Book Review: The Aggada of the Bavli and Its Cultural World

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Book Review: The Aggada of the Bavli and Its Cultural World
Yitzchak Blau

Several academics have made significant contributions to our understanding of Talmudic aggadot. In particular, Yonah Fraenkel (d. 2012) and Jeffrey Rubenstein are sensitive readers who find powerful meaning in Talmudic tales. Those of us who dwell in the beit midrash are well served by noting trends in the university classroom, for many of the insights of academia are worthy of our attention. Recently, scholars have stressed situating Talmudic stories within their Babylonian cultural context. They draw upon Sasanian, Zoroastrian, Persian, and Iranian source material to help understand the Talmudic world. This deviates from previous scholarship which either ignored historical context (Fraenkel) or compared the Talmudic world with a Greco-Roman and Christian cultural universe.

The publication of The Aggada of the Bavli and Its Cultural World (Brown Judaic Series), a collection of twelve articles edited by Geoffrey Herman and Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, offers a chance for evaluation of this trend. Its four sections are entitled the Mesopotamian Context, the Sasanian Context, the Syriac and Christian Context, and the Zoroastrian Context. What is the scholarly worth of this approach and can it prove helpful for traditional Torah study?

Before looking at this volume, I begin with a methodological assumption about what I consider the most important aspect of aggadot. A student of Shakespeare can investigate the eating and dress habits in Elizabethan England or the historical and literary sources that the bard drew upon. However, indifference to discussion of Hamlet’s indecision, Macbeth’s ambition, or Othello’s jealousy means missing the essence of the work. Along the same lines, Talmudic aggadot intend to convey religious and ethical messages and the best of scholarship should enhance that endeavor.

Academic scholars often bring a different focus to their interpretative efforts. For example, they are interested in the degree of influence broader society has on the cultural world of Talmudic sages. Convincing parallels show the degree of the Jewish community’s integration with the broader environment. Additionally, professors investigate the historicity of Talmudic stories. Examples successfully illustrating later Babylonian sources reworking earlier Palestinian tales for religious and ideological reasons indicate that these stories are more pedagogical tools than historical accounts. Note the development from the Yerushami (Shevi’it 9:1) to the Bavli (Shabbat 33b) regarding the story of R. Shimon bar Yohai hiding in the cave. Without denying the worth of establishing cultural influences or evaluating historicity, we can still maintain that the most important questions ask what these stories intend to convey. Do the twelve essays in this volume accomplish this?

Jason Mokhtarian enumerates many Iranian loanwords in Talmudic folklore and notices the preponderance of such words in the third chapter of Ta’anit. While the author exhibits impressive scholarship, it is not obvious that this essay has any impact on understanding and meaning.

The search for parallels runs the risk of pointing to similarities too general to be significant or of phenomenon that would be present in almost any culture. Reuven Kipperwasser notes imagery of light and fire to represent beauty and seduction in rabbinic, Syriac, and Manichean cultures. However, the connections of lust with fire and of beauty with light seem so ubiquitous that their presence across different cultures cannot imply influence or a shared cultural universe. Kipperwasser further argues that the Palestinian sources do not relate to lust/fire as a life and death threat in the way that Babylonian sources do and that this divide reflects the difference between Western and Eastern cultural backgrounds. However, citing one Roman tale and a couple of Syriac and Manichaean sources is hardly enough evidence to establish such a sweeping generalization.   

Jeffrey Rubenstein uses parallelism in a more fruitful way in his comparing martyrdom in Persian and Jewish sources. The many similarities highlight some salient differences. While the Christian material sees martyrdom as the goal of life and a divine gift; the Talmudic sources greatly value martyrdom without raising it to the central aspiration of the pious.

Beyond comparing Jewish and non-Jewish sources, academic scholars often evaluate the relationship between Jewish sources originating in Babylonia versus those with their roots in Eretz Yisrael. David Brodsky argues that Palestinian sources do not abide the idea that the deceased can receive merit from the actions of the living. Babylonian texts disagree, thereby setting the stage for the idea of children reciting Kaddish for their parents. According to Geoffrey Herman, Babylonian sources are more positive about the monarchy than Palestinian parallels. Thus, the Palestinian R. Abbahu’s close relationship with the Caesar appears in four stories in the Bavli but is absent from Eretz Yisrael source material.  

Two methodological challenges exist here. Sweeping statements about Babylonian sources obviously involve generalization and we wonder how many exceptions are needed to damage a thesis. For example, Brodsky cites a few passages from Yerushalmi and Palestinian midrashim seemingly accepting that the behavior of the living affects the judgment of the deceased. Another pitfall is Babylonian stories about Palestinian sages. In theory, a scholar could count them as evidence of Palestinian attitudes or as indicative of how the Babylonian sages rework Palestinian material. A source that could prove both sides of an argument obviously creates a challenge. Herman does a good job of overcoming this problem by showing how the same stories appear differently in Yerushalmi and Bavli, indicating that the latter were reworking the former.

Michal Bar-Asher Siegal’s essay convincingly shows how a story in Hullin (87a) reveals a Christian background. Unfortunately, she mars a fine article by writing that “in rabbinic literature…eating with non-Jews is prohibited regardless of the kashrut of the food products” (263).Taken as a universally accepted rabbinic idea, this is certainly false, as Amoraim limit this prohibition to very specific circumstance such as a wedding party for the gentile’s son (Avoda Zara 8a). Some scholars claim to find a Tannaitic position believing in a more general prohibition, but such speculation should not be cited as conclusive fact and certainly not as a rabbinic consensus.

The yeshiva world can profit from the research of university scholars, especially when academia focuses on aggada’s meaning and values. At the same time, I have argued in the past that the academic world suffers by their almost universal ignoring of traditional sources. Bar-Asher Siegal cites a colleague’s clever connection between Shmuel HaKatan’s composing birkat ha-minim (Berakhot28b) and the same Shmuel’s citation of “When your enemy falls do not rejoice” (Avot 4:19). It would have been interesting for her to cite and analyze the ideas of Rav Kook (Ein Aya Berakhot 4:40) and Rav Soloveitchik (Divrei Hagut ve-Ha’arakha, 154-157) who each link these two sources. It is quite natural and legitimate that the yeshiva and the university each possesses and maintains its own methodology and focus. Yet each should occasionally peek over the wall and learn something from the other.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Associate Editor of TRADITION, is Rosh Yeshivat Orayta.

[Published on February 24. 2019]

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