Rabbinic Parodies of Jewish and Christian
Literature by Holger Michael
Zellentin (Texts and Studies in
Ancient Judaism, 139: Mohr Siebeck)
Do the Talmud and Midrash engage in
Holger Michael Zellentin seeks to assess how
the classical rabbis
imitate previous texts with comical
result shows rabbinic society and its
literature participating confidently in the
great debates of the Byzantine and the Sasanian Empires, commenting on issues such
as pedagogy, abstinence, dream
interpretation, inheritance law, ritual
purity, and Christian supersessionism and
asceticism. In constant conversation with
the Hebrew Bible, the rabbis reveal
themselves as capable of critically
Jewish tradition, as well as of playfully
engaging select Gospel passages favoured by
their Christian interlocutors.
Parody is constituted by literary repetition of a text in a manner that introduces some variation; most succinctly put, it is repetition with a difference. The Late Antique Rabbis, however, habitually repeat tradition in new contexts, creating difference devoid of parody. How, then, do we recognize parodic difference? The following story from the Palestinian Talmud (henceforth: Yerushalmi) marks its repetition of Scripture as grotesquely different and thereby as charged with parody.
In the wake of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Rabbi Hananya migrates from Palestine to Babylonia and apparently lives in the town of Nahar Paqod. There, he adds a month to that year's calendar in order to maintain the synchronicity of the Jewish lunar year with the natural solar year. Intercalation is a serious matter, normally governed exclusively by the rabbinic authorities in Palestine, and only when it is impossible for them do so is one allowed to intercalate in the Diaspora. At the time of the story, however, rabbinic authority had been reestablished in Palestine, and Rabbi Isaac and Rabbi Nathan are sent from Palestine to Babylonia to reprove Hananya for usurping a privilege reserved for the Palestinian Rabbis. They do so by repeating Scripture — with a difference:
Rabbi Isaac stood up and read: "It is written in the Torah 'these are the appointed festivals of Hananya, the nephew of Rabbi Joshua."
[The Babylonian Rabbis] said: "These are the appointed festivals of G-d [the holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them (Leviticus 23:4)]!"
[Rabbi Isaac] said to them: In our place [pa, i.e., in Israel, this is so, but here?] Rabbi Nathan stood up and finished [the Scriptural citation]: "For out of Babylon shall go forth the Torah and the word of G-d from Nahar Paqod."
[The Babylonian Rabbis] said to him: "[No, it is written]: For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3)!
He said to them: In our place [i.e. in Israel, this is so, but here?].
As Dov Noy aptly noted over half a century ago, the passage is a clear instance of rabbinic parody.6 Parody, according to Linda Hutcheon, is "a form of repetition with ironic critical distance, marking difference rather than similarity."' The Yerushalmi very clearly marks the differences between Scripture and its parodic repetition. In response to the parody, the Babylonian Rabbis in the Yerushalmi protest by repeating Scripture correctly, without parodic difference. Rabbi Isaac and Rabbi Nathan use this as an opportunity to point out that they imitate and distort Scripture in a way that emphasizes Hananya's impertinence. Their parodic version of the Torah begins by citing the original, but they then state that the festivals are not God's but Hananya's and that Torah does not go forth from Zion but rather from Babylonia. The Palestinian Rabbis claim that if one were to allow the intercalation of months outside of Israel, one would, writes Noy, effectively "turn Zion into Babylonia and Jerusalem into Nahar Paqod." Moreover, the story associates Hananya with the Tetragrammaton.' It thereby accuses Hananya of taking the place of the One whom the Rabbis perceive as the divine author of Scripture, an outrage rarely paralleled in rabbinic literature. The format, finally, imitates the ancient synagogal presentation of the Torah: Rabbi Isaac reads from the Pentateuch, and Rabbi Nathan completes the reading, in the style of the haftarah, with a passage from the Prophets." The seriousness of the format only heightens the tension with the absurdity of the content.
The text, however, does not wish to satirize Scripture or the Judaic tradition but to protect both against Hananya's alleged transgression. Linda Hutcheon writes that "parody ... is a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion, not always at the expense of the parodied texts."" In other words, the story seeks to expose the understanding of Scripture effectuated by Hananya's actions, an understanding that subverts Palestinian rabbinic authority over Babylonia." The Yerushalmi uses parody in order to underline the discrepancy between Scripture and Hananya's actions. When the Babylonian Rabbis in turn rectify Isaac's and Nathan's citations, the two Palestinian sages respond: yes, in Israel this is how we would cite Scripture, but Babylonian Rabbis apparently hold a different position. As is often the case in rabbinic literature, the biblical punchline is not quoted in the text; rather, it is the continuation of the scriptural citation that the learned rabbinic audience is expected to grasp: all Jews must celebrate the festivals at the time appointed for them in Palestine and not according to Hananya's intercalation." The Palestinian Rabbis eventually prevail.
Thus, the legal discourse in this passage from the Yerushalmi simultaneously uses and problematizes parody. It uses parody in order to expose Hananya's actions at the same time that it associates parody with transgression of rabbinic ritual law (henceforth halakha). The Yerushalmi does so in order to bolster its own authority over the Babylonian renegades. The parody is staged during a precise historical moment: Isaiah Gafni has described the halakhic and socio-political tension between the Rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia." Accordingly, I argue that the amoraic rabbinic literature" of the fourth to the seventh centuries CE, the Palestinian Midrashim, the Yerushalmi, and the Babylonian Talmud (henceforth: Bavli) all addressed discursive tensions of their times by parodying literature and exegesis produced by Rabbis and by Greek and Syriac Christian authors. Such parodies appear, within narrowly defined limits, amidst the Rabbis' generally serious halakhic and midrashic discourse. These parodies, though not common, illuminate the Rabbis' practice of criticizing themselves and their opponents within and beyond their own groups and may lead us to reevaluate all instances of rabbinic repetition with a difference as expressions of possible critical distance.
The mishearing of "peacemakers" as "cheese makers" in Monty Python's Sermon on the Mount epitomizes timeless elements of parody as "a form of repetition with ironic critical distance, marking difference rather than similarity." My definition of parody does not treat rabbinic parody as a "genre" but rather as a literary technique that is firmly embedded in the established rabbinic genres such as the talmudic sugya, the midrashic sermon, and midrashic exegesis. Instead of defining what parody is, I attempt to reach the most nuanced characterization that can serve as the basis for analyzing the largest possible number of rabbinic parodies. My approach follows Linda Hutcheon's well-known study (with some important historical strictures) as well as a little-noticed gem of literary theory, Patrick O'Neill's The Comedy of Entropy.
Most contemporary theorists, Linda Hutcheon among them, seek to differentiate between a parody's nuanced way of relating to other texts on the one hand, and comical criticism, or satire, on the other." Hutcheon asks:
[Parody's] repetition is always of another discursive text. The ethos of that act of repetition can vary, but its "target" is always intramural in this sense. How, then, does parody come to be confused with satire, which is extramural (social, moral) in its ameliorative aim to hold up to ridicule the vices and follies of mankind, with an eye to their correction?
Hutcheon does not view satire, but rather textual markers of difference (i.e., irony) as the core of parody; at the same time, she grants the possibility, and even the frequent occurrence, of the interaction between parody and satire. Others, like Margaret Rose, consider satire an integral part of parody.22 Hutcheon's differentiation between parody and satire has rightly found wide acclaim in contemporary literary theory. Accordingly, all parodies in this book are ironic parodies. At the same time, however, I restrict my own discussion in the present book to parodies that also contain satirical elements: satirical parodies. While my focus on satirical parodies restricts the corpus of inquiry, each individual example can be assessed against the background of a broader basis of evidence, as becomes clear when considering the relationship of irony and satire.
I shall define irony as an implicit and allusive and satire as an explicit and demonstrative form of critical humor. According to this view, irony hints at the incongruity of several realities, without guiding the audience to appreciate these realities' actual collision within the text. Satire, accordingly, marks the incongruity more clearly, and often implies or even offers a remedy; satirical parodies are therefore more evident than ironic ones. Restriction to satirical parodies for the purpose of this study will promote a better understanding of the literary function of rabbinic parodies. Investigation of rabbinic parodies in the context of their inner- and extra-textual targets as well as close attention to the historical circumstances in which these parodies were produced, yield additional evidence. Future discussions may consider ways in which rabbis ironize the texts they retell on a much broader scale; I regard this study as the first step in the reassessment of rabbinic modes of repetition." For the same reason, I consider parodic imitation and parodic allusion as contiguous modes of parody; I distinguish between them only in order to mark various degrees of intensity of textual imitation (as will become relevant especially in the case of parodies of non-rabbinic texts.
I have discussed three modes of rabbinic parody: intra-rabbinic parody (an internal parody within the Babylonian and within the Palestinian rabbinic community, in the Bavli and in Wayiqra Rabbah respectively); inter-rabbinic parody (a parody of the Palestinian tradition in the Bavli and another, which inverts the scenario in the Yerushalmi); and external parody of non-rabbinic texts in Babylonia and in Palestine (in the Bavli and in Bereshit Rabbah). The examples here along with those discussed by Dov Noy, Joshua Levinson, Israel Yuval, Burton Visotzky, Peter Schafer, and Daniel Boyarin, are few, and the following assessment of the ubiquity and the general nature of parody in rabbinic literature remains preliminary.
Textual imitation and alteration are basic modes of rabbinic literature, and irony is prevalent as well. This, however, does not mean that we can regard all rabbinic texts as parodic simply because they repeat traditional Jewish (or Christian) texts and play with the difference between the source and its repackaged version. Such an approach would merely circumvent the question of parody and make us return instead to what I see as one of the core questions in the study of rabbinic literature: to what extent, and how exactly, did the rabbis express (or ironize) any cognizance of their own inventiveness ? Satirical parody, in my view, allows us to address this question in a preliminary way. Hence, while I hope that future studies will focus on ironic parodies, this conclusion is dedicated to satirical ones, parodies that humorously criticize the Jewish and Christian texts they imitate, or much more commonly, these texts' previous rabbinic audiences.
While elements of humor and irony are prevalent in rabbinic literature, I suspect that only a fraction of rabbinic stories contain elements of satirical parody. I conclude by reflecting on the usefulness and limitations of viewing rabbinic literature through the lens of satirical parody and by discussing a final example from the Palestinian tradition that leads to a revaluation of the relationship between internal to external parodies, and between Palestinian and Babylonian ones.
Parody I have argued, is not a genre of rabbinic literature but rather a literary technique employed in all of the Amoraic rabbinic genres: exegetical Midrash, homiletic Midrash, and the talmudic sugya. There are some recurrent patterns in the ways the rabbis use parody. For example, voiced parody, in which a character voices the imitated text, occurs in intra-rabbinic, inter-rabbinic, and exter Ezra's peregrinations; (ii) information is given about the author's own observations to determine the zodiacal sign of the city. Interestingly enough, virtually the same information is given in the Liber primus de gentibus and Tractatus Pluviarum.1 The third example refers to four consecutive sections of `Olam II, whose common denominator is the attempt to quantify astrological influence by assigning portions of powers to the planets and to the 12 keys of the Moon (according to the precedence of their dignities, their position in the horoscopic places, and their various conditions with respect to the Sun). As it happens, virtually the same information is offered in a long passage of the Liber primus de gentibus.
World Astrology in Other Parts of Abraham Ibn Ezra's Oeuvre
The two versions of Sefer ha-'Olam are no doubt Ibn Ezra's longest, most concentrated, and most substantial contribution in world astrology, but they are by no means his only achievement in this field. To complete the picture, we should examine the esoteric interpretatiobbinic, and external parodies are most fruitful and allow us to evaluate external parody in light of rabbinic self-criticism and vice versa. The external parodies discussed in this book relate the non-rabbinic texts they imitate to tendencies within the rabbinic movements, and thereby offer clear moments of rabbinic self-criticism. Recognizing external parodies, therefore, allows us to analyze the critical aspects of inner- and inter-rabbinic parodies from an established basis. Studying the imitative technique of intra- and inner rabbinic parodies, in turn, provides the foundation for the study of the ways in which external parody imitates non-rabinnic texts.
All of the parodies discussed in this book reflect the Hellenistic cultural contexts in which they were produced. The combination of the serious and the comic, which Boyarin associates with the Bakhtinian notion of "Menippean satire," is particularly relevant, as I explain in the Introduction. Moreover, the parodies I discuss fall well within Boyarin's categories: they "call into question" or put "limits on the efficacy of intellectuals' practice," as Boyarin puts it, when Rava for example does not live up to his own standards, or falls prey to Bar Hedya, or when Rashbi dwells in a cave like an ascetic or believes in a "Christian" epiphany. Similarly, the parodies do "not involve an abandonment of the authority" of these intellectuals' practices, and Rava and Rashbi ultimately prevail on behalf of the rabbinic majority. Like other forms of narrativized Hellenistic philosophical discourse, the parodies all play out their comical criticism in very concrete and physical terms. A cat and mice, a drunkard in a graveyard, a book lost on a boat, beatings in front of a synagogue, bribes, family strife, and the buried bones in Tiberias produce the decorum typical of what Boyarin calls "slum naturalism. While it may be too early to determine whether Boyarin's terms will remain useful in the long run, I hold that his cultural contextualization of the rabbis within the broader realm of the Second Sophistic is already fruitful. Boyarin has rightly emphasized the rabbis' penchant for the serio-comic, obviating or at least complicating the question of whether or not the Bavli is serious at any given point. It is often both serious and comic, and uses irony and comedy at least occasionally to heighten the drama of serious halakhic discourse.
Boyarin's argument for the serio-comic, of course, focuses on the Bavli, effectively sidelining the greatest part of late antique rabbinic literature, and the part which originated in the same milieu as the authors and epigones of the Second Sophistic — the Palestinian Midrashim and the Yerushalmi. I would like to conclude by considering another parody from the Yerushalmi and the historical development of the serio-comic from Palestine to Babylonia.
The following Yerushalmi story describes the banning of Rabbi Eliezer, perhaps the best-known narrative in Talmudic literature. Whereas interpretations of the Bavli version of the "Oven of Akhnai" (in Bava Metsi`a 59b) abound, few analyses consider the Bavli's Palestinian source, let alone its literary sophistication.' Yet in my view, it is precisely in the Yerushalmi that we find another external satirical parody, subsequently adapted and watered down by the Bavli. The following story about the excommunication and reinstatement of Rabbi Eliezer, like the one discussed in Chapter Five, recognizes the dangers associated with departing from the view of the rabbinic majority. In this case, the majority holds that an oven whose segments are detachable is susceptible to uncleanness ("unclean" in rabbinic parlance) whereas Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with great perseverance and heavenly support, arguing that this "Oven of Hakhina" is always to be considered unsusceptible to uncleanness ("pure"):
[The rabbis] wished to ban Rabbi Eliezer.
They said, "Who will go and let him know?"
Rabbi Akiba said, "I shall go and let him know."
He went to him and said to him, "Rabbi, Rabbi, your colleagues are banning you." [Eliezer] took [Aqiva] and went outside and said, "Carob, 0 Carob, if the law is according to the words [of the rabbinic majority], uproot yourself,"
But it did not uproot itself. "If the law is according to my words, uproot yourself,"
And it uprooted itself.
"If the law is according to them, return,"
And it did not return.
"If the law is according to my words, return,"
And it returned.
All this [divine] praise is bestowed upon him] and [still] the law is not according to Rabbi Eliezer?
Rabbi Hananya said, "When [the Torah] was given, it was given only [within the parameters that one must] incline after the majority, Exodus 23:2]." But did not Rabbi Eliezer know [to] incline after the majority [Exodus 23:2]?
He became angry only because they burned his purities in front of him.
We learned [in the Mishna]: If he cut [an oven] into segments and placed sand in between the segments, Rabbi Eliezer rules that it is pure and the sages rule that it is impure. This is the oven of Hakhinai. [Mishna Kelim 5:10, see also Tosefta Eduyot 2.1]
Rabbi Yirmiah said, "A great tribulation occurred on that day.
Every place on which Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes burned."
Not only that but even one grain of wheat, half of it was burned [after Rabbi Eliezer looks at it] and [the other] half [not looked at by the rabbi] was not burned.
And the columns of the assembly house were trembling.
Rabbi Yehoshua said to them, "If the sages are fighting, what care is it of yours?" A heavenly voice came forth and said, "The law accords with Eliezer my son."
Rabbi Yehoshua said, "It is not in heaven [Deuteronomy 30:12]."
Rabbi Qerispa, Rabbi Yohanan in the name
of Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said, "If someone
says to me, 'Thus teaches Rabbi Eliezer,'
then I teach according to his words. But the
Tannaim change [the names and attribute
Eliezer's teachings to others]."
Once [Rabbi Eliezer] was walking through a market, and he saw a woman cleaning her house, and she threw it out and [the refuse] fell on his head.
He said, "It seems that today my colleagues will bring me near [i.e., lift the ban], as it is written, 'He that lifts up the needy [on ti] from the heap of refuse [mum; Psalms 113:7]."
Rabbi Eliezer's halakhic opinion concerning the susceptibility of this oven to impurity is supported by miracles, a local earthquake and a voice from heaven that supports his interpretation of the Torah. Despite this, however, the majority of rabbis disagrees with him and even bans him for being obstinate, attributing his own (acceptable) legal opinions to others — the ultimate damnatio memoriae, perhaps much worse for the rabbis than the fate of Rashbi's opponents discussed in the previous chapter.
At least in the case of the Oven of Akhnai story, it seems that parody and the serio-comic reached the Bavli through inner-rabbinic transmission. While this seems typical, we also should note that the Bavli occasionally waters down different elements of particular parodies like this one, since the imitation of the Gospel and the satirical allusion to Greek patristic discourse had become obscured in its new context. Still, as Schafer's analysis of the story and circumstantial evidence provided by Ephrem, the Diatessaron, and others suggests, the figure of Rabbi Eliezer in the Bavli maintains the prominent theme in the Yerushalmi of contemplating how far a rabbi can go in exploring Christian hermeneutics. The Bavli's examination of the value of miracles for halakhic discourse in even greater detail, then, should equally be viewed as a further and more daring exploration of the Yerushalmi's main theme. The gospel parody in the Bavli, even if less clearly recognizable as such, may turn out to be more, not less, engaged in the consequences of Christian hermeneutics. Moreover, even if elements of particular parodies were compromised during their journey east, the rabbinic heyday of the serio-comic in general and parody in particular was not in Palestine but in Babylonia, where the rabbis further developed Palestinian styles and techniques.
In order to explore how rabbinic parodic techniques evolved upon reaching the Babylonian rabbis, I first tentatively seek to differentiate between Palestinian and Babylonian parodies, while of course taking into account the generic qualities of the two corpora as a whole. The two most obvious differences between Babylonian and Palestinian parodies concern the imitation of texts and the laying bare of inconsistencies in the views of the rabbis' opponents — whether the rabbis shared these opponents' views or not.
Criticizing an opponent using his own logic and terminology, to begin with, is perhaps the most sophisticated aspect of late ancient satire, and among the examples in this book it is most clearly evident in the Babylonian parodies. The technique of exposing internal tensions in the targeted text is less developed in Palestinian parodies.'" The Babylonian parodies, in contrast, seem to be more focused on textual imitation than the Palestinian ones. The Palestinian parodies imitate texts in a most understated way, showing less interest in analyzing the inner logic of the imitated texts. These differences between Babylonian and Palestinian rabbinic parody, based on the dozen or so examples discussed here and elsewhere, reveal the status of parody in rabbinic literature in general in two ways.
While textual play and irony may abound, satire and parody are indeed rare in Babylonian as well as Palestinian rabbinic literature, and the absence of a formal rabbinic notion of parody also points to their exceptional character. At the same time, the satirical sophistication and imitative intensity of Babylonian parody in comparison with its Palestinian precursor may indicate two apparently contradictory possibilities: either the Babylonian rabbinic authors were more aware of the parodic effect they created and hence dedicated more effort to it, while the Palestinian rabbis employed parody as "natural" and self-evident part of their discursive tradition; or, the Babylonian rabbinic audience was less attuned to the understated Hellenistic parodic allusion, and therefore needed clearer guidance, whereas the Palestinian audience had greater mastery of parodic conventions. Seeking to reconcile this contradiction of greater Babylonian parodic sophistication outside of the context of Graeco-Roman literary traditions might thus tell us something about the history of the pan-rabbinic textual community, a history that contains elements of continuity and evolution as much as partial brakes and new beginnings.
Rabbinic parody might have been one such new beginning. The textual community of the Hebrew Bible at some point made use of parody, but these parodies seem all but forgotten in the late ancient readings of the Bible." While the reasons for this break are beyond the scope of this study, it is important to note that the rupture caused by the slow linguistic shift from Hebrew to Aramaic and Greek during the Second Temple period would have limited the possibility of a nuanced literary reading of biblical Hebrew texts. The canonization of the Bible in many ways homogenized the biblical corpus, a development that might have overshadowed the satirical elements contained in it." The destruction of the Second Temple and its aftermath and the growing distance from the cultural context of the Bible might have rendered the biblical parodies imperceptible to late ancient rabbis.
Comical reflection on the Israelite tradition in general, as well as reflection on comical aspects of the Israelite tradition in particular, became a mostly dispensable commodity for the rabbinic guardians and interpreters of Scripture. Accordingly, we have little evidence of parody in early, tannaitic rabbinic literature, even though textual imitation, irony, and criticism are present. We do find satirical parodies in Palestinian rabbinic literature, but its imitative technique is limited and allusive and presupposes the familiarity of its audience with imitative criticism. Finally, we find obvious parodies and parodic virtuosity and rather well-marked parodies in the Bavli.
Though evidence is scarce, it remains tempting to point to a chronological trajectory from the virtual nonexistence of parody in the tannaitic period, through the recognizable parodies in the Palestinian Amoraic texts, and to the well-substantiated and sophisticated parodies in the Bavli. If the overwhelmingly parodic orientation of some post-talmudic rabbinic texts, such as Alpha Beta de-Ben Sira and late versions of Toldoth Yeshu, are also considered, the literary evolution of parody becomes more evident. This evolution began in the Graeco-Roman milieu of serio-comic philosophical discourse but, continuing past the prime of the Second Sophistic, relied on an increasing awareness among rabbinic authors of the techniques and potential of parodic criticism (long before the invention of the term)."
As a corollary to such broad speculations, it should be noted that the development of rabbinic literature itself over time became more conducive to providing the prerequisite of parody I discussed throughout this book: a parody imitates texts that it expects its audience to know. In the tannaitic period, the rabbis constituted themselves as a movement and aside from the Bible did not have a clear body of Jewish texts that could be imitated." Parodic allusion and understated parody became a part of the Palestinian Amoraic literature along with the literary sensitivity of Greco-Roman Hellenism, and the parodies of the Amoraic rabbis could imitate a much larger number of rabbinic and non-rabbinic texts. We find fully-developed and clearly apparent parodies in the Bavli and in the early post-talmudic period (though in this post-talmudic stage they were not so much part of halakhic discourse). The second break in the history of Jewish parody occurred in the Middle Age, when, to the best of my knowledge, parody was largely absent from halakhic discourse. Still, parody continued to be appreciated in medieval gospel parodies, and a sense of the parodic effect remained a part of the Jewish tradition, as evidenced, for example, by the late medieval and early modern Purim-spiel.
To reiterate, our limited understanding of many aspects of rabbinic culture and the transmission history of rabbinic texts skews our perception of rabbinic parody. On the one hand, many of the parodied texts are now lost, and many parodies were subsequently altered to such an extent that the relationship between the parody and the imitated text became obfuscated. This diminishes our ability to recognize a potentially greater prominence of rabbinic parody. More troubling, on the other hand, is the fact that due to a series of textual alterations, determined by factors fully or partially unknown to us, late versions of an earlier text may seem parodic to us even though the rabbinic author never intended this.
This insight, however, is not the end but the beginning of a critical examination of rabbinic parody. As I pointed out in the Introduction and have attempted to illustrate throughout the book, there are many ways to evaluate the intention of a satirical parodist. Moreover, the efficient application of the concept of parody generates cumulative evidence for assessing the relationship between the parody and the imitated text. Parodies combine straightforward imitation with alterations at the expense of the imitated text, and an analysis of this relationship between the two texts can confirm or refute our suspicion of a rabbinic author's parodic intention. Among our inroads into rabbinic critical thought, parody enjoys a special privilege of internal verifiability.
My findings have the potential to affect the way we read broader aspects of rabbinic literature. Perhaps the most important suggestion in this book concerns the continuity between intra-, inter-, and external rabbinic parody. Parody may be a modern concept, but it is a concept that allows us to reassess two important aspects of rabbinic literature about which a scholarly consensus has not yet been reached: rabbinic self-criticism and rabbinic familiarity with non-rabbinic literature. If parody is not a peculiar and isolated phenomenon but a constant, albeit infrequent, presence in all amoraic texts, then it may be possible to generalize our findings concerning parody and apply them to these two controversial issues in rabbinic scholarship.
As indicated in the Introduction and throughout this book, rabbinic self-criticism is the subject of important recent studies. Boyarin has argued that the Bavli stages the figure of the rabbinic sage both in tragedy and in comedy; Wimpfheimer has pointed to the self-criticism that constitutes rabbinic legal narratives; Vidas illustrates the Bavli's ability to examine the human motivations behind the making of rabbinic Judaism; Kalmin and Rubenstein focus on the Bavli's distance from and criticism of the Palestinian rabbinic community, and Schafer considers the ironic early rabbinic reckonings with the Israelite past. This book builds on and seeks to develop these findings, which collectively amount to our beginning understanding of a limited, but real rabbinic sense of critical self-assessment. These scholarly treatments are concerned primarily with the Bavli (and with the tannaitic tradition); I have explored the implications of these findings for Amoraic Palestinian rabbinic Judaism as well. The concept of parody helps us recognize in Palestinian texts aspects of rabbinic self-criticism comparable to those in the Bavli; perhaps fully understanding the parodies in the Bavli necessitates examining comparable elements in the Yerushalmi first.
Parody also sheds light on rabbinic criticism of non-rabbinic texts. Parody may, in due time, teach us more about the rabbis' views of many non-rabbinic texts: Jewish and gentile magical and mystical narratives, Greek Novels, and Manichean, Mandean and Zoroastrian texts. In as far as such texts have been preserved, I would not be surprised to find rabbinic parodies of those aspects of these texts that would have been appealing to the rabbis. I did, however, begin my inquiry with the most obvious non-rabbinic group, "Christians" of all sorts, especially because they produced a large amount of literature in close geographical, temporal, and especially cultural proximity to the Palestinian and the Babylonian authors of rabbinic parodies. Christians, moreover, competed with the rabbis for a monopoly on the Hebrew Bible and challenged the Jewish claim to Jerusalem and Palestine. Such cultural proximity made them a prime target of rabbinic satirical parody, which builds on shared exegetical traditions, disputed religious territory, and rabbinic attraction to and bewilderment by many aspects of Christianity. If the rabbis had not parodied Christians, they probably would not have parodied any other extra-rabbinical group as well.
Since Christians in many ways played a prominent role in the lives of all Palestinian Amoraim and likely in the lives of many Babylonian Amoraim as well, the absence of a term translatable as "Christian" may also reflect the rabbinic perception of "Christianity" as many things and many groups. If so, it may well be that aspects of what we today call "Christian" simply do not correspond to a single word or concept that refers to the vast array of characteristics and groups, such as the orthodox Greek and Syriac Christians, Valentinian and Sethian Gnostics, Tatianist ascetics, Mandeans, Montanists, Manicheans, and other loosely associated factions that might have included believers in Jesus who considered themselves Jewish.
Hence, the problem with the rabbinic view of Christians is two-sided. On the one hand, the rabbis might have had a very fragmented, localized, and idiosyncratic understanding of Christianity combined with genuine or strategic lack of interest. On the other hand, our historical perspective might lead us astray: examining the rabbis' view of Christianity might be historically objectionable not only because there were many rabbinic views but also because the question itself is misleading. The terms "Christian" and "Christianity" evoke, even in the mind of a critical scholar, associations that have little to do with the phenomena experienced by the late ancient rabbis.
"Christianity," just like "parody," is in this sense a modern phenomenon that should be applied to rabbinic times only with utmost care. Identifying certain rabbinic texts as parodies helps us recognize the non-rabbinic texts imitated by the rabbis and the specific "Christian" aspects with which they were concerned.
A good example is the Encratite background of the sermon against wine in Wayiqra Rabbah discussed in Chapter Two. The simultaneously essential and tangential relevance of "Christianity" for this parody, furthermore, illustrates the importance of distinguishing between a Christian background of rabbinic parody and a rabbinic parody of Christianity. The story about the drunken father is a parody of the temperance sermon's Encratite exegesis. Calling these tendencies "Christian" would obliterate not only the Encratites' historical status as outlawed heretics but would also hint at theological issues ranging from the Nicene creed through the abrogation of the Torah and finally to Christian anti-Judaism and its historical consequences. The temperance sermon, or at least its parody, has no interest in such issues. Calling the Encratite tendencies of the sermon against wine "Gnostic" (as Epiphanius implies in his version of Tatian's cosmology) may be slightly more relevant to the parody of the sermon — the story of the drunken father focuses, among other things, on the nature of evil. The central concern of the story of the drunkard, however, is simply the status of wine and the evil nature of the sons, and the Gnostic context distracts from the most important intra-rabbinic focus of the parody. In this sense, Christianity or Gnosticism are not immediately relevant to the parody itself.
Hence, even if the rabbinic sermon against wine, the imitated text, has very strong affinities with non-rabbinic texts, we must carefully distinguish between this background and the parody's limited interest in it. Here the "Christian" background is peripheral. At the same time, the Encratite background proves essential in contextualizing the intellectual climate of the fourth and fifth centuries, allowing us to evaluate and illustrate the possibility of a rift between the story of the drunkard on the one hand and the sermon against wine on the other and the odd nature, by rabbinic standards, of the sermon against wine itself. In this sense, "Christian" "Gnostic" "asceticism" is central for understanding the parody."
Hence, "Christianity," in the totalizing sense in which it is often understood, as a religion, a tradition, in fact, as anything associated with belief in Jesus, might not have preoccupied the rabbis all that much. There is no word for Christians in rabbinic literature, just as there is no word for parody, if such nominalist speculations are admissible. In Palestine, under Christian rule, the rabbis' "natural" notion of parody might explain the absence of the word in rabbinic literature, just as "Christianity," might have been too ubiquitous for the rabbis, and at the same time too fragmented, to necessitate a word.52 The rabbis refer to things "Christian" only obliquely and ambiguously and mostly abstain from doing so at all — at least partially as a polemical gesture of seeking to condemn them to oblivion.
Unsurprisingly, the notion of "Christianity" is more relevant in the Bavli, which was written at a time during which there were fewer and more easily defined Christian movements. And just as we saw a clearer notion of parody in the Bavli precisely because it does not operate in the discursive realm of Greco-Roman satire, we also see a much clearer notion of Christianity in the Bavli, outside of Byzantium. As the story of Imma Shalom illustrates, the Bavli stands on much firmer ground when it comes to confronting Christianity." The story corroborates my reluctant nominalism by naming the "evangel." If "the gospel" exists as a term for the rabbis, albeit merely as a foil for a parodic etymology as a "margin of falsehood," Christianity may exist as well for the Bavli's authors.
Parody, in short, can be a useful approach for assessing rabbinic views of Christianity. No rabbinic text, however, focuses on Christianity exclusively. Rabbinic parodies and the rabbinic concerns they negotiate emerge as most poignant if we view the rabbis as capable of simultaneously reflecting on internal and external matters. Here, in my view, resides the central lesson to be learned from this study. When reading rabbinic texts, we should expect a conservative outlook that allows for self-criticism of the rabbinic endeavor. Simultaneously, we should always consider the possibilities of rabbinic dialogue with outsiders as well as constant presence of non-rabbinic voices. Sometimes, other cultures are the focus of criticism; other times, these cultures, be they Greco-Roman, Christian, or Zoroastrian, manifest themselves within the text, hidden even from the rabbinic author himself — heresiology itself may be a prime example of this phenomenon. Sometimes we can tell the difference, and sometimes we cannot. Sometimes non-rabbinic voices are welcome, and sometimes they are parodied. Parody helps us better understand the rabbis' critical views of themselves and their opponents and allows us to relate conflicts within rabbinic circles to the rabbis' conflicts with those beyond, and vice versa.
The Legal Methodology of Late Nehardean
Sages in Sasanian Babylonia by Barak S. Cohen (Brill
Reference Library of Judaism: Brill) This book consists of a systematic analysis of the halakhic/legal
methodology of fourth and fifth century Nehardean amoraim in
Babylonia (as well as their identity and dating). The book
uncovers various distinct characteristics present in the
halakhic decision making and source interpretation, and
demonstrates how certain amoraim can be characterized as
portraying consistent interpretive and legal approaches
throughout talmudic literature. Understanding the methodological
characteristics that distinguish some amoraim from other amoraim
can aid the talmudic interpreter/scholar in clarifying the legal
foundations of their rulings, the proofs that they bring within
talmudic discourse, as well as their disputes and
interpretations. This allows a better understanding of the
development of Jewish law and the legal system in talmudic
Barak S. Cohen, Ph.D. (2004) in Talmud and Rabbinics, is a lecturer at the Department of Talmud, Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University. He has published extensively on the intellectual history, chronology and historiography of the Babylonian Amoraim. More
Talmud in Its Iranian Context edited by Carol Bakhos, M. Rahim Shayegan
(Texts & Studies in Ancient Judaism: Mohr Siebeck) Scholars of rabbinics and Iranists are increasingly turning to the
orbit of Iranian civilization in order to explore the extent to
which the Babylonian Talmud was exposed to the theological and
liturgical discourse of the Zoroastrian religion, as well as
Sasanian legal practices. Here possibly for the first time, scholars
within these fields are brought together in concert to examine the
interaction between Jewish and Iranian cultures in terms of legal
exegesis, literature, and religious thought. The implications of
this groundbreaking effort are vastly significant for Jewish and
This volume reflects cutting edge scholarship in the field of rabbinics and Iranian Studies by exploring the Iranian background of one of the cornerstones of the Jewish tradition, the Babylonian Talmud, which was composed under the rule of Sasanian emperors.
The present volume represents the revised proceedings of a conference held at UCLA in 2007, which brought together some of the finest minds and cutting edge scholars in the fields of Iranian and Jewish Studies, in order jointly to pursue the work of exploring the Sasanian background of the Babylonian Talmud. Over the decades, numerous studies have traced the impact Greek culture, institutions, language, philosophy, and arts had on the Jewish tradition. Scholars of past generations also explored the relationship between Persian and Jewish sources. They, however, concerned themselves to a significantly lesser degree with the role Iranian civilization played in the shaping of Jews living within its orbit, and paid hardly any attention to the relationship between Sasanian and Babylonian Talmudic dicta. This volume reflects more sophisticated methodologies and fresh approaches to the issue, approaches that acknowledge the necessity to understand Sasanian Jewry as situated geographically, socially, intellectually, and culturally within this broader Iranian context. We can no longer afford to imagine the rabbis who gave life to the Babylonian Talmud as hermetically sealed off from the wider, vibrant world they inhabited. Indeed, mounting evidence demonstrates that in order to comprehend Sasanian Jewry more fully, in particular the rabbis and the heritage they have bequeathed in the Babylonian Talmud, scholars must immerse themselves in the language, culture, society, and religious ethos of the Sasanian Empire.
No one has thought as radically about the acculturation of the Talmudic community of Sasanian Babylonia to Zoroastrian legal practices, and Persian imperial norms and mentalité, as Yaakov Elman. For some, however, the notion that Babylonian Jewry, which, by the time the Sasanians took control of the empire of Iran in the first half of the third century C.E., had lived for almost six centuries under Iranian rule, could have been partially acculturated to its Iranian Umwelt, is still a difficult proposition. Skepticism has been voiced in most recent times, as to the feasibility (or desirability) of considering the sway of the Iranian world on the Babylonian Talmud. This for different reasons: on technical grounds, due to the legendary commotion in ancient Iranian Studies, where exhaustive histories of the Arsacid and Sasanian empires, as well as comprehensive editions of Middle Iranian scriptures, still figure among the field's desiderata, hence making it inordinately challenging to situate the Babylonian Talmud within its Sasanian cultural milieu;4 and on ideological grounds, for the radiance of Hellenistic thought in the East is deemed to be ever-lasting, despite the disappearance of the polities that sustained it. It is, thus, not surprising that a peculiarity of the Bavli, namely, its tendency simultaneously to present a plurality of opinions as equally true, in contrast to the Yerushalmi, has been recently regarded as a token of its indebtedness to Hellenistic dialectics, and partially its interplay with the "Hellenized" Christian Church of Persia.
There is little doubt that the Jewish-Christian milieu of Mesopotamia in the second century C.E., whereto the intellectual roots of the Church of Persia can be traced back, and to which Babylonian Rabbinic Judaism could have been exposed, was impacted by the reception of Hellenistic thought.6 Whether the latter represented such constitutive moment in the general tenus of the Persian Church or the Babylonian Talmud, for them to qualify as manifestations of Hellenism in Iran, is difficult to establish. It is equally difficult to affirm whether the intellectual horizon of the Persian Church remained entrenched in the Hellenistic paideia in the fourth and fifth centuries upon it being institutionalized, for Sasanian Christianity to represent either an analogy for the development of the Bavli, or a possible source of inspiration, in discourse with which the Babylonian Talmud could have reclaimed its Hellenism. Given the Persian Church's drive to anchor itself to its Iranian cultural milieu after the synod of Mar Isaac in 410, as well as the manifold currents responsible for the formation of its doctrine,' it remains questionable whether or not we may speak of it as a purely Hellenistic phenomenon, and hence methodologically problematic to have recourse to it as a paradigm to account for Bavli's Hellenistic credentials.
Rather than deeming the Bavli's discursive structure a deviant of Hellenistic dialectical practices, we may circumspectly consider the juxaposition of rival (legal) opinions to reflect the reality of a multi-confessional empire, wherein a plurality of religious truths, sanctioned by the state, co-habitated. In spite of the Mazdean character of Sasanian culture and its dominant ethno-class, the empire was keen on maintaining political cohesion among its disparate religious communities by domesticizing their structures of governance, thereby partially acculturating their communities to the Iranian element. Thus, the very presence of the institution of the Exilarchate, which may well be a Sasanian creation, as well as the institutionalization of the Persian Church, ought to qualify the Sasanian state as a multi-confessional polity.
It is therefore possible to envisage that the plurality of truths in the Bavli could have reflected the mosaic of faiths within the religious landscape of the empire itself, inasmuch as the Yerushalmi, and its tendency to choose one opinion over others — although it is certainly not always the case — could have reflected the notion of homonoia9 — that is, consensus at the expense of dialectical disputation — that dominates the theological discourse of Christian communities in the late Roman empire of the fourth and fifth centuries C.E.
The Sasanian commonwealth seems to symbolize a notion of empire that is at the antipodes of the Late Antique world and the unity of faith and romanitas that characterizes it. In this Iranian commonwealth, the Babylonian Talmud may prove as crucial as Iranian Christianity and Mazdaism for the exploration of the particularism of the empire of Orient.
Our volume begins with an overview of studies in the Babylonian Talmud. "A Generation of Talmudic Studies," by David Goodblatt, highlights major developments in this rich subfield of rabbinic literature. Goodblatt begins by using his survey of studies in Talmud, published in 1979, as the base for examining developments that have taken place since then. He notes that in terms of methodology text critical scholarship on Babylonian Talmud has not moved much beyond where it was in the 1970's. Text scholars of the Talmud have continued to carry out the agenda set for research on rabbinic literature by such mid-twentieth century luminaries as Epstein, Lieberman, Margulies and E. S. Rosenthal. As early as 1910, Alexander Marx outlined this textual course of study for the Babylonian Talmud. While the methodology of transcribing manuscripts and collating variants may be conservative and pre-1979, technological developments have allowed significant advances. As Goodblatt notes, the digital revolution that followed took the availability of such evidence to a new level thanks to compact disks and the Internet. Pride of place goes to the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Talmud Text Databank of the Saul Lieberman Institute for Talmudic Research at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Goodblatt furthermore discusses in great detail S. Friedman's two-source theory, and Rubenstein's work. He also surveys the work of Kalmin, Elman, and others whose foray into the field has begun to yield significant insights.
"Toward an Intellectual History of Sasanian Law: An Intergenerational Dispute in Herbedestan and Its Rabbinic and Roman Parallels," Yaakov Elman's contribution to the volume, suggests that engaging in the effort to construct an intellectual history of Sasanian law may lead to an even more exciting prospect: a joint intellectual history of Sasanian Jewish rabbis and Sasanian Zoroastrian dastwars. Excavating Middle Persian texts with an eye toward understanding Sasanian society and culture as it sheds light upon the Bavli, Elman has forged a new path.
In an effort to understand the administrative hierarchy of the Sasanian Empire, in his article, "Persia in Light of the Babylonian Talmud: Echoes of Contemporary Society and Politics: hargbed and bidaxs," Geoffrey Herman examines two Sasanian titles, the hargbed and the bidaxs. In the first case, he attempts to show that this key Sasanian title is reflected in the Babylonian Talmud in striking accordance with the contemporary epigraphic Iranian evidence. To this end, the pertinent rabbinic sources are submitted to a source critical analysis. In the second case, he assesses the proposal of Theodor Nöldeke and a number of subsequent Iranists that the bidaxs is attested in the Babylonian Talmud. To that end, he focuses on evaluating the manuscript evidence. While with the hargbed the identification of the Sasanian title is not in question, for the bidaxs it is particularly the context in which the title appears that can contribute to its identification. In both cases, however, it is precisely the portrayal of these titles, their "context," that is unique and reveals the invaluable role of the Babylonian Talmud in offering us an alternative perspective, a popular and unofficial vantage-point from which to observe the Sasanian administrative hierarchy.
In "Talmudic Attitudes toward Dream Interpreters: Preliminary Thoughts on their Iranian Cultural Context," Kalmin demonstrates that the Greek, Roman, Iranian, and Armenian evidence of the role of the Magi as dream interpreters helps us begin to explain perplexing features of the Babylonian Talmud's attitudes toward professional dream interpreters. The rabbis who were the dominant force behind the transmission and editing of the Babylonian Talmud were strongly opposed to professional dream interpretation, perhaps because they wished to differentiate themselves from Magi and because they wished to minimize the influence these religious virtuosi had over Babylonian Jews. Kalmin suggests that the Babylonian rabbinic response to the competition and threat posed by the Magi was the same as their response to other potentially or actually powerful groups, both within the Babylonian Jewish community and without.
In "Allusions to Sasanian Law in the Babylonian Talmud," Maria Macuch examines Sasanian legal terminology within the Bavli and reaches intriguing conclusions as to the Babylonian sages' extensive knowledge of Sasanian jurisprudence and their ability to manipulate Sasanian laws to the benefit of their own community. Indeed, Sasanian legal terminology was adopted in order to refer to the well-defined legal concepts of the imperial courts, or alternatively translated from the original, in order to blur the precise meaning of the original concept, which might have been detrimental to the Jewish community. Both activities are a good gauge of the Jewish community's familiarity with Sasanian Law and their integration in Sasanian life.
Jason Mokhtarian's article, "Rabbinic Depictions of the Achaemenid King Cyrus the Great: The Babylonian Esther Midrash (bMeg. 10b-17a) in Its Iranian Context," investigates the depictions of the Achaemenid kings and Cyrus the Great within the Rabbinic literature of the Sasanian era, especially as found in Babylonian Esther Midrash. In this article, he demonstrates that interpretations of the Babylonian sages have been greatly influenced by the Sasanian dynasty's limited memory of their predecessors, eventually leading to a decrease of knowledge of the Persian past within the Rabbinic tradition as well. The study thus makes a case for the extent to which the Iranian Jewry of Babylon was partaking in the collective intellectual currents of the Persian Empire.
In "Rabbinic and Zoroastrian Legal Literature," Shai Secunda illustrates how rabbis and Zoroastrian priests practiced similar rituals and held comparable beliefs. Indeed, the rabbis were enthusiastic contributors to the "splendid confusion" of Sasanian Mesopotamian religious life. Furthermore, Secunda considers the implications of source-critical approaches to Pahlavi and rabbinic literature in an effort to compare not just the lifestyles of Babylonian rabbis and their Iranian neighbors, but the production of their legal texts. Textual composition can serve as yet another arena for scholars to explore the similarities and differences between Sasanian rabbis and Zoroastrian priests. A joint investigation of textual production will allow scholars to further consider questions of influence, relationships, and other such engagements. Although Talmudic source criticism has made significant headway, many important questions remain unanswered — or at least unconfirmed. The relatively uncharted terrain of Pahlavi literature can greatly benefit scholars of the Babylonian Talmud who wish to test their recently developed philological tools on a new data-set.
The Jewish custom of avoiding talk at mealtime, as well as the custom of wearing a girdle among Jews who lived under Iranian rule became an element in the discourse between Jews and Iranians. Both practices, as Saul Shaked argues in "`No Talking during a Meal': Zoroastrian Themes in the Babylonian Talmud," are highly meaningful ritual requirements in Zoroastrianism. Both, however, never gained a status of legal requirement in Judaism, but rather are valued in terms of social etiquette.
Prods Oktor Skjærvø's contribution, "On the Terminology and Style of the Pahlavi Scholastic Literature," is a meticulous study of the technical terminology and style of Zoroastrian Middle Persian writings (Pahlavi), especially of the translations and the exegesis (Zand) of Avestan texts, composed well over a millennium before the Middle Persian exegetical tradition. It is a most fundamental treatise, as it provides a guide to scholars interested in the Pahlavi literature on how to understand and interpret Middle Persian Zoroastrian sources for comparative purposes.
The final article in the volume, "Relentless Allusion: Intertextuality and the Reading of Zoroastrian Interpretive Literature," by Yuhan SohrabDinshaw Vevaina, represents an important methodological endeavor within the study of Zoroastrian exegesis (Zand) under the Sasanians. Due to the paucity of methodological interpretative approaches in Zoroastrian Studies, and because the Middle Persian exegetical literature shares certain striking structural similarities with the Midrash and its multiple layers of interpretations, the author draws on the paradigm of "intertextuality," as used in midrashic studies, to articulate new strategies for reading Middle Persian interpretive literature. He thereby not only offers Iranists a most welcome tool, but also provides scholars of Jewish studies and comparative religion with an untapped source for the comparative study of exegesis and hermeneutics.
The Philosophy of the Talmud by Hyam Maccoby (Routledge) This is a new presentation of the philosophy of the Talmud. The Talmud is not a work of formal philosophy, but much of what it says is relevant to philosophical enquiry of the kind that has been going on recently. In particular, the Talmud has original ideas about the relation between-universal ethics and the ethics of a particular community. This leads into discussion about the relation between morality and ritual, and also about the epistemological role of tradition. Governing the discussion is a theory of logic that differs significantly from Greek logic. Talmudic logic is one of analogy, not classification, and is peculiarly suitable for the discussion of moral and legal human situations.
To undertake a description of the philosophy of the Talmud may seem to imply too ready an acceptance of the view that the Talmud can be regarded as a unitary literature. The word 'Talmud', of course, is here being used, as so often, in a rather loose sense, to mean the rabbinic literature, both Tannaitic and Amoraic, and it includes not only the two Talmudim (Palestinian and Babylonian), but also works as diverse as the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Halakhic Midrashim, the Targumim, the Homiletic Midrashim, the Liturgy and even the mystical Heikhalot literature, all of which feed into the Talmudim. Many scholars would see these works as expressing a number of different `Judaisms'. My own view is that, while many distinctions and acknowledgments of development and change need to be made (and I hope I have always borne this in mind), there is an underlying unity in the whole corpus, arising from the community of scholarship and thought that it represents. I have made use here of an analogy between the activity of the rabbis and that of the enterprise of modern science. Both enterprises involve the rejection of charismatic authority and the substitution of the co-operation of qualified individuals, all subscribing to a common intellectual ethos, but infinitely tolerant of idiosyncrasy and originality, and capable of unexpected development.
I wrote in the Introduction to my Early Rabbinic Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1988): 'It is characteristic of this literature that it is presented as the work of an anonymous compiler, bringing together the views of a large number of named rabbis, sometimes reinforcing each other, but more often conflicting without rancour. The total impression is of a corporate literary effort, in which a large number of experts, belonging to successive generations, is engaged in a common enterprise, the clarification of Scripture and the application of it to everyday life. To find a similar type of literary activity in other cultures is not easy. The work of the Alexandrian scholars on Homer and other Greek classical writers is similar in some ways, but very different in others. The nearest analogy is probably the organization of scientific research in modern times: the feeling of comradeship in an an enterprise of great theoretical and practical significance; the background of agreed assumptions, combined with great freedom for difference of opinion among qualified researchers; the submission of views to the criticism of the general body of experts; the acquisition of fame and reputation for individuals, but only within a framework of shared effort, so that no individual can become dominant, or acquire a kind of authority different in kind from that of his fellows.'
In the present book, I have developed further the above analogy between rabbinic and scientific thought, as one strand in an approach to an appreciation of Talmudic philosophy. Meanwhile, a similar insight has been developed by Menachem Fisch, in his excellent work Rational Rabbis (Indiana University Press, 1997), to which I have referred a number of times (not always in agreement, yet always with a sense of appreciation of his expertise in both Talmudic studies and in the philosophy of science).
The philosophical stance, as traditionally understood, is one of facing the universe without preconceptions. The philosopher refers to no texts or received doctrines. He even rejects all knowledge derived from science, at least at his starting-point, though his researches, as he progresses, may, or may not, provide a validation for science. The archetypal figure of the philosopher is Descartes, seeking to find the starting point of philosophy by stripping away everything that could possibly be doubted. But Descartes is the heir of the Greek tradition of philosophy, in which the philosopher is an instrument of pure perception turned on the world, which he examines from scratch, rejecting all received notions as hindrances to his quest. Just because philosophy emanated from the lone philosopher contemplating the universe without intermediaries, the focus of enquiry soon became one of epistemology: how reliable was the instrument, the philosopher himself? This is not a turning away from the world to the contemplation of the self but a critique of the self as measuring instrument or point of vantage for the contemplation of the world. He must strip away the fallible senses and find some mode of enquiry that gives undoubted truth; mathematics, perhaps. But wherein lies the the authority of mathematics? Does it all reduce to logic? But is not logic mere tautology? Does the sum of all human enquiry reduce to the proposition 'A is A'? All this is very remote from the atmosphere of the rabbinic writings where instead of the lone philosopher, we have a crowded world.
Again, the process of philosophy, as generally understood, is one of ever-increasing abstraction. The real world, as the Greek atomists understood it, contained no colours, smells or sounds; only a concourse of tiny atoms, which by their combinations and divisions produced the illusion of the colourful, companionable world in which humans live. Greek philosophy turned into the modern science of physics, which contains entities even more remote from human concerns.
On the other hand, this process of abstraction, useful as it has been to science, has met with objections from philosophers who do not want to give up the colourful world as mere illusion. Even within the school of empiricism, a trend of phenomenalism developed, in which the realities were the colours, and the atoms were mere 'constructs'. 'There is no such thing as a millionth of an inch,' said Berkeley manfully, and he was echoed by the physicist Ernst Mach, who denied the existence of atoms. (But phenomenalism again did not lead to the contemplation of the self, but rather to its disintegration as the merely notional locus of sensa, which took the place of atoms as the only real existents.) On the humanistic, literary side, a school of philosophers arose who questioned the abstractionist search for underlying 'essences' and affirmed instead what actually and palpably exists, more especially the self.
In recent times, philosophy has taken a turn that is more favourable to the view that rabbinic thought can be described as philosophy. Susan Handelmann has shown the affinity of the thought of the rabbis to that of the modern Jewish thinkers Bergson, Husserl, Derrida and Levinas; the latter indeed has acknowledged his debt to the Talmud. Jacob Neusner, in his way, has characterized the Mishnah as philosophical, but the resultant philosophy, as he describes it, seems to me very unrabbinic. Earlier, Max Kadushin had given an overview of rabbinic thought, showing it to be at least semi-philosophical in its distillation of 'concepts' from the biblical material; a long step towards generalization and abstraction and system, though still at the level of 'tribal' theorizing.
Certainly we have to admit that the rabbinic philosophy lacks an overt system. There are no rabbinic philosophical treatises, unless the tractate Avot can be reckoned as one. This is really a 'wisdom' work, consisting of aphorisms, some of them of a philosophical kind, and almost all having philosophical repercussions, but not built into a systematic treatment beginning with first principles and progressing in a logical sequence. But how far is such a system a requirement for the definition of philosophy? We do not deny the title of philosopher to those Greek thinkers (such as Heraclitus and Protagoras) whose thought has descended to us only the form of aphoristic fragments or verses (such as 'Man is the measure of all things' or 'We never step into the same river twice'). Even Plato is hardly a systematist, and preferred to put his thought into literary, rather than scientific, form. Modern thinkers who have expressed themselves in non-systematic ways (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard) have been accepted as philosophers.
Even the fact that the thought of the rabbis took off from a text regarded as holy does not disqualify them from philosophical status if one takes into account the status of 'text' in modern philosophical thought as the indispensable ground of all thinking. Even in Greek thinking, as has been recognised recently, the role of exegesis of Homer as the stimulus of philosophical endeavour was indispensable.
However, it is not even quite true that all rabbinic thought is text-based. When the two schools, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai met once for prolonged discussion, their topic was the question, 'Was it better for man to have been born, or not to have been born?' (b. Eruvin 13b). This is undoubtedly a philosophical question, though not one found in the pre-modernist Western repertoire (concentrating as it does on what is 'out there'). After two-and-a-half years (!) of debate, the matter was put to the vote, and the majority decision was, 'It would have been better for man not to have been born, but now that he is born, let him look to his deeds.' This decision is stunningly independent of conventional understanding of the Jewish religion. Judaism is usually regarded as an optimistic faith, with an attitude of thankfulness for the mercies of God. Most rabbinic thinking turns its face away resolutely from negative assessments of the conditions of human and animal life. For example, the Grace after meals (a rabbinic composition) praises God 'who feeds the whole world ... gives food to all flesh, for his mercy is eternal', no mention being made of the fact that God's merciful provision of food so often entails one animal acting as food for another. Yet the mask of rabbinic acquiescence is occasionally torn away, and we see the world as it is, a scene of 'Nature red in tooth and claw'. Rabbinic optimism, humanism and rationalism appear not as sentimentalism but as a brave challenge issued against a cruel and irrational world. After the liturgical thankfulness for the chosenness of Israel and the blessed vision of Mount Sinai, the final sobering conclusion is 'It would have been better for man not to have been born'.
We do not have a record, unfortunately, of the arguments that were presented at that debate, though echoes of them, perhaps, are to be found scattered in the rabbinic writings. It has been plausibly doubted whether the debate ever actually took place, for the other recorded debates of the schools of Hillel and Shammai are all on halakhic topics, where a decision by majority vote makes sense as the mode of fashioning a working rule. Did the Houses actually spend 'two and a half years' debating a theoretical topic that had no relevance to halakhah? Or is this story merely an echo of the philosophical or rhetorical exercises characteristic of Hellenistic sophists?2 I suggest, however, that the debate did take place, and that it had a meta-halakhic function. After all the halakhic arguments, in which the rabbinic intellect took such delight, the nagging thought could not be quite stilled, 'Is this all pointless escapism from an inexorably indifferent universe?'
It may be that in addition to empirical arguments from the conditions of human life, recourse was had, after all, to certain biblical texts which face the world in a stark, extra-covenantal fashion, namely the books of Job and Ecclesiastes (Qohelet). It is remarkable that these two books were included in the canon, for neither of them has much to say about the characteristic themes of Judaism. In one we have a non-Jew, Job the Uzzite, facing a world without Torah or chosenness or covenant, and finding himself overwhelmed with unintelligible suffering. In the other, we have a Jewish king, at the apex of the covenant in Jerusalem, whose main topic is the meaninglessness of human aspirations. He does, in the end, find some solace in the covenant, but only as a refuge from the overwhelming 'vanity' of human concerns.
Even at the heart of the covenant, in God's dealings with Abraham, there is a terrifying vacuum. Abraham has become 'the friend of God' and has reached such a pitch of intimacy with God that he can plead with Him to spare the Sodomites, and even upbraid Him for His lack of elementary fairness and compassion: 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?' (Genesis 18:25). Yet in the next chapter, everything suddenly changes. God demands the life of Abraham's beloved son, and Abraham has run out of objections; he acquiesces in a spirit of total submission, for the transaction is extra-covenantal, an assertion of God's unbridled will. The uncovenantal God rides roughshod over the promises of the covenantal God. The contradiction emphasizes that the covenant exists as an oasis in a frightening, unintelligible world. God is a 'friend' within the covenant, but outside it He is unsusceptible to human codes of morality. The covenant is a way of taming God. He voluntarily commits Himself to it, as a matter of 'grace', but it is not a true reflection of the universe, which may at times assert itself in all its horror. Judaism is a religion of covenant, but the obverse of this is a very stark vision of uncovenanted existence.
Thus we may conclude that rabbinic philosophy is equivocal and paradoxical, derived as it is from an equivocal and paradoxical Scripture.
But can we really speak of rabbinic philosophy when the rabbis have actually placed a ban on philosophical thinking? We read in the Mishnah:
The forbidden degrees [of sexual relationships] may not be expounded before three persons, nor the Story of the Creation before two, nor the chapter of the Chariot before one alone unless he is a Sage that understands of his own knowledge. Whosoever gives his mind to four things it were better for him if he had not come into the world — what is above? what is beneath? what was beforetime? and what will be hereafter? And whosoever takes no thought for the honour of his Maker, it were better for him if he had not come into the world. (M. Hagigah 2:1, Danby's translation).
The passage forbids free and open discussion of sexual and mystical \ philosophical matters, restricting such discussion to small groups. The two great topics of mysticism were Creation and Chariot, i.e. deep contemplation of the first chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of Ezekiel, and these two chapters, one might think, do engage in the very topics that the passage goes on to interdict: what is above, what is beneath, what was beforetime, what will be hereafter. But if these topics may be contemplated in small groups, though not in larger ones, why are they then totally condemned? Why would it be better for those who contemplate them not to have come into the world? Does this mean that philosophers and even mystics are condemned to wretchedness and ostracism?
The forbidden topics are just those that intrigued the pre-Socratic philosophers whose concern was for the constitution and dimensions of the observable universe and for the unobservable structures which lay behind or beneath it. Out of these philosophical concerns arose what came to be known as 'science', which hived off from philosophy when the emphasis came to rest on measurement rather than speculation. So the Mishnah's condemnation could be held to outlaw science as well as philosophy and mysticism. Modern science has focussed on the history of the universe over billions of years ('what is before and after', though some translate these words of the Mishnah in a spatial sense) and the dimensions of the universe over billions of miles. Does the Mishnah condemn Einstein, astronomy, and space exploration? Yet rabbinic mysticism, with its heroes travelling through all the heavens to reach the throne-room of God (in the heikhalot literature) could be be held to comprise the first imaginative experiments in space travel.
Clearly the Mishnah passage requires exegesis in terms other than mere condemnation of all thought rising above terrestrial experience. Such a plain interpretation would condemn many daring thoughts found in the rabbinic literature itself, including the Talmudic expositions of this very mishnaic passage. The well-known Midrashic speculation about what God was doing before he created the present world ('He was creating other worlds and destroying them', Genesis Rabbah 111.7) would have to be condemned as a heretical, unlicenced exercise of the human intellect.
Again, what is the force of saying that the philosophical speculator would have been better off if he had not been born? Is this a threat of punishment, or is it a prediction of the psychological misery that will afflict the person who allows himself to sink into a morass of thought on matters beyond human comprehension (the condition of intellectual dislocation caused by philosophical reflection for which Hume prescribed backgammon)? And if the decision of the debate between the Houses is to be given weight (that it would have been better for all mankind not to have been born), how would the unfortunate philosopher be worse off than his fellows?
Maimonides, who was not averse to philosophical reflection, and indeed regarded it as the highest human activity, interpreted this Mishnaic passage as a warning against intellectual over-ambition. He relates it to the saying : `Do not inquire into things that are too difficult for you, do not search what is hidden from you; study what you are allowed to study, and do not occupy yourself with mysteries' (quoted from Ben Sira in b. Hagigah 13a), and to the biblical saying, "Do not make yourself over-wise; why should you destroy yourself?' (Ecclesiastes 7:16). Most people, Maimonides argues, would do well to leave philosophy alone, since it will reduce them to a state of miserable confusion; yet philosophy, for him, is the crown of all intellectual endeavour. While these sayings in Wisdom literature appear to counsel everyone to refrain from philosophical or mystical enquiry, Maimonides takes them to be addressed to the majority only (Guide, I. 32). There is some support for this interpretation in rabbinic literature, which portrays certain great persons (Johanan ben Zakkai, Akiva) as versed in mysteries without coming to harm, while simultaneously issuing warnings about the disasters that can occur to those (even persons of high attainment such as Elisha ben Avuya, Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai) who venture beyond their capacity. If the rabbinic warnings seem at times absolute, this may be because the rabbis were always concerned to advise and legislate for ordinary rather than for extraordinary people, though they remain fully capable of admiring the virtuoso.
Certainly the rabbinic writings contain some bold speculations about what is above and what is below, what was before and what will be after. For example, we have the following pronouncement by Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai:
From the earth to the firmament is a distance of 500 years' travel, and the thickness of the firmament is a distance of 500 years' travel, and such is the distance between each of the firmaments. Above them are the Holy Animals (Ezekiel 1), whose bodies are greater than all the firmaments. Above them, is the Throne of Glory. (b. Hagigah 13a).
This cosmological scenario, though it is intended to discourage would-be astronauts such as Nimrod, who allegedly planned to reach the Throne and destroy God (a rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 14:14, applied in the Pseudepigrapha to the rebellious angel Satan or Mastema), shows a soaring imagination that belies its dampening intent. It recalls Neo-Platonic cosmological schemata, which eventually found Jewish expression in the medieval Kabbalah, with its vast universe of progressively condensing emanations. At the same time, this saying of Johanan ben Zakkai, with its panorama of huge distances, recalls the strange imaginings of the Shiur Qoma, the rabbinic work that gives dizzying statistics of the dimensions of God Himself.
I would suggest, however, contrary to Maimonides, that the ban on contemplation of what is above and below, before and after, is addressed not to ordinary people, but to the mystics themselves. The key word in the ban is ha-mistakel, 'he who gazes'. Danby translates this as 'he who gives his mind to', but this is far too colourless a rendering. From mystical passages in the Talmud, we see that one of the dangers of the mystical ascent to the Throne was the temptation to 'gaze'. Even though the whole aim of the ascent is to see the supernal mysteries, there is a right and a wrong way to look at them. An irreverent, immature, overcurious, voyeuristic type of looking can bring disaster to the mystic (see b. Sanhedrin 92a, 'he who gazes on nakedness'). This is what is meant by 'taking no thought for the honour of one's Maker'; the vision of God is not to be turned into a peepshow. The companions of Akiva in the heavenly ascent, made the mistake of 'peeping', though here the verb heitzitz is used in preference to histakel.
The ban on 'gazing' is thus not a ban on thought, but a warning against undertaking the mystical ascent (which can equally be called a 'descent') without full psychological preparation. The Mishnaic passage, therefore, cannot validly be cited as a ban on philosophical or scientific investigation, which indeed many other rabbinical passages encourage, as the history of post-Talmudic philosophy and science amply demonstrates.
Shall we then include rabbinic mysticism, with its cosmological speculation, in our definition of rabbinic philosophy? A case could be made out for doing so. The cosmology of Neo- Platonism (Plotinus) is generally included in the history of philosophy. Even if such wild guesses at the constitution of the universe are not based on scientific experiment or even on logical analysis, they form part of the process of ordered thinking about the universe; Karl Popper has taught us to respect the initial role of guesswork in all thinking. When Thales made the first guess at the basis of material substance, he was wildly wrong, but he started a process of thought that developed eventually into atomism, and Thales is regarded as the father of Western philosophy.
Yet it can equally be argued that Thales was not a philosopher at all but a (would-be) scientist. The more his type of thinking progresses, the more it is revealed as not philosophy but science. Plato realised this when he portrayed Socrates as turning away from the pre-Socratic thinkers and turning his attention from the universe to Man. This, according to Nietzsche, was a sad fall from grace, since the pre-Socratics were unafflicted by self-doubt and turned their gaze so boldly and heroically outwards. But in other respects, Nietzsche was himself influential in a reinstatement of Man rather than the Universe as the subject-matter of philosophy, and the abandonment of the attempt to make philosophy into a branch of science, or to formulate its findings in scientific form.
The philosophy of the Talmud is undoubtedly a contribution to the understanding of Man, and especially man-in-society. Occasional excursions into exploration of the universe are peripheral, metaphorical and hyperbolical. Did Johanan really believe that the distance to the first firmament was precisely 500 years of travel? What mode of travel did he envisage? How did he propose to verify his statement? The Talmud does not really take itself seriously, in a factual way, in this kind of venture. Johanan's main point was a moral one: to emphasise the crassness of a man setting himself up against God. Similarly, in the Shiur Qomah, the enormous distances described (far more extravagant than Johanan's) lead in the end to the annihilation of distance as a concept relevant to the description of God, while instilling some sense of the infinitesimal tininess of man in relation to an infinite universe. Such speculation does, however, make a serious philosophical point in that the cosmic insignificance of Man acts as counterpoint or dialectical contrast to the general rabbinic humanistic concept of Man as the centre of the universe, for the sake of whom the whole universe was created.
There is no word in Hebrew that corresponds exactly to the Greek words 'philosophy' or 'philosopher'. Yet one Greek philosopher (Theophrastus) described the Jews as 'a nation of philosophers', which suggests that he saw the nation as a whole as dedicated to intellectual tasks which in Greek civilization were confined to a very small minority. Particularly surprising was the conduct of the Jewish synagogue, in which ordinary people met not to perform sacrifices, as in the Greek temples, but to listen to learned discourses and study sacred writings. To the Greeks, or some of them, the rabbis themselves seemed to be philosophers in a fuller sense, since they dispensed moral advice and accumulated disciples just like the Stoic and Cynic philosophers. Indeed, the question has been raised how far the rabbinic movement was influenced by the Greek philosophical movements. There are obvious similarities and echoes: for example, the Golden Rule, both in its negative rabbinic form 'Do not unto others what you would not want them to do unto you' (Hillel) and its positive form 'Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you' (Jesus) is found attributed to many Hellenistic sages. We should remember that the Hellenistic philosophers should not be conceived entirely in the image of lofty thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but also as performing a humbler social role as guides to popular circles.
The Greek word 'philosopher' itself does appear without translation in the rabbinic writings from time to time, usually designating a non-Jewish intellectual who is curious or critical about Jewish doctrines. The rabbis were aware of the existence of philosophers, but preferred for themselves the designations of 'sages' or'comrades'.
I am not arguing, however, that philosophy exists in the Talmud only in the popular sense of the term as it applied to many of the Stoic and Cynic philosophers or to the earlier popular preachers stigmatised by Plato as 'sophists'. I am arguing that the Talmud contains philosophy in the highest sense, though not in the form of systematic treatises, but in a much more diffused and incidental form. It often has to be distilled from discussion of apparently non-philosophical topics, where the background assumptions are of a philosophical nature.
The most obvious way in which philosophy appears is in the form of aphorisms. A famous example is the saying of Rabbi Akiva: 'All is overseen, but choice is granted' (Avot 3:15). As Maimonides understands this aphorism, it is a meditation on the subject of freewill and destiny. If God sees the future, how can there be freewill, since everything I do is predestined by God's foreknowledge, and my sense of freedom is illusory? Yet Akiva states that this contradiction is only apparent: God's ability to see past, present and future simultaneously does not restrict my freedom of choice. Only a creature living in Time sees a contradiction; the Being who transcends Time transcends the contradiction.
Some, however, have regarded Maimonides' explanation of Akiva's saying as too philosophical and paradoxical to be convincing. Obadiah Bertinoro, in his commentary on the Mishnah, departs from his usual subservience to Maimonides. He gives the somewhat humdrum interpretation that Akiva was saying, 'God sees into every heart, and choice is given.' In other words, God is aware of all the motives which lead to any moral decision and action, and accords reward or punishment accordingly. Some modern commentators, unwilling to assign profundity to a 2nd century rabbi, have found Bertinoro's interpretation more acceptable. It has at least the merit of providing a strong link with the continuation: God's judgment is tempered with mercy.
However, there is no need to underrate Akiva's capability for paradox, or his awareness of a perennial philosophical problem, the conflict between determinism (of whatever kind) and free will. We know from Josephus that the Pharisees (whom Josephus calls 'philosophers', Ant. XII:289), Akiva's immediate predecessors, were exercised by this very problem: ' ... when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit' (Ant. XVIII.13). Josephus, of course, has been accused of presenting the Pharisees in over-philosophical guise in order to make them more intelligible to his readers. This is probably true, but only in the sense that he omitted aspects of the Pharisees that he thought his readers would not understand. He certainly would not invent an interest on the Pharisees' part in the problem of free will.
Assuming that Akiva's remark is indeed a reflection on the paradox of free will, we may offer the criticism that he draws attention tc the problem but does not attempt to solve it. A true philosopher would be impelled to seek some broader context in which the contradiction would be dispelled or at least softened; Maimonides, for example, sees an approach to a solution in the analysis of Time. Nevertheless, even to be aware of the problem is the mark of a philosopher. Akiva is saying, 'There are good reasons for determinism and also good reasons for belief in free will. Do not aim at a superficial logical consistency by sacrificing either insight, but hold on to them both.' This implies some kind of view about the limitations of human reason (giving rise to what Kant called 'antinomies') and also about the validity of human reason within those limitations.
More striking and significant, however, are the philosophical insights that arise in rabbinic literature not from general relaxed reflection on the world but from the heat of moral and legal concern. These are specifically Jewish contributions to philosophy that cannot be paralleled in any other literature. An example is the exhortation to a witness in a murder trial:
How does one cast awe on the witnesses in capital cases? They used to bring them in and cast awe on them as follows: Perhaps you will speak by guesswork, or by hearsay, or from previous evidence, or on the authority of someone you consider trustworthy, or perhaps you are unaware that we intend to examine you with searching enquiry. Know that capital cases are not like non-capital cases. In non-capital cases, a witness may atone by payment for having given wrong evidence, but in capital cases, a witness is responsible not only for the blood of the accused, but for the blood of his descendants until the end of the world. For so we have found with Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written 'The bloods of thy brother cry from the earth' (Gen. 4:10). It does not say, 'The blood of thy brother' but 'The bloods of thy brother', meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. For that reason, man was created as a single individual [from whom all mankind descended], to teach you that Scripture regards one who destroys a single soul as if he has destroyed a whole world3; and also Scripture regards one who saves the life of a single soul as if he has saved the life of a whole world. And also [man was created as a single individual] for the sake of peace among mankind, so that no man may say to his neighbour, 'My father (abba) was greater than your father'. And also that heretics should not say 'There are many powers in heaven'. And also to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, for though a human being may stamp many coins with one seal, they are all identical, while the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed by He, has stamped every human being with the seal of Adam, yet not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore everyone is obliged to say 'For my sake the world was created'. And perhaps you [the witnesses] may say 'Why should we bother with this troublesome matter?' But has it not been said (Lev. 5:1), 'He being a witness, whether he has seen or known, if he does not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity'? And perhaps you may say 'Why should we be responsible for the blood of this man?' But has it not been said (Prov. 11:10), 'When the wicked perish there is rejoicing'? (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).
This passage is ostensibly legal, describing the procedure in a court of law, but it is also sublimely philosophical, comprising a statement of the essence of Judaism. It is in this indirect way that the philosophy of the Talmud is often conveyed, in the interstices of legal discussion (halakhah), as well as in the poetic flights of the aggadah.
The counterpoint here is between man as a totality and man as a being-in-society. On the one hand, each person is a whole world, containing within himself/herself all society; on the other hand, each person is one individual in a crowded world of individuals, past, present and future, to whom he is linked by a chain of shared community.
What does it mean to say that each person is a whole world? There is something here of Leibnitz's concept of monadology, in which each individual reflects the whole universe from a special point of view. This is an individualism that does not atomize society (like that of Hobbes and the English school of utilitarianism).
It is also a monism that does not develop into fascism. Judaism does not have a hierarchy of monads, some reflecting the universe more than others. The murdered person in the above passage is not prized as someone special, but as a human being, who is thereby special.
Noteworthy, too, is how rabbinic thought arrives at philosophy through exegesis of the Torah. Whereas the pre-Socratics sought to emancipate themselves from texts, and gazed only at the sky and the earth, the Jewish philosophers gazed earnestly into the text of the Torah and sought to distil a philosophy from it. Yet in their Torah-reading, they also drew on their community tradition, which was profoundly individualistic and also communitarian. While apparently subservient to the text, they also created it by their interpretations, just as the Neoplatonists created an interpretative Homer. There is nothing inevitable about the anti-racialist and anti-aristocratic conclusions they drew from the story of the lone creation of Adam. Other conclusions might perhaps have been drawn by people with a different community history. What they saw in it was a doctrine of the equality of all peoples, and yet also a doctrine of inalienable difference. Everyone is the same, yet everyone is different.
Robert Gordis writes on this passage: 'The implications are clear: man's innate dignity is the source of his right to be different, which is the essence of freedom. The equality of men, as seen in their common origin, is the source of all men's right to justice.'4 This fine formulation is, however, a little over-American. It is not so much a question of the 'right to be different', but rather of admiration of God's creative power in making everyone different. Everyone is a world, but a different world; the universe is a system of interlocking worlds, each independent, yet all inter-dependent. The community demands that each individual should feel responsible for every other in a unifying system of justice and concern for all life. Yet each individual should feel that the universe was created for his sake alone.
The idea that each person constitutes a whole world is one of those pregnant insights that generate a whole philosophy. One may ask if there is any kinship between this legal-context aphorism and the aggadic myth of the primeval Adam. According to this myth, when Adam was first created, 'he stretched from one end of the world to the other's. When Adam sinned, however, God reduced his stature to that of other earthly animals. This myth, however, is philosophically much inferior to the legal-context insight. For the myth seems to say that humanity in its pre-lapsarian state constituted a world; while the Mishnah says that each person, even with post-lapsarian limitations and tiny dimensions in the physical universe, is nevertheless an entire world, since he/she reflects the universe from a unique, unrepeatable standpoint.
Thus halakhic contexts can sometimes be a more satisfying source of rabbinic philosophy than what might appear the more promising field of aggadic discourse.
Talmud, Curriculum, and the Practical: Joseph Schwab and the Rabbis by
Alan A. Block (Complicated Conversation, V. 2: Peter Lang Publishing)
explores the seminal curriculum work of Joseph
Schwab in the light of a Rabbinic Judaism to which Schwab did not—even,
perhaps, could not--refer, but which Alan Block asserts might be central to
a fuller understanding of Schwab’s prescriptions for ‘The Practical’. Using
the language and methods of Rabbinic Judaism and Schwab’s eclectic arts,
Block opens a new, practical perspective onto American education, studying
and redefining issues confronting education at the beginning of a
new century and a new millennium.
In Tractate Berakhot (3A) of the Babylonian Talmud there appears this story. Rabbi Jose recounts that once he was traveling along a road when it came time to pray. In order to
prevent being interrupted in his daily prayer, he stopped in an abandoned ruin. While he was thus praying, the prophet Elijah appeared, and stood in the crumbling doorway of the ruin and awaited the completion of Rabbi Jose's prayer. When he had concluded, Elijah cautioned Jose that he ought not to pray in dangerous and suspicious ruins but rather, when traveling, should stop and pray by the side of the road. And furthermore, Elijah said, when praying by the side of the road, so as to avoid being beset upon by bystanders or highwaymen, Jose must say a shortened prayer. R. Jose concludes:
I then learned from [Elijah] three things: One must not go into a ruin; one may say the prayer on the road; and if one does say his prayer on the road, he recites an abbreviated prayer.
I have spent my entire life in school as student and as teacher. It is
not difficult to take note of the ruinous state of many of our educational
establishments. It has been estimated that 75% of our school buildings are
in need of some structural repair. And if there were no clear evidence of
physical decay, certainly we might discover there some educational break
down. Celebrants of both the political left and right decry the state of the
schools in the
Of course, the state of our schools and our educational system has been a
perennial topic for jeremiads. From the published letters of James Carter in the early years of nineteenth century, to the plaints Horace
Mann through the mid-years of that same century, to the moanings of Arthur
Bestor and Robert Hutchins and William Bennett, Diane Ravitch, Allen Bloom,
and Rod Paige, in the century recently passed, the ineffectiveness and
insufficiencies of the public schools have been a common subject in the
world of politics and social critique. Joseph Schwab's book, College
Curriculum and Student Protest (1969b), soberly castigated the state and
practice of education in the
I, too, have spent my entire professional life in schools. I have never thought that I stood amidst ruins; the rhetoric notwithstanding, I do not now believe that our schools are in a state of ruin and decay; I have over the years prayed often there. I continue yet to do so. In the schools, engagement in study is engagement in prayer. I have written lately (see Block, 2001) on the relationship of prayer and study. Study, I aver, is a prayerful act. Study, like prayer, is a stance we assume in the world. Study, like prayer, is a way of being—it is an ethics. When we learn, as when we pray, we acknowledge in public our sense of wonder and awe. Wonder, as Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches me, is a radical amazement; wonder is a state of maladjustment to words and notions, the recognition of their fluidity. Wonder arises in the awareness of the world's glory, which always exceeds our comprehension and our grasp. To our sense of wonder we respond with awe, and when we stand in awe, we acknowledge that even in the smallest particle there is meaning that we can never fully understand. In prayer and in study, we acknowledge how little we know, and we then stand in awe at the complexities of our lives that we only, in part, can realize.
A blessing, as is study, is a moment of insight and an opportunity for direction. Study, as is prayer, is the awareness that we live amidst daily miracles, , , .. is more to the world than we will ever know. Abraham Heschel writes that "The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe." Prayer is an expression of awe; prayer sacralizes the mundane. So, too, does study. When we pray and when we study, we take a stance in awe and humility, and we actively acknowledge that "our lives take place under horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life, or even the life of a generation, a nation, or an era." Prayer and study emanate from the silence of awe and wonder. If contemporary chaos theory argues that there is order in the universe, and that that order is only recognizable in time, then engagement in prayer and study acknowledges our patience and our hope.
Prayer and study set standards to which we might aspire but never reach.
I think it is not for lack of trying that the standards cannot be achieved; it is that the standards must always elude us. They are a consummation devoutly to be sought for, but never to be achieved. Both engagement in study and prayer acknowledge that there is far more in the world than we will ever know. In prayer and in study, we acknowledge that our knowledge will never suffice and that what we undertake in the classroom is merely a hint of all that exists outside it. We ought to stand in our classrooms in awe and wonder. I like to think that Joseph Schwab would have appreciated this thinking.
I go regularly into public school buildings, and I study regularly there.
I do not think these buildings will soon crumble, though perhaps they could
do with some repair. Schwab devoted his life to the repair of education in
the public and private schools of the
the "complex back-and-forth between the particular and the more general."
I will speak to the power of Schwab's ideas, and I will attempt to situate
these ideas in the grounds from which they took root and from which they
flourished. That soil is generally Jewish and specifically Talmudic, and I
think Schwab's ideas are best appreciated when they are viewed in this
specific context. I think Schwab's educational prescriptions have greatest
potency when these sources and roots are revealed. And further, because I am
concerned with the progress of education in the
The schools are not in ruins, as I have said, but they are in need of some repair. It is to that repair that this book speaks. I like to think Joseph Schwab would have supported this effort.A story is told of the Maggid of Zlotchov: One of his disciples asked: "In the book of Elijah it is said that `Everyone in
Talmudic Reasoning: From Casuistics to Conceptualization by Leib Moscovitz (Mohr Siebeck) The development of explicit legal concepts and principles in rabbinic literature reflects rabbinic legal thought at its most creative and sophisticated, as many of these concepts and principles deal with abstract, metaphysical entities. In this study Leib Moscovitz systematically surveys the development and impact of abstraction and conceptualization in the various legal corpora of rabbinic literature, illustrating the critical and unique role that conceptualization plays in talmudic reasoning. He demonstrates how; the analysis of rabbinic conceptualization can shed light on numerous important aspects of rabbinic scholarship, such as the character and development of rabbinic legal thought, techniques of rabbinic legal exegesis, rabbinic jurisprudence, and various philological and historical issues in rabbinics, such as the chronology of the anonymous stratum of the Babylonian Talmud.
Rabbinic conceptualization, though unique in many respects, shares certain features with cognate disciplines, and this study utilizes these disciplines (mainly jurisprudence, cognitive psychology, and philosophy) to illuminate rabbinic conceptualization wherever relevant. The themes addressed in this study, include the use of casuistics, generalization, and implicit conceptualization in the earlier strata of rabbinic literature, classification and legal definition, legal fictions, legal explanation, analogy and association, and the development and use of explicit legal concepts and principles in the later strata of rabbinic literature.
The Sinner and the Amnesiac: The Rabbinic Invention of Elisha Ben Abuya
and Eleazar Ben Arach by Alon Goshen-Gottstein (Contraversions: Jews and
Other Differences: Stanford University Press)
This book focuses on the lives of two rabbinic heroes and the tales told of them: R. Eleazar ben Arach and Elisha ben Abuya. Neither sage appears as a central figure in the rabbinic world. There are virtually no legal traditions attributed to them, and they made only marginal contributions to the formation of the oral Torah and to Jewish culture and history in general. Yet they have unique reputations. There are rabbinic reports that suggest that both figures are exceptional. Though little is known of him, R. Eleazar ben Arach is viewed as the ideal rabbinical scholar while Elisha ben Abuya is viewed as the rabbinic archvillain. Despite a supposed common engagement in mystical studies, their biographies are quite different. Curiously, however, though because of their relative obscurity we might expect the stories told of them to be reliable and untendentious, the opposite is true. My research suggests that the stories of the two rabbis are part of the fictional process of rabbinic literature. Perhaps, indeed, the obscurity of the two heroes left the imagination more open to construct their images. Perhaps their marginality allows us to investigate the ways in which rabbinic biography serves purposes that are not strictly historical or informative."
The major portion of this study is devoted to Elisha ben Abuya. The positivistic historical credulity of previous scholarship and its attempt to discover the historical figure by means of a straightforward presentation of rabbinic statements may be most inaccurate in his case. Applying the criteria appropriate to the reading of rabbinic sources forces us to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion concerning the reports of his activities. This is a case where careful reading of the text makes a difference to the historical construction of the world of the sages. In this case, the application of hermeneutics of suspicion might leave us bereft of the historical certitude that characterized our knowledge according to conventional models of interpretation; the more we are aware of the complexities accompanying the reading of rabbinic texts, the less certain is our knowledge of their historical accuracy. Yet if we lose something in terms of clear constructions of rabbinic history and life, we gain something in terms of our appreciation of rabbinic culture and its concerns.
Rabbinic sources do not relate neutral events in a historically objective manner. They construct stories that are then integrated into larger ideologically motivated literary units in such a way as to impart particular ideological messages. The sources do not necessarily relate the historical facts about the heroes but they do illustrate the cultural concerns that find expression in the stories told about them. Central in the stories of both sages is the Torah and Torah study, an essential part of rabbinic Judaism. What this study suggests is the central place that Torah study occupies in all areas of religious life and writing. One cannot appreciate stories told of rabbis without being aware of the forms of Torah study and the struggle with the status of Torah study within rabbinic culture. When we become aware that the various aspects of Torah study are the primary concerns of the various texts being analyzed, new agendas emerge to be examined, and new questions come to our attention.
If we are unable to reconstruct the historical facts of the period, our sources are important witnesses for the relevant ideological struggles. As a result, rather than asking when an event took place, we may question what drives, tensions, and forces shaped rabbinic culture. Certain types of texts are not so much the history of people and institutions as they are the history of ideas."
Writing a rabbinic biography entails difficulties beyond those already mentioned. They stem from the nature of the rabbinic sources and the sort of information contained in them. Rabbinic literature left no personal writings by rabbis in their own names, and certainly no autobiography or personal reflection.' What is perhaps even more significant is the lack of raw material. It appears that the sources were not interested in preserving the relevant information concerning the details of the lives of most of the rabbinic heroes. Random anecdotal information is preserved, but even for some of the major figures of rabbinic Judaism, there is very little information about their real lives, and virtually nothing is known of their internal or subjective reality. There is no access to the kind of material that makes biographies interesting, because we know next to nothing about their feelings and struggles.
The difficulties relate to the nature of transmission and development of traditions. In a tradition that constantly recasts its stories and shapes its traditions and memories, how do we re‑create the life of a sage?" One solution is to concentrate on the development of tradition, rather than to try to get at the historical reality itself: "Although questions about rabbis as historical figures ought not to be ignored, the character of the evidence suggests that the basic problematic of rabbinic `biography' is not the recovery of the life or mind of a given master, but the study of how and if his traditions change and develop across documents and through time."" The suggestion that the study of rabbinic biography is the study of the evolution of tradition allows us to reflect on the role of interpretation in the formation and development of biographical stories. I suggest that biographical traditions develop not
only as a result of historical memory or under the forces of current ideology but because tradition demands interpretation: because texts exist, they call for interpretation; because they are interpreted, a life story develops. Recognizing the mechanism of tradition not only explains why traditional material cannot serve in the making of a biography; it also illuminates our understanding of the fundamental impetus of interpretation that informs the sources. In the cases to be presented, the reason we cannot write a historical biography is closely linked to the nature of the material, which calls for interpretation within the tradition. In this sense, the study of rabbinic biography is the search for the rabbinic hermeneutical key that led to the formation and development of tradition.
All this leads to the realization that the significant unit for presentation is not the life of the sage; it is the stories about sages. These stories are not formulated in an attempt to tell the life of the sage. They are told because the sage, as part of the collective culture, has some bearing on the common cultural concerns. Various anecdotes are coupled into a larger story cycle. The cycle may bear the stamp of the editor who compiled it, but the editor is concerned not with the life itself but with some culturally significant message that emerges from the stories. For the storytellers, the rabbi himself, not his life, is the significant unit, a means of developing larger ideas and ideologies. Stories about rabbis do not serve as raw material for a hagiography, much less a biography. The literary and ideological nature of rabbinic storytelling practices precludes the possibility of arriving at a historical person and therefore of reconstructing his biography.
Having recognized the collective nature of rabbinic culture as a barrier to the telling of a life of a sage, we must still ponder the deeper implications this has for the religious understanding of the rabbis. Susan Ashbrook Harvey defines hagiography as a way of "celebrating the saint as one through whom God acted in the realm of human life."" "Hagiography is about a theology of activity. The careers of the saints are one expression of this theology," and the hagiographer's method is to describe, "persons blessed with the capacity to reveal holy presence in the workings of the world." In speaking of the life of a holy person in the context of early Christianity, much as in the case of the Gospels, the entire life of the person is taken into account. And since the holy man's entire life is an expression of the presence of God, his everyday life justifies paying attention to its details and its message. In this sense, rabbinic literature does not produce a life of a holy man.
Inasmuch as not all rabbis would be considered holy men, the heroes of the collective enterprise are not necessarily viewed as holy men. However, the ultimate issue is not that rabbinic culture did not recognize the existence of holy men." Rather, it did not recognize the life of the holy man as significant. What made a rabbinic hero holy was the way in which he embodied the common collective virtues that are intrinsic parts of the religious ideals of rabbinic Judaism: Torah study, religious observance, and moral excellence. Holiness was achieved through participation in the collective religious goals.
Everyday life was not, in and of itself, the arena for the manifestation of special religious status, even if it provided the possibility for holiness. The theological language of the rabbis would not allow them to speak of God as revealing his presence in the life of a person. Moreover, even if this is not articulated, to write a hagiography is to write a book about God's expression in a particular human life; therefore, beyond the absence of personal individuality within a collective culture, theological awareness would not permit the shifting of emphasis from man to God as the ultimate subject of a hagiography. Because holiness and religious virtue are attained by means of a common path, one cannot tell the tale of the single individual in whose life God finds unique expression. Because the arena of religious excellence is clearly demarcated, the entire life cannot take on a unique significance. It seems to me that not only did rabbinic culture not produce a biography or a hagiography, but, owing to its theological constitution, it could not produce one.
That said, I suggest that we can nonetheless define a sense in which it is possible to speak of approaching the life of a rabbinic hero as a biography. Rabbinic literature never systematically told the life of any of its heroes, nor did it preserve the materials necessary for such a story, but it still contains materials that relate to various rabbinic figures. The attempt to treat these materials in a sustained and systematic manner might be viewed as the beginning of a biographical study. In the first instance, by combining the sources that deal with a particular historical person, it places a particular focus on this person, by viewing his life through a biographical lens. Moreover, a sustained review of the sources relating to any figure may amount to an attempt to get at the historical person, regardless of the dearth of information about his life. Recasting rabbinic materials in a context that highlights biographical issues and attempts to some extent to arrive at the historical person is thus, to a small degree, a way of casting a rabbinic biography.
In order to do justice to the complexity and the nature of the rabbinic material, I suggest the term "critical biography," rather than just "biography." It would obviously be inappropriate to gather various stories and arrange them in a cohesive manner that covers a life from birth to death and allows particular struggles to emerge" We must try to account for the formation of all sources relating to the life of the hero under discussion, even if we cannot incorporate all sources into a running narrative. A critical biography designates a systematic account of all sources that are relevant to the sage's life. We must ask why different tales emerge, and what accounts for the diversity within what is reported by tradition. The systematic examination of all relevant sources, including their literary, hermeneutical, and ideological dimensions, is what makes this a critical exercise.
In most cases, as this study will make apparent, what we encounter is the image of the sage as it is worked out through the different layers of tradition and their various intellectual designs, including hermeneutical and ideological. This biographical study is critical in that it distinguishes between the life of the historical person and the constantly developing image of the person as refracted through this developing tradition" To a great extent, we cannot speak of the life of the historical person, only of the life that the community, or its storytellers, project on a particular figure. My study is biographical inasmuch as it relates to the lives of the sages and all that is known of them; it is critical because it attempts a systematic exposition of the sources and distinguishes the historical person from the projected personality. Only by appreciating the common cultural concerns that are projected onto the historical person can we begin to approach the historical reality of these writers.
Though this may be far less than what is usually expected in a life or biography, perhaps we should not limit our perspective to an apology for the lack of proper biography in rabbinic literature. Recent discussions have highlighted how culturally conditioned the western notion of biography is." It is based on a cultural sense of individuality and individual ego, but other cultures‑the Japanese, for example‑reveal different balances between cultural ethos and individual life." Rabbinic culture allows us to consider the manner in which a collective cultural ethos shapes the narration of an individual life. That this tale may have little to do with historical reality and could not be considered a biography is a point to which a major portion of the present study is devoted. However, having granted this point, we may reflect on the relevance of the rabbinic stories to a broader theory of biography. What emerges from the rabbinic lives analyzed in this book raises the question of individual biography and collective ethos, a kind of "group biography."" Thus, while I acknowledge that in the strictest sense we cannot speak of rabbinic biographies in a collective culture, the specific cultural situation in which these lives are told may challenge our notion of what it means to write about a life. If, as Leon Edel notes, writing about a life requires the imposition of structure and meaning on the facts told, then cultural and group values must influence the way in which the life of the individual is presented or constructed." Once we are willing to acknowledge that, rabbinic sources provide us with one model of the relationship between personal and group lives and values that allows us to reflect further upon the wider meaning of presenting a life.
In approaching the relevant texts and stories, we must ask who the storytellers are and who their intended audiences are. We must locate the particular worldview and ideals that find expression in the stories. This of course hinges on our understanding of the nature of rabbinic sources: if the stories are true narrations of historical events, they may express the complexity of the placement of the sages within society. The sages are part of a larger public culture, and their actions may express values that belong to the wider audience. Thus, to the extent that the stories reflect real historical situations, the values and tensions they express may come from a wide circle that extends well beyond the confines of the beit midrash, the rabbinic house of study.
My understanding of the rabbinic sources is different: I see these stories as the creation of storytellers and editors working within the confines of the rabbinic world. This determines the set of values that finds expression in these stories and to a large extent also suggests the readership of the texts. I believe these texts to be the product of the schools and of the imagination and concerns of the rabbis." Thus, the issues, concerns, and values they project are those particular to the rabbis. Perhaps the strongest proof for this suggestion is the thematic uniformity found in the texts to be studied: the central theme, developed in diverse ways in the texts, is the Torah, including its study and status. This fact alone can serve as a reference point for the circle from which the texts originate.
In the final analysis, the collective nature of rabbinic literature is itself an expression of the centrality of the Torah. It is not coincidence that much of the literature is anonymous. Rabbinic culture is engaged in creating the supreme cultural value, the Torah. The voice of the individual rabbi is important because it is the voice of the Torah. For the rabbis, it is the Torah that is the ultimate subject and author of their sayings. When they speak, they speak not from themselves but as representatives of the Torah. The individual sage is not merely assimilated into the larger collective, he is ultimately assimilated into the Torah, and this sacrifice or assimilation of self to the larger value of the Torah may very well be the meaning the sages find in the study of Torah, in a process of ongoing human creativity that expands the meaning of the Torah. Because it is the Torah that is the ultimate cultural hero, the lives of the individual rabbis are culturally significant only as shadows that are overpowered by its greatness. When storytellers create stories in which they use the rabbis as projections of the Torah, they are deeply loyal to rabbinic self‑understanding. In such a culture, where the individual voice is subsumed by the greatest cultural value, it is legitimate for this value to be projected onto the life of the individual and to shape how he is to be remembered by the collective.
insert content here