English, Reviews

Protestant Mishnah

Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther, 1529.

A serendipitous combination of circumstances brought Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine and Hanan Gafni’s Peshutah shel Mishnah to my shelf side by side. Gafni’s brand-new book, based on a dissertation written under the supervision of Jay Harris at Harvard, is written in beautiful and clear Hebrew and attempts to introduce the uninitated reader into the complex and fraught world of Mishnah scholarship in its infancy.

The Mishnah has two strands of textual tradition: the Babylonian and the Palestinian. Yaakov Zussman, through his command of the Mif’al Hamishna, claims  that there are no Mishnah  manuscripts that follow the tradition of the Bavli. This is no coincidence, per Zussman: the Babylonian tradition – of which all extant Jewish communities are heirs – did not prize the study of Mishnah on its own. The Mishnah was to be studied in conjunction with the Bavli. When Maimonides wanted to write a commentary on the Mishanh, he had to use a Palestinian Mishnah manuscript and sometimes update it to keep it in line with the Mishnah or the halakha of the Bavli.

The first edition of the Mishnah was printed in Naples, in 1502, with Maimonides’ commentary. Ovadia of Bertinoro published a commentary in Venice, in 1549. Study of the Mishnah on its own regained some ground in Kabbalistic circles in 16th century Safed – R. Joseph Karo’s supernatural Maggid was in fact the Mishnah personified.

But Gafni’s study begins in earnest somewhat later, scouring Kabbalistic works from the Lurianic school for oblique references to “Peshat and Derash” in the Mishnah. These references – that give his book its name – were the seedling that allowed Mishnah scholarship to begin in the school of the Vilna Gaon.

Gafni surveys scholars by geography, beginning with Safed, then Lithuania, Italy, Galicia, Germany and then, finally, Vienna. Scholars are selected, described and their work is discussed. Each chapter ends with an example, that is useful for understanding the real meaning of the figure’s work – often readers of such books end up knowing so little about the actual substance of the work. Many of the debates important to the interface between Jewish studies and Jewish people in our time are echoed in these sketches: should scholars be engaged in the issues of their communities? Should they bring their religious agendas to their work with them?

But for me – reading Smith at the same time – the striking point was the Protestantism of it all. The idea that these early Mishnah scholars had, that at some time in Jewish history there was a moment of purity, of clarity, when everything was pristine and not mangled up by the Talmud and its casuistry strikes a note that Smith hears elsewhere. Just as early study of religion was focused on highlighting the “uniqueness” of the one Religion – i.e. Apostolic Christianity, through a Protestant lens- so perhaps early study of Judaism by Jews was marked by their aversion to the Talmud (read: Bavli), its embarrassing complication, superstition, and stringency. The Bavli was the repository of choice for the shame Jews had of their own religion; as the protestants blamed the “rabbins” for the Jews and their strangeness, the Maskilim blamed the Bavli. Then, when they began to study the Mishnah as a work unto itself, this added another layer of embarrassment: really, the Bavli couldn’t understand the Mishnah at all!

The field in fact took over a century to recover. Only David Halivni and Eliezer Rosenthal, neither a “natural” heir to this tradition, both steeped in traditional talmudic study that they did not hate, were able to bring the Bavli back into the limelight. Numerous lessons were learned from this retreat from the Bavli, as well: first, that there are other texts besides the Bavli, and second, that the Talmud is neither stupid or superstitious. It is an interesting and complex product of its time and place – and that it is, on a most basic level – still not really understood.