Menachem Mendel

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Review: The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud


The Blog of the Center for Jewish Law has a review of David Weiss Halivni’s The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud. This quote from Halivni provides a good summary of his approach to the formation of the Talmud.

The foundation of my theory of the formation of the Talmud rests on the thesis that the Stammaim reconstructed Amoraic dialectical argumentation, and sometimes Tannaitic dialectical argumentation too, because there was no official transmission of dialectical argumentation in the Amoraic period. All my other premises – the prevalence of forced explanations in the Talmud, the late dating of the Stammaim, the absence of a comprehensive editing, and more – derive from this central and fundamental thesis.

The reviewer, Matthew Goldstone, wrote that:

While Halivni’s project of parsing the chronology of rabbinic texts and his adherence to historical-critical methods are reminiscent of older models of scholarship, we must not lose sight of the baggage of tradition from which he breaks away and the ability to transcend prior thinking that this requires. Halivni is open to rethinking his own positions and thus we find at the beginning of his work the admission that, “I retracted that which I stated in the Introduction to MM [Meqorot umesorot]: bava metsia (2003), that the Stammaitic age lasted for fifty years… I now believe that the Stammaitic was a lengthy period, extending almost 200 years…” In addition to continually developing his theory Halivni refreshingly also offers tentative hypotheses at a time when many are hesitant to posit unsubstantiated claims. Thus he writes, “I would venture to suggest, though only as a conjecture, that the transmitters also functioned as ‘combiners (metsarfim),’ that throughout Amoraic times they had a dual function…” And later on Halivni ventures “to speculate that when the Stammaim studied in the academy they did not follow the order of tractates but studied by topic. The Amoraim, however, proceeded according to the order of tractates…” Hence Halivni’s work has much to offer the curious reader.

The entire review can be found here.

One Response to “Review: The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud”

  1. 1

    MM, I can never tell with you. As at least 50% of this blog is devoted to promoting women, I wonder if the real reason you highlighted this review is because the reviewer, in footnote 1, conspicuously cites only women as examples of modern discussions of Talmud.

    I’m kidding. (Mostly.) This is actually a very good review. It’s interesting that, according to the reviewer, Halivni only addresses his forebears, and doesn’t deal with his contemporaries. One suspects this is because Halivni, in his heart of hearts, thinks his contemporaries are a bunch of amhartatzim. It’s not uncommon to see orthodox-trained scholars in non-orthodox settings. But because they know that their students will never get the same intensive study them themselves had in orthodox environments, they are never truly “goires” them.

    The reviewer helpfully notes that few examples of Halivni’s work is cited in the translation. That’s s shame. I’d like to see it, and it’s not so easy to get a hold of halivni’s stuff. I’m curious about it, because the idea of “stammaim” editing the amoraim has been around forever. The Ballie Tosfos regularly (at least, not irregularly) point out how a certain passage was later edited or paraphrased by the stam. Any bar daas is aware of this, though I will readily acknowledge the average yeshiva student is woefully unaware of this. From reading the review alone, the chiddush of Halivni seems to be only how long the period of stammaim lasted, upon which halivni has shifted his views. But as for the concept itself, nothing really new there. (Not taking away anything from his brilliance, of course, just that I cant see any type of revolutionary thought like, say, R. Chaim Brisker created.)




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