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


  1. I remember someone once telling my father, in all seriousness, that "Bnei Brak is the Jerusalem of Eretz Yisrael".

  2. I think Gafni's article on local patriotism is also published elsewhere in a small red volume. Can't remember the title.

    Interestingly, some of Gafni's examples of local patriotism have been recast by Yaakov Elman as expressions of the ongoing tension between Mahoza and Pumpedita. My own research has highlighted other aspects of this tension, especially as manifested in encounters between R. Yehuda and R. Nahman of the second/third amoraic generations.

    P.S. Re: the phrase "Jerusalem of X," see the linked newspaper article that appeared on the front page of the NY Sun (alav ha-shalom), by an intrepid, young reporter, in which it is noted that Pyongyang, North Korea was once called the "Jerusalem of the East."

  3. Yes, Elman has used lokalpatriotism in fascinating ways. Actually, Gafni's lecture was less about that and more about the battle with the Israelis - some tings never change.


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