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The following four papers originated in a special session of the History and Literature of Early Rabbinic Judaism Section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 19, 2006, in Washington, D.C. The panelists were asked to review and constructively critique one another's recent works on the Mishnah, with an eye toward setting each within the larger corpus of recent scholarship on the Mishnah and its broader literary and historical context while addressing how each contributes to the larger question, what is (the) Mishnah?
Literary approaches to rabbinic literature entered the field through biblical studies, in which scholars from different quarters and different points of reference were using them to make sense of the biblical text as it has come down to us. The literary approach took umbrage at the way in which the historical source-critical approach dissects the Bible into its constituent sources. The literary approach was an overt attempt to overcome the fractures that historical criticism had introduced into the surface of the biblical text. It proposed instead to read the text—with all of its surface irregularities, gaps, and hiatuses—as coherent and meaningful.
The appearance in recent years of an impressive series of books, articles, and mainly dissertations on various aspects of the Mishnah collectively signifies something greater than the sum of its parts. These works herald the emergence of a new wave of Mishnah research. While differing significantly in their themes and methods, all the works discussed here share some basic methodological assumptions that are not shared by more “traditional” studies. Among these are a holistic attitude to the Mishnah as a composition; interest in questions of variegation of genre and style (narratives, rituals, lists, etc.); sensitivity to literary devices and techniques; and the use of new interpretive paradigms from rhetoric, cultural, and performative studies.
The work of many emerging young rabbinics scholars today, particularly that which is focused on the Mishnah, is animated by a desire to synthesize two distinct approaches to rabbinic texts. One is the traditional philological-historical approach, which traces its roots back to the European Wissenschaft des Judentums tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In its current form, traditional Talmud criticism is perhaps most associated in Israel with the work of J. N. Epstein, the founder of the Hebrew University Talmud Department and the “father of exact scientific Talmudic inquiry.” While most of Epstein's students proceeded to shape the study of rabbinic literature in the Israeli academy, Saul Lieberman, perhaps his most distinguished disciple, moved to America, where his presence dominated the study of rabbinic literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the postwar decades. Traditional Talmud criticism is characterized by a scrupulous attention to manuscripts and textual variants, a systematic use of the findings of Semitic and comparative linguistics, and the use of form and source criticism to determine the history and development of larger textual units.
In recent decades, talmudic studies, along with other disciplines devoted to the study of texts, have experienced numerous paradigm shifts regarding both methods and goals. The naive presupposition that a text provides reliable information about historically situated characters, whether those described in the text or those who authored the text, has been vigorously challenged on many counts and from many angles. Responses to the challenge have ranged from sophisticated attempts to recover hermeneutical stability, whether rooted in authorial intention, in textually grounded meaning, or in some form of dialogue between the reader and the author or text, to the panoply of deconstructive approaches and other forms of postmodern recontextualization.
If the scholarly works discussed here are any indication, as I believe they are, the study of the Mishnah is alive and well. Yet a question immediately suggests itself: Do the works under consideration here together constitute a new approach to the Mishnah and thus inaugurate a new era in mishnaic studies?
It has long been axiomatic in the study of postbiblical Judaism that prophecy had become a dormant institution. For scholars studying Judaism in its many ancient manifestations, prophecy was a phenomenon closely related to the heritage of biblical Israel. It disappeared as biblical Israel gave way to Judaism in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. This scholarly assumption has found support in several texts from ancient Judaism that indeed espouse such a position. In recent years, the dominance of this consensus has begun to wither away as scholars have become both more fully aware of the diverse forms of Judaism in the Second Temple and rabbinic periods and more sensitive to the multiple modes of religious piety in ancient Judaism. In this article, I would like to extend the contours of this conversation by mapping out some methodological rubrics for the study of prophecy in ancient Judaism and discuss one context for the application of this methodology—the Qumran community.
World Jewry is divisible into two major groups of tradition based on geographic and historical considerations: Eastern or Sephardi and Western or Ashkenazi. They differ in their rites of prayer, customs, and also in many points of Jewish law. Moreover, their pronunciation of Hebrew in the synagogue differs as well. This situation leads to a practical question: May one elect to change his pronunciation of Hebrew from one tradition to the other? More to the point, as we shall see, may one change from the Ashkenazi (Western) to the Sephardi (Eastern)? On the face of it, this is strictly a matter of halakhah (Jewish law). But we will argue that the number of responsa written in the last seventy years that address this question and the highly charged attitudes expressed or implied in them reveal much more than law alone. Responsa in general, we will claim, should be examined through the lenses of the social sciences because they stand at the convergence of sociology and halakhic decision making. In the particular question before us, accent has become a nodal point between religion, legal writing, and sociolinguistics.
In 1940, just before the Germans entered Paris, Haim Sloves, an Eastern European Jewish intellectual, finished writing a play in Yiddish, Homens mapole, or The Downfall of Haman. It was an act of resistance, as Haman, the great enemy of the Jews, was a transparent reference to Hitler, but within and beyond that, it continued a project that had absorbed many Eastern European Jews since the second half of the nineteenth century. Rabbinic tradition, they felt, was dying. It was urgent to discover a new source of inspiration for the Jewish people. In 1944–45, when Sloves and other Jewish survivors returned to Paris, where they had immigrated years before the war, the task of rebuilding seemed more urgent still. To continue to search for a new, secular mode of expression was intimately tied to the very revival of the Jewish people. Between 1945 and 1949, Homens mapole, considerably shortened and somewhat modified, played to resounding acclaim not only in Paris but also in several cities across three continents.
These “kabbalistic musings on time, truth, and death” originated as the Taubman Lectures delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001. Wolfson summarizes them in his preface to Alef, Mem, Tau (henceforth AMT): “The goal of my lectures was to illumine the nexus of time, truth, and death elicited from the symbolic imaginary of the Jewish esoteric tradition known by both practitioners and scholars as kabbalah” (xi). Without attempting further to isolate an “argument,” I can, at least, sketch for the potential reader some salient characteristics of these lectures.
Book Reviews: Jewish History and Culture in Late Antiquity