Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

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9780812222876: Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

In Becoming the People of the Talmud, Talya Fishman examines ways in which circumstances of transmission have shaped the cultural meaning of Jewish traditions. Although the Talmud's preeminence in Jewish study and its determining role in Jewish practice are generally taken for granted, Fishman contends that these roles were not solidified until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The inscription of Talmud—which Sefardi Jews understand to have occurred quite early, and Ashkenazi Jews only later—precipitated these developments. The encounter with Oral Torah as a written corpus was transformative for both subcultures, and it shaped the roles that Talmud came to play in Jewish life.

What were the historical circumstances that led to the inscription of Oral Torah in medieval Europe? How did this body of ancient rabbinic traditions, replete with legal controversies and nonlegal material, come to be construed as a reference work and prescriptive guide to Jewish life? Connecting insights from geonica, medieval Jewish and Christian history, and orality-textuality studies, Becoming the People of the Talmud reconstructs the process of cultural transformation that occurred once medieval Jews encountered the Babylonian Talmud as a written text. According to Fishman, the ascription of greater authority to written text was accompanied by changes in reading habits, compositional predilections, classroom practices, approaches to adjudication, assessments of the past, and social hierarchies. She contends that certain medieval Jews were aware of these changes: some noted that books had replaced teachers; others protested the elevation of Talmud-centered erudition and casuistic virtuosity into standards of religious excellence, at the expense of spiritual refinement. The book concludes with a consideration of Rhineland Pietism's emergence in this context and suggests that two contemporaneous phenomena—the prominence of custom in medieval Ashkenazi culture and the novel Christian attack on Talmud—were indirectly linked to the new eminence of this written text in Jewish life.

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About the Author:

Talya Fishman is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Shaking the Pillars of Exile: "Voice of a Fool," an Early Modern Jewish Critique of Rabbinic Culture.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

Transmission will never replace creation in the historian's romantic heart . . . but it does provide us with a set of hard, unromantic and revealing questions to ask about many received truths and tenets.
—Anthony Grafton

The importance of the Babylonian Talmud in the lives of observant Jews is taken for granted. Yet when considered from certain vantage points, the Talmud's role as a guide to Jewish life is bewildering. Though construed as a legal reference work, a significant proportion of the Talmud's content does not pertain to law, and the legal traditions themselves are presented in the form of pending disputes. (Critical scholars have determined that the resolved disputes are actually late interpolations into the talmudic text.) In other words, there is no evidence that the sages whose teachings are preserved in the Talmud, Babylonian amoraim of the third through sixth centuries CE, intended to produce a prescriptive guide to applied Jewish law. In the case of the Talmud, the ever-thorny problem of discerning authorial intent applies even at the level of genre. Does this voluminous repository of conflicting legal perspectives, legends, tall tales, and accounts of the sages' behavior (some quite unflattering) correspond to any known cultural or literary form that flourished in the Hellenistic or Persian societies with which rabbinic Jews had contact? The cultural roles that the Babylonian Talmud came to play in the lives of medieval Jews are far better understood, but it would be anachronistic to retroject these onto rabbinic Jews of earlier generations, whether amoraim, saboraim, i.e., anonymous redactors, or geonim, the leaders of the post-talmudic rabbinic academies around Baghdad in the seventh through eleventh centuries. The disconnect between the contents of the Talmud and the roles that it came to play in medieval Jewish culture (and beyond) is puzzling.

It is also difficult to understand why the Babylonian Talmud (unmediated by the commentaries and codes that transposed it into a reference work) has, for many centuries, enjoyed such prominence in Jewish education. As will be seen below, a range of medieval Jewish scholars plaintively argued that other textual products of Jewish culture were far better suited than the Talmud to assist students in their religious training and spiritual growth.

Another question about the Talmud's role in Jewish culture is best framed from the sociologist's perspective: As a rule, individuals learn proper comportment from living models—parents, teachers, and community members. It is unnatural to regard a (non-revealed) written text as the definitive guide to all socially and culturally desirable behaviors, for mimesis, rather than reading, is the primary guide to life. If anything, living life "by the book" is anomalous. The strangeness of regarding the Talmud as a guide to Jewish life comes into sharper focus when the scope of its teachings is compared with that of other legal systems. In most societies, huge swaths of life are left ungoverned by legal prescription; for example neither the spatial orientation of one's bed, nor the order in which shoes are to be donned is considered a matter to be monitored. Yet because the Babylonian Talmud—which came to be regarded as a prescriptive work—preserves advice about these matters, some rabbinic Jews have construed these arenas of life as ones that are subject to regulation.

Each of these observations underscores the fact that students of Jewish history have little sense of what the Talmud was within its amoraic Sitz-im-Leben, before medieval Jews assigned it particular cultural meanings. Robert Brody, a scholar of rabbinics, affirmed this point: "We have no way of knowing to what extent, if at all, the 'editors' of the Talmud—as distinct from the authors of the legal dicta embedded within it—intended to create a normative legal work, rather than an academic or literary corpus."

Why has scholarly ignorance about the Talmud's raison d'être gone largely unacknowledged? The most obvious answer is that there has been little room to even think about this question. The retrojective shadow cast by the medieval fashioning of the Talmud is enormous, and so generations of Jews who lived even earlier are presumed to have embraced the assumptions of their successors. The intellectual and compositional contributions of Rashi (1040-1105), the towering commentator on the Babylonian Talmud, and of the tosafists, its twelfth- and thirteenth-century glossators, have defined what are seen as "canonical" uses of this corpus in the arenas of education and adjudication. By the thirteenth century, these northern European approaches also transformed the classrooms of Sefarad, displacing other ways of relating to the talmudic text. In short, the "tosafization" of Talmud obscured earlier cultural realities. In Brody's words, "We are bound by a very specific perspective of the talmudic material—which springs from our talmudic education and draws upon Rashi and the tosafists in particular. It is difficult for us to free ourselves from this perspective." Or, as Haym Soloveitchik put it, it is difficult to think "in a mode other than Tosafist" when approaching issues of Jewish law.

The tosafist framing of the Babylonian Talmud seems to have contributed to anachronistic assumptions about the ways that Babylonian geonim of the seventh through eleventh centuries related to the Talmud (a topic to be considered in Chapter 1), and may even be discerned in certain historiographic representations of ancient Jewish culture. The retrojection of twelfth-century modes of Jewish study and decision making onto rabbis of the first centuries has fostered the impression that ancient "text-centered" Jews related to Scripture in much the same way that medieval Jews related to the Talmud, leading us to believe that medieval scholars who performed certain intellectual operations on the later text were following in the footsteps of forebears who had lived a millennium earlier. Yet scholars are not at all sure that ancient Jewish sages were proto-scholastics who derived answers to all their legal questions from Torah itself. Though Scripture was undeniably central to the lives of Second Temple period Jews, the label "text-centered" is of only modest descriptive utility, for it gives no information about a broad array of variables. Among these are the ways in which the text in question was encountered—through hearing, reading, or gazing, for example; the segment of the populace that had access to it; the occasions on which it was accessed; the text's status relative to other sources of cultural authority; whether its authority inhered in its particular material form or in its reproducible words, and whether it was interpreted and understood or revered in its inscrutability.

* * *

In attempting to think afresh about changes in the ways that the Babylonian Talmud was used over a discrete period of time and in specific places, the present study is very much a product of its own intellectual and cultural moment. Not long ago, the sheer breadth of the questions it attempts to address would have made the undertaking prohibitive. The possibility of painting on such a large canvas is only possible now because of the availability of secondary literature composed by scholars in an array of fields, most notably, in the recondite field of rabbinics. I could not have attempted to reconstruct historical narratives about changes in the ways that the Talmud was used over time and place, in both classroom and courtroom, without relying on secondary sources to guide me to the relevant primary sources, for I am neither a scholar of halakhah nor a historian of halakhah.

As a work of synthesis, the present study links scholarly findings encountered in a broad array of specialized disciplines in order to offer a plausible solution to a historical and cultural puzzle. Any new perspectives set forth in this book are not the fruit of pioneering archival research, but of thinking about known data in a fresh light; they were gained by bringing together works of scholarship from disparate fields—medieval Jewish and Christian cultural history, rabbinics, and anthropological and folkloric studies pertaining to orality and textuality—in new dialogues and concatenations. Like the medieval subjects of this study, I have scavenged widely and freely (though with attribution!) and, like them, I have used the borrowed pieces in ways that diverge from the ways in which I encountered them. In order to open up particular riddles of medieval Jewish culture, I have used whatever tools and insights I have been able to gather—including ones generated in chronologically and geographically remote arenas of intellectual inquiry.

The anthropological turn in the study of history has left its mark on the present work by encouraging researchers to think about the ways that texts function within the societies that revere them, and by drawing attention to the ways that rituals inscribe boundaries, both affirming and altering power relations. The same can be said of studies that stress the difference between "tradition" and "traditionalism." Distinguishing between the two, Brian Stock wrote, "'Traditional' action consists of the habitual pursuit of inherited forms of conduct, which are taken to be society's norm. 'Traditionalistic' action, by contrast, is the self-conscious affirmation of traditional norms—and the establishment of such norms as articulated models for current and future behavior." Traditionalism, Stock explained , "is precipitated by the application of ratiocination to tradition. The past is thought about, codified and, as an abstraction, made a guide for action." Medieval scholars who saw themselves as restoring some originary clarity formulated "past norms of conduct not as they were, but as they were thought to be." The version of the past that they affirmed was presented as a vision that was "more correct, truthful, and consistent than the welter of inherited customs which had been handed down from one generation to the next." Scholarly emenders who imposed their own visions of a society's past were, in no small measure, re-creating its culture and attempting to control its future.

The field of orality-textuality studies, pioneered by anthropologists and literary scholars, has also shaped this work by reminding historians that orally transmitted testimonies and written texts give rise to different sets of questions. Readers who receive a communication in written form lose out on performative and nonverbal cues that clarify ambiguity—pauses, inflections, emphases, and gesture, and wrestle with the text in order to extract its meaning. Inscribed data are thus highly susceptible to "logocentric" operations such as the parsing of words, the rearrangement of syntax, the elimination of perceived redundancies, and the harmonization of discrepancies through rationalization. Such reworkings of manuscript texts must be taken into consideration when attempting to reconstruct historical narratives. Indeed, before the technology of print imposed standardization, circulating manuscripts were continually rewritten by their readers. Manuscript readers held assumptions about reading and writing that could dramatically affect a text's discursive meaning, and often did. As one exponent of the New Philology put it, "Medieval writing does not produce variants; it is variance." The longer a medieval manuscript was in circulation, the more its reception varied, for later readers often encountered a text that was quite different from what earlier readers had seen. Discussing this phenomenon, Stephen Nichols noted that since "almost all [medieval] manuscripts postdate the life of the author by decades or even centuries . . . what we actually perceive [in the text] may differ from what the ... [writer], artist or artisan intended to express, or from what the medieval audience expected to find."

One of the implications of this phenomenon is the likelihood that not all variants in medieval manuscripts of the same text are products of scribal error. Indeed, the very impulse to search for a correct ur-text is often misguided. Codicologist Malachi Beit Arié has stressed that these points apply in the case of medieval Jewish manuscripts: "Many principles and practices of classical textual criticism, such as the establishing of genetic relationships between manuscripts, stemmatic classification, the reconstructing of archtypes [sic] and the restoration of the original are not applicable in Hebrew manuscripts." It is impossible to consider changes in the role that the Talmud came to play in the lives of observant Jews without internalizing this discomfiting insight.

It was not only the physical text that could be expected to change while in circulation. Changes made to the manuscript over time altered the way in which readers experienced it, and affected the cultural role(s) that it played within a society. Of these bi-directional dynamics, Gabrielle Spiegel wrote, "Texts both mirror and generate social realities, are constituted by and constitute the social and discursive formations which they may sustain, resist, contest or seek to transform." For example, once a reader inserted some explanatory words in the manuscript that lay before him, subsequent readers of that manuscript would naturally embrace that meaning, and reject others. And inasmuch as the manuscript was presumed to be a representative of the past, such interpolations affected readers' understandings of the past. Corrective alterations to the manuscript had the same effect. A scholar who emended a text based on formulations that he encountered in earlier manuscripts may have assumed that he was restoring matters "as they were," but attempts to recapture the past can never succeed fully, given that people can only be in contact with a part of their cultural heritage at any given time.

As a material and historical object at the nexus between consumers, merchants, scribes, copyists, and artisans (parchment preparers, ink manufacturers, line rulers, quire sewers, etc.) a medieval manuscript was the product of interlocking social, economic, and cultural networks. But whereas Christians established dedicated venues for the copying and sale of manuscripts (e.g., monastic scriptoria, ateliers, workshops connected with universities), Jews tended to copy books for personal use, in non-institutional settings. In his study of 3,200 Hebrew manuscripts with dated colophons, Malachi Beit Arié discovered that half were produced for personal use. The significance of this fact, noted Beit Arié, was that medieval Hebrew manuscripts were far less likely to be copied under supervision. Indeed, he suggested, an individual who copied a Hebrew manuscript for private use was more likely to alter the received text by inserting his own comments.

Beit Arié's elucidation of this difference between manuscript production among Jews and Christians in medieval Europe suggests that Hebrew texts were even more vulnerable to variance than were their Christian counterparts. One might conjecture that the magnitude of variance may have been even greater when the text under consideration was one that had been transmitted for centuries as an oral corpus, and wh...

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Book Description University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2013. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In Becoming the People of the Talmud, Talya Fishman examines ways in which circumstances of transmission have shaped the cultural meaning of Jewish traditions. Although the Talmud s preeminence in Jewish study and its determining role in Jewish practice are generally taken for granted, Fishman contends that these roles were not solidified until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The inscription of Talmud-which Sefardi Jews understand to have occurred quite early, and Ashkenazi Jews only later-precipitated these developments. The encounter with Oral Torah as a written corpus was transformative for both subcultures, and it shaped the roles that Talmud came to play in Jewish life. What were the historical circumstances that led to the inscription of Oral Torah in medieval Europe? How did this body of ancient rabbinic traditions, replete with legal controversies and nonlegal material, come to be construed as a reference work and prescriptive guide to Jewish life? Connecting insights from geonica, medieval Jewish and Christian history, and orality-textuality studies, Becoming the People of the Talmud reconstructs the process of cultural transformation that occurred once medieval Jews encountered the Babylonian Talmud as a written text. According to Fishman, the ascription of greater authority to written text was accompanied by changes in reading habits, compositional predilections, classroom practices, approaches to adjudication, assessments of the past, and social hierarchies. She contends that certain medieval Jews were aware of these changes: some noted that books had replaced teachers; others protested the elevation of Talmud-centered erudition and casuistic virtuosity into standards of religious excellence, at the expense of spiritual refinement. The book concludes with a consideration of Rhineland Pietism s emergence in this context and suggests that two contemporaneous phenomena-the prominence of custom in medieval Ashkenazi culture and the novel Christian attack on Talmud-were indirectly linked to the new eminence of this written text in Jewish life. Bookseller Inventory # AAJ9780812222876

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