English, Postscripts

Forked Lightning

On Shabbat Shuva 5777, the incomparable scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, returned to his Maker. From his histories, to his comprehensive translations and studies of rabbinic texts, his biographies, his thematic studies, his theologies and taxonomies, introductions and invitations, personal ruminations and reflections, interfaith writings, methodological and theoretical treatments, and, of course, his vigorous polemics, Neusner’s output was simply astounding. Continue reading

English, Reviews

Review of Tabory and Atzmon, ‘Midrash Esther Rabbah’

For a number of years now students of aggadah have been waiting to see the publication of a number of scholarly editions of classical midrashim. Some of the most anticipated volumes include Tamar Kadari’s edition of Canticles Rabbah, Paul Mandel’s edition of Lamentations Rabbah, Marc Hirschman and Reuven Kiperwasser’s edition of Ecclesiastes Rabbah, and Joseph Tabory and Arnon Atzmon’s edition of Esther Rabbah. All of these editions are part of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Study’s Midrash Project, and some of the synopses are already available online on the project website. The recent publication of Midrash Esther Rabbah is the third volume of this ambitious series to come out. Now, we can continue to enjoy the fruits of this endeavor and whet our appetite for future volumes.

Tabory and Atzmon’s volume is elegant, and inviting to professional scholar and lay learner alike. The print is clean, the layout is (certainly for a scholarly edition) blessedly uncluttered, and the commentary is crisp and generally to the point. The reading experience could be best described as streamlined. One can hurry along the text at a nice clip, glancing just below to check parallels in rabbinic literature (both “classical” and the later collections); look further down to consider major differences in the manuscripts, and then, on to the bottom of the page, consult a conveniently organized commentary.


Though the presentation is effortless, it is obvious that each of these sections reflects an enormous amount of work. The edition is eclectic and based primarily on the six major (relatively late) manuscripts of the midrash to have survived. The variae lectiones collected in the relevant section are a selection of only those variants which the editors deemed to be important. But philologists have no fear (unless, as one prominent scholar recently complained to me, you are Shabbat observant and it is Saturday), you can access the complete synopsis online. In an introductory chapter the editors describe each witness and also propose a stemma for understanding the relationship between them. They argue that the extant manuscripts descend from one textual parent, since all the manuscripts share the same group of clear mistakes. Though I did not check the accuracy of the transcriptions against images of the manuscripts, all around the textual reasoning seemed sound.

Sometimes, the editors propose changes to the text even when these are not attested in the surviving manuscripts. It is not entirely clear when such changes are seen as so obvious as to justify alternations in the main text, and when they are not. For example, riffing on the word פרס  at Esther 1:3 the Midrash offers the following, fascinating insight into Iranian imperial expansion (p. 45 lines 198-200):

פרס – למה קורין אותה פרס? שקבלה את המלכות פרוסות פרוסות, אחד בימי תרדה, ואחד בימי ארדכיאן, ואחד לעתיד לבוא הה”ד: והיה זה שלום אשור כי יבוא בארצנו.

The readings תרדה and ארדכיאן are almost surely mistakes. As the editors note in the commentary, ארדכיאן is quite possibly a reference to the last Parthian king, Ardavan (who indeed shows up elsewhere in rabbinic literature as the subject of Rav’s lament). In fact, the better (though still inexact) form ארדביאן is recorded in MS Cambridge. Similarly, תרדה is likely a reference to a king named Mithradates (there are a number of candidates, as this was a popular name for Iranian-named kings – Parthian and otherwise) and should probably read מתרדה. While one appreciates the editors’ caution by keeping the problematic readings, given the eclectic nature of the edition I would have expected that these readings would be corrected in the main text, and then accordingly marked as emended.

The commentary’s modest and unassuming style notwithstanding, it contains many insightful suggestions, including interpretations where others have previously stumbled. Esther 1:1 refers to Ahasuerus’ kingdom spanning the world, all the way from India to Ethiopia. The midrash surprisingly remarks that הודו and כוש are easily governed, presumably because of their proximity (p. 29 lines 39-41):

והלא מהודו ועד כוש דבר קל הוא? אלא כשם שמלך מהודו ועד כוש, כך מלך על שבע ועשרים ומאה מדינה

In his magnum opus, Eliezer Segal, discusses a parallel in the Babylonian Esther Midrash (bMeg 11a) and uses the apparent #GeographicEpicFail to make a large claim about the construction of the pericope both in the Bavli and in Esther Rabbah. Without drawing much attention, Tabory and Atzmon nonchalantly suggest that the rabbis understood the verse to refer to the Northern Indian hill country, known as Kush. Indeed, when teaching the Babylonian Esther Midrash a few years ago I realized that the official name of the two neighboring provinces during Sasanian times were Hindustan and Kushan.

In the Bavli’s version, the identity of הודו and כוש is in fact debated between Rav and Shmuel (one of whom correctly identifies כוש with Ethiopia). There is nothing at all surprising about a Babylonian amora knowing a thing or two about the technicalities of Sasanian geography and thereby making the initially surprising association between כוש and Kushan.  There would be something a bit strange about a Palestinian midrash making the link for no obvious reason. In other words, this is one of the myriad of instances where questions of influence and its direction between rabbinic corpora could be raised. This, however, is emphatically not the purpose of the new edition of Esther Rabbah.

Indeed, while some scholars will reach for this volume “for its own sake,” others will often be animated by questions of literary history. When was the Esther Midrash put together? Where? How? In the above example, did the redactors of the midrash simply rework a tradition that is attributed in the Bavli to a first generation Babylonian amora? Or did the Bavli borrow from Esther Rabbah? Was their a common source? Was there a large pool of related yet distinct traditions that both corpora pulled from? For general questions like these the reader can consult the comprehensive chapters at the beginning of the edition.  There one finds alongside clear discussion of the midrash’s structure (as it turns out, the original midrash is top heavy and covered in 6 parshiyot just the first two chapters of the biblical book) lengthy essays on other midrashim to the Book of Esther, the diffusion of Esther Rabbah in medieval times, and other, related sundry topics. Importantly, these are not merely of tangential interest, since the existence of so many Esther midrashim, for example, greatly complicates the recovery and dating of the Esther Rabbah. What is more, these parallel Esther midrashim are not at all static, and we often find traditions move to and fro between the corpora. Needless to say, such a fluid situation makes the reconstruction of Esther Rabbah extremely challenging.

Apropos matters of dating, the editors wisely steer clear of tying themselves down to anything too early or too late. Many of the well-known debates are appropriately cited, though it can be a bit frustrating when the issues are presented in ventriloquy through the mouths of Zunz, Albeck, and Co. The upshot is that when it comes to questions of literary relations, one normally has to suffice with the editors’ basic references to parallels, and very occasional discussion in the commentary. Tabory and Atzmon quite obviously made an editorial decision here to cut down on verbiage and produce a neater volume, instead of shooting for something like the Theodor-Albeck Genesis Rabbah. That is good and fine. They have provided us with a gorgeous edition with room for our research to grow.

Overall, this new edition is a great pleasure to work with – and to learn from, beginning to end. No doubt it will be the fountainhead from where all future research on the literary history of Esther midrashim begin. When read on its own, this midrash will ever-beguile you with its playful hermeneutics (another valuable introductory chapter outlines Esther Rabbah’s many different interpretive strategies) and surprising traditions. When you get a chance to look at the copy, enjoy the Antinonus and Rabbi story on p. 43. And in honor of Purim (and Bibi’s speech in congress), here’s a trivia question for you: Which nation does Esther Rabbah think scratches the most, and why? First person to  cite the correct answer in the comments wins.

English, Events

Reconstructing the Talmud: A Talmud Blog Event

We’ve held Talmud Blog events in the two most important cities where the Talmud is studied (academically and otherwise) – Jerusalem and New York. But we know our readers live across the globe in places big and small, bustling, and sleepy. In that spirit we’re happy to let you know that the next event will be held in the Israeli town of Modiin, that ancient Maccabean stronghold and contemporary bedroom community. On Saturday night, February 7th at 8:30pm, Joshua Kulp and Jason Rogoff, co-authors of Reconstructing the Talmud (Mechon Hadar, 2014), will be discussing their new book at Nahal Haparan 28/3.  Shai will introduce the book and offer a few thoughts about the significance of the work as a popular and erudite introduction to laymen interested in academic Talmud. Joshua and Jason will then offer their reading of “Women and Birkat Hamazon: Critical Analysis of the Talmudic Sources.” Books will also be available for purchase for 100 NIS. If you plan on coming please RSVP to shai.secunda at gmail. For those of you who cannot make it we plan on uploading a recording of the event.
English, Ruminations

Stray Thoughts on Art History and Talmudic Philology

Perhaps more than other historical disciplines, art history is not merely auxiliary to art, it is integral. It can and has been argued that what renders a banal object a bona fide art-object is some conscious level of participation in the story of art. This is a deep truth about visuality – one which was once compellingly evoked in a scene about a time-traveling modern who baffled his nineteenth century friends with amateurish, minimalist etchings on frosted glass. And it is especially true of modern and contemporary art despite – or maybe because of – incessant attempts by provocateurs to try and blow up art history with one fell swoop of shocking red paint. When you vigorously oppose history’s centrality you only enhance it.

Cy Twombly, Academy

At New York City’s MOMA, the viewer snakes his way through the museum’s classic fifth and fourth floors and thereby traces a visual narrative with his feet and eyes. The curators have ever so carefully placed these famous galleries in their “correct” sequence with corresponding plaques on the wall so that the story coheres and the art properly resonates against its general historical milieu and its own art historical context.  Without a previous “academy” to react to, Cy Twombly’s Academy is just vulgar scribbling (it of course remains that even after). One might say that herein lies the successful retort (teshuva nitzahat) to the everyday ‘heretics’ of modern art: Yes, you might technically be able to execute some of  the chaos of contemporary art on your bedroom wall, but did you do it at the right moment, with the right intention, and with the right interviews and critics drawing out the greater significance of the project?  Regardless, something is lost when art must always narcissistically fold into its own history. The pleasure of the thing, and perhaps even its essence, gets away.

For some time now the dominant critical mode of  studying the Babylonian Talmud has consisted of dissecting the sources on the page and placing them on a linear, chronological graph. The early tannaitic passage evolves into a later version, which is reinterpreted by early amoraim, reread by late amoraim, recast by editors, and reworked by redactors. Our mantra is a stutter: “re- re- re- re- re-“.  If a Talmudist succeeds in unraveling this history and explaining its historical  development – or better yet – correlating it to its historical context,  the assumption is that he has succeeded in solving it.  The thrill of this scholarly chase, its secret sleuthing and precious eureka moments, can be exhilarating, but also exhausting. What is left after the “problem” of a sugya’s development is “solved” other than to exhale Ruscha’s bright onomatopoeia?



This somewhat unfair characterization of the field need not be seen as a passionate lament, nor as a call to devolve into pre-scientific thinking (in any case, you cannot really go home again). It is instead offered as an honest, even hopeful question: Is this all there is? Or: What other critical modes might be combined with the currently dominant one to create a more complex – and hence truer – picture of the Talmud as something more than just the sum of its evolving parts?

First, we cannot forget that the growing research into the Bavli’s Sasanian context is still in its early years and will continue to yield succulent and novel insights, not all of it simply “more of the same.” There are new relevant sources that continue to come to light, and more importantly, new ways of correlating these sources to talmudic parallels. It is not all cut-and-dry Talmudic history.  Readers of the Talmud blog also know that there already are other approaches out there that look beyond diachronology. These include the oft-maligned mishpat ivri school – especially as reinvigorated by Robert Cover, and also a group of  literary approaches – particularly those focused on the text’s effect on its readers. In more hopeful moments I realize that where we are now is actually not such a bad place at all.

English, Readings

Shave and a Hair Cut

In a piece just published at Tablet Magazine, I briefly discuss the Purim Triumph panel at the famous synagogue in Dura Europos. The art at the Dura synagogue is significant for many reasons, one of which is the way it echoes extra-biblical Jewish traditions – aka midrash. There seems to be a bit of this in the Purim fresco: In the left side of the panel, Haman is dressed something like an Iranian stable-boy leading a royally garbed Mordecai on a white horse. It is possible that Haman’s attire points to the lowly position of stable-boys  in Iranian life and particularly in epic literature. Continue reading

English, Ruminations

Difference and the Iranian Talmud

One of the foundational concepts to emerge from twentieth century linguistics is that meaning is produced through difference. Ferdinand de Saussure’s now banal idea that there is no inherent connection between a particular linguistic sign and the object it refers to was path-breaking at its time. It has echoed across countless intellectual and cultural endeavors which emphasize how the relationship between signifiers and their signified is essentially constructed and maintained only relationally. Continue reading

Conferences, English

Finance in Religious Law: A Comparative Conference

imageThe legal systems of Judaism, Islam, and Catholic Christianity each regulate financial transactions in the light of a divine ethical imperative to avoid lending at interest. Yet each has also developed practical, legal means to facilitate a wide range of investment opportunities. The convergence of common ethical aspirations and practical concerns, and the divergence in historical experiences, together present a nearly unique opportunity for comparative study. Continue reading

English, Postscripts

Postscript: Prof. Zvi Arieh Steinfeld

Last week, the Israeli Talmudist Zvi Arieh Steinfeld passed away. He lived a life filled with religious and intellectual achievements (here is a description from a Festschrift edited in his honor at Sidra, the journal he founded and edited during its first decade), yet for those of us lucky enough to have known him personally, his greatest quality was encapsulated in an infectious smile that conveyed both a self-deprecating humility and a zest for a life dedicated to lernin’.  He was one of the sweetest souls I have ever encountered. Continue reading

English, Talk of the Town

Talmudic Culture and its Discontents: The NLI’s Series on the Talmud and Israeli Society

From its beginnings, classical Zionism dreamed not only of resettling the Land of Israel but also of re-occupying classical Jewish language and literature.  For most Zionists, the language was Hebrew and the literature, the Bible.  After all, it is the Hebrew Bible that is concerned with Israelites fighting wars, settling their promised land, and tilling the good earth. The Talmud may very well have been the focus of more intellectual energy than any other book in Jewish history – but it is still the handbook of a powerless, landless people written in the dark and confused tongue of the Babylonian Diaspora. Continue reading