Book Club, English

Definite Article – The Book Club II

The ‘stammaitic consensus’, like many so-called consensuses, has paradoxically not yet achieved a total consensus. Still, aside from persistent skepticism emanating mainly from Israeli scholars, the stammaitic ‘toolbox’ has virtually become the source-critical method in use among academic Talmud scholars working in the field today.

There have in recent years been two interesting challenges to the stammaitic theory of redaction (I do not consider skepticism interesting – even if it is well placed). One, by Moulie Vidas,  questions why anonymity has become synonymous with “lateness” and a final editorial layer if we occasionally find the Stam actively removing attributions – apparently in order to create a distancing effect. Vidas asks source-critics to consider the literary function of anonymity and not only its presumed editorial function.  As of yet, we only have a few examples of the phenomenon of Stammaitic ‘tampering’, but it remains a very interesting argument worth following.

In Zvi Septimus’ recent research, we find another sort of challenge. Zvi questions one of the basic methodologies of “stammaitists”; namely, the attempt to chart a kind of redactional narrative across different sugyot which develops – ever so cleanly – from a set of literary kernels into a masterful and final talmudic mosaic. Like Vidas, Septimus is also interested in literary function – though here not of textual anonymity rather the experiential process of reading the Bavli. As he points out in his “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” one can read source-critically and still discover a far more interactive and far less teleological process of talmudic production that questions some basic axioms of contemporary talmudic source criticism. This realization points in the direction of an implied reader, which in turn can go a long way in explaining what the Talmud is ‘really’ about. I won’t give it away, however, since you should go read it here, and then listen to what our participants have to say, below.

Septimus’ article is the subject of the Talmud Blog’s second Book Club not only because it has implications for redactional theory, a pet interest of this blog. The piece is a nice example of how to read the Bavli from the perspective of contemporary literary theories.  Surprisingly, while there are many scholars interested in the “literary” parts of the Talmud, there are very few actively producing readings informed by literary theory. As such, we’ve invited two scholars, Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky and Dina Stein, who are  engaged in just such an ongoing project of reading rabbinic literature as… literature (!), and who are also interested in the processes of reading Talmud. We also strongly encourage our readers to respond to the article and to the respondents. And finally, we’ve invited the author of the article himself to rise from his theoretical death and respond to Dina and Itay’s remarks. Fear not, since you need not take anything he says into account.

Dina Stein (Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature; Haifa University):

Zvi Septimus should be congratulated on several accounts – for his instating the word “experience” into the practice of reading the Bavli, as well as for his breaking through the narrow quarters of the sugya as the widest possible signifying context in the Bavli. And above all – for writing an incredibly lively, thought provoking essay.

Zvi proposes to replace the diachronic perspective of source criticism with a synchronic perspective of inter (or rather intra-) textuality within the Bavli, indicated by “trigger words”/”simultexts”. Placing himself as somewhat of a (monstrous) heir to Fraenkel he too assumes closure – albeit closure of the entire Bavli. Here, the notion of Iser’s “implied reader” is called upon, so as to rule out any confusion regarding a concrete, historical reader (and to avoid of course historical questions such as when was the Bavli as a whole first recognized, and by whom, and so on). No, the reader is an immune textual construct.

Yet, both “experience” and the new horizons that Zvi offers are not devoid of problems. The “experience” of reading is somewhat misleading since the reader is a hypostasized entity that could hardly be credited with “experience.” More important, the emancipating notion, that the framework within which a given tale should – or can – be read is as vast as the Bavli itself, maybe less liberating than it appears at first. Why should the boundaries of the Bavli be canonized (Zvi explicitly compares the Bavli’s self-glossing poetics to the poetics of the Bible a la Boyarin et al!) in order for the intra-textual principle to function as hermeneutic tool? It is not necessary in my view. It may even raise more problems than it solves.

Twenty five years ago Galit Hasan-Rokem published an article called “The Snake at the Wedding: a Semiotic Reconstruction of the Comparative method of Folk Narrative Research” (ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 43 [1987]: 73-87). There are striking similarities between that article and Zvi’s recent project (they even share some “trigger words”), insofar as both consciously shift the lens from philological, diachronic perspectives to a synchronic reading/construction of meaning. Hasan-Rokem employed tools developed originally by the philological-diachronic perspective of the geographical-historical school of folkloristics, i.e. the tale-type and the motif. Following the semiotician Yuri Lotman who wrote about “sign signals” (to other texts), motifs and fixed bundles of motifs amounting to “tale types” served her to construct possible intertexual environments within which a given text – in this case the story of the bridegroom who dies on his wedding night (Vayiqrah Rabbah 20:3) – signifies. Now Hasan-Rokem addressed texts that are not confined to a single composition or to the rabbinic corpus per se, thus allowing for a more fluid context. By referring to motifs and tale-types as “semiotic markers,” her model also implies that the intertextual framework includes oral traditions, which most of rabbinic literature was.

Applying Hasan-Rokem’s model to Zvi’s argument would shift the very heavy burden lying on the shoulders of the (implied) reader to the realm of cultural semiotics in which different texts share “trigger words” (and themes). The legitimacy for reading these texts in relation to each other would not be compromised. Moreover, the hypostasized “reader” need not be chained to what is assumed to be a fixed canonized composition. “Trigger words” in the Bavli can indeed help us reconstruct cultural associations without necessarily erecting yet another set of (imperializing) boundaries, or imagining closure.

Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky (Department of Hebrew Literature, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev).

Zvi Septimus’s article “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli” adds to a growing body of research that attempts to chart a path between two nearly opposite approaches to the talmudic text: the first emphasizes the foreignness of its elements, resulting in a long and dispersed process of creation; the second highlights the aesthetic quality of the final edited form, which gives it a seemingly uniform appearance. The first leans upon evident, necessarily partial seams, meant to merge distinct sources; the latter draws its strength from the success of the act of sewing, which makes the Babylonian Talmud a stylized, comprehensive text. A careful, self-aware movement between such different modes of discourse must lead to a third approach – and indeed Septimus suggest a very coherent one. By means of an extensive and thorough (and surprising!) analysis of a relatively ‘entangled’ story in the forth chapter of Kiddushin tractate (70a-b), the author demonstrates a new reading method, based on two fundamental claims: (A) The source-critical approach (represented here, and not by coincidence, by the work of Shamma Friedman), does not reflect the (non-critical) reader’s experience, therefore, even if it may explain some stages in the evolution of the talmudic text, it will never supply a theory of reading. (B) The “literary” approach (represented here, again by no coincidence, by the work of Jonah Fraenkel), which ignores the fact that the Babylonian Talmud, as a literary complex, constantly breaches the ‘segirut’ (I find ‘closure’, suggested by Jeffrey Rubenstein, the closest translation of the concept) of the story embedded in it,  when connecting it to other stories from different suggiyot. The combination of the two approaches defines the “Septimusian” reader: He is guided by “trigger words” to simultaneously read text-fragments that were originally far from each other, not in order to decompose them into its primary and secondary components, but to illuminate one another as wholes, in their final design; (ונמצאו “דברי תורה עניים במקומן ועשירים במקום אחר” (ירושלמי ראש-השנה, פ”ג ה”ה

This approach is definitely thought-provoking and requires a lengthier discussion; yet in the limitations of this blessed “Virtual Beit midrash” of which I am a new guest (I take this opportunity to thank Shai Secunda and Yitz Landes for their generous invitation), I will have to suffice with short words of evaluation of some of the theoretical choices made by the author, and maybe suggest possible alternatives.

The attempt to read different Talmudic stories together calls into question the aforesaid assumption, associated with Fraenkel, of ‘segirut’. This assumption, discussed in recent years by Jeffrey Rubenstein and Joshua Levinson, considers Fraenkel a prominent representative of New Criticism in the study of Rabbinic literature. Accordingly, and according to Fraenkel’s words, segirut has “external” and “internal” aspects: its mere existence renounces any affinity to non-literary fields (historical, biographical, etc.), and at the same time to inter-literary contexts (textual sequences, parallels). The two aspects combine into one: they are different expressions of “unity” or “cohesion”, which justify reading the Talmudic text through the “hermeneutic circle” – all these are key phrases – meaning, a story ought to be understood from within itself, as a unique artistic expression (and not, Fraenkel emphasizes, a variant of a pre-existing structure). Septimus, sailing away from Fraenkel’s model, does not doubt the segirut as a hermeneutic category, but raises it from a low order to a higher one: from the single story to the Babylonian Talmud as a whole. But the segirut of a short story does not resemble that of an enormous complex text; whereas the latter reflects a tendency of a loosely unified literature, well known to every learner of the Bavli, the former claims something as for the precise, condensed and focused “aestheticization” of the literary expression, randomly set in its pages (it is no coincidence that New Criticism was most fertile when analyzing poetry, especially lyric poetry, rather than prose; its fruitful use with rabbinic literature is made possible primarily thanks to the minimalistic nature of the aggadic story).  The two types of segirut are as two dimensions of the creative story-telling work of the Bavli, which are active simultaneously, and are competing for the establishment of its meaning and its poetic design: the “Narrative art” on one hand, and the “Art of Narrative Connections” (to the local suggya or to the Bavli as a whole) on the other hand.

Is the reading experience of the Bavli – be it imaginary or abstract – necessarily a harmonious experience? Considering the aforesaid, it is possible to suggest another possibility that corresponds to Septimus’ proposal. I believe that a slightly different adaptation of Fraenkel and Friedman’s point of view could pave the third, different way (that could coexist with some post-structuralistic reading practices). This approach may be of aid while attempting to perceive the Talmudic text as a “dynamic” literary framework, in which something “occurs”: a frame within which different creative motivations act as forces. Thus, for instance, instead of converting an obvious axis of development between two stories in the Bavli (Friedman) into pointing out a “static” intertextual relation between them (Septimus), perhaps we should see the intertextual mechanism as one of the strategies (poetic, rhetoric, or in this case – connective) that the Suggiyot use to try and control the meanings of the stories embedded in them, and navigate these meanings to serve the Suggiya’s needs. At the same time, instead of converting the segirut of the single story (Fraenkel) into the segirut of the Bavli as a whole (Septimus), perhaps we should see both types of segirut as if they are challenging each other, revealing the interplay between control and resistance (thanks to the existence of the single tailored story as an independent aesthetic object, with an inner consistency and a distinct ideological world. This description must not be misunderstood; I emphasize here that I do not refer to any polarized manner of “control” and “resistance” relations, nor a strict binary categorization which ranges from “hegemonic discourse” and “subversive discourse”, but to much more meaningful and intricate games of meaning; as Bakhtin teaches us: two shades of understanding can still engage in a dialogue). Surely, the dynamism of the text is obvious when one thinks of it in a diachronic perspective. However, identifying with Septimus’ criticism of the difficulties inherent in basing a reading theory on source-criticism, my suggestion is to see the synchronic reading as a performative act of reading that reflects the inner dynamism of the Talmudic text. Following this line of thought, in the case of the story discussed in the article, an interesting question concerns its violent nature, the (carnivalesque) manner in which it goes “out of control”, and the reciprocal relations between this literary process, and the first subject of the chapter, which deals with different and sometimes problematic personal statutes (‘asara yochasin’); ואכמ”ל .

Septimus successfully uses Iser’s “implied reader” to ensure, among other things, that the reader whose experience the article wishes to restore is not an actual, historical subject, but an imaginary construct, supposedly produced by the Talmudic text itself, out of the connections that weave together its different parts. This is probably one of the most intriguing “implied readers” one could think of, and the inspiring power of the hermeneutic model that Septimus suggests will prove that. However, side by side with this implied one, perhaps we can revive something of the “actual” reader – if it is still appropriate to mention him or her – that exists within every implied reader, and the Bavli reader in particular: the reader experiencing the Bavli over and over again as an incoherent work, with its internal relations, close and distant, are not always clear; the doubting and struggling reader, who dwells on the contradiction in the text, or simply the obscurity of it, on the wondering and the awe, just before trying to settle it all.


16 thoughts on “Definite Article – The Book Club II

  1. Yair Furstenberg says:

    Thank you Zvi for the intriguing article and thank you Dina and Itai for your added perspectives. I so happened to be a current Reader of this fantastic story, enjoying it immensely but not having a clue how to decipher it, just as I received Zvi’s article. For me therefore the question was simple, does the article in any way clarify the meaning of the story? Does the method help me out with my reading experience (which included an investigation of these parallels)? the truth is that the article and its final chart, mainly serve to make the experience even messier, with trigger words to send us all around, but with very little to hold to. I would like to ask, shouldn’t this be relevant in assessing a reading method? Naturally, the Reader wanders to other quarters in order to understand the strange use of language and specifically rare terms in the story, but He (that is, me and my chevruta) returns back to the story to consider the role of this issue in the unclear relationship between Rav Yehuda and Rav Nachman. At this point the article seems to be silent.

  2. In my non-scholarly experience, it seems that many of Septimus’s strategies for reading talmudic passages as simultexts can be found – albeit unsystematically applied – in the commentaries of Maharsha.

  3. Zohar says:

    Is the author really claiming that these triggers were inserted on purpose by the authors/editors of the Bavli? A much simpler explanation would be that they arose “organically.” (and of interest to critical scholars is the fact that the sugyot passed through the same particular Babylonian editors at some point) If not, is he claiming that they are part of the traditional reception of the Bavli and influenced its interpretation? Apparently not. Rather we have an entirely new interpretation, neither critical nor traditional. It is not of this world, yet does not belong to the next. To paraphrase Professor Kugel, he has achieved Talmudic criticism lite. Completely useless for understanding either history or historiography.

    • First of all, who cares whether it is useless for understanding history – it is a literary approach (Although I have my own disciplinary preferences I take often offense when some try to ‘impose’ their disiplinary expectations on others).
      And there is absolutely no hint of intentionality in the article. There is a serious authorial falacy in even entertaining your first point – especially about a document that had no author, and to a certain, probably did not have what we would call ‘editor’. But I’ll let Zvi respond to your first points himself.
      Just remember – and this if for everyone – to keep criticism free of unnecessary value- judgments like ‘lite’ and ‘useless’.

  4. Responding more generally to Zvi’s article, the respondents, and the comments: I think we’re experiencing in this virtual beit midrash a very interesting tug-of-war between what people have come to expect from talmudic research and what Zvi is trying to do. Perhaps it is my fault (and also that of Zvi’s introduction) for initially framing this article as a kind of response to Friedmanian and Halivnian source-criticism. It does that, and as such it is fair to question what the redactional implications are of trigger words and simultexts. It is spelled out more in the dissertation, I believe, (Zvi can correct me on this one) and the burden is shifted from a Justinian Digest-esque committee of editors to a protracted process of participants of various sorts creating a document by “reading” it. And Yair justifiably wants a more immediate thing from the article – how does it affect the understanding of a certain story in Bavli Qiddushin? Zohar pines away for history – which is really my first point.

    The real direction I see this article going in is in understanding the Bavli as a literary work, and in crafting a phenomenology of the experience of reading that work. Dina’s suggestion to think more “culturally” about what is going in is interesting, but despite the traditionally close proximity between semiotics and the study of literature (including reader-response theories), this is once again shifting the focus away from where Zvi wants to go. In addition, the Bavli is a kind of canon or at least a textual corpus, inasmuch as it is ultimately bound by the scope of Mishna in some way or another. As Dina admits, Hasan-Rokem’s analysis, while related to Zvi’s, is not bound by the confines of any sort of corpus. And the experience of reading a corpus is fundamentally different from flying to-and-fro between various intertextual moments.

    In short, I think we all would like to hear from Zvi about the ways his “implied reader” relates to real readers of the Bavli, if at all, and how those readers relate to the Bavli’s producers. Meaning, that I guess I’ve now come full circle.

  5. Amit says:

    An honest question – for the commentators but also for Zvi – in order to analyze “the Bavli” would not one have to first prove that such a work exists? I mean, one could probably find many of the catchphrases in other Aramaic literature as well (perhaps not Bati bar Tuviah, but definitely Atrunga). This can make for an interesting literary claim (i.e. “look what happens when I read this and that story together) but not for a claim about the nature of the Bavli. Perhaps it is better to just make the literary claim (about the several stories) and be done with it.

  6. Shoshana Razel (Comparative Theology and Legal Theory Harvard Divinity School) says:

    Rather than see the result of Zvi’s exploration of parallels as “messier,” I was delighted by his mode of textual juxtaposition via trigger words, by which my experience as a reader of the Bavli feels all the more clarifying through his sensitive and expert lens. To bemoan the lack of something “to hold to,” is a critique that is, in and of itself, unclear to me, as is the seeking of “the” meaning of a story (excluding all others?). ‘Truth’ is not manifest in simplistic organized sound bites. Zvi’s brilliance lies in his keen lens—able to reveal vivid collages replete with meaning, rising in all their beautiful complexity from this intricate and generative text. To seek something to “hold to” is precisely not the point, in my humble opinion, but to savor the myriad layers illuminated, and illuminated further, with every reading.

    Forgive my lack of intellectual enthusiasm for dry historical analysis, which has the propensity to sap the very life force out of literary works and to stem the flow of ideas at their source, when approached too narrowly. I am a literary minded comparative theologian by training, and as such, I am grateful to Shai for saving the field of comparative literature from being relegated to academia lite. Zvi’s work is anything but academia lite. In fact, I might better characterize it as academia enhanced. Researchers whose focus is dry and narrow are a dime a dozen. This is, perhaps, why some are taken aback by his work, in its flowing comfort, as he traverses disciplines with an easy blend of rigor and creativity. Most of us are not capable of such traversing. The response to such a feat should be awe and inspiration, and desperate hope of future emulation—certainly not diminishment.

    As to the issue with treating the Bavli as a gestalt, rather than plucking its anecdotes from out of their milieu, in order to compare them with other sources altogether, where we might find similar themes or trigger words—on the one hand, in hachi nami, when did Zvi forbid the reader of the Bavli from doing this? His goal, I think, is a generously generative one, Bevakasha. Do this. However, in this article of Zvi’s, and even more so in his spellbinding thesis (which you should all look forward to savoring), he examines these versions of anecdotes in juxtaposition within the Bavli cosmology, thereby yielding fascinating possibilities, yes, possibilities, as to deeper understanding of Talmudic characters, of social and hierarchical relationships, and of subliminal or even overt polemical messages—oft intentionally conflicting—whose footprints were left behind by forces we can enjoy speculating about.

    The feat, accomplished by Zvi in this article, is quadrupled in his thesis, where he pulls off critical and creative achievements with what we might oft refer to as the ‘legal’ portions of the Bavli, in a manner that is nothing short of revelatory. I look forward to its book form with bated breath. Mark my words: We will be feeling the ripples of Zvi’s creative and generative scholarly work in myriad realms of scholarship, and for many years to come.

  7. Zvi Septimus says:

    First of all, I would like to thank Shai for organizing this forum and Dina and Itay for taking the time to read and to comment thoughtfully on my work. I also want to thank the other readers who have commented on the article, highlighting points of interest and shortcomings. I hope, through this response, to address the reviews of Dina and Itay, as well as many of the points that have been raised thus far by the book club. In addition, I will briefly mention how my research has changed in the five years since I wrote the article, as represented in my dissertation, The Poetic Superstructure of the Babylonian Talmud and the Reader It Fashions, which I am currently preparing for publication.

    I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that Dina had agreed to review my article because she was my teacher both as an undergrad and in the early days of graduate school; I owe much to what she has taught me. In particular, I owe much to her insistence that I learn how to theorize my ideas within a particular academic discipline, to learn how to talk to a small field with a particular history of discourse. When I wrote about Kiddushin 70 for Dina’s class during my first semester of graduate school, she commented: “It needs to be situated in different academic discourses, e.g. language/semiotics, modern rabbinic scholarship.” Trigger Words and Simultexts was written at my halfway point in the process of following Dina’s sage advice. And I hope that the book version of my dissertation is seen as directly engaging both disciplines: rabbinic studies and semiotics.

    The motivation for writing Trigger Words began from a dissatisfaction I felt with contemporary rabbinic scholarship’s reluctance to explain how it is that the Bavli conveys meaning. I therefore set out on a project that focuses more on how the Bavli means rather than what the Bavli means. (I wonder if, when put this way, Zohar will more readily be able to see the value in such a project.) I leave the question of what a Bavli passage “means” unanswered and, instead, I focus on the modes of the Bavli’s meaning conveyance mechanisms and what cultural anxieties are being negotiated in a text. (This might frustrate readers like Yair but I hope to provide some satisfaction for him below.)

    I have a particular interest in language; my work focuses on contrasting the differences between the kind of meanings conveyed through the logic (or rhetorical structure) of the Bavli and through the linguistic mechanisms of trigger words and linguistic ambiguity.

    But, “conveys meaning” to whom? Throughout history, many people have argued about the particular “meaning” of any given Talmud passage. Undoubtedly, the Bavli (and particular passages therein) means different things to different people. So I pay close attention to the reader to whom the Bavli is speaking. Iser’s description of the implied reader (ironically more so in The Act of Reading than in his The Implied Reader) is a great starting point for understanding this undertaking, but a more finite description must be presented when talking about the Bavli. I spend much time examining this reader in The Poetic Superstructure, but some bullet points should suffice for this forum. First, the Bavli’s implied reader has an interesting relationship with time and language; this reader is highly active and the laconic nature of the text encourages this reader to write in the act of reading. In this way, the Bavli is, for its reader, a present tense text. Yet, most strikingly, the Bavli’s implied reader is always someone who has already read this book before. This is a logical impossibility for the first time reader but goes a long way to explaining the history and rules of the texts transmission. Over time, I realized that trying to understand my constructed reader’s experience coupled with an analysis of real historical readers who altered the text in the act of transmission led me to a historical hypothesis for how the Bavli came to acquire some of its unique literary features — features I claim are dominant in the Bavli’s mode of signification or, more broadly, meaning conveyance.

    To address Dina, the point of constructing this reader is to begin exploring what happened when these readers transmitted the Bavli orally over hundreds of years? What if the text these (oral) readers (practitioners of girsa) were transmitting was structurally but not linguistically fixed? I argue that an understanding of the experience of the Bavli’s implied reader, and how the Bavli constructs its reader, leads to an understanding of the Bavli as a text authored by its own readers in the act of transmission. The Bavli is certainly now, as it sits on my shelf, a canonized text. Like the Bible, the Bavli’s “canonization” happened, perhaps by accident or perhaps by intention, many years after its constituent parts were formed, however we define and date those constituent parts. The existence of the Bavli in its contemporary form raises questions about its canonization. Was the Bavli “canonized” in Vilna in the 1880s (due to the historical accident of photo-offset printing), in Venice in the 1520s (due to the historical accident of the printing press), by Rashi in the 11th century (due to the historical accident of the subsequent dominance of his commentary), or by someone else or by some other accident of history at another point in time? In contrast to these questions, I am interested in a time when the structure of the Bavli’s sugyot was already formed, but the language of those sugyot was not fixed (as we will see next month when we read Talya Fishman’s Becoming a People of the Talmud). And this period lasted for hundreds of years. If the Bavli was always changing at the level of language (more so pre-Rashi and less so after) in each (official?) performance of the text—and those linguistic markers convincingly point to other Bavli passages—then the verbal alterations of the text represent significant changes in both the meaning conveyance mechanism of the text and the “meaning” of each text being read. I call this activity the work of the Superstam, both because it happens on top of and against the work of the Stam and because it supplies an effect, rather than a(n anonymous) voice. This effect only works to the extent that the Bavli has borders or is viewed as canonized; the more firmly those borders are (or were) defined the more profound the effect. (I hope this addresses Amit’s concern.)

    It seems that Itay and I might have been born under the same star (Baba Batra 12a-b). Itay’s proposal is precisely where I have moved in the years between writing Trigger Words and The Poetic Superstructure (influenced by Wimpfheimer’s Narrating the Law and Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis). If there is a Stam consensus, then the Stam might be seen as the conflation of a literary function within the text and a group of people supplying that literary function in an attempt to control and alter the meaning of earlier texts. (This conflation has been adopted to lesser and greater degrees by various scholars. Of note is Sergey Dolgopolski’s forthcoming book, which critiques such a conflation on philosophic grounds; also see the work of Moulie Vidas, as mentioned by Shai.) This conception of the work of the Stam can convincingly be argued on a sugya by sugya basis. The result of such work can demonstrate how, for an individual sugya, the Stam manipulates earlier material in order to alter that earlier material’s meaning. It does not explain the Bavli’s creation nor its mode of meaning conveyance vis-a-vis its implied reader. I therefore see the Stam as a sugya-centric concept. However, in the Bavli, there is another authorial function fighting for control of the meaning conveyance modes of those sugyot. This authorial function, the Superstam, is the one that puts different sugyot in conversation with each other and highlights what is being negotiated in the individual sugya as part of the Bavli. Historically, I propose, the Superstam are themselves readers constructed by the Bavli who alter the language of the text in the act of transmission. Such alterations serve the function of wrestling the monologized meaning of a given sugya by placing it into dialogue with other linguistically marked sugyot. (Shai, Shoshana, and Zohar: I think a judgment about the intentionality of the process is a matter of taste. It can work both ways. I personally now lean to viewing the work of the Superstam as either intentional and subversive or, perhaps more interestingly, an unconscious reflection of deep-rooted ambivalence.)

    One can best notice the effect of the work of the Superstam by first reading a particular sugya in (forced and unnatural) isolation and then in the broader contexts of the simultexts to which they point. So, for example, when viewed alone, Kiddushin 70 has Rabbi Yehudah defeat the Nehardean man. This is accomplished using the testimony of the young girl who jumped/fell from the roof. Is such testimony used in such a way a legitimate way of deciding the court case in favor of Rav Yehudah? Can a woman’s testimony be used for such a purpose in this manner? The Shavuot 30 and Ketubot 60b-61a (as well as Niddah 45a through Baba Batra 3b) simultexts work to highlight and negotiate the problems inherent in such a testimony. (In the case of Ketubot 60b-61a we have material evidence for Superstammaitic activity in the form of the Saint Petersburg manuscript, the Sheiltot, and the unknown source of the Soncino Print.) These texts, when seen together, represent a dialogical challenge to the monological message of the sugya. The richness of Kiddushin 70, in my opinion, lies not in what the text means but in the issues being negotiated through its interaction with the simultexts. A sugya can be the product of a particular person at a particular moment in history. A sugya, then, might be able to tell us something concrete about the historical moment of its creation and its author. The Bavli, by virtue of its collective mode of construction, will usually fall short of that goal. The Bavli, however, tells us much about the anxieties, struggles, and negotiations of the culture engaged in transmitting and transmuting it.
    [Also, a brief response to Elli: I agree that this mode of reading is found in Maharsha. I believe it is found in most of the dominant commentators, especially Rashi (the subject of my next project). I think it makes sense that since the Rabbis read the Bible in this way, they would also construct a text that lends itself to be read this way. And that that text would then be read in this way by subsequent readers.]

  8. Re: “Amit’s concern,” (i.e. my own). I think then that instead of asking the question of when the words of the Talmud were fixed you should look to geniza versions of the talmud, citations in the Geonim, and other early testimonia, to see what is “stable” and what fluctuates. (Nice collections can be found in Robert Brody in Mehkerei Talmud I as well as Uzi Fuchs’s PhD dissertation). Merely asking a rhetorical quesiton does not make the exact wording of the Bavli less or more stable. Additionally, for the germ of your idea – that ready-made sugyot were incorporated into “a Talmud” – see David Rosenthal in Mehkerei Talmud I, responding to Jacob Zussman’s 1969 dissertation.

  9. Julia Watts Belser says:

    I’ve very much enjoyed reading Zvi’s article, as well as the thoughtful responses by Dina and Itay and the conversation here in the comments. If I’m not arriving too late, I’d like to add another set of questions to the table. Zvi, I find the concept of simultexts and trigger words exciting — and I’m interested in probing further what what alerts a reader to the simultext, and what allows a trigger word to do its work.

    In your article, you suggest that words become trigger words in large part because they are rare, and because they are paired in combination with other rare words. It also seems that trigger words might be signalled by criteria beyond rarity: for example, you also suggest that in Kiddushin 70, one might ask why the narrative makes use of all four of the name-challenged objects. This suggests that literary dynamics of the narrative can drive the reader’s sense that a simultext is somehow required or intended. Third, your analysis suggests that the simultext strategy also rests on a tension between narrative similarity/difference between simultexts. The best simultexts engage similar themes or ideas, but with a twist–a difference that makes the simultext matter and which makes this strategy of reading generative for the reader.

    As I write this, however, I’m not sure how many of these questions are meant to be actively engaged by the reader in choosing simultexts, and how much of the reader’s engagement with simultexts occurs in a less conscious, more intuitive way. If so, then perhaps the strategies I named above are the artifacts of scholarly analysis, which serve to illuminate a mode of reading and explain its purpose.

    I’m asking these question because I’m interested in part as a scholarly reader, and because I’m thinking about engaging the trigger word/simultext interperative strategy with other Bavli texts. This is not, I think, the same stance as the implied reader you posit in the article, and I’m curious about how the (actual) reader’s aims affect the experience of reading that you describe.

    Finally, following on the heels of Dina’s suggestion, I’m also curious about whether the simultext reading strategy depends on texts: on precise echoes of individual (rare) words and word combinations. To what extent do you think that a motif (or even a tale type) can and should prompt a simultext reading, even if the words in the narrative are not precisely echoed across the texts?

    Thanks again for a provocative and engaging article — and to the Talmud blog for creating a space for this conversation.
    Julia Watts Belser

  10. Moshe says:

    I was very excited to read Zvi Septimus’s piece not simply because it contains a sensitive reading
    of a little discussed story, but because it raises two interrelated issues that I think should be at
    the forefront of contemporary Bavli research. The first of these is the study of “how the Bavli
    means”: its stylistics and rhetoric. These are the sorts of questions with regard to which I think
    literary studies can make the greatest contribution.

    The other issue is the effort to find a new academic methodology for understanding sugyot
    which can move beyond the current historical-philological paradigm. This does not necessarily
    relate to the question of early and late stam but rather challenges the fundamental assumption
    that the true meaning of a sugya lies in its archeology, the identification of its various strata and
    establishing their relationships with each other. I think that there is a need to consider the sugya
    as a whole, from a more synchronic perspective. Septimus’s approach as an attempt to outline
    just such a stategy of reading.

    On a more personal level, Septimus’s piece offers support for a personal agenda of mine, the
    understanding of the Bavli in novelistic terms. Septimus rejects Fraenkel’s reading of the Bavli
    in which it is treated as a series of discrete units which are to be read in a manner similar to the
    way a New Critic approaches a lyric poem. Rather Septimus views the Bavli as a single literary
    work, a “loose baggy monster” to use Henry James’ description of the novel. In particular,
    Septimus’s Bavli reminds us a richely allusive and carefully woven novel like Joyce’s Ulysses.

    For all the novelty of Septimus’s approach, it also represents a fundamental return to traditional
    approaches to Talmud study. The notion that the Bavli is a unified self-glossing work to be
    read using methods akin to the way the midrash reads the Tanakh was, to the best of my
    knowledge, first asserted by the Baalei Hatosafot. These assumptions continue to underlie
    much of traditional Talmud study to this very day. Indeed Septimus’s ideal reader of Talmud jad
    much in common with the traditional ideal of the Baki Beshas, who has the entire Talmud at his
    fingertips and is able to summon up distant and disparate Talmudic passages so that one can be
    read in light of the other.

    The genealogy of Septimus’s approach calls attention the fact that Septimus suggests a
    certain “mystification” of “sacralization” of Bavli in which the entire text is somehow inhabited
    by an immanent intelligence. He writes as if his readings reveal pre-existent meanings in the
    text. His use of the terms “trigger word/simutexts” suggests the existence of hypertext links or
    wormholes in the Bavli. But is this relationship between these texts with similar sets of words
    really part of the structure of the Bavli in the way that half buried allusions in Ulysses (and in
    piyyutim) or the various interacting “codes” that Barthes finds in “Sarrasine” are integral to
    those works? I think that it is probably possible to account for the phenomena he discusses and
    the readings he suggests, using a model, that does not assume the Bavli to be an organic unity.

    The most likely candidate for such a method, would be the application of what we know
    about texts that emerge as an oral performance. This would assume that the various parallel
    texts all emerged from the same “soup” of phrases, plot elements and themes, but are not
    necessarily directly related to each other. Such an approach would potentially account for the
    word groupings that Septimus has found and allow for the diachronic reads that lead him to his

    One final note. Formalist and structuralist methods are not the only possible response to
    stratification of the sugya by historical critics. I think that post-formalist and post structuralist
    reading strategies, which do not assume the unity of the text but actually focus on its
    discontinuities and fissures, have more potential to help us integrate history into a literaru
    reading of the sugya.

  11. Pingback: You Rejoice – though not Me: Some Notes on bMeg 10b and its Parallels | The Talmud Blog

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