Richard Hidary’s New Book Examines Influence of the Art of Persuasion on Talmudic Scholars

hidary_book_hi-resRabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash, by Dr. Richard Hidary, associate professor of Jewish history, is coming out this month from Cambridge University Press. Intended as both a class textbook and for general readers interested in issues of truth in this modern age, it examines the influence of classical rhetoric on Talmudic rabbis of the Greco-Roman period.

According to Hidary these rabbis are remarkable in that they positioned themselves between philosophers, who boasted knowledge of objective reality, and sophists, who could debate both sides of any issue. “Training in rhetoric—the art of persuasion—formed the basis of education in the Roman Empire,” explained Hidary, a 2017 Harry Starr Fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. “This book argues that the rabbis succeeded in navigating a novel path between Platonic truth and rhetorical relativism by discovering a notion of multiple truths embedded within each word of divine Scripture.”

Their approach is relevant today as modern culture struggles to reconcile truth in the face of advanced scientific research in fields such as quantum physics and ongoing philosophical arguments such as postmodernism. “It is fascinating to view these modern debates on the background of very similar ancient views,” said Hidary, “and even more satisfying to find that the Talmudic rabbis advanced a complex and nuanced middle position that can serve as a model for modern thinkers.”

Hidary has long been curious about how these scholars were able to incorporate their faith into a method of reason. “I’ve always been fascinated by Talmudic debate and its penchant for arguing both sides of every issue,” he said. “It seems at odds with a religious biblical-based tradition to give so much room for intellectual questioning; yet for the rabbis, the art of argumentation is elevated to a form of religious worship. The rabbis succeeded in adopting rhetorical reason, a potential threat to received religion, and incorporating it as an integral part of their own spiritual life.”

“While researching my dissertation,” he explained, “I came across a Talmudic pericope [excerpt] that was structured just like a five-paragraph essay I learned about in a writing class. I pursued this parallel further only to discover that both the Talmudic and modern forms trace back to classical rhetoric. This insight opened for me a whole new perspective on the wider intellectual world within which the rabbis worked and that informs so many aspects of their literature.”

While Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric is being marketed by Cambridge for classroom use, Hidary believes it might also appeal to a broader, intellectually curious audience. “I hope this book will be used in courses in areas of Jewish history of the classical period, Talmud and midrash. It contains sections that unpack the forms and goals of each major work of Hazal [the Sages], including Mishnha, Midrash Halacha, Talmud Yerushalmi, Talmud Bavli, and Midrash Aggadah. It can therefore help both beginners and advanced students contextualize these great compilations that anchor the Jewish tradition within their cultural surroundings.”

“This will [also] be of interest to modern readers,” he added, “who grapple with issues of truth, interpretation and subjectivity—especially in light of postmodernism—and the book will provide them with historical background to compare ancient and modern approaches. It will also help readers interested in the Roman Empire to appreciate how minorities in the Greek East experienced the dominant culture. Even for longtime students of Talmud, it can provide the reader with a context in which to understand features of Talmudic structure and argumentation that may seem strange to a modern sensibility.”

In addition to his new book, Hidary’s article, “A Tale of Two or Three Witnesses: Oral Testimony in Greco-Roman, Qumranic and Rabbinic Court Procedure” will be included in a forthcoming Festschrift in honor of Dr. Lawrence Schiffman to be published by Brill.

In the coming spring 2018 semester Hidary will be teaching a course at The Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies called, “Truth, Justice and Court Procedure in Masekhet Sanhedrin, Compared to Roman and Modern Law.”

Dr. Yehuda Mirsky

Dr. Yehuda Mirsky

Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, associate professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis, spoke in commemoration of the thirty fifth yarzeit of his father Rabbi Dr. David Mirsky and the fiftieth yarzeit of his grandfather Rabbi Dr. Samuel Kalman Mirsky. By reviewing the life and work of these two figures, Dr. Yehuda Mirsky explained how they each played different and important roles within the American Orthodox community. He reflected that Samuel Mirsky represented the depth in Judaism and focused on building institutions to bridge American and Israeli Jewry. David Mirsky represented the breadth of Judaism and focused on securing YU’s place in the world of higher education and bridging Jewish and non-Jewish institutions.

Samuel Mirsky was born in Moldova in 1899 but spent his childhood in Eretz Yisrael, where his family emigrated after the Kishinev pogroms. He was considered an ilui, a childhood genius, and received semikha at age fifteen. As a young adult, he became very active in Zionism, earned his British law degree, and was involved in the earliest conversations about a chevrah l’mishpat ha-iviri, a society for Hebrew law. He taught in the religious Zionist Tahkemoni school. He developed close relationships with Rav Uziel and Rav Kook. In 1920, he moved to America and was soon invited by Dr. Bernard Revel to teach at the  Teachers Institute of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also served as the principal of Maagen David elementary school for several years and was the rabbi of the Young Israel of Boro Park. He served as the leading religious figure in the Hebrew Movement of America and was involved in HaPoel HaMizrahi, a religious Zionist organisation that supported the founding of religious kibbutzim and moshavim. 

David Mirsky was born in the United States and attended MTA High School and Yeshiva University. As a student, he founded the YC Dramatics Society. He also edited The Jewish Horizon, the journal of the HaPoel HaMizrachi. He earned his doctorate in English literature at Columbia University. He taught English literature at YU and later became Dean of Admissions. He was influenced by Dr. Belkin’s emphasis on fostering higher education and worked to have Hebrew qualify as a language for the College Entrance Examination Board and have the SATs offered on Sunday – to accommodate Orthodox Jews who couldn’t take the exams on Saturday. He was featured on a TV show about minorities in American literature and a co-hosted radio show about issues of college education. He later served as Dean of Stern College, president of Histadrut HaIvrit b’America, and co-chairman of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East. Additionally, he published studies about the life and work of Ephraim Luzzatto (18th century Italy), the father of modern Hebrew poetry.

Dr. Yehuda Mirsky emphasized the ecumenical aspect of both Samuel Kalman and David Mirsky. Both were figures who were able to speak to very diverse groups of people. David Mirsky devoted his life to building YU but had close relationships within the Jewish Theological Seminary and, with the blessing of Dr. Belkin, generously advised Bernard Lander in his founding of Touro College – without any concern for possible competition. Both Samuel Kalman and David Mirsky shared a strong national and cultural self-confidence and a firm belief in the integrity of Torah and human dignity which allowed them to work with the broader Jewish and non-Jewish world.

A video recording of Dr. Mirsky’s talk can be viewed here:





Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Joseph, also known as, Yosef the Tzaddik, is a towering figure in the Bible. He is the quintessential immigrant, who overcame the most daunting of challenges to become a superstar in ancient Egyptian society.

In this week’s Torah portion[i], we read about Joseph’s exploits, as a young man. He was shanghaied from his comfortable and familiar surroundings at home, in parochial Shechem, to the land of Egypt. It was a center of trade, culture and sophistication in the ancient world and one of the superpowers of the period.

Joseph’s unceremonious entry into Egypt was as a slave. He was sold to the house of Potiphar, a governmental official in the court of the Pharaoh. A handsome, talented, charming and brilliant young man, he was quickly promoted and then put in charge of Potiphar’s business affairs[ii]. For a time, everything seemed to be going extremely well, but then Joseph was confronted with the harsh reality of the powerlessness of his position. His master’s wife cast her eyes on him and his good looks[iii] struck her fancy. As the mistress of the house of Potiphar, she was an imposing figure and she brazenly demanded that Joseph lie in bed with her. Her goal was to seduce him.

What a case of workplace sexual harassment? It has all the ingredients. Rabbeinu Bachya[iv] even insinuates that Joseph could have done more to avoid this situation. He notes that Joseph did pay excessive attention to his outward appearance. He also began to live it up, forgetting his roots and that he had a father in the old country mourning his disappearance.

It’s top of the fold headline material and click bait; powerful political figure demands illicit relationship in exchange for job security. The fact that the Biblical narrative reverses the typical roles, in this dramatic presentation, makes the story even more poignant.

The Bible describes how Joseph continued to rebuff the seductive advances. He buried himself in his work and tried vainly to avoid being alone with his master’s wife. She, though, continued aggressively to harass him. She asked him just to lie with her, without any sexual contact[v] or just be near her[vi]. She then urged him just to talk to her in private[vii].

The Ramban[viii] notes that this was no easy matter. Joseph was powerless and had no apparent recourse. The Talmud[ix] reports Joseph had reason to fear Potiphar’s wife. She didn’t just try to sweet talk him. She used her power and position to threaten him with harm. She also lavished gifts of money on him. However, Joseph refused, because his trust in G-d transcended his fear of what she might do to him. Nevertheless, he was not free just to leave; he had no choice but to carry on. It is an all too familiar refrain in our contemporary society.

The climactic scene occurs on a festival day[x]. Joseph came to the office to work, like any other day. However, this day was special, because the rest of the members of the staff were absent. They were celebrating outside the office. Joseph was left alone with his master’s wife. She proceeded to grab at his clothing and demanded that he service her. He demurred and moved away from her. She, however, did not release her hold on his clothing. They were ripped off in the process of his exiting the scene. Joseph did not attempt to retrieve the clothing; he just walked away.

The story is graphic and gritty; there’s no easy way to tell it. But why was it necessary to tell it at all? Indeed, what is the point of the Biblical narrative? Isn’t it just another tawdry tale of the notoriously permissive society of ancient Egypt? Why sully the otherwise impeccable reputation of Joseph, whose saintly behavior earned him the title Tzaddik? Like most stories in the Bible, there has got to be a lesson for the ages or there is no reason to recount it. But what is the lesson and does it apply to our so-called enlightened modern milieu?

It appears that human nature and the challenges of the workplace have not really changed that much since ancient Egypt. The Biblical narrative is as fresh and vital today as it was then.

The Talmud[xi] analyzes the Biblical narrative from a number of perspectives. One focus is on the phrase casting eyes on someone, as used in the Biblical text[xii]. It links this to a verse in Proverbs[xiii], which the Talmud[xiv]separately interprets to derive a psychological source for this particular type of misbehavior. It identifies arrogance as the offending character trait, which is intimately associated with this type of offensive conduct. In essence, there is a sense of entitlement, which derives from a person considering himself all too precious[xv]. It is this arrogance and corresponding sense of entitlement, which leads a person to stumble. The high and mighty, such as politically powerful individuals, are particularly susceptible, for this reason[xvi]. All that’s needed is a triggering event and the opportunity. The trigger is the casting of the aggressor’s eyes on a beautiful and desirable individual, within the context of the unequal power relationship between the aggressor and victim. The opportunity is presented when the two are secluded in private, away from the preying eyes or possible intervention of others.

It appears that there is no real, permanent cure to the problem. As the Biblical narrative illustrates, it is also not a simple matter of man vs. woman; it is about human nature. It is suggested that a two-pronged approach may be helpful in mitigating the problem. It includes cultivating humbleness[xvii] and setting boundaries[xviii].

Genuine humbleness may dull the efficacy of the triggering event. If a person feels unworthy, then why try to conquer another for sport? Without that overweening sense of entitlement driving a person, why brazenly take liberties with another? It just does not appear to be a first choice for those who are genuinely humble. However, achieving true humility is not an easy accomplishment. Indeed, the Talmud suggests only one person, Palti, the son of Laish[xix], ever achieved that high standard of personal conduct. This does not mean that efforts should not be taken to blunt the more negative aspects of arrogance. Nevertheless, it hardly seems likely that this alone will solve the problem. Hence, it is suggested that there is a need for a dual tracked approach.

The other and more practical aspect of this integrated approach is establishing firm and definitive boundaries, which cannot be crossed. In this manner, the opportunity for wrongdoing is limited. The problem Joseph encountered was contained until that fateful day, when no one else was present in the house, besides Joseph and his harasser. It is, of course, inappropriate for a person in power to make these kinds of demands on an employee, at any time. Lewd suggestions or crude talk are wrong; but, as Joseph demonstrated, they are more readily rebuffed. On that day, though, offensive touching occurred. This is not as easily dealt with, because there is often an accompanying sense of helplessness.

The Ramban[xx] emphasizes this point. He asks why did Joseph not simply take back his clothing? He was stronger and could have easily overpowered his master’s wife. However, he didn’t. This is because his master’s wife was a powerful person and out of a respect for her position, he felt inadequate to deal with her on this basis. He, therefore, chose just to exit the scene.

Doesn’t this sound all too familiar? It is hard to confront people in authority. We should be more understanding of these kinds of circumstances, all too prevalent in the workplace and the protected chambers of power.

All forms of harassment cannot be tolerated, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. The problem is not a new one and the Biblical lessons of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are compelling and cogent. The solution is not to deny human nature. It is rather to recognize it and take active measures to avoid circumstances where harassment can rear its ugly head. This means establishing clear and definitive work rules, which are designed to militate against the opportunity for inappropriate conduct or relationships.

The workplace is not a social club. After-hours clubbing and drinking by co-workers cannot be an obligation, nor is it an ideal. This is not just a matter of circumscribing male and female interaction; it should apply to everyone. This will also help negate the perception that it is somehow advantageous to drink and carouse with the boss, a particularly noxious excuse for misbehavior. Success in the workplace should be about productivity and commitment to work. There’s a difference between being a good team player, in furtherance of work related goals, during the workday and after-hours socializing. There’s also so much more to life than dining and drinking with co-workers after work. How about going home to be with family? What about charitable activities? We can all use more time for study, exercise and quiet contemplation.

Let’s get back to basics. This means boundaries designed to avoid both indiscretions and abuses. Any less might cause confusion. In this regard, it is important to cultivate an environment of professional demeanor in the workplace, which requires a certain level of formality. This applies to mode of dress, as well, which traditionally was more formal than the casual attire appropriate in a social setting. These and other such devices were designed to differentiate the workplace from other venues. The authentic traditions of classical Judaism can help pave the way. The boundaries established by the Sages have worked well in practice for millennia. They can and should guide our way in the present, as well.


[i] Genesis, Chapter 39.

[ii] See Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 39:11.

[iii] See Genesis 39:7 and the Sforno commentary thereon.

[iv] Ibid, in his commentary on the verse.

[v] See Bereishit Rabbah 87:6 and Rashi commentary on Genesis 39:10.

[vi] Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 39:10.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] In his commentary on Genesis 39:8.

[ix] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 35b.

[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 36b. See also Rashi in his commentary on Genesis 39:11.

[xi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Horayot, at page 10b.

[xii] Genesis 39:7.

[xiii] 6:26.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 4b.

[xv] Citing Proverbs 6:26.

[xvi] Malbim, in his commentary on Proverbs 6:26.

[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at pages 19b-20a.

[xviii] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud Tractates Kiddushin (pages 80b and 82a), Sanhedrin (page 21a), Sanhedrin (page 36b) and Megillah (page 14a).

[xix] Supra, Note xvii.

[xx] In his commentary on Genesis 39:12.


Dr. Richard Hidary

Dr. Richard Hidary

Dr. Richard Hidary, associate professor of Jewish history, Yeshiva University, is a 2017 Harry Starr Fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. The Harry Starr Fellowship in Judaica supports scholars doing full-time research in Jewish studies.

In 2017, the Fellowship’s focus was on “Jews in the Classical World,” and in February, Dr. Hidary gave a seminar on “Rabbis as Greco-Roman Rhetors: The Setting and Structure of Rabbinic Homilies.” [A rhetor is a teacher of rhetoric, the study of persuasive discourse.] Comparing Roman and rabbinic funeral orations enabled him to describe to what degree the rabbinic community was integrated into its surrounding society as well as how much it was able to distinguish itself.

Dr. Hidary will also have an article published in a forthcoming Festschrift in honor of Lawrence Schiffman to be published by Brill, titled, “A Tale of Two or Three Witnesses: Oral Testimony in Greco-Roman, Qumranic and Rabbinic Court Procedure.” The article compares witness testimony in Roman, Qumranic and rabbinic courts of law and how the differences between these legal practices illustrated each community’s specific understandings of truth, interpretation and divine versus human roles in pursuing justice.

“I am grateful to the other Starr Fellows and faculty members from the Center for Jewish Studies and the Classics department,” he said, in an article in the spring 2017 issue of the Center’s newsletter, “for sharing their expertise on the experience of the Jews in the classical world, and for their friendship, feedback and insight.”


Kabbalah Practices/ Practical Kabbalah: Magic and the Kabbalistic Tree

On November 27, 2017 · In Uncategorized
Dr. Yossi Chajes

Dr. Yossi Chajes

Dr. Yossi Chajes of the University of Haifa directs the Israel Science Foundation – supported “Ilanot Project,” an attempt to study all kabbalistic cosmological diagrams. In this talk, he explained Ilanot and their magical uses. Borrowing the most prestigious schemata from philosophical inquiry, the Tree of Porphyry diagrams of Aristotle’s categories, kabbalists from as early as 1400 depicted their cosmological insights (e.g. the emanation of the Sefirot) in tree- like diagrams, called Ilanot. These Ilanot can be described as iconotexts, composites of text and image. Ilanot were sometimes printed on long scrolls with labeled diagrams and extensive running commentary along the side. These commentaries were related to or reprintings of an early kabbalistic genre, commentaries to the Sefirot. Sometimes, they were instead printed as successive pages in a book or codex. Some Ilanot were printed with rotating circles, volvelles, which the reader could actually physically manipulate in order to construct different combinations and show the fractal nature of the Sefirot.

Most Ilanot are thought to be used as a mnemonic, study aid, and material for meditation. They were also probably considered to draw Divine energy as talismans. Dr. Chajes likened the Ilanot to medieval maps which were thought to enable a virtual pilgrimage to the place represented. The volvelle Ilanot are a specific example of performance which was mandated by the Ilanot.  Dr. Chajes pointed out that parchment scrolls, upon which the Ilanot were often depicted, have a specific resonance within the Jewish tradition. The scrolls of Tefillin, Mezuzah, Megillah, and Torah, are all used for specific Jewish rituals. As such, the very printing of an Ilan on a scroll of parchment signifies that it is ritually important and encourages the reader to “do something” with it, perhaps actively meditate upon it.

While Ilanot were primarily intended for contemplative kabbalah, they were also used for practical kabbalah. Ilanot were commonly fashioned into amulets meant to be apotropaic, to protect against harm. Usually the Ilanot that were intended to be used as amulets deleted the running commentary from the side. They were often miniaturized and worn around the neck. The use of Ilanot as amulets followed a long tradition of using text as image in magic. Earlier examples include using variations of Divine names in magic.

View the entire lecture here: