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Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories, by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.  239 pp.  $59.95.

Barry Wimpfheimer argues that scholars’ emphasis on the Talmud’s purely legal pericopae and their relative inattention to its narrative stories obscures the Bavli’s true literary and substantive richness. Scholarship’s focus on statutory law, always viewed as the Talmud’s main concern, has meant insufficient mining of the evidence for Rabbinic society and culture that, in Wimpfheimer’s view, is preserved in the document’s legal narratives. As a corrective, Wimpfheimer proposes a reading that takes into account the totality of the Talmud’s literary forms, especially the stories of the proceedings in Rabbinic courts that up to now have been largely ignored as irrelevant to understanding the canon of Rabbinic law.

Wimpfheimer maintains that the Talmud was not created primarily as a next step in the codification of Jewish law that began with the Mishnah. To read the Talmud primarily as a legislative document, we must reconcile its narrative passages with the laws they frequently contradict. To do this, we either explain the contradictions away, as did the classical exegetes, or we largely ignore the narratives, as is the common modern practice. Wimpfheimer, by contrast, understands the Talmud’s diverse rhetorical forms as constituting a literary whole, a whole that reveals the cultural and social world as much as the legal perspectives of the Rabbinic masters. Looked at this way, the often strained conjoining of legal discussions and real life narratives reveals the Talmud’s framers’ recognition of “the messiness of life itself” (p. 2).

In the shank of the book, Chapters 3–6, Wimpfheimer offers detailed interpretations of representative narrative passages, including court stories and other depictions of the life of rabbis in the community, and incorporating both brief narratives and extended ones. His convincing analyses reveal the power dynamic at play both within the Rabbinic estate and between the rabbis and a community that, in Talmudic times, the rabbis did not yet entirely control. Particularly new here is Wimpfheimer’s reading of these narratives in conjunction with the legal materials into which they are set, so that the contrasts and disagreements are shown to illustrate hierarchies that existed within the Rabbinic world and to expose the struggles of rabbis as they sought to assert authority over the larger community and other rabbis. These are aspects of Rabbinic history that are not equally revealed when we look independently at the Talmud’s legal sugyot.

Wimpfheimer’s argument, notably, does not rest on the historical veracity of the narratives he studies. He argues that the “deviant and unexpected twists that often make such narrative a  difficult fit with legal statutes are the reasons such narratives are interesting and entertaining” (p. 65). It is exactly this quality of “tellability” that leads Wimpfheimer to question these narratives’ historical origins, since the more “tellable” a story, the more likely that an author or editor added specific elements to achieve exactly that quality. This means that legal sugyot and long narratives share in being products of late and often heavy-handed redaction.

But whether or not they accurately set out exactly what happened on some specific occasion, these sources do reveal the Rabbinic world and mindset. They depict the roles and activities in which rabbis participated, and they illustrate the social interactions and concerns that were real and live for those who constructed the stories. When Rabbinic texts are understood to reveal such facts, rather than simply to convey law, on the one hand, or the biography of any specific rabbi, on the other, then the significance of the legal narratives becomes especially clear.

Wimpfheimer’s work is important for his argument that the distinction between Halakhah and Aggadah is one that scholars have imposed on a text that is in fact a single and unitary literary creation. This means that the separate hermeneutics generally used by scholars to study each rhetorical type obscures rather than reveals what the Talmud, as an organic whole, is about: a statement not simply or primarily of laws but of cultural meaning and insight into rabbinic sociology. The next necessary step will be a broader survey of narratives such as the ones Wimpfheimer details here, so as to prove their centrality and cogency in defining what the Talmud is about and how it should be read. Pending that work, this study is a valuable and important corrective to past approaches as well as a significant step forward in the interpretation of Talmudic narratives.

Alan J. Avery-Peck

Department of Religious Studies

College of the Holy Cross