re also looking for volunteers. If you, your chevruta, or your school group is learning Talmud and wants to help out the cause of Talmud learning on the internet, you could help by placing the missing commentaries in the right place as you learn. If you’re interested please let us know and we’ll help to get you started.

Throughout this process we’ve been checking the text of the Talmud and the commentaries. We’ve found a significant number of mistakes and typos, most of which have been copied over and over again by countless websites. One of the advantages to our system is that we’re able to spot and correct these errors quickly and easily. Sefaria currently has the most accurate Talmud text freely available on the internet today (using the Vilna shas as the standard), and when we’re done we will have the most accurate copies of Rashi and Tosafot too.

After Rashi and Tosafot of course come the other major commentaries. We’ve recently finished digitizing the Rosh and the Nosei Keilim there. We’re currently working on digitizing Maharsha, Maharal, Maharsham, the Rif, and the Nosei Keilim on the Rif. We’ve also acquired digitized versions of the Pnei Yehoshua, Yad Ramah, Ramban, Shita Mekubetzet, Rashba, and Tosafot Rid. So far we’ve done Shita Mekubetzet on Brachot. While getting these into our system is difficult for the same reasons as Rashi and Tosafot, you can expect to start seeing all these commentaries appearing on Sefaria starting in a few months.

Lastly, we’re also working on a few other features that should be helpful to people including an integrated dictionary with data from Jastrow and the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, as well as a way of integrating the Mesorat Hashas and Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah. We’re also going to put in links to the Mishnah whenever the Gemarah quotes a Mishnah so that you can easily navigate to the Mishnah to see the various Mishnah commentaries we have. Currently that includes Ovadia M’Bartenura and the Tosafot Yom Tov, but we should be adding the Rambam this summer.

What other features would you find useful? One of the advantages to our system is that while extracting text is much more difficult than just putting images online, it also gives us a lot more flexibility and allows for the building of some features which may not have been possible before.

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Reviews

A. Gvaryahu on A. Yadin-Israel ‘Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash’

Azzan Yadin-Israel, Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 308+vii pages. $75.

Reviewed by Amit Gvaryahu

Azzan Yadin-Israel has presented us with a detailed and meticulous study of Sifra. This is a wonderful thing. There is to date no other such study of the midrashic methodology of any work from the school of Rabbi Akiva. There is also no critical academic commentary on all of Sifra nor a full critical edition. Though Sifra was the most widely studied Tannaitic Midrash both in late antiquity and in the middle ages–there are more manuscripts, whole and fragmented, of Sifra and medieval commentaries on it than any of its counterparts – it was neglected in modern scholarship. Yadin-Israel’s willingness to undertake this project is laudable.

Sifra is a running commentary on Leviticus. For the most part it is associated with the School of Rabbi Akiva. (Several segments of Ishmaelian Midrash, most importantly the Mekhilta de-Arayot, were incorporated into some Sifra manuscripts in the Middle Ages from the now lost Ishmaelian Midrash to Leviticus). Sifra is generally accepted to be a Tannaitic work, and its redaction predates the Talmud (Kahana; but cf. Stemberger). Some have claimed that it predates the Mishnah (Reichman).

In a Hebrew University dissertation which stands in the background of Yadin-Israel’s work, Yonatan Sagiv mapped out the exegetical methods of attributed statements in Sifra and noticed that they tended to “clump” around problematic verses and did not cover all of Leviticus. Yadin-Israel acknowledges his reliance on Sagiv’s work at the beginning of the book. He restates Sagiv thus: “The Sifra  is made up of a relatively small number of Tannaitic interpretations [i.e. attributed to named tannaim], concentrated around a limited group of verses, embedded in a much larger and more uniformly distributed set of anonymous derashot.”

The book is made up of three parts. The first (caps. 1-4) attempts to characterize the exegetical methods of the unattributed Sifra. The second (caps. 5-7) is dedicated to the character of Rabbi Akiva in rabbinic literature and the statements attributed to him in Sifra. The third (caps. 8-9) is somewhat of a postscript, offering a comparative survey of other methods of interpretation in the Judaeo-Christian/late Roman orbit and situating Yadin-Israel’s work in the context of previous scholarship.

scripture

Parts 1 and 2 of the book make bold claims. In the first part of the book, “A Hermeneutic of Camouflage,” Yadin-Israel sets out to find the hermeneutic assumptions and exegetical method of Sifra, only to discover that there is none. He reads through various homilies grouped by terms: words marked as redundant, the particle את, possessive pronouns, ribbui and mi’ut, and the tying of Mishnah to verse with the term mikan amru. He also devotes considerable space to finding consistency in the reading of certain words. Chapter 2, “The Sifra as Midrash,” is devoted to what Yadin-Israel terms “vacuity” and “semantic discontinuity,” which are, respectively, charging innocent words with midrashic meaning, and creating a derasha that does not flow logically from the verse. The conclusion of this survey is that though the anonymous Sifra might sound like Midrash – by going through the motions of marking words as redundant and inviting interpretation, by noticing various phonetic peculiarities and grammatical inconsistencies and so forth – it only employs midrashic rhetoric in “ex post facto constructions” to rework oral traditions into “Midrash.” Since the project is to find Mishnah in scripture – at all costs – it is no surprise that the anonymous Sifra throws consistency and even coherence to the wind, and engages in “tautological, solipsistic, or otherwise empty arguments” (p. 100).

But wait, you say, isn’t Sifra associated with Rabbi Akiva, the man who in popular imagination could pile heaps and heaps of interpretations on the tip of one letter? Should we expect any less than that from a work associated with him? In part 2, “A Curious Career,” Yadin-Israel unequivocally says that this is not the Rabbi Akiva presented in the attributed Tannaitic material. In fact, claims Yadin-Israel, after examining the traditions attributed to Rabbi Akiva in Sifra (in Chapter 6) his homilies are more similar in terminology and method to the ones found in the Ishmaelian Midrashim (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael and Sifre Numbers) than to the anonymous Sifra. Even an examination of the biographical traditions about Rabbi Akiva in Tannaitic literature shows him to be a product of the rabbinic academy from childhood, not at all the revolutionary outsider we know and love from the Babylonian Talmud (Chapters 5 and 7).

Yadin-Israel’s claims are not abstract or ungrounded. To buttress them, he offers a large textual corpus in translation, helpfully reproduced in Hebrew from MS Kaufmann A 50 (for Mishnah) and MS Vatican Ebr. 66 (For Sifra, all on pp. 213-229). It is a richly documented book, which offers thoughtful textual analysis on every page. Yadin-Israel engages refreshingly in textual scholarship. In lucid and beautiful prose he takes the reader along with him on what is (for Yadin-Israel) an ultimately futile quest for meaning in the anonymous Sifra. I enjoyed engaging with each source immensely, even where I did not agree with the conclusions. It is this disagreement that I will lay down below.

In Chapter 9, Yadin-Israel notes that his claim – that Sifra does not engage in creative legal hermeneutics, but in some other project – is not new. The main stream of rabbinic scholarship in the early twentieth century was of the opinion that halakhah is “Oral Law,” what Josephus called paradôsis, “tradition.” Perhaps at some point in time rabbis shifted from “tradition to commentary,” and perhaps not, but the creation of the bulk of rabbinic law was grounded in the former, not the latter. Yadin-Israel’s innovative claim here is that both tradition and commentary were appealed to as sources of authority at the same time, but in different Tannaitic schools: Rabbi Akiva was grounded in tradition, Rabbi Ishmael in commentary. Notwithstanding Yadin-Israel’s modifications of the basic thesis of midrash mekayyem or, in his terms, midrash somekh, he is (in my opinion) coming almost full circle, upending several decades of the study of Midrash. Daniel Boyarin in his Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash tentatively suggested that Midrash should be read as commentary on scripture. His suggestion became so successful that, against this backdrop, Yadin-Israel can qualify and hedge: Midrash is not always commentary and works that call themselves “Midrash” are sometimes something else. Like a front for connecting oral traditions to scripture.

And herein lies the rub. Maybe – just maybe – If the anonymous Sifra rhetorically presents itself as Midrash, its claims should be taken seriously. I would like to take up a few of Yadin-Israel’s examples in the first part of the book and see whether they have exegetical ground after all (I will use Yadin-Israel’s numbering scheme for the quotations, preceded by a §).

A.    Rashes

Leviticus 13:38-39 reads:

וְאִישׁ֙ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֖ם בֶּהָרֹ֑ת בֶּהָרֹ֖ת לְבָנֹֽת׃  וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֗ן וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֛ם בֶּהָרֹ֖ת כֵּה֣וֹת לְבָנֹ֑ת בֹּ֥הַק ה֛וּא פָּרַ֥ח בָּע֖וֹר טָה֥וֹר הֽוּא׃

When a man or a woman has spots on the skin of the body, white spots, the priest shall make an examination, and if the spots on the skin of the body are of a dull white, it is a rash that has broken out on the skin; it is pure.

Yadin-Israel quotes the homily on verse 39 (§2.1):

בוהק טהור. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

A rash is pure – this teaches that a rash is pure.

This, says Yadin-Israel (p. 27), is a tautological gloss, a homily with no meaning. And if this were the verse, then it would certainly be. Zooming out and reading the homily in context shows otherwise:

“בוהק” “טהור”. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.יכול לא יטמא משם אום. אבל יטמא משם פיסיון. תל’-לו’. ”הפורח טהור”.יכול יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. תל’-לו’. “הוא”.

יכול לא יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. אבל יטהר את הבהרת שניסמך לה.

תל’-לו’. “בוהק הוא”. “טהור הוא”.

הוא טהור. אין הבהרת שיצאת ממנו ושניסמך לה טהורה. אילא טמאה.

“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.Could it perhaps not cause impurity in itself, but cause impurity if it is an extension of an existing leprosy? It teaches, saying: “that has broken out is pure.”Could it cause purity to the leprosy which protrudes from it? It teaches, saying “it.”

Could it not cause purity to the leprosy (בהרת) which protrudes from it, but cause purity to the leprosy that it spreads to? It teaches, saying “it is a rash” “it is pure.” It is pure, but the leprosy that protrudes from it and that it spreads to are not pure but impure (Negaim, ed. Weiss 67a).

Read in entirety, the homily is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning: “the rash is pure,” “that has broken out is pure,” and then the two occurrences of הוא, which are read as limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched.

None of these readings is self-evident, and other readings of the verse are possible. Who is the referent of the second הוא: the person (see e.g. Vulgate) or the rash? Is the rash pure, or is it only pure if it breaks out in the skin, but not otherwise (see the insistence of the Septuagint on the former). Reading the verse requires parsing it into constituent parts and explaining them, which is what hermeneutics is by definition. Yadin-Israel (p. 22, quoting a different part of the homily as §1.14), claims that the “phrase tahor hu is a necessary component of the verse because it identifies the referent of ‘pure.’” In this, Sifra also clearly disagrees with him: It clearly states: ‘“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.’ The homily explains that (1) it is the rash, not the person, that is pure, and (2) that the rash is ipso facto pure, not just if it spreads. The details derived from the components of the verse now make sense as well (cf. p. 55): only the rash is pure (בהק – טהור הוא), but its spreading does not cause purity to leprosy (פרח בעור – טהור הוא). Parsing it this way, Sifra’s reading method makes many of the incongruities Yadin-Israel points out, well, congruent.

Also, even if the derasha were tautological and meaningless, Yadin-Israel does not explain to what end. There is no Mishnah or Tosefta that could be the source for this homily.

B.    Blood

Parsing the verse into constituent sentences explains what Yadin-Israel calls fort-da derashot, in which the homily: “hurls an element of the verse out of sight…and then examines the situation. …The Sifra then reels the word back in and uses it as a prooftext” (p. 30).  Leviticus 3:2 reads:

וְסָמַ֤ךְ יָדוֹ֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ קָרְבָּנ֔וֹ וּשְׁחָט֕וֹ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְזָרְק֡וּ בְּנֵי֩ אַהֲרֹ֨ן הַכֹּהֲנִ֧ים אֶת־הַדָּ֛ם עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ סָבִֽיב׃

You shall lay your hand on the head of the offering and slaughter it at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar.

Sifra comments (§2.6):

“בני אהרן”. יכול חללים. תלמוד לומר. “הכהנים” יצאו חללים.ואוציא חללים ולא אוציא בעלי מומין?תלמוד לומר. “בני אהרן”. מה  אהרן כשר. אף בניו כשרין.

יצאו חללין ובעלי מומין.

“Aaron’s Sons.” Could this refer to disqualified priests (halalim)? It teaches saying: “the priests,” to the exclusion of disqualified priests.Might I exclude disqualified priests, and not exclude handicapped priests? It teaches, saying: “the sons of Aaron.” Just as Aaron is qualified, so his sons are qualified.Thus disqualified and handicapped priests are excluded (Nedavah, ed. Weiss 6b).

Note that I modified Yadin-Israel’s translation here: halalim are definitely not “laypersons”(p. 29). They are disqualified priests, the masculine plural form of חללה in Lev 21:7 and 21:14 (see Jastrow).

Yadin-Israel says the derasha “merely cites the word ‘priests’ and asserts the analytically true fact that priests are not laypersons” (p. 29). But it is not so: the derasha wants to account for the verbosity of the verse. Why say “Aaron’s sons the priests” and not one or the other? The answer is that each name accounts for a different group of marginal priests or Aaronides who are excluded: the halalim, Aaron’s sons but not priests, and the handicapped, priests but not Aaron’s sons.

Yadin-Israel again says that this reading is “plainly opposed to the Ishmaelian notion of hermeneutic markedness” (p. 31), but this does not mean Sifra does not have its own notions of markedness or of hermeneutics which it is trying to convey through its homilies. Sagiv’s findings that Tannaitic statements in Sifra tend to clump around problematic verses do not show that the anonymous Sifra is not interested of making sense of each and every redundancy in all of Leviticus.

In Chapter 4 (p. 99) Yadin-Israel asks about the same homily: why does Sifra not simply cite Leviticus 21:21 to show that handicapped priests are disqualified? That would be an appropriate question if Sifra were attempting to prove that handicapped priests are disqualified, i.e. if Sifra was merely a cover for extra-scriptural traditions. However, if Sifra is interested in responding to the redundancy, citing Leviticus 21:21 would not help at all. (The homily might also be responding to an anomaly in Lev 21:21 which refers to “men who have blemishes from the seed of Aaron” rather than the standard “sons of Aaron,” pointing to the fact that the latter phrase denotes non-handicapped priests).

The same reading technique can solve Yadin-Israel’s issue with homilies that employ the terms yakhol and minayin together with Talmud lomar which return to the same verse (Many, even most yakhol and minayin derashot, do not return to the same verse. In chapter 2, Yadin-Israel is careful to say that not all homilies do; but cf. p. 206.) While Yadin-Israel says they are “empty,” these terms establish the “hermeneutic markedness,” i.e. the redundancy, of one or another of the elements in the verse, setting it up for the interpretation at the end.

Yadin-Israel has the same issue with din (i.e. kol va-homer) arguments which conclude with the same glossed prooftexts that preceded them (e.g. p. 63, §3.12 and pp. 64-67, §3.13). Here too Sifra is working to establish markedness. In these cases, the homily points to a redundant grammatical element (e.g. אתו) and glosses it with a halakhah. Then it introduces a din argument for the opposite of the halakhah. Then it concludes (talmud lomar) that the redundant element was required to negate the din. The fact that the formulae do not distinguish between the same verse and different verses might show that for the Sifra, redundancy is an issue whether it manifests itself in the same verse or in different verses.

C.   From Tradition to Commentary

Beyond that, however, Yadin-Israel seems to be setting up a dichotomy between “tradition” and “commentary” which seems to me unhelpful. Many mishnayot are based not on “tradition” but on “commentary.” Yadin-Israel’s example §4.18 is a case in point. On p. 94 he compares Mishnah Shevu’ot 3:5 to Sifra Hovah (Weiss 23c) and tries to determine the relationship between them. This is a tricky relationship indeed (it would have been better if Yadin-Israel had offered readers more of the Mishnah in context). But Mishnah Shevu’ot here is anything but an “extra-scriptural tradition.” The Mishnah presents a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael regarding scriptural interpretation. They both employ the term ribbuy ha-katuv, “the inclusive language in the verse.” Many other mishnayot are based on scriptural interpretation as well (as Ch. Albeck notes sometimes in the addenda to his Mishnah commentary). Even if the Sifra here post-dates the Mishnah, and is (as Yadin-Israel explains) attempting to solve an apparent problem in the Mishnah, it does not follow that the Sifra is a mere foil for grounding extra-scriptural traditions in scripture. Quite the opposite: the Mishnah here is engaging in Midrash as well. A similar approach can resolve Yadin-Israel’s issue with Menachem Kahana’s reading of Mishnah Gittin 9:10, Sanhedrin 3:4 and Sifra Metzora (Weiss, 79c), on pp. 209-210.

There are, to be sure, homilies in Sifra which serve to “unite the Dual Torah,” to use Jacob Neusner’s turn of phrase, by coupling mishnayot with homilies (e.g. §2.19, §2.20, §3.4 and many more). But even these have an interpretive effect on scripture. For example, the list of blemishes in persons in Mishnah Bekhorot 7:6 (p. 98; on the list see Rosen-Zvi) is cast in Sifra (§2.21) as a homily on Leviticus 21:21. The contents of the list are clearly not derived from scripture. But claiming that they are anchored in a ribbuy, איש איש, is in itself an interpretation of the verse which makes the verse speak the language of the rabbis. It is not the kind of self-referential hermeneutic that Yadin-Israel attributes to the school of Rabbi Ishmael, but it is a hermeneutic nonetheless. It is the same kind of hermeneutic that fuels, for example, the Palestinian Targumim, which can go on a homiletic tangent while reading a verse. To those who have the Oral Torah, it can be found everywhere, not least in the Written Torah. (I would also add that in Leviticus 10:9 drunken priests are only forbidden from entering the tent of meeting – not officiating at the altar, and so the Mishnah here is not circumventing scripture). I think the examples here are sufficient to prompt readers to check the evidence for themselves and engage with the examples, as Yadin-Israel has so generously invited us to do. Yadin-Israel’s general theory is an impressive and beautifully argued paradigm, but it is based on the cumulative textual evidence and must be examined against a careful reading of the original texts in context.

D. A Curious Career

As for the second part of the book, Chapter 5, Yadin-Israel’s intertextual reading of the Akiva and Moses encounter in Bavli Menahot 29b is innovative and thought-provoking. It would be better for Yadin-Israel’s paradigm of the Sifra, however, to adopt Shlomo Naeh’s suggestion that Rabbi Akiva sat and “expounded heaps and heaps of halakhot on each pericope (קוצה) of the Torah.” This sounds much like Yadin-Israel’s description of the anonymous Sifra: a work intent on pairing up extra-scriptural traditions with verses. Interestingly, Moses did not understand this endeavor at all, and was only satisfied when he was informed that an extra-scriptural law was just that: “a tradition to Moses from Sinai.” (For another use of כתב in this context, see Sifre Dueteronomy 26, ed. Finkelstein, 65).

Chapter 6, on the relationship between Rabbi Akiva’s homilies and the anonymous Sifra is important in that is highlights the differences between named and anonymous homilies in Sifra in a systematic way. It is a good starting point for sustained and systematic inquiry on this relationship, although Yadin-Israel sometimes goes too far in differentiating named Rabbi Akiva homilies from those of the anonymous Sifra. I would add that though Yadin-Israel is noncommittal on the date and provenance of this layer, it is clearly cited in the Talmuds. Sifra is also “Tannaitic” in both language and content. The existence of multiple strata in Sifra (as in any Tannaitic work) does not make any of them less “Tannaitic” than the other. It shows quite nicely that there were programmatic and hermeneutic developments in the school of Rabbi Akiva.

Chapter 7, sadly, leaves me unconvinced on philological grounds. Yadin-Israel successfully shows that there are traditions that make Rabbi Akiva a member of the rabbinic community from childhood, but works unsuccessfully to discredit the Tannaitic tradition, in Sifre Deuteronomy (with a parallel in Genesis Rabbah), that casts him as someone who was an ignoramus until forty.

Sifre Deut 357: “Rabbi Akiva began to study Torah when he was forty”:

ר’ עקיבה למד תורה בן ארבעים שנה.

Genesis Rabbah 100 (p. 1295): “Rabbi Akiva was an ignoramus for forty years”:

ר’ עקיבא עשה בור ארבעים שנה.

(1) Yadin-Israel tries to cast doubt on the reading of Genesis Rabbah 100 that Rabbi Akiva עשה בור for forty years, and claim that it is a correction of Sifre Deuteronomy. On p. 152 he says it is “very odd,” but it is really not: as Yadin-Israel notes on p. 143, עשה is good Rabbinic Hebrew for “spent time.” He “was an ignoramus.”

(2) The reading of MS London of Sifre Deuteronomy, that Rabbi Akiva learned Torah for forty years (למד תורה ארבעים שנה), waited on the sages for forty years and then led Israel for forty years, leaving him no time to be an ignoramus, is not corroborated by any other manuscript evidence.

(3) The Sifre Deuteronomy fragment Yadin-Israel cites, (MS Holon 242 ה) is not a Genizah fragment but a late medieval Sephardi Fragment of Sifre Deuteronomy brought to Israel from Yemen. Its reading, עסק בעולם, is a reworking of the Genesis Rabbah tradition, perhaps even a graphic corruption (עסה>עסק and בור>בע’>בעולם).

(4) Yadin-Israel cites Midrash Hagadol to Genesis which reads that R. Akiva עשה בלא תורה for forty years, but this is a reworking, again, of Genesis Rabbah (with בלא תורה replacing the disrespectful בור, perhaps another graphic corruption of בור>ב’ ת’>בלא תורה). Midrash Hagadol on Deuteronomy 34:7 has the same reading as all the other Sifre Deuteronomy manuscripts.

(5) More importantly, the other three characters who died at 120 listed in the tradition in Sifre and Genesis Rabbah all spent forty years outside of the world of Torah. Moses was in Egypt, Hillel the Elder came from Babylonia and Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai was a merchant. To fit this pattern, Rabbi Akiva must have started learning at forty.

I am interested to know why the existence of this tradition is so troubling to Yadin-Israel’s thesis. Could there not simply be two traditions about the early career of Rabbi Akiva? This however does not diminish from the importance of Yadin-Israel’s effort to reintroduce rabbinic biography back into the study of the Tannaitic traditions themselves.

E. Editing

The derashot are supplied in translation (and sometimes in the original) without their original lemmata. This decision caused a blatant error on p. 56 (§3.2), in which Leviticus 11:2-3 is supplied as a lemma for an excerpt from a complex and difficult homily on Leviticus 11:24 which happens to cite Leviticus 11:2-3. Yadin-Israel points to this homily as an example of “extreme semantic discontinuity,” but this is alleviated if read in context and in conjunction with the correct verses. Similar but less severe problems can be found in §2.10; §2.17-18 (in §2.17 the verse is Lev 15:18, not 19); §2.38; §2.37 (Lev 15:25 is quoted erroneously, skewing the entire homily). It also blurs the choices Sifra makes out in delimiting the lemma, as I pointed out above. Sources are sometimes truncated, leading to problematic conclusions and impressions (e.g. §3.2, §3.14, §4.18, §10.1, as well as the motto at the beginning of chapter 8).

Some of the translations are inaccurate and need revising (e.g. sources §2.6; §2.14; §2.32; §3.7; §3.16; §4.18; §6.6; §6.9; §6.15; as well as on p. 106, 130, 175, 184, 193, 197-8). Sometimes the English translations do not reflect the language of MS Vat. Ebr. 66 reproduced in the back of the book and are based on the vulgate editions (e.g. §2.21; §2.31; §2.35; §4.11; §6.23). The quotation of Sifre Numbers on p. 173 is not based on MS Vat. Ebr. 32 which reads אין “חלום” אלא שיש לו פתרון, which reading solves the discontinuity Yadin-Israel found there. The Hebrew of §2.34 is copied from the vulgate editions, not MS New York. All these should be corrected in a future edition. Other than that, the book is beautifully laid out, copyedited and indexed (On p. 188: committed should be commitment; the author of the MA thesis on Sifre Zutta Numbers is not Hillel, but Hallel Baitner).

When all is said and done, I had a wonderful time reading this book, marking it up and arguing with it. It goes back to basics and offers a comprehensive statement about those basics. Let the conversation begin.

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English, Reviews

E. Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz – Reviewed by D. Shyovitz

Elisheva Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) – Reviewed by David Shyovitz.

[To download the review as a pdf click here.]

Writing history on the basis of medieval halakhic sources is a notoriously tricky enterprise.  Not only are the relevant source materials inherently difficult—suffused with technical terminology, complex, often terse exposition, and assumed prior knowledge—it is extremely challenging to escape from the orbit of the sources themselves, and to draw firm conclusions as to how they reflect or intersect with the lived reality of historical actors.  Exegetical tracts (such as Talmudic commentaries and super-commentaries), for example, tend to confine their analysis to the particular texts under consideration—it is not easy to utilize the narrow explication of a particular phrase or argument in the Talmud as a means of recovering broader data about the particular historical moment in which it was generated.  Halakhic codes, as prescriptive texts, by definition tell us more about rabbinic ideals than they do about communal and individual practices.  And responsa, ostensibly the genre most transparently reflective of historical reality, have oftentimes undergone redactional and editorial processes so extensive that it is impossible to recover the historical “facts” that underlie the surviving documents.

For scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, efforts to present a descriptive, rather than prescriptive account of lived religious reality have been particularly fraught.  Long entrenched assumptions concerning the “talmudocentrism” or “halakhocentrism” of medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic culture has privileged elite legal sources, and obscured the non-elites who had no facility with—and perhaps no interest in—the dictates of halakhic texts.  As a result, medieval Ashkenazic contributions to “the history of halakhah” have often been limited to precisely that—the historical analysis of (abstract, elite) halakhah itself, rather than an attempt to write a broader history that utilizes halakhic texts without accepting their own claims to normativity and authoritativeness.

In her new book Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance, Elisheva Baumgarten seeks to escape from this interpretive morass, and models a new approach toward using halakhic texts for historical ends.  She mines halakhic sources composed in medieval Ashkenaz (between roughly 1096 and 1348) for the evidence they reveal concerning “pious practices”—the concrete actions and observances that were important and accessible to both rabbinic elites and the laity, men and women, members of the upper and lower classes.  By focusing on practice rather than theory, Baumgarten seeks to transcend the prescriptive nature of halakhic sources, and to bridge the gap between halakhic and other (narrative, moralistic, polemical) sources.  Rather than treat halakhah as an insular and independent construct, she seeks to reconstruct what halakhic texts reveal about the religious values and commitments of Jews who left no independent records of their lives and experiences.  What she recovers, in short, is a Jewish “lay piety,” akin to (and as we shall see, bound up in) the lay piety and popular devotion that has been the subject of much recent attention among scholars of medieval Christianity.

Practicing Piety is in many ways a path-breaking book: conceptually sophisticated, methodologically complex, the product of prodigious research and nuanced, creative readings of often familiar (and sometimes over-familiar) texts.  Its argument is for the most part extremely persuasive.  To be sure, all important books give rise to as many questions as they answer, and Baumgarten’s book is no exception—particularly because it intersects with varied overlapping fields: the history of halakhah, gender studies, Jewish-Christian relations, and others.  In what follows, I shall lay out some (by no means all) of Baumgarten’s major claims, raise some questions concerning her findings, and point to some avenues of future research that her stimulating book opens up.

Practicing Piety’s introductory chapter guides the reader through the multiple interpretive axes on which the study turns.  In order to reconstruct the piety of non-elites—the laity—and not merely the rabbinic scholars who produced the sources that have survived, Baumgarten reads those sources with an eye toward their gendered dynamics, and with comparative attention to the contemporary, predominantly Christian setting in which they were composed.  Her attention to gender serves not merely to highlight the heretofore obscured experiences of women (an approach modeled virtuosically in her earlier Mothers and Children).  Rather, by comparing the practices of men and women, Baumgarten seeks both to uncover the experiences of non-elites (since women can be said to reflect the sectors of society who were outside the rabbinic elite) as well as to locate moments of particular social conflict, since “conflicts regarding identity and institutional control are often imposed on and reflected by women” (2).  At the same time that she is attentive to the differences and overlaps between men and women, Baumgarten is constantly aware of the Christian setting within which Jews lived and practiced.  She harnesses the abundant recent scholarship on Christian “lay piety” as a means of both understanding currents within Jewish communities, as well as identifying the sources and resonances of changing Jewish practices within their socio-cultural context.  Finally, Baumgarten constantly toggles between the public and private spheres; her analysis reveals that ostensibly private acts of devotion and spirituality tended to manifest themselves publicly, and to play a role in constituting the shared ideals and identity of the community as a whole.

The main body of the book applies these overlapping lenses to six case studies.  Chapters One, Two, and Three focus on presence in the synagogue, fasting, and charity—all quotidian elements of Jewish life, and yet spheres of religious experience that underwent significant shifts over the course of the Middle Ages.  In Chapter One, Baumgarten focuses on the custom, first attested in the sifrut de-bei Rashi, of women absenting themselves from the synagogue while menstruating.  The sources that detail this practice have been subject to extensive historical analysis, mainly by scholars interested in the history of halakhah and minhag—in tracing the textual attestations of this practice, many scholars have assumed that the custom reflects new awareness of existing Palestinian texts like the Beraita de-Nidah.  Baumgarten finds such textual genealogies unconvincing, and argues that the original impetus for abstention from synagogue services came from pious women themselves.  But what began as an optional pious practice was soon normalized by rabbinic decisors, rendering it “a justification for the marginalization of women in the synagogue” (48).  Here, her comparative attention to both male and female piety bears fruit—as she shows, the newfound preoccupation with female menstrual impurity was not accompanied by concern with male impurity due to seminal emissions (keri); on the contrary, men generally attended synagogue regardless of their purity status.  Baumgarten seeks to anchor the custom in high medieval anxieties—among Jews and Christians alike—over impurity and access to sacred spaces.  Christian thinkers had debated the issue of menstruating women attending mass and taking communion since the early Middle Ages, and while the high Middle Ages saw more concern over (male) clerical purity than over menstrual purity, “the resonance between the discourses conducted by these two sets of religious leaders is significant” (41).   Indeed, Christians were deemphasizing menstrual purity at precisely the same moment that Jewish leaders were elevating nidah observance as a covenantal sign, “the defining symbol of the Jewish people and Jewish women’s covenant with God” (47).  Jews and Christians were likely aware of one another’s purity practices, an awareness that manifested itself in this “competitive piety.”

This doubly-comparative methodology, with attention to both gendered and interreligious relations, also informs the discussion of fasting in Chapter Two.  Just as the ostensibly private observance of nidah regulations had public, communal implications, so too fasting became an increasingly ubiquitous, and visible, element of the pious landscape in medieval Ashkenaz, where older fasts that had been minimized by the Geonim were revived, and where fasting became increasingly associated with penitence.  The rise of fasting paralleled the simultaneous growth of fasting in Christian lay piety, and had gendered implications as well—Jews and Christians alike subordinated pious practice to a “common gendered ideology,” which assumed that women’s role as caregivers, and even their biological workings, limited the options for pious expression available to them.  The fact that fasting occupied a prominent place in Christian penitence helps us to understand the development of Jewish penitential fasting—although both faiths anchored their practices in ancient texts and traditions, they harnessed those sources in the service of “complex structures of repentance whose theoretical and ritual overlap is too extensive to be coincidental” (101).

Chapter Three continues in the same vein, but utilizes a unique surviving source, the Nürnberg Memorbuch, in an attempt to delve more deeply into the particular social and economic settings in which pious practices were expressed.  The Memorbuch preserves the liturgy Ashkenazic Jews recited for donors pro anima—those who contributed to communal institutions on behalf of their souls—and lists the names of donors and amounts of their donations over the course of several centuries.  Baumgarten’s statistical analysis of this surviving data is a revelation—she tracks the amounts donated by men and women, the various currencies utilized by members of different socio-economic classes, the ends for which contributions were utilized, and the ways in which external events, from the inauguration of a new synagogue to the Rindfleisch and Black Death attacks on the community, impacted upon charitable norms and practices.  The upshot of this analysis is a growing, and increasingly universal desire “to commemorate each and every soul” (128)—regardless of gender and class.  The popularity of pro anima almsgiving drew on the late antique tradition of redemptive almsgiving (that Alyssa Gray and others have reconstructed), but was also spurred by Christian charitable norms.  Indeed, the very literary structure and communal function of the Memorbuch as a physical artifact represented a Jewish response to the martyrologies and necrologies in use among Christians: “another case in which Jewish culture appropriated elements from the Christian majority while tailoring them to harmonize with the Jewish frameworks of practice and belief” (115).

The juxtaposition of ostensibly familiar Jewish sources alongside elements of Christian lay piety is most productively utilized in Chapter Four, which deals with the question of women’s performance of positive time bound commandments (mitsvot aseh sheha-zman grama).  Ashkenazic decisors by and large allowed women to perform, and recite benedictions upon, commandments that were obligatory on men alone, such as hearing the shofar and shaking the arba minim.  When it came to tsitsit and tefillin, however, early allowances gave way to increasing restrictions over the course of the Middle Ages, as women were discouraged and then prohibited from wearing and making tsitsit and tefillin.  This is a familiar story to scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, and the sources that describe the process have been well trod.  But the originality of Baumgarten’s approach is her juxtaposition of this data alongside the sources indicating that men in the high Middle Ages by and large did not perform the commandments of tsitsit and tefillin.  Only as the Middle Ages progressed did a self-conscious campaign of top-down encouragement lead more and more men to adopt these practices.  The comparison of men’s and women’s experiences, then, reveals that the limitations on women’s pious expression were coterminous with the encouragement of men to perform previously neglected commandments.  The turning point in this process was the thirteenth century, a period in which we find critiques of women’s “arrogance” in a wide array of halakhic and moralistic sources.  The desire to limit women’s options for independent religious expression led to varied articulations of the core differences between men and women: men could keep their bodies clean (or “pure”) long enough to wear tefillin while women were incapable of bodily purity; women were akin to “deficient men,” since, like blind men, they were exempt from certain commandments; or, as Maharil categorically put it based on a Talmudic precedent, women are “a people unto themselves” (164).  The exaggeration of gender differences, and concomitant attempt to limit women’s options, mirrors precisely developments underway in thirteenth century Christendom, which saw the repression of the Beguines, the rise in accusations of female heresy, and so on.  “The sanctions and suspicions of the Christian hierarchy differed little from the rabbi’s concerns…the reactions led by these male authorities to women’s more active agency in religious life are remarkably similar” (170).  The inclusion of both men’s and women’s experiences, and the contextualization of Jewish concerns within their Christian surroundings, thus leads to a fresh take on a long-debated episode in the history of halakhah.

Chapter Five, which explores the ways in which piety would have been publicly visible in medieval urban settings, contains surveys of the hairstyles, garments, and fashions of Jew and Christians.  This chapter is, to my mind, the least compelling in the book.  Some of the sources contained here will be familiar to scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, but Baumgarten’s approach is less successful in recontextualizing the material than elsewhere in the book.  A number of her specific claims are original and provocative—e.g., the notion that Jewish tailoring practices would have subtly distinguished Jews’ garments from ostensibly identical Christian ones, an “internal code of sorts” (189) that made Jewish fashions simultaneously identical to and distinct from those of their neighbors.  But this argument is based on scanty (and chronologically late) evidence.  Moreover, much of her discussion in this chapter deals with prescriptive sources (e.g. halakhic discussions of the laws of shaatnez) which seem to reflect more the desires of rabbinic elites than the implemented practices of pious laypeople.

Chapter Six, however, fascinatingly extends Baumgarten’s approach from halakhic sources to narrative ones.  In a compelling analysis, she shows that “tales of pious pretenders”—rabbinic narratives in which ostensibly pious actions are discovered to be fraudulent and hypocritical—were retold and reinterpreted by medieval Ashkenazic authors in ways that accentuated female hypocrisy while eliminating that of men.  That is, the male “pious pretenders” in rabbinic literature were rehabilitated by storytellers at precisely the moment when ostensibly sincere female characters were deemed devious and duplicitous.  Again, this development tracks on to currents in contemporary elite Christian conceptions of lay piety—male religiosity was lionized as female piety was increasingly subject to surveillance and control, assumed to be fraudulent and self-interested rather than sincere and well-intentioned.

Chapter Seven concludes the book by drawing together the multiple threads of the argument—threads that Baumgarten elsewhere describes as making up “a bricolage” (87), or “a tapestry” (42).  Indeed, a tapestry is an apt analogy for the overall argument of the book.  In its large contours, the notion that Jewish piety ought to be approached via pious practices and with attention to the lay men and women who comprised the majorities within Jewish communities is compelling, and the overall picture that emerges is highly convincing.  But a close inspection of the reverse side of the tapestry, where the actual work of drawing linkages takes place, reveals a more complex and complicated picture—particularly when it comes to anchoring Jewish lay piety in its broader surrounding context.  To be sure, the scanty surviving documents from medieval Ashkenaz inevitably preclude clear and unidirectional conclusions regarding causality, and if the book leaves certain details regarding transmission and interreligious interaction unclear, it is nonetheless to the author’s credit that there are no simplistic overgeneralizations in the book, no attempts to quash the messy realities of daily life and religious beliefs into overly rigid categories or frameworks.

To begin with, the most pressing challenge to reconstructing the pious practices of the laity is one of sources.  Medieval Christian culture left behind myriad documents—written by, for, and about the laity—that historians have utilized in order to get beyond the normative and prescriptive image that emerges from top-down pronouncements.  The available Jewish source materials are far slimmer.  Thus, although Baumgarten “[takes] the vantage point of those who performed rituals rather than those who penned their descriptions and prescriptions” (216), it is those very descriptive and prescriptive texts that comprise the primary source base for her study.  Baumgarten is well aware of this methodological challenge, but never provides an explicit articulation of the method she utilizes to tease out real practices and values from the prescriptive sources in which they are reflected.  Occasionally, this leads to slippage between elite texts and the lay reality that they are assumed to describe—as when it is assumed that “increased adherence to these pious practices (tsitsit, tefillin, and shaatnez) coincided with greater attention to them in the writings of the rabbis who promoted heightened religious observance” (193).  When the sources that attest to the “increased adherence” are themselves “the writings of the rabbis,” how can we be certain that this coincidence of text and practice was not, on the contrary, a rabbinic conceit, an exclusively elite, literary development disconnected from the interests and actions of everyday Jews?

A similar complexity is manifested in Practicing Piety’s approach to Jewish-Christian relations.  Baumgarten’s illustrations of similarities between developments in Jewish and Christian piety are on the whole quite convincing—the “theoretical and ritual overlap” in the ideals, anxieties, and practices she charts are, as she puts it, “too extensive to be coincidental” (101).  But how to account for that overlap is not always clear, or at least consistent, throughout the book.  Her overall claim, as expressed in the context of Chapter Five, seems to be that “Jews wore distinctive clothing and they dressed like their neighbors” (275 n. 20): that is, that their similarities were, paradoxically, simultaneously constitutive of distinctiveness.  At times, such similarities between Jewish and Christian practices are taken to indicate a kind of bi-directional awareness and polemically inflected “competitive piety” (8 and passim)—as in the suggestion in Chapter One that Christian de-emphasis of menstrual impurity was dialectically related to Jewish privileging of nidah as the covenantal sign of Jewish fidelity.  Baumgarten recurrently gestures to Ivan Marcus’s theory of “inward acculturation,” and argues that Jews and Christians “harnessed shared rituals to express religious difference” (99).  Such commonalities in ideals and practices can thus be “simultaneously read as [appropriations] of Christian practice and as [polemics] against it” (112).  But at other points, Baumgarten limits herself to the more general observation that “the medieval Christian environment provides essential data for understanding the development of Jewish customs and ideas” (22)—that is to say, that the Christian atmosphere helps us understand Jewish developments, but was not necessarily the cause of them.  In this view, “awareness of Christian conduct is not synonymous with appropriation of its ideology or practices” (87, emphasis added), and Jewish and Christian pious practices might not have responded to one another so much as sprung from the same contextual environment, or “common ‘ritual instinct’” (44).  It would have been helpful to distinguish these two approaches from one another more carefully, especially since the polemical valences of the “appropriation” approach occasionally come across as strained.  To take just one example, in Chapter Three the similarities between the Jewish Memorbuch and Christian martyrologies and necrologies are understood to reflect not just “shared ritual instinct,” but conscious polemical appropriation.  The liturgical use of such necrologies during the Mass is thus juxtaposed with “the decision to remember the dead and their donations between the Torah and the Musaf services–with Musaf connoting sacrifice in the ancient Temple,” and read as polemically intended, as “an expression of the inward acculturation that typified medieval Jewish life” (112).  One could question whether “polemics” (micro-polemics?) of this sort were really intended or perceived as such, or whether the choice of placement of memorial rites simply obeyed the internal logic of the Jewish liturgy, in which the junction of Torah reading and Musaf was a moment when interruptions to the standard service were licit.

The ambiguity in terms of precisely how Jewish and Christian currents intersected with one another is mirrored in a certain vagueness concerning the precise factors that led to change over time.  Time and again, Baumgarten convincingly demonstrates that developments in Jewish piety—as practiced by lay Jews and as regulated by elite rabbis—mirrored developments in Christian Europe.  But a huge body of scholarship has sought to account for why Christian piety (and especially female piety) shifted and became increasingly regulated over the course of the High Middle Ages.  Much of that scholarship is referenced in Practicing Piety, but it is not wholly clear how those broader causal developments impacted upon the shifts in Jewish practice.  Put differently, did Jewish piety undergo changes over the course of the Middle Ages because Christian piety did, or were certain external factors impinging upon both religious communities, living as they did in the same cultural ambit?  And if the latter was the case, what were those external factors?  Baumgarten convincingly shows that change was afoot in the high Middle Ages, but the reader is not always certain as to why.

Baumgarten’s stimulating book thus spurs its readers to consider the extent to which Jewish piety adapted, competed with, or was indistinguishable from Christian piety—and further research by scholars of medieval Ashkenaz will no doubt engage with and extend the arguments that are so productively introduced here.  Indeed, Practicing Piety opens up numerous such avenues of future research.  To highlight just one, the very category of “lay piety,” as applied to the Jews of medieval Europe, demands that scholars revisit entrenched assumptions concerning rabbinic leadership and social structures within Jewish communities.  In medieval Christian culture, “the laity” could be contrasted with “the religious”—the priests, monks, and clerics who occupied (at least in theory) a defined and circumscribed position within society.  When, in the high Middle Ages, Beguines, tertiary Franciscans, “heretics,” and others challenged the boundaries between the religious and the laity, they were responding to real, deeply embedded socio-religious structures.  But is it safe to assume that the lines between Christian clerics and the laity tracked onto those separating the rabbis from other members of the community?  How could we determine whether the medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic elite comprised a socially and politically distinct “religious class,” with which a “laity” can be contrasted?  Practicing Piety models a way to combine moralistic and narrative sources with halakhic ones, and to use them to sharpen and deepen our notions of how social structures within Jewish communities impacted upon religious observance.

By productively, and provocatively, challenging the entrenched “top-down” model of medieval Jewish piety, Practicing Piety sheds new light upon the social, gendered, and interreligious dynamics of Ashkenazic religious practices.  Scholars of medieval halakhah, spirituality, and Jewish-Christian relations will find it to be an indispensable resource in their continued exploration of the complex, messy, and immensely fruitful religious culture of medieval Ashkenaz.

David Shyovitz is Assistant Professor of Medieval Jewish History at Northwestern University, and is presently a Yad Hanadiv Visiting Fellow in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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