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Review of Fishman, _Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures_

December 27th, 2013

Review of Talya Fishman, Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish CulturesPhiladelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 424 pp. $65.00.   By Sara Ronis   Talya Fishman’s Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (2012) raises a number of methodological and historical questions about the role of the Talmud in the construction of medieval Jewish life, and the role of medieval Jewish life in constructing the Talmud. This reviewer will focus on the aspect of Becoming the People of the Talmud most of interest to the readers of this blog – its construction of halakhah and law. In Becoming the People of the Talmud, Fishman asks the provocative question: How and why did the Talmud, the rabbinic epitome of “oral matters” (Fishman’s term), become the Talmud as we know it – the written and prescriptive legal standard for medieval Jews in Muslim Spain and Christian France and Germany, and by extension their intellectual heirs?  Fishman argues that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, growing processes of textualization transformed the cultures of northern Europe that
led resident populations to ascribe greater cultural authority to the written word than to mimetically transmitted teachings, and it motivated them to demonstrate that their own behaviors were guided by texts and aligned with them. The panoptic encounter with the written text of Talmud made it possible for readers to work with it in ways that were only possible when granted visual (and not solely auditory) access. These included a panoply of redactional, comparative, analytical, and harmonizing operations. In short, the change in the way that the Babylonian Talmud was transmitted affected that way that its traditions were perceived, understood, and used (219).
According to Fishman,  the Geonim and earlier generations of Jews did not regard Talmudic teachings as absolutely prescriptive.  Thus Geonim ignored certain Talmudic passages in favor of Mishnaic dicta, stated when they had a tradition that contradicted Talmudic arguments, and drew from a range of traditional teachings – including midrash – to respond to legal questions and construct binding laws. For the Geonim, a received legal teaching, which Fishman terms halakhah, was only understood as binding if a rabbi attested to having witnessed it implemented in practice. Only then did a teaching take on the status of “halakhah le-ma’aseh,” “for from antiquity onward, the enterprise of Talmud torah, the study of tradition, was conceived as a sacred activity, something quite separate from the search for legal guidelines or the adjudication of applied law” (23).  According to Fishman, this approach was either ignored or rejected in Jewish Qayrawan, where the Talmud was inscribed at an early date and was seen as legally prescriptive centuries before such a perception spread to Babylonia and northern Europe. By contrast, Fishman argues that the Ashkenazi Jewish communities were far more reliant on custom, the personal conduct of masters, and other forms of extra-talmudic sources of Jewish authority in their legal reasoning until the twelfth century. Fishman points to the Tosafists as one cause of the disruption of the longstanding linkage between halakhah and ma’aseh.  The Tosafists approached the Talmud as an internally coherent corpus with a fixed and authoritative text, and demonstrated the relevance of the Talmud to new situations that the text did not explicitly address. This privileging of the written Talmudic text over other sources of authority then led to the textualization and inscription of new written sources that authorized, documented, and thus ossified, custom. A delicate balance between written text, oral matters, and embodied custom was overturned, and a new balance had to be created which took into account the new technologies (writing, print), and attitudes of a new age. The relationship between legal authority and the media through which laws are expressed, studied, and valorized is rich and thought-provoking. Fishman successfully decouples the scholarly genealogy which sees Ashkenaz as the intellectual heirs of the rabbinic community in Palestine, and Sefarad as the intellectual heirs of the rabbinic communities of Babylonia. She notes that the stronger phenomenological parallels “are between the approaches taken in Babylonia and in northern Europe.” Her attention to the phenomenology and epistemology in these disparate communities reveals particular trends and attitudes that are shared between Jewish communities, and between the Jewish communities in Ashkenaz and the Christian communities of France and Germany. Throughout her work, Fishman weaves a tangled web of ideas of custom, adjudication, legislation, halakhah, halakhah le-ma’aseh, “talmud,” and “oral matters.” Fishman correctly notes how these terms are used differently in different times and locales, as well as the rhetorical power of appropriating a particular term for a new purpose. Still, a greater precision about the shifting relationships between these terms, and when specific definitions are invoked would have been helpful in navigating the broader argument.  In particular, Fishman’s distinction between prescriptive and non-prescriptive legal texts would have benefited from further articulation. However, she is right that the combination and interactions of these terms is a crucial element in the construction of a broader field of halakhic discourse which manifested itself in various contexts, and in surprising ways, during this period.  Some of those elements that Fishman sees as contradictory can actually be understood as part of a broader and multivalent halakhic discourse that contains elements of orality, text, custom, and adjudication.  Thus, for example, simply because a law relates to the period before the destruction of the Temple does not mean that it is not performing particular normative legal functions in a post-Temple world.  A focus on legal discourse and discursive theory would have been one way to highlight the relationships and interrelationships between terms that are at times synonymous and at times totally at odds, and which act together to effect particular changes or actions within the Jewish world. In making her broader arguments, Fishman synthesizes much of recent scholarship on medieval Jewry and the history of the book, while surveying the medieval cultures of Ashkenaz and Sefarad. These impressive acts of synthesis suggest this particular book’s ultimate utility may be in academic pedagogical contexts. It could easily and productively be assigned in a senior seminar or in a graduate class as a way for students to become familiarized with a range of scholars, scholarly questions, and issues in the study of medieval Jewish communities and attitudes.  

Review of Lapin, _Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100-400 CE_

December 17th, 2013

Hayim Lapin, Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100-400 CE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.  295 pp. $55. By Nathan Schumer Writing the social history of the rabbinic movement in Roman Palestine has always been a difficult task. Previous treatments of this topic include Lee Levine’s The Rabbinic Class of Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity and the more tenuous, network theory driven model of Catherine Hezser in the Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement in Roman Palestine. While each of these books make important contributions to the study of the rabbinic movement, Hayim Lapin’s Rabbis as Romans convincingly makes the case that the rabbis of Palestine are best understood as an elite urban association of Roman provincials. Lapin first provides a new model for the rabbis as Roman provincials. In his opinion, scholars of rabbinics have primarily conceptualized rabbis and Romans through the postcolonial language of subalterns and overlords (as presented by Ranajit Guha), deploying an overly dichotomous description of the relationship.Scholars have primarily characterized the rabbis as engaged in cultural resistance to Roman hegemony. Instead of focusing on rabbinic resistance, Lapin argues that the rabbis were a group who learned to “speak” (in the Gayatri Spivak sense), fashioning a role and domains of power for themselves in the Roman province of Palestine. Lapin argues that the rabbinic movement emerged precisely in the stratum of the provincial elite that could be incorporated into the system.  As elites, rabbis navigated Romanizing cultural practices and their place within the Roman Empire, articulating a distinctive Jewish cultural identity. Lapin demonstrates that the successes of the rabbinic movement in gaining power are a result of deploying elements of Romanization to create a place for themselves in the Roman provincial system. Chapter 1 provides a brief overview of the provincial history of Palestine, paying close attention to Roman governance. Lapin follows the trajectory ofprovincial Jewish history laid out in Seth Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish Society with some minor changes. He describes the Romanization of Palestine, discussing the material and administrative changes such as roads and cities that created the urban provincial context in which rabbinic literature emerged. Chapter 2 provides a concise history of the rabbinic movement, examining its texts, origins, and development. As a programmatic statement of method, Lapin argues that rabbinic texts can be read (in aggregate) to answer structural questions about the rabbinic movement (so for instance, were the rabbis generally well to do, on the basis of the available traditions). This approach to rabbinic literature guides Lapin’s historiography of the rabbinic movement in Chapters 2, 3, and 4. Chapter 2 presents a slightly revisionist account of the early years of the rabbinic movement. Lapin demonstrates that in 200 CE, a variety of factors coalesced, particularly the redaction of the Mishnah and the rise of Patriarch Judah I, which created a more institutionalized rabbinic movement. The third chapter is a structuralist account of the Palestinian rabbinic movement in the third and fourth centuries CE. Lapin argues that Palestinian amoraic rabbis were drawn from the urban well to do class. In their civic setting, the rabbis also began to set up rudimentary institutions, such as the study house or appointment by the patriarch. Finally, Lapin demonstrates that the rabbinic movement shared a vocabulary with other urban, religious (or secular) associations of the Greco-Roman world, arguing that we should view the rabbinic movement as similar to these other associations. In short, the rabbis selectively adapted to the new Romanized world, setting up institutions and forms of organization that were derived from the Roman world around them.This is a particularly persuasive account of the rise of the Palestinian amoraic movement, demonstrating its new provincial base among the urban well to do. The fourth chapter describes rabbinic judicial practice in the context of provincial law and voluntary adjudication. Lapin focuses on stories where rabbis operate as judges in tannaitic and amoraic literature. In tannaitic case stories, the rabbis are consulted as religious experts who rule on issues related to Jewish piety. In amoraic case stories, the rabbis rule on a broad array of issues (such as property or personal status) for people who are socially connected to the rabbis. Lapin explains that the Roman state recognized voluntary adjudication as legally binding. Roman law recognized the decision of agreed upon arbiters for parties—in Egypt, some arbiters’ judgments were even enforced by the state. The relative weakness of the Roman state allowed rabbis to judge, creating a legal space that allowed them to articulate their sense of cultural difference from the Romans through application of particularist Jewish law. Scholars of Jewish law, especially those engaged in comparative work, will find this chapter very revealing, allowing them to understand how rabbinic law was practiced in the interstices of the Roman legal system. Lapin’s fifth chapter moves from structural accounts of the rabbinic movement to an analysis of rabbinic texts. It demonstrates that rabbinic fashioning of Jewish difference can best be understood through the lens of Roman provincial culture. Lapin highlights elements in rabbinic literature that thematize Roman provincial history, such as bathing and martyrdom. For instance, he argues that in one pericope in the Talmud Yerushalmi, the rabbis resist a concept of martyrdom that extends to the general exercise of state power, so if the state is merely requisitioning bread from Jewish provincials on the Sabbath, then martyrdom is not justified. Though inconvenient and transgressive of Jewish law, state requisitioning is a typical form of provincial/state relationships.  Martyrdom is only appropriate when the state is persecuting Jews for their Jewishness—a concept of martyrdom that is clearly shaped by the persecution of Christians in the 3rd and early 4th century. In this section, Lapin uses the local provincial history of Palestine to contextualize rabbinic literature, while also using the rabbis as representative of provincial views of the Roman Empire. Though his argument is convincing, it would have been nice to see a more programmatic statement of how viewing the rabbis as provincial Romans can transform our readings of texts and how it presents new insights into Roman history. The epilogue sketches out the rabbinization of the Jews more broadly in the fifth to eighth centuries CE. Lapin argues that during this period the rabbinic movement transitioned from a voluntary urban association into a normative orthodoxy, spreading among the non-rabbinic Jews. To a certain extent, this process of rabbinization was aided by imperial marginalization of the Jews, which turned the Jews as a discrete community. The rabbinization of the Jewish world began in the fifth to eighth centuries and laid the ground for rabbinic expansion in the gaonic period. Though Lapin primarily surveys the evidence, he compellingly suggests that the end of antiquity/the early Islamic period will be a crucial area of study going forward if we wish to understand how Judaism became rabbinic.  The epilogue also serves as a refutation of the narrative of Jewish decline in late antiquity, though this seemed to be an overstatement of the current scholarly consensus. Lapin’s reading of rabbis as Romans is successful, demonstrating that rabbis are part of the Roman Empire in a non-trivial sense. The entire structure of their cultural, social, and economic world is shaped by the reality of Romanization and their articulation of Jewish distinctiveness is connected to elements of Romanization. By providing an account of the social world of the rabbis that roots them in their provincial context, Lapin presents the historical basis for reading the rabbis through the lens of Romanization. Animating this project is the strong belief that rabbinic literature can and should be used not only for the study of Jewish history, but also for Roman history. Roman historians can better understand the social history of the Roman Empire by reading rabbinic literature as representing a (semi) elite Roman provincial experience. Jewish historians, on the other hand, will better understand the rabbinic movement through more serious engagement with scholarship on Roman provinces. Lapin’s book is a welcome development in the field of rabbinics, because it presents rabbinic literature before a broader audience and argues that rabbinic literature is some of the best evidence we have for understanding the experience of being ruled by the Roman Empire. Yet, Lapin could have made his argument more convincing by describing the rabbis with reference to other provincial elites. In arguing that the rabbis participated in and used Romanization for their own ends, Lapin is claiming that the rabbis were part of the same stratum as the native non-rabbinic Jewish elite, which benefited from and was incorporated into the Roman state. To demonstrate rabbinic Romanization, it would have been useful for Lapin to show how the rabbis were like other elite provincial groups, particularly those who were not directly co-opted by the Romans. Similarly, though Lapin generally draws on Seth Schwartz’s minimalist narrative of the rabbinic movement, Lapin emphasizes the elite status of the rabbis, arguing that they come from the group of provincials who could and did benefit from provincial rule, but used the provincial power structure to advance their own nativist agenda. Schwartz emphasized the marginal status of the rabbis, placing them on the edge of Jewish society, but slowly expanding into it.[1] While Schwartz argues that the rabbis are to a certain extent sui generis, Lapin argues that the rabbis are typical of the provincial experience and should be read alongside a variety of other provincial elites. It is conceivable that Schwartz and Lapin could be emphasizing different facets of the same movement, though it would have been nice to see Lapin engage more thoroughly with Schwartz’s arguments for the marginal status of the rabbis, precisely because he often relies on Imperialism and Jewish Society. Lapin’s book is relatively concise, yet quite detailed, providing a quick encapsulation of the nature, rise, and social setting of the rabbinic.The book is clear enough for general audiences and detailed, methodologically sophisticated, and rich enough for scholars of rabbinics.  Ancient historians will find the work to be a useful introduction to the rabbinic movement and rabbinic literature. The book will be especially useful in a classroom setting as a historical textbook on the rabbinic movement in Palestine.


[1]Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 103–128.

Review of _The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality_

December 11th, 2013

Review of Elliot Dorff and Jonathan Crane (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 540pp. $150. By Ute Steyer utsteyer@jtsa.edu Although ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ are terms that are often used interchangeably, philosophers tend to distinguish between them. In philosophical parlance, “morality” refers to value judgments about specific issues and “ethics” refers to the theoretical structure of morality and its relationship to other fields, such as religion, law, custom. This book, entitled “The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality,” is sensitive to this distinction. The book contains a collection of original essays by scholars, activists, and professionals in their respective fields, primarily from North America but also from Israel. The editors decided to divide the handbook into two parts. Part one is a more historically oriented timeline of thinkers as well as an overview of different ethical theories. This is especially important as far too often similar volumes outline the historical development of Jewish ethical thought as if the development were linear, and they neglect to acknowledge the spectrum of thought that existed during any particular time. There has never been a unified ‘Jewish Ethics’ but rather multiple ethical theories. The second part of the book contains a collection of essays on specific topics and from specific areas through the lenses of contemporary voices in the field. In a book as ambitious as this one, there will be certain areas and topics that will not be addressed and will only receive a cursory treatment. The editors acknowledge this limitation in the introduction to the book. Unfortunately, one of the excluded areas (mentioned also by the editors) is the topic of the relationship between Jewish law (halakha) and morality. This is especially unfortunate as so much of Jewish ethical thought found its expression and articulation in Jewish legal writings. The topic is touched upon indirectly in many of the essays in the way their authors draw on interpretations of Jewish law but one would have wished for a more structured and comprehensive treatment of the subject. Some of the chapters of part one feel a bit like a Wikipedia entry. For instance, chapter 4 on “Ethical Theories Among Medieval Jewish Philosophers” covers 12 thinkers on 14 pages, devoting no more than a paragraph to some of them. Less would have been more here. Another example is chapter 6 on “Mussar Ethics and Jewish Ethical Theories,” which attempts to cover seven thinkers on 12 pages, leaving less than a half-page to Hermann Cohen.  Chapter 7 does indeed deal with the ethical theories of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, but the structure results in some duplication in the treatment of Cohen. In some sense, the contributors to the book were overly ambitious. Considering that it is impossible to cover all ethical thinkers in one volume, it would have been preferable for each contributor to concentrate on one or two representatives of a “school” or “period” instead of trying to treat a whole group. An interesting section that most likely would be absent in other similar handbooks is the one dedicated to the ethical theories of the four major streams in Judaism: Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. Contributions to this section were made by theologians associated with one of the big seminaries of each movement. Although the question remains whether one can really talk about a specifically Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist ethics, the authors nevertheless invested great effort to show some of the major streams of thinking and give specific examples from each movement. What really sets this handbook apart is the second part. Contributors with diverse backgrounds, in regards to formal academic training, affiliation with a particular movement or personal backgrounds, but with substantial knowledge in their respective areas wrote essays on specific contemporary topics in Jewish morals. What is true for the first part, that no book can cover all aspects, is even more evident here in the second part of the book. There is a sheer unlimited amount of moral problems and the contributors had to make a selection. Still, the topics they address are of the highest relevance and give a glimpse as to how various Jewish ethical theories are applied to specific moral questions in the interpretation of each writer. No doubt, this book is an important contribution and will serve well its purpose as a handbook of Jewish ethics and morality. Readers will not only appreciate the essays in the book itself but also the fact that each chapter ends with a substantial list not only of the usual notes and works-cited but with suggestions for further readings.