Tabick Halivni Rabbinic Literature (SEM5004)

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<ul><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>1</p><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature:</p><p>An analysis of David Weiss Halivnis work</p><p>By Jeremy Tabick</p><p>David Weiss Halivni is a giant in modern scholarship of the Babylonian Talmud. He is a </p><p>precise and formidable reader of texts, able to spot extremely important minute details. And he is </p><p>prolific, having written the multi-volume and incomplete commentary on the Talmud, Mekorot u-</p><p>Mesorot (Sources and Traditions, hereafter MM). This assessment of his work and theories of </p><p>Rabbinic literature focusses on two of his works published in English: Midrash, Mishnah and </p><p>Gemara: The Jewish Predilection for Justified Law (hereafter MMG)1 and Jeffrey Rubensteins </p><p>translation of Halivnis introduction to MM: Bava Batra, published as The Formation of the </p><p>Babylonian Talmud (hereafter FBT).2 Between these two works, he spans the entire history of the </p><p>Rabbinic period, and even discusses the influence of the Stammaim on later medieval </p><p>commentators, which will not be dealt with in this analysis. He makes detailed observations with </p><p>a plethora of examples on the Tannaitic midrashim (such as Mekhilta and Sifra), the Mishnah of </p><p>Rabbi (Yehudah HaNasi), and the Babylonian Talmud. These observations are mostly with the </p><p>goal of making historical claims, which he does with mixed success. However, along the way, he </p><p>demonstrates his mastery of Rabbinic literature in a way that is far more applicable than the </p><p>historical claims themselves.</p><p>This analysis is divided mostly by time period. It begins with assessing Halivnis claims </p><p>about the Tannaim and those that preceded them (mainly from MMG) on the Mishnah, midrashei </p><p>halakhah and their relation to each other and to the Tanakh. The second section moves onto the </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>2</p><p>Amoraim and the nature of amoraic transmission of material. Finally, it discusses the transition </p><p>into the stammaitic period, how Halivnis thinking about this has changed between MMG and </p><p>FBT, and what the Stammaim were trying to accomplish. In conclusion, it poses some overall </p><p>criticism of Halivnis historical methodology, taking the lead from much of Richard Kalmins </p><p>critiques in his Conservative Judaism article.3 What we are left with is a remarkable mind who </p><p>continues to lead the way in the interpretation of Rabbinic texts, and who believes in the Jewish </p><p>obsession with justifying our laws.</p><p>Tannaim</p><p>Halivni deals extensively with the genres of mishnah and midrash in MMG,4 and also </p><p>discusses the editing process of the Mishnah in FBT in contrast to that of the Bavli.5 His analysis </p><p>of the relationship between these two tannaitic genres and the Tanakh will be discussed in this </p><p>section. The role and style of the anonymous layer in these tannaitic works will also be compared </p><p>to Halivnis observations about the setam ha-Talmud.</p><p>Relation to Scripture</p><p>Core to Halivnis ideology is the Jewish peoples predilection for justified law, by which </p><p>he means law codes that come with reasons attached.6 This, he claims, originates in the Bible </p><p>itself. He makes a key observation, borne out by many scholars of the ancient Near East, that the </p><p>Bible is outstanding in its decision to include justifications for many (though by no means all, </p><p>nor perhaps even most) of its laws.7 According to MMG, it was understood in the ancient Near </p><p>East that people needed laws in order to prevent the world descending into chaos. Thus the laws </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>3</p><p>could be arbitrary and would nonetheless fulfil their essential purpose: to bring order to society. </p><p>Their justification is implicit. They should be followed because they were given by the gods or </p><p>the monarchy, and to prevent anarchy.8 Of the ancient Near Eastern law codes we have, only the </p><p>Bible includes a wealth of explicit justifications, particularly favoured by the book of </p><p>Deuteronomy.9</p><p>This is indicative, he argues, of a Jewish predisposition for laws to have reasons. For </p><p>example, the firstborn males of people and animals among the Israelites belong to God because </p><p>God slew the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exodus 13:11-15). The Torah did not have to provide </p><p>this reason: the fact that God commands it could have been reason enough. But the Torah goes </p><p>out of its way to show that Gods law can be, and should be, justified. Some of these </p><p>justifications are symbolic like the law of the firstborn; others are logical, such as Deuteronomys </p><p>vision of shabbat for which the point is for your servants to rest just like you (Deuteronomy </p><p>5:14).</p><p>In his view, coming from such a unique tradition of motive clauses, midrash is a natural </p><p>extension. Tannaitic midrash, like the Mekhiltaot and the Sifra, is full of expressions like </p><p>talmud lomar which introduce verses from Scripture to explain a particular law. Again, like </p><p>other law codes, it could have claimed that this law was divine and had to be followed blindly, </p><p>regardless of any justifications. But midrash consciously chose the opposite path: to include </p><p>logical arguments and Scriptural supports. According to Halivni, this a predictable outgrowth of </p><p>the tradition of biblical law. He takes this midrashic tradition to refer also to the pre- or proto-</p><p>rabbinic period.10</p><p>He also highlights a key way the mishnaic form deviates from the midrashic: in its </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>4</p><p>fidelity to the order of Scripture.11 While the books of midrash are hooked on a consecutive </p><p>reading of biblical books, the Mishnah was organised more or less by topic, totally free of the </p><p>Bibles order. He argues this is a huge break with what came before, and uses Josephus12 and a </p><p>fast mentioned in Megillat Taanit13 as his support of other Jews being very wary of this sort of </p><p>development. He thus understands that sticking to the biblical order is the older, more </p><p>conservative approach, and deduces from this and other evidence (to be explored in the next </p><p>section) that midrash predates mishnah.</p><p>It is a very detailed and thoughtful analysis. However, Kalmin points out the holes in the </p><p>argument and the ambiguities in Halivnis readings of the sources in question. Pertinently, he </p><p>points out that Halivni equates Jews with Rabbis in this analysis,14 whereas in actuality the </p><p>rabbinic movement was a small minority at the time of the Mishnah, and certainly before. Thus it </p><p>could be that Jews as a whole were against deviating from the order of Scripture while the rabbis </p><p>and their predecessors had been doing so for centuries in works that looked like the Mishnah. </p><p>The point thus remains inconclusive.</p><p>Relation of Midrash and Mishnah</p><p>As part of his proofs that midrash antedates Mishnah as a genre, Halivni points out that </p><p>the language of the Mishnah is often extremely similar if not identical with the the language of </p><p>midreshei halakhah, just without many of the Scriptural proofs. He argues that the Mishnah </p><p>extensively quotes from earlier material, often with so much fidelity that the precise wording of </p><p>the source is not totally fitting to its new context. He argues that this shows that the midrash is </p><p>earlier, that the Mishnah knows those works, and selects its quotations from it accordingly.15 It is, </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>5</p><p>of course, possible to argue the other way, that in fact the works of midrash quoted the Mishnah </p><p>and attached it to Scriptural verses, using the same wording and making it fit better in a new </p><p>context. This seems the less likely alternative since the Mishnah was extensively edited and often </p><p>reformulated,16 so there does not seem any good reason for the editors to compose awkward </p><p>language other than a desire to be loyal to an earlier formulation. Nonetheless, the possibility </p><p>remains.</p><p>He brings examples to illustrate his claim, such as the use of the phrase har ha-bayit in a </p><p>tannaitic text with a Scriptural support.17 Since the term har ha-bayit changed in meaning after </p><p>Herods expansion of the Temple, he argues that this midrash can then be conclusively dated to </p><p>before Herod. The fundamental weakness of this argument is pointed out by Kalmin: while the </p><p>apodictic law here uses the term with its pre-Herod meaning, it could still be that the Scriptural </p><p>support was added later.18 Thus this observation, while precise and interesting itself, does not </p><p>necessarily prove the age of the midrashic form.</p><p>This point is central to MMG, that the Mishnah is a flash in the pan of Jewish lawa </p><p>sudden and brief change to apodictic law from a tradition that had always been interested in the </p><p>reasons behind them, and that continued to be so afterwards. He comes to this from an </p><p>assumption that the Mishnah represented a popular or well-known work or genre, that Rabbis </p><p>represent Jews of this period, as referred to above.19 Thus it could be a minority work, while </p><p>most Jews continued to teach laws with justifications.</p><p>Furthermore, even among rabbis it took many years for the Mishnah to gain traction as </p><p>the fundamental and most authoritative guide to Jewish law. (For example, the Yerushalmi often </p><p>uses the term matnita interchangeably to refer to a baraita or a mishnah, while the Bavli </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>6</p><p>distinguishes carefully between matnitaa baraitaand matnitinOur Mishnah. This </p><p>suggests that during the time of the Yerushalmi, it was not true that the Mishnah was the only </p><p>definitive law code, but by the time of the Bavli it was.)20 Perhaps the Mishnah was controversial </p><p>even among rabbis, many of whom taught midrash instead.21</p><p>These two observations, when taken together, would strengthen his fundamental point </p><p>while (a) undermining the specifics of his arguments, which rest on the assumption that the </p><p>Mishnah was an extremely important work as soon as it was composed; and (b) sidelining the </p><p>need to be so careful about the chronological relationship between mishnaic and midrashic form, </p><p>for perhaps midrash represented a more popular approach and the Mishnah a more sectarian or </p><p>expert approach. In this way, more recent scholarship may bolster his claim for the Jewish </p><p>predilection for justified law while detracting from the specifics of his historical claims.</p><p>Anonymity in tannaitic sources</p><p>So while midrash was a very old form going back even to pre-rabbinic times, Halivni </p><p>argues that mishnah came out of a very specific historical circumstance and fitted an important </p><p>need. It was the school of Rabbi Akiva and his students down to Rabbi who innovated this new </p><p>format, a work that was not tied to Scripture or justifications of any sort, but was designed to be </p><p>easily remembered and comprehensive.22 Midrash, he argues, was becoming too expansive and </p><p>too difficult to remember, especially in the post-Bar Kokhba hardship of 2nd-3rd century Eretz </p><p>Yisrael. To respond to this circumstance, Rabbi and his academy worked to produce the </p><p>Mishnah.</p><p>Like in midrash, the anonymous setam layer means one thing: authority. Halivni sets up a </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>7</p><p>hierarchy of different setamim, each with less authority than the one before: (i) setam with no </p><p>dissenting voice; (ii) setam with dissenting voice(s); and (iii) setam with a majority opinion </p><p>(akhamim) in dissent.23 This is essentially universally accepted by traditional readers of the </p><p>Mishnah, and indeed has its roots in the Talmud. He contrasts this with the setam in the </p><p>Babylonian Talmud whose goal is totally different: it does not indicate something universally </p><p>agreed upon, but the argumentation. This is an illustrative and helpful example of the vast </p><p>difference in genre between Mishnah and that of the Bavli, for tannaitic midrash does also </p><p>include anonymous dialectic, like the Gemara. This is what he argues is the legacy of the </p><p>Stammaim: the revival of the earlier, pre-mishnaic, tannaitic use of the setam and the centrality </p><p>of the argumentation.24</p><p>There is certainly much to his claim, but there are also important differences between </p><p>midrashic and talmudic form that bear noting. For example, midrash often uses the setam layer </p><p>to simply state the law like the Mishnah. Also, central to the style of the setam ha-Talmud is the </p><p>use of forced explanations in order to continue the dialectic, what could be called a love of </p><p>dialectic itself; midrash, however, gives the impression that the dialectic is serving the purpose </p><p>of getting at the truth and is not an end in itself.25 Thus it cannot be that the Gemara represents a </p><p>perfect revival of an earlier attitude, there has still been some historical development. This </p><p>addendum, it seems, is not something that Halivni would disagree with: he does not claim that </p><p>talmudic and midrashic form are the same, but that they are similar.</p><p>Amoraim</p><p>This section discusses the roots of the Babylonian Talmud in the transmission of amoraic </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>8</p><p>apodictic statements, and addresses his correction of a common misconception that led many </p><p>people to believe that the Bavli was completed by the end of the amoraic period.</p><p>Rav Ashi and Ravina: end of "hora'ah"</p><p>Halivnis key claim and most important contribution to modern scholarship of the </p><p>Babylonian Talmud is that the Gemara was not edited by the Amoraim but by a significantly later </p><p>group he calls Stammaim, because their contribution is setam or anonymous. He proves this </p><p>extensively in FBT as well as in every volume of his MM.26 It is by far the safest, clearest, and </p><p>most universally accepted of all his historical claims, now a departure point for the study of </p><p>Talmud in the academy, and increasing numbers of yeshivot and other traditional Jewish learning </p><p>environments. In fact, it is an obvious claim and the natural conclusion one would come to from </p><p>simply reading the Talmud, unshackled by medieval assumptions. After all, the Gemara often </p><p>quotes Rav Ashi and Ravina, credited in the traditional version with the main bulk of editing, and </p><p>rules against themor has trouble understanding themin the same way they deal with any </p><p>other Amora. In contrast, Rabbi is rarely mentioned by name in the Mishnah, and though the </p><p>akhamim do indeed sometimes disagree with him, his very designation of Rabbi suggests his </p><p>high status and importance in the process; there is no analogue to him in the Talmud.</p><p>Further, Halivni brings compelling evidence that the Gemara was never holistically </p><p>edited by anyone.27 In contrast to the Mishnah which has more or less uniform style and </p><p>consistent terminology, sugyot across the Bavli have different literally styles and often vastly </p><p>different conclusions and understandings of earlier sources; this is true of the unusual tractates </p><p>(like Nedarim) in particular. It seems that even the Bavlis consistent terminology is more due to </p></li><li><p>History and Genres of Rabbinic Literature Jeremy Tabick</p><p>9</p><p>later editors applying it than any author or editor of the work itself (e.g. Mesoret HaShas atte...</p></li></ul>