Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture in the Mishnahby Alexander Samley

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  • Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture in the Mishnah by Alexander SamleyReview by: Abraham GoldbergJournal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 127, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 2007), pp. 83-84Published by: American Oriental SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20297218 .Accessed: 13/06/2014 02:37

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  • Reviews of Books 83

    Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture in the Mishnah. By Alexander Samely. Oxford: Oxford Uni

    versity Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 481. $85.

    The title of Alexander Samely's book gives little indication that its primary aim is to explain the

    mishnaic approach to Scripture in terms of modern critical studies of language. The layout of the book

    is close to that of a treatise in linguistic studies, and indeed the very chapter titles would fit a work on

    language study. A reader not well versed in modern language studies would seemingly find difficulty in understanding much of what Samely presents. Yet to the author's credit there is constant detailed

    explanation of how the idiomatic interpretation of Scripture is understood in "the general frame of

    philosophy of language," including constant reference to the classic works in modern language study and digressions into topics of concern in modern linguistics. Samely's work might even serve as part of a general introduction to modern linguistics, with a classic text such as the Mishna being the basis for demonstration. Indeed, Samely's scientific language analysis can apply to any literary work, and, in

    fact, Samely makes occasional references to Shakespeare to highlight a point in the mishnaic use of

    language. It is not easy, however, to give modern language definition to every aspect of mishnaic interpre

    tation, although Samely is innovative in developing a particular terminology of his own, which

    he has done remarkably well. He has developed a complex of language formulations which he calls

    "resources." These mark the thematic interpretative options in the mishnaic interpretation of Scrip ture. Although almost all of these can be found in modern language studies, the special character

    of mishnaic interpretation requires some modification, as Samely explains, and there is admittedly occasional uncertainty. The definition of each "resource" is based "in the rich and diversified concep tual apparatus supplied by academic discourse on linguistics, reading and philosophy of language"

    (p. 2). It takes for granted, however, that the Mishna has a consistent approach to Scripture, which, as

    we shall see, has yet to be proven. The technical term that the author uses to denote mishnaic interpretation of Scripture is "herme

    neutics," which appears on the flyleaf and is used throughout the book, substituting for "interpretation" of the title. Although technically correct, Samely makes a very wide use of the term. Whereas in the

    general area of rabbinic studies it is usually limited to the rules and modes of interpretation found in the Halakhic Midrash, mishnaic use is wider and not strictly "hermeneutics." Moreover, the Mishna

    is far from being a hermeneutic work. Hermeneutics in general plays a very minor role in the Mishna,

    for the prime purpose of the Mishna is to serve as a compendium of the Pharisaic Oral Law without

    any necessity of proving it from Scripture. This is the province of the Halakhic Midrash, the various works of which follow the order of Scripture in offering hermeneutic interpretation which conforms to the teachings of the Mishna and its companion volume the Tosefta. Very often, after giving such

    interpretation, the Midrash will conclude with an exact quotation from the Mishna or Tosefta for which

    it has just offered Scriptural proof. The relatively occasional homiletic proof offered in the Mishna should be regarded more as a peg

    upon which to hang the Oral Law, for memory or other purposes, than as any necessity to prove it.

    Moreover, Scriptural quotations in the Mishna are mostly of aggadic rather than halakhic intent and

    have nothing to do to proving the Oral Law. They come mostly at the end of tractates or of distinct

    sections within a tractate, where they serve as signatures. Samely, along with other scholars, tends to

    regard these as later additions to the Mishna, but indeed they are integral to the text. It must be remem

    bered that the Mishna as well as all rabbinic teaching was completely oral, the prohibition on setting it down in writing remaining in force up to several generations after the Mishna, and even then not

    without controversy, as I have written in detail elsewhere.

    Samely regards the hermeneutics of the Halakhic Midrash as a continuation of the hermeneutics of

    the Mishna. Although the Halakhic Midrash is a later compilation, the hermeneutic system flourished even earlier, and the Mishna could and did avail itself of it. Except that the Mishna is not primarily interested in providing hermeneutic proof. Where it does, one must ask Why? In many cases, as noted

    above, reference may hardly be more than a memory peg. The teachings of the Mishna do not depend

    upon hermeneutic proof. And even where there may not be any hermeneutic proof at all, as well as in

    the few isolated cases where the Oral Law contradicts the Written, the Oral Law prevails.

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  • 84 Journal of the American Oriental Society 127.1 (2007)

    Again, Samely finds inconsistencies in certain hermeneutic usages in the Mishna which are arbitrary and "homiletically unproductive" (p. 272), and at least one case which is left "hermeneutically unre

    solved." These could be indeed troubling if the Mishna could be viewed as an attempt to "create" the

    Oral Law from Scripture, but hardly significant if correctly seen as an exposition of the already existing Oral Law. Here, "arbitrary proofs" or none at all do not in any way impinge upon the teachings of the

    Mishna. Scriptural proof for the teachings of the Mishna and the Tosefta is primarily the province of

    the Halakhic Midrash, and is found, as I have noted elsewhere, only in the Pharisaic tradition.

    More complex than the pointing out of "homiletic inconsistencies," which, as I have noted, hardly bother the editor of the Mishna, are Samely's attempts to "resolve" them, attempts which require

    strong mental concentration, especially where occurring in the bind of modern linguistics. Even when

    resolved, they retain a touch of artificiality. As noted, the primary source for the study of rabbinic "in

    terpretation" (the term used in the title) of Scripture, is properly the Halakhic Midrash. Yet to cover

    the complete array of such would require almost an encyclopedia. Even Samely's linguistic analysis of the relatively sparse occurrences of rabbinic interpretation in the Mishna takes up to four hundred

    pages of close print with copious notes in petit, not counting another hundred pages of appendices and

    bibliography. Aiming to apply his innovative research to a complete rabbinic work, the author had no

    real choice except the Mishna, and indeed we are grateful for this. Yet, the limitations involved in this

    choice should not be minimized.

    All this, however, does not detract from Samely's main contribution: elucidating how modern lan

    guage studies can be of help in understanding rabbinic approaches to Scripture. Often, the author deals

    with general problems in modern critical language studies which are also relevant to the mishnaic

    approach to the language of Scripture. Thus, in his extensive discussion of how hermeneutics can

    convey "fresh figurative meaning," he of necessity has to deal with the elaborate scientific literature in

    the area of metaphorical meaning. Against this background, Samely can explain and demonstrate the

    unique manipulation of concrete and metaphoric language. And as he writes: "I have wrestled with

    the terminology of modern linguistics, pragmatics, and the philosophy of language to find categories that do justice to the Mishnaic work with Scripture" (p. 392). His work is truly innovative, situating

    Mishnaic hermeneutics in the frame of modern linguistics. He has given us new insights into scrip tural interpretation from the mishnaic point of view, and, as he writes, an appreciation which has the

    potential to influence postmodern translations of the Bible.

    Abraham Goldberg

    The Hebrew University

    Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity. By Steven Weitzman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. ix + 193. $39.95.

    Wide-ranging in both temporal perspective and textual base, Weitzman's study explores ancient

    Jewish responses to the loss of religious and cultural autonomy in the face of conquest by outside

    powers. Taking seriously the idea that the events of ancient history are all but unrecoverable, he

    chooses to focus instead on Jewish texts and what they can tell readers about "the role of the imagi nation in the struggle for cultural survival" (p. 9). Weitzman begins with the premise that, under foreign

    authorities, "the basic options available to Jews were limited?one could ingratiate oneself with foreign

    rule, operate within its blind spots, or find a way to augment one's power and fight it off" (p. 8). He

    then turns to an examination of these options, focusing on the many tactics that Jews might have used

    along the way. Weitzman begins with chapters on the Persian period ("After Babel") and the Hasmonean period

    ("Maccabean Maneuvers"). The first chapter explores practices of mythmaking and self-construction

    in Jewish relationships with Persian authorities. The texts of Ezra, the Elephantine documents, 2 Maccabees, and I Esdras provide evidence for tactics of cooperation with authorities as well as de

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