Fat Rabbis (Humor & Religion) (Daniel Boyarin)

(Yigael Tumarkin, Ahava Doheket et Habbasar)

It took me awhile, but I just finished reading Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (2009) which everybody agrees is a great title. I love the fat rabbis. This does not mean that I’m sure I need Boyarin to take me through the Plato corpus and secondary literature, but I did learn a lot.

Boyarin does two things here. One is to link the Babylonian Talmud to Hellenism, in particular to the genre of Menippean satire. This is interesting, although the historical question interests me less, which is probably why it took me awhile to get to it. Of more immediate interest to me is the light shed on the way in which the rabbis fuse high religious seriousness with humor and “slum naturalism.” While the Bakhtin is hardly new,  what I find particularly fresh is this focus on comedy and burlesque as a form of religious discourse in the Talmud.

Shai Secunda in a review of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis argued (in the AJS Review?) that Boyarin exaggerates the comic, bawdy, ridiculous comedic parts of the Bavli. If I remember correctly he posted something similar at Talmudblog about Boyarin’s book and a video concerning a discussion in tractate Sukkot about whether it is okay to build a wall of a Sukkah with an elephant.

Respectfully, I’m not sure Shai’s right on this one, and I’m also not sure why Boyarin feels compelled to concede over and over that, yes, the Babylonian rabbis were, of course, serious normative guys. I understand this is part of his argument that the Bavli mixes serious and comic material. But I also think Boyarin’s pulling a punch on this one. The Babylonian rabbis are “serious” all right. But what about? Is it ethics and normative practice, or something else? I’m beginning to wonder.

I’m more than willing to get walked back on this by people who know better. For my part, though, I think the rabbis are less interested in practical halakhah (halakhah l’maaseh) and much, much more interested in the pure “process” of  theoretical Talmud study (talmud torah). That’s where they dig. That’s what they dig. The Babylonian Talmud is like a laboratory, and the late strata of the Bavli reflect academy culture.

Like theoretical physicists or mathemeticians, it’s this theoretical “introversion” that takes them to bizarre places in which ordinary reality, including ordinary morality, gets all bent out of shape. Torah is the massive object around which everything bends. It works great at the level of pure discourse. Not so great when you try to put it into practice, which Boyarin allows us to see. (About this emphasis on “process” and “introversion” I’m relying upon Menachem Fisch, Richard Kalmin, and Gwynn Kessler.)

I actually think Talmud is much, much “funnier” than does Boyarin. Think about those very lengthy passages in tractate Shabbat that delineate the many punishments for the inadvertent violation of all the Sabbath violations, singly and in combination. And then you remember that the rabbis no longer enforce the death penalty for intentional Sabbath violantions after the desrruction of the Temple and the disbanding of the Sanhedrin. And then you realize that the onerous punishment to which you are obligated for is to bring a type of sacrifice called a “sin-offering” to a Temple that no longer exists!  That’s not funny?!

What I’m getting at is that I think the halakah (legal material) in the Bavli can get just as strange if not burlesque as the aggadah (non-legal, narrative material).

Please, if anyone knows better, please tell me that I’ve got this wrong. But I can’t recall a single mention of the Babylonian rabbis submitting anyone to the lash for Sabbath transgressions. And here I’m talking about the Babylonian Talmud, not later Jewish tradents. I remember an instance or two of Rav submitting someone to the last for I forget which  violation, but not for the Sabbath.

And this, by the way is how tractate Shabbat ends in the Babylonian Talmud: ‘Ulla visited the home of the Resh Galutha and saw Rabbah b. R. Huna sitting in a bath-tub of water and measuring it. Said he to him: Say that the Rabbis spoke thus of measuring in connection with a precept;2 did they rule [thus] when it is not in connection with a precept? — I was merely occupying myself, he replied” (157b).

I don’t know about you, but I find this incredibly funny and very endearing. Precisely because there’s no didactic moral content, which is actually something that Boyarin mentions more than once in Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. That’s why I read Talmud. I think that’s a good place to be –in the tub with Rabbah b.R.Huna.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to Fat Rabbis (Humor & Religion) (Daniel Boyarin)

  1. Not having read The Fat Rabbis, nor the bulk of bt Shabbat, I have to ask: Is that last scene in the tub a rabbinic inversion of the Archemedian Eureka moment?

  2. Maggie Anton says:

    I think one of the funniest sugiyot is Kidd 51-52, where in a series of more complicated situations, a father betrothes one [or several] of his daughters to various brothers and can’t recall exactly who he betrothed to whom [must have been quite a lot of wine consumed by all]. By the time we got to 5 intermingled daughters betrothed to five mixed-up brothers, my hevruta and I were laughing too hard to study any longer.

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