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

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<ul><li><p>American Academy of Religion</p><p>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</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Oxford University Press and American Academy of Religion are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserveand extend access to Journal of the American Academy of Religion.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Tue, 17 Jun 2014 20:40:42 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LI/2 </p><p>Reading the Writing of Rabbinism: Toward an Interpretation </p><p>of Rabbinic Literature William Scott Green </p><p>She </p><p>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 </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p><p>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). </p><p>This content downloaded from on Tue, 17 Jun 2014 20:40:42 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>192 Journal of the American Academy of Religion </p><p>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. </p><p>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: </p><p>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) </p><p>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 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Tue, 17 Jun 2014 20:40:42 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Green: Rabbinism 193 </p><p>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). </p><p>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. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Tue, 17 Jun 2014 20:40:42 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>194 Journal of the American Academy of Religion </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Tue, 17 Jun 2014 20:40:42 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Green: Rabbinism 195 </p><p>document. The danger of reading a text primarily against this sort of </p><p>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- </p><p>dency to seek out its elements of structure and stability and to ignore its traits of disorder, ambiguity, and inconsistency. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 commun...</p></li></ul>