With another December upon us and another calendar year almost through, as usual we have put together a list of recent dissertations with relevance for Talmud. It is always nice to see projects that we have followed over the years come to fruition, and even offer promise of further interesting research in years ahead. Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind, please do drop us a line and we will be happy to add dissertations and theses that we missed. And to all the recent graduates: we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught, for auld lang syne.
Mika Ahuvia, Israel Among the Angels—Angels and Authority in Late Antique Jewish Texts, Princeton University, 2014.
This dissertation examines how Jews conceptualized angels in rabbinic, liturgical, ritual, and early mystical sources from the fourth through the eighth century C.E. in Palestine and Babylonia. While some rabbinic traditions uphold the angels as messengers of God, others were more ambivalent toward them, discouraging attention to angels and privileging the close relationship between Israel and God instead. Chapter two centers on the liturgical works of the sixth century poet Yannai and his synthesis of diverse Jewish traditions about angels in his liturgical texts. This chapter contextualizes Yannai’s encouragement of his audience to think of themselves as praying with the angels, and examines how Yannai singles out certain authorities within the synagogue for comparison with the angels. Chapter three highlights the variety of ways in which Jews invoked angels and other authorities for assistance in so-called “magical” or ritual bowls, amulets, and manuals from Babylonia and Palestine. Ritual texts in particular show that named and unnamed angels were part of a spectrum of authority figures to which ancient Jews appealed in their times of need. Alongside angels, Jews turned to ritual practitioners, folk heroes, and rabbis for guidance and intercession with God. Chapter four investigates the early mystical treatise Hekhalot Rabbati, which captures the worldview of those Jews most preoccupied with angels. Jewish mystics strove to live in synchronicity with the angels, to achieve angelic status, and even to command the angels. As each chapter demonstrates, no systematic angelology predominated among Jews in late antiquity. Rather, different circles of Jews upheld different traditions about angels. Ancient Jewish texts on angels reveal a diverse and dynamic society, where many mediating figures bridged the gap between Israel and God and served a variety of functions for individuals and communities.
Ari Bergmann, “Halevy, Halivni and the Oral Formation of the Babylonian Talmud,” Columbia University, 2014.
This dissertation is dedicated to a detailed analysis and comparison of the theories on the process of the formation of the Babylonian Talmud by Yitzhak Isaac Halevy and David Weiss Halivni. These two scholars exhibited a similar mastery of the talmudic corpus and were able to combine the roles of historian and literary critic to provide a full construct of the formation of the Bavli with supporting internal evidence to support their claims. However, their historical construct and findings are diametrically opposed.
Yitzhak Isaac Halevy presented a comprehensive theory of the process of the formation of the Talmud in his magnum opus Dorot Harishonim. The scope of his work was unprecedented and his construct on the formation of the Talmud encompassed the entire process of the formation of the Bavli, from the Amoraim in the 4th century to the end of the saboraic era (which he argued closed in the end of the 6th century). Halevy was the ultimate guardian of tradition and argued that the process of the formation of the Bavli took place entirely within the amoraic academy by a highly structured and coordinated process and was sealed by an international rabbinical assembly. While Halevy was primarily a historian, David Weiss Halivni is primarily a talmudist and commentator on the Talmud itself. Halivni offers his bold construct of the history of the formation of the Bavli in the context of his commentary Meqorot Umesorot, which spans almost the entire Babylonian Talmud. Halivni explains the process of the formation of the Bavli as taking place well after amoraic times in a massive unstructured process of reconstruction. This dissertation will demonstrate that both of the theories of Halevy and Halivni are in need of careful analysis and revision. Halevy’s construct despite providing valuable scholarly insights is tainted by a strong ideological agenda. On the other hand, Halivni, as a literary critic, provides insightful literary analysis and his conclusions on the uniqueness of the stam have been firmly established in contemporary scholarship. However, when analyzing Halivni’s theory one must distinguish between his literary conclusions and his historical construct. The later is a constantly evolving theory, and it has presented numerous problems as it has developed over time, mainly in the introductions to Meqorot Umesorot.
The body of this dissertation consists of three chapters, each focusing on a different model for the formation of the Bavli. Chapter One focuses on Halevy, beginning with his biography and continuing with an in-depth analysis of the scope and purpose of his Dorot Harishonim and the ideological import of his research. The second chapter addresses the theory of Halivni on the formation of the Bavli. After a biographical sketch of Halivni’s life, I review the scope and purpose of Meqorot Umesorot with a special emphasis on his scholarship ki’peshuto, followed by a detailed analysis of his model and the evidence he offers in support of it. The third chapter proposes an alternative model for the formation of the Talmud which combines aspects of Halevy’s and Halivni’s theories. I propose a model that includes a fixed oral text, accompanied by an oral fluid commentary. This dual form of transmission accounts for the diverse structure and style of the apodictic material and the dialectical interpretative argumentation of the stam. The fixed apodictic text, the proto-Talmud follows the basic contour of Halevy’s model, while the understanding of the stam follows many aspects of Halivni’s description of the reconstruction of the dialectical argumentation by the Stammaim. By applying form criticism to determine the Sitz im Leben of talmudic transmission and teaching, combined with recent scholarship on the various forms of oral transmission, I propose a framework which allows for a developmental model which integrates the perceptive historical insights of Halevy with Halivni’s literary findings.
Amy Birkan, “The Limited Scope of Victimhood in Rabbinic Law: ‘The Plaintiff Must Distance Himself from Harm,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2014.
A fundamental precept in Rabbinic law is that greater responsibility falls on the plaintiff to avert her harm than on the defendant not to cause it. This work is comprised of six chapters each of which presents a different facet of plaintiff-responsibility. The first chapter, dealing with Tort,
exposes the substantive responsibility legislation places on the plaintiff to be vigilant in the public sector in order to avoid obstacles created by the tortfeasor. The second chapter analyzes the Rabbinic approach to psycho-emotional harm, which centers on the notion that the דעת בר is the exclusive master of her mind and is therefore singularly responsible for any damage generated therein. The third chapter looks at the scope of the responsibility placed on the plaintiff to be self-determining by examining rulings in cases of enticement. Here legislation is required to choose whether or not an agent is accountable for breaking law when she does so as a result of the defendant’s influence. The forms of enticement dealt with include bribery, authoritative coercion, and seduction. The fourth chapter looks at the same concept, an agent’s responsibility to be self-determining, but through the category Acts Done under Provocation. The rulings for these cases are used to demonstrate the extent to which legislation requires the plaintiff to select a response to the defendant’s inciting act. It also examines whether or not legislation ever considers provocation a valid excuse for a harmful reaction it triggers. The rulings for this class of cases have strong implications on legislation’s notion of involuntary acts. The fifth chapter examines plaintiff-responsibility in the context of capital crime. It is shown that the factor of whether or not the plaintiff could have evaded lethal conditions created by the defendant is critical for determining the latter’s culpability. The material also presents the Bavli’s extension of the doctrine that foremost responsibility falls on the plaintiff to save her life to a legal imperative for the plaintiff to heal herself following the defendant’s attack. The sixth chapter looks at a policy created in the Bavli in the branch of נזקי the plaintiff must distance himself from’) על הניזק להרחיק את עצמו מן הנזק termed שכנים harm’). In place of requiring the tortfeasor to desist from common activities on her land that generate harm to the plaintiff’s property, the Bavli requires the plaintiff at all times to take measures to avoid the harm. The broad picture that emerges through the legalities addressed
in this work is that Rabbinic legislation accentuates the plaintiff’s responsibility to actively ensure her wellbeing through vigilance and self-determination.
Aaron Glaim, “Reciprocity, Sacrifice and Salvation in Judean Religion at the Turn of the Era,” Brown University, 2014.
Joshua Gutoff, “Talmud Study and the Development of the Moral Imagination: A Theoretical Framework,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2013.
This dissertation in Talmud pedagogy presents an approach designed to help nurture the moral imagination of students. Influenced by the work of literary scholars such as Wayne C. Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and Talmudists including David Kraemer, Daniel Boyarin, and Marjorie Lehman, this work is based on the hypothesis that particular reading strategies can help develop both empathy and a creative ethical vision, and that the nature of Talmud makes it particularly useful for such an approach.
Following Bakhtin, three levels of Talmudic discourse are identified: one concerned with a teaching addressed to an audience; one in which two or more characters interact directly; and one in which the redactor brings various texts and voices into conversation with each other. These levels are mapped against the kinds of moral concerns each presents, and then examined individually.
I first address how students might read normative statements of law, ethics, or theology in such a way that the reading itself contributes to their moral development, independent of the wisdom or utility of the specific teachings. I identify the different imaginative skills demanded by such a reading and their moral significance, and illustrate ways in which teachers who are focusing on the propositional content of the Talmud can make the achievement of their curricular goals an opportunity for practicing those skills.
Turning to interactions between characters or voices, I discuss how, by attending to the nuances of the language and behavior between the characters, students can arrive at ethically compelling readings of passages without committing to either the reality of the events described or the righteousness of any of the characters.
Lastly, I look at teaching that highlights the activity of the Stam , the anonymous redactor of the Talmud. I demonstrate that the student’s awareness of the Stam ‘s creative work can lead to an understanding of theStam as an independent moral agent, and then to an exploration of meaning and import of his choices.
In the concluding chapter I discuss some the implications of this dissertation, both for education, and for the role Talmud plays in broader Jewish culture, and close by reflecting on the relationship between the imagination and play in regard to religion and religious texts.
Margaret Jacobi, “Literary Construction in the Babylonian Talmud: A Case Study from Perek Helek,” University of Birmingham, 2014.
Perek Helek, the last chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud (BT), is unusual in consisting almost entirely of aggadah (non-legal material). The present study is a source and literary analysis of six units (sugyot) from the chapter, which are almost continuous over ten pages of Talmud.
The sugyot relate to specific groups and individuals who, according to the Mishnah, are denied a place in the World to Come. They cover subjects in the books of Genesis, Numbers and Samuel.
Comparisons with the Tosefta, Palestinian Talmud and midrashim suggest that the BT is less concerned with the World to Come than Palestinian sources are. Rather, it focuses on the wrong-doing of the groups and individuals and issues of justice and authority. The BT also includes vivid stories which appear to be Babylonian in origin and are often self-mocking.
My findings also suggest that the sugyot based on passages in a given biblical book (Genesis or Numbers) have more elements in common than sugyot based on the same mishnah but derived from a different biblical book. In conclusion I discuss the possible implications of my findings for the more general question of how the chapter was edited.
Ayelet Libson, “Radical Subjectivity: Law and Self-Knowledge in the Babylonian Talmud,” New York University, 2014.
This dissertation examines the emergence of self-knowledge as a determining legal consideration among the rabbis of late antiquity, from the second to the seventh centuries C.E. Based on close readings of rabbinic texts from Palestine and Babylonia, the dissertation analyzes the central legal role accorded to individuals’ knowledge of their bodies and mental states in areas of law such as menstrual purity laws, family law and the laws of the Sabbath.
Legal systems generally aim to structure their statutes in a form as objective as possible, in an attempt to transcend the personal viewpoints of the parties involved. One way in which law treats people objectively is by regulating behavior; it does not seek to coerce feelings or attitudes, and it does not investigate feelings or attitudes unless wrongful behavior has been previously established. While the rule of law is usually upheld by focusing on external, objective standards, I highlight a unique phenomenon which develops in the Babylonian Talmud, in which legal decision making is based on personal knowledge, experience and intuition–which are by definition subjective. Although rabbinic culture is highly legalistic, I demonstrate that the later rabbis were themselves concerned with the reaches of their own legal authority, and therefore carved out an unexpected space for the experience of individuals, not only as an extra-legal factor, but as constituting law itself. I argue that the ancient rabbis came to recognize that certain kinds of knowledge–especially knowledge of the body–could only be mediated through an individual’s own experience, thereby allowing for an unprecedented degree of personal autonomy.
Scholars have demonstrated that the period of late antiquity saw the emergence of a sophisticated conception of the inner self. I locate talmudic discourse within this culture, and demonstrate how the rabbis incorporated the innovative notions of selfhood and an inner world specifically into the legal realm. The dissertation combines philological-historical investigation with the tools of legal and philosophical analysis to produce a study which contributes to a better understanding of talmudic law and ethics. The fruits of this inquiry will be of interest not only to scholars of ancient law, but also to those considering questions of jurisprudence, gender, and the nature of the self.
John Mandsager, “To Stake a Claim: The Making of Rabbinic Agricultural Spaces in the Roman Countryside,” Stanford University, 2014.
This dissertation argues that the prescriptions for Jewish practice and the boundaries of Jewish space in the Late Antique countryside may be considered a call by the rabbis for the transformation of a landscape filled with many different neighbors, from non-rabbinic Jews to Roman conquerors. The rabbinic sources set forth the vision for an idealized Jewish landscape filled with rabbinic Jews who manage their estates in accordance with God’s will. In modern scholarship, agricultural rituals and spaces in the Mishnah and the Tosefta are often set aside in favor of consideration of urban life and society. By interrogating the importance of these spaces and their rituals, this dissertation shows that the authors of Jewish literature adopt Roman ideals of rural life but subvert those ideals to impose a specifically Jewish vernacular upon the landscape. The commitment to Biblical laws of agriculture, even in light of profound changes to the landscape wrought by Roman imperial domination, serves to challenge that domination through the assertion of distinctly Jewish agricultural spaces. In this dissertation, the halakhic reasoning and argumentation found in early rabbinic literature is analyzed through textual, literary, and spatial analysis to reveal the cultural and spatial ideals of the creators of these texts. These legal texts describe a world filled with outsiders, from Roman conquerors to Jews with different interpretations of scripture and practice: the laws of Jewish farming serve to differentiate normative Jewish practice and social structures from those others. It is the spatial aspect of agricultural life, from its fences to its regimented rows of crops that serve to physically and visually mark a Jewish space as distinct. This dissertation offers tools for spatial analysis of legal texts in rabbinic Judaism specifically and imperial spaces more broadly.
Elana Stein-Hein, “Rabbinic Legal Loopholes: Formalism, Equity and Subjectivity,” Columbia University, 2014.
Rabbinic law is particularly well known for its use of legal dodges and technical circumventions. This dissertation focuses on three main questions about such loopholes: 1) Why is rabbinic law so replete with them? 2) Are they always permitted, and if not, what are the parameters of their use? 3) What does the use of legal loopholes reveal about rabbinic views of the relationship between intention and action? We attempt to answer these questions by analyzing a particular subset of rabbinic legal loopholes known as ha‘arama (cunning). Tracing the history and use of ha‘arama from tannaitic to amoraic sources, this work places rabbinic legal loopholes in context of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern worldviews, Greco-Roman perspectives, and later contemporaneous Zoroastrian approaches. Working with both tannaitic and amoraic materials, with Palestinian and Babylonian sources, we observe a progression within rabbinic thinking on this front: from rigid legal formalism to a concern for the inner spirit of the law, and from emphasis on the inner spirit of the law to an interest in the inner spirit of the individual legal agent.
Mira Wasserman, “The Humanity of the Talmud: Reading for Ethics in Bavli Avoda Zara,” University of California, Berkeley, 2014.
In this dissertation, I argue that there is an ethical dimension to the Babylonian Talmud, and that literary analysis is the approach best suited to uncover it. Paying special attention to the discursive forms of the Talmud, I show how juxtapositions of narrative and legal dialectics cooperate in generating the Talmud’s distinctive ethics, which I characterize as an attentiveness to the “exceptional particulars” of life.
To demonstrate the features and rewards of a literary approach, I offer a sustained reading of a single tractate from the Babylonian Talmud, ‘Avoda Zara (AZ). AZ and other talmudic discussions about non-Jews offer a rich resource for considerations of ethics because they are centrally concerned with constituting social relationships and with examining aspects of human experience that exceed the domain of Jewish law. AZ investigates what distinguishes Jews from non-Jews, what Jews and non-Jews share in common, and what it means to be a human being.
I read AZ as a cohesive literary work unified by the overarching project of examining the place of humanity in the cosmos. The talmudic materials are organized as a journey down the cosmic chain of being, from the supernal realm of souls and spirit, to the material world of embodied, animal existence, to the inanimate domain of physical objects. In tracing this descent, I discover in AZ the outlines of a rabbinic anthropology that affirms the common humanity of Jews and non-Jews, and highlights the role of Jewish law in constituting Jewish difference.
As I make my way through AZ, I bring the talmudic text into dialogue with critical insights and issues from philosophy and literary theory. Pointing to ways that the editors of AZ engage the philosophic currents of their time, I challenge the prevailing characterization of the Bavli editors as inwardly focused. Even more important, I explore how AZ engages the critical questions of our time–questions of identity and alterity, of universalism and particularism, of justice and community.
Yehudah Huberman, “‘Because of the Sight of the Eye’: An Historical Philological Inquiry of the Term and Halakhic Category,” Bar-Ilan University, 2013.