Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Letter from Salamanca - I

Salamanca is a three hour long and scenic journey from Madrid through the Spanish countryside. The countryside is stunning with precipitous mountains giving way to rolling and sometimes barren hills, and then the proverbial Spanish plain which stretches as far as the eye can see. Indeed, the trip is unlike most post-airport drives across urbanized parts of the West - especially the Northeastern corridor of the United States - where tedious successions of Walmarts, Staples, Bestbuys and their ilk repeat themselves in various permutations ad nasuam. On the way to Salamanca, you very quickly find yourself transported from the bustle, dirt and lights of Madrid. Poof, a journey worthy of physical and intellectual speculation.

Just a few days before the bulls began to tear up Spanish streets and stadia, the seven hundred year old University of Salamanca held a conference entitled, "Poets, priests, scribes and (e-)librarians. The transmission of holy wisdom in Zoroastrians," in the sixteenth century abode of the faculty de philologia. Avestan scholars from three continents met to discuss the transmission and reception of the Avesta from antiquity, when it was transmitted orally, to the medieval codices, modern printing press, and now, electronically. There were also some discussions of Pahlavi (Middle Persian) adaptations, translations, and reformulations of Avestan texts.

The Zoroastrian High Priest of Bombay, Dastur Firoze M. Kotwal was there, and the enormous bird nests left undisturbed on the upper columns inside the Faculty de Philologia may of reminded him of the Tower of Silence, and of home. The Dastur seemed to enjoy the conference, shared a beer (Spanish, cold) with some of the younger generation in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. Otherwise, he kept to himself.

Essentially, the conference was a showcase for Alberto Cantera's impressive Avestan Digital Archive. ADA is run out of University of Salamanca, directed by Cantera, and powered by his own five member team - doctoral students, of course. A while back I made mention of the ADA's sister site, www.videvdad.com, on MM's blog in order to show how far Zoroastrian studies had come. I admit now that my impressions were rather patronizing, as if Zoroastrian Studies had some "catching up" to do re: digitalization when compared with sites like JNUL's digital library and Shamma Friedman's Lieberman Project. At this point, the student has surpassed the master, perhaps revealing that she was never a student to begin with. The site is well on its way to providing a definitive place for Zoroastrian philological research.

But the conference was also a steady stream of papers read, mumbled, pantomimed, and sometimes enthusiastically performed. There is room for the scholarly study of the academic paper - perhaps by oral-performance theorists. Unfortunately, for many an academic, there is the sense is that the conference paper has ontological meaning - thus it takes up many more pages than the allotted twenty minutes allow, and it also contains footnotes, which of course conference participants don't read. The paper exists, yet no one has access to it in its entirety save for the performer. But more, anon.

There were two moments that jolted the conference from its general predictability. First was Dr. Yuhan Vevaina's (Harvard University) paper, which was ostensibly about "transmission and agency" in the Pahlavi translations/commentaries to the Avesta, but was really a post-modern critique of Avestan philology. Vevaina's point had to do with the way Avestan scholars look to the Pahlavi translations as, at best, poor renditions of the Avestan original instead of new creations that are trying to do something new. Interestingly, Vevaina has used some recent work on Midrash in his research for methodological framing. There was of course much more. The ironies of this critique taking place in the sixteenth century faculty de philologia building were lost on few. (I hope to devote further discussion to Vevaina's work when/if it is made available online in the near future at ADA's website).

The second moment was a toast at the galla dinner, that quickly turned into a related critique of the narrow philological study of ritual texts, courtesy of Prof. Michael Stausberg (Bergen). (Both Vevaina and Stausberg are editing Blackwell's companion to Zoroastrianism, and I will be submitting an article to that volume aith Yaakov Elman on Judaism's intersection with Zoroastrianism). Stausberg's toast was truly a roast aimed not just at the conference organizers, but at the conference participants as well. All in good fun, but the laughter ranged from healthy to nervous (shades of Dick Van Dyke, and more). It is telling that the two were seated at the same table during the gall dinner

Michael Stausberg, laughing

...as was I:

Yuhan Vevaina and Shai Secunda. A chuckle, a critique.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Dank Weight of History


For the past few days and the next several weeks, I have exchanged my chair in a typical, if minuscule, academic office for another less comfortable wooden thing in a major university antiquities collection. Instead of holding a volume of Talmud in my hands, more often then not I find myself gingerly examining artifacts (what else, magic bowls and Sasanian seals) and thinking of the ancients who owned them over a thousand years ago. Along the way, the process has opened up for me a new way of thinking about the tangible age of the world and how we, as academics, try to find our way in it. Beyond their original producers and consumers, like all artifacts the bowls also represent the people who discovered them a hundred(+) years ago, the dealers, collectors, shippers, curators, restorers - the host of characters that contributed to the process of placing a few of them into my hands during this unusually cool summer. Now, a jaunt over to the stacks has itself become a historical journey. Many of the books that I regularly use, for better or for worse, have not been checked out of the library for decades or more. And the stacks are dank, not just with the smell of aging books but the very weight of history: The history of scholarship, learning, and ultimately the way we think now. Like most Talmudists in the wake of Boyarin, I've read the works of that secular prophet, the "archaeologist of knowledge", and his descendants, and I know that scholarship of ancient things is not ancient at all, but an inquiry into things current. So my epiphany in the stacks and in the Babylonian collection is not a revelation of knowledge per se, but an experiential one. Truthfully, this feeling waxes and wanes with the change of seasons and semesters. And sometimes the apology of historical continuity and meaningfulness, especially in terms of the history of ideas, falls flat and limp. As some of you have argued, this is apparently the pervasive angst of many scholars, but especially Talmudists. On the other hand, Talmudists do hold the keys to the "ground zero" of meaning and experience in Judaism. What Jews do and think today is closely linked to particular textual movements in the Bavli (of course mediated by later ways of thinking and experiencing), and we can explain the phenomena fairly well.

With all due respect, I think that historians who need to write op-eds about current affairs like talking heads are not doing anyone a service - even, and especially, when they are great historians.
They are often not equipped to talk about current events directly, and in any case it is unnecessary. There are those who care about the ancient world and texts for reasons of curiosity and spirituality. This is particularly true in the Jewish community - especially amongst those who make Jewish learning a regular part of their schedule. For this (growing) demographic, the role of the Talmudist almost self evident.
There are still a number of real challenges: For the philologically-inclined Talmudist, there is the sense that the Bavli does not read like an open book (even after looking at commentaries and translations). There are manuscripts to be consulted, linguistic analyses to be performed, and textual layers to be peeled away from earlier sources before one can even approach the truth(s) of the text. This partially explains the paternalism endemic to the relationship between Talmudists and the Jewish community, and yes, that paternalism is a problem. Somehow we need to conceive of a way to break down the town and gown barrier, which will include genuine respect for the "community of learners" and the weight of tradition (rishonim, methods of learning) etc. But the dance is that we cannot avoid the fact that some of what we have to say is grounded in real "scientific" analysis and is not simply another "wort" (on the other hand, much of what we have to day is not scientific and we need to admit this). We cannot apologize for this or for the theological challenges inherent in the process. We can only ease the process.

As for those in the Jewish community who are not already engaged in some capacity in Jewish learning, I have little to say. The problem is particularly acute in the US, where the geographic distance from the rest of the world and the chronological gap between us and the ancients is enormous. It contributes to a lack of curiosity in the past (See this preface). Still with the "sexiness" of edgy Jewish learning, maybe the Talmud can also find its way.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Picking up the Pieces

Shall we finish things off? Dan Levene (Southampton) and Matthew Ponting (Liverpool) gave a presentation that was methodologically significant for the conference but dealt with Mishna and Palestine. In short, they discussed a startling set of data in Roman Palestine where unlike all other metalworking sites after the introduction of brass, there is very little chemical mixing between the brasses and the bronzes. This implies that there was pretty much no zinc around in the shops and they were quite conservative in their opposition to brass. It requires a concerted effort between the shops and the "scrap-metalers". This seems to be confirmed by the lists of objects in m. Keilim (especially 11-13), but why is another question. Probably had something to do with purity, but that was not the purpose of the talk.

After a few rice cakes and peanut butter (stay tuned for the "department of British entertaining), it was back to antiquity, and cedars at that. Michael Stone basically cataloged this tree in literature, ancient and late antique, and demonstrated the way in which its pairings with things like vines was literary and not botanical. The most entertaining moment was, of course, a Gafni one. There is a Yerushalmi passage that describes how Bar Kokhba tested incoming troops - by taking off their fingers. The rabbis disapproved and suggested that he have the soldiers try to uproot cedars from the backs of horses. Gafni has a colleague who argued that the story must be fictive, as cedars don't grow in the land of Israel! (talk about old school historical scholarship!). In retort, Gafni replied that there are no cedars left in Israel since they were uprooted - by Bar Kokhba's soldiers.

The very calendrical Sacha Stern gave a talk about calenders, which we will have to get to later. And I had to miss Sabah Alidihisi's talk about the Mandaeans in order to catch my flight - any conference goers reading this who might want to fill in the blank?

Bowling for the Bowls

Day two the conference took an archaeological turn. Siam Bhayro (Exeter) discussed certain aspects of Jewish divorce documents in the Judaean desert, Gaonic descriptions, the Cairo geniza, and the Aramaic incantation bowls. A well known law expressed by Abaye at b. Gittin 85b discusses some funny orthographic requirements for divorce documents.

אמר אביי: האי מאן דכתב גיטא, לא לכתוב ודין דמשמע ודין אלא ודן, ולא לכתוב איגרת דמשמע איגרת אלא אגרת, ולא לכתוב לימהך דמשמע לי מהך, ולא לכתוב למחך דמשמע כי חוכא, דיתיהוייין דיתיצבייין תלתא תלתא יודי"ן דמשמע תהויין ותצביין, ולורכיה לוי"ו דתירוכין ולוי"ו דשבוקין דמשמע תריכין ושביקין, ולורכיה לוי"ו דכדו דמשמע וכדי, ולא ליכתוב לאיתנסבא דמשמע לא יתנסבא אלא להתנסבא.

Bhayro discussed three of these: The requirement to write ודן instead of ןדין, to write אגרת instead of איגרת, and to elongate the wuw in תירוכין and שבוקין. Abaye's statement is obviously prescriptive, and Bhayro tested whether this was followed at various stages in Jewish history. An interesting linguistic discussion ensued from his discussion of a related document from the Judaean desert, Murabba'at 19, which Milik transcribes as having בדין, and understands as ב + דין. The problem is that a temporal adjective is not suited for a legal document of this sort. One would expect something like "hereby." More problematic is the fact that Milik's reading is a reconstruction to begin with. In other words, the old case of a reconstruction that then creates problems which need to be solved. Bhayro suggested כדין which is performative, fits the context much better, and means something like "I hereby (lit., thus), in according with this... In other words כ the preposition and דין a demonstrative pronoun. Even though this is not identical to the rabbinic ודין, it still seems to relate to the rabbinic conception of the document.

The march of history: Geniza gittin show a mixture of observance and neglect of these principals. So T-S 19J2.5 r. 15-17 (11th century Fustat, Egypt) has them, while T-S 10J2.2 r. 14-16 writes כדין. However, the absence of witnesses makes one wonder if it was ever used. Still, T-S 10J2.31 r. 11-13 was validated with witnesses, and like T-s 10J3.7 r. 7-9 has כדין, with a yod.
This brings us to bowls, which were sometimes conceived of as a divorce document with which to banish certain demons (particularly our old friend , Lilith). You see, demons did not simply invade the home or body, but actually contracted a certain kind of marriage, perhaps in the rabbinic mind effected through relations (m Qiddushin 1:1). And the only way to terminate the marriage is through death or divorce. And indeed, some bowls followed divorce document requirements. The precise dates in some bowls (mentioned by Shaked) points in this direction, as does the lengthened wuw in תירוכין in Schoyen 1927/39:8, and 2053/165:9-10. Still there is little consistency, and one of the latter retains the yod in איגרת.
The provocative point that was made is that not only were rabbis "consumers" of the bowls, as we learned from Shaked, but rabbinic scribal culture seems to have been connected with bowl production culture as well. References to rabbinic literature in the bowls are well known, but less known is the scribal artistic level of some bowls. This makes it likely that rabbinic scribes, schooled in the rabbinic scribal arts, were moonlighting as bowl producers.
Discussion following the paper involved M. Geller advancing a fascinating possibility - that Abaye's discussion of funny orthographic requirements moves in the opposite direction - from the world of magic where this kind of precision is need to divorce documents. Abaye is associated with magic in the Bavli, and even seems to push back against proto-rationalism [b. Hullin 105b, see Y. Elman, "The world of the "Sabboraim" : cultural aspects of post-redactional additions to the Bavli," in J. Rubenstein, ed. Creation and Composition (Tuebingen, 2005)]

With the audience energized after a coffee break, Naame Vilozny (Hebrew U) kept the ball rolling with a fascinating discussion of the iconography of the bowls - a sorely understudied aspect of the bowls. Part of the value of the two main pools of Jewish Babylonian archaeological remains is the iconagraphy in the seals and in the bowls. The bowls contain many pictures of demons, and some parallel talmudic passages. Bowls contain:
1.) human images mixed with angelic characteristics, which corresponds to b. Hagigah 16 and efforts (b. Gittin 66a) to compare and contrast demons and humans.
2.) Pictured with bird feet. Here there is some correspondence to the text of bowls - like דקריא כלילי כי (גבר) מידמיא להון כבני אינשא. And this seems to be a holdover from ancient conceptions - like Lamashtu amulets. This are numerous talmudic paralels, like the b. Berakhot recipe for seeing demons, and the b. Gittin version of Solomon and Ashmedai. In the bowls the most common way this is done is with three straight lines pointing downwards.
3.) Long tangled hair (also a feature of Lamashtu), and Iranian conceptions as well. Lilith, of course, is depicted as having long hair (b. Eruvin) and a Sasanian amulet from the 5th century held in the Met is a good example of this.
4. Goat horns and animal ears. Goats and demons have been together for millennia. Goatmen and horned Shahmaen are depicted in remains from 3000BCE, and this is true in ancient Iranian texts (not as old) and in Phoenician conceptions (Pazzuzu) as late as the 6th century BCE. The biblical scapegoat may point in this direction and there are other references in the Bible. Incredibly, there is a close textual link between a Dead Sea Scroll passage (11Q 11) which describes horned beings פניך פני [שו]ר? וקניך קרני חט[ו]ם. This line more or less shows up in magical texts from the geniza and in the bowls as well. The horns also corresponds to b. Gittin description of the קטב ישוד צהרים.
5.) Bound figures appear in the bowls. This motif already appears with the binding of Nuzi. We're talking about shackled legs, hands crossed over the chest and bound - iike depictions of Assyrian prisoners of war and also some female figurines from Egypt. Cf. Ashmedai (again, b. Gittin 61a-b) where Ashmedai is bound by the name of God.
6. The bowls have figures holding weapons (left hand) and palm branches. These seem to be depicting the sorcerers instead of the demons. They are not bound, and do not have any of the above characteristics. The palm was an important symbol in Assyrian art, but here it's use is reminiscent of the waving of the lulav (Sukkah 35b) which restrains evil spirits. These images can be found in bowls in the Penn collection and the Schoyen collection.
As expected, the images sometimes match up with talmudic conception, and sometimes do not. More work needs to be done on the bowls, but oh boy, do they create an impression. The ooh's and awww's were frequent during this talk.
In the Q+A Saint John asked about non-magical figures in some Mandaic bowls, and again, the Derekht Eretz principle ruled the day. Others suggested parallels with the Greek Magical Papyri. Naama agreed that there were similarities, but in her assessment the most significant influence on the art is from ancient Babylonia. This suggests that the bowls continue a very old, indigenous tradition now inscribed on new objects, with new magical heroes (i.e. R. Yehoshua b. Qarha). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Naming Names

A few years ago when "Matt and Judy" were under extreme pressure to start "naming names" in the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation, Shaul Shaked delivered a paper at Hebrew U where he too set out to do just that - in other words, name certain rabbis as clients and "targets" in the Aramaic Incantation bowls. I was out of town at the time and when I returned, I begged for the transcript, but to no avail. The paper was not yet ready for circulation, and I would have to wait, which I did, but patiently, which I did not. Four years later at the UCL conference there was an encore performance which did not disappoint.

In fact, Shaked was interested in more then merely naming names in the bowls. He began with a discussion of the few dozen Sasanian Jewish seals in collections around the world, which he has published and which have recently been (re)analyzed in Daniel M. Friedenberg's somewhat pretentiously titled Sasanian Jewry and Its Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2008) A well known example is the seal of Huna b. Natan in Haifa University's Hecht collection. The seal depicts the usual lulav and etrog, but also an object in the center that Shaked identified as an incense shovel. Decades ago it was suggested that the seal was that of our very own Huna b. Natan [though this is questioned in Geoffrey Herman's dissertation on the exilarch (Hebrew University, 2005)], and Shaked used his discussion about the Huna b. Natan seal and others similar to it in order to advance the following argument: We can't be completely sure that the owners of the seals are to be connected with the names familiar to us from rabbinic literature - especially when the names are common, like Huna and Natan. Still there is something to be said for the fact that only somewhat important people would have had seals to begin with. This narrows the pool significantly. A similar kind of argument can be made for the bowls. Of course the bowls were owned by virtually everyone. Rich, poor, mighty and meek. But the title "rabbi" that appears before certain names limits the number of possible "matches" significantly. In amoraic Babylonia, it does seem that R. meant more than simply teacher. The challenge however with names in the bowls is that as in most healing contexts, we usually have the mother's name instead of the patronymic, while in rabbinic literature it is the father's name that rules that day.
On to the main event:
1. R. Aha b. Rav Huna is named in a bowl in the Schoyen collection as a neighbor that abutted the field of the bowl's client. There are a couple of amoraim of this name, one in the 4th century and the other in the 6th. So this revelation is not so exciting, as it merely shows that rabbis lived next to people who used magical bowls.
2. Rav Dimi Bar Sarah appears in a few bowls. Again, 4th or 6th centuries.
3. Rav Sehora b. Immi appears in Dan Levine's archive.
4. BM 040A. Mar Zutra b. Ukhma was misidentified by Segal in his collection of British Museum bowls as merely a pejorative for the person who was being "targeted" by this aggressive bowl ("Mr. Small the son of Black)" This is highly unlikely (a) because Mar does not simply mean Mr. in Aramaic but someone of importance, (b) because magic requires precision, and there is no way a nickname would have been used, (c) because these names are common anyway - not unlike Klein and Schwartz! Just as Schwartz is not a pejorative but a real last name, so is Ukhma. In this case, the name is extremely common and there were numerous Mar Zutra's in rabbinic literature throughout the generations. This raises the possibility that it is just some important Zutra out there, but no one in rabbinic literature.
5. Rav Ashi b. Mahlafta (Tarshish bowl JA1). A Rabbi of this name appears in the Bavli and seems to have lived at the end of the fourth to early fifth centuries. Incidentally, he was a contemporary of Huna b. Natan. This case is probably the most significant, since Ashi is not a common name, and only one person in rabbinic literature, of extreme importance for talmudic history, carries the title.
The text of the bowl is itself fascinating. Typical beginning:
אסו[תא] מ[ן שמיא תהוי לר]ב אשי בר מחלפתא...
but things quickly get interesting. There is a visionary, hekhalot poetic section about God:
"? is his name, ש is his name, Amotz is his name, rwy is his name, Raziel is his name....King of king of kings is his name, kzyh is his name, which burns he repairs (it) above and over the highest heavens, in the palace of fire and hail, including its chariots and the heaven..."
There also is a very long section about the splitting of the sea which is midrashic in nature. Shaked suggested that the bowl's client, Rav Ashi, may have had input in the decision of what to include in the bowl. The text ends with אשבעית וא[...]מית ואומיתי על רוחא בישא דשלטה בה ברב אשי בר מחלפתא דתיעידי ותיזח ותיקפץ ותיגלי מן רב אשי בר מחלפתא מן יומה דין ולעלם אמן אמן סלה
6. Finally, we have a Rav Yosef b. Imma de-Immah in a bowl which seems to have come from Borsippa, Iraq. This bowl was published by Harviainen, "Syriac Incantation Bowl in the Finnish National Museum: A Specimen of Eastern Amamaic Îkoineâ," Studia Orientalia 51 (1982), but Shaked offered a new reading and translation. Harviainen had read Jesus into the divine names in this bowl, but Shaked considers this highly speculative. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to look at this bowl in detail.

The drama of it all derived primarily from the supposed revelation that rabbis were engaged in magic. This is not news, especially after Gideon Bohak's recent book. But there is something sublime about coming into "contact" with the rabbis that we engage in study - their names now engraved in real objects that they (may) have left behind. The irony here is that we have almost nothing of that sort in Roman Palestine, maybe even including this blog's banner (See Steven Fine's recent discussion). The sense was palpable that the enormous number of bowls which still have not been published hold tremendous potential. Michael Morony wrote just a few years ago that the data contained in the bowls is valuable for everyone - not only "magician colleagues". Shaked alluded to other fascinating features in some of these bowls - including dates which could have been included because some of the bowls were seen as divorce documents (more on that, later).

Fear not, the requisite skepticism was voiced in the Q and A. But these small findings are, at least for me, of great importance. What now needs to happen is for Talmudists to get involved and go over the material carefully, in concert with scholars of the bowls. Any volunteers?

UPDATE: There seem to be more "Ravs" in the bowls. Just came across a Rav Mari b. Mamah in British Museum 024A-024b. This bowl is a divorce document and even features four (! - a kohen?!) witnesses: Rav Rivay b. Marti, and Tzeruiah b. Shiltay, Barbe'ammeh b. Mesharshetana and Qanyah b. Nahlat.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Day at the Races

No wooden engraved "זכור ימות עולם" hovered over the lecturers today in UCL's nondescript J.Z. Young Lecture Theater. But speaking of cut wood, Richard Kalmin traced a motif recognizable to Talmudists from b. Yevamot 49b-50a and y. Sanhedrin 10:2 (28c) - Menashe's murder of the prophet Isaiah after the latter attempted to escape harm by hiding in a cedar tree. How did Menasheh do it? Well, he sawed him in half of course! Kalmin masterfully traced the tale in its various permutations: (A) 1st to second century Ascension of Isaiah (1:7-10; 3:6-10) as the earliest version we have, (b) the fourth century, Syrian Acts of Sharbil (ed. William Cureton), (c) Tabari (ed. Perlmann, p. 41), (d) Shahnameh, to name a few of the stops along the way. Kalmin was careful to point out the differences in the versions, and he argued for a messy, thick development begun in the "West" in the Ascension of Isaiah, taken up by later Christian sources, the Yerushalmi, and then on to the "East" - including the Bavli, Middle Persian expansions on the Yima myth and the Persian Epic (Firdowsi's Shahnameh). Apparently, the development here confirms Kalmin's theory of the direction of (growing) influence from West to East in the fourth century. But some reservations do need to be voiced about this kind of East-West bifurcation. To Yaron Eliav's protestations, Kalmin initially assumed a vast territory of shared culture. However he backed away by saying that the whole thing needs to be nuanced.

I can't do it all for you here, and you'll need to wait for the conference volume (to be published by Brill). In the meantime, the usual, exciting textual nugget: Manuscripts of the Bavli Yevamot passage describe Isaiah's tekhelet as "giving away" his hiding place by sticking out of the tree. And wouldn't you know it, Tabari writes: "As Isaiah finished his speech, they turned upon him to kill him, but the prophet fled from them. A tree that he passed split open, and he entered it. But Satan caught him and seized a fringe of his garment, which he showed to the pursuers...

On to Yaakov Elman's favorite city, Ctesiphon. Elman painted an extremely vivid picture of Jewish luxury shopping in the Persian winter capital based on talmudic evidence and a "late" late antique Chinese description. The use of documents and seals (so he and Geller decided to interpret חותמות) demonstrates that cash was not used to effect the transfer of these goods, rather a document - in contrast to rabbinic law. Thus, according to Elman, a lot of the seemingly relevant talmudic discussions are "academic" in some sense. Still, what is encoded therein? For this we'll have to wait for Elman's forthcoming article(s) in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute, which will outline the identity politics in the Bavli and Middle Persian literature. I have seen this paper (70+ plus) and can attest that there is a lot of material on the topic.

It doesn't get much better than a senior curator at the British Museum giving you a guided tour of Ctesiphon, Mahoza, and the land "behind" them using Google Earth and other impressive images. Appropriately called St. John, Prof. Simpson, went through everything in extreme detail. Forgive me, but the hour is late...Wealth generated by farming in the surrounding area, (Ammianus' "smiling orchards"), immensely thick walls (which we saw) with horseshoe towers, a round city, but divided into rectangular blocks, all streets "paved" by questionable materials like refuse. Tight, tight space, with access to some houses via 1.5 meter wide alleyways. Houses made of mudbrick, though vaulted reception rooms in the nicer ones and fired brick in public buildings. In the countryside the story was all about taming the rivers through an incredible network of canals. The Saint told us that the salination problem discussed in R. Adams' influential work (The Land Behind Babylonia) was "overatated" and the officials usually figured out how to fix this challenge; the materials goods, some of which were luxury items and distinctly Sasanian (like the silver bowls, and those almost prophetically minimalistic glass bowls)
[The image on the left is a recreation by a Japanese artist, which is currently on display in the British Museum and was received by the Saint himself]

, but some common to the WHOLE broad region - from Scotland to the Eastern reaches of the Sasanian empire - such as hairpins. And the pearls, which images confirm that people used tg "drip"!...What can I say, some of this has already been collected in Oppenheimer's Babylonian Judaica, but to see these images on the big screen was...

like meeting your "den" in Iranian heaven.

I spoke about the bei abedan and attempted to accomplish two things. I accepted Shaked's etymology of (a)bag-dan - a temple, which incidentally is confirmed in an early Gaonic tradition and one part of R. Hananel. I studied the talmudic sources in detail and emphasized their "constructedness" via source-criticism and the like. The accounts of Rav and Shmuel at b. Shabbat 116a are clearly modeled on the preceding Toesftan baraita, and most of what we can know here (and in the anachronistic accounts of b. Shabbat 152 and b. A.Z. 17b) tells us more about circulating oral traditions regarding the place than about the specific activities of tannaim and amoraim. But fear not, we still are able to correlate the institution and its activities with another cultural construction in Sasanian Iran - that of the effort of Sasanian kings to seek out the books of other nations, "refit" them with the Avesta, and dispute their inclusion in the newly expanded canon, which was stored in a special gubernatorial treasury. I also noted a small parallel to b. Taanit 24b, which according to MS Herzog (Yemenite) describes Shapur II's effort to engage in "disputation (Iranian "paykar")" with the Jews, and the same word used in regard to the same king in the Middle Persian passage in the Denkard (a Zoroastrian encyclopedia) about collecting the traditions of the Avesta.
M. Geller added to the discussion by suggesting the possibility that the institution was a holdover from Neo-Babylonian times.

But alas, my jetlag caused me to miss Maria Macuch's lecture on the particular difference between קרן and פירות in the Sasanian lawbook - in contradistinction to Roman Law. She noted the parallel to MP xweshih (ownership) and darishn (possession) and suggested that the talmudic discussion about this distinction, even though it is attributed to R. Lakish and R. Yohanan, nevertheless seems to be informed by this knowledge.

Albert de Jong problematized the problematization(!) of Gnosticism in Mesopotamia, as Karen Kings' thesis (and her supporters) leaves Manichaeaism, Mandaeism and other Mesopotamian Gnostic like religions in a kind of academic no-mans land and only takes aim at its use in Early Christian polemics and their modern scholarly descendents. de Jong took up Shaul Shaked's suggestion (and good old JZ Smith) that Gnosticism is not a religion, nor is it a heretical category for orthodox Christians, but a kind of system, like mysticism. He was left with many more questions than solutions, but at least put a lid on Kings' extremist diatribes, which brand anyone who uses the term 'Gnostic' a "colonialist pseudo-scientist" - ouch!

Theordore Kwasman did the loanword thing and crunched some serious numbers, which I cannot do for you here since there wasn't a handout. The work is exciting but preliminary, and it is unclear whether he will be the one to continue it as the paper was written "at the request of a colleague, Geller!" In general, he followed Derekh Eretz' advice to "teach your tongue to say 'I don't know'," which seems to have rattled some of the "enthusiasts". But enough said.

Yaron Eliav closed the deal with a fascinating discussion about the perception that Palestinian Jews had of Babylonia, and included an important caveat about what material culture means, which is a matter of great significance for this conference. For Eliav, it does not mean archaeology, rather the study of how people of the past engaged with and conceived of the material world around them. In that sense it stands at the intersection between archaeology and textual study. And this was what Samuel Krauss, the man for who's achievements this conference is being held, wanted to do. Eliav argued that Palestinians accessed the Babylonian Other through literary traditions (Josephus' stories, rabbinic oral traditions) and also through encounters with physical people - the nehotai and Babylonian immigrants. He discussed a few cases about how this worked, including R. Gamliel's "I love the Persians for three things" statement at Berakhot 8b). It was good fun, with a humorous picture of

Roman's eating like pigs ("but don't think that all Roman's ate like pigs"), and of the public latrines in Roman Palestine with a few pictures of Beit Shean. The nugget:
Genesis 10:10
וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר:
is interpreted in Genesis Rabbah as follows:
ותהי ראשית ממלכתו בבל וארך ואכד וכלנה הדס ונציבין וקטיספון
These cities are on a line from NW to SE, i.e. the route by which Palestinian Jews traveling to Babylonia would have encountered the places. It testifies to their construction of geography (the ultimate material culture, the terra firma) according to their experience - as opposed to b. Yoma 10a, where the places are simply located in Meishan. Gafni, on the other hand, suggested a word size organizing principle.

Next time, some actual objects - especially bowls.
Signing off.

DISCLAIMER: All mistakes and omissions, mine. All zany image choices, mine.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Remember the Days of Old

UCL's Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, like the book of Deuteronomy, exhorts its
audience to remember the days of old. For over an hour, a sizable crowd did just that. But we remember what we already know.

Gafni's talk, the majority of which had already been published, described the means by which late antique Babylonian Jews employed local geography in the service of identity formation. Instead of longing for Zion, some Babylonian Jews, from Rav Yehuda to Pirqoi b. Baboi decided that they already occupied it. The Shekhina could be found in certain synagogues, discussion of pedigree led to the drawing of boundaries reminiscent of the Holy Land, Jews could be buried guilt-free in Bavel (well, almost), and like Eretz Yisrael there was a prohibition against abandoning Babylonia. In a way, after the destruction of the temple this development was inevitable. Knowledge became more important than space, and since it is also transportable, it could pick up and go and the space must follow. But in a way, Babylonian Jews believed more than that - that they had come back to the homeland. Bavel was Adam's birthplace, Abraham's territory, and full of enough sites to make a pious pilgrim drool (Arabic historians and Benjamin of Tudela tell us about pilgrims to the lion's den,and the ninth chapter of Bavli Berakhot has some good examples). Not just Philo's Alexandria - a second city to mother J-lem, but the mother city itself.

There were still some fascinating new nuggets, especially the attempt to reconstruct the Palestinian-Babylonian debate across the centuries in detail. Babylonian Jews called Bavel "Zion," so Palestinian Jews spoofed the verse כי מבבל תצא תורה. Babylonians countered that indeed, in certain respects they WERE the new Zion, and they were merely being sent back to their parents' house after misbehaving, to which Palestinians shot back with a brilliant counter-narrative: When God sent the Jews back to Babylonia, he was like a king banishing his daughter with instructions to keep her jewelery on so that they she might remember what it was like to be a princess. The jewels are the mitzvot, which are observed as mere practice in the diaspora (shades of Nahmanides!). But look at the language used to express this idea - it plays on the word "Zion"
כך אמר להם הקב"ה לישראל בני היו מצויינין במצות שכשתחזרו לא יהו עליכם חדשים, הוא שירמיה אומר הציבי לך ציונים שימי לך תמרורים וגו', הציבי לך ציונים אלו המצות שישראל מצויינים בהן,
(Yalkut Shimoni 869)

In the questions following the talk, it became clear that what Gafni described for Babylonia was the very story of Jewish history: "The Jerusalem of Spain," "the Jerusalem of North Africa," "the Jerusalem of Lithuania," etc. etc. Rather ironically, one Brit in the audience called out "just like Williamsburgh".

Gafni used Babylonian history to help us recall what Jews the world over already know in their bones. That like it or not, Zion is constantly recreated. For a large audience of non-specialists his lecture was, as usual, a spectacular performance (with the usual good jokes, asides, and banter). As such scholarship must be, it also was a journey of self discovery.

DISCLAIMER: The account is my own - and after some drinks with colleagues at the pre-reception. All mistakes should be attributed to this blog and not to the lecturer.

Gafni, Isaiah M. "Talmudic research in modern times : between scholarship and ideology" in Jüdische Geschichte in hellenistisch-römischer Zeit (1999), 133-148

idem., Talmudic Babylonia and the Land of Israel : between subservience and assertiveness Te’uda 12 (1996) 97-109

idem. Expressions and types of "local patriotism" among the Jews of Sasanian Babylonia Irano-Judaica II (1990) 63-71

Rubenstein, Jeffrey
‬ ‫ התמודדות עם מעלות ארץ ישראל : ניתוח סוגיית בבלי, כתובות קי ע"א - קיב ע"ב ‬ ‫ מרכז ותפוצה (תשסד) 159-188