Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part I

I just received my desk copy of Daniel Boyarin’s new book Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (University of Chicago), I have not read it yet. The book is quite dense and intricate at points so I just did a short first reading, skimming it at points and will read it in detail this week.

The major fact used by the book is that the aggadah in the Bavli was influenced by Roman Satire especially Lucian  with his Menippean satire.

1] I wonder about the upcoming reception of the book. There has been a strong visceral reaction against situating the Talmud within Roman satire. A.A. Halevi, Sha’arei ha-Aggadah (1963) gave parallels between aggadah and Roman satires, but almost no one really picked it up. Already the Soncino Talmud had footnotes to the sources of sugyot in Roman satire, but who quotes those footnotes? In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many majored in classics and readily saw the parallels.  Is the reluctance because those who study Talmud, even in liberal seminaries, have a theological need to make the Talmud unique?

2] Boyarin discusses those who distance themselves from the exaggerated aggadah by distinguishing between halakhah and aggadah, and he discusses those who want to show the relationship of the two realms of halkhah and aggadah. He mentions the folklorists who remove the stories from their halakhic realm altogether.But he concludes that there are two types of aggadah, the gentle rational aggadah of the Halakhic realm and the wild aggadah. Boyarin references the distinction to Krokhmal. (I heard  similar distinction from Rav Soloveitchik – that we should use the aggadah of the halakhic realm and not any and all texts of aggadah)

3] But Boyarin’s point is that the Talmudic debates are really monovocal, unlike the dialogues of the Platonic dialogues. (Similar ideas were already stated by Louis Jacobs in his Talmudic Argument.)  Boyarin uses Bakhtin’s theories of dialogue and heteroglossia to claim that the halakhah does not consist of debates but is a single voice. But the halakhah together with the agadah, the narratives, and roman satire Aggadah create a rich sense of dialogue in the Talmud in which the aggadah undercuts and reverses the halakhah yet the halakhah retains its supremacy. (I had similar ideas back in 1988 using Bakhtiin and have notes to myself in a jot pad – my focus was distinguishing between the monovocal sugya compared to heteroglossia created by the commentaries- I must find the jot pad in the basement.).

4] Since anyone who has read classics has seen this parallel to Roman materials – what were the first reactions? R. Shmuel David Luzzato wrote that the Talmud is a conversation and that we can reject parts. Krokhmal said “dor dor vedorshav” this was the way the Jewish idea was expressed in that era. They were ahistoric and had roman satire- now we are rational and study history. For Geiger and most critics of the Talmud, it is another reason to reject the entire Talmudic enterprise. Maharetz Hayetz  offers apologetic that they are didactic and do not conflict our modern sense; there is no historic difference from today. Many of them were simply to awaken and arouse the students.RSH Hirsch said aggadot have no tradition and we have to use reason to pick out the real ones. Even Loius Ginzberg claimed to have an intuitive sense of which aggadot are truly rabbinic.

Boyarin claims these ribald carnival aggadot are essential parts for understanding the Talmudic literary structure. This puts him in the same camp as the Maharal, Vilna Gaon and Rav Nahman of Breslov.

9 responses to “Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part I

  1. Very interesting ,Do any of the Rishonim make the distinction between the two types of Aggadita ?

  2. “This puts him in the same camp as the Maharal, Vilna Gaon and Rav Nahman of Breslov.” I understand ‘him’ and the carnival idea, but I do not know what in the three thinkers you mention puts them all in one camp.

  3. Jonathan, Explicitly not as far as I know but there does seem to be a sense that some aggadot one does not bother explaining and some one is compelled to explain. The distinction is more of a heuristic tool than an actual distinction. For example, Rav Soloveitchik had no compunctions about not using the magical statements even if they are from Halakhic authorities.

    evanstonjew- the medievals did not give much attention to these aggadot. Attention was turned to them from the 16th century onward in eastern Europe. The Beer Hagolah of Maharal turns every statement about Fat Rabbis and other carnival idea into a pillar for understanding the Talmud. This continued for 300 years producing books such as “midrash peliah” and then culminating in Rav Nahman and the Gra both diving to explain these stories and giving divergent explanations to the same tales. For the last 200 years, these stories were not in fashion. Boyarin’s approach has resonances with these eastern European thinkers.

  4. boyarin had a good ear for explaining specific nuances in aggadic materials. it would be disappointing if he lost that ear now. also talmud, whether in the legal or the narrative genres is not to be confused with the codified halakhah. or to put it more bluntly, talmudic man should never be confused with halakhic man. the former views the world through rich legal and narrative modes of thought and the elaborate contents of that culture. the latter sees existence through a reorganized and restated subset of that material. and both talmudic man and halakhic man are amalgamated and partial archetypes within judaism.

  5. 1) Isn’t the distinction between two type of Aggadata a bit artificial? Could I argue for a range in Aggadah from the more sermonic/drasha to the more magical, with extremes on both ends?

    2) I believe that the primary reason that people do not discuss Aggadatah within it’s Roman context is because most people these days (even in Liberal Seminaries) lack a good Classical education. You cannot see what you do not know. This could be seen as part of the larger turn to Jewish studies from philosophy and classics, which is a recurring theme of this blog.

    Even if the teachers in Liberal Seminaries know the Classics and their context for Rabbinic literature, I suspect that their students would be less engaged by this comparison as opposed to developing the Jewish narrative arc.

  6. I thought some figures in Greek mythology have their counterparts in Midrash or Aggadah.

    On example is Cerberus, the three headed dog that guards the underworld. My guess is that is like the 3 sons of Korach saying “Moshe emes v’toraso emes” at the entrance to gehennom.

    Is this the type of thing this book discusses?

    • No, not at all. If you want that then go to A.A. Halevi, Sha’arei ha-Aggadah (1963) or Hasan-Rokem. The book is on rhetorical styles-not images or tropes. It points out the role of Roman satire in a in a broad way.

  7. it really burns me up when people use the “sof” incorrectly.
    moshe emes v’soraso emes.

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