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The Talmud in its Iranian Context, edited by Carol Bakhos and M. Rahim Shayegan. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010. 270 pp. $177.50.
Ten essays originally presented at a 2007 UCLA conference on the Iranian foundations of the Talmudic tradition show how a wholly new approach to the context of the Bavli has taken shape in the current generation of the academic study of late antique Judaism. To one scholar goes all the credit for introducing into Talmudic studies a systematic reading of Pahlavi religion, law, history and literature, and that is Yeshiva University’s Talmud superstar, Yaakov Elman, who has brought Iranian Zoroastrian studies into the world of the Talmud. Indeed Elman has already brought on board the second generation in the tradition he has founded, in the erudite work of Shai Secunda and his Talmudic blog.
Elman’s work on the Iranian philology of Rabbinic literature is to be compared to Saul Lieberman’s on the Greek foundation. But Greek was a well-developed field when Lieberman joined in the work of comparison of the Greek and the Israelite worlds, while middle Persian was not. There was nothing fundamentally new in Greek in Jewish Palestine while Elman had to invent a field and make it work, and he has succeeded in doing just that. Rabbinics will never be the same.
The contents of the conference cover a variety of topics, not only Elman’s, but Elman permeates the papers and is a shadow behind every one of them. These are the papers: David Goodblatt, “A Generation of Talmudic Studies;” Yaakov Elman, “Toward an Intellectual History of Sasanian Law;” Geoffrey Herman; “Persia in Light of the Babylonian Talmud;” Richard Kalmin, “Talmudic Attitudes toward Dream Interpreters, Preliminary Thought on their Iranian Cultural Context;” Maria Macuch, “Allusions to Sasanian Law in the Babylonian Talmud;” Jason Sion Mokhtarian, “The Iranian Context of the Babylonian Talmud; Shai Secunda, “Orality and the Composition of Babylonian Talmudic and Zoroastrian Legal Literature;” Shaul Shaked; “No Talking during a Meal—Zoroastrian Themes in the Babylonian Talmud;” Prods Oktor Sklaervo, “On the Terminology and Style of the Pahlavi Scholastic Literature;” Yuhan Sohrab-Inshaw Vevaina, “Intertextuality and the Reading of Zoroastrian Interpretive Literature.”
The papers are uneven—some are focused and others tend to run on—but all meet a high standard of erudition. The unevenness is in the lack of purpose, locus and coherence, with some of the papers collecting a lot of uninterpreted information and some of them well focused and interesting. Certainly Goodblatt’s formidable essay on the state of the question shows what can be done, and several other papers reveal coherence and purpose. All show the nascent field for its freshness and its promise. At its origins the Iranian setting of the Talmud is focused on the philological and textual program of oriental studies. It will come of age when the work of history of religions defines its agenda.