I read Geoffrey Herman’s book on the Exilarch, A Prince Without a Kingdom, because of my own philosophical interests in Jewish political theory and the problem of rabbinic versus non-rabbinic Jewish authority, as well as textual and historical relating to the Babylonian Talmud. Mostly I read this stuff to get a more firm understanding about the social position of the rabbis and the extent and limits to their authority in Jewish society. As the nominal heads of the Jewish community in Sassanian Babylonia, the Exilarchs were non-rabbinic authorities, people of wealth who were geographically, culturally, and politically close to Persian ruling elites.
A careful and judicious historian, Herman wants to walk back the conflict model of exilarch-rabbinate relations as propounded by Zuri, Beer, and Neusner (pp.182-7). Instead of a model of alliances and discord, Herman maps “differing approaches reflecting the diverse and shifting rabbinic landscape” (p.209). But what I take from his study is the degree to which the authority of the rabbis in Sassanian Babylon was limited and relative vis-à-vis the Exilarch and his circle. There are notable exceptions, including figures no less than Rav Nachman and Rava, who lived close to the winter residence of the Sasanian court in Mehoza. While the geographical extent of the Exilarchs’ authority remains in question, they served as a useful foil in rabbinic sources. More often than not, the rabbis present themselves at odds with and abused by these Jewish elites, who themselves were quite distant from rabbinic norms and values (pp. 219-222, 238).
Forget Athens and Jerusalem. Most of what we know about the Exlicharate appears in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds; and what we know about them is how little we actually know about them. Herman notes that, in the rabbinic imagination, the Exilarch was more like a symbol than an individuated flesh and blood person (p.238). That suits my own purpose here, interested as I am not so much in the reality of power per se or the history of an office. In our sources, the preferred setting for the rabbis to reflect upon the Exilarch was the banquet. Carried around in golden sedans, they flaunted their wealth. Without getting into arguments about Hellenization in Sassanian Mesopotamia, my interest here is in the Exilarch as a gilded image and gaudy emblem of non-rabbinic authority, “a colorful portrait of power and wealth” (1) from a more eastern place more or less outside the Mediterranean and its more familiar-to-us Greco-Roman cultural orbit. For the 19th century historian Heinrich Graetz, the Exilarch was a strange object of fascination. Unlike Roman and Byzantine Palestine, we have almost no idea what this world “looked like.”