Authority of Authority (Talya Fishman & Haym Soloveitchik) (The Jewish Review of Books, the Tivkah Fund, and Conservative Jewish Thought)


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: [1] 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 [2] 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:

You can find Fishman’s rebuttal to Soloveitchik here:

Here is a blog critical of Soloveitchik that I think is worth reading:

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.

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.
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15 Responses to Authority of Authority (Talya Fishman & Haym Soloveitchik) (The Jewish Review of Books, the Tivkah Fund, and Conservative Jewish Thought)

  1. David Z says:

    Your animosity toward Jewish Review of Books is unwarranted. The only thing it doesn’t do is push a liberal agenda. And having read and actually understood Soloveitchik’s piece (because like any Jew should be, I am well-versed in classical Jewish texts), there isn’t a shred of politics in it. Importantly to your thesis, there is no way of knowing in depth how different poskim (rabbinic legal decisors) came to their conclusions in medieval times. But one thing that we do know, that Fishman challenges and that Soloveitchik attacks is that the text of the g’mara was no fluid past the 8th century. That is a textual matter and does not mean that its authority was sacrosanct as Fishman writes on her blog. But that’s what really set him off. That and the complete ignorance about tosafot. That she would write such shoddy work and that it would get an award would infuriate me, as well, and I’m no academic, just a state attorney general. But all the theories about how much authority the g’mara had at different times is a very different question than one of text. You’re an academic; please live up to those standards.

    • zjb says:

      I actually think that textualization of the Talmud text has everything to do with its authority. I don’t see how it could go any other way, and this is an important part of Fishman’s thesis. Am pretty sure her book is nowhere near as shoddy as you think. Personally, I’d have liked to see a more even-tempered expert assess Fishman’s book, but that’s part of my animus against the JRB, for muddying the conversation in ways that make it difficult for a educated non-expert third party to assess a very important set of claims. As for “politics,” there’s electoral politics, which JRB studiously avoids, and cultural politics, which is really the thing over there. A legitimate scholarly review would not have given the gun to Professor Soloveitchik. But that’s what they seem to do over there, a lot. They have a thing with conservative-thinking blood sport.

      • David Z says:

        I see your point about how far the tone goes unnecessarily, but from speaking to people who work there, it was actually toned down considerably. It’s a hard editorial decision how much to cut, but that doesn’t address the substance of my comment of Soloveitchik’s. And I can understand why he’s apoplectic. His tone does not make it hard to assess because he gives specific examples for everything. You should not lack the ability to excise the words you don’t like and still find explication of extremely shoddy work. I don’t know if it’s only one chapter as Fishman writes because I myself need to read the book, but if that can happen in one chapter why is it likely that any other chapter is less error-riddled and just plain wrong? I guess the solidification of the text could be relevant to its authority, but as Soloveitchik writes, we know fairly well (within a few centuries, at least) when the text solidified. It was much earlier (as we see all versions of the Talmud preserved in the Cairo Genizah). There’s just nothing there to say otherwise. So if she wants to argue the authority didn’t come until later, which is fine if there’s an argument to be made, it can’t be based on her textual argument.

        From reading what i have about the book, it seems like Fishman’s thesis is that the Christians didn’t like books until the 13th century, so maybe the Jews were the same. But we know they weren’t, regardless of how much authority the Talmud had in practial halakha.

      • zjb says:

        Thanks, David Z. I’ll say again, though, that even though the folks over at the JRB toned, it down does not obviate the fact that no other journal wanted to touch it. I can tell you that at the recent AJS meetings, the reaction to the Sol. and to the JRB was almost uniformly negative. About such an important thesis and all the attendant gaffes, I think that laypersons such as ourselves would have been much better served by much cooler heads.

      • David Z says:

        Sounds like you’re right, but does it seem like nobody else was interested in critically reviewing it and this is what there was? Also, and this made it more interesting (maybe what you’d call bloodsport), Soloveitchik is apparently thanked and cited in the book. And he had a personal story there. So that again made his apoplexy more understandable. I can’t deny that it made the review a more entertaining one, which in turn helps drive readership, but in terms of substance again, ti sounds like you’re right that we might have been better served by a different tone. I just don’t get how you see anything political in this particular discourse. That, and the fact that Soloveichik was absolutely right, tone notwithstanding, was why I felt it worthwhile to comment, though I have enjoyed our back and forth and thank you for it.

      • zjb says:

        Thanks again David Z. All I can say, again, is that in the little world of Jewish philosophy, words like “law,” “normativity,” and “authority” are increasingly made to carry a lot of ideological weight. About the Fishman, I’m not sure at all that Sol. is right about the substance of Fishman’s primary thesis. As for more judicious reviews, I have recently posted here at JPP the entirety of Ivan Marcus’ review of Fishman’s book. I think I entitled it Authority of Authority part II. I’d be curious to know what you think of it. I liked it a lot.

  2. DF says:

    You wrote, “Maybe gender had something to do with why Haym Soloveitchik chose to attack Talya Fishman,”

    More realistically, gender is the only reason Fishman got the award in the first place. And that’s the truth.

      • DF says:

        Well, I could have left is simply as a sly suggestive speculation, as you did, and left it as that. But that’s intellectualy dishonest, as well as weak.

        I think she was given the award for gender reasons, becayuse it is the most likely explanation of why such a shoddy work of scholarship would receive such a prize. The only other possibility is the one advanced by Solveitchek himself, which is that the people who award the National Jewish Book are themselves ignoramouses. That is possible, but on balance, it seems to me, less likely than the former.

        Let’s not kid ourselves, zjb. Companies and organizations bend over backward, all the time, to find ways to promote or award women or minorities when there are far more seerving men. If you think otherwise, you are simply dreaming. In many cases, such as federal contractros, it is a legal contingency of obtaining work. In other cases – possibly the organization here, though I dont know – the policy of advancing women or minorities is part of their charter or by-laws. And even in those cases where its not, there is the equivalent of a chilling effect, ie, a self-imposed pressure created by society, where people feel compelled into affirmative action.

        (pls excuse spelling, have to run.)

      • zjb says:

        Dear DF: I guess we can call this the Higher Cynicism. But your comments don’t resemble the field of Jewish Studies as I know it, and certainly not the field of medieval Jewish history, which, and maybe I’m wrong here, has never been terribly interested in questions re: gender. I’ll continue to trust and respect the better and best judgment of my colleagues in the field. In the meantime, you’ll have to explain though why HS was the only one who expressed his disagreement with such venom and why JRB was the only venue to publish the screed. More to the point, I’m wondering what you thought of Ivan Marcus’ review of TF’s book which I have posted here at JPP. It seems to me there’s nothing in the Marcus to knock down the main point of TF’s primary thesis re: the relatively late “textualization” of the text, the study of Talmud as text as opposed to oral corpus, and the authority of “The Talmud,” as opposed to “Talmud,” in relation to custom.

  3. DF says:

    Zjb, you are right that the field of mideival jewish history itself is not so concerned with gender, but academia – the larger world in which Fishman orbits – is VERY much preoccupied with gender. Likewise are liberal Jews, which make up the Jewish Book Council, the people who sponsor the National Jewish Book Award. ( I did not know before I wrote this who these people were. Having looked into it, its plain they are liberal Jews. Indeed, I dont see even any token orthodox members, although surely there must be one of two.) So it is very likely, darn near a certainty, that Fishman’s gender was a prime motivation. Again, the only other possibility is what Solveitchik suggests, that they are ignoramouses. It is true that after checking into them as mentioned above, that possibility is looking more likely. (I mean ignorant of talmudic learning, of course.) Still, I think the former is the likelier of the two possibilities.

    As for why HS would write such a review – you have to know the man. He has always been unusual, everyone knows that. Stands apart. All of us keep things we beleive to ourselves, for combincations of reasons of tact, prudence, political correctness, manners. HS is the rare breed that says what he thinks. Also, being a scion of Rabbi Solveitchik, he does not have the job security issues that keep others from speaking their minds. Assuredly he is not the only one who thinks poorly of the book.

    Finally, re JROB generally – I cant perceive how you imagine it to be the hotbed of conservatism you see it as. It is surely not a liberal magazine, and in many parts of the liberal Jewish world, merely to not be liberal, or to offer a different perspective beyond the liberal New York Times groupthink persepective, is to be deemed “conservative.” I’m being an armchair shrink here, zjb, but that’s the only think I can think of to explain why a reasonable guy like you could see it as “conservative.” It is not, and if you knew the editor personaly, as I do, you would surely realize you were in error. It simply speaks to ALL Jewish opinion, and in 2013, the orthodox or conservative voice is increasingly a part of it, a big part. That doesnt make it conservative, it makes it egalitarian.

    • DF says:

      By the way, I hasten to add, that I’m defending JROB from the charge that it is “conservative” does not mean I think there’s anything wrong with a conservative magazine. Nothing wrong with that at all, just like nothing wrong with TNR or other liberal magazines. I just dont think its an accurate description.

      • zjb says:

        Hi DF: About the JRB I’ve already said my bit over at Zeek Magazine last year. As I still see it, they post culturally and philosophically conservative material, very often incendiary, which they massage with parve scholarly contents. To the best of my knowledge they have never published anything liberal per se, namely liberal in terms of ideological content, even if they are able to get, I mean pay, liberals to contribute reviews on this or that book of general (parve) scholarly interest. That’s what strikes me as dishonest, but as long as we can all agree that yes, this is a culturally conservative operation, then okay, at least we can be honest about that. But, no, I think “egalitarian” is the wrong word. And I still continue to think there’s something rotten. I think you compared the JRB to the New Republic. But TNR doesn’t set itself up as a scholarly organ, which the JRB does, in fact, do. And that goes ditto for the new Tikvah run series coming out with Princeton University Press. It would be nice to see the dairy and meat dishes kept separate.

  4. DF says:

    I like your closing line!

    Well, I’ve said my piece. We can agree to disagree. Room for both libs and cons and everything in between. I hope you will come around to being a JROP “liker”, or at least not a disliker, but understand not everything is possible.

    shabbat shalom.

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