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.


  1. The difference between the first part and the second part of this posting shows the problem with Talmud.
    You sit and look at magical bowls. The only people interested in magic bowls are goths, geeks, wiccan, dungeons and dragons players, and antiquarians.
    If you get up in a synagogue and speak about magical bowls- what message are you conveying?
    That we should follow the magical practices of Rav Kadurie or the latest Hasidic magic and superstition? That we should go back to Rabbinic magic? I highly doubt that.
    Is your message to show that these magical practices teach how Judaism has evolved away from magic and that we need to no longer follow the Rabbinic world? I doubt that also, unless we are dealing with HUC circa 1955.
    Is the message to show how the Orthodox rabbi who claims an absolute mesorah in halakhah, does not really know Hazal?
    Where do you see the relevance outside of antiquarian interest?

    You wrote- “For this (growing) demographic, the role of the Talmudist almost self evident”
    Where is the ground zero in what you are doing, let alone any keys to ground zero? There is a canon within the Talmudic canon. Some sugyot are way more important than others. Those sugyot which have created basic practices or are known by every rabbi, or were commented by every generation are ground zero. Marginal Sugyot, historical references, and other Rabbinic works have a lower status in the canon and are far from any sort of ground zero. The Talmudist tends to look at what the beit midrash avoids.
    Furthermore, most involved in Talmudic culture, just like those involved in civil law, are more concerned with contemporary applications and meanings, not diachronic reads. Many of those committed to Talmud study are interested in Talmud for practical or devotional reasons. And most of those who do want the academic input, they tend to want the contribution of modern Jewish historians, comparisons of approaches from Lithuania and Hungary, or modern debates in Judiasm.

    On the other side, the fact that you do not mention Foucault by name would be quite off putting to academics. It is as if you are embarrassed to mention him or you only read theory books because you have to for the PHD. Or you have too many affiliations with Orthodox rabbis and the beit midrash and you are scared that they will label you a post-modern or worse if you mention one the basic social science works of the 1980’s. Your not mentioning his name is itself a bit of magical thinking, that if you would actually mention Foucault then the name has power to label you.

  2. "You sit and look at magical bowls. The only people interested in magic bowls are goths, geeks, wiccan, dungeons and dragons players, and antiquarians.
    If you get up in a synagogue and speak about magical bowls- what message are you conveying?...Where do you see the relevance outside of antiquarian interest?"

    My "summer job" classifying bowls need not interest anyone but the university department that pays for it. I, and most scholars, don't need to justify all of my activities to the masses. But that is besides the point. There is plenty to be learned from the bowls.
    If you've been following this blog, you will know that the magic bowls contain all kinds of information, even for those uninterested in magic. For a sense of what can be done, read Michael Morony, "Magic and Society in Late Sasanain Iraq," in Noegel, Walker, and Wheller, Prayers, Magic and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World (University Park, PA, 2003), pp. 57-68. So for example, if the Tarshish bowl discussed by Shaked at the recent UCL conference is indeed the bowl of Rav Ashi, then we have an incomparable source of information unmediated by redactors, editors, and scribes regarding this significant amora. Surely there is a lot of text to wade through before something like that can be found, but no one is asking professionals in the community to take interest in that. This is the domain of scholars.
    In any case, my job as an academic is not to advocate anything but to further understanding, and in the case of the Jewish community, self-understanding. So no, I don't have any plans of getting up in shul and discussing the bowls as a topic in and of itself. And no, I do not wish to promote "the magical practices of Rav Kadurie." But I can offer a bit of self-understanding. Case in point, D. Farkas "Backward and forward : an unusual feature of Kiddush Levanah" Hakirah 7 (2009) 229-242. Farkas attempts to understand why we recite Exodus 15:16 backwards and forwards. He suggests a number of ingenious, but unconvincing theories to account for the origin of this practice. Knowledge of Jewish magical texts like the incantation bowls will tell you that the citation of verses forwards and backwards is a common feature of these texts, and reflects a certain posture towards the unseen world. So we have greater understanding of the nature and goals of kidush levanah. You may find this kind of thing to be obsolete and useless knowledge, but there are plenty of people interested. (Indeed, the launching of journals like Hakira, which includes contributions from educated and interested members of the Orthodox community about these kinds of issues, gives a sense of how much some people do care).
    Also, it should be stated that the contribution of academic talmudic scholarship affects every page of Talmud, and not only "marginalia." An example, which I hope to post at some point, includes the development of of shivah neqiyim (ac account that actually takes the Yerushalmi into account and how the word naqi functions in Middle Hebrew). I would go as far to say that the virtual "genre" of popular scholarship which presents on topics like Sabbatean influences on eighteenth century European rabbis, while highly entertaining for the community, is the real marginalia here.
    As for your "hyper-reading" about my relationship to Michel Foucault no comment necessary. I have an entire section devoted to his impact on talmudic scholarship in a book that I'm working on. In short, lighten up. I can keep things fun (for myself) but calling Foucalt a prophet and linking to a website devoted to him.

  3. If I may add, even if the bowls do not belong to THE rav ashi or other rabbis, there are numerous amounts of parellels to rabbinic literature.
    The marginalization of the bowls that "outside reader" suggests is shared by modern orthodox rabbis and talmudits. I think it comes from the same place of fear of addmiting that the bowls and such are an essential part of rabbinic judaisim, which deserves to be researched AT LEAST as much as versions and manuscripts...

  4. Thanks tzvee. I guess that's what happens when one writes posts while waiting for their children to drift off to sleep at night!

  5. Whatever incantations may be found in these magic bowls you speak of, they have nothing to do with the development of the kiddush levana, and in no way can be used to explain why we recite the verse backwards. We ALREADY KNOW why we recite it backwards - it was because the Tur misconstrued a line in Sofrim to imply this. The only question is what the Sofrim meant by the word "ulimfreah", and it had nothing to do with magic bowls.

    Kindest regards, as always.


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