Around the Web, English, Ruminations

Defending the Talmud in the Digital Age: Four Reflections

1. When we relaunched The Talmud Blog, back in 2011, I set a Google reminder for the word “Talmud.” After all, we claimed to provide “Talmudic news, reviews, currents and criticism,” and what better way to stay current than with handy email reminders from the indexers of the Internet. At the time, the Internet was a simpler place, or at least so it seemed. We may have had our suspicions of the influence of Facebook and ad tech on our lives, but certainly not to the extent that we do now. Rather quickly, however, I discovered that my expectations of the Google alert were rather naïve: the vast majority of the material on Talmud that Google dredged up for me in daily emails could best be described as anti-Semitic drivel. Continue reading

English, Postscripts

Postscript: Jonah Frankel, 1928-2012

The world of Jewish Studies and the Talmud Blog mourn the passing of Prof. Jonah Frankel, teacher, pioneer, scholar and Israel prize laureate. Frankel was born in Munich in 1928 and arrived in Palestine when the Nazis came to power. His doctoral dissertation, the first and actually only scholarly treatment of Rashi’s commentary on the Babylonian Talmud to date, remains the standard work of reference on this ubiquitous commentary. It was quoted extensively, thirty years later, by Prof. Israel Ta-Shma in his Sifrut ha-parshanit la-talmud. Frankel also collaborated with his father-in-law, Daniel Goldschmidt, on his editions of Jewish liturgical texts, and was working on an edition of the Ashkenazi Siddur for weekdays. He kept working on the latter project until very close to his death (I regret that I turned down the opportunity to work as his mouse-manipulator when he could not longer get it to do what he wanted); I understand the project is in good hands.

His greatest and lasting contribution to scholarship, however, was his introduction of methods taken from the study of literature to reading rabbinic stories. In many articles and then later, in books, Frankel applied the methods of New Criticism to stories that were supposed to be “history” or at best “folklore”. He insisted that they were nothing but “high literature” and that they deserved the best tools the discipline could give them. As such, he is the intellectual grandfather of almost every innovation in rabbinics since. Although New Criticism fell out of fashion and other methods took over, Frankel got his wish: rabbinic literature is recognized as “literature,” studied in university departments of Hebrew literature, and by literary scholars who do not specialize in Jewish Studies. ‘The Oven of Akhnai’, Rabbi Johanan and Resh Laqish, and Honi the Roofer (not circle-drawer) are household names not merely in academic circles, but also in almost every synagogue, study circle, adult education curriculum and beit midrash. Frankel’s work endures, and so his lips truly are speaking in the grave at this very moment. We hope to be able to host a “yeshivah on his grave,” here at the Talmud blog, in the future.

(The funeral was today, on Har Hamenuhot, in Jerusalem, at 4:30 PM).

English, Guest Posts

Thoughts on Near Eastern Legal Culture- Guest Post by Lena Salaymeh

This post is the first in what will be an ongoing series introducing our readers to the work of young scholars engaged in new and interesting research. 

I usually describe my research interests as being comparative Jewish and Islamic law (or legal history), but that depiction is often misleading.  The term “comparative” assumes two distinct legal traditions that interact in discernible ways.  But in the context of Jewish and Islamic legal history, my conception and implementation of “comparative” is more akin to thinking and to speaking in “proto-Semitic.”  As a metaphor, “proto-Semitic” offers a useful heuristic for thinking through how we approach the study of Jewish and Islamic law.  If you imagine scholars of Jewish law articulating their ideas in Hebrew and Aramaic, while scholars of Islamic law articulate their ideas in Arabic, then my objective is to converse with both groups of scholars in a meta-language (proto-Semitic) that engages both legal traditions.  Just as “proto-Semitic” is the common ancestor of the Semitic language family, Near Eastern legal culture is the shared antecedent of Jewish and Islamic legal systems. Undeniably, the challenge is that proto-Semitic no longer exists as a spoken language and is instead a scholarly reconstruction of a language that may have existed.  Similarly, I am interested in recreating the discourse of Near Eastern legal culture in the late antique and medieval periods using terminology and ideas from law, history, and critical theory.  While diglossia (in this case, speaking both in a Semitic dialect and in proto-Semitic) is inevitable, my objective is to transcend disciplinary boundaries.

My “proto-Semitic” perspective on the subject of my research differs considerably from the viewpoint of colleagues who assume that my research interest is “religious law.”  However, there are several interrelated problems in “religious law” as a category.  In contemporary discourse, the modern bifurcation between “secular” and “religious” law is taken for granted, but it lacks historical resonance.  There is a common presumption that the “essence” of religions is their laws, but this oversimplifies the multi-dimensional nature of religious groups and movements.  Instead of “religion,” I prefer more precise terminology in scholarship and in public discourse: theology, spirituality, ritual, belief, ideology, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, customary practice, local culture, and identity.  In focusing on the syncretic and dialectical relationships within Jewish and Islamic legal history, I am also mindful of Roman provincial, Sasanian, and Near Eastern tribal legal traditions.  In so doing, I seek to contextualize (and to broaden) the study of Islamic and Jewish legal history within a shared “proto-Semitic” legal culture.  I often invoke historical evidence from other (i.e, other than Islamic or Jewish) Near Eastern legal traditions precisely in order to substantiate the existence of Near Eastern legal culture.  Legal culture, based in a specific social space and time, is a more effective category of analysis for my work than “religious law.”

Relatedly, the word “religion” does not have a Semitic (and possibly proto-Semitic) equivalent.  “Religion” is a perplexingly problematic term for my research because it is both anachronistic and untranslatable.  In Arabic, the term “din” is translated as “religion,” but the root means “to profess.”  Likewise, in Hebrew, the term “dat” is translated as “religion,” but it means “law.”  The historical usage of both terms does not correspond to modern understandings of religion. This is not mere philological pickiness: if we insist on translating what we observe in Jewish and Islamic historical texts into a discourse about religion (with its modern, Western genealogy), we will stifle more imaginative and unexpected possibilities and interpretations of these texts and their socio-historical contexts.  Historical expressions of Judaism and Islam do not easily correspond to contemporary conventions about religion and it is precisely this complexity that is the basis of my research pursuits.

My commitment to “proto-Semitic” research includes exploring the Islamic legal-intellectual milieu of rabbinic jurists who wrote in Arabic (such as Alfasi and the Rambam) and studying Gaonic legal manuals.  I am working on an article that explores medieval Islamic juristic texts that discuss the possibility of using Jewish law as a source of legal authority.  I plan to contrast these Islamic legal discussions of the ‘other’ with references to Islamic law in Gaonic texts.  In another article, I expect to situate Karaite attacks on rabbinic oral law within debates about the authoritative significance of the legal opinions of late antique Muslim jurists.  As part of my broader endeavor to collaborate with colleagues, Zvi Septimus (Stroock Fellow, Harvard Center for Jewish Studies) and I are formulating a project to explore the intersections between some medieval commentaries of the Bavli and contemporaneous Islamic legal literature.

Recreating “proto-Semitic” is a wide-ranging endeavor that needs institutional groundwork; this is why I complement my research with administrative projects as a coordinator for the Initiative on Muslim-Jewish relations at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.  I am interested in creating a network of scholars and of supporting unrecognized scholarly endeavors.  For example, we are currently trying to find funding to publish an Arabic translation of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in order to make this seminal Jewish legal text accessible to scholars of Islamic law who do not read Hebrew.  We are also raising funds to acquire an important collection of Judeo-Arabic midrashic literature from 19th/20th century Morocco, which would supplement UC Berkeley’s previous acquisitions of similar materials from Iraq and Tunisia.  There is much work to be done in the field of Judeo-Islamic legal studies and I have many more ideas and plans for how we can more deeply explore the interconnectedness of Jewish and Islamic legal systems.  I hope we will have opportunities to implement them and to continue rediscovering “proto-Semitic,” as a means of deepening our understandings of Jewish and Islamic legal history.  I invite readers to join me in reconstructing “proto-Semitic.”

Lena Salaymeh is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation is titled Late Antique and Medieval Islamic Legal Histories: Contextual Changes and Comparative (re)Considerations.

[Cross-posted at the Immanent Frame]