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.  


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