English, Recent Publications

Reading List

To the two things that are certain in life, death and taxes, I would add foiled grand plans. My grand plan was to survey recent dissertations that discuss various aspects of purity in rabbinic literature – it seems that purity is the new fad now in rabbinics – but I haven’t gotten around to reading all of them yet.

Instead, in the interim, I present to you some short observations on the new books section at the Mt. Scopus library.

1. Ben Dunning’s Specters of Paul is fascinating. Just like Rosen-Zvi’s work on Sotah, Dunning is not content with merely pointing out androcentrism in Paul. Instead, he asks himself what this androcentrism is and what it does. He finds that androcentrism takes on many shapes and forms in Paul, amounting to a cacophony of voices in the Pauline corpus on what women are, what we can do with them, what sex, gender and “sexual difference” (apparently a term coined by Luce Irigaray) do in various parts of the corpus, and how these rifts played out in the work of later readers of Paul. Dunning’s interest and focus on these later readers is refreshing, and is thankfully removed from the Protestant turn towards  the “Original” texts and their intent. His focus on the contemporary politics of his readings of Paul – and of course the politics of reading Paul at all, what with his being blamed for everything bad that befell the Jews, ever – is a bit overbearing.

2. Liah Keshet wrote a dissertation under Yaakov Zussman on the Aggada of the Yerushalmi. She created a corpus of Aggadot in y. Maas. Shen. and Maas. and contrasted them with the Aggadot in y. Nezikin. The methodology might be a bit dubious – she says as much herself, asking what  an aggada is and how we should collect them – but the result is a wonderful edition and commentary on large swaths of Yerushalmi,  performed meticulously and cleanly in Zussman-like style, copious notes and all.

3. Paul’s Jewish Matrix is a collection of articles edited by Thomas G. Casey and Justin Taylor that comprises a collection of essays of varying quality on Jewish (“Judaic”) elements in Paul. Menachem Kister is conspicuously absent from the list of authors, which does include Daniel Schwartz on a possible halakhic reading of Romans 14:14 and Shaye Cohen on a similar kind of reading of Paul’s stance on intermarriage.  As Yair Furstenburg noted in a comment at the Talmud Blog’s “Academy” (editor’s note: stay tuned for an announcement about this exciting pilot project), there is still much to discover in Paul as far as his halakhic and other Jewish heritage is concerned. This book is not yet the collection of essays that would tackle that problem.

4. Back to reception studies, The Sword of Judith is a delightful panoply of articles on the reception and transmission of the Judith story in the Jewish, Christian, and dramatic traditions (yes, you read that right). It is an interesting approach, bringing together surveys that are very text-oriented (e.g. Deborah L. Gera’s “The Jewish Textual Traditions” with a list of medieval Jewish Judith stories) with the more esoteric, such as “Judith in Baroque Oratorio” (David Marsh). I wonder if there is any possibility for these kinds of studies in other areas – perhaps a book on rabbinics in Israeli film? An study of the reception of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1950s Israel? Roni Shweka, perhaps?

Hopefully, soon, I will make time for the five dissertations that await their rightful place in the blog post about  them, entitled “Purity and Dissertation.”

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English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Gafni Continues the Debate

A further chapter in the Gafni-Goodblatt debate, and for that matter in the ongoing “Stam Wars,” has recently been published in the journal Jewish History.   In a detailed and important review of Jeffrey Rubenstein’s trilogy- Talmudic Stories, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud, Isaiah Gafni comes out fighting.  Gafni acknowledges that scholars like Rubenstein and his predecessors have changed the rules of writing the history of the “Talmudic era” irrevocably, but that does not mean he will accept Rubenstein’s approach whole-cloth, or go along entirely with the latter’s proposed ceasefire for the Gafni-Goodblatt debate.

Anyone who cares about the direction of research into the Talmud’s anonymous layer should read the review itself, so I will not summarize it here.  I will say that Gafni’s main argument is that while he is willing to cede that reworked, originally Palestinian rabbinic stories in the Bavli often reflect Babylonian concerns, he is not prepared to admit that these concerns are always late, or “stammaitic.” In this he takes up an argument put forth by Yaakov Elman in a review of Rubenstein’s The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, published in 2006 in the Journal of Religion.  Gafni offers numerous examples, expands the claim, and adds further arguments as well.

Last May, Prof. Gafni spoke at a conference organized by Uri Gabbay and me (and hosted by Scholion at the Hebrew University of JerusalemEncounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians.  There he added ever more examples to rebut Rubenstein, some of them quite compelling.  Gafni’s article from the conference will hopefully appear in the proceedings of the conference, which hopefully will be published soon.

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English, Talmud in the News

The Book and the Legend

No longer just "the national poet", Bialik has become a fashion statement.

In the year 1903, C.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitsky, neighbors in the same building in Odessa, set out to produce what would be one of the most influential books in the study of aggada since the Ein Yaakov. Sefer ha-AggadahThe Book of Legends– was completed 100 years ago, with the publication of its sixth section in 1911.  To mark this anniversary, Ha’aretz recently featured an article (hat-tipAncient Hebrew Poetry) by one of the foremost Bialik scholars, Shmuel Avneri (not to be confused with Shlomo Avineri). Avneri lists numerous instances where Bialik’s books were burned by some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and he emphasizes how these cases were at odds with the positive and productive relationships which Bialik had with other segments of the charedi community. The author also lists numerous critiques of Sefer ha-Aggadah by secular and academic intellectuals, from Agnon to Shinan, who for the most part took issue with the liberal editing policies of Bialik and Ravnitsky. To his list I would add the important footnote in Carnal Israel in which Boyarin criticizes Bialik for his “misogynistic” selection of texts.

As a translation and anthology, Sefer ha-Aggadah has many problems, some of which Prof. Shinan’s own updated version will seek to correct. Yet no one can deny the massive contribution that it has made to the popularization of aggadah over the past hundred years. As Alan Mintz has pointed out:

Throughout the early twentieth century, cultural and religious Zionists sensed the need to make rabbinic thought available in formats and languages that were accessible to native Hebrew speakers, religious and secular alike. Sefer ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends) by C.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitsky was an early example, one that has profoundly influenced Israeli culture.

As attested by the reflections of several modern Israeli writers, Bialik and Ravnitzky had an enormous influence on the early generations of Zionists in Palestine/Israel. Yoram Kaniuk writes in his memoir 1948:

We were the sons of the Bible, yet we were also sons of Bialik and Ravnitsky’s The Book of Legends, and we loved to read how Moses sees Joshua enter the Tent of Meeting and is jealous of him and says to God “one hundred deaths and not one jealousy”.

More examples may be found in Amos Oz’s Story of Love and Darkness. Without such a compilation it is doubtful that Rabbinic literature would have succeeded in taking such a significant role in the formation of the Zionist ethos. One may add that Bialik’s position as “the national poet” also contributed to the work’s success.

Thanks to the translation of William G. Braude, Sefer ha-Aggadah has become a staple of Jewish learning outside of Hebrew speaking communities, as evidenced by such English language online learning attempts as Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. Through such forums, Sefer ha-Aggadah continues to enlarge the community of readers that engages Rabbinic texts, and promises to do so in the future as well.

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English, Events

Coming Up

To build off of Shai’s list of upcoming Talmud related events in Jerusalem (and also off of his discussion of the place of Talmudic literature in the Israeli-Jewish Renaissance), Rehavia’s Adraba bookstore will host Prof. Avigdor Shinan of Hebrew U’s Hebrew Literature Department this Thursday night, July 14th. According to the announcement on the store’s site, Prof. Shinan will speak about rabbinic stories of the destruction of the Temple:

י”ז בתמוז בפתח ועמו מתחילים, לפי המסורת, שלושת השבועות המובילים בסופם ליום המציין את חורבן ירושלים, בימי בית ראשון ובית שני, הלוא הוא תשעה באב.

פרופ’ שנאן יתמקד בקבוצה של סיפורים מתוך ספרות האגדה העוסקים בחורבן הבית, סיבותיו ותוצאותיו.
במהלך הערב נשאל, בין השאר, האם יש בסיפורים רק הד לאירועי העבר שחלפו, או שמא יש בהם מסר לימינו אנו.

While you’re there, make sure to check out Yonatan and Rachel’s excellent collection of used and new books. Although the store’s specialty is not necessarily Jewish Studies, they regularly pick up quite an array of secondary literature pertaining to the Talmud (they sold me both Boyarin’s Carnal Israel and Epstein’s Introduction to Amoraic Literature). Also- space is limited, so try getting there early if you plan on attending.

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English, Reviews

Return of the Rabbis

In a thoughtful review of a recent translation of Benny Lau’s The Sages at Jewish Ideas Daily, Elli Fischer suggests that if we take Lau’s series for what it is – a “digest and interpretation of earlier histories, memories, and traditions in a manner that allows them to speak to the current moment” by “a 21st-century rabbi and leading figure in liberal Orthodox southern Jerusalem,” we will be rewarded.  At the very least, Lau

deserves to be treated as fairly as the rabbis of 5th-century Babylonia or 3rd-century Palestine.  That is to say, he should be read as a rabbi and not as a historian—an approach affirmed by the book’s origins as a Sabbath afternoon synagogue lecture series.

Indeed.

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