Reading the Writing of Rabbinism: Toward an Interpretation of Rabbinic Literature

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  • American Academy of Religion

    Reading the Writing of Rabbinism: Toward an Interpretation of Rabbinic LiteratureAuthor(s): William Scott GreenSource: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1983), pp. 191-206Published by: Oxford University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 17/06/2014 20:40

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  • Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LI/2

    Reading the Writing of Rabbinism: Toward an Interpretation

    of Rabbinic Literature William Scott Green


    cosmopolitanism that followed the death of Alexander the Great undermined the prevalent forms of communal and political organization and altered the social and intellectual life of the

    world of late antiquity. There emerged in Hellenistic and Greco-Roman cultures, especially in the realm of religion, voluntary associations, groups characterized not by a common social, economic, or sometimes even ethnic origin, but by a shared assent to a system of piety or a set of principles and ideals, or both. Such associations, whether they be counted as sects, philosophical schools, or consistories of the devout, believed that they dealt in matters of ultimate importance, understood the contours of reality, and possessed definitive programs for salvation. They claimed the ability decisively to affect the destiny of humankind, believed their knowledge gave them enormous power, and insisted on a commensurate authority. Among these associations, and perhaps the last to enjoy the attention of critical scholarship, are the rabbis, the intellec- tual virtuosi of ancient Judaism, whose literary legacy rivals all others in size and continuity.

    Since medieval times, beginning with the letter of Sherira Gaon, students of rabbinism have used its considerable literature in order to write history. But no datum from the past, or from the present for that matter, explains itself, and any attempt to reconstruct the past on the basis of documents requires a set of presuppositions or theories about the sources, about their credibility and reliability, about the way they are to be read in order to be understood. In this regard, the story of the histori- cal study of rabbinic literature begins with credulity and ends with sus- picion; it is a saga of diminishing assumptions. Guided by the supposition that rabbinic materials offer a neutral, essentially indefectible record of

    William Scott Green (Ph.D., Brown) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Rochester. He is the author of The Traditions of Joshua ben Hananiah (1981) and editor of Approaches to Ancient Judaism (1978, 1980, 1981).

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  • 192 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    rabbinic antiquity, historians of rabbinism construed them as mimetic and used them with consummate assurance, unrestrained by epistemo- logical uncertainty. Their method, which presupposes the reliability of rabbinic sources, makes the writing of rabbinic history or biography, or the description of ancient Judaism, into an exercise in reorganization and realignment. The discrete components of rabbinic literature, dispersed throughout its documents and regarded as having equivalent historical veracity, are treated as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that the historian, biog- rapher, or theologian must rearrange either chronologically or themati- cally in order to demonstrate their proper relationship and relevance.

    Informed by an intellectual posture that identifies criticism with the discovery of recondite, subsurface meaning and inherently distrusts the tractable externals of consciousness (Danto, 1981), scholars of rabbinism in the past quarter century have come to assume less about the veracity of the sources than did their predecessors. The result is an attitude that holds less to be more; the less susceptible we are to the mimetic claims of a text, the less willing to believe what we read, the more we ultimately are likely to know. The shift from credulity to suspicion has generated a concomitant shift in focus. The attention of critical scholarship on rab- binism has turned away from history per se and now is directed to the nature and character of the sources, to the description of rabbinic docu- ments in their own terms. The initial task on the agenda of contempo- rary rabbinic scholarship no longer is to limn the shape of time but to understand and interpret literature. Jacob Neusner describes the work as follows:

    In front of us is a labor of description and interpretation, estab- lishing context and providing exegesis. We have a sizable corpus of texts which clearly express a world-view and propose to create a society and a way of life for a distinctive group of people. In order to describe that world-view and understand the way of life shaped by the ancient rabbis, we have to interpret texts. We have to describe the world in which the texts took shape and to offer a theory of the questions which seemed urgent and compelling to the people who made the texts as they are and not in some other way. So the work of exegesis depends upon establishing the appropriate context of exegesis. At the same time, to describe the context we have to read the texts. (1981b:79)

    This way of putting things creates an epistemological and therefore a methodological problem. Because rabbinic documents constitute the only direct testimony about the ancient rabbis, the mere attempt to understand them historically encloses us in a hermeneutical circle. The documents cannot be interpreted out of context, but the determination of that context is itself a function of our reading of the texts. Neusner

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  • Green: Rabbinism 193

    asks for the "appropriate context of exegesis." But it is fair to ask, "appropriate" for whom? Because it necessarily entails questions about value, notions of coherence, and assumptions about causality, explana- tion, and cultural generation, the determination of the "appropriate" context cannot be made by any document, however much it may tell us about itself. It is we who decide what we want to know, and this deci- sion cannot but inform the way we read and construe the data we wish to understand and interpret. The question about context, then, in the first instance is addressed not to the documents under study but to our position as interpreters. The answer to the question about context is therefore derived from theory, and that theory, whatever its character, ultimately is grounded in our notions about the way things are, which in turn inform our sense of the way things were or must have been. In the words of Hayden White, "The very claim to have distinguished a past from a present world of social thought and praxis, and to have deter- mined the formal coherence of that past world, implies a conception of the form that knowledge of the present world also must take, insofar as it is continuous with that past world" (1973:21).

    If the goal of scholarship is the historical understanding and interpreta- tion of rabbinic documents, the "appropriate" context for that enterprise is one that simultaneously will allow a text to speak as much as possible in its own terms to its own world, to say what it wants to say, and yet will permit it to do so in a language we can understand. To interpret any document, we need to know as much as possible about the context that generated it, its "lived" context, narrowly bound by time and place. We also need to know about our own analytical context, shaped by the nature and mode of con- temporary inquiry. The important point is that both these contexts are analytical constructs. This method argues against a strictly objectivist her- meneutic, which attributes to a text an invariant meaning waiting to be dis- covered and makes the psychological transposition of the interpreter into the world of the text the sine qua non of understanding. It also stands against a strictly subjectivist approach, which endows a text with semantic autonomy and makes its meaning dependent on the world of the interpre- ter. It postulates instead that the historical understanding of a text demands an affinity between "its own terms" and ours. The historical understanding of a text cannot be constructed, in the terms of Clifford Geertz (1976:223), solely out of "experience-near" concepts, which leave us "awash in imme- diacies" and "entangled in vernacular," nor can it be fashioned exclusively out of "experience-distant" concepts, which strand us in abstractions and smother us in jargon. The processes of understanding and interpretation require not only the critical analysis of the documents under study, espe- cially the delineation of the textual facts; they also demand reflection on the origin and adequacy of our own theories and the defense of our selec- tion of context.

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  • 194 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    To initiate reflection on these rather broad concerns, this paper con- siders three contexts against which rabbinic writing has been or can be read: the political world, the social world, and the intellectual or cogni- tive world that any rabbinic document might be said to inhabit. The remarks below are neither strictly interpretive nor wholly programmatic; they are offered as a heuristic reflection on the problem of constructing an "appropriate" context for the understanding and interpretation of rabbinic literature.

    Although rabbinic documents resemble one another in many funda- mental respects, they cannot usefully be explored solely at a level of gen- erality or abstraction. In what follows, therefore, the Mishnah will serve for purposes of illustration. As the initial and formative rabbinic compo- sition, it is better known and studied than the rest, and most of them presuppose it. This tactic does not imply the identity of all rabbinic writings. But the Mishnah is the foundation of the rabbinic canon, and observations about it may apply, mutatis mutandis, to other materials in the rabbis' literary corpus. The focus of this discussion is particular, but its thrust is intended to be general.

    The broadest and evidently most tractable context against which any rabbinic document may be interpreted and about which it may be asked to testify is the political situation of the Jews in the region and during the time in which the document was produced. In the case of the Mish- nah, this means the political situation of the Jews in Palestine from the first century B.C. through the second century A.D. To interpret the Mish- nah in this way, however, depends less on our reading of the document itself than on the study of the historical record external to it; for the Mishnah exhibits scant interest in national or international politics, and it offers very little information about the circumstances that led, specifi- cally, to its production. Two catastrophes, each with devastating politi- cal, economic, and social consequences, mark the history of this period. The destruction of the Temple in 70 and the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 132-35 caused the removal of the Jews from the city of Jerusalem, their national center, and confirmed the permanent demise of the Holy Tem- ple, their primary cultural and religious institution. The obsession of the Mishnah with halakot pertaining to the Temple at a time when it must have been clear that the cult was gone forever certifies that the docu- ment speaks of a world that no longer existed. The disjunction of the Mishnah's interests and the evidence of the historical record, therefore, contributes a fundamental component to the understanding and inter- pretation of the document as a whole. It establishes beyond doubt that the substance of the Mishnah is not mimesis, but fiction, and this knowl- edge helps to direct our assessment of its preoccupations and ultimate purposes. But the broad political context does not explain the details of the text, nor does it show how these two events affected the form of the

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  • Green: Rabbinism 195

    document. The danger of reading a text primarily against this sort of

    background is that limited and particular data, fragments of the histori- cal record, may be used to explain too much, to constitute the single reference point for understanding. The assumption, for instance, that the Mishnah is designed principally and primarily as a strategy of rectifica- tion in the aftermath of two wars carries in its wake the inevitable ten-

    dency to seek out its elements of structure and stability and to ignore its traits of disorder, ambiguity, and inconsistency.

    The second sort of context against which a rabbinic document can be interpreted is the social-a notion, as Jonathan Smith (1975) points out, that admits of several connotations. Serious difficulties accompany attempts to extract a social context from a document, whether that con- text focus on social organization, social forces, social institutions, or the so-called social world of shared meaning.

    The very attempt to draw a social description out of a document necessarily entails the assumption that literature, especially anonymous literature, is the product of a community and reflects its life. But the presence of a document in a particular group does not attest to the role of the group in its production, nor does it reveal how members of the community regarded the status or content of the text. The relations between literature and society are complex and frequently obscure; to assume that the former always reflects the latter is naive, facile, and unwarranted. In addition, our capacity to construct a social context from a literary document is limited by the character, quality, and quantity of the information it provides. A text, a document, no matter how unpol- ished, simply does not constitute the sort of raw material out of which the "thick description" (Geertz, 1973:3-30) of a society and its idiosyn- cracies can be composed. A text represents the views and interests of its authors, editors, and creators, not a neutral description of the external world. This, to be sure, is no novel insight, but the current scholarly passion for the social description and explanation of ancient religion may justify a brief belaboring of the obvious. The close reading of a text, no matter how delicate the scrutiny, is not the equivalent of field-work. Texts provide no evidence of movement and gesture, facial expression and vocal pitch, to say nothing of the host of other verbal and nonverbal behaviors that order social relations and effect communication. One merely has to read reliable ethnography or view the slides of a village in which an anthropologist lived for two years to see how much about the real social world of the Mishnah or Talmuds, or of the Gospels for that matter, we do not and never can know.

    These limitations mean that the social contexts deduced from litera- ture are bound to be schematic, for scholars are forced into an over- reliance on social theory to fill the gaps left open by the text. But social theory as an autonomous, self-conscious intellectual activity is a modern

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  • 196 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    concoction, designed initially to evoke, direct, explain, and often to obstruct or proscribe, change and development in modern societies. Tom Bottomore cautions that its ideological dimension should not be under- estimated: "Every sociological concept and theory has an ideological force by reason of its influence upon the thoughts and actions of men in their everyday life. It may have this influence either because it is impregnated with a social doctrine, or because, while it excludes any immediate doctrinal influence, it nevertheless draws attention to and emphasizes certain features of social life and neglects others, and this persuades men to conceive of their condition and possible future in one set of terms rather than another" (1966:20).

    The force of this observation becomes evident in a consideration of the work of Emile Durkheim, whose theories, particularly in the hands of his contemporary tradent Mary Douglas (1966, 1975), have so effec- tively instructed our understanding of the rules of Leviticus. Adopting and elaborating the views of Auguste Comte and especially those of Claude-Henri Saint-Simon, Durkheim construed society as an organism whose various constituent elements, each with its distinct and "natural" function, were interdependent and cooperated to produce a coherent and integrated whole. But the organic model was more than a heuristic metaphor, for Durkheim evidently regarded society as sui generis, with rules and laws of its own, to which individuals could not but submit. Indeed, Durkheim insisted on the utter primacy and absolute priority of social reality over individual experience, and he asserted that language, mind, and the fundamental categories of thought reflected social organi- zation. This view, in somewhat different versions, underlies both func- tionalism and structuralism (Giddens, 1979a). In Durkheim's theory, the components of society are held together by moral consensus, which not only encourages devotion to society as a whole but also checks the expression of the disruptive appetites of egoism and motivates altruism, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice. Since in Durkheim's theory individuals do not so much think as internalize social order, a breakdown of that order will result in anguish and perhaps suicide. For him, social, politi- cal, and economic conflict are pathological by definition and constitute prima facie evidence of severe moral crisis./1/

    It should be clear even from this cursory, oversimplified sketch that Durkheim's preoccupation with social solidarity, integration, interdepen- dence, and stasis exhibits a basically conservative posture with a profound aversion to radical social change. This ideological prejudice, with its antipathy to individualism, makes it difficult for the theory to account for individual creativity except in terms of deviance. For us, Durkheim illustrates the lesson that no social theory, no matter how persuasively it seems to fit our ancient data, is wholly separable from its ideological roots and implications, and the recognition of those roots and implications is

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  • Green: Rabbinism 197

    prerequisite to the adoption of the theory. But if social theory in important ways is derived from ideology, does

    this factor not inhibit its power to explain? Durkheim's theory emphasizes the organic, integrative, thought-producing, and boundary-maintaining character of society, and these, along with other of his insights, have been adapted and applied with cunning and skill by Mary Douglas to explain the social meaning represented by portions of the book of Leviticus.

    Douglas's work, in turn, has shaped contemporary readings of rabbinic materials. But Leviticus and rabbinic documents are texts, and as con-

    sciously wrought literary products they reflect the ideology of their producers. Leviticus, for instance, represents the interests of the priestly caste and projects, in Jonathan Smith's terms, "a locative map of the world as elaborated by an imperial figure . . . a map of the world which

    guarantees meaning and value through structures of congruity and conformity . . . restricts mobility and values 'place"' (1977:xii,292). The levitical ideology, with its stress on morphology, structure, and synchro- nie, is genuinely conservative, and it surely exhibits an attitude toward radical social change roughly comparable to Durkheim's. The astonish- ing congruence, the uncanny fit, between some modern social theories and ancient texts, therefore, may reveal less about the explanatory capacity of the theory than it does about the common attitudes, shared values, and confluence of interests between the theory and the text. Indeed, Mary Douglas's argument (1966:41-57) that the "abominations" of Leviticus are rejected because they violate established criteria for air, water, and land creatures reads less like an explanation than a translation in which ancient structures of conformity and congruity are relabeled in modern terms. Their "abomination" is her "anomaly." Social theories appear to work best on literary materials with which they are in funda- mental sympathy, and this possibility should encourage caution about our use of theory in the construction of the social context of rabbinic documents.

    The limitations of literature force an overreliance on social theory, and they also obstruct a somewhat different approach to the creation of rabbinism's social world. This alternative attempts to define the rabbis as a particular class or group in society and to explain their cultural prod- ucts through comparison with and analogy to other similar groups about whom we have more information. We may define rabbis as lawyers, bureaucrats, or intellectuals and then proceed to reconstruct a social context for their literature on the basis of cross-cultural comparison. This alternative suffers from two difficulties. First, the sociologically pertinent terms presuppose more information than our documents provide, and, second, the occupational terms often lack conceptual rigor and are espe- cially susceptible to the vagaries of ideological fashion. Two brief exam- ples will illustrate the problems.

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  • 198 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    The classification of the rabbis as an elite is by now a scholarly com-

    monplace. But despite its seeming simplicity and neutrality, the concept "elite" represents marked ideological interests. Its fundamental elements derive from the social theories developed early in this century by Vil- fredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, both of whom supposed a model of

    society in which an organized, elite minority governs an unorganized majority. For Pareto, membership of the governing elite can be changed either by introducing new members from another social class, by the replacement of one elite by a counterelite, or by the movement of mem- bers of the elite through various social institutions. Mosca altered the model somewhat by claiming that the elite could articulate or represent, rather than determine, the values of the governed majority. At the core of both versions is the belief that membership in the elite is open and that its power and influence, in principle, are not oppressive. The theory itself, however, was invented in explicit reaction to and as a deliberate refutation of the Marxist notion of a ruling class. It aims to show, and its very structure assumes, that a stable, closed ruling class and a classless society are impossible. Contemporary theories that extend the definition of elites to occupational groups with high social status, and therefore attribute influence to intellectuals, bureaucrats, and industrial managers, all depend on the acceptance of the general theories of Pareto and Mosca and bear the imprint of their critique of the Marxist idea of the working class as a social force (Bottomore, 1966). With such ideological resonance, the concept "elite" can hardly be appropriated as a neutral depiction of incontestable social facts.

    However defined, this concept inevitably suggests relationships of power and lines of social stratification. Thus, the classification of the rabbis as an elite necessarily implies that they stood at or near the center of their society and exercised influence, if not control, over people in lower social strata. But without documentation these assumptions are merely theoretical insinuations. Rabbinic literature provides only a bare hint of possible relations between an elite and the majority, and thus discourages our critical application of the concept. Indeed, the diametri- cally opposed social descriptions of the rabbis offered by E. E. Urbach (1968), who sees them as the benign representatives of the Torah-loving Jewish people, and Y. A. Solodukho (1973), for whom they are the exploiting, land-owning ruling class, show the ineluctable schematization that results when too much theory is too rapidly applied to too little data.

    If the concept "elite" postulates scarcely demonstrable facts and has strong ideological overtones, the concept "intellectual," used as a social indicator, hardly improves matters. Sociological analysis has historically depicted intellectuals as standing, in important ways, in opposition to or in conflict with the political power of society (Eisenstadt, 1972). They

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  • Green: Rabbinism 199

    have been portrayed as innovators, free-thinkers, and sometimes rebels who sought a certain immunity from the normal range of obligations that determined conventional society. Contemporary theories, guided primarily by the work of Edward Shils (1968, 1972a, 1972b), have recast this definition. Intellectuals now are understood as "individuals engaged in the creative exploration of culture" (Goody, 1977:20) and are con- ceived as the frequent purveyors of society's sacred symbols and the bearers of its most salient traditions. This new formulation, which con- strues intellectuals in terms of their activity rather than of their class or

    profession, allows the social position of the intellectual to be either at the center or the periphery and renders the relations between intellectuals and society dependent on a number of variables. Although more accu- rate and representative than earlier versions, the concept in this form is a less than precise tool for the recovery and description of ancient social life and organization.

    All of this suggests that the unconsidered application of sociological categories to rabbinic texts proves unhelpful in, and may even be danger- ous to, the construction of the social context of rabbinic literature. First, sociological concepts develop and make sense only within particular theo- retical structures. To remove them from those structures weakens their analytical force and results in an unproductive eclecticism. Second, socio- logical concepts, like inexperienced and insecure travelers, carry too much baggage. Honed on living societies, they specify a wider range of data than our sources provide and thus preshape a context we cannot fill out.

    These considerations invite our attention to the wise counsel of Abra- ham Malherbe, who observes,

    Our major sources for the social reconstruction of early Christian- ity are literary. We may expect to gain insight elsewhere, for example, from archaeological data and modern social theory, but eventually we are driven back to literary sources. With that in mind we must stress the obvious, namely, that sociological study of early Christianity cannot slight literary criticism. We must persist in seeking to determine the character and intention of different types of literature if we hope to discern how they func- tioned in relation to the communities with which they were asso- ciated. When that is done, they can more properly be assessed as witnesses to particular communities. (1977:15)

    Following Malherbe's suggestion, which applies with equal force to the study of rabbinic Judaism, let us return to the Mishnah to ask what its literary facts reveal about its social context. Like most of rabbinic literature, the Mishnah is an anonymous document composed of rela- tively brief, self-contained passages or cognitive units that treat particu- lar topics of halakic interest. Many units are assigned to rabbis, who

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  • 200 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    collectively span the generations from the first century B.C. through the second century A.D. These attributed passages often present the conflict- ing opinions of two or more masters on a given point or halakic problem. The discrete cognitive units of the Mishnah have been arranged by tradent-redactors into series, each of which is devoted to the discussion and elaboration of a particular halakic theme. The largest of these the- matic catalogues are the tractates of the Mishnah, which contain subtrac- tates, smaller series of distinct passages on subtopics of the tractate's larger subject. These subtractates, or intermediary units, usually exhibit a formal consistency, suggesting that when they were arranged a common literary form or formulary pattern was imposed upon them. Throughout, the brief passages of which the tractates and subtractates are composed are neither chronologically nor biographically aligned, nor, in general, are they formally linked to one another./2/

    The Mishnah clearly exemplifies the list genre. Its tractates and sub- tractates comprise series of independent units that are paratactically arranged but demonstrate formal and thematic coherence. The list-like character of the Mishnah appears even in the structure of some of its smaller pericopae. It is evident not only in the Mishnah's own brief cat- alogues, but also in the dispute. The latter usually consists of a topic sentence or phrase, followed by the opinions of two or more rabbis. Nor- mally these opinions conflict and are joined by the simple conjunction "and." No suggestion is made in the form of the dispute that the teachers actually engaged one another in conversation, nor is one opinion given priority over the other through the use of a hypotactic conjunction such as "but." The relevant opinions are simply juxtaposed under an appropri- ate heading-a formulation that amounts to a short list.

    The identification of the Mishnah's literary genre makes it hard to be sanguine about extracting its social world, for it is difficult to imagine a literary form more removed from social reality and less able to capture anything of it than a list. As Jack Goody observes, lists "stand opposed to the continuity, the flux, the connectedness of the usual speech forms, that is, conversation, oratory, etc., and substitute an arrangement in which concepts, verbal items, are separated not only from the wider context in which speech always, or almost always, takes place, but sepa- rated too from one another" (1977:81).

    The genre of the Mishnah, then, reflects a literary procedure in which the ideas and words of individuals have been removed from the social and intellectual contexts in which they were thought or spoken, and frozen into frameworks of permanent opposition. Its thematic catalogues present an overdetermined, overgeneralized picture of the world that obliterates the frame of reference of individual thought. This construction blocks any perception of the social meaning of ideas and consequently of the network of social relations behind the image the Mishnah seeks to project. Indeed,

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  • Green: Rabbinism 201

    the very juxtaposition of isolated, usually conflicting maxims, unaccom-

    panied by resolution, invites comparison between and among them and makes the social effect of dissent impossible to assess. But are we to suppose that in reality the authors of these ideas agreed that their decision and

    judgments on a variety of questions were simply matters of choice? If the Mishnah's projection is assumed to replicate the social realities of its

    predecessors, it will be necessary for us to rethink our notions of rabbinic behavior. For the agreement to disagree, which the Mishnah's redactors are evidently prepared to encourage, suggests a civil society of sociability in which differences in thought and behavior are matters of taste and style, in which ethics have become etiquette, rather than issues of metaphysical, ritual, and moral-therefore of social and communal-consequence.

    Efforts to understand and interpret rabbinic literature primarily against a political and social context are apt to yield less than we wish to know. Knowledge of political background may inform our judgment about the fundamental preoccupations of a document, but it leaves many features of the text in shadow. The reconstruction of the literature's elusive social world is frustrated by the form of its texts and, in any case, depends heavily on ideologically motivated theories. For these reasons, the pur- ported political and social worlds of a document themselves remain too problematic to provide a usable context for the interpretation of rabbinic literature. The exigencies of responsible interpretation thus turn us to rab- binism's intellectual world, the world of thinking and knowing.

    Among the obvious features of rabbinic literature, especially of its halakic content, is the considerable information it presupposes. The most elementary and concise halakic statement in the Mishnah or the gemara assumes knowledge of a host of implicit rules and behaviors, presumes a universe of tacit understanding. Rabbinic literature is produced from within and is directed to other specialists, the rabbinic conoscenti. It virtually ignores the world outside of its own preoccupations and obses- sions. Its syntactic and didactic constructions are cryptic and compact; it is a literature almost wholly self-absorbed. These traits in part explain why it is so difficult to reconstruct the social world of rabbinism from its texts and why emphasizing the political context of those texts distorts their meaning. The study of rabbinic writing draws us inexorably into the world of a small number of men whose primary activity was reflect- ing on ideas, opinions, and behaviors, sometimes those recounted in scripture, but most often those of one another. This picture might seem a dead end for analysis were it not that rabbinic literature presents a nearly continuous record of rabbinic thought and disputation through at least five centuries. In this respect it provides not social or political back- ground, but intellectual context-a record of the modes of analyzing and transmitting received ideas, evidence of distinctive styles of classification, argumentation, and interpretation. The arduous and exacting work of

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  • 202 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    delineating the Mishnah's classificatory schemata and prosopography of ideas is already well under way./3/ The remainder of this essay suggests very cursorily how a further look at some of the Mishnah's formal traits can provide another perspective on rabbinism's intellectual world and how attention to these features might help to illuminate something of the dynamics of tradition, the mechanisms of persistence, that character- ize rabbinic culture.

    Two considerations legitimize the use of the Mishnah's formal traits for this exercise. First, as we have seen, it is impossible to regard the document as mimetic. Its interests and preoccupations speak of a nonex- istent world, and its literary genre not only makes no effort to imitate life, it frankly obscures the social relevance of its content. Although the Mishnah abounds with opinions about proper social behavior in a variety of areas, it offers no clue as to who actually behaved this way. Thus we must read it, at least initially, as an intellectual construct, a fantasy, a fiction. Second, the Mishnah does not imitate earlier Jewish writing. Its formal discontinuity with the Jewish literary past suggests that the docu- ment constituted something novel in ancient Judaism and encourages us to recognize a strategy and purpose in its producers' selection of genre and their elaboration of a discourse. The understanding and interpreta- tion of rabbinic literature surely imposes a consideration of its structur- ing of imagination and intellect.

    The Mishnah's formal traits described above show that it represents the list genre and that its discrete items are paratactically arranged. Although its subtractates and intermediary sections develop a particular theme or problem, the absence of formal linkage between cognitive units means that each can be perceived as distinct and separable, and that each unit can be known, studied, and examined by itself, independent of its present location. The measurable, if not excessive, number of units that appear in more than one tractate make this conclusion plausible. It also seems likely that this paratactic trope characterizes relations among Mishnaic tractates. While many of them presuppose one another, and many are interdependent, Neusner shows that tractates whose halakot build on conceptions located elsewhere "are self-contained and work out the logic of their themes in a manner quite autonomous of the ways in which the primary tractates do theirs" (1977:23). Stressing the Mishnah's paratactic trope does not imply that its contents are randomly arranged, but rather that its tractates and cognitive units do not inexorably lead from one to another, as discrete thoughts are made to do, for example, in a philosophical dialogue.

    From this perspective, the Mishnah may be envisioned as a kind of primal list, mastery of which determined competence and credibility in rabbinic society. But the absence in its lists of explicit hypotaxis suggests that expertise involved learning each single pericope, each separate unit,

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  • Green: Rabbinism 203

    one after another. It also implies that in rabbinic discourse attention will be directed not to a picture of the whole but to details of the distinct

    components of the lists themselves. Because their autonomy is never nullified and because they are not formally bound to one another, the elements of Mishnaic lists are capable of virtually endless comparison and contrast, of nearly infinite combination and recombination, in a

    system that maximizes the possibilities for ingenuity. Within such a system, change will be difficult to perceive because

    the intellectual focus is on the myriad possibilities of mixing and match-

    ing the particulars. The lists themselves remain intact, providing a sense of permanence and stability, but the manipulation of their components creates opportunities for flexibility and for persistent and apparently purposive intellectual activity. In such a system, knowledge will seem to

    expand laterally rather than to advance linearly, obscuring any sense of either progress or radical change. This preliminary account at least raises the possibility that genres, the generative devices of literature, have a

    cognitive dimension as well as an aesthetic one, and that this feature merits serious attention in any attempt to understand and interpret rab- binic texts and to explain how rabbinic Judaism adapted and persisted over the course of time.

    In creating the various contexts against which rabbinic literature can be understood and interpreted, we need to begin with epistemological modesty; we cannot push too far beneath the surface before we have

    thoroughly mapped the terrain on the basis of the most detectable land- marks. To ask too much assumes that we know too much. In the present instance, our first reading of rabbinic texts must see them not as records of collective behavior or institutional legislation, but as works of imagination. Before we can begin to relate that imagination to the world outside it, we need to understand its shapes and patterns, its rules and procedures; and for this we have to attend carefully not only to the substantive relationships among ideas in their various documentary contexts, but also to the material forms in which those ideas are cast.

    This essay began as a heuristic reflection on the problem of creating an "appropriate" context for the historical understanding and the interpreta- tion of rabbinic literature. To that end we have surveyed three different contexts: the political, the social, and the intellectual. The political is the most general, but it leaves some of the most interesting parts of a document unexplained. The social context, the most popular in current academic analysis, is the most difficult to construct because the limitations of the sources force an overreliance on theories based on data different from those of the texts themselves. The focus on the intellectual world of rabbinism seems to offer advantages over these other two. It allows us to hover close to the texts themselves and, in some degree, to participate in their activities. It also permits us to do so from the standpoint of our own interests; while

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  • 204 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    studying rabbinic lists, we perform our own modern Listenwissenschaft. Clearly, none of these contexts replaces the others, and all three are neces-

    sary for a full assessment of the literature. But by attending first to rab- binism's intellectual world we enjoy the benefit of basing conclusions on extensive empirical data, and this should point the way into the rabbis' other worlds. In the end, by learning to understand rabbinic processes of

    thought and imagination, as these are presented in the texts we have, we cannot but become more conscious of our own.


    Versions of this paper were presented at the History of Judaism Section of the 1979 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, New York City; the Max Richter Conversation, Brown University, June, 1980; and seminars at the University of Oxford. The critical contributions of Rebecca MacMillan Fox, Professors Mary Gerhart, Fitz John Porter Poole, Jonathan Z. Smith, Eugene D. Genovese, Dean A. Miller, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Richard Sarason, Mrs. Pamela Vermes, and, as always, Professor Jacob Neusner are acknowledged with gratitude. Work on this project began while I held a Study Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1978-79.


    /1/ The literature by and about Durkheim is enormous, and the precise character of his ideological position remains a topic of scholarly discussion. For the present purpose see Giddens (1979); Lukes; Nisbet; Tiryakian; and Zeitlin.

    /2/ The terminology of this description of the Mishnah, and the description itself, derive from Jacob Neusner (1977, 1981a).

    /3/ Nearly all tractates of the Mishnah have now been systematically ana- lyzed. See Avery-Peck; Green; Haas; Jaffee; Mandelbaum; Neusner (1974-77, 1978-79, 1979-80, 1981-82, 1982); and Sarason.


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    Article Contentsp. [191]p. 192p. 193p. 194p. 195p. 196p. 197p. 198p. 199p. 200p. 201p. 202p. 203p. 204p. 205p. 206

    Issue Table of ContentsJournal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1983), pp. 169-354Front Matter [pp. 169-344]The So-Called Resurrection of Jesus and Explicit Christian Faith: Wittgenstein's Philosophy and Marxsen's Exegesis as Linguistic Therapy [pp. 171-190]Reading the Writing of Rabbinism: Toward an Interpretation of Rabbinic Literature [pp. 191-206]Structuralism, Hermeneutics, and Contextual Meaning [pp. 207-230]Chinese Buddhist Hermeneutics: The Case of Hua-yen [pp. 231-249]Jaspers's Critique of Mysticism [pp. 251-266]Ritual Drama at the Little Big Horn: The Persistence and Transformation of a National Symbol [pp. 267-281]Ideology and the Protestant Principle [pp. 283-305]Book NoticesAncient near Eastern StudiesReview: untitled [p. 307]Review: untitled [pp. 307-308]Review: untitled [pp. 308-309]Review: untitled [pp. 309-310]

    Religions of Western AntiquityReview: untitled [p. 310]

    Western Religious HistoryReview: untitled [p. 312]Review: untitled [pp. 312-313]Review: untitled [p. 313]Review: untitled [pp. 313-314]

    JudaicaReview: untitled [pp. 314-315]Review: untitled [p. 315]Review: untitled [p. 316]Review: untitled [pp. 316-317]Review: untitled [p. 317]

    Religion in South AsiaReview: untitled [pp. 317-318]Review: untitled [pp. 318-319]Review: untitled [p. 319]Review: untitled [pp. 319-320]Review: untitled [pp. 320-321]Review: untitled [pp. 321-322]

    Contemporary TheologyReview: untitled [p. 322]Review: untitled [p. 323]Review: untitled [pp. 323-324]Review: untitled [pp. 324-325]Review: untitled [pp. 325-326]Review: untitled [p. 326]Review: untitled [pp. 326-327]Review: untitled [pp. 327-328]Review: untitled [pp. 328-329]Review: untitled [pp. 329-330]Review: untitled [p. 330]Review: untitled [pp. 330-331]Review: untitled [pp. 331-332]

    Social-Scientific Study of ReligionReview: untitled [p. 332]

    MethodologyReview: untitled [p. 334]

    Comparative History of ReligionReview: untitled [pp. 334-335]Review: untitled [pp. 335-336]

    Art, Literature, and ReligionReview: untitled [pp. 336-337]Review: untitled [p. 337]

    Philosophy of ReligionReview: untitled [pp. 339-340]Review: untitled [p. 340]Review: untitled [p. 342]

    Psychology of ReligionReview: untitled [pp. 342-343]

    Books Received [pp. 345-351]Back Matter [pp. 352-354]


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