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How did the Mishnah become the canonical rabbinic work of such influence? To what degree was it, in fact, accepted as canonical, and to what degree did the supplementary and even contrary teachings of earlier rabbis gain traction in the burgeoning rabbinic communities of the Galilee and Babylonia? Before answering these questions, we focus on methodological problems that make confident answers difficult. We begin with the fact that rabbinic “Torah” was, at least to a significant extent, oral, and ask how this reality impacts the nature of the tradition we preserve. We then study the words of the rabbis of the Mishnah’s successor generations, known as Amoraim, and seek to determine how their attentions shaped the text and status of the Mishnah and other earlier rabbinic teachings. In what ways do Amoraim, in their commentaries on earlier teachings, pay respect to the authority of those teachings, and in what ways do they forge their own, new directions? From the laws and commentaries of the Amoraim emerged a new style of rabbinic study that would give birth to two Talmuds and thus shape Jewish culture for generations to come. In this chapter, we learn something about its beginnings.
It is impossible to understand the rabbis and the works they produced without a grasp of the Jewish world they inherited. In this chapter, we will review that world and the documents that reflect its qualities. The evidence for the Jewish world in Palestine before the rabbis begins with the Hebrew Bible. What were the worldviews, theologies, literary styles, and systems of practice supported by the canonical books? The pre-rabbinic Jewish library also includes other literary compositions, including the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls. We may also learn a great deal from the writings of early Christians. There were also received oral traditions that ultimately influenced the teachings of the rabbis. To what extent was the rabbis’ “Oral Torah” grounded in the oral traditions of the pre-Christian centuries? The difficulties in answering these questions will be addressed so that we may later consider the traditional or innovative quality of rabbinic productions. Lastly, it is impossible to understand the world of Jews in Palestine without gaining some sense of the broader Greco-Roman environment. In this chapter, we examine all this evidence and more.
What is the importance of the Talmud, that it merits a comprehensive history? In this chapter, the author paints a picture, in broad strokes, of the importance of the Talmud, to both Jews and their neighbors, through history. The Talmud is the document that ultimately defined the contours and obligations of Jewish practice and belief; how did it gain that centrality and authority? How did the Talmud help shape Jewish society? Why did the Talmud provoke such powerful rejection in Christian circles, and later among Jewish reformers? Offering a word about the difficulties of writing such a history, then defining basic terms and directions, the author in this chapter establishes the foundation of the history to follow.
The first major rabbinic composition – the Mishnah, which would ultimately form the foundation and shank of both of the Talmudim – emerged in an age of great upheaval for Jews. Losing two wars with the Romans, seeing their magnificent Temple in Jerusalem rendered rubble, Jews cannot long have held onto the hope that the world they had known would quickly be rebuilt. Had God abandoned them? – many must have wondered. If not, then how, in the absence of the Temple, could their relationship with God be maintained? Were its functions to be replaced? How were other Jewish institutions, practices, and holy days, many of which were deeply tied to the Temple, to be shaped for the new world? Against this background, and in response to the conditions just described, a new religious fellowship – the rabbi – began to forge new approaches and teachings, going a long way toward redefining Judaism for the post-Temple era. In this chapter, we will consider the early history of Jews under Roman rule in Palestine, which served as the stage for the development of the rabbis and their writings.
The nineteenth century brought significant developments in the place of the Talmud in Jewish society. The creation of modern yeshivahs enhanced the prestige of the rabbinic scholar and solidified rabbinic authority in traditional circles. Enlightenment and emancipation led to the birth of Reform, which rejected the hegemony of yeshivahs and their Talmud. The question of the place of the Talmud in the education of a modern Jew emerged with urgency, and modern Jewish movements developed different opinions regarding its ongoing relevance. Crucially, the Talmud even escaped Jewish settings and methods, finding a place in universities and modern seminaries. Turning to recent times, we consider the consequences of the fact that there are today more printed Talmuds, in more languages, than ever before, meaning that more people (male and female) study Talmud in more ways than ever in history. We explore this range of new Talmudic expressions, including women’s yeshivot, secular yeshivot, feminist Talmud study groups, digital Talmud, and more. In the end, we ask what the unifying thread of the power of the Talmud may be, despite its many meanings and functions through history.
In this chapter, we examine the Talmud in its final form, the document that came to shape in the century or so before the Muslim conquest. This is a document with unique and surprising qualities, which we can understand only if we interpret it in its original, late antique setting. In this chapter, we study representative Talmudic texts, carefully laying out the qualities of the Talmud that make it Talmudic. We ask how this composition of the Babylonian rabbis compares to that of the Yerushalmi, allowing the comparison to help us appreciate the uniqueness of the latter. Then focusing on the Bavli, we ask several key questions: to what audience was it addressed? What purpose did it serve for the masters who conceived it and their students? Why is it so devoted to argumentation? Based upon the picture that emerges, we weigh various claims for what the Talmud really is: is it a commentary on the Torah, or on the Mishnah, or something else entirely? Is it a legal code? What is its theology? Its vision of society? And how did the authors of this elite document hope to make a difference in the shape of Judaism for coming generations?
In this chapter, we seek to understand the Mishnah and its meanings in its final form. We consider the shape of the Mishnah, the subjects it does and does not include, the qualities of its language and rhetoric, its relationship to canonical scripture and other parts of the pre-rabbinic tradition, and so forth. Crucially, we analyze a variety of key examples of the Mishnah to gain a genuine sense of its approaches. With an eye toward these considerations, we review the range of characterizations that have been offered for the Mishnah. We consider the theories of modern scholars who have made claims for the meaning of the Mishnah in its late antique Palestinian context and suggest some refinements of our own. In the end, we emerge with an appreciation of both the Mishnah’s rhetoric of tradition, on the one hand, and its bona fide radical qualities, on the other. Having characterized the Mishnah, to the best of our abilities, we then consider the question of when the Mishnah came to the precise shape we know, and ask about its realm of authority, whether among the rabbis or beyond.
This chapter considers the first Talmud, that of the Land of Israel (the Yerushalmi), and the setting in which it was produced. The first part of the chapter is devoted to reviewing the major events that defined Jewish life in Palestine from the third to the fifth centuries, including the spread of Christianity, a failed project to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, the rise and abolition of the patriarchate, the alienation of common Jews from core Jewish beliefs, and the consolidation of the rabbinic movement. It then examines samples of the Yerushalmi, delineating the contours and major qualities of this Talmud. How did the shape and substance of this Talmud represent a response to the world its creators knew? Central to our examination will be a consideration of how this Talmud, though bearing that name, has very different qualities than its sister Talmud, the one then taking shape in Babylonia. In this chapter, it will immediately become clear that there was no single rabbinic tradition, nor even a single Talmudic tradition. Though the Yerushalmi was a first step in the journey, it was not the Talmud that would influence the future of all Judaisms.
During the manuscript age, the Talmud belonged to the scholarly few. But with the invention of the printing press in the early sixteenth century, Jewish life, and the place of the Talmud within it, changed forever. With abundant new printed volumes available, yeshivahs grew and Talmud study flourished, making the status of “Talmud scholar” open to larger numbers of Jewish males and transforming the values of Jewish society forever. Religious Jewish life for men came to be devoted to Talmud study as never before, and the most esteemed citizen was the greatest scholar. This valorization of Talmud provoked reaction, but even when early Hasidim sought to promulgate a populism that was open to all, the terms of their reaction were shaped by the Talmud. While printing propelled these dynamics in Jewish society, it made the Talmud available to Christians, who could now learn Hebrew and Aramaic from polyglot Bibles. Christians could gain greater understanding of Jesus’ Jewishness, while being reminded of some of the hateful things the rabbis said about Jesus. Due to the latter, the Talmud was burned or censored, though it was also prized by some as a compendium of Jewish wisdom and practice.
The rabbis did not emerge as leaders of the Jewish community until at least the seventh century. So how did the Talmud, a product of ancient rabbinic culture, become so influential? The acceptance of the Bavli was due to several factors, including the fact that the academies that sponsored it were located in the center of the new Islamic empire, Bagdhad. But this did not assure the authority of the rabbis or their Talmud, and some Jews opposed rabbinic authority for centuries. In this chapter, we trace the growing authority of the Talmud in different sections of the Jewish world, along with different approaches to studying the document. We come to recognize the medieval Jewish world as the world of halakhah (Jewish law), conceived as an outgrowth of Talmudic deliberations. We consider the reception of the Talmud in Christian Europe, in which the Talmud represented the error of the Jews from the time of Jesus onward. We recount disputations in which prominent rabbis were forced to defend the Talmud against Christian condemnation, and we detail the earliest burnings of Talmuds, so hateful was the text in the eyes of many in the church.
The rabbis who made their way to Babylonia joined an ancient Jewish community, descendants of Jews who first came to that land at the time of the biblical exile. In that setting, the Babylonian rabbis enjoyed, along with their brothers and sisters, relative peace and comfort, allowing them to explore and elaborate the traditions they learned from their colleagues to the west. But the inherited rabbinic tradition was only one of the forces that shaped the Babylonian Talmudic tradition. There were also the many historical and cultural factors – the traditions of ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism, eastern Christianity, and others – that contributed to the shape of the local rabbinic tradition. In this chapter we review the historical and cultural factors that shaped Babylon in the centuries during which the Bavli emerged. We examine the growth of this rabbinic community and its relationship with the recognized head of the Babylonian Jewish community, the exilarch. Finally, we trace the trends of study that gave birth to a work that, despite its traditional vocabulary, represents what is arguably a radical new “tradition.”
Imagine a prison without formal oversight or regulation. No governance or rules. No correctional officers or authorities. No cameras or monitoring. Such a prison might resemble a Hobbesian state of nature where there is a constant war of atomized individuals engaged in hedonistic pursuits of control and power. Such a state would be intolerable, or, as Hobbes described it: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Only in the most extreme and infrequent circumstances – the riots in Attica, New Mexico, and South Carolina (Thompson 2017; Useem 1985) – are US prisons described in these terms. The specter of living in such a Hobbesian state leads people to either cede certain privileges or cooperate with each other in ways that reduce the worst of such disorder. This is another way of saying that order is ubiquitous in institutions, including prisons. In the abstract, orderly prisons are those where operations and routines are largely predictable and stable (Useem and Piehl 2008).