More on the Cambridge Companion
I’ve been able to go over the recently published Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature and here are some first impressions. First of all it seems like Cambridge publishes quality paperback books, because often paperback books are built with a lifespan of a few months and then they fall apart. Let’s hope that this first impression is correct. As to the content, I think that it presents a good portrait of many of the interests of modern scholars of Talmud. The description from the back cover says it well,
This volume guides beginning students of rabbinic literature through the range of historical interpretive and culture-critical issues that contemporary scholars use when studying rabbinic texts…Unlike other introductions to rabbinic writings, the present volume includes approaches shaped by anthropology, gender studies, oral-traditional studies, classics, and folklore studies.
This volume does not discuss manuscripts, redaction theory, language, etc., for these questions Stemberger’s Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash and Goodblatt’s bibliographical review article are still the best resources. Since the various chapters are written by different people they don’t represent identical approaches or quality. In addition, many people will probably only be interested in some of them, and until the publishing world allows people to pay for and download individual chapters, something which probably won’t happen for some time, you’ll have to focus on those chapters which interest you.
As to content, I’ll start with the good old question of “Was the Mishnah written down?”. I already mentioned Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s chapter, but in Catherine Hezser’s chapter on “Roman Law and Rabbinic Legal Composition” she writes the following,
Whereas Saul Lieberman assumed that the entire Mishnah was published and circulated orally, it is more likely that rabbis had access to particular Mishnah tractates only and that such tractates also existed in writing, even if they continued to be recited from memory in the framework of oral teaching and discussion. (p. 158)
Dr. Hezser has published about writing and literacy in Roman Palestine, so here’s another informed comment for you. Jeff Rubenstein seems to generally agree with David Goodlbatt in the Goodblatt-Gafni debate regarding the nature of rabbinic learning in Babylonia. In this article of his on the topic he said the following,
Most, if not all, references to a yeshiva or metivta in the Bavli derive from this post-amoraic stratum. These references therefore do not prove that academies existed in Babylonia in amoraic times. Goodblatt?s dating of the rise of the academy to post-talmudic times can be accepted, though several of his interpretations of talmudic sources need not be endorsed. In other words, both Goodblatt and Gafni were correct. Goodblatt was correct to date the rise of the academy to post-amoraic times. Gafni was correct to claim that there are indeed references to academies in the Bavli. However, these references belong to the post-amoraic stratum, and therefore support Goodblatt?’s, rather than Gafni’?s, conclusion.
Yaakov Elman’s article on “Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages” shows how much our knowledge of Babylonian Talmudic rabbis and the Talmud itself can be enriched by knowledge of Persian literature, religion, and culture. I thought that a very important point was made by Seth Schwartz in his chapter “The Political Geography of Rabbinic Texts”,
Jacob Neusner, shaped by the work of Morton Smith, Goodenbough, and Lieberman, has left such an enormous mark in contemporary rabbinic historiography that it is often difficult to recall the shape of the field when he began to publish in the middle 1960s…In sum, Neusner insisted on regarding the rabbinic documents not as archives or repositories of raw data but as texts seeking to create a fictive sense of reality for polemical purposes; he was the first historically inclined rabbinist to take seriously the role of the editors and the environments in which they worked in shaping the specific contents of the rabbinic documents. (pp. 85-6)
While Neusner may have gone on to repudiate much of his earlier work, he is a scholar whose influence and importance is all too often lost in the personal attacks and counter-attacks, hundreds of articles and books, etc. Lastly, there’s an interesting comment by Daniel Boyarin in a footnote to his chapter “Hellenism in Jewish Babylonia”,
While I am less than fully comfortable with certain positivistic aspects of Halivni’s argument, namely, the assumption of bounded and named periods, functions, and functionaries, I think he is absolutely right to hypothesize that the redactorial activity that produced the Talmud was lengthy and uneven…If there were no other evidence at all, the witness of a Gaonic work, The She’iltot of Rab Ahai Gaon (fl. ca, 650-782) would provide sufficient reason for this view, as the author of that work is clearly working from a significantly different version of the Talmud, one that is the product of other Stamma’im than the ones in the Talmud that has come down to us…The work of the Stamma’im may very well have still been going on during the seventh and into the eighth centuries, in accord with Halivni’s latest position. If Halivni’s position stands, it will be necessary to rethink the nexus between the Talmud and the beginnings of Islam and the Karaite movement in the wake of this very late dating. (p. 360, n. 19)
This is quite a loaded statement, and I have a future post planned which will touch upon this opinion regarding to the Sheiltot, one which was held by J.N. Epstein.