Review of David Weiss Halivni, The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud. Trans. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. 352 pp. $65.00

By Matthew Goldstone

 

A significant percentage of the foundational research in the field of academic Talmud study is written in Hebrew.[1]  The monumental works of Epstein, Albeck, and others are both the building blocks upon which contemporary study stands and the fortress of lingering assumptions against which modern academics must respond.  While the language barrier should present little problem for those in the field, the paucity of English material presents a challenge for the broader interested public.  This of course includes not only non-academic readers but scholars in other fields whose work can be enriched through interdisciplinary engagement with academic rabbinics as well.  For this reason alone Jeffrey Rubenstein’s new English translation of David Weiss Halivni’s Formation of the Babylonian Talmud is a tremendous step forward in advancing the accessibility of critical Talmudic study.

Professor Halivni’s dedicated efforts toward rethinking our understanding of the composition of rabbinic texts, and the Babylonian Talmud in particular, has helped to revolutionize the field.  Not only do his larger theses present a revised rabbinic chronology and timeline of literary production, but his piercing critical analyses of sugyot sensitize us to the need for unraveling the complex historical layers that are intertwined and provide us with general tools for this endeavor.  Any modern investigation of a sugya must engage with the challenges and theories that Halivni propounds and we are fortunate to have such a clear manifesto of his underlying assumptions and methods in the present work.

Perpetually repeated throughout his work, Halivni’s theory stands upon several foundational hypotheses that run counter to earlier modes of thinking.  In one fairly concise instance he writes as follows:

The foundation of my theory of the formation of the Talmud rests on the thesis that the Stammaim reconstructed Amoraic dialectical argumentation, and sometimes Tannaitic dialectical argumentation too, because there was no official transmission of dialectical argumentation in the Amoraic period.  All my other premises – the prevalence of forced explanations in the Talmud, the late dating of the Stammaim, the absence of a comprehensive editing, and more – derive from this central and fundamental thesis.[2]

From the recognition that the vast quantity of anonymous material that engages with Amoraic meimrot often presents dubious readings, Halivni surmises that these discussions formed a later chronological layer of the text and feature a heightened appreciation for the logical argumentative process above and beyond apodictic legal conclusions.  The Amoraim were primarily invested in preserving only the conclusions of their discussions and thus, as later generations became interested in the dialectical discourse that lead to these end results, they were forced to reconstruct the argumentation largely without the aid of a transmitted tradition.  Grounded in this historical conclusion, Halivni articulates criteria for differentiating between Amoraic and Stammaitic stratum within the Talmud.  The major task of his series Meqorot umesorot is to work through various tractates of the Babylonian Talmud to untangle and elucidate their historical layers.[3]  The present work originally appears as the introduction to Halivni’s Hebrew volume on BT Bava Batra and remains the most comprehensive description of his methodology.  The reader should not be dismayed that The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud is not heavily laden with examples since the proof and application of Halivni’s method is primarily to be found in the body of this and his other Hebrew volumes.

In reading through Halivni’s work one is struck by his erudition and command of rabbinic texts.  Yet, it is unfortunate that Halivni confines himself to addressing his predecessors (often only mentioned explicitly in his footnotes) without incorporating and engaging with his contemporary colleagues whose work both criticize and enhance his own.[4]  Occasionally one will encounter an oblique reference to other scholarship, but even in such cases Halivni appears hesitant to cite them directly or to offer a rereading of their evidence.[5]  Shamma Friedman’s name, for example, is conspicuously absent from most of Halivni’s discussion despite the former’s rigorous and influential contributions in similar areas.[6]  As a response to this dearth of contemporary literature, Rubenstein’s supplementary annotations in the back of the volume provide a partial corrective, listing some of the relevant literature that furthers and challenges Halivni’s assertions.  Although these notes are by no means intended as exhaustive, they are an important entryway for the curious reader to follow more recent discussions on various issues and to recognize which of Halivni’s theses and assumptions have been challenged.  For example, Halivni argues that “[t]he Stammaim began their activity only after there were no longer any Amoraim.”[7]  This generalization is clearly open to debate as Rubenstein points out in his annotation, suggesting a relevant article of Friedman for further reading.[8]

In addition to shying away from addressing the current generation of Talmudic scholarship, Halivni also refrains from joining the emerging trend of interdisciplinary study which incorporates theories of orality, literature, religion, and culture toward a more nuanced description of rabbinic textuality.[9]  Nevertheless, this omission does not detract from Halivni’s greater contribution to our understanding of the historical development of the Talmud and leaves room for younger scholars to further his work.

While Halivni’s project of parsing the chronology of rabbinic texts and his adherence to historical-critical methods are reminiscent of older models of scholarship, we must not lose sight of the baggage of tradition from which he breaks away and the ability to transcend prior thinking that this requires.  Halivni is open to rethinking his own positions and thus we find at the beginning of his work the admission that, “I retracted that which I stated in the Introduction to MM [Meqorot umesorot]: bava metsia (2003), that the Stammaitic age lasted for fifty years… I now believe that the Stammaitic was a lengthy period, extending almost 200 years…”[10]  In addition to continually developing his theory Halivni refreshingly also offers tentative hypotheses at a time when many are hesitant to posit unsubstantiated claims.  Thus he writes, “I would venture to suggest, though only as a conjecture, that the transmitters also functioned as ‘combiners (metsarfim),’ that throughout Amoraic times they had a dual function…”[11]   And later on Halivni ventures “to speculate that when the Stammaim studied in the academy they did not follow the order of tractates but studied by topic.  The Amoraim, however, proceeded according to the order of tractates…”[12]  Hence Halivni’s work has much to offer the curious reader.

Translating any text, let alone a work that requires such comprehensive knowledge of rabbinic texts, is not an easy feat.  Rubenstein’s expert translation not only navigates the precision of the original Hebrew but presents a flowing style that is easy to follow.  As he notes at the outset, some terms are simply awkward to render into English and Rubenstein takes a few liberties in smoothing over these bumps such as using an English plural to stand in for Halivni’s singular collective nouns.[13]  While such changes still result in language that is somewhat clunky (particularly for those familiar with the Hebrew terminology), such as “Reciters” and “Transposers,” the oddity of such nomenclature can help remind us that these are constructed categories and not indigenous labels.

There is no question that Rubenstein is correct in choosing Halivni’s extended introduction to Meqorot umesorot: bava batra for translation as it is his most important Hebrew methodological monograph, and the decision to include a translation of the introduction to Halivni’s more recent volume on Sanhedrin as an addendum provides the reader with his most recent thinking.  The translator’s introduction succinctly summarizes Halivni’s central claims and prepares the reader for the arguments ahead.  However, the one element Rubenstein could have expanded upon is his contextualization of Halivni’s work within the history of scholarship.  In discussing more recent trends in scholarship which veer away from the type of project that Halivni pursues, Rubenstein mentions several earlier works, characterizing them as Halivni’s “debate partners.”[14]  Similarly, Rubenstein points out that Halivni’s focus on forced explanations is the key point of divergence from earlier scholars such as “Julius Kaplan, Hyman Klein, and Avraham Weiss.”[15]  In a footnote he directs the reader to Shamma Friedman’s “Pereq ha’ishah rabbah babavli” for the conclusions of these scholars.  If Rubenstein had decided to include more particulars regarding the similarities and differences between Halivni and these earlier scholars, many of whom are engaged in the similar task of identifying and disentangling the various chronological layers of the Bavli, perhaps the reader would walk away with a greater appreciation for the import of the nuances in Halivni’s line of thinking as well as the many ways in which his approach clings to their assumptions.  An extensive comparative investigation is of course far beyond the scope of his introduction, but a more extended explication of the assumptions and ensuing course of analysis undertaken by Halivni’s predecessors might have been helpful for readers to differentiate Halivni’s method both from these earlier scholarly approaches as well as from traditional modes of reading the Babylonian Talmud.  Nevertheless, the basic contextualization that Rubenstein provides is certainly sufficient for most readers and further background may be primarily of interest to those curious about the history of academic Talmud scholarship.

Overall The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud is an excellent entry point for those new to the field of academic Talmud study and this new translated edition will hopefully heighten the awareness of both lay and interdisciplinary academic readers to the assumptions and methods that underlie modern critical Talmudic scholarship.


[1] Most notably, philologically-oriented as well as semi-global theories are often penned in Hebrew.  Fortunately some of the earlier material is accessible to the English-speaking public through sources such as Julius Kaplan’s The Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud and Neusner’s Formation of the Babylonian Talmud, which review and critique the previous generations of thinkers.  Additionally, the field has witnessed a growth in English publications that specifically grapple with the development of the Talmudim (e.g., Judith Hauptman’s Development of the Talmudic Sugya: Relationship Between Tannaitic and Amoraic Sources, Christine Hayes’ Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud, and Alyssa Gray’s A Talmud in Exile: The Influence of Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah On the Formation of Bavli Avodah Zarah, etc.).  Nevertheless, a significant portion of the groundbreaking corpus remains in Hebrew and untranslated.

[2] Halivni, The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud 150.

[3] At present Halivni’s Meqorot umesorot series includes the following volumes:  Seder Nashim (1968), Yoma-Hagigah (1975), Eruvin-Pesachim (1982), Shabbat (1982), Bava Qamma (1993), Bava Metsia (2003), Bava Batra (2007), and Sanhedrin (2012).  Halivni explicitly notes that, “[t]he primary purpose of my Talmud commentary Meqorot umesorot is to provide alternatives to the forced explanations prevalent throughout the Talmud…” (Halivni, 213 fn30).

[4] Rubenstein notes in his introduction that part of the reason for Halivni’s focus on his predecessors is that “[s]cholars have shifted away from both general histories covering vast periods of the development of rabbinic Judaism and from inquiries concerning some fundamental questions – such as the date of the editing of the Talmud – on which the evidence is spare” (Halivni, xviii).  Thus many contemporary scholars are engaged in projects that greatly differ from the goals and scope of Halivni’s work.  Nevertheless, there are modern scholars who still pursue related issues and I find Halivni’s decision to refrain from discussing them unfortunate.

[5] Thus, for example, Halivni writes, “Some scholars attribute to the Saboraim anonymous sugyot, especially those appearing at the beginning of a tractate or a chapter.  I have found no evidence that this is the case, and no characteristics that distinguish these sugyot from other anonymous sugyot that would indicate that the sugyot originate in disparate times (despite the various attempts of several scholars)” (Halivni, 211 fn20).  Rubenstein’s annotations provide a few of the thinkers to whom Halivni may be responding (Halivni 286, IN20).  In one extended footnote, which Rubenstein chooses to omit, most likely due to its length and highly technical nature (see Halivni, 220 fn79), Halivni does “systematically” engage with the examples culled by Halevy and Albeck to demonstrate the existence of an early Stam and offers his own interpretations to challenge their readings.

[6] For example, one of his brief discussions of the criteria for separating between the Amoraic and Stammaitic layers of the text (Halivni, 139) presents an excellent opportunity to engage with Friedman’s programmatic essay, “Pereq ha’ishah rabbah babavli,” as noted by Rubenstein in his annotation (Halivni, 283 III.139).

[7] Halivni, 5.

[8] See Halivni, 268 I.5 where Rubenstein writes: “Some might view this periodization, where no new era can begin until the previous one completely concludes, as excessively rigid and not reflecting the messy historical reality.  See, for example, the comments of Shamma Friedman…”

[9] In his introduction Rubenstein points to several areas that Halivni does not address, including the role of the Stammaim in the non-legal aggadic sections of the Talmud, the “importance of the ambient Zoroastrian religion and Sasanian (Persian) culture to the understanding of the Bavli” (a task notably undertaken by scholars such as Yaakov Elman and his students), and modern understandings of orality (Halivni, xxix).

[10] Halivni, 9.  Also see Halivni, 211 fn22, where he qualifies that: “Retraction does not mean that I changed my mind, but rather that over the course of time I am less influenced by the traditional view.”

[11] Halivni, 141.

[12] Halivni, 183.

[13] See Rubenstein’s “Translation Conventions” (Halivni, xiii).

[14] Halinvi, xix.

[15] Halivni, xxv.

 

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