But of this frame, the bearing and the ties,
The strong connections, nice dependencies,
Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
Look'd thro? Or can a part contain the whole?
—Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Man: Epistle I"
According to legend, a precious stone was once lost from the sacred vestments of the high priest, and a contingent of sages set out from the Jerusalem Temple to find a replacement. They traveled all way to the coastal city of Ashkelon, where a non-Jew named Dama ben Netina was known to possess just the type of gem they were seeking. Intent to secure the stone, the leaders offered Dama an exorbitant sum—600,000 dinar, or some say 800,000. Dama demurred. He explained that his elderly father was sleeping, and the key to the jewel box was under his pillow. The sages would not be put off. They proposed a higher sum, and then an even higher one. Still, Dama refused to disturb his father. The sages departed empty-handed. It was not long, however, until they had reason to return. The following year, a red heifer was born into Dama's herd. This was a rare and momentous event—only the sacrifice of a red heifer could release Israel from impurity, and sometimes generations passed without such a birth. Dama knew there was no limit to the price his precious new calf could fetch, and yet he told the sages of Jerusalem, "I ask only for the sum that I lost for the sake of my father."
The story of Dama ben Netina is one of many accounts of interactions between Jews and non-Jews that appear within the pages of the Babylonian Talmud's Tractate ʿAvoda Zara, the work that is the focus of this book. The legend offers a sympathetic, even admiring depiction of a non-Jew, and in this it is exceptional—much of the material in this tractate presents a much harsher view of Gentiles. Dama's story nonetheless serves as a fitting introduction to this book because it exemplifies many of the themes and interpretive challenges that I explore in reading the Talmud within the broad context of humanistic scholarship.
Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals emerges from two different scholarly worlds, and seeks to make a contribution to both of them. The first is the world of academic talmudic studies, an area that has been electrified in recent decades by new sets of questions and new frontiers of research. The second is the wider world of the humanities, and specifically those areas of critical theory now engaged in interrogating and revising conceptions of the human being. In the interest of bringing readers from these two fields into conversation, before turning back to Dama's story and to the central argument of this book, it will be helpful to offer brief words of introduction to both the Talmud and to post-humanities scholarship.
Properly speaking, there are two Talmuds: the Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. Both Talmuds are organized as commentaries on an earlier rabbinic work, the Mishna, which was edited in Palestine around 200 ce. The Mishna is a relatively slim compendium of legal rulings and debates that preserves the teachings of the earliest generations of rabbis, the Tannaim. It is organized topically and composed of six large sections, called "Orders" (in Hebrew, sedarim). The topics of the Orders are agricultural law; the ritual calendar; laws of marriage; civil and criminal jurisprudence; dietary law; and purity law. Each Order is divided into tractates (in Hebrew, masekhtot), and the tractates are divided into chapters. Chapters are composed of shorter units called mishnayot (the singular is mishna, just like the name of the whole corpus). Many but not all of the tractates of the Mishna generate talmudic tractates, book-length collections of deliberations that elaborate on the mishnayot by bringing them into conversation with biblical material and with other rabbinic traditions. The Palestinian Talmud was edited in Palestine in the fifth century ce, and the Babylonian Talmud was edited during the sixth and seventh centuries ce, in Babylonia. Both Talmuds transmit the teachings of rabbis who lived during the third through fifth centuries ce and who are collectively known as the Amoraim.
The tractate that is the focus of this study, ʿAvoda Zara, is part of the Order dedicated to civil and criminal jurisprudence. It has five chapters. ʿAvoda Zara is treated in both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, but in this book I focus exclusively on the Babylonian version of the tractate, Bavli ʿAvoda Zara (henceforth, AZ). ʿAvoda zara is the rabbinic term for idolatry; it literally means "foreign worship." I argue that in the context of the Babylonian Talmud, this title is a misnomer, and that AZ is not centrally concerned with idolatry but rather engages a much broader set of concerns about relationships between Jews and non-Jews.
Of the two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud is far longer, richer, and more compositionally complex than its Palestinian counterpart. Much of its content is organized into dialectical exchanges or sugyot (singular, sugya) that juxtapose conflicting legal opinions of Tannaim or Amoraim, and then propose resolutions of the apparent discrepancies. Alongside these complex exchanges about legal matters is a wealth of other material, including stories about the lives of the Tannaim and Amoraim, exegesis of Scripture, legends, recipes, remedies, blessings, and more. The Babylonian Talmud has served as the center of the traditional rabbinical curriculum since the early medieval period, displacing its Palestinian counterpart to such a degree that it came to be known as "the Talmud," though it is also sometimes known affectionately as "the Bavli," or "the Babylonian."
Jewish legal tradition is rooted in the Babylonian Talmud, and for most of its history the Bavli has been read primarily as a work of Jewish law, both in the traditional world of rabbinical academies and in critical academic scholarship. It is only during the last twenty years that scholars have begun to think critically about what precisely the Talmud is: Is it a mode of inquiry, a cultural project, or a work of literature? Is it most effectively approached as a legal text, a novel, or an encyclopedia? Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals joins a growing number of studies that approach the Talmud as literature, and is one of the first to offer a sustained reading of an entire talmudic tractate.
In this book, I use the organization of AZ as a frame for investigating compositional aspects of the Bavli as a whole. The Bavli is known for its habit of digressing from the mishnayot it purports to interpret, sometimes veering away from the topic at hand to delve deep into the implications of minutiae of law, and sometimes taking leave of the legal discussion altogether to pursue narrative flights of fancy. The central argument of this book is that in the case of AZ, there is a logic to the Bavli's frequent digressions from the mishnayot under discussion, that a single overarching theme unifies the talmudic tractate as whole. AZ is a work of rabbinic anthropology. Wending its way through the talmudic tractate is a sustained deliberation about what distinguishes Jews from other people, and about what all people share in common. I track the development of this discussion through AZ, investigating what the Bavli says about the human condition and how the Bavli says it. Through this exercise, I seek to advance the field of talmudic studies by demonstrating a degree of editorial intervention and artistry at the level of the tractate that has not previously been observed.
The second scholarly world this book addresses is the wider world of the humanities, and here my contribution is not to ratify any particular conclusion, but rather to open a conversation. Today the very category of the human is beset with questions. Since the Enlightenment, the human being has been the measure of all things in the West, and the pursuit of human freedom and flourishing has provided the ultimate grounding for all thought and action. While the human being continues to reign supreme in Western political life, within the academy there is a growing chorus of critique, challenging the underlying assumptions that promote the individual human subject as the ultimate arbiter of ethics, and also exposing some devastating effects of Enlightenment's humanism. Some critics of humanism argue that the elevation of the human being has led inexorably to the degradation of other forms of life and ravaged the planet. Others point out that the concept of the human being as an autonomous subject is a blinkered vision—it not only excludes many humans (children, people with intellectual disabilities, and those who pursue non-Western patterns of thought), but also diminishes human experience in ignoring the affective, somatic, relational, and spiritual aspects of human life.
A set of critiques emerging from gender studies, critical race studies, disability studies, animal studies, and the new materialisms have coalesced in recent years under the heading "posthumanism." Some of this new critical scholarship exposes the ways that emphases on rationality and individual agency contribute to structures of domination. Other works put forth alternative visions of interdependence, embedding human life within complex cultural, ecological, and technological systems. I propose that these efforts to expand humanistic discourse are where engagement with the Talmud can make a unique contribution.
At first blush, AZ would seem an unlikely place to find material with any thematic breadth or contemporary relevance, much less on so universal a question as "What does it mean to be human?" AZ is the section of the rabbinic corpus that governs relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Ostensibly dedicated to explicating prohibitions of idolatry, the tractate includes extensive deliberations about what constitutes Jewish difference. Most of Mishna ʿAvoda Zara takes the form of legal statements that legislate distance between Jews and non-Jews. The Bavli elaborates on these laws, upholding a wide array of rulings that socially segregate Jews from others, but it also expands the scope of the discussion by introducing a wealth of narrative material. The stories included in AZ depict a wide array of interactions among Jews and non-Jews, portraying them as commercial partners, religious rivals, political foes, masters and slaves, subjects and kings, friends, and lovers. Even as the talmudic authorities inscribe legal boundaries to separate Jews from others, the stories they tell invite readers to survey the wide compass of experience that Jews and non-Jews share in common, as human beings, as animals, and as material bodies. I argue that these narrative explorations of human identity, difference, and relationship are not merely incidental to AZ's commentarial function, but provide the key to understanding the talmudic tractate as a cohesive literary work.
Over the course of AZ's five chapters, the editors return again and again to a single set of related questions that serve to unify the tractate as a whole: What distinguishes Jews from non-Jews? What do Jews and non-Jews share in common? What do these differences and commonalities suggest about what it means to be human?
To return to the story with which I opened this introduction, the story of Dama ben Netina: this narrative crystallizes many aspects of the talmudic anthropology that shapes AZ, embedding humanity within a network of connections animal, mineral, and spiritual. Even as the story highlights the geographic distance and communication gaps that separate Jews from non-Jews, it illustrates the degree to which Jews and non-Jews are linked in exchange, the extent of their interconnection reaching all the way into the cultic heart of Israel. In this world of commerce, humans traffic in precious gems and in fresh-born calves, acting as if they reign supreme, but there are also providential powers at work, unseen, meting out reward. The special distinction of Dama the non-Jew is that he is attuned to the invisible imperatives of filial and divine relationship that transcend the gleaming externalities of ritual and trade.
Dama is awake to his responsibilities, and that is why he is rewarded by Providence. The Jewish characters, however, cannot recognize virtue in a non-Jew. Why don't they wait an hour or two until the old man wakes up from his nap, so they can purchase Dama's gem before heading home? The Jewish leaders don't believe Dama is telling the truth. They are not able to take a non-Jew at his word, and so that which they seek remains hidden, dormant, inaccessible. They leave Dama's house unsatisfied, not realizing that the key to unlocking his treasure is the recognition of his shared humanity.
In this book, I take my cue from the rabbinic storyteller, and use the Talmud's treatment of non-Jews to unlock a larger storehouse of ideas about the content and composition of the Babylonian Talmud. Even as I promote Dama to the front of this introduction, however, I am aware that there is something slightly disingenuous about highlighting his story in this way. The dominant voice within the talmudic tractate is not one that celebrates Dama, nor does it directly engage the question of what it means to be human. AZ, like the rest of the Talmud, is staunchly particularistic in its concerns, dedicated above all to interpreting a set of texts and laws that distinguish Jews from others. In AZ, Dama does not make his appearance until the bottom of page 23b, almost a third of the way into the tractate, and his story is contextualized there within a dialectical exchange that effectively blunts the universal message I have extracted from his tale. (More on this below.) While the Talmud clearly has a concept of the human being as distinct from other creatures, it gives far more attention to delineating the boundary between Jews and other people than to elaborating what defines humanity as a whole. Throughout AZ, just as in Dama's story, the commercial connections that link Jews and non-Jews are explicitly discussed; the more fundamental commonalities that all people share remain largely concealed and covered over. To focus on the Talmud's anthropology is thus to uncover that which the talmudic editors left under wraps. While there is perhaps a certain impertinence in doing this, it seems worth the benefit of bringing the Talmud into dialogue with the vital debates of contemporary scholarship and criticism.
The encounter between talmudic literature and contemporary theory that I invite within these pages makes for some difficult conversations. Can ancient texts convey their meanings across centuries and cultures? Sometimes, the gap between conceptual worlds is not easily overcome. One hazard of embracing a presentist orientation is the temptation to make the strange and remote seem familiar and relevant, distorting difficult material in the process of domesticating it. When it comes to AZ, there is an additional challenge, because this text is not simply obscure, but sometimes downright offensive in its hateful depictions of non-Jews. While the Talmud's xenophobia can easily be understood within the historical context of violence and domination in late antiquity, in today's world this material is jarring, even incendiary. Sometimes the cost of discovering new points of connection with these challenging texts is uncovering their power to offend. My goal in this book is to interrogate rabbinic sources with the theory and methods that contemporary scholarship puts at my disposal, and invite them to talk back in their own idiom.
Bringing the Talmud and critical theory into conversation means more than simply toggling back and forth between two worlds, because the Talmud is not hermetically sealed in a time and place all its own. Interactions with intellectual currents of diverse cultures from east and west shape both the Talmud and the traditions of its interpretation. The Talmud recounts rabbis' interactions with Christians, pagans, non-rabbinic Jews, and all manner of religious heretics, it preserves folklore in diverse languages, and is shaped by ideas about monks, magi, scholastics, Greek philosophers, Roman kings, and Persian courtiers, if not by actual encounters with these figures. Talmudic culture is always already engaged with others, outsiders to the rabbinic enterprise whom rabbinic storytellers summon as real and imagined interlocutors. So too, during the long centuries of the Talmud's reception, interactions with Islamic and Christian scholars and leaders—some peaceful and constructive, some violent and oppressive—shaped rabbinic interpretation, and in some cases even left an imprint on the talmudic text itself. When, beginning in the early nineteenth century, a new cadre of Judaic scholars trained in the scientific methods of the secular university established the field of critical Talmud study, this was not a story of first contact between the Talmud and the outside world, but rather a new chapter in a long history of interaction between the Talmud and other higher learning. This book builds on that history of interaction as it seeks to further integrate talmudic studies into the broad discipline of the humanities.
In this introduction, I revisit two key moments of interaction between the Talmud and currents from the outside world. First, I examine the lasting imprint of Renaissance humanism on the text of the Talmud, recounting the advent of Christian censorship, when a new audience of Hebrew-reading Christians worked alongside Jews to change the way the Talmud talks about non-Jews. Then I trace more recent developments in talmudic scholarship, reviewing the emergence of literary approaches to the Talmud during the past generation. Dama ben Netina will accompany us through both these discussions. Changes in the treatment of his character and in the interpretation of his story illustrate the diversity of ways readers have sought after meaning in the Talmud, and the different conceptions of the Talmud and of humanity that have guided their readings.
The Talmud Uncensored
Tractate ʿAvoda Zara plays a central role in the long and troubled history of relations between Jews and non-Jews. AZ originated in late antiquity as a work about relationships between Jews and non-Jews, setting out rules to govern how Jews should treat others. Early in its reception history, the tractate became a site of pitched contestation and polemic, a pretext for Christian violence against Jews. Still later, when Christian Hebraists sought to admit the Talmud into an expanded library for the edification of Christians, AZ was a focus for the joint efforts by Christians and Jews to purge the Talmud of its xenophobic content. The story of Christian censorship of AZ offers a potent demonstration of how the Talmud registers interactions between Jews and non-Jews in history; that is, AZ is not simply a text that talks about relationships with Gentiles, but a text that itself has been shaped through the interactions of Jews and Gentiles. The history of talmudic censorship illustrates that the Talmud and the humanities have been intertwined since humanistic scholarship first emerged in Europe.
Before briefly recounting this history, it will be helpful to consider a central aspect of AZ that drew the ire of medieval and early modern Christian readers—the partitioning of the world between Jews on the one hand and non-Jews on the other. In rabbinic discourse, male Jews are referred to by the term yisraʾel, "Israel." Unlike the yisraʾel of biblical Hebrew, in rabbinic literature this term connotes an individual, not the national group. In rabbinic Hebrew, the standard designation for a non-Jew is goy, a term that functions as the opposite of yisraʾel. Ishay Rosen-Zvi and Adi Ophir have shown that this terminology was an innovation of the Tannaim, reflecting a new kind of binary thinking that emerged during the rabbinic period.
The rabbinic goy is a different kind of concept from the biblical goy. In biblical Hebrew, goy means "nation," a generic term that is applied to Israel as well as other peoples. In the Bible, Israel is regarded as one among a multiplicity of diverse nations, and biblical laws treat Egyptians, Amalekites, and Moabites very differently. In the postbiblical literature of the Second Temple Period as well, foreign nations are regarded as a diverse plurality and not simply as a generalized other. A transformation occurs in the early rabbinic period, whereby goy comes to connote an individual non-Jew, so that the plural goyim comes to mean "Gentiles" rather than "nations." In rabbinic Hebrew, goy is functionally equivalent to the English "non-Jew" in that its meaning derives from a structural opposition with the term yisraʾel, or "Jew." As Rosen-Zvi and Ophir point out, the term goy has no particular content. It is a structural category, not a description of an identity. With this term, the rabbis divide the world into two, with Jews on one side and Gentiles, their binary opposite, on the other.
The laws set out in Mishna ʿAvoda Zara, the core tannaitic traditions upon which AZ elaborates, are founded on this bifurcation between Jews and all others. The mishnaic tractate addresses the yisraʾel, the Jewish male, with directives about how he is to distance himself from the goy. Mishnaic rulings charge the Jews to take care lest their business dealings implicate them in the prohibited practices of non-Jewish life. From the first line of the tractate, prohibiting commerce with non-Jews beginning three days "before the festivals of goyim" (m. AZ 1:1), and until the last mishna's instructions on how to purify a tool or utensil acquired from a goy (m. AZ 5:12), each law is structured on a binary opposition between Jews and all other people.
The Mishna preserves a range of opinions, some more lenient and some more stringent, but none of the rulings in Mishna ʿAvoda Zara distinguish between different categories of Gentiles, or allow for individual difference among goyim. The rabbis of the mishnaic period were all subjects of Rome living in Greco-Roman Palestine, and so it is not surprising that their associations with the category of the goy were colored by their exposure to paganism and the imperial cult. Occasional references offer a glimpse of the realia that shaped the Tannaim's perceptions of non-Jews: m. AZ 1:3 enumerates Calends and Saturnalia among "the festivals of goyim"; m. AZ 3:1 describes public statuary; m. AZ 3:4 recounts an exchange between Rabban Gamliʾel and a philosopher at the bathhouse of Aphrodite; and m. AZ 4:1 discusses stone shrines dedicated to Mercury. None of these statements of law, however, distinguishes among the diversity of practices, beliefs, or lineages that subdivide the vast and varied empire. Tannaitic law aggregates all non-Jews under the sign goy, legislating separation between Jews and all others.
It is this fundamental feature of rabbinic discourse, the binary conception of Jews and non-Jews conveyed through the term goy, that church censors set out to purge. Though the manuscript versions of Mishna ʿAvoda Zara refer to a goy or goyim more than thirty times, in the editions of the Mishna that are in print today the term does not appear at all. So, too, in the standard Vilna print edition of AZ: there is not a single mention of goy or goyim, though the manuscripts are replete with this language. Since the sixteenth century, when censors began monitoring the printing of Hebrew books, the term goy has been expurgated from all rabbinic texts. In the censored Talmud that is in print today, the concept of the goy has been jettisoned, replaced with a host of euphemisms that obfuscate the rabbis' construction of the Jew in binary opposition to all others. The story of how this censorship occurred is simultaneously an account of violence and repression, and of cooperation and rapprochement.
The Talmud was a contested text in Christendom for centuries before censorship emerged as the primary strategy for dealing with it. In the year 1236, a Jewish apostate named Nicholas Donin approached Pope Gregory IX with a list of thirty-six charges against the Talmud, including blasphemy against Christianity and hostility to Christians; the ensuing investigations and trial led to massive burnings of the Talmud and other Jewish books in Paris in 1244 by papal decree. Three hundred years later, when the church renewed hostilities against the Talmud, a new wave of Talmud-burnings occurred in the context of broad cultural transformation and upheaval. Historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin theorizes that when the Talmud became a special target of ecclesiastical authorities in the middle of the sixteenth century, this was not simply a renewal of old aggression against the Jews, but part of a new campaign against heretical ideas that threatened the church from within.
The Renaissance and the rise of humanism had begun to reconfigure the relationship between Christian scholars and the Jewish textual tradition in the fifteenth century, when a number of scholars heeded Erasmus's call to study the Hebrew language. While the primary impulse for learning Hebrew was to encounter the Bible in its original language, Renaissance humanists also exhibited an openness to other Jewish sources that was unprecedented in the Christian world. Their interest was not in Jewish culture per se, but rather in extracting edifying wisdom from a broad range of sources, including classical rabbinic texts and Kabbalah. In 1510, the scholar and jurist Johannes Reuchlin objected to a proposal put to Emperor Maximilian I to confiscate all Jewish books, and humanists rallied to Reuchlin's side in the charged controversy that erupted. The number of Christian Hebraists multiplied further in the wake of the Reformation, when the Protestant promotion of the study of Scripture led to broad interest in Hebrew studies. With the invention of the printing press, Christian printers played a central role in publishing Hebrew books for Jewish readers and also for this growing audience of Christian students of Hebrew. In the 1520s, it was a Christian printer, Daniel Bomberg, who was the first to print the entire Talmud. (The pagination he used in his volumes has become standard in all printed versions until today.) While the dominant Christian response to the Talmud remained one of violent opposition, individual Christian scholars and leaders had begun to relate to the Talmud in more nuanced ways.
According to Raz-Krakotzkin, attacks on the Talmud were sparked in part by Catholic opposition to Reformation, humanism, and other challenges to the dominance of church orthodoxies. In September 1553, all the copies of the Talmud in Rome were gathered by papal edict and then burned in Campo Dei Fiori Square on Rosh Hashana. In the months following, volumes of the Talmud were confiscated and destroyed throughout Italy. A leading instigator was Giovanni Pietro Carafa, who led the Roman Inquisition before becoming Pope Paul IV in 1555. As head inquisitor, Carafa oppressed Protestants, Christian Hebraists, and humanists, burning human beings as well as their books. In 1559, the first papal index of banned books, Index Librorum Prohibitorum, condemned the Talmud and other Jewish books among a long list of works considered heretical, including works by Rabelais, Erasmus, Machiavelli, and Dante, and many translations and commentaries of the Christian Bible; Raz-Krakotzkin argues that the inclusion of the Talmud on this list of Christian heresies reflects the church's concerns about the Talmud's Christian readership.
In the wake of massive Talmud burnings throughout Italy, when the church replaced its all-out attack on the Talmud with a thoroughgoing program of censorship, the move was welcomed by the Jewish community as a strategy for preserving talmudic tradition. Though the Talmud remained on the index of banned books, a revised list was issued following the Council of Trent in 1564, introducing the following caveat: "If [the Talmud] appears without its title 'Talmud,' and without the attacks and injuries directed against Christianity, it will be tolerated." In keeping with the dictates of Index 1564, rabbis, Christian and Jewish printers, and Christian censors—many of them apostate Jews—worked together to issue new expurgated versions of the Talmud. In these printings, the appellation "Gemara" replaced "Talmud" on title pages. More fundamentally, designations of non-Jews by the term goy were substituted with the term ʿakum, an acronym for "worshippers of stars and constellations," and by archaisms such as "Canaanite." One infamous attempt to reshape the Talmud in keeping with the censors' guidelines resulted in the Basel Talmud, a version that deletes AZ in its entirety. Later printings of AZ systematically replaced generic designations of non-Jews—present on almost every page of the tractate—with the narrower designations of "idolator" or "star worshipper." Censorship thus effectively rid the Talmud of the partition separating Jews from all others, inscribing a new boundary line that united Jews and Christians in opposition to idolators.
Raz-Krakotzkin complicates the reigning view of censorship as a purely repressive measure and sets out to show the ways in which Jewish scholars and church officials—many of them converts from Judaism—cooperated in reformulating Jewish tradition. Though rabbinic authorities' acceptance of the censors' changes was largely an issue of expediency, the Jewish community also had an interest in ridding Hebrew books of anti-Christian polemics. At the core of Raz-Krakotzkin's argument is his claim that censorship functioned as an engine of modernity:
What I have primarily sought to do in these pages is to demonstrate the similarities between the principles of censorship and the principles that have shaped modern European Jewish consciousness. The main concern of the censors was the expunging of anti-Christian passages from books. This was precisely parallel to moves within the Jewish community as it redefined itself as a community within Europe. The censors' activity helps to mark the move away from the definition of the Jew as the anti-Christian toward a radically different perception embodied in the phrase "Judeo-Christian civilization."
While Jews would not have welcomed the repressive intrusions of the church into the production of Jewish literature, the specific changes wrought by censorship served the Jewish pursuit of emancipation in the modern period. Replacing the term goy
with the term "idolator" addressed the Talmud's most troubling xenophobic content by projecting it into the past, identifying the despised Others of the Talmud as an all but extinct species, unrelated to contemporary non-Jews in Europe. The specific changes wrought by censorship allowed for Judaism to be reconceived in universalistic terms, easing Jewish entry into modern Europe.
To understand the Talmud in the rabbis' own idiom, in the cultural contexts of late antiquity, requires that one read through the censorship, thereby uncovering expressions of Jewish difference that are stolidly particularistic and sometimes chauvinistic. Examining the unvarnished text of the Talmud furnishes some interesting surprises, however, because it is not only xenophobia that the censor purged, but also a wide range of more nuanced explorations of Jewish difference. As noted above, the very language that the rabbis of the Talmud inherited from their tannaitic predecessors—the terminology of the goy—places Jews in opposition to all others. Sometimes, the talmudic sources reify the dichotomy of yisraʾel and goy, sharpening the boundary between Jews and others. In other passages, though, the talmudic editors seem to strain against the binary, exposing it, inverting it, and even calling it into question. In jettisoning the language of the goy, the censors disposed of the questions, critique, and revisions that appear alongside vilifications of non-Jews in the Talmud.
It is only by recovering the language of the talmudic authors and editors that one can begin to discover how the Talmud itself relates to the polarities inscribed in the concept of the goy. The story of Dama provides an illustrative example.
Here is one version of Dama's story, presented as it appears in a talmudic manuscript that predates the interventions of the censor:
Rav Yehuda said: Shmuʾel said:
They asked Rabbi ʾEliʿezer, "How far does honoring father and mother extend?"
He said to them, "Go and see what one non-Jew did for his father in Ashkelon; Dama ben Netina was his name."
It once happened that he was asked for stones for the ephod, and offered a payment of 600,000, —and Rav Kahana teaches a profit of 600,000—but the key was under the pillow of his father, and he did not bother him.
The next year, the Holy One gave him his reward and a red heifer was born into his herd. The sages of Israel came to him.
He said to them, "I know about you, that I could demand of you all the money in the world, and you would give it to me, but I will only request that money that I lost because of honoring my father."
One pleasure of this tale lies in the unexpected way it turns the tables, using a Gentile to exemplify piety, while the Jewish characters are depicted in a slightly comical light. Despite their grandiose titles as "the sages of Israel," the Jews are collectively denied a speaking role and remain undistinguished by name or any identifying qualities. In contrast to Dama, whose reserved dignity embodies selflessness, these sages are ethically stunted, unable to relate to other characters on anything but a purely transactional level. The narrator seems to be gently poking fun at these Jews, presumed paragons of virtue who remain oblivious in the presence of true righteousness. But the sages' disregard for Dama's preeminence is only to be expected; it enacts the logic of rabbinic language, which in bifurcating the world into Jewish subjects and nondescript others renders the agency and humanity of non-Jews all but invisible.
The binary opposition between Jews and non-Jews that underlies rabbinic language generates the tension that powers this story. When Dama ben Netina is identified as a non-Jew, or goy, the label conveys nothing about his religious practice, moral character, or national identity. It conveys only that he is Other, not-a-Jew. In elevating this Gentile character at the sages' expense, the rabbinic storyteller exposes the impoverishment of the rabbinic vocabulary for describing human relations. I read this story as an instance of talmudic critique, a clever albeit subtle attempt on the part of a belated rabbinic storyteller to target the ethnocentrism of earlier generations of rabbis. Others might judge such a reading too strong, and take the story merely as an illustration of how the Talmud's discussions of human diversity strain against the limits of rabbinic language. In either case, Dama's story provides one potent example of how the Talmud troubles the reductive discourse of "us" and "them" that it inherits from the Tannaim's concept of the goy.
The interventions of talmudic censorship not only upend the possibility of reading Dama's story as critique, they scramble the story's message in a more general way. In the censored version of the Talmud, Dama is not designated as a goy but rather as a "star worshipper." While in other talmudic contexts this kind of substitution might be a felicitous one, consigning the Talmud's vilifications of non-Jews to the ancient past, here, in a context where the non-Jew is held up for praise, the change introduces an ungrammaticality into the narrative. As the analysis of Rosen-Zvi and Ophir demonstrates, the terms "non-Jew" (goy) and "star worshipper" do not simply refer to different groups of people, they structure reality differently. "Non-Jew" and "Jew" are mutually exclusive terms that divide the whole world up between them, so that "non-Jew" has no particular content of its own. It is this semantic emptiness that opens up a space for the narrator to depict Dama as a paragon of virtue. While "non-Jew" is a designation that tells us nothing about an individual's background or behavior, "star worshipper" is an epithet that is specific and derogatory. From a Jewish or Christian perspective, a star worshipper always has a mark against him—his failure to recognize the true deity justifies the harshest treatment the Talmud metes out. In converting Dama to a "star worshipper," the censor so degrades Dama that he becomes more a curiosity than an exemplar, a fundamentally impious person in possession of a single positive quality, his respect for his father. The censor's substitution takes a tale of moral grandeur and makes it much less grand and much less vivid.
If censorship effectively deflates the moral power of Dama's tale, it undermines the force of the Talmud's degradations of non-Jews to a similar degree. While this intervention would seem at first to be an improvement to the Talmud, an advance in the pursuit of tolerance and interfaith relations, it comes at a cost, especially in the context of AZ. This tractate is centrally concerned with constructing boundaries between Jews and others, and the Mishna's bifurcation between Jew and non-Jew provides the grounding for its deliberations. What is the nature of Jewish identity? Is Jewishness more a matter of genealogical descent, theological conviction, or behavioral norms? Can the difference between Jews and non-Jews be traversed through behavioral or attitudinal changes? These are the questions that the Talmud contends with, and the censor's terminological substitutions scramble the very terms of the debate. In exchanging the term "non-Jew" for the epithet "star worshipper," the censor stakes out a clear position on what category of difference matters most, drawing a new boundary on the basis of theology that unites Jews, Christians, and other monotheists in opposition to pagans and idolators. As appealing as this affiliation of Jewish and Christian interests might have been during the first stirrings of modernity and into our own day, the construction of this new boundary line obstructs entry into the discourse of the Talmud, obscuring AZ's deliberations about what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to be human.
AZ is the section of the Talmud that sustained the most change at the hands of the censor. To understand this tractate in the literary context of the Bavli and in the cultural contexts of late antiquity requires that one reverse the censor's interventions. Standard print editions of the Talmud still bear the imprint of censorship, so for the purposes of this study I rely on a manuscript that predates the censor's changes, restoring the language that early modern Jews and Christians cooperated in suppressing.
As an early encounter between the Talmud and a broader, Western audience, the intervention of Christian censors into the printing of the Talmud offers an instructive precedent for the kind of inquiry I pursue in this book. Christian Hebraists looked to the Talmud with the expectation that the wisdom of Jewish sages could address them as readers, and the rabbis of the time—whether for reasons of self-preservation, principle, or some combination—cooperated in reformulating talmudic language to match this expectation. The interest of such figures as Johannes Reuchlin in the Talmud would seem to offer a compelling model for how talmudic literature might engage an audience beyond the circle of traditional Jews for whom the Talmud has religious authority. But despite the joint efforts of sixteenth-century Christians and Jews to make the Talmud palatable, the discourse of the Talmud remained fundamentally indigestible in early modern Europe. The price for keeping the Talmud in print was steep—not only was the name "Talmud" erased, but fundamental concepts were changed. Opening up the Talmud to a broader audience required closing down the distinctive structures of thought and discourse that made the Talmud meaningful. Christian Hebraists' embrace of the Talmud was only partial, because Christian Europe could not accommodate Jewish difference as represented by the Talmud.
Today, we find ourselves in a cultural moment that allows for a reengagement with the Talmud on its own terms. Postmodern sensibilities promote expressions of cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism in which impulses toward particularism and universalism are not seen as mutually exclusive, but rather can be embraced as complementary aspects of complex identities. The moment is ripe for engaging the Talmud's pitched debates about the nature and extent of Jewish superiority. In contrast with the early modern readers who revised the talmudic text to make it match their own sensibilities, this book seeks to squarely contend with difference, both as a central theme in AZ and as a feature of reading across languages and cultures. AZ has long been on the front lines of confrontations between cultures, and this book extends that history by using the tractate to provoke a new encounter between talmudic scholarship and the humanities.
The Talmud as Literature
A critical examination of what AZ meant in its late antique context is the prerequisite for bringing its distinctive vision and discourse into conversation with contemporary theory. The particular set of critical tools that I bring to my analysis of AZ emerges out of recent developments in the academic study of the Talmud, where a new configuration of research advances, theoretical orientations, and reading strategies have coalesced into what some call the "literary approach" to the study of the Talmud. The advent of this critical approach to the Talmud is but the most recent chapter in a much longer story of interaction between the Talmud and humanistic studies in the West. In general, the critical study of the Talmud has developed in tandem with broader trends in the study of religion and of literature. While the first century of critical talmudic research had a philologic and historiographic orientation, more recent scholarship employs theoretical approaches influenced by the New Criticism, post-Structuralism, and the New Historicism.
The academic study of the Talmud began with the rise of Wissenschaft des Judentums, a nineteenth-century movement initiated by German Jewish intellectuals who sought to apply the scientific methods of the modern university to the study of the texts, culture, and history of the Jews. Many of these pioneering scholars had studied in traditional rabbinic academies before entering university, and their academic pursuits intertwined with their efforts to reform Jewish practice and to integrate Jewish life into German culture. They studied Semitic languages, engaged in philological study, and sought to reconstruct the original versions and meanings of rabbinic texts in their historic contexts. Even as these scholars distanced themselves from traditional modes of Jewish study, however, some habits of traditional Talmud study persisted. Like their counterparts in traditional rabbinical academies, Wissenschaft scholars for the most part accepted the Talmud's presentation of legal debates among the Tannaim and Amoraim as reliable reports about the named authorities' differences of opinion. And like jurists in the traditional world, Wissenschaft scholars had a tendency to give short shrift to the Talmud's extensive narrative material, giving priority to legal dialectics as the central expression of rabbinic tradition. When nineteenth-century scholarship engaged talmudic narrative, it was largely in the service of historiography, as researchers read stories about the lives of the Sages as testimony about historic events and about the conditions of Jewish life in antiquity.
In the twentieth century, when historical positivism gave way to growing skepticism about the reliability of the Talmud's testimony and attributions, the academic study of the Talmud took a literary turn. During the past forty years, talmudic scholarship has coalesced around two literary projects, one focusing on diachronic analysis and the other on synchronic analysis. While one set of researchers has made huge advances in describing the process of the Talmud's formation, the others have engaged in close readings of talmudic passages, focusing especially on talmudic narratives.
On the diachronic front, scholars David Weiss Halivni and Shamma Friedman share the credit for a paradigm shift in how the field understands the formation of the Babylonian Talmud. Redactional criticism of the Talmud begins with the observation that there are two distinct layers of talmudic discourse: apodictic statements that are attributed to named sages (the Amoraim), and dialectical discussions of these statements that are anonymous. In parallel projects over the course of decades, Friedman and Halivni have investigated the relationship between these two layers, developing complementary theories about the Talmud's development. Both agree that the anonymous material is consistently later than the attributed material. Friedman's work has focused primarily on developing methodologies for distinguishing among historical layers of the Talmud, an advance that allows for the relative dating of components of any passage. Halivni has sought to anchor the stages of the Talmud's development in history, and proposes that the redaction of the Talmud is largely the work of anonymous editors who lived in Babylonia between 550 and 770 ce. Today, there is widespread agreement among rabbinicists that it is these anonymous editors, whom Halivni designates with the neologism Stammaim, or "anonymous ones," who are the true creators of the Babylonian Talmud. These advances in redactional criticism have transformed how scholars read the Talmud and how we use it as evidence.
In the realm of synchronic analysis, the late Yonah Fraenkel was a pioneer. In a series of articles and books published throughout his long career, Fraenkel offered close readings of hundreds of stories from the Talmud and other rabbinic sources. In these readings, he highlighted such literary devices as structural parallelism, unifying motifs, and paranomasia, effectively developing a poetics of rabbinic narrative. Fraenkel's readings emphasize the patterned structure of rabbinic stories and what he called their "closure"—a quality wherein every detail of a story contributes to its overall structure and theme, and no data external to a story is necessary for its interpretation. Subsequent scholars credit Fraenkel with securing a place for rabbinic text in the study of belletristic literature, but critique this notion of "closure," which they identify with the New Criticism.
Today, when scholars pursue literary analyses of talmudic passages, they do so with a much expanded notion of what constitutes a literary unit, and with a strong emphasis on context. Jeffrey Rubenstein revisits many of the talmudic narratives Fraenkel interpreted, and he demonstrates that themes, motifs, and other literary features from within the narrative extend into the surrounding dialectical deliberations. Others join him in showing how the kind of close reading and literary analysis that Fraenkel modeled in examining rabbinic narrative can be effectively applied to other forms of rabbinic discourse, including the sugya, the Babylonian Talmud's basic unit of talmudic deliberation. And beginning with the work of Daniel Boyarin, the so-called "literary turn" made yet another rotation, as rabbinicists of a literary bent turned back toward history to examine how rabbinic texts interact with the cultural contexts of late antiquity. Today, talmudic scholarship has exploded in a flurry of diverse projects that are methodologically sophisticated, breaking down the disciplinary walls separating historical investigation, literary studies, and redactional criticism.
One central insight to emerge from this scholarly ferment is a principle that has been hard-won in talmudic studies: that how the Talmud speaks is critical to interpreting what it says. While this proposition is no doubt true of any literary text, and so painfully apparent that it hardly need be mentioned, the Talmud's relatively recent entry into the realm of literary analysis means that it bears articulating. Even as critical scholarship has made great advances in describing how the Talmud works as literature, there is an ongoing tendency in popular, religious, and academic works to extract and abstract statements, stories, and concepts from the Talmud and to present them as timeless bits of wisdom or opinion, unmoored from any historic or textual context and from any interpretive tradition. Perhaps it is only to be expected that popular writers will treat the Talmud as a grab bag of edifying insights or a Jewish treasury of quotations, but scholarly works of Jewish studies sometimes fall into similar habits.
The Babylonian Talmud is a vast and complicated work, as dense and it is sprawling, and any investigation of a topic or theme must inevitably be selective in how it cites and interprets talmudic material. New scholarship on the formation of the Talmud and on the distinctive features of talmudic discourse demonstrates just how tricky a business this can be. Since the Talmud is built of dialectic exchanges that juxtapose disparate opinions, splice stories with law, and draw on diverse traditions, making sense of isolated statements is a particular challenge. At what stage of an extended argument can a story or question carry interpretive weight? How does one determine where the relevant text gives way to context? Literary studies of the Talmud demonstrate the thoroughgoing interpenetration of the Talmud's form and content, and the consequent need for caution and sophistication when using talmudic sources in investigations of Jewish thought, culture, history, and law.
The distinctive discursive forms of the Talmud condition its meaning—this is the core insight that generates the structure of this book. Unlike other topical studies of talmudic thought, Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals does not venture into the vast library of rabbinic works, or even scour the whole of the Babylonian Talmud for relevant material; instead, it cleaves to a single textual formation, AZ, and offers a reading of this tractate and only this tractate. Working within the bounds of a discrete redacted unit, I can attend to confluences between form and content in a holistic way. I mitigate the problem of deciding how much of any given passage to consider by looking at broad swaths of material, and by following the anonymous editors' cues about how any given passage's parts add up to a larger whole. The boundaries I adopt for my analysis are the very boundaries imposed by the anonymous editors when they set the tractate's frame.
The overall trajectory in talmudic scholarship over the course of the last few decades has been to continually expand the frame for literary analyses, from readings of discrete narratives to readings of extended sugyot to considerations of the literary qualities of the Babylonian Talmud as a whole. In adopting the talmudic tractate as a unit of analysis, this book participates in this general trend, and also stakes out a strong position in an ongoing debate within the field. While there is now broad agreement that the final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud was far more belated than previously believed, scholars disagree on precisely how to characterize the editors' activity and the extent of their interventions: Is the primary work of the talmudic editors to compose stories and sugyot, or simply to arrange existing materials? That is, are the editors like weavers, creating passages whole cloth, or are they more like quilters, stitching discrete units of material into larger compositions? At what level of composition is the editors' vision expressed? Debates about these issues are closely related to the question of how to categorize the Babylonian Talmud as a literary work. Scholars who assign the Talmud's editors a more robust authorial role tend to emphasize the coherence of talmudic discourse, while those who minimize the editors' interventions describe talmudic texts as anthologies or miscellanies. I take a strong position in this debate when I argue that AZ is unified by an overarching structure and animated by a set of recurring themes, reading the tractate as a coherent work of literature.
I suspect that any heat generated by the scholarly debate about the Talmud's redaction has less to do with assessments of the Talmud's anonymous editors and more to do with how scholars understand the contributions of the Amoraim whom tradition reveres as the authors of the Talmud. Jacob Neusner famously challenged the notion that we can reliably trust the attributions of any rabbinic source, proposing that each rabbinic text be approached at the level of the document as a reflection of the views and values of its latest editors, rather than as a reliable report about rabbis who lived in earlier times. To a certain degree, the methodology Shamma Friedman has developed for separating out the layers of the talmudic text answers Neusner's skepticism with a procedure for identifying the contributions of earlier periods. Richard Kalmin's recent work on rabbinic narrative offers a model for assessing the historical value of any given tradition through consideration of language and other geographic and historical markers. Such scholarship suggests that different parts of the Talmud are constituted differently and reflect varying levels of editorial intervention. I offer a cohesive reading of AZ because in the case of this tractate, there is a compelling case to be made for sustained editorial activity at the level of the tractate. In aligning myself with those who emphasize the coherence of talmudic discourse, however, I do not mean to discount the reliability or authenticity of discrete rabbinic traditions—to my mind, coherence at the macro-level of a document does not speak to the question of editorial intervention into individual traditions one way or another.
In demonstrating the extent of editorial design at the macro-level of the tractate, I effectively promote the anonymous editors of AZ to the status of authors rather than mere redactors. This book joins other recent scholarship that focuses on the creative interventions of the Bavli's editors, such as Rubenstein's investigations of Stammaitic storytelling, Boyarin's description of the Stam's activities in juxtaposing the discordant voices of the Talmud's dialogism, and Moulie Vidas's discovery of a self-conscious authorial voice. These scholars all emphasize the inventiveness of the belated, anonymous editors and credit them with the creation of the Bavli as a whole, but the evidence they marshal comes from readings of discrete stories and sugyot. By offering a sustained reading of an entire tractate, I am able to identify evidence of authorial activity on a broader scale, bringing to light the artistry with which AZ's anonymous creators weave diverse materials into a complex, coherent work.
My emphasis on the final redacted form of AZ distinguishes my project from important research that has taken a diachronic approach. Both Christine Hayes and Alyssa Gray have focused on AZ in their investigations of the relationship between the two Talmuds and of how the Bavli took shape. Though the questions I bring to this tractate are different, my work builds on theirs and complements it. Hayes's work on AZ focuses on the legal materials within the tractate. She presents her findings as a corrective to the tendency of earlier scholars to attribute differences between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds to differences in the cultural and political circumstances of Roman Palestine and Sasanian Babylonia, demonstrating that alongside these external factors are factors that inhere within the distinctive normative worlds of the two rabbinic communities. While I am only secondarily interested in the Palestinian Talmud, I look to it from time to time either as a counter-text or as a source that the redactors of the Bavli rework.
Gray argues that the editors of the Bavli were familiar with the Palestinian version of the tractate and engaged it as source material in a variety of ways. The methodology she develops entails a macro-analysis of the tractate as a whole and the identification of those passages where the Talmuds exceed their commentarial function, presenting material that is not "called for by the mishnah." Gray points to extensive structural similarities between the two Talmuds that are not anticipated nor necessitated by the Mishna, arguing that these are places where the influence of the Palestinian over the Babylonian Talmud is in evidence. Because my own focus is on aspects of AZ that are unique to the Bavli, I adopt the broad outlines of Gray's approach for very different ends. I examine narratives, dialectics, and framing devices that are neither "called for by the Mishna" nor anticipated by the Palestinian Talmud, because these are sites where the distinctive artistry and sensibility of the Bavli's editors are easiest to discern.
This book is an invitation to robust interpretation of the Talmud as literature. In my readings, I seek to illuminate the subtle turns of art and fine filaments of connection that can only come into view when examined in the right light, with the instruments of literary analysis. Skeptics might counter that having set out to find evidence of design and coherence, it is no surprise that I discover these in abundance. I presume that the Bavli's editors are artists, and then I find evidence of their art everywhere. It might be that the artful coherence and ironic reversals that I discern in AZ emerge from my own imagination and not from the creative genius of the talmudic editors, but I think that is giving me too much credit. While ultimately there is no way to verify my proposal that AZ is unified by an overarching plan or an undergirding logic, I submit that it is only by entertaining this possibility—by adopting a reading practice that presumes design and seeks after cohesion—that aspects of the Talmud's art can come into view. I offer my reading of the tractate as an illustration of how fruitful literary examinations of large units of the Bavli might be.
While I require the space of this entire book to effectively make my case for the editorial craft and literary artistry that unifies AZ as a whole, at this early juncture the story of Dama ben Netina helps to illustrate important aspects of a literary approach. As it happens, Dama steps into the action on page 23b of AZ in a very peculiar way. Unlike the version of his story presented above, in the context of AZ the Dama tradition is presented in a form that cannot properly be considered a narrative at all. Here, the components of Dama's story are broken apart and reconstituted as steps in a dialectical exchange about the fine points of rabbinic law. The absorption of this colorful tale into the back-and-forth of a complicated sugya does not preclude literary analysis, but rather serves to focus attention on the multiform and polyphonous qualities of talmudic discourse. In this passage, the voice of the anonymous editors—the voice that controls the dialectical argumentation—dominates the tradition about Dama without entirely drowning out the moral critique that is expressed through his story.
Between Story and Sugya
The immediate context in which Dama appears within AZ is a passage that engages one of the most stridently xenophobic statements in all of rabbinic literature. According to the Mishna, "We do not stable livestock in the stalls of non-Jews because they are suspected of bestiality." The discussion of this tradition in the Talmud does not register any emotional or moral response to the salaciousness of the statement, and unfolds in the same tone of rationalized deliberation that typifies talmudic dialectic generally. The specific question under debate in the sugya is whether animals that have been owned, herded, or quartered by non-Jews are admissible as sacrifices in Jewish Temple rites. The implication of the Mishna is clear: no animal that has been used sexually by humans can subsequently be dedicated to sacred purposes, so a presumption of bestiality among non-Jews excludes the possibility of using these animals for sacrifice. Tradition preserves a second, conflicting ruling on this matter, however. The Talmud cites a baraita, a tannaitic tradition that does not appear in the Mishna, that permits animals that had been owned by non-Jews to be used for sacrifice; this baraita explicitly states that there should be no presumption that the animals of non-Jews have been used in bestial sex. How can the opposing rulings of the Mishna and the baraita be reconciled? Resolution of the apparent conflict between these two ancient traditions drives the back-and-forth of the sugya as a whole.
One proposal that the editors entertain is that the suspicions expressed in the Mishna reflect the views of Rabbi ʾEliʿezer alone, while the more lenient ruling in the baraita corresponds to the majority view of the Sages. It is here that Dama's story becomes most relevant. The story dramatizes an instance of a Temple sacrifice being procured from a non-Jew—the very issue under discussion—and, according to tradition, it is Rabbi ʾEliʿezer who recounts the incident to his students. In the passage below, the anonymous editorial voice introduces the story and then interrupts it, using details from the narrative to test the plausibility of propositions that were made earlier regarding Rabbi ʾEliʿezer's views. To highlight these editorial interventions, I present the voice of the anonymous editors—traditionally called "the Stam"—in boldface below. My own glosses of their words are also in bold, and indicated with brackets, and I have numbered the sections of sugya in order to refer to them afterward. As the discussion opens, the Stam returns to a statement that appears earlier in the deliberations, a proposal by a sage named Shela that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer believed there was a scriptural prohibition against accepting sacrifices from non-Jews. Such an understanding of Scripture could serve as a rationale for a prohibition on non-Jews' animals that does not impute bestial tendencies to non-Jews.
- Back to the body of the matter:
Shela taught: What is the reason that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer [prohibited contributions from non-Jews]? Because it is written in Scripture, "Instruct the Israelite people to bring you [a red cow . . .]" (Num. 19:2). [This means that only] Israelite people shall bring, and not non-Jews.
- But, according to this reasoning, the verse "Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts" (Exod. 25:2) would also mean that only the Israelites could bring contributions to the Sanctuary, and that non-Jews could not. But if you should say that this is indeed so [i.e., that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer was of the opinion that non-Jews could not contribute to the Sanctuary], is it not the case that Rav Yehuda said that Shmuʾel said:
- They asked Rabbi ʾEliʿezer, "How far does honoring father and mother extend?"
He said to them, "Go and see what one non-Jew in Ashkelon did for his father, and Dama ben Netina was his name."
One day, a Jew asked him for precious stones for the ephod, offering a profit of 600,000—Rav Kahana teaches: a profit of 800,000—But the keys were lying under the pillow of his father, and he did not disturb him.
- [This is not necessarily a contradiction, since in Scripture, specific mention of] "lapis lazuli [and other stones for setting for the ephod and the breastpiece]" (Exod. 25:7) [having no conjunction to link it up to the preceding verses] stops the discussion [and so is not necessarily governed by the limitation imposed by Shela's interpretation]!
- But look [the conjunction that follows in the verse's enumeration of items—] "and other stones for setting" once again links up [with the passage under discussion, and so such contributions from non-Jews would have to be prohibited if Rabbi ʾEliʿezer did accept Shela's interpretation]!
- And furthermore, it was taught in the end [of the story] that
- the next year, a red cow was born into his herd.
The Sages of Israel came to him. He said to them, "I know of you that if I were to demand all the money in the world, you would give it to me, but I will only request the amount of money that I lost on account of Father."
- There, they made the purchase through Jewish merchants [and so it was permitted even though Rabbi ʾEliʿezer would normally prohibit the sacrificial use of animals that had belonged to non-Jews].
As the discussion begins (section 1), the editor returns to a proposal that was made earlier in the deliberations. It had been suggested that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer prohibits the sacrificial use of animals acquired from non-Jews, because he accepts Shela's interpretation of Scripture. The biblical commandment regarding the red heifer (Num. 19:2) is specifically addressed to the Israelites; Shela reads this address restrictively, extrapolating that such sacrifices may be accepted from Israelites alone. Does Rabbi ʾEliʿezer accept this interpretation of the verse? Or does he hold a stringent position on the use of non-Jews' animals because he shares the Mishna's presumption that non-Jews regularly engage in bestiality? Over the course of the ensuing discussion, the anonymous editor articulates two distinct arguments against the claim that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer accepts Shela's interpretation. The first argument is based on the first scene of Dama's story, and the second argument is based on the second scene of Dama's story.
The first argument (in section 2) is that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer does not apply Shela's restrictive mode of interpretation to other verses where similar language occurs. The editor points out that the scriptural passage containing instructions for making contributions to the Sanctuary, including gemstones for the ephod, is expressly addressed to the Israelites, just as the passage about the red heifer is. And yet, in recounting the story of Dama ben Netina, Rabbi ʾEliʿezer betrays no compunctions about efforts to secure gemstones from Dama, a non-Jew. This would seem to demonstrate that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer does not accept Shela's interpretation. In section 4, however, this argument is challenged, when the editor points out that the scriptural instructions regarding gifts to the Sanctuary are not as straightforward as they would appear. In the long catalog of items that the Israelites are to donate, some of the objects are linked by "and" as if they are items in a series, and some are not. Perhaps, the Stam suggests, Rabbi ʾEliʿezer reads the scriptural verses as stringently as Shela does—as applying to Israelites alone—but simply does not apply this stringency to stones for the ephod? In section 5, this challenge is summarily dismissed—even if one exempted the mention of "lapis lazuli" from the prohibition, the other "stones for setting" are linked to the rest of the list by a conjunction, so they would be prohibited. The first argument is thus allowed to stand: in telling Dama's story, Rabbi ʾEliʿezer clearly signals that he is not at all opposed to contributions to the Sanctuary from non-Jews. He does not accept Shela's restrictive reading of Scripture.
At this point in the sugya, in section 6, the editor offers a second challenge to the proposal that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer accepts Shela's hardline position on the use of non-Jews' animals. Here, the challenge is more direct, but the argumentation is tacit, implied by the use of the phrase "and furthermore" that introduces the end of Dama's story. Dama the Gentile provides a red heifer for Temple rites, and Rabbi ʾEliʿezer recounts the incident with approbation. The implication is that the vividness of Dama's example speaks for itself, and indeed it does. The second part of Dama's story would seem to clinch things, upending the proposal that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer harbors doubts about the admissibility of non-Jews' animals. Though the deliberations continue for several more rounds with the editor briefly considering the possibility that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer approved of Dama's calf only because it was purchased through Jewish middlemen (section 8), ultimately the story of Dama effectively neutralizes the proposal that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer has any compunctions about the animals of non-Jews. Shela's strict reading of Scripture cannot be pinned on Rabbi ʾEliʿezer, and neither can the Mishna's suspicions about the bestial tendencies of non-Jews.
As a sample of talmudic dialectic, this small excerpt from a larger sugya exhibits many characteristic features, including the compulsion toward exhaustive examination and rationalization that has made "talmudic" a synonym for "hairsplitting" in popular usage. Though the passage as a whole makes a persuasive case that the earlier proposal about Rabbi ʾEliʿezer's position cannot be upheld, the argument is not presented in a direct way, but rather proceeds in fits and starts, with the voice of the Stam pivoting between pro and con. Each challenge that is posed is immediately answered by a caveat, a mitigating factor, or a qualification that might preserve the proposal under attack despite all commonsense indications that it simply does not hold up: "Perhaps he only admits the gem because the verse does not say 'and'"; "perhaps he only allows the calf because it is first acquired by Jewish merchants." The editorial voice worries about all extenuating possibilities. This is not the kind of debate in which one side seeks to invalidate the other; on the contrary, the editorial voice seeks to sustain opposing views at all costs.
To a certain degree, the meticulousness that characterizes the Talmud, its commitment to considering a question from all sides, accounts for the particular way that the argumentation in this section of the sugya unfolds. As noted above, the editors challenge the proposal that Rabbi ʾEliʿezer subscribes to Shela's interpretation of the red heifer commandment in Numbers 19:2 on two fronts: first, by demonstrating that he does not interpret similar phrasing in Exodus 25:2 according to Shela's restrictive model; and second, by demonstrating that he does not accept the ruling on the red heifer that Shela's interpretation would require. Of these two arguments, the second is far more direct and compelling. Why, then, do the editors hold back? Why not lead with the more forceful rebuttal? The editorial choice to save the best for last is a characteristic feature of talmudic dialectic. In some cases, it is rhetorically effective to build an argument gradually, deploying ever stronger refutations in turn. In passages such as this one, there is yet another dynamic at work: the second argument is so decisive that had it been placed in the beginning it would have effectively drawn the deliberations to a hasty end, foreclosing the kind of drawn-out exchange that characterizes talmudic dialectic. This rationale goes a long way toward accounting for the particular way that this sugya is structured, but it does not account for everything. Examining how this sugya participates in the tractate's larger conversation about the nature of Jewish difference brings additional considerations into view.
It seems to me that the editors wish to bring Dama's story into the ambit of AZ's deliberations about how Jews and non-Jews differ, and it is their interest in appraising his exemplarity that generates the particular shape of the dialectic here. The editors' investment in Dama as a character is not immediately apparent because of the way the sugya slices Dama's story into two, deploying the two halves of the tradition at two different stages within the back-and-forth of the argumentation. In atomizing the components of Dama's story, the sugya effectively cues the reader not to attend to considerations of plot, character, or theme. The separation of the first and second acts of the story undermines the logic of consequentiality that is implied by narrative sequencing; here, there is no suggestion that the red heifer comes as a reward for Dama's piety in honoring his father. Yet despite the fracture of the narrative form, it is striking to note that the sugya nonetheless presents the entirety of Dama's story. There is not a sentence or detail from the story as it appears in b. Kidushin 31a that is missing here. The successive deployment of the two main parts of Dama's story in the two phases of argumentation preserves the sequence of the narrative, even in the absence of the narrative form. I think the argumentation unfolds in two stages as it does precisely because this structure allows the editors to preserve the coherence of Dama's story. While the second phase of argument is more than sufficient for deciding the legal question in dispute, the first phase of argument provides the vehicle for conveying the most important part of Dama's story.
Dama's presence is critical in this discussion, because his example offers the sole challenge to the scandalous claim that heads up the sugya—the Mishna's statement that non-Jews cannot be trusted to refrain from having sex with livestock. Through all the ins and outs of the Talmud's interrogation of the Mishna, the content of this claim about non-Jewish depravity is never directly challenged. The Talmud's treatment of this particular mishna goes on for pages, and even as the dialectic examines how the Mishna's presumption of non-Jewish bestiality might be reconciled with certain leniencies in rabbinic rulings, it never acknowledges the extreme nature of the Mishna's position, or the grave implications for Jewish-Gentile relations. Instead, the deliberations proceed in the same manner of meticulous argumentation that characterizes other halakhic sugyot. The sugya steadfastly attempts to resolve apparent contradictions in the details of the legal tradition, but shrinks from the gaping rift at the heart of the whole enterprise: for if non-Jews are so profoundly different from Jews that bestiality is rampant among them, how is it that the law allows for any social interactions with non-Jews at all? This incongruity becomes even more salient when the talmudic editors attempt to identify Rabbi ʾEliʿezer with the harshness of the Mishna's position, for how could Rabbi ʾEliʿezer both esteem the righteous virtue of Dama ben Netina and suspect him and all of his peers of abject perversity? It seems to me that though the editors do not explicitly oppose the Mishna's judgments of non-Jews, their choice to insert Dama's story into the deliberations is a strategy for calling the Mishna's denigration of non-Jews into question. Dama's exemplary virtue exposes the error of the Mishna's prejudice. His story infiltrates the dialectic, protesting the excesses of the prevailing discourse from within.
I am suggesting that the sugya's dialectic unfolds at two different levels simultaneously, and that Dama's story participates in both. At the local level, the back-and-forth of the argumentation makes use of discrete details from Dama's story to investigate Rabbi ʾEliʿezer's precise position on the use of non-Jews' animals in the sacrificial cult. At the same time, Dama's story as a whole counters the Mishna's assertion of non-Jewish depravity, putting forth an alternative vision of humanity in which all people share norms and values in common. While most analyses of talmudic sugyot constrain themselves to local readings that track legal argumentation alone, new scholarship on the Talmud as literature offers a helpful model for describing the work that Dama's story does in enlarging the talmudic conversation.
In her recent book, Julia Watts Belser distinguishes between "halakhic dialectic" and "aggadic dialectic," categories that closely correspond to the two levels of discourse that intersect in AZ's use of Dama's story. "Halakhic dialectic" refers to the closely controlled argumentation that prevails in the Talmud's examinations of points of law. "Aggadic dialectic" is Belser's term for a kind of discourse that is far more open-ended and that characterizes the Talmud's use of narrative. Belser argues that storytelling does important cultural and theological work in the Bavli, probing, interrogating, and challenging the rabbis' received notions and prevailing values. Though Belser's work focuses on Tractate Taʿanit of the Babylonian Talmud, her characterization of aggadic dialectic serves as an apt description of how storytelling functions in AZ as well: "Through deliberate juxtapositions of conflicting aggadic narratives and traditions, the redactors of Bavli Taʿanit highlight contradictions and tensions in rabbinic thought and culture. Aggadic dialectic allows Bavli Taʿanit to interrogate rabbinic values and raise provocative questions about rabbinic ideals. Through aggadic dialectic, Bavli Taʿanit articulates a subversive, self-critical voice that accentuates profound tensions within rabbinic culture." AZ is a work rife with tensions and contradictions, and the strategic use of narratives like the story of Dama is one way the editors mark sites of cultural rifts and ruptures, unsettling received traditions and calling dominant views into question. While Belser's work associates this disruptive work primarily with those passages of the Talmud where narrative material predominates, I would argue that the Bavli's provocations are in no way limited to narrative, but pervade passages that are structured as legal dialectic as well. The invocation of Dama's case in the midst of dense legal argumentation offers a striking example of how these two modes of dialectic intersect.
The questions that dog the sugya in which Dama ben Netina appears are the same questions that run through AZ as a whole: What are the grounds for the priority and privilege that rabbinic law ascribes to Jews? What distinguishes Jews and other humans from the realm of other animals? What is gained and what is lost when the common humanity of all people is acknowledged? What is the meaning of Jewish difference? Though much of the content of AZ is dedicated to shoring up the boundaries that divide Jews from non-Jews, passages such as the one we have examined subvert these lines of separation. Here, the talmudic editors use Dama's example to highlight the disjuncture between the Mishna's denigration of non-Jews and other evidence that Jews and non-Jews are close relations, bound by a common humanity that rabbis ignore at their peril. Even as the prevailing voice in the Talmud invokes fear and suspicion, constructing legal and psychological barriers that isolate Jews from others, another voice conjures a world where human relationships are more varied, full, and free. Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals attends to the dynamic interplay between these two voices, reading AZ as an extended conversation about what it means to be human.
Reading from the Outside In
This book is about ancient rabbis and their relationship to those outside their community. It is also about today's talmudic scholarship and its relationship to humanistic studies. Among the challenges I face are how to move in and out of a text that is notoriously inaccessible to the uninitiated, how to open up the dialogues, laws, and stories of the Talmud to questions and perspectives that come from outside the field of rabbinic studies, and how to invite into the Talmud's discourse readers who have no particular stake in the Talmud's arguments. The Talmud itself is both an outsider and an insider in relation to Western humanistic tradition—an outsider in the sense that it comes from a minority culture on the margins of the intellectual traditions that produced the Humanities, an insider inasmuch as it comes from the same late antique culture that produced Christianity and has been shaped in interaction with Christians. The Talmud's outsider/insider status is why in my view it has a distinctive contribution to make to humanistic studies, and why my argument is always striving to move between the perspectives of those within the talmudic text and of those outside the text, including readers from outside talmudic studies.
Throughout this book, I take an eclectic approach to critical theory, seeking out tools and perspectives that seem most apt and illuminating in relation to the passages and questions at hand. What justifies this eclecticism is the eclectic character of the Talmud itself, which incorporates a variety of different discursive modes and ranges across a variety of issues and topics, but this kind of approach brings another kind of benefit as well: it will allow us to pursue a variety of different connections to the larger world of humanistic study, engaging literary theory, animal studies, and new scholarship about materiality. What ultimately holds everything together is my argument that the talmudic tractate itself is a cohesive unit, its disparate parts adding up to a larger whole.
This engagement with theories and methods that come from outside rabbinic tradition is one of the reasons I characterize my analysis of AZ as a reading "from the outside," but it is not the only one. A second sense of "the outside" relates to the way this book engages the perspectives of outsiders. The body of law that AZ addresses is centrally concerned with defining social boundaries. While the primary focus in AZ is on separating Jews from non-Jews, this boundary line intersects with other lines of division—between men and women, between rabbis and non-rabbis, between humans and animals. This book examines the explicit and implicit ways the Talmud constructs boundaries between insiders and outsiders, and attends to those whom the talmudic discussion marginalizes and excludes. One of my arguments is that the Talmud does not speak with one voice about the hierarchies that talmudic law constructs. Populating AZ with vivid non-Jewish characters such as Dama ben Netina is one way that the talmudic editors turn a self-critical eye on the prejudices of their own rabbinic culture. In moving non-Jews, women, and other figures from the margins of talmudic culture to the center of the analysis, this book strengthens the Bavli's internal critique, amplifying voices of opposition and extending their protestations against structures of exclusion into our own day.
A third sense of reading from the outside relates to the larger claim I make in this book, that there is an overarching structure that organizes AZ as a whole. To discern this architecture, one must step outside the thick weave of individual local sugyot and take a global perspective on the tractate, allowing large-scale patterns and recurrent motifs to come into view. As I show, there is a single organizing principle that governs the editorial expansions in much of AZ. Successive chapters of the tractate are organized as a journey down a cosmic ladder, moving from the heights of humans' spiritual aspiration down through descending rungs of creaturely existence. As the tractate begins, narratives about individuals who find redemption in the next world predominate. Later, the talmudic discussion shifts its orientation downward, from the supernal realm of souls and spirit to the material world of embodied, animal existence. Finally, the deliberations drill down into the inanimate domain of objects, investigating the physical properties of idols and other things.
The overarching structure of the tractate is reminiscent of the ancient concept of the "great chain of being," the idea that all beings have a place in a cosmic hierarchy that descends from the reaches of heaven down to earth. This concept of the cosmic chain traces back to Plato and Aristotle and finds expression throughout the vicissitudes of Western thought and literature. Within the Talmud, this idea is never designated by name, nor is it rigorously developed as it is in the philosophic tradition, but it nonetheless organizes the progress of AZ as it unfolds. When I describe AZ as a cohesive literary work, this claim centers on my identification of the chain of being as an organizing trope for the entire tractate. This is not to say that every aspect of AZ adheres to a unitary pattern; in fact, the end of AZ departs from this framework, as we shall see. Yet even when the cosmic chain ceases to function as a structuring device, it continues to inform the tractate's thematics.
The idea that there is hierarchical order to creation, a view that is widely shared in late antiquity, grounds AZ's depictions of the human condition. According to this view, humanity inhabits a special place in the cosmos. Since humans are made of material stuff, they often crouch toward their baser, animal impulses, but they are also capable of stretching toward the highest realms of spiritual attainment. Tracing the motif of the chain of being as it spirals through the talmudic tractate, I discover in AZ the outlines of a rabbinic anthropology that affirms the common humanity of Jews and non-Jews and highlights the role of Jewish law in constituting Jewish difference.
The organization of this book generally adheres to the structure of AZ, moving through successive sections in order. The traditional designations of AZ's five chapters are listed below (corresponding roughly though not precisely to the five chapters of the present book):
- Lifney ʾEydeyhem
- ʾEyn Maʿamidim
- Kol Ha-tzlamim
- Rabbi Yishmaʿʾel
- Ha-sokher ʾet Ha-poʿel
Here is an overview of how my argument unfolds:
In Chapter 1, I draw on the critical insights of literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to flesh out some particulars of my literary approach to talmudic discourse and narrative. I examine the rich narrative material that predominates at the beginning of AZ, reading a network of stories from "Lifney ʾEydeyhem" as a thematic introduction to AZ as a whole. Demonstrating the intertextual connections that link these stories, I show how they work together to generate an expansive conversation about the differences between Jews and non-Jews, and about the possibilities for human redemption. I consider how these stories can expand critical conversations about the dangers of binary thinking, and about the relationship between language and reality.
Chapter 2 turns to "ʾEyn Maʿamidim," revisiting the discussion of Gentile bestiality introduced above. I argue that this entire talmudic chapter is unified by a sustained engagement with animals. I look to the field of critical animal studies to help me investigate intersections among the gender, religious, and species hierarchies that the chapter engages, and describe the "animal thinking" that stands behind the Bavli's conception of law as that which elevates some human beings over others.
Chapter 3 confronts the issue that preoccupies AZ above all else, the laws of yeyn nesekh, or "libation wine." These are restrictions that govern Jews' use of wine that has been owned or handled by Gentiles. I argue that throughout the talmudic discussion, legal analysis and literary craft are thoroughly interpenetrating, so that casks of wine function simultaneously as objects of the law and as figures for the permeability of communal boundaries. Examining the legal dialectics and narrative traditions about yeyn nesekh, I identify a strategy of obfuscation that obscures the talmudic discussion. I propose that the secrecy and stringency that surround this body of law reflect rabbinic anxieties about the common humanity that links Jews and non-Jews.
Chapter 4 examines the treatment of idols and other objects in "Kol Ha-tzlamim" and "Rabbi Yishmaʿʾel," a discussion that emerges surprisingly late in a tractate named for idolatry. I propose that the belatedness of the tractate's engagement with idols can be explained in part by the overarching organization of the talmudic tractate, which moves from the supernal to the animal and only subsequently to the realm of inanimate things. I seek to show that the talmudic deliberations about idols and other material things participate in late antique debates about the nature of the physical world, and also about images, icons, art, and the meaning of representation. This chapter brings the Talmud's discussions about the material composition of idols and other things into conversation with new critical approaches to materiality and objects.
In Chapter 5, I describe the shift that occurs at the end of AZ, as the editors turn their attention away from the construction of boundaries between Jews and non-Jews and toward the construction of boundaries between rabbis and other Jews. With this shift, the Bavli moves away from a notion of essential differences that distinguish Jews from other people, further unsettling the dichotomy between Jews and others. AZ concludes with a portrait of the rabbi as a figure who enjoys special prestige, and a distinctive role in articulating what and who matters most. I conclude this book with some reflections about how the rabbinic anthropology I discover in AZ can enrich critical reevaluations of humanism, and about how talmudic studies fits into the world of the humanities.
To seek to analyze the Talmud—even a small part of it—is to experience the predicament that afflicts the sages who approach Dama in search of a rare gem. A treasury is close at hand and yet out of reach. Scholars are only now beginning to penetrate the distinctive ways that the Talmud makes meaning. This book examines one small part of the Bavli's vast oeuvre. Through sustained literary analysis of AZ, it seeks an interpretive key for unlocking the Talmud's artistry and anthropology, and uncovers a rich debate about what distinguishes Jews from others, and about what all human beings share in common.
To play on the literal meaning of AZ's title—ʿAvoda Zara—this tractate, like the corpus of which it is a part, is a strange work. In relation to the rationalized discourse of the humanities as pursued in the secular university, talmudic language and ideology are foreign, peculiar, Other, sometimes unassimilably so. In this book, I argue that this difference is productive. Even as critical theory can help interrogate and interpret the Talmud, the Talmud expands critical discourse about humanity, offering alternative conceptions of human identity, relationships, and responsibility.