Alexander Samely,Forms of Rabbinic Literature and Thought: An Introduction

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  • Alexander Samely, Forms of Rabbinic Literature and Thought: An IntroductionForms of Rabbinic Literature and Thought: An Introduction by Samely, AlexanderReview by: Andrew TeeterThe Journal of Religion, Vol. 91, No. 4 (October 2011), pp. 572-574Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: .Accessed: 20/06/2014 11:12

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  • The Journal of Religion


    of the tradition and have been misread by others throughout the years. Forinstance, the injunction for a (presumably male) Jew to recite, Thank Godwho has not made me a woman is preserved as a baraita in the BabylonianTalmud Menachot 43b. Sassoon claims that the fourteenth-century Joshua IbnShuaib is projecting his own idiosyncrasy onto the Talmud (122) by citingthe text in favor of his position that mens and womens souls are different.Sassoon instead suggests that the difference of souls idea must have come fromPlato, Kabbalah, or some other non-Torah source. He never mentions the Tal-mudic tradition that women are a separate people, essentially unlike men(BT Shabbat 62a). While there is certainly scholarly support for influences, thisexemplifies Sassoons approach to identify problem texts and associate theirperceived shortcomings with misreading motivated by non-Torah factors.

    Such a seek-and-destroy approachto find individual potential patriarchaltexts and provide a nonmisogynistic alternative readingis in some ways suc-cessful, in much the same way that earlier feminist patriarchal approaches were.Sassoon provides compelling exegetical and philological arguments for manyof these individual texts. But to prove that individual texts can be read differ-ently or with a more woman-friendly meaning cannot ultimately demonstratethat the tradition as a whole embraces intrinsic equality. At best, it can suggestthat the tradition contains within it the textual resources to support one suchinterpretation.

    The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition is a great resource for traditional Jewswho are seeking textual ways to support an inclusive and equal (if not identical)place for women. Sassoon proves to be an insightful reader of primary textsand widely conversant with other secondary literature about Jewish textual tra-dition, but ultimately this book belongs more on the shelf with personal studybibles than it does scholarly research.SARAH IMHOFF, Indiana UniversityBloomington.

    SAMELY, ALEXANDER. Forms of Rabbinic Literature and Thought: An Introduction.New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. vii279 pp. $99.00 (cloth).

    This immensely stimulating, sophisticated, and difficult book seeks to providean orientation to the literature of rabbinic Judaism; an orientation, however,that differs fundamentally from that offered in other introductory works. Whatsets this work apart is its rigorous form-analytic, text-immanent, and herme-neutic focus. Rather than offering an overview of basic rabbinic concepts orbeliefs, this book is determined to describe rabbinic Judaism primarily by meansof its forms of literary production, being strongly convinced that rabbinicthought itself is inseparable from the nature of the rabbinic documents andthe character of rabbinic textuality. It is thus a book about the meaning ofrabbinic literary forms, and about what the shape of this literature implies forrabbinic thought.

    Such an approach stands in contrast to the widespread tendency to interpretrabbinic Judaism on the basis of a synthesis of the meaning of individual legalor theological statements within these documents. As Samely argues, the natureof these texts, and in particular the profound absence of summarizing state-ments that would reliably articulate the general principles of a rabbinic systemof law and belief, renders the status of such modern syntheses highly uncertain.At the same time, that approach tends to neglect the significance of the literary

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  • Book Reviews


    presentation itself, that is, the recurrent formal structures within which indi-vidual statements function textually, features that provide substantial evidencefor the priorities, values, and concepts of the text-makers (2). By contrast, thisbook strives on every page to wrestle with the primacy of the textual presen-tation that renders rabbinic thought accessible. One therefore finds in thisbook uncommonly clear thinking about the nature of rabbinic textuality.

    One major reason why similar reflection remains uncommon is that the rab-binic texts themselves seem determined to downplay or undermine their ownliterariness, their own textual constitution. These documents actively promotethe idea that they are a-textual data for the rabbinic tradition, a mere windowopening onto an unbounded and ongoing conversation, an oral Torah (174).They inviteindeed, for any coherent construal, they demandimmersive en-gagement and participation. Given their peculiar openness to one another, thedocuments require readers to continue the construction of text, by decidingwhether it is necessary or not to read together statements which come fromdifferent passages or books, and to probe constantly for connections of allsorts (18). Since the texts themselves reflect no explicit unification of doctrine,and since the presentation of scriptural interpretation also lacks an exclusiveor regulatory function, it is left entirely to readers to unify the diverse inter-pretations, themes, and positions. And by means of the ubiquitous literarygesture of quotation, these documents offer themselves to the reader as ap-proximations of the ideal of a fluid totality of statements for which no arrange-ment is necessary (111). This quality of rabbinic literaturethe ubiquitoussuggestion of atextualitycannot be merely ascribed to the deficient char-acter of rabbinic texts or attributed to historical accident, as is so often done.It must rather be recognized as a deliberate act of sustained formation, aconscious literary device or compositional strategy constituting a basic com-ponent of meaning. This recognition brings into focus core aspects of rabbinichermeneutics and thought that are rarely articulated as such in scholarship.Yet, as Samely powerfully demonstrates, the paradox of texts . . . which down-play or negate their own existence must be the starting point for any ap-preciation of rabbinic thought (200).

    In the chapters of this book, Samely offers a methodical and precise accountof the forms and hermeneutical operations of rabbinic literature, identifyingits basic literary components and accounting for the larger themes and messagesthat arise from their combination within larger compositions. What do suchcombined textual features suggest about the thought of the text makers? Forone, a link is suggested between knowledge-shape and text-shape. Rabbiniccompositions may avoid generalization, systematization, or self-explanation pre-cisely because their creators did not believe in generalizing, self-foundational,and self-explicative knowledge and may rather have implicitly favoured a no-tion of knowledge as bound to a context (138). The pervasive recording ofdisagreements, determinative for the entire rabbinic enterprise as known fromthis literature, effectively emphasizes that halakhah and aggadah are domainsof human choices, responsibilities, commitments, and critical inquiry, suchthat arguments and evidence play a central role in rabbinic thought (113).This also serves to create the conceptual space within which rabbinic her-meneutics can unfold (114). In a world conceptualized as so many opportu-nities to respond to God (142), rabbinic halakhah and aggadah are profoundlytied to an eschatological orientation (198). Given the temporary absence ofGod, the documents implicitly call for a demonstrative life, a pointing toward

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  • The Journal of Religion


    God through Torah study and obedience, where demonstration takes prece-dence over explication or description. Rabbinic literature thus contains a kindof performative discourse which constitutes what one might call a theo-deixisrather than a theology (198).

    This extremely compressed overview is inadequate to convey the depth andcomplexity of Samelys argument, but it should be clear that this constitutesan altogether different type of orientation to rabbinic literature and thoughtthan is customary. As an introduction, it functionally complements, rather thanreplaces, other widely used textbooks. Although the author has made evidentefforts to make the manuscript more user friendly (summaries introducing eachchapter, an appendix of sample texts), it remains an extremely dense andconceptually difficult book. The scholarly metalanguage of the authors de-scription is grounded in disciplines typically isolated from rabbinic literaturesuch as text-theory and philosophy of language, and the conceptual underpin-nings of the argument are deeply philosophical. This lends substantial depth,clarity, and precision to the argument, but its very foreignness is sure to fosterskepticism among a more traditionally oriented readership. However, sincemuch of the descriptive language is not bound to rabbinic terminology, thisrenders the results of the analysis more directly comparable to other, nonrab-binic texts and traditions. Regardless of orientation, engaging the ideas of thisbook is likely to pose a vigorous intellectual challenge, but one that richly repaysthe effort required.ANDREW TEETER, Harvard Divinity School.

    RUSTOMJI, NERINA. The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture.New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xxii201 pp. $50.00 (cloth).

    Nerina Rustomjis The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Cultureoffers a fascinating survey of the idea of the afterworld as it appears in theformative centuries of Islam. The book emphasizes the materiality of the Gardenand the Fire in premodern Muslim sources, and this approach is one that islong overdue when it comes to the historical study of Islamic images of lifeafter death. Despite the broad scope implied by the books subtitle, Rustomjidevotes the majority of the text (five of seven chapters) to analyzing referencesto the Garden and the Fire in key texts from the formative period of Islamichistory, including the Quran, Ibn Ishaqs Biography of the Messenger of God (SiratRasul Allah, mistakenly transliterated in the book as Sira Rasul Allah), and ca-nonical Sunni hadith reports on the sayings of Muhammad. This foundationalanalysis is then followed by a chapter on eschatological narratives in manualsfrom the ninth through thirteenth centuries, and a final chapter on poetic,architectural, and artistic representations of the Garden and the Fire from avariety of contexts. Rustomjis emphasis on the texts from the formative periodseems appropriate to her goal of uncovering how imaginings about the after-world culminated in a distinct religious aesthetic that has shaped Islamic cul-ture (xxii). Her work introduces readers to a series of fascinating texts, bothwritten and nonwritten, that will be highly useful not only to students andeducated lay people but also to comparativists and specialists.

    Rustomjis work offers some important observations about how the imagesand depictions of the Garden and the Fire change over the first seven centuriesof Islamic history, and the sixth chapter in particular shows how Muslim con-

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