Category Archives: midrash

Korach & Moses’ Meritocracy

Guest Post by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein
Rabbi Bronstein serves as North American Development Executive for Ohr Torah Stone. From 2006-2011 he was Associate Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue. He tweets at @AvBronstein and launched a new blog,, where the following is cross-posted.

This is an adaptation of a sermon I delivered last week at a modern orthodox synagogue in the greater NY area. It is reworked slightly to include some material from other discussions and talks from Shabbat and beyond, and also eliminates some of the sermon filler. In conversation, I found that many people saw Korach as a sort of spiritual socialist, sort of a classic cold-war era sermon topic. I tried to make the discussion more contemporary.

Imagine a nation run as a meritocracy, where leaders rose to the top as they proved that they were brighter, more motivated, more assertive — true “leaders,” in every sense of the word. Things started well – there was a period of rapid growth and development, and everyone seemed to be sharing the rewards of the superior decisions and leadership that were coming from what was, by now, a trusted elite. Then, from out of the blue, something went very wrong. The leadership made a terrible collecive mistake, an epic misjudgment so out of line that the people assume they were collectively guilty of criminal negligence, if not outright corruption. As the grim, full reality of the disaster sets in, it becomes clear that all of the previous gains have essentially been erased, and the whole generation itself will go down in history as a wasted one.

Now imagine that, through it all, the meritocracy remains intact. The same leaders remain in charge, demanding the same levels of trust and of faith as though nothing had happened, with no effective safeguards in place to keep it from happening again. We would naturally expect the rise of popular movements to voice the people’s loss of confidence in the failed status quo. The truth is that this scenario actually happens quite often. In 2010, their motto was, “Don’t tread on me.” In 2011, they chanted, “We are the 99%.” And in last week’s Torah Portion it was Korach challenging Moses, insisting that “the entire community is holy, and God rests among them, so why do you lord yourself over the congregation of God?”

Continue reading

Egyptian Religion in Rabbinic texts

Rivka Ulmer, Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash (New York: Walter de Gruyter 2009)

I just read the work and I liked her collection of materials. There is an article by Gideon Bohak on some of the same materials that I am trying unsuccessfully to get via ILL. Ulmer was interested in everything culturally Egyptian, I am only interested in the religion aspects. The translations below are hers and the rest are selections and summaries of what she concluded. All knowledge of Egypt is hers.

Egyptian religion in Jewish thought goes back to the bible itself and the rabbinic homilies on the biblical verses. The Bible paints Egypt as having magicians, priests, and many false Gods. The rabbinic texts looked to their contemporary Egypt of the first centuries to flesh out the Biblical account.

The rabbinic texts consider the Nile to have been one of Egypt’s gods. “Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. Therefore, God said that he would smite their god first” (Exod. Rab. 9:9). In rabbinic texts, Joseph in his coffin was thrown by the magicians into the Nile on which it floated. This is similar with the ceremonies which feature Osiris’ body.

The Nile’s annual overflow is expanded as “…because this is the manner of the Nile it increases and it deceases, and the ministers (sarim) go and celebrate at the river, and it is to them like a festival of idolaters.” Pesiq. Zut (Lekah Tov) Gen. 39,:

According to Rivka Ulmer, the Egyptian term for the overflow of the Nile is Hapy (h pj), which is a divine figure, is the personification of the overflow, which brings abundance and prosperity to Egypt. In the later Roman era, there was a new concept of one Nile god, Neilos. “The rabbis assumed that the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. However, the transformation of the Nile into a divinity with a major cult transpired only during the Greco-Roman period. Prior to this era…fecundity figures related to the Nile” overflow… “were not major gods.”

The “Nile festival,” mentioned in rabbinic texts is very akin to the Egyptian Opet festival. According to Ulmer, the “people joined in a dramatic procession honoring Amun that commenced at the Karnak Temple and ended at the Luxor Temple.” The midrash offers a glimpse into both types of worship in Roman Egypt. A worship festival to Nelios and a dramatic procession to Amun.

It came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work (Gen. 39:11). [R. Judah and R. Nehemiah, each has his own explanation of this]. R. Judah said: [On that day] there was a day of idolatrous sacrifice to the Nile; everyone went to see it, but he [Joseph] did not go. R. Nehemiah said: It was a day of a theatrical performance, which all went to see, but he went into the house to work on his master’s accounts.

Amulets with Serapis, the Egyptian-Hellanistic deity, and his consort Isis as well as representations of Isis lactans (Isis as a breastfeeding mother) were prevalent in late antiquity and there are numerous depictions and cameos from the Roman era depicting Isis and Serapis together. The mishnah warns against objects with “the image of a breastfeeding woman or of Serapis.”

Rabbinic texts acknowledged that the Bible may still be using terms from the Egyptian language as a means by which the God of the Israelites displaced the Egyptian gods. The best example is the Hebrew word Anokhi as the first word of the ten commandments in is associated with the Egyptian ANKH, the symbol for eternal life possessed by all deities.

R. Nehemiah said, What is anokhi (ex 20:2)? It is an Egyptijan word. Why did God find it necessary to use an Egyptian word? Consider the story of a king of flesh and blood whose son had been captured. The son spent many years among his captors, until the king, full of vengeance, went to free his son, brought him back, and then found he had to talk with him in the captor’s language. So it was with the Holy One blessed be He; Israel had spent all the years of their servitude in Egypt where they learned the Egyptian language. Finally, when the Holy One redeemed them and came to give them the Torah, they could not understand it. So the Holy One said: I will speak to them in their captor’s speech therefore, the Holy One used the word anokhi (‘nky),which is a form of the Egyptian “nwk so that the Holy One began His inauguration of the giving of the Torah with Israel’s acquired way of speaking;’ I am (anokhi(nky) the Lord, your God. Pesiq. Rab. Kah 12:24

In some rabbinic texts, Egypt has become more of a typology for assimilation or immorality than a real place. Egypt was perceived as the ultimate rejection of one’s heritage and the return from Egypt was a return to the people Israel. Joseph and Moses were used as exemplars of both he process of assimilation and the process of return.

Moshe Kline and the Structured Mishnah

The 1980’s and 1990’s attracted many original minds to Jerusalem. One of them, Moshe Kline, part-time real estate developer, devoted himself to a Torah lishmah quest for the structure of Mishnah. I was always intrigued by anyone who can discuss Leo Strauss, Maharal, and Mishnah in one sentence. My interest was originally the Maharal angle. But, I have had many colleagues who use Kline’s structured approach to the Mishnah in teaching HS or adult education.

An introductory lecture presenting his discovery and method as delivered to Talmoodists is available here.
Having this chart in front of you will help in understanding the lecture.
An article capturing his original insight based on Maharal is available here.
The website has his articles on Bible and his complete printable color-coded Mishnah. If you want to discuss the method then please read the above articles first. Here is the home page of the website with tabs for articles on Torah and Mishnah.

He recently stopped by on a cold wintry NY day and answered a few questions.

1] What was your discovery about the Mishnah?

The original goal of my Mishnah project was to determine the principles according to which chapters of Mishnah were organized. In order to uncover these rules, it was first necessary to identify the components of chapters. The differing divisions into mishnayot (Bavli, Yerushalmi, various printings of the Mishnah) are all late and extraneous to the text. So I began going through the Mishnah dividing the chapters into components according to literary indicators.
Early on, I realized that the chapters were actually composed with two levels of division, a fact which is totally disguised by the common division into linearly-divided mishnayot. This was the key to the discovery that the chapters were composed as non-linear texts which could be visualized and understood as tables.
The chapters of the Mishnah were formatted according to a paradigm that resembles a table. I then set out each chapter in a visual format consistent with its inner literary structure. The discovery of the literary structure of the chapter leads to an approach to the study of the chapter as a coherent construct rather that a collection of loosely connected laws.

2] Who has supported it?

My edition of the Mishnah was accepted for publication by BGU Press on recommendation of Shamma Friedman and Daniel Boyarin. I have also received encouragement from David Weiss Halivni and Shlomo Zalman Havlin. Since I made it available online ( about ten years ago, I have lost track of how many people actually use it. Currently people are downloading about 20-30 copies of the full text per day. In addition, several hundred individual chapters are accessed every day. So I guess a lot of people are using it.

3] What did you learn from Leo Strauss about reading a text?

Although I cite Persecution and the Art of Writing, and see the Mishnah as an exoteric/esoteric text, I learned how to read during four years of the great-books program at St. John’s College. (Strauss retired to St. John’s as scholar in residence.) The most important element of this education, relevant to my research, is the requirement to read primary texts without commentary. This made me uncomfortable with the traditional Jewish approach to its foundational texts, i.e. that they could not be approached without commentaries. I was also influenced by the fact that the historical approach was anathema at St. John’s. Consequently, my work is neither “traditional” nor academic/historical.

4] What did you gain from Maharal?

The Maharal opened the door for me to see the Mishnah as a coherent composition, primarily through his exposition of the pairs in the first chapter of Avot. He made it clear that this structure was to be read as a philosophic composition rather than a loose compilation of aphorisms.

5] What did you learn from Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou)?

From Manitou I learned first and foremost to trust in myself and my St. John’s training. After we studied Maharal together for a period of several months, I began to see other parts of Avot as literary constructs, in addition to the pairs in the first chapter. Manitou then told me that he had received a tradition that the whole of the Mishnah used to be studied in the way that I was beginning to read Avot. However, several generations ago this knowledge had been lost. He asked me to restore this knowledge by identifying the literary structure of the Mishnah. He was sure that the “kabbala” was embedded in the formal structure, or in his words, that the Mishnah was constructed according to the “kabbala”. However, he instructed me to avoid reference to this in my work, and limit myself to literary analysis. Monitou gave me my life’s work, which has now gone farther than he envisioned.

6] What are you current Bible projects?

I am preparing a structured edition of the Torah which is similar to my edition of the Mishnah. In the meantime, I have published articles on Leviticus. Jacob Milgrom has become my mentor in biblical studies. I am also finishing an article on the link between the structure of the Torah and the structure of the Mishnah. In it, I demonstrate that Rabbi had an esoteric tradition regarding the literary formatting of the Torah which he applied to the composition of the Mishnah.

The paradigm can be seen in the first chapter of the Torah through the six days of creation. We all are familiar with the parallels between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6. These parallels actually divide the days into two parallel cycles of three days each, 1-3 and 4-6. What is less known, is that the cycles differ from each other in a fixed manner. The days of the first cycle contain creations that are unique, separated, named and motionless (Straus). The days of the second cycle contain groups of multiple, unnamed, moving creations: stars, fish, etc. By arranging the six days in a table containing two columns, the two cycles, and three rows, the paired days, you get a visual representation of the structure underlying the six days of creation. Each individual day is a function of the intersection of two planning lines, its column and its row. “Reading” the text according to this structure reveals the underlying metaphysics of the creation.

7] How does your approach differ from the literary approaches to Bible and Mishnah that are being produced by Machon Herzog?
My specific focus is on the division into the structural literary units and the additional meanings that are made available by the identification of these larger units.

The Bahir, The Shepherd of Hermas, and Kabbalah

Once upon a time when Prof Twersky of Harvard was holding conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, someone commented to me that we need conferences on the 7th, 8th, and 9th, centuries. There is a sense that much would be gained if you put those that work on Kabbalah and those that work on late midrash in a room together, new connections would be found.  Some have noted in my Zohar review the passing references to Philo of Alexandria and Shiite thought.  What I could not include in the Forward review is any discussion of the use of extended narrative of late antiquity in these Zohar volumes such as the role of Sefer Hayashar – Chronicle of Yerachmiel nor the history of the traditions of Moses as king and warrior in Ethiopia from the Chronicle of Moses. Nor did I mention the alchemy. Much of this was already noted by Moses Gaster, Louis Ginzburg, Adolphe Jellinek and others.

What the Pritzker edition lacks is any greater context than early Andalusian Kabbalah. When Midrash is added to the footnotes it is from CD-Rom and Margaliot’s comments on the Zohar not as an actual useful comparison.  Or when there is a footnote to the messianic battles of Nistarot of Rabbi Shimon – the footnote does not make one aware of the half a dozen different versions composed over 500 years  or which version does the Zohar seem to know. The version in Jellinek? the one edited by Bernard Lewis? Nor are the sources in Ashkenaz material sufficiently noted.

Yet,  there are the connections that allude almost anyone in Jewish studies. For example, At this year’s SBL there was a paper on The Shepard of Hermes and thanks to a write up on Mystical Politics, there was a tentative connection to the Kabbalah.

The third paper in the session was “The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas,” presented by Franklin Trammell. The abstract of his paper reads:

Behind some of the visions and teachings in the Shepherd of Hermas lies the notion of a direct correspondence between the heart of the righteous and the androgynous divine body. This body is presented by Hermas as a sevenfold Tower that is in the process of being (re)built by (re)incorporating the feminine Ecclesia. Members of the Ecclesia, who are pure of heart, are clothed with twelve virgins and receive the seal of the Son of God, representing the female and male aspects of the body. They then affect the reintegration of this female aspect, being built into the eschatological Tower as a part of her. Hermas’ law of purity therefore plays an incredibly important theurgic role. In identifying the Tower with the Ecclesia, itself implicitly assimilated in the text to Sophia, the author portrays those who do not sin after baptism as participating in the (re)unification of pre-existent Wisdom. It is this process along with elements related to it that shares affinities with later Jewish mystical sources.

I found this talk fascinating, especially since I’ve never read the Shepherd of Hermas. I found particularly interesting the possible connections to Sefer ha-Bahir that he mentioned.

What is the Shepard of Hermes?From wiki

The Shepherd of Hermas (sometimes just called The Shepherd) is a Christian literary work of the second century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers. The Shepherd had great authority in the second and third centuries.

Here is the text and an Intro.

Shlomo Pines and other have noted the early references to Kabbalistic esotericsm in Patristics. But few look to works to books left out of Patristics like the Shepard of Hermes. Theses books give  insight into the thought of centuries like the second century, where we know little of the rabbinic worldview outside of the Tannaic works.

Authorship and the Individual

Interesting book review on questions of authorship as applied to Dante. The critical theorists have already shown that medievals treated Aristotelian philosophy the way we treat the rules of physics, not something that needs an author. And they showed how some medieval texts were written with the reader in mind- either as images on the side of the page or only giving allusions and letting the reader apply them on his own. Medievals also wrote as a form of revelation, and treated cosmologies as revelatory and they considered the bearers of the scholarly tradition as possessing an immanent truth. Not everyone who wrote was considered an auctores.

This opens up the question of what rabbinic Jewish author were doing? The Geonim and Nahmanides were writing with the a Divine spirit, or at least legal decisions were guided by the Divine. Some Kabbalistic works are seen as transmitting ancient knowledge or ascribed to older figures. And the Guide for the Perplexed is just that, a guide for the reader. But what were the “authors” of Pirkei deRebbe Eliezer thinking?

To consider the modern issues: Judaism never bought into the idea of the individual author and still has trouble with intellectual property of an author. In many texts, Torah is seen as possessed by the collective or as eternally given. So when a posek writes a teshuvah: Is it his own authorship? Does he write as bearer of a mesorah, like a medieval kabbalist? Is there a revelation granted to the community? We tend to frame these questions using the anachronistic modern contrast of autonomy and authority. We need to ask: what is involved in an act of religious writing? Does one write ex cathedra, with immanent truth, with revelation, or for the reader?

But then it becomes more difficult- what happens when the written opinions of a rabbi are involved in petty squabbles or personal interests or manipulated by politics? Ascoli’s book on Dante asks that question directly – If Dante claimed to write with revelation then how can he till be involved in his petty squabbles? What happens when someone writes with immanent divine truth and also acts as an independent agent?

Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2008. Reviewed by Jan G. Soffner (Zentrum Cr Literatur- und Kulturforschung) Published on H-Italy (December, 2009)

By Which Authority Did Dante Write?

If one happens to talk by chance about Dante’s fourteenth-century masterpiece _Divine Comedy_, one can observe a strange phenomenon.

Dante seems to misuse God for his political opinions, by letting the divine justice condemn his enemies, and for his personal
pride or arrogance, by having all the best dead poets honor him (see, for instance, Inferno IV, 100-102). Moreover, isn’t it already quite
presumptuous to “know” the divine verdict about everybody who has ever died? All this seems to be even stranger, since this work is
evidently a literary text, not an inspired prophecy like the Revelation. So how could Dante attribute this authority to himself?
And did he attribute this authority to himself after all, or did he “just” write fiction?

This suspicion arose as soon as the _poema sacro–_the “holy poem,” as Dante himself calls it (Paradiso XXV, 1)–was written. Nearly
seven hundred years of “Dantology” (to use Robert Harrison’s brilliantly provocative term)[1] have not convincingly resolved this
doubt. In the fourteenth century cosmological representations in the _Cosmographia_ of BernardusSilvestris (ca. 1084-1178), the _Anticlaudianus_ of Alanus ab Insulis (1120-1202) and the _Tesoretto_ of Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-94). They read the text either as a spiritual revelation and a dream, despite its literary construction and despite the claim to report a physical journey, or they interpreted it in a “modern” way, that is, as a fictional construction, despite the explicit claims of the _Commedia_to be a revelatory work.

Ascoli also has an excellent knowledge notonly of the works of modern theoretical thinkers such as Hannah
Arendt, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Mary Carruthers about literary authorship and authority, but also of the discursive
figurations of _auctores_ available at Dante’s time. Ascoli starts with an extensive analysis of contemporary concepts of
authorship, and of the manner in which Dante seems to be relating to them as a whole. Ascoli argues that the image of an author stemmed
from the trustworthy _auctoritates_ of the ancient and/or philosophical and theological tradition granting for an immanent
truth to biblical scribes and the true author, who is God. These traditional concepts refer to _auctoritas_ as both an individual and
impersonal power and knowledge. The _auctor_ thereby was not so much a creative agent, but rather a mediating power of knowledge. He was
one worthy of faith and obedience.

Hence Dante, modeled as an individual traveler in the _Divine Comedy_, “comes, paradoxically, to embody the canons of
impersonal authority” (p. 20). On the one hand Dante is thereby traditionalist and conservative, on the other, he is also provided
with the “transgressive desire to appropriate that attribute for himself, for the vernacular, and for ‘modernity'” (p. 20f).

How can a fictional work gain a revelatory truth? Ascoli shows convincingly how Dante assumes the traditional role of an
authoritative author without thereby relating to the pre-existing models of knowledge implied by these kinds of authorship.
The unease of us moderns when confronted with Dante cannot just be about the relation to an ineffable divine Being. Representationalist
modern authors work with a more or less Aristotelian concept of fiction, that is, with a concept of a poetic truth relying on
modeling possibilities and an emotionality that can be addressed playfully and without consequences. However, Dante tells us a
different story

Here is a sample of chapter one of Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author.
Can we move beyond the dichotomies of authority/autonomy or submission/freedom and explain the act of religious writing or studying Torah or acting as a rabbi in terms of how they define authorship or role of the self in the process?

Copyright © 2010 · All Rights Reserved

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part II

This continues from part I – here.

Back when I was in graduate school, I was studying Neoplatonism as a background for mysticism, but at the time postmodern deconstructionism was the rage. My professor trained in classics just shrugged off the new movement saying it was the return of the Sophists who were rejecting our beloved Plato. In the last 15 years, French philosophers- such as Alain Badiou have rejected post-modernist denial of truth by a return to weak knowledge; they return to Plato but argue that he had sympathy for the sophist projects (and mystery cults). Plato, and rationality in general, now has irrationality, obsessions, puzzles, and idiosyncrasies. Boyarin has read many of these works and presents the ideal of Greek philosophy and Talmudism as mediated in the complexity of the real world by satire (and rhetoric).

The setting for Boyarin’s book is a freshman core curriculum course in rhetoric for 600 students, in which the reading list includes among others Plato, Gorgias, Lucian, Thucydides, and Talmud. The book reads like the literary criticism of mid-twentieth century Columbia University- Van Doran, Barzun, Trilling- great ideas, illuminating fragments of other people’s scholarship, awakening the students to the life of the mind, but not worrying about the philologists.

My interest is what it contributes to Jewish thought- I will leave comments on the rest of the book to classicists and Talmudists. Only 3 out of 8 chapters are on Talmud.

What is a Platonic dialogue? Boyarin follows the Platonic scholarship of John Salllis (1996) who accepts the arguments of Plato’s critics’ and those who see him as more rhetoric than dialectic. Boyarin wants to open a humanistic question that is asked of Plato but rather in Jewish studies– what is Talmud? His starting point is David Kraemer work’s on the Bavli as literature, which he sees as asking some of the right questions and Boyarin will give more complex answers.

He situates the entire rabbinic project in the broad Roman cultural world. Somewhat similar to the way that in the current era of globalization the entire world knows coca cola, the Lexus, McDonalds, American TV, and American Pop music.  Boyarin has little interest in creating a thick description of the cultural world and he has no analysis of the local knowledge or micro-histories. (Ignore his preface to the book- In the 1990’s when he was claiming to be a post-modern in his introductions, he was still using Dilthy and classic German cultural approaches. Now, he once again makes self-identifying claims based on what he is currently reading but having little bearing on what he is doing.)

He built up a presentation through other classical works about the role of serious vs satire, farce, and child’s play and applies them to the Talmud. Chapter six applies all categories as a sustained playing with Rabbi Meir. He cites an Ohr Sameah web posting to show how a “non scholarly to a fault source” uses the Roman material as a form of piety. Boyarin’s own presentations plays with satire, rhetoric, and the serious; many examples are left as metonymy or emblemic without a full presentation.

One of his best insights of the book for Jewish thought is his reading of Why did they not listen to Rabbi Meir since he can make the pure impure and the impure pure? Answer- like a sophist he was not connected to truth and therefore gets an ambiguous presentation..

Maharal and Rav Zadok answer that he was above the single perspective of ordinary materiality, the former emphasized his lack of materiality and the latter his mystical perspective. And they both have expositions on why the rabbis are fat. As noted before, Boyarin will be useful for the Eastern European interest in wild midrashim- midrash peliah.  In my slow production of Maharal articles, Boyarin will come in handy when I deal with emblem and grotesque in Maharal.

Boyarin never discusses the mythos-logos relationship. Plato reformulates the myths to teach logos once property understood. This would have made the book more relevant to later Jewish thinkers since philosophers, kabblaists, and modern rationalists all use this device to state the aggadah has a deeper meaning. In the interim, I recommend the recent French scholar  Luc Brisson, Plato the Myth Maker

The book has lots of ideas but would be nicely complimented by someone to write a full volume on Roman satire and the Talmud in order to actually be able to evaluate the thesis properly.  In Border Lines, Boyarin introduces rabbinic logos thinking and the idea of rabbinic bitheism and then we have Moshe Idel giving us 700 pages of Ben: Sonship in Jewish Mysticism. This large tome allows us to begin to see where it works and where it does not.

I would like a similar volume here. For example, in TB Berakhot where the market place is seen a place of courtesans- there is much material in  Jmaes Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1999)to begin an analysis- but how does this relate to the Hesiod sounding “HKBH’s tears created Orion and the Pleiades and both of them to the Heikhalot material in the tractate.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance turned to Plato to show how rhetoric wins over dialectic, and people should turned to direct experience and the narrative of the daily life. Now that current authors mix all the Platonic category – Boyarin offers a way to look at the mixed bag of the Talmud as part of classics.

I did not think it will make it onto my reading list for this spring on contemporary Jewish thinkers of the last 15 years (I am sitting here with a pile of examination copies of things. Michael Fishbane will be on the list).

As a side point, Boyarin did not seem to know Jacob Bernays, the important Lucian scholar was Hakham Bernay’s son (RSR Hirsch’s teacher) and Freud’s brother-in-law,  because if he did the loose editorial hand of the book would have somehow tied it in.

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.

Avodah: Priests, Angels, and bestiaries

AVODAH: An Anthology of Ancient Poetry for Yom Kippur (2006) YAHALOM, Joseph, SCHWARTZ, Michael D.

I finally got to read the excellent work Avodah – a beautiful translation of the various versions of the Avodah for Yom Kippur.

The book shows that the avodah piyyut, even though it is based on the Mishnah, makes the avodah a narrative entirely about the priests. It removes the Mishnah’s granting to the Sages the ability to give oversight to the priests. It also removes the Sages’ distrust of priestly groups.

Here we have more theology of 6th to 9th century. The book focuses on tracing these images to DSS and Heikhalot and offers little on the actual 6th-9th centuries

In all the versions, the world was created to worship God in the Temple and they give a history of the world including early creatures. The book points out how the use of  myth and mythos in the piyyut. Adam was originally of great size and appearance and was originally worshiped by the other creatures. The piyyutim describe how the high priest overcame the hostility of the angels, but from a theology perspective I missed any reference to the debates of Scholem, Idel, and Schaffer.

Is this still relevant? Well, we still use the version called Ata Konanta  but we do not use versions like “Az be en Kol” which describe rivers of fire, cosmic ice, demigods, and adam kadmon.

For an alternative reading, see  Rav Soloveitchik on the Avodah

Pesikta deRav Kahana

Speaking of Kalir, piyyutim, repentance, and angelology, when Prof. Isadore Twersky was having conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries at Harvard, an academic friend suggested that we need conferences on the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. The world of Pirke deRabbi, Midrash Mishlei, Yannai, the start of the Baghdad Gaonate and Alphabet of Ben-Sira. A world that is very dissimilar the world of the Tannaim and Babylonian Talmud. This is the world of anthropomorphism, and corporeality, and the texts that the Jewish philosophers were uncomfortable with accepting.

So I was glad to see that a new book in the library- Rachael Anisfeld,: Sustain Me With Raisin-Cakes: Pesikta deRav Kahana and the Popularization of Rabbinic Judaism. The book is literary-historical and not theological. I will leave it to the Talmudists to evaluate its value for the study of rabbinics.

She shows how Leviticus Rabbah and Pesikta deRav Kahana (PRK) are not the same as Tannaic Midrash. (The book should have also had Leviticus Rabbah in the title.)

She uses as her example that the content shows a God who is more intimate with humans, and shows a special indulgence for the people Israel. For example, repentance is about God moving from his seat of judgment to his seat of mercy and less about personal repentance. Even when repentance is discussed, God does everything in his power to exonerate Israel.

The homilies are in a personal and familial voice  – less exegetical

Since the book is literary, it does not develop these themes. There is still much to gain for a theological reader from Neusner’s volume on PRK and Arthur Marmorstein Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God.

She has a chart on the difference in technical terms between Tannaic midrash and Amoraic midrash. Some of the striking numbers are

Talmud lomar “Scripture teaches” 4504 times in Tannaic Midrash to 13 times in amoraic midrah. They are not directly interpreting Scripture.

On the other hand, phrases of direct communication by God increase.  There is knowledge from speaking in Gods name and directly invoking God. “The Holy One Blessed be He said” 36  in tannaic to 343 in amoraic.

The book does not offer an overview of the many other themes in PRK such as the longing to rebuild temple, visions of the end of days, revenge on the gentiles, and God himself needing to be saved

Hence, I am looking forward to reading the following article when the Fishbane Festschrift arrives in the library.

Marc Hirshman, “Yearning for intimacy: Pesikta d’Rav Kahana and the Temple”

pp. 135-146(12) Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane

This chapter examines the ambience of the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana and its objectives by paying close attention to some of the Greek loanwords it uses and, more generally, to the nature of the language it employs in parables when speaking of the temple and the degree of intimacy indicated between God and Israel. The Pesikta d’Rav Kahana throbs with a longing for God’s presence in the temple. The longing for restoration is accompanied by a strong desire for retribution on the nations of the world, a motif that is a staple of most, if not all, of the piskaot. The king parables are employed to indicate God’s desire for a place (papilion) where intimacy with Israel is assured and secure. God secures a place among the Jewish elders, abandoning the angels above (sunkleten), in order to guide the discussion of calendar, the heart of the Pesikta’s concern.