Review of Naftali S. Cohn, The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 248 pages. $69.95

By Nathan Schumer

Naftali Cohn’s book focuses on ritual narratives, the description of Temple rites in the Mishnah. Cohn asks, why do the rabbis remember and preserve the rituals of the destroyed Temple in the Mishnah? He argues that memories of the Temple—and especially memories of Temple ritual—were useful for the rabbis in the 2nd/3rd century CE. This remembered Temple past was an argument for rabbinic authority over post-Destruction Jewish law and practice (3). To support his argument, Cohn employs an admirable array of theoretical and methodological tools, including narratological theory, collective memory, and Foucaultian discourse. Cohn’s work also internalizes the minimalist narrative of Martin Goodman and Seth Schwartz, reading the Mishnah and its depiction of the past as an attempt to project and construct rabbinic authority. Though the rabbis lacked authority over the Jews of Roman Palestine in the post-Destruction period, they aspired to it.

In Chapter 1, Cohn introduces the diverse and fragmented Jewish religious landscape of high imperial Palestine. In this competitive arena, the rabbis sought to promote their own authority. Chapter 2 focuses on the rabbinic depiction of the Temple Court, which in the Mishnah controls Temple ritual. For example, Mishnah Yoma 1 describes the high priest’s preparation for Yom Kippur. During this process, the high priest is adjured, instructed, and generally controlled by the elders of the Court. While the high priest is the main performer of the ritual, the Court has ultimate authority over how the Temple ritual is performed. Cohn argues that these memories are fictitious and incongruent with Second Temple evidence. Rather, the rabbis have patterned the great Court of the Temple past on rabbinic aspirations for authority and control over Judean ritual law in the post-Destruction period. The rabbis have created a predecessor institution for themselves in the past, which argues for rabbinic authority in the present.

In Chapter 3, Cohn argues that the rabbinic narratives of Temple ritual as a literary form argue for rabbinic authority. Since these narratives describe the Temple past, they advance a rabbinic version of it (and Cohn provides several different examples of how these narratives argue for rabbinic authority). Cohn’s most innovative claim here is that the interjection of named rabbis’ statements into ritual narratives demonstrates to the reader that the rabbis ultimately have control over how the past is remembered. In Chapter 4, Cohn looks at the memory of the Jerusalem Temple’s space and he compares Mishnah Middot with the description of the Temple in Ezekiel 40-43. In Mishnah Middot, the rabbis place their predecessor institution, the great Court, at the center of the Temple, rather than the Holy of Holies. The centrality of the great Court deliberately displaces the Jerusalem priesthood. In Chapter 5 (which was not in the dissertation), Cohn argues that rabbinic appropriation of the Temple must be seen in the context of other post-Destruction discourses about the Temple. He discusses the importance of the Temple for other Jewish groups (apocalyptic writers, Bar Kokhba, and the Jewish community of Dura Europos), early Christians, and the Roman state.

Cohn’s book presents a compelling and interesting way of reading Temple material in the Mishnah. He provides an incisive mixture of theoretical and close analysis of the Mishnah and the different subjects of the chapters complement each other well, fleshing out his argument. Cohn’s depiction of the rabbinic project in the minimalist historiographic narrative provides a compelling model for what the rabbis were doing with this Temple material. I would have liked to see some more developed speculation about the extent to which these assertions of rabbinic authority are primarily a product of the Mishnah, a topic which Cohn alludes to at several points.

My main critique is that in his comparative analysis of the rabbis with other Jewish groups, early Christians, and the Romans, Cohn examines non-rabbinic attitudes towards the Temple, rather than Temple ritual. This seems to be an inexact comparison, and I would have liked to see more about the continued importance of Temple ritual in these other literatures. Despite these admittedly minor quibbles, Cohn’s contribution is strikingly interesting and provides a compelling explanation of why these Temple ritual narratives persist in the Mishnah.


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