About a year ago, I penned online at Zeek Magazine a vicious attack on the Tikvah Fund and the Jewish Review of Books, which is funded by the Fund. In it, I attempted to expose the Tikvah Fund as a neoconservative organization that attempts to press conservative cultural content into the liberal American Jewish bloodstream, and that they do so by stealth, hiding ideological hash behind academic formats and content. The piece received a lot of negative attention from some colleagues, mostly from those who have participated, for pay, at Tikvah Fund centers and who argue that the program is on the up and up. But at last year’s conference of the Association of Jewish Studies (2011), I received almost only positive feedback from colleagues, who are concerned about the kinds of distortions introduced into the academic study of Judaism by the Tikvah Fund and its many, subsidized platforms it sponsors.
Some of my colleagues were persuaded by the article, some not. For evidence, I culled two sources:  the first 7 runs of the Jewish Review of Books, all of which, I argued, display a conservative orientation and an anti-liberal animus as regards Judaism and Jewish culture, and  remarks found online in in-house materials explicating the donor strategy as developed by Roger Hertog, who is the big Wall Street money behind the Tikvah Fund. (For some reason, these were posted on obscure parts of the internet which I dug up on the twentieth or thirtieth page of multiple Google searches.)
This time, however, the Jewish Review of Books, and by extension the Tikvah Fund, might have bitten off more than it can chew by publishing the very caustic review of Talya Fishman’s award winning Becoming the People of the Talmud. The review was written by renowned historian Haym Soloveitchik, who has a reputation. The review was about as nasty as it comes.
All of this was the very big gossip at the Association of Jewish Studies conference this year (2012). Most of my colleagues at were upset by the tone of Soloveitchik’s review. Many have speculated that the invective is fueled by a long feud between Soloveitchik and Fishman’s mentor at Harvard, the late, legendary Isadore Twersky. Certainly, there was blood in the water, but I’m not sure whose. I know for a fact that the editor in chief of the Jewish Review of Books took a lot of heat for publishing a review which was actually rejected by numerous scholarly journals. That being the case, lots of people wanted to know why this piece was published. There was a lot of anger about it, not because the review was critical, but because of the invective. Maybe gender had something to do with why Haym Soloveitchik chose to attack Talya Fishman, something that might have passed notice at the the Jewish Review of Book, where gender is not an operative category. Who knows?
As for the heart of the matter, I think it is this:
To put things very simply, Fishman’s thesis undermines the standard view that starting around the 7th or 8th century or so that the Talmud was firmly fixed as the stand-alone source of normative authority in Jewish society. I’m not so sure that Fishman sees her own thesis this way, but in this I concur with Soloveitchik. It certainly is how I read it, and it is one of things that I want to take away from Becoming the People of the Talmud for contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought. Fishman argues that the Talmud’s authority came much later, as late as the 12th or 13th century, and even more to the point, that the Talmud itself, the Talmud as we imagine we know it as a set and structurally consistent text or textual document only took shape in that epoch, not before.
Part of Fishman’s argument, again to put things very simply, is that prior to this relatively late juncture, that Jewish social norms and religious practice were determined much in a more ad hoc way, more by local custom than by any standardized and coherent body of authoritative law. Does this, indeed, reflect the very confusion and lack of coherence regarding Jewish practice about which Maimonides complains in the introduction to the Mishne Torah? As a non-specialist there’s not a lot I can contribute to the substantive debate, if that’s what you want to call it. But Fishman’s book throws down all kinds of red flags around claims about “law” which I think are made to readily in modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy and cultural circles.
But why should this matter to anyone outside communities of university scholars?
When the Jewish Review of Books pushes an over-the-top attack piece, there’s usually an ideological agenda behind it. There’s a pattern –the rip-downs of books on independent minyanim, Jewish secularism, contemporary spirituality, the New American Haggadah. The attack mode is supposed to hearken back to the founding ethos of and mimic the intellectual blood sport at Commentary Magazine back in its heyday, right before it went neo-conservative. But here, the point is to push a conservative viewpoint against a more liberal one.
Previously, the Jewish Review of Books, when they decided to publish destructive, acrimonious reviews, chose relatively easy-moving targets. Not this time. Fishman is a respected historian at the University of Pennsylvania, and it seems that this time, something wicked has been allowed to scutter into the close-knit of the Association of Jewish Studies. Since I never subscribed to and no longer read the Jewish Review of Books, I picked up a free copy of the offending article at the conference. I tried to read it charitably. Maybe Soloveitchik had a point if you could sift a main line of substantive argument; none of my friends were having it, and I gave up.
For me, the critical upshot is this. It might be the case that prior to the modern period Jewish society was not universally “orthodox,” as we understand the term today as meaning “dedicated to rabbinic law and rabbinic authority,” that these forms of authority came relatively late as a cultural, historical, social, and textual set of constructs. While proof has been tendered by Soloveitchik that Fishman may have made this or that mistake, no proof has been offered to prove that her thesis is not true in some basic ways. It seems to me that Soloveitchik sought to score points in order to knock down Fishman’s thesis without himself providing any evidence for the standard, traditional view regarding the social history of Jewish law and authority, i.e. the traditional version that he himself not only supports, but which is also the version that his storied family embodies in the world of modern orthodox Judaism.
While I can’t comment on the bona fides of this dispute, I am going to have to trust that the Jewish Studies scholars who awarded Fishman’s book the National Jewish Book Award’s Nahum M. Sarna Memorial Award for scholarship knew what they were doing. As to what is right and wrong about the book’s claims, that’s a topic best left to cooler heads, and to publishing venues whose ideological agendas are not, in my opinion, so politically skewed as is the case over at the Jewish Review of Books.
As for why Soloveitchik’s review was published in the Jewish Review of Books, I think about that I have a good idea. Read the review as it appears in the Jewish Review of Books, if you have access to it. You can also read Fishman’s online rebuttal, a link to which I’m posting below. Here’s what I think you can find. Both the review and the book it attacks have as their central focus precisely those themes mentioned above: “authority,” “normativity,” “law,” “text.” These are the “things” that matter most at the Tikvah Fund and at Jewish Review of Books as organizationally and ideologically kindred and coordinated conservative organs of Jewish thought and middle-brow Jewish culture. That’s why they published the scathing review of Fishman’s book, because her historical study calls all these reified things, namely the authority of authority, into question. That’s why Fishman’s book matters and that’s what they don’t like about it, ideologically, at the Jewish Review of Books. Otherwise, I don’t think they would have handed the reviewer, someone thought to have a bad temper, this kind of a loaded gun.
You can find Fishman’s book here: http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-People-Talmud-Tradition-Medieval/dp/0812243137
You can find Fishman’s rebuttal to Soloveitchik here: http://becomingpeopletalmud.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/response-to-haym-soloveitchikthe-people-of-the-book-since-when-in-jewish-review-of-books-winter-2012-pp-14-18/
Here is a blog critical of Soloveitchik that I think is worth reading: http://tzvee.blogspot.com/2012/12/a-battle-over-book-haym-soloveitchik-v.html
I’m unable to post the article by Soloveitchik in the Jewish Review of Books. That’s what happens when you lock down online content.