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-d


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