Review of Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 316 pp.

By Sara Ronis

Stories of the Babylonian Talmud is the third in a trilogy of works by Jeffrey Rubenstein examining the aggadot of the Babylonian Talmud. In his first book, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (1999), Rubenstein analyzed six lengthy Bavli aggadot and argued that the redactors of the Talmud, whom he identifies as the Stam, creatively reworked their inherited traditions in light of the concerns of their own imagined Stammaitic audience.  Rubenstein followed up this first attempt with The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (2003). In this work, Rubenstein built upon his earlier work by using redaction criticism to identify the major themes and motifs important to the Stammaim. Rubenstein thus made the first attempt to describe Stammaitic culture. Stories of the Babylonian Talmud concludes this trilogy, synthesizing the work of the first two books while developing Rubenstein’s arguments further.

In this new book, Rubenstein borrows the structure of Talmudic Stories, devoting each chapter to the literary analysis of one lengthy Talmudic narrative.  Yet like in The Culture of the Bablyonian Talmud, Rubenstein extrapolates important elements of Stammaitic culture from these stories. He uses the narratives to further develop our picture of the Stammaim,  and the Babylonian Rabbinic academy as a rigidly hierarchical, extremely full space characterized by fast-paced dialectical debate.   Rubenstein’s stated goals are threefold: to expand the corpus of Babylonian aggadot that have been critically analyzed; to focus on the process of composing and reworking these narratives; and to continue his work articulating the cultural context of the Stammaim.

Rubenstein’s excellent literary analyses form the bulk of the content. He uses form-critical and source-critical methods, and examines the broader context of each narrative within its larger sugya. He seeks clues to the development and placement of each aggadah in the Mishnah to which it is attached, the legal topics under discussion, and other forms of association that may have informed particular redactional choices. Each chapter concludes with an appendix listing the manuscript variants

One example will have to suffice to give a sense of Rubenstein’s methodology. In his eighth chapter, “Stammaitic Astrology”, Rubenstein examines a story cycle (multiple stories linked together topically and/or linguistically) that deals with the question of whether Israel is guided by astrology. Reading b. Shabbat 156b in its literary context, Rubenstein focuses on the structure, poetics, and composition of the stories, its sources in Palestinian rabbinic literature, and its redactional context as the concluding section of a long “theological” sugya on astrology more generally. Rubenstein takes seriously the role of astrology in the ancient Near East, and the different ways cultures, and different rabbinic groups, integrated astrology into their worldview. Noting the differences and important similarities between the three stories in the story cycle, Rubenstein concludes that “the careful juxtaposition of these three units in the sugya can be understood as the redactors’ attempt to synthesize the disparate and conflicting views on astrology which they inherited” (178). This drive to create a grand synthesis is one that characterizes the work of the Stam. Thus, Rubenstein’s contribution in elucidating Babylonian aggada and highlighting its literary and theological artistry is truly remarkable.

Rubenstein also develops and musters more evidence for his argument that the same Stammaim who redacted the legal passages of the Babylonian Talmud also redacted its narrative materials. The theory of the “Stam” was first advanced by David Weiss Halivni. Halivni’s Stam were the anonymous redactors who organized and redacted the Babylonian Talmud between the period of the Amoraim and the Saboraim. Scholars have since debated the identity of the Stam, their exact contributions, and the nature of the Stammaitic project. Rubenstein contributes to the debate by arguing that the Stammaitic narrative is remarkably similar if not identical to its project in the legal materials. Thus the same Stammaim who were occupied with theoretical, legal, and jurisprudential concerns were also occupied with the genre of narrative and the role of narrative in cultural – and even legal – construction. Rubenstein argues further that his readings of the aggadot of the Babylonian Talmud demonstrate that narrative and halakhic discourse were “inextricably intertwined”; Palestinian and Amoraic narrative were reshaped as law, and law as narrative, to fit the broader cultural context of the Babylonian Talmud of the Stam (216).

Rubenstein’s work on rabbinic narratives is both creative and rigorous, and makes an important and irreplaceable contribution to the study of rabbinic literature. My one critique is that he accepts Halivni’s work on halakahic texts, and does not devote the same time or energy to interrogating halakhic texts as he does the aggadah. In recent years, Halivni’s theory of the Stam has been challenged by scholars like Robert Brody, who questions a universal theory of a single, late Stam. Halivni’s work has also come under attack by academics such as Isaiah Gafni, who notes that the Stam as a distinct group or period has never been proven decisively, and that the function of redactor may have been one undertaken by some or all Amoraim, or perhaps by the Saboraim mentioned in the Iggeret of Rav Sherira Gaon.  Rubenstein, for the most part, is willing to accept Halivni’s read of the legal materials with only mild refinement. He accepts Halivni’s characterization of the work of the Stam. He gestures to layers of stam, but does not elaborate how these layers developed, or what shifts in culture they may point to.  He unfortunately does not discuss how the Saboraim fit in to his conception of the Stam and its central importance to the Babylonian Academy.  This is a critique born in admiration – Rubenstein’s reading of rabbinic aggadah is so persuasive that I could only wish he did the same work with rabbinic halakhah, to further strengthen his argument that the same Stammaim redacted both legal and narrative texts.

Fundamentally though, Rubenstein’s description of the stam is both engaging and compelling.  Whether Rubenstein continues to publish analyses of rabbinic aggadot, or whether he moves on to a new topic, his contribution to the study of rabbinic narrative cannot be overlooked or overstated. This is a fine contribution to an already impressive set of works.


Sara Ronis is a Ph.D. Candidate in Judaism in Late Antiquity at Yale University, working on rabbinic demonologies, and was a 2010-2012  Fellow at the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Cardozo Law School. She holds an MA in Religious Studies from Columbia University (2009).


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