English, Guest Posts, Reviews

A Review of Weiss Halivni, The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud- Guest Post by Zvi Septimus

halivni picDavid Weiss Halivni, TheFormation of the Babylonian Talmud (trans. and ed. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). 312 (+35) pages

David Weiss Halivni began work on his Talmud commentary, Sources and Traditions, in 1968 with the publication of a volume on Seder Nashim. In the forty-five years since, Halivni has published an additional seven volumes, covering Seder Moed and Seder Nezikin. Continue reading

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.

Book Club, English

Definite Article – The Book Club II

The ‘stammaitic consensus’, like many so-called consensuses, has paradoxically not yet achieved a total consensus. Still, aside from persistent skepticism emanating mainly from Israeli scholars, the stammaitic ‘toolbox’ has virtually become the source-critical method in use among academic Talmud scholars working in the field today.

There have in recent years been two interesting challenges to the stammaitic theory of redaction (I do not consider skepticism interesting – even if it is well placed). One, by Moulie Vidas,  questions why anonymity has become synonymous with “lateness” and a final editorial layer if we occasionally find the Stam actively removing attributions – apparently in order to create a distancing effect. Vidas asks source-critics to consider the literary function of anonymity and not only its presumed editorial function.  As of yet, we only have a few examples of the phenomenon of Stammaitic ‘tampering’, but it remains a very interesting argument worth following.

In Zvi Septimus’ recent research, we find another sort of challenge. Zvi questions one of the basic methodologies of “stammaitists”; namely, the attempt to chart a kind of redactional narrative across different sugyot which develops – ever so cleanly – from a set of literary kernels into a masterful and final talmudic mosaic. Like Vidas, Septimus is also interested in literary function – though here not of textual anonymity rather the experiential process of reading the Bavli. As he points out in his “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” one can read source-critically and still discover a far more interactive and far less teleological process of talmudic production that questions some basic axioms of contemporary talmudic source criticism. This realization points in the direction of an implied reader, which in turn can go a long way in explaining what the Talmud is ‘really’ about. I won’t give it away, however, since you should go read it here, and then listen to what our participants have to say, below.

Septimus’ article is the subject of the Talmud Blog’s second Book Club not only because it has implications for redactional theory, a pet interest of this blog. The piece is a nice example of how to read the Bavli from the perspective of contemporary literary theories.  Surprisingly, while there are many scholars interested in the “literary” parts of the Talmud, there are very few actively producing readings informed by literary theory. As such, we’ve invited two scholars, Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky and Dina Stein, who are  engaged in just such an ongoing project of reading rabbinic literature as… literature (!), and who are also interested in the processes of reading Talmud. We also strongly encourage our readers to respond to the article and to the respondents. And finally, we’ve invited the author of the article himself to rise from his theoretical death and respond to Dina and Itay’s remarks. Fear not, since you need not take anything he says into account.

Dina Stein (Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature; Haifa University):

Zvi Septimus should be congratulated on several accounts – for his instating the word “experience” into the practice of reading the Bavli, as well as for his breaking through the narrow quarters of the sugya as the widest possible signifying context in the Bavli. And above all – for writing an incredibly lively, thought provoking essay.

Zvi proposes to replace the diachronic perspective of source criticism with a synchronic perspective of inter (or rather intra-) textuality within the Bavli, indicated by “trigger words”/”simultexts”. Placing himself as somewhat of a (monstrous) heir to Fraenkel he too assumes closure – albeit closure of the entire Bavli. Here, the notion of Iser’s “implied reader” is called upon, so as to rule out any confusion regarding a concrete, historical reader (and to avoid of course historical questions such as when was the Bavli as a whole first recognized, and by whom, and so on). No, the reader is an immune textual construct.

Yet, both “experience” and the new horizons that Zvi offers are not devoid of problems. The “experience” of reading is somewhat misleading since the reader is a hypostasized entity that could hardly be credited with “experience.” More important, the emancipating notion, that the framework within which a given tale should – or can – be read is as vast as the Bavli itself, maybe less liberating than it appears at first. Why should the boundaries of the Bavli be canonized (Zvi explicitly compares the Bavli’s self-glossing poetics to the poetics of the Bible a la Boyarin et al!) in order for the intra-textual principle to function as hermeneutic tool? It is not necessary in my view. It may even raise more problems than it solves.

Twenty five years ago Galit Hasan-Rokem published an article called “The Snake at the Wedding: a Semiotic Reconstruction of the Comparative method of Folk Narrative Research” (ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 43 [1987]: 73-87). There are striking similarities between that article and Zvi’s recent project (they even share some “trigger words”), insofar as both consciously shift the lens from philological, diachronic perspectives to a synchronic reading/construction of meaning. Hasan-Rokem employed tools developed originally by the philological-diachronic perspective of the geographical-historical school of folkloristics, i.e. the tale-type and the motif. Following the semiotician Yuri Lotman who wrote about “sign signals” (to other texts), motifs and fixed bundles of motifs amounting to “tale types” served her to construct possible intertexual environments within which a given text – in this case the story of the bridegroom who dies on his wedding night (Vayiqrah Rabbah 20:3) – signifies. Now Hasan-Rokem addressed texts that are not confined to a single composition or to the rabbinic corpus per se, thus allowing for a more fluid context. By referring to motifs and tale-types as “semiotic markers,” her model also implies that the intertextual framework includes oral traditions, which most of rabbinic literature was.

Applying Hasan-Rokem’s model to Zvi’s argument would shift the very heavy burden lying on the shoulders of the (implied) reader to the realm of cultural semiotics in which different texts share “trigger words” (and themes). The legitimacy for reading these texts in relation to each other would not be compromised. Moreover, the hypostasized “reader” need not be chained to what is assumed to be a fixed canonized composition. “Trigger words” in the Bavli can indeed help us reconstruct cultural associations without necessarily erecting yet another set of (imperializing) boundaries, or imagining closure.

Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky (Department of Hebrew Literature, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev).

Zvi Septimus’s article “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli” adds to a growing body of research that attempts to chart a path between two nearly opposite approaches to the talmudic text: the first emphasizes the foreignness of its elements, resulting in a long and dispersed process of creation; the second highlights the aesthetic quality of the final edited form, which gives it a seemingly uniform appearance. The first leans upon evident, necessarily partial seams, meant to merge distinct sources; the latter draws its strength from the success of the act of sewing, which makes the Babylonian Talmud a stylized, comprehensive text. A careful, self-aware movement between such different modes of discourse must lead to a third approach – and indeed Septimus suggest a very coherent one. By means of an extensive and thorough (and surprising!) analysis of a relatively ‘entangled’ story in the forth chapter of Kiddushin tractate (70a-b), the author demonstrates a new reading method, based on two fundamental claims: (A) The source-critical approach (represented here, and not by coincidence, by the work of Shamma Friedman), does not reflect the (non-critical) reader’s experience, therefore, even if it may explain some stages in the evolution of the talmudic text, it will never supply a theory of reading. (B) The “literary” approach (represented here, again by no coincidence, by the work of Jonah Fraenkel), which ignores the fact that the Babylonian Talmud, as a literary complex, constantly breaches the ‘segirut’ (I find ‘closure’, suggested by Jeffrey Rubenstein, the closest translation of the concept) of the story embedded in it,  when connecting it to other stories from different suggiyot. The combination of the two approaches defines the “Septimusian” reader: He is guided by “trigger words” to simultaneously read text-fragments that were originally far from each other, not in order to decompose them into its primary and secondary components, but to illuminate one another as wholes, in their final design; (ונמצאו “דברי תורה עניים במקומן ועשירים במקום אחר” (ירושלמי ראש-השנה, פ”ג ה”ה

This approach is definitely thought-provoking and requires a lengthier discussion; yet in the limitations of this blessed “Virtual Beit midrash” of which I am a new guest (I take this opportunity to thank Shai Secunda and Yitz Landes for their generous invitation), I will have to suffice with short words of evaluation of some of the theoretical choices made by the author, and maybe suggest possible alternatives.

The attempt to read different Talmudic stories together calls into question the aforesaid assumption, associated with Fraenkel, of ‘segirut’. This assumption, discussed in recent years by Jeffrey Rubenstein and Joshua Levinson, considers Fraenkel a prominent representative of New Criticism in the study of Rabbinic literature. Accordingly, and according to Fraenkel’s words, segirut has “external” and “internal” aspects: its mere existence renounces any affinity to non-literary fields (historical, biographical, etc.), and at the same time to inter-literary contexts (textual sequences, parallels). The two aspects combine into one: they are different expressions of “unity” or “cohesion”, which justify reading the Talmudic text through the “hermeneutic circle” – all these are key phrases – meaning, a story ought to be understood from within itself, as a unique artistic expression (and not, Fraenkel emphasizes, a variant of a pre-existing structure). Septimus, sailing away from Fraenkel’s model, does not doubt the segirut as a hermeneutic category, but raises it from a low order to a higher one: from the single story to the Babylonian Talmud as a whole. But the segirut of a short story does not resemble that of an enormous complex text; whereas the latter reflects a tendency of a loosely unified literature, well known to every learner of the Bavli, the former claims something as for the precise, condensed and focused “aestheticization” of the literary expression, randomly set in its pages (it is no coincidence that New Criticism was most fertile when analyzing poetry, especially lyric poetry, rather than prose; its fruitful use with rabbinic literature is made possible primarily thanks to the minimalistic nature of the aggadic story).  The two types of segirut are as two dimensions of the creative story-telling work of the Bavli, which are active simultaneously, and are competing for the establishment of its meaning and its poetic design: the “Narrative art” on one hand, and the “Art of Narrative Connections” (to the local suggya or to the Bavli as a whole) on the other hand.

Is the reading experience of the Bavli – be it imaginary or abstract – necessarily a harmonious experience? Considering the aforesaid, it is possible to suggest another possibility that corresponds to Septimus’ proposal. I believe that a slightly different adaptation of Fraenkel and Friedman’s point of view could pave the third, different way (that could coexist with some post-structuralistic reading practices). This approach may be of aid while attempting to perceive the Talmudic text as a “dynamic” literary framework, in which something “occurs”: a frame within which different creative motivations act as forces. Thus, for instance, instead of converting an obvious axis of development between two stories in the Bavli (Friedman) into pointing out a “static” intertextual relation between them (Septimus), perhaps we should see the intertextual mechanism as one of the strategies (poetic, rhetoric, or in this case – connective) that the Suggiyot use to try and control the meanings of the stories embedded in them, and navigate these meanings to serve the Suggiya’s needs. At the same time, instead of converting the segirut of the single story (Fraenkel) into the segirut of the Bavli as a whole (Septimus), perhaps we should see both types of segirut as if they are challenging each other, revealing the interplay between control and resistance (thanks to the existence of the single tailored story as an independent aesthetic object, with an inner consistency and a distinct ideological world. This description must not be misunderstood; I emphasize here that I do not refer to any polarized manner of “control” and “resistance” relations, nor a strict binary categorization which ranges from “hegemonic discourse” and “subversive discourse”, but to much more meaningful and intricate games of meaning; as Bakhtin teaches us: two shades of understanding can still engage in a dialogue). Surely, the dynamism of the text is obvious when one thinks of it in a diachronic perspective. However, identifying with Septimus’ criticism of the difficulties inherent in basing a reading theory on source-criticism, my suggestion is to see the synchronic reading as a performative act of reading that reflects the inner dynamism of the Talmudic text. Following this line of thought, in the case of the story discussed in the article, an interesting question concerns its violent nature, the (carnivalesque) manner in which it goes “out of control”, and the reciprocal relations between this literary process, and the first subject of the chapter, which deals with different and sometimes problematic personal statutes (‘asara yochasin’); ואכמ”ל .

Septimus successfully uses Iser’s “implied reader” to ensure, among other things, that the reader whose experience the article wishes to restore is not an actual, historical subject, but an imaginary construct, supposedly produced by the Talmudic text itself, out of the connections that weave together its different parts. This is probably one of the most intriguing “implied readers” one could think of, and the inspiring power of the hermeneutic model that Septimus suggests will prove that. However, side by side with this implied one, perhaps we can revive something of the “actual” reader – if it is still appropriate to mention him or her – that exists within every implied reader, and the Bavli reader in particular: the reader experiencing the Bavli over and over again as an incoherent work, with its internal relations, close and distant, are not always clear; the doubting and struggling reader, who dwells on the contradiction in the text, or simply the obscurity of it, on the wondering and the awe, just before trying to settle it all.

English, Guest Posts, Readings

Medicine and the Redaction of the Talmud- Guest Post by Michael Satlow

Ancient forms of pain "relief".

One of The Talmud Blog’s goals is to create a forum for scholarly discussion. This guest post by Michael Satlow is an attempt to start a conversation. Readers are invited to engage in it by writing in the comments section below.

Have gum disease? Boils? Abscesses? Anal  sores? An ear ache? A swollen eye? Insect stings? Check out the Bavli for a remedy.

The Babylonian Talmud is full of medical advice. Enough advice, in fact, for Julius Preuss to fill a fat tome entitled Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin that he published in 1911 (translated by Fred Rosner as Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Rosner has several other books on the topic as well). The advice frequently strikes us as suspect. Is it really true that burning a century old reed tube (hardly easy to come by as it is) filled with salt in one’s ear is the best and most efficient cure? Where can I get the fat of a goat that has never given birth? Will my insurance cover it?

Joking aside, I recently stumbled on one of the longer extended discussions of medicine in the Bavli, at Avodah Zarah 28a29a (where all the examples cited above can be found). The passage is as fascinating as it is tedious, and despite Preuss’s magnum opus – itself also both fascinating and tedious – I am sure that there is much more scholarly work to be done on this passage and those like it. Where did they get this information? What was their understanding of medicine? What did they do when the cures failed to work?

On this reading of the passage, though, I was struck by a much more technical and abstruse question: How can it be reconciled with contemporary theories of the redaction of the Talmud? Nearly all scholars today agree that there was at least one – and perhaps more – stages of redaction of the Bavli. The redactors, the theory goes, worked from collections of tannatic and amoraic sayings, the latter usually conveyed in pithy sentences.  The redactor(s) pieced these sayings together and connected them with the distinctive argumentative style known as stam. These redactors, the stammaim, added additional material as well, such as aggadah.

My question, in short, was how such a theory – and especially the theory of transmission – can account for a passage such as Avodah Zarah 28a-29a. Many of the cures are attributed to amoraim, predominantly Babylonian. Were these cures transmitted along with the amora’s short statements, to be reconstituted by a redactor in the form of this sugya? If so, what would these (hypothetical) transmission booklets have looked like?

To further complicate matters, there are two traditions in the sugya that record an amora saying, “I did all [of these cures], and I wasn’t healed until a certain merchant told me….”  In the first case, Abaye seems to respond to cures reported in the names of Rav Aha the son of Rava and Mar bar Rav Ashi. In the second, Rav Pappa seems to respond to cures reported by Rav Aha the son of Rava (again) and Rav Ashi. Could Rav Pappa really be responding to Rav Ashi? The same literary form of the two comments suggests the work of a redactor, but how extensive was the intervention?

How might we explain the redaction history of the passage?

Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University. In addition to writing for his own blog, Then and Now, Prof. Satlow is an adviser to The Talmud Blog.