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
It’s 10:00pm in New York, and, like many others, I’m watching the debate. But there’s one thing that I can’t stop thinking about, and that’s the lecture that I just heard at Drisha by Zvi Septimus, “Was Resh Lakish a Hedonist or an Ascetic? How The Bavli Conveys Meaning”.
For all of those who couldn’t make it, the audio of the lecture is available here, and here’s the audio of the questions and answers (some may want to listen to them before the lecture itself). The sourcesheet is available here. And for those in Jerusalem next week, make sure to come hear Michal Bar-Asher Siegal speak about “The Babylonian Talmud and Christian literature: Resh Lakish and the Monastic Repentant Robber“!
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 : 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.
As announced a few weeks ago, starting February 6th we’ll be discussing Zvi Septimus’ article “Trigger Words and Simultexts: The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” in Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, ed. Wisdom of Bat Sheva: In Memory of Beth Samuels (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009). Thanks to Barry, Zvi and other friends of The Talmud Blog, we’ve been able to make a PDF of the article available here for anyone who wishes to take part in the discussion.
Our two main respondents will be Dr. Dina Stein of Haifa University and Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky, who is a PhD candidate in Ben Gurion University’s Department of Hebrew Literature. With the article now easily accessible online, we hope that you will respond as well.