Authority of Authority, prt. II (The Talmud & Talya Fishman)


Talya’s Fishman’s recent book on the genesis of the Talmud, its authority, and its very constitution as a written book, as opposed to oral tradition, has important ramifications for anyone interested in Jewish cultural history and philosophical discourse about law and authority in relation to lived custom. For a judicious review of Talya Fishman’s recent People of the Talmud, see Ivan Marcus in the American Historical Review, December 2012, pp. 1647-9. Marcus does much to clear up the water so badly muddied up by Haym Soloveitchik and the Jewish Review of Books. Note for instance the more careful framing of what the reviewer argues are errors in Fishman’s work. Note too the absence of those furious claims and counter-claims re: “authority,” “normativity,” and “text” that needlessly complicate and undercut the reliability of Soloveitchik’s essay.  Regardless of this or that gaffe made by Fishman, the kinds of gaffes scored by Soloveitchik, Marcus writes nothing to undermine her primary thesis about the becoming-text of the Talmud and the history of talmudic authority. I’m cutting and pasting the entire review by Marcus below:

TALYA FISHMAN. Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures(Jewish Culture and Contexts.) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2011. Pp. 413. $65.00.

As the printed book faces increasing challenges from the digital revolution, scholars study with great intensity the history of the book, and Judaica scholars are among the most actively engaged in this pursuit. Talya Fishman’s ambitious new study seeks to solve a historical puzzle. How did Talmudic traditions, required to be transmitted orally and actually transmitted that way in ancient and medieval eastern (Jewish) schools, become a book: the Talmud? And how did that book become the authoritative source of advanced Jewish learning and religious legal decision making in western Muslim centers of Qayrawan, a city in Tunisia; in Muslim Spain; as well as in Christian northern France and Germany?

In late antiquity, the Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis’ study and decision making based on post-biblical or rabbinic traditions relied on professional memorizers or judges, respectively, not on looking something up in a written text. This situation persisted in the rabbinic academies of the Geonim, rabbis who served as heads of two schools, Sura and Pumpeditha, which were eventually relocated to Baghdad, the capital of the emerging Abbasid caliphate. Fishman presents this history of the ancient rabbis through the tenth-century lens of Sherira Gaon’s Epistle, and one wonders why a separate chapter is not devoted to the primary sources the ancient rabbis themselves wrote. Chapter two concentrates on the rabbinic subcultures of Tunisian Qayrawan and Muslim Spain or al-Andalus. Despite objections from the Geonim in Baghdad, it was commonly accepted in Qayrawan to teach and decide cases based on the written text of the Talmud, to which practical commentaries were appended. In Muslim Spain, the rabbis claimed that a famous Gaon had transmitted a written copy of the Talmud to them. They referred to that text as “our Talmud” and thereby bypassed the prohibition in the Talmud that forbade the study of and decision making based on the “oral Torah” from written authoritative texts.

Chapter three focuses on how northern European Christian writing practices supplanted reliance on oral culture. The northern French Talmud commentary of Rashi of Troyes (died 1105) and the scholastic glosses of the Tosafists on the entire Babylonian Talmud made that written text into the supreme written arbiter of Jewish law (chapter four).The remaining two chapters deal with different reactions to the triumph of the written Talmud as the arbiter of approved Jewish practice. Fishman examines how the rabbis in Provence and especially Christian authorities reacted to the process of the oral Torah becoming the written Talmud. According to her, the church became aware of the Talmud in the mid-twelfth and especially the thirteenth centuries, mainly because it was then that Jews were seen studying it, not only the Bible, as a written text. One wonders, though, how Christians could identify the Hebrew books Jews were studying as the Talmud and not the Bible or its commentaries. Writing alone does not begin to explain why the church attacked the Talmud when it did, and only in Paris (chapter five).

Fishman also believes that another Jewish reaction to written Talmud traditions is reflected in the newly written down traditions of Jewish Pietists in the Rhineland and Bavaria. She seems to argue that they wrote down their own ascetic and extreme religious discipline as a counter-tradition to the French Tosafists’ scholastic glosses on the written Talmud. Moreover, she agrees with me that Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (d. 1230) was responsible for adapting to writing the penitential regimen that his teacher, Rabbi Judah the Pietist (d. 1217), had taught as a living oral ritual to a confessor (pp. 215, 217). Fishman cannot decide if the Pietists’ ideas were really old but only newly written down in response to the written Talmud commentaries of the Tosafists (pp. 191–194), or if they were new rites shaped in response to Christian forms of penance and supposedly also to the process of the oral Torah becoming the written Talmud (pp. 195–198).

Although the author generally resists deciding between competing scholarly theories (pp. 76–77, 139–140) and seems to believe that all reconstructions are mere speculations (p. 122), she is eager to offer a theory for why the written Talmud was authoritative from the beginning in Qayrawan and Iberia but delayed in northern France and Germany. In this way, she seeks to solve the “puzzle” of how the Jews became the “people of the Talmud.”

Fishman argues that the adoption of the written Talmud in Qayrawan and Iberia was a reflection of continuing reliance there on Roman cultural preferences for written records, a position she does not sufficiently develop to account for medieval Jewish practice. Another factor she does not take into account is the necessity to rely on written sources because of the vast geographical distance of those western centers from the critical mass of living rabbinic masters in remote Baghdad. Either way, she still has to account for the delayed reliance on the written Talmud in northern France and Germany that occurred only in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. Her next question, then, becomes: why did the rabbis there follow oral custom first and only later replace it with the written Talmud? Fishman resorts to a synchronic explanation like the one that she offers for Qayrawan and Iberia: namely, the character of the local majority culture. Whereas the legacy of Rome in the now Muslim lands of Qayrawan and al-Andalus was written authority, that of the post-Carolingian north was custom and oral culture. It was as natural for the rabbis there to rely on custom as it is today for people of all persuasions to use the Internet.

But to make this reconstruction of the north European part of the story convincing, Fishman thinks that she has to demolish an alternative narrative that she claims the late polymath and professor of Talmud Israel M. Ta-Shma proposed in a Hebrew article “Law, Custom, and Tradition in Northern Jewish Culture in the Eleventh-Twelfth Centuries” (Sidra 3 [1987]: 85–161). According to Fishman, Ta-Shma developed a “genealogical” or “hereditary”—meaning “diachronic”—narrative that attributed a reliance on custom in Germany and northern France to the Palestinian-south Italian Byzantine origins of the Jewish communities of early northern Christian Europe. But in reality, Ta-Shma’s thesis is that custom was the basis for early European Jewish decision making because of both a Jewish influence from Palestine and conformity with local Christian practice. One reinforced the other. A combined diachronic and synchronic explanation does make more sense of the evidence than Fishman’s synchronic narrative alone. By misreading Ta-Shma, she also obscures the fact that his work anticipated her own synchronic interpretation and in fact improves upon it.

The book unfortunately contains numerous errors, including typos, problems with Hebrew grammar, the absence of hyphens in some scholars’ last names (Ta-Shma, for example), factual inconsistencies (for example, on the dating of the Sheiltot [pp. 53, 166]), and constant confusion on what is meant when Fishman refers to the “Talmud” in different contexts (the book or generic post-biblical rabbinic traditions). The tone is also marred by the use of marketing jargon, such as references to the “packaging,” “repackaging,” and “marketing” of the Talmud (pp. 27, 41, 42, 58), and the use of precious and odd expressions: “imaginarium,” exegetical “algorithms” instead of “rules,” and “ingest” to mean to agree with a conclusion, to name just a few (pp. 44, 224, 177).

The subject index, by contrast, is beautifully detailed and cross-referenced, a model of its kind, and author, publisher, and indexer should take a bow. The book is now open to cross-cultural readings by medievalists, students of the history of the book and literacy, cultural anthropologists, and Judaica specialists alike. The bibliography also has the titles of Hebrew books transliterated, not translated, so scholars can know what book is meant. Despite all of its stylistic flaws and some serious questions that can be raised about its historical claims, the book opens up the story of rabbinic history and its transmission from East to West to scholars of European or Islamic medieval studies who are probably unaware that this tradition even exists, as well as to students of oral culture and the history of the book, students of Islamic, canon, and Roman law, and general readers who do not know Hebrew and Aramaic. It would be a good idea for medieval comparativists to consider the serious study of Hebrew as a research tool so that they can engage the original sources and the abundant scholarship in the history of Jewish law that appears in Hebrew. Pending that day, Fishman’s study indicates the sweep of the issues that are a significant part of Jewish cultural history from late antiquity through the High Middle Ages. 

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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