Conceiving Israel

9780812241754: Hardback
Release Date: 26th August 2009

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 256

Series Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

Conceiving Israel

The Fetus in Rabbinic Narratives

Kessler shows how the rabbis of the third through sixth centuries turned to non-Jewish writings on embryology and procreation to explicate the biblical insistence on the primacy of God's role in procreation at the expense of the biological parents.

Hardback / £54.00

In Conceiving Israel, Gwynn Kessler examines the peculiar fascination of the rabbis of late antiquity with fetuses—their generation, development, nurturance, and even prenatal study habits—as expressed in narrative texts preserved in the Palestinian Talmud and those portions of the Babylonian Talmud attributed to Palestinian sages. For Kessler, this rabbinic speculation on the fetus served to articulate new understandings of Jewishness, gender, and God. Drawing on biblical, Christian, and Greco-Roman traditions, she argues, the rabbis developed views distinctive to late ancient Judaism.

Kessler shows how the rabbis of the third through sixth centuries turned to non-Jewish writings on embryology and procreation to explicate the biblical insistence on the primacy of God's role in procreation at the expense of the biological parents (and of the mother in particular). She examines rabbinic views regarding God's care of the fetus, as well as God's part in determining fetal sex. Turning to the fetus as a site for the construction of Jewish identity, she explicates the rabbis' reading of "famous fetuses," or biblical heroes-to-be. If, as they argue, these males were born already circumcised, Jewishness and the covenantal relation of Israel to its God begin in the womb, and the womb becomes the site of the ongoing reenactment of divine creation, exodus, and deliverance. Rabbinic Jewish identity is thus vividly internalized by an emphasis on the prenatal inscription of Jewishness; it is not, and can never be, merely a matter of external practice.

Chapter 1. The Torah of the Fetus
Chapter 2. Covenantal Fetuses
Chapter 3. And the Sons Struggled
Chapter 4. Embryology as Theology
Chapter 5. Reproductive Theology


Chapter Outline

Chapter 2, "Covenantal Fetuses," begins with what I consider to be the earliest extant rabbinic tradition about fetuses, where Israelite fetuses sing to God at the crossing of the sea. It stretches forward to include the latest tradition considered in this study, where Israelite fetuses serve as guarantors for their parents so that Israel can receive the Torah. I also juxtapose these traditions with others about individual fetuses that experience their own exoduses and revelations. By locating Israelite fetuses, as a collective, at Exodus and Revelation and by imagining individual rabbinic fetuses partaking in their own privatized versions of these two most fundamental events of Israel's formation, the rabbis internalize the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. What emerges from these traditions is that the construction of rabbinic Israel depends on the covenant, which I understand to be encapsulated in the acknowledgment of God as deliverer from "Egypt" and the deliverer of Torah—here projected onto fetuses. A mutual covenantal relationship emerges explicitly when the tannaitic tradition about singing fetuses is joined with the medieval one about fetuses serving as guarantors so that Israel can receive the Torah. In the earlier tradition, Israelite fetuses sing, Who is like you, God, among the gods? (Exod. 15:11), and in the latter one, God reciprocates, Happy are you, O Israel, Who is like you? (Deut. 33:29).

Chapter 2 covers the broadest chronological range of traditions presented in this study, and it serves well to chart out some of the territory. Furthermore, casting such a wide view, which encompasses tannaitic to medieval sources, allows one to see both the continuity of the motif of using fetuses to articulate essential aspects of Israel and how the construction of rabbinic Israel develops over time. Finally, this chapter focuses on the use of the fetus for positive, internal constructions of Israel; Israel is defined by what it is—in a covenantal relationship with God—not by what it is not, and the texts do not explicitly invoke rabbinic Israel's "others," in order to articulate the collective self.

Chapter 3, "And the Sons Struggled," focuses on traditions about Jacob and Esau's struggle in Rebekah's womb, demonstrating that the rabbinic typology of Jacob as Israel and Esau as (Christian) Rome, long noted by scholars, is projected onto both Jacob and Esau as fetuses. Already in utero, Jacob represents rabbinic Israel as a collective; here rabbinic Israel takes shape in relation to its others, in relation to biblical Israel, and in relation with God. I consider the possibility of an exegetical exchange between rabbinic and patristic interpretations of prenatal Jacob and Esau, particularly Origen's interpretations of Romans 9, which represents a diametrically opposing typology in patristic sources, where Jacob represents the New Israel, and Esau, the Jews. This chapter also examines the much broader question of the impact of Christianity on rabbinic Judaism through the narrow prism of rabbinic and patristic interpretations of prenatal Jacob and Esau.

Chapter 4, "Embryology as Theology," demonstrates that despite the overall consonance between rabbinic and Greco-Roman embryology, rabbinic embryology adapts ancient embryology to suit its theological purposes. Since many of the specific details about pregnancy and fetal development are consistent with those evident in Greco-Roman sources and lacking in biblical sources, rabbinic embryology provides an important trope through which to examine the situatedness of the rabbis in their larger late antique setting. While rabbinic embryology contributes significantly to contemporary concerns about how the rabbis negotiated their relationship with their broader geocultural surroundings, the sources themselves more profoundly testify to how the rabbis used embryology as a vehicle through which to expound upon Israel's relationship with God. Rabbinic embryology serves theology, and it functions primarily to give shape and texture to the relationship between God and Israel.

Chapter 5, "Reproductive Theology," focuses on rabbinic theories of procreation. Much of this chapter revolves around an in-depth exploration of the fourteenth chapter of Leviticus Rabbah, which interprets Lev. 12:2, When a woman tazria and gives birth to a male. I explore how and why this verse, which could have been mobilized in support of women's active contribution to the creation of the embryo by interpreting it to mean "when a woman emits seed," was instead consistently read as "when a woman conceives"—receives seed. Although the fourteenth chapter of Leviticus Rabbah as a whole provides both the most extended rabbinic engagement with this verse and the most extensive Palestinian discourse about procreation, it remains largely overlooked in scholarship about rabbinic theories of procreation, which often focus on one (counter)tradition from the Bavli. Here, Leviticus Rabbah 14 provides the lens through which to explore rabbinic theories of procreation not only because it hinges upon interpreting Lev. 12:2 but also because it reveals the extent to which the rabbinic discourse about procreation is once again thoroughly imbued with theology. Instead of asking whether the rabbis adopted a "one-seed" or "two-seed" theory of generation, which is the common question put to rabbinic sources, the chapter demonstrates that the question itself is an imposition that ultimately obscures the primary message of these traditions. The rabbis are not asking how men and women contribute to procreation, but how God, men, and women—in that order—create the embryo.

Gwynn Kessler teaches religion at Swarthmore College.

"A significant contribution to the reconstruction of rabbinic culture in late antiquity."—Denise Kimber Buell, Williams College