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.

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