I just recently finished reading Robert Brody’s The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Culture. Scratching the surface, I’m playing a kind of catch up on Jewish history. As an academic discipline, Jewish Studies remains dominated by history and historians, but philosophically my point of interest in Jewish history has to do with imagination and law. On top of the pleasure of learning to know something, I read Jewish history in order to make up for what I think is the under-representation of imagination and art in Jewish philosophy and in the scholarship on Jewish philosophy, and to correct the over-representation of law and politics in contemporary Jewish philosophy, the notional picture learned from Leo Strauss that norms, normativity, law, and authority are constituting hallmarks of Jewish religion, culture, and philosophy.
What I come to understand reading Jewish historians is how little authority rabbinic authority exercised historically and that this authority, when it was exercised, was typically not direct. From Brody I get the impression that the Geonic-rabbinic authorities rarely legislated, that their authority was spiritual and intellectual, not temporal or political, that their authority was hedged by the Exliarch, that they had little to no influence or even contact with the Muslim political authorities in Baghdad, that their own authority was limited, that they relied on custom and oral tradition and local authority, that they did not consider themselves bound by the opinions and decisions of their predecessor, that they were not able to impose their authority on the community at large, nor even in the academies that they ostensibly controlled, that they were faced with an exodus of scholars when they tried to exercise that kind of dominion (pp.147-54, esp.148). The decline and collapse of the Geonate is understood as resulting from the de-centering of authority and the refusal of the larger Jewish community to keep subsidizing, i.e. funding, its activities. As for the Talmud and its authority, Brody tells us that while the Geonim were instrumental in closing the corpus and establishing the authority of the Talmud in Jewish life, the Talmud at their disposal was a truncated one, that the text itself was free and fluid (semantic meaning remained constant, while wording could vary), and that its transmission was largely oral, not written, at least within the academies, in sharp contrast to the Franco-Germanic rabbis who received their Talmud in written form (chp.6).
The conclusion for me then is that norms and normativity, authority and law are something of a chimera. In Jewish history, they were always imbricated and limited by larger cultural patterns and local customs. On its own law constitutes too thin a platform upon which to build a Jewish philosophical or political apparatus. The phenomenality of law and politics turns out to be more virtual than actual or real. Exercising rabbinic leadership from the second half of the first millennium C.E., the Geonim represent something of a black hole. They tend to fall between the chairs of the Babylonian rabbis who shaped the Talmud and the great surge in medieval thought and culture stemming out of Jewish Andalusia. The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Culture is probably as close as I am going to get to this microcosmos. And Brody will be the one who can say with a historian’s authority how little we know about the Geonim and the authority of law at this critical juncture in Jewish history.
Reading Brody’s book as a non-historian, what’s left then to the lay reader is an image or an after-image of a world a long time ago, based on a paucity of actual historical information. I’m sure this was unintentional on the author’s part, but I could not help but note that the final chapter and last word of this book on the Geonim is not law, theology, or biblical exegesis, but rather linguistics and poetry, and that Jewish philosophy plays a part of this picture in the person of Saadya Gaon. What I take away from Brody’s study is the way the Geonim in Babylonia created a more expansive Jewish world, bigger and more beautiful, than the one they inherited and upon which they built, Talmud tucked into philosophy tucked into exegesis and translation tucked into poetry along more or less fluid lines of institutional authority, local taste and custom, and oral transmission.