English, Ruminations

What is a Redactor?

We are often told that a good scholar has to consistently and continually question the validity of his/her basic assumptions. The problem is that many times an assumption is so inherent to our thinking, that it is easy to mistake it for a universal, objective truth and not an assumption, which is by definition subjective. One way to locate these assumptions, in order to  question them, is to look at their “signs” – the habits in academic writing, the terms we use matter-of-factly. Once we shed light on a term of this sort, we can see which view it represents, and ask ourselves whether we can or should justify its use.

After all, we all have our writing habits. Some are the fruits of extensive academic training, but others are simply the expression of personal preferences. This seems particularly true when it comes to terminology. For example, some scholars, when writing about Roman Palestine, will use the term “Eretz Israel” rather then “Palestine”. Some will use the term stammaic and others will instead use post-amoraic. There are numerous other examples. Choosing one term over another signifies a (silent) agreement with a certain view, position, thesis, theory, or politics.

So, one of my terminological habits, as I realized recently, is to write “redactors” almost each time I refer to the, well, redactors of a talmudic or midrashic text: The redactors of the sugiya, the redactors of the teaching, the redactors of the pericope, the redactors of the midrash. I don’t know exactly when we started using this term in talmudic scholarship but it seems to me a relatively recent convention that some scholars follow quite religiously while others not so much or not at all. I belong to the first group, more or less.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but something has drawn my attention to this writing habit, and signaled it as one. Maybe it is the fact that my fellows in the research center, who work on other, non-Jewish and non-rabbinic texts from late antiquity, never use this term when talking about the people who produced their texts. And it made me wonder – what does my and others’ use of the term “redactors” say about our conception of the agency behind rabbinic texts?

I realized that when I use the term “redactors” I have two others terms in mind, from which I do not wish to chose – author and compiler. Using the term “author” would assume that there is a person or a group behind the text, that has an intention, a message to transmit. This person or group is “responsible” for the text, and as Michel Foucault has shown, this responsibility creates a subject, who can be admired, criticized or condemned. Using the term compiler, on the other hand, would assume a very feeble agency behind the text. The person or group who compiled a text do not bear full responsibility for it. They have simply chosen all the texts that were available to them and put them together. They do not constitute a subject. In the terms of Roland Barthes, they are more “writers” than “authors”.

The problem is that rabbinic texts are both “authored” and “compiled” – the people behind them had a message to transmit, but at the same time they were compiling old traditions and edited them inside their own text. They did not only represent themselves, but also a tradition that they inherited, as well as invented. In the texts they authored, they had to include teachings for which they were not responsible, even when they did not agree with them.

This is perhaps the nature of the activity of those who produced the rabbinic texts, from the level of the midrashic unit, and even the single pericope or saying, to the level of the well developed sugiya.  A rabbinic text can be more compiled or more authored, but often it is both. It is a text that has a variety of agents behind it; each one of them is trying to convey a message that has to be understood in a particular context. It is a text which is a battleground, staged by the final redactor, of several views, often including that of the redactor himself.

Some scholars, and the first name that comes to my mind is Barry Wimpfheimer, have studied and examined the techniques and methods used by the redactors in order to negotiate between the different views and to create their own legal and ideological narrative. But it seems to me as important and fruitful to think of the activity of the redactor himself in these terms, as a hybrid author/compiler whose job is, indeed, a different job than that of the pure author or the pure compiler. In order to fully understand the inherent tension that characterizes rabbinic texts we have to understand that it reflects a drama inside the redactors’ mind who, on the one hand wants to conserve a culture and on the other hand wants to invent one, or to adapt the old culture to their experience, to their views.

The redactors of the rabbinic text always oscillate between tradition and invention in order to create something that is both old and new. Their responsibility for the text is, therefore, multilayered and complex; it is dialectic, as is the text itself.


20 thoughts on “What is a Redactor?

  1. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about your last point “The redactors of the rabbinic text always oscillate between tradition and invention in order to create something that is both old and new” using work on intertextuality. (hopefully it will be out in my forthcoming book).

    • shani tzoref says:

      “tradition” and “Invention”: i agree that there’s a tension at times, but I don’t think i’d use the word “oscillate.” why not integrate? my catchphrase (esp. in some work on Jubilees that I’ve presented but not really published much), has been “the nexus of text(uality), tradition, and tendenz”. i think that all too often, there’s a tendency to dichotomy, that seems to be more of a modern construct than ancient reality. מדרש יוצר or מדרש מקיים, exegesis or eisegesis. but all of us are products of our environments and traditions, and so are our readings.

      • I don’t know, in the case of the Bavli, we do not have anything near a seamless integration. I like Ron’s ‘oscillate’. And intertextuality is precisely a form of criticism that tries to get beyond the old ways of thinking about dichotomy, sources and traditions, etc.

  2. shani tzoref says:

    your comment provides food for thought. maybe oscillate vs. integrate could point to a difference between bavli and 2nd temple approaches to authoritative texts and traditions. at a recent conference in gottingen, term “intertextuality” was temporarily “banned” for a number of reasons, including disagreement about its meaning and usage, over-usage. in the end we came back to it. but for many of us looking at transition from biblical to post-biblical phases of textual production, it’s problematic. which are the base-texts, which are the inter-texts (not to mention hypertexts and hypotexts…)

    • Precisely the point. I think second temple lit works in a radically different way, and would need a very different kind of intertextuality. Look at what Boyarin did with the Mekhilta and what Joshua Levinson did, for example, with the rabbinic exegetical story and how he explicitly contrasts it with rewritten Bible genres of the Second Temple period. The preserving of the base text is a crucial aspect of the rabbinic exegetical story and of rabbinic textuality in general -especially the Bavli.

      As long as we’re careful about ‘whose’ intertextuality where talking about, and how it works, it can provide a great way of thinking about the architecture of the Bavli -itself- (not just its relationship with the Bible; rather, even with antecedent rabbinic traditions).

  3. Joey Shabot says:

    Great point, Shai. To me the word redactor also implies a member of a professional class, almost a scientific personality. Everyone thinks they can be an author or a compiler or an editor, because we know what kind of work that is. But a redactor – that’s the special someone who knows how the sausage is made, not just how it tastes.

  4. Yehudah Mirsky says:

    I can’t think of Redactor without remembering Rosenzweig’s comment, about R, for him, being not Redactor but Rabbenu – and wonder if, we use the term ‘Redactor,’ consciously or not, because its heft and Latinate flavor still retain an echo of some, not necessarily authorial but nonetheless authoritative presence.

    • Yehudah, on Shabbat at Elli Fischer’s, it occurred to us that the old line attributed in black-hat yeshivot to R. Shimon Schwab about “אמר מר” standing for “אמר משה רבנו” may have emerged from the same milieu. Thoughts?

      • Yehudah Mirsky says:

        Interesting – those two bon mots run parallel to each other. If one wanted to pursue the question of a common milieu to both comments, I would look at the volume of writings nd derashot by Rav Nehemia Nobel, Hagut va-Halakha, published by Mossad Ha-Rav Kook in 1969 and sadly never republished. (A few years ago I had a brief conversation with the director thereof and tried to convince him that with all the other things they’re reprinting, they ought to reprint that too.)
        Rav Nobel was a significant link between the Orthodox world and Rosenzweig. His wikipedia entry is here

  5. Michael M. Eisman says:

    The term redactor is probably a borrowing from Biblical scholarlship where the concept has been used for over a century. More recently scholars, particularly Joseph Blenkinsopp, have begun to concentrate on the ideas of the redactor as he (she?) chooses which passages from a source will go into the completed manuscript. The test case is Isaiah (see Blenkinsopp’s magisterial three volume treatment in the Anchor Bible series) where there are three identifiable sources (Isaiah of the 8th century BCE, the Second Isaiah of the 6th century BCE, and the collection called Third Isaiah of the early 5th century BCE. While identifing each and discussing their ideas, Blenkinsopp has focused on late 5th or 4th century BCE “Redactor” whose own ideas created the specific collection we now know as the Book of Isaiah.

    Surely this applies in the study of Talmudic literature. The Redactor is not the author, but he is more than a collector. The Redactor is an independent thinker who is constructing a point of view through conscious choices of which text to include and in the specific order in which he puts them.

  6. I prefer to think of Redactors [plural], not a Redactor. Perhaps more of a school than a bunch of individuals, with generations of redactors all reworking what the previous ones did. By the way, when it came to mentioning Roman Palestina in my new novel, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” I went with “Eretz Israel” and “the West” rather than “Palestine.”

  7. Petr Tomášek says:

    I think Your problem is that You think in terms of scribal culture about something which emerged basically/mostly by oral means. If you comment on a previous text without the use of a paper you just take parts of such text verbatim (since you know it by heart) and add your comments – sometimes, however, you change/harmonize some minor wordings etc. This all happens as an integral part of your oral study since both – the new and the “original” text is in your brain. Such a process (which you describe as a “redaction”) is an inevitable result of an oral study of a text (unless special techniques are applied which are to prevent any changes to the memorized text…)

    • Hi Petr,
      I think most of us having this discussion are indeed aware that the terminology of redactor, writer, reader, etc. is ill-fitted to describe the production of the Babylonian Talmud. But so is much of the work on orality since the 1960’s, as the vast majority of orality research does not describe discursive, ‘scholastic’ texts like the Talmud (even orality work on Mishnah, is not immediately applicable to the incessant back-and-forth argumentative style of the Bavli). We need new models based on germane data to come to a better understanding of the oral text production of the Bavli.

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