Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Rabbi Meir and the Samaritans: The Differences Between the Accounts in the Yerushalmi and the Bavli (Heb.)
Collections of Halakha or Analytic Clarifications in the Babylonian Talmud? (Heb.)
The Last Oral Torah?The Division of the Torah into ‘Aliyot
Hyperbolic Language in the Mishnah (Heb.)
UPDATE: On the "current" issue, see Tzee's post on Rosen-Zvi's article.
Friday, December 25, 2009
In celebration of the jubilee anniversary of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, a conference on "Religious Movements and Transformations in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," at Van Leer (53 Jabotinsky St. Jerusalem) from Jan. 5-7.
Shaul Shaked, "Jews, Christians and Mandaeans in Sasanian Babylonia" on Tuesday morning (10:00).
On Wednesday: from 2:00-4:00 pm:
Vered Noam, "The Emergence of Rabbinic Culture from the Perspective of Qumran"
Michael Fishbane, "From Exegetical Midrash to Rabbinic Epic: Some Liturgical Formations of Cultural Memory"
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
It occured to me that I omitted to mention the AJS conference taking place in Los Angeles as we speak. With a mega-snowstorm this past weekend on the East coast, I'm sure that travel was a nightmare. Hopefully it won't be a repeat of the AJS conference in Toronto a few years ago...
As always, there are plenty of good papers delivered by good scholars at the conference. Still, I cannot help but single out a very exciting session - The Bavli in its Sasanian Context. Wish I was there. Aside from the actual papers to be delivered by the doyen of Irano-Talmudica and two scholars who have been studying Middle Persian at Yeshiva University for the past couple of years, there should be some good exchange since the session chair, Robert Brody of Hebrew U, has expressed skeptisim about the enterprise - orally and in print.
Someone there care to report back?
The Bavli in its Sasanian Context
Fifth Century Redactions Compared: The Bavli, the Pahlavi Videvdad and Herbedestan
Yaakov Elman (Yeshiva University)
"HIRHUREI 'AVEIRAH KE-'AVEIRAH DAMEI 'Thoughts of Sin Are Akin to Sin': The Importance of Good Thoughts in Zoroastrianism and the Development of a Babylonian Rabbinic Motif"
*David Brodsky (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College)
King Herod in Ardashir’s Court: The Bavli Story of Herod (Bava Batra 3b-4a) in Light of Sasanian Sources.
*Jeffrey L. Rubenstein (New York University)
Chair: Robert Brody (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
UPDATE: Michal gives us a brief report from AJS in the comments section.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
A few weeks ago, I found myself preparing for a class on Zoroastrian and rabbinic cosmologies. As Peter Schaefer discusses in Joseph Dan's Festschrift, the rabbis were relatively uninterested in producing detailed cosmology. They had Bereishit as well as Second Temple traditions, but even the novel Second Temple traditions were often put in the service of theological projects and not further cosmological speculation. On the other hand, Sasanian times saw a flurry of cosmological activity on the Zoroastrian side - witnessed best in the so-called Greater (Iranian) Bundahishn. How to discuss Zoroastrian and Jewish interaction on this issue, if our main Jewish source for this time exhibits relatively little interest?
I turned to two chapters of the Shkand Gumanig Wizar, a lively Zoroastiran polemical text devoted to a number of non-Zoroastrian religions - including Judaism. Chapters thirteen and fourteen outline the author's critique of Judaism, with a heavy emphasis on Genesis 1. And there I found further keen Zoroastrian interest in Jewish cosmology - if for polemical purposes. Unfortunately, Neusner's English translation is faulty in a number of places. But here is my point, I was aided by the notes of Berekely graduate student Sam Thrope. Thrope, trained in Jewish and Iranian studies, is producing an edition of these two chapters out of philological interest with a focus on wider late antique polemics (including Augustine's Contra Faustus), and also on the various apparently non-rabbinic Jewish "midrashic" traditions embedded in the work. If he is sucessful, Thrope will uncover another source of non-rabbinic thought and hermeneutics in a period (Talmudic and early Gaonic) dominated by rabbinic sources. Keep us posted, Sam.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
Dept. of Hoopla There are times when you awake late to dark gray skies, the family has been sick for four days, and you realize that you have not prepared up a talk for that evening. There are worse things. Last night was the annual scholion Hanukah party. Catering by Pinati (no marak kuba - yellow or red - no game. Yes humous, pitot, and stuffed grape leaves). After lighting the menorah with the American tune I grew up with (and learning that the typical Israeli tune is somewhat different), and some חשוף זרוע קדשך dissent on the part of some, everyone sat down to eat and listen to two short talks. My talk, which was prepared in the last few seconds before the event, concerned Hanukah in Roman and Iranian context. According to a signal article by Moshe Benovitz ( "עד דכליא ריגלא דתרמודאי" : נר חנוכה בארץ ישראל בימי התנאים והאמוראים in the S. Friedman Festschrift, Torah Leshmah 2008, pp. 39-78), following the destruction of the Second Temple, Hanukkah was on the path to disappearing along with most of the other holidays found in Megilat Taanit. Particularly in the land of Israel, the destruction rendered holidays celebrating victories of Jewish sovereignty or rededicating the Temple meaningless - since the Jews were no longer sovereign in their own land and lived without the Temple. This explains the general direction of the Talmudim's discussions re: בטלה מגילת תענית". According to Benovitz, R. Yohanan was an essential figure in reviving Hanukah from near certain death. He did so by (1) bringing traditions from Sidon where Jews continued to light the candles and interpret the lighting in various ways, and (2) emphasizing the need to publicize the miracle particularly under Tadmoreyen (Palmyrene) rule from 260-272 - Hence the phrase עד דכליא ריגלא דתרמודאי refers to this moment. R. Yohanan insists on this revolutionary act as contemporary events tie into the history of Chanukah - just as the Jews stood up against the Syrian Greeks so too they stand up against the Syrians who revolted against Rome and ruled the Land of Israel in the latter half of the third century. The second important stage in Hanuka's development and survival takes place in Babylonia. It is in Babylonia and in Babylonia alone that we learn of the story of the miracle of the cruse of oil (see especially Vered Noam, "The Miracle of the Cruse of Oil," Hebrew Union College Annual 73 (2002). It is also in the Bavli and the Bavli alone that nearly all of the halakhot of Hanuka appear (b. Shabbat 21-23). Much has been written about the sugya of מאי חנוכה, including the supposedly tannaitic sources that have actually been found to be a mix of tannaitic and later Babylonia (again, see Benovitz see also, Shamma Friedman has demonstrated that the phrase מהדרין and מהדרין מן המהדרין are unquestionably Babylonian and Aramain from the root חזר > הדרwhich means to chase after. Thus the beginning of the famous baraita about Hillel and Shammai has a Babylonian framework.) Why would Hanukkah become so important in Babylonia, survive and flourish? I suggested that like in Roman Palestine, it was the "להכעיס" factor that encouraged the holiday's revival in rabbinic circles. First, as we learn at b. Shabbat 45a the Persians had made the celebration of Hanukkah quite difficult, as they were wont to confiscate the fire kept by non-Zoroastrians - in this case menorot. There is a lack of clarity about whether this was a particular problem on Hanukkah or in general (see Rosenthal's "for the Talmudic Dictionary" in Irano-Judaica I). It would seem that part of the development of the miracle of the cruse of oil was in response to this event. Thus, one might compare the development of the cruse legend as a way of justifying the practice of lighting the candles in the same way that Jews had to justify to the Persians their burial practices which also offended Zoroastrian ideas of purity. What is more, in the second letter appended to II Maccabees we find the following description of Nehemia's Hanukkah:
For when our ancestors were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of
that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow
of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to
anyone. But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having
been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who
had hidden the fire to get it. And when they reported to us that they had not
found fire, but only a thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it.
When the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah order the priests
to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and on the things laid upon it. When this had
been done and some time had passed, and when the sun, which had been clouded
over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled. And while the
sacrifice was being consumed, the priests offered prayer...After the material
sacrifice had been consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left
should be poured on large stones. When this was done, a flame blazed up; but
when the light from the altar shone back, it went out. When this matter became
known and it was reported to the king of the Persians that, in the place where
the exiled priests had hidden the fire, the liquid had appeared with which
Nehemiah and his associates had burned the materials of the sacrifice, the king
investigated the matter, and enclosed the place and made it sacred. And with
those persons whom the king favored he exchanged many excellent gifts. Nehemiah
and his associates called this nephthar, which means purification, but by most
people it is called naphtha
This tradition is a striking example of both Jewish recognition of Zoroastrian reverence for fire, and also an interesting adaptation of Zoroastrian ideas. [I am not aware of anyone having written on this and if they haven't then I have dibs on the article:)]. It seems to me that in at least some basic way, the Nehemia legend is mirrored in the Bavli's Hanukkah story.
(a) Both have a small remnant of something flammable after a time of physical or spiritual exile.(b) the miraculous lighting of that oil, and finally (c) the establishment of a festival or sanctum on account of the miracle, (d) the importance of purity, etc. etc.
What is remarkable is that in both cases, the tradition seems to develop in a Zoroastrian context, or at least one that recalls a Zoroastrian context. One might say that both are Jewish responses to Zoroastrian fire veneration - the Bavli in a more violent context.
The second factor in Babylonia is related to a topic that Yaakov Elman has devoted much research to - the cosmopolitan nature of those "capital Jews" in Mahoza. As Elman has demonstrated, there was much skepticism of rabbinic tradition, which might be traced to general skepticism of the oral versus written world - following Manichaeaism and Eastern Christianity and against rabbinic Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Hence, there is this strange need to show to everyone that you are celebrating the holiday. A courtyard with two entrances needs two candles! Thus in the shadow of and response to Zoroastrianism, and likewise challenges to rabbinic authority, Hanukkah's future is sealed - for the good!
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Barak Cohen firms up Gafni's skepticism re: Babylonian rabbinic tannaitic traditions in "In Quest of Babylonian Tannaitic Traditions: The Case of Tanna D'Bei Shmuel,"
Emanuel Friedheim considers (in Hebrew!) the halakhic response of Palestinian rabbis to Graeco-Roman culture in the first centuries of the common era,
and Kim Stratton reviews Gideon Bohak's magnum opus, Ancient Jewish Magic (Oxford 2008).
[As an aside, I sat in on G.'s Jewish magic survey last week during a rainy day at Tel Aviv U and learned much, particularly about the many differences between Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish magic (somewhat contra Shaked's assertions), but more on that later.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Nashim 18 (Spring) has a fascinating collection of articles about Iranian Jewish women edited by the novelist Farideh Goldin. Particularly interesting is Saba Soomekh's, Iranian Jewish Women: Domesticating Religion and Appropriating Zoroastrian Religion in Ritual Life.
In the recent Journal of Early Christian Studies (17.4) Ross Kraemer has a rereading of the late conversion of Jewish women in Minorca in her article, "Jewish Women's Resistance to Christianity in the Early Fifth Century: The Account of Severus, Bishop of Minorca."
Sunday, December 6, 2009
From the Guardian
Dictator-lit: The Tajiks in the Mirror of History
Historically spurious and spiritually confused, Emomalii Rahmon's presidential history of Tajikistan plays fast and loose with notions of national identiity, but it could have been far, far worse ...
The third instalment in an occasional series on books written by some of the world's most notorious dictators. The author's goal is to subject himself to as much tyrant prose as he can bear, reporting back on his findings until the will to live deserts him.
The collapse of the USSR brought catastrophe to the central Asian republic of Tajikistan. Between 1992 and 1997, a civil war raged between forces loyal to the Soviet regime and the United Tajik Opposition, which contained a strong Islamist element. By the time collective-farm-boss-turned-president Emomali Rahmonov had established order - with help from Moscow and Uzbekistan – between 60,000 and 100,000 people had died, while a further 730,000 had been displaced. The war cost Tajikistan $7bn - and it was the poorest central Asian state to begin with.
Rahmonov spent the war's aftermath pursuing his enemies and holding rigged elections, while struggling to improve the economy and strengthen state institutions. He also found time to write a book, The Tajiks in the Mirror of History, which he intended would furnish the Tajiks with a new, dignified, post-Soviet identity. "In the course of its history and development," says Rahmonov, "the Tajik nation has been confronted by all sorts of vehement opponents who doubted its very existence." Thus, in addition to all its other problems, Tajikistan also faced a serious existential crisis: nobody believed it was real.
Rahmonov sought solutions in the region's pre-Islamic past. His thesis is simple: the Tajiks are an ancient nation, whose achievements have been neglected or appropriated by their neighbours. Reclaiming these stolen glories, Rahmonov reveals that the ancient central Asian states of Bactria and Sogdiana were "countries" which should be regarded as the "… origins of first Tajik state". The best period in Tajik history was that of the Samanid State of 819-999AD. Controversially, he also declares the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster a local boy. Apparently, Zoroaster fought "atheism" while the Tajiks were always "patriotically minded … ready to defend the principles of progress and enlightenment". Of course, these ideas weren't invented until much later and in Europe to boot, but never mind. Rahmonov also notes that the Avesta of Zoroastrianism is superior to the works of Homer because it is older and has more words (2m v 345,000). Thus, the ex-communist apparatchik essentially replaces the Marxist myth of a future golden age with its much older ancestor: the lost golden age.
For all his anachronisms and eccentric arguments, however, Rahmonov isn't entirely wrong. The Tajiks are descended from the ancient Iranian peoples of central Asia, and Zoroastrianism was widely practised in the region. But the history of central Asia is one of invasions, collapsing empires and population transfers. While the term "Tajik" existed prior to the Soviet invention of Tajikistan in 1924, nationalism, or even an identity based on ethno-linguistic criteria, did not: tribe, clan and religion were more important. As a result, when the Bolsheviks imported "scientific" European categories of identity, the locals often did not know who they were supposed to be - which makes Rahmonov's claims of an ethnic Tajik nationalism stretching back into the ancient past highly dubious.
But Rahmonov is a dictator, and one of the perks of the job is that you can redefine the past as you please and few will dare to disagree with you. Thus not only does he claim Zoroaster for the glory of the Tajik nation, he also throws out all the bothersome theological stuff. Rahmonov's Zoroaster is barely religious at all, but rather a transmitter of uncontentious moral values, while the Avesta serves as an ethnographic guide to past Tajik greatness. Like the categories of identity, history and territory Rahmonov lifts wholesale from Tajikistan's Soviet founders, this secularising of sacred history is also an old Soviet strategy.
Also striking is Rahmonov's profound aversion to Islam. Having just fought a war with Islamists, with the Afghans as neighbours and the Iranians as cousins, Rahmonov strenuously avoids mention of the majority faith of Tajikistan. When he does touch upon it, he implies that it is alien to the "true" Tajik identity: Islam came with the Arab conquest, he explains, and "the religion of our forefathers was prohibited by the force of the sword … The new authorities observed the people and put a watch on their houses, forcefully imposing on them the rules and habits of Muslim law ... many of them were forced to accept the new faith established by the invaders." In 2007, authorities in Dushanbe shut down 300 mosques, leaving only 57 open. The rest were converted for secular use, showing once again that you can take the apparatchik out of the USSR but you can't … etc. Clearly, Rahmonov prefers his faiths ancient and nearly dead.
Since publishing TIMOH, Rahmonov has written many more books and elaborated greatly upon his love of Zoroaster. He placed Zoroastrian symbols on the national flag; the government's online news agency is named Avesta and, in 2007, he dropped the Russian suffix from his surname, while urging his countrymen to do the same. He also demanded that the British Museum surrender the Oxus Treasure, which was found on the territory of (the not yet-extant) Tajikistan in the 19th century.
And yet, turgid and unreliable as TIMOH undoubtedly is, it could be much worse. Rahmonov, unlike his late neighbour Saparmurat Niyazov, doesn't elevate himself or his family into holy figures, or insert his own rancid poetry into the text, or dribble on about how the Tajiks are descended from Noah. And you can do a lot worse than Zoroaster when it comes to ethical teachings. Alas, Tajikistan inevitably falls short of the prophet's high standards: political corruption, embezzlement, and bribery are rife. The state's policy of ethnic nationalism may ultimately prove divisive in a country where a third of the population is Uzbek. Still, we can dream, and in TIMOH, Rahmonov dreams for an entire nation. Like the man says, "True patriotism and political wisdom will prevail so that the country may take its deserved place in the international arena."Amen.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
How can the stark outline of the Superdome not make an impression. The Saints go marching there, but the tragedy remains. New Orlean's apparently revitalized downtown masks the ravages of a sickness that has been only hapazardly cured. Aside from the Superdome, the gargantuant tombs in its gothic cemetaries also serve as a symbol. But does it matter? Its SBL zone, with the massive conference hotels buzzing with Bible nerds.
Yonatan Sagiv, a recent graduate of Hebrew U currently working as an associate at Yale, demonstrated the antiquity of an exegetical assumption in Sifra to Leviticus 1, found already in the Aramaic Levi document. Sagiv emphasized the hemeneutical novelty of the rabbis who employ their exegetical heritage in new ways. He concluded with a plea that scholars pay more attention to this "new" aspect, but to tell you the truth, it is the antiquity conclusion that I remember a week hence.
A session later, and we're on to a pure Rabbinics panel. Steven Fraade spoke about the position of the parnas in late antique Roman Palestine (during this session Shaya Cohen repeatedly referred to Eretz Yisrael as Palestina, to the amusement of some attendees). In the process of tracing the office of the parnas and discussing its occurernces in rabbinic texts and in epigraphic remains, a few interesting points were made, including a reading of some Bar Kokhba engraved stamps which allowed for Parnas to be assigned to Bar Kokhba himself along with his regular title, Nasi. Fraade also emphasized a few rabbinic sources that at the very least allowed for rabbis as parnasim, even if the source did not need to imply that all parnasim were rabbis. In any case, the contra-Schwartzian pointwas highlighted.
Shaya Cohen continued his "Sources of the Mishna" project with a fascinating polemical passage from Origen. Aside from mentioning the 2000 cubits of the Sabbath, there were a few lines that seemed to derive from a Mishnah-like text, for example a reference to the difference between a sandal with nails and without on the Sabbath, and an apparent hyperliteral misinterpretation of Mishnaic Hebrew כתפו which lead Origen or his source to posit that one is only liable for carryingon the Sabbath if one does so on -one- shoulder (כתפו as opposed to כתפיו). If correct, this testifies to a Mishnah, oral or written, in Alexandria in 220. Much discussion ensued, however, if he simply might have learned the Mishnah in Palestina(!) when he hid out there for some time, or whether it simply was a baraita circulating independently but not the Mishnah itself.
Michal Siegal, also of Yale, also an alumna of Hebrew U but finishing a doctorate under Chris Hayes and Steven Fraade, discussed the possible Christian roots of the Elazar b. Dordiya story in b. Avodah Zara. She pointed to a monastic text that contained nearly all the elements.She discussed the possibility of these texts, which in time became wildly popular,making their way to the Sasanian empire in Syriac translation. For reasons that I cannot go into here, the venue, if you will, of Michal's paper was highly ironic. v'akml. I will add that the once popular song, Sinnerman, seems to derive from the broader motif of these stories.
After some drink with colleagues, and good, late-night wide-ranging discussion with Adam Becker of NYU (who is now tenured) I returned to my room to write my paper, only to fall asleep. But with the morning light the laptop was up and running...running until well into the first session, when I finally got to the end of a session. Mouli Vidas (Princeton Phd, UC Davis position) was giving a paper, which seemed to add another sorti in the so-called, recently dubbed, "Stam Wars". Essentially, Mouli's example showed that the Bavli's anonymous layer can at times take material attributed in the Yerushalmi to named amoraim, and then turn it into anonymous material that looks, smells, and acts like the Stam we all know and love. If this is accurate, Mouli's observation can wreak havoc on current assumptions that the Stam's dialectic is uniquelyBabylonian, late, and should be understood as seperate from the attributed opinions which sit at the sugya's core. This needs to be pursued further, because it has the potential to force us to switch directions. In any case, more caution more caution more caution when trying to make declarations about the history of the Stam.
And then there was a curious session, which I responded to, in which all the papers more or less treated Sasanian Christianity,and I attempted to provide the perspective of a Talmudist. After learning that Naomi Koltun-Fromm's book on Aphrahat is due out, that "political theology" might better serve us than just "church-state" in Zoroastrian Iran, that Yazdegird did NOT persecute Christians, even at the end of his reign, and more, I spoke about bowls, seals (particularly Scott McDonough's interesting example of a Catholicus's administrative seals), the development of religion in Iran, a little bit of background on the "Elman revolution"which has concerned mostly Zoroastrian texts but essentially leads to a broader interest in the Bavli's Sasanian context, and finally, a little bit of criticism against throwing up our hands at the difficulties of the evidence and the past sins of Orientalism.
Onto the wacky world of Qumran scholarship. Hempel's lecture on the literary development of Serekh Hayahad sounded interesting and learned, but with its rapid fire Qumran code (1Qs5:5-9 et al),I guess I understand how non-Talmudists feel at rabbinics sessions, or in a yeshiva classroom for that matter. Elitzur Bar-Asher (Harvard Phd, soon to assume a position in Hebrew language at Hebrew U) gave an interesting talk on the meaning of פרש in MMT, suggesting that it may refer not to a sectarian seperation, rather to the seperation of Israelites from the nations re: marriage.
After some fresh hotelroom made steaks (and beer) with Elitzur, Michal, their adorable twins, and Mouli, it was time for some late night shmoozing,
Highlights from the last day include, yes another Vidas paper, which argued that the supposed office of the tannaim-reciters be seen in light of Zoroastrian recitation, and that the polemics against tannaim-reciters might be seen not just as elite against non-learned, rather two different religious approaches to study.
After a little shopping for the folks back home, I got in the big bird and flew back.