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Confronting Vulnerability: The Body and the Divine in Rabbinic Ethics, by Jonathan Wyn Schofer.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.  218 pp.  $40.00.


Confronting Vulnerability is an important and original monograph. Like Schofer’s first book, The Making of a Sage: A Study in Rabbinic Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), this book deals with ancient rabbinic “virtue ethics,” to use a modern term. Unlike the earlier book, however, this one focuses exclusively on rabbinic discussions of “vulnerability,” usually physical (e.g., sickness and old age) but also more widely construed to include environmental dangers (e.g., drought). Schofer essentially sets out to address three issues in this book: How do the ancient rabbis (ca. 70–1000 CE) understand human frailty and vulnerability? How do these rabbis rhetorically deploy these discussions in their larger project of character formation? And how can these ancient texts contribute to the modern study of virtue ethics?

 The book has five substantive chapters: Aging and Death; Elimination; Early Death; Drought; and Life Cycles. The titles of three of the chapters are self- explanatory. “Elimination” deals with bodily excretion (a notable difference, according to the rabbis, between humans and angels) and “Life Cycles” with how the rabbis categorize the stages of life. The structure of each of these chapters is similar. After briefly contextualizing the problem, Schofer cites and analyzes a few relevant rabbinic texts. These rabbinic texts date from Late Antiquity through the early Middle Ages (with some being impossible to date with much precision), and Schofer is properly careful to claim that these texts are not necessarily exemplary of some general view of the rabbis.

Schofer’s book is notably original in two respects. First is the subject matter itself. It is the only study known to me that makes vulnerability in these texts visible; after reading Confronting Vulnerability I will never read these ancient texts and those like them in the same way. Schofer’s application to these texts of questions drawn from the field of modern ethics succeeds in making fresh insights. Schofer’s second original contribution is his approach. The study of “rabbinic ethics” is notoriously difficult; he has a very good discussion of these problems in his introduction. How might one apply a category that is largely foreign to the rabbis—ethics—to this set of ancient texts? The additional challenge for scholars is to avoid claiming grand theories of what the rabbis “think” from short, isolated rabbinic statements. Schofer is well aware of both problems and avoids them by focusing on local analyses of individual texts that cumulatively build into a larger argument. 

While that larger argument sometimes gets buried under the extensive text analyses (which at times does not contribute directly to the argument), it is relatively straightforward: In these texts the rabbis directly confronted vulnerability and human frailty rather than making it invisible. One of the primary ways that they did this was by using images of vulnerability pedagogically to instill moral values. Explicit and graphic depictions of old age and decrepitude, for example, help the rabbinic sage to focus on proper conduct and ultimate goals. It is this approach to vulnerability (rather than the particular moral values themselves) that can contribute to modern ethical study. The rabbis in these passages “push their audience to confront weakness, and they appeal to authoritative figures of rabbinic culture . . . to uphold distinct actions and character states. Their goal is to form individuals and communities that can act effectively in a dangerous world” (p. 3).

The most successful chapter is the first, on “Aging and Death.” Here Schofer discusses a series of texts that instruct students to always stay aware of their own human vulnerability. “The pedagogical aim of the material is to juxtapose corporeal vulnerability with the powers of divine action in order to inspire behavior in accord with rabbinic ideals” (p. 43). As in his first book, Schofer here successfully emphasizes the ways in which rabbinic texts are rhetorically shaped in order to further the character formation of their audiences.

The emphasis here and throughout the book on the pedagogical function of these texts raises a historical question that Schofer does not address. What of the real elderly? Was there any relationship between this pedagogical deployment of images of old age and actual treatment of the elderly? Or do the real elderly, as others have argued about the poor in antiquity, remain invisible?

It is difficult for me to evaluate whether this book makes a significant contribution to the modern study of virtue ethics. The conclusion, which really deserves to be an independent substantive chapter in its own right, brings the rabbinic material into dialogue with modern ethical theorists. Most interesting to me was the subtle argument about the relationship of individual ethical formation to the larger community. Schofer seems here to argue that modern virtue ethics has given short shrift to the role of community. “Rabbinic ethical cultivation was not a solitary endeavor but rather part of a communal religiosity . . .” (p. 179). Whatever the shortcomings of this particular communal endeavor (which excluded women and non-Jews), it points to the role that communities play in ethical formation, a dimension underemphasized in some modern ethical accounts.

Confronting Vulnerability belongs in all academic libraries and will be of great use to advanced students and researchers. With its wide ranging and occasionally technical discussions of rabbinic texts and modern ethics it is not a particularly easy book to read, and like all original research some of the arguments are more compelling than others. These, though, are minor shortcomings. Confronting Vulnerability opens new questions and avenues of research and is highly recommended.

Michael L. Satlow

Brown University