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What is Good and What God Demands: Normative Structures in Tannaitic Literature, by Tzvi Novick.  Leiden: Brill, 2010.  248 pp.  $146.00.


Tannaitic law is expressed predominantly through deontological rhetoric, that is, as a system of fixed prohibitions and obligations that define what members of the Jewish community may or may not do. While the rabbis thus set out clear and unvarying communal expectations, their preference for deontology on the surface omits attention to different individuals’ potentially varying levels of concern for pious behaviors. Deontological rhetoric, this is to say, does not consider an individual’s distinctive attitudes towards legal, ethical, or ritual punctiliousness, for someone’s desire, for instance, to go beyond the letter of the law.

While legal codes rightly set out fixed categories of behavior—that which is strictly permitted versus that which is prohibited—religious and ethical systems might be expected to be concerned more broadly with virtue, that is, with the different levels of piety that can be achieved by individuals who strive to behave in manners that go beyond the basic requirements of the law. Religious law, for example, may demand that all members of the community contribute some fixed amount for the support of the poor or other designated classes. But what of those who, whether out of an abundance of concern for the needy or because of a desire to achieve a special reward from the deity, wish to go beyond this minimum standard? How does the legal system deal with—indeed, encourage—such supererogatory behaviors? Here the legal system must move from questions of duty, represented in deontological rhetoric, to a concern for virtue and how it might be achieved.

In this study, which began as a Yale University dissertation (2008), Tzvi Novick focuses on this second, less prominent, aspect of Tannaitic law. His concern is the ways in which the rabbinic literature makes room for virtue-discourse, a category of law that, within the earliest Rabbinic literature, is intertwined with the more common deontological discourse. Using what he refers to as rhetorical analysis, Novick illustrates that ethical discourse as much as deontological rhetoric defines the religious and legal outlook of the early rabbis. To show this, Novick sets out a series of studies of the range of terms through which the rabbis express supererogation, that is, the desire that individuals engage in actions that go beyond the fixed letter of the law.

The first four chapters concern the contrast between the concepts of supererogation reflected in the terms Mitzvah and reshut. Novick identifies in sources traditionally ascribed to the school of Ishmael an approach that differs from that of sources traditionally associated with Akiva. His examples suggest that the school of Ishmael identified in Scripture a normative picture of communal life that matched how people can and must actually live in the world. This meant that Ishmael was able to focus on deontology—one is either obligated or not—in a way that Akiva, who identifies no such continuity, did not. The central contrast for the school of Akiva rather was between ordinary action, the way people behave under the law as a matter of course, and mitzvah, defined as an ethically or religiously more desirous behavior.

Chapters Five through Seven examine the terminology through which the rabbis express a range of non-deontological concepts. “One need not scruple” (Chapter Five), references to people who are “sin-fearers,” “pious,” or “cautious” (Chapter Six), and the concept of special enthusiasm in observance of the law, represented in words that reflect eagerness or speed (Chapter Seven) point to the Tannaitic rabbis’ movement well beyond the expression of the law as a fixed system of obligations. Chapter Eight analyzes rabbinic discourse concerning exemplary figures, whose actions are depicted in order to encourage supererogatory behaviors by others. The presentation of such models is a pervasive feature of Greco-Roman virtue ethics, and this provides Novick an opportunity to compare the ethical traits the rabbis emphasized with those that were valorized in the larger Greco-Roman culture that surrounded them.

Novick’s overall goal is to “expose the interplay of competing normative structures, deontological and non-deontological, in the Tannaitic literature” (p. 12). His work goes far in achieving that ambition. At the same time, we should be clear that, in each of the areas studied here, Novick is constrained to examine only a small set of examples, culled from across the relevant Tannaitic literature. He does not catalog every instance of a relevant phrase or concept and, since his focus is rhetorical forms rather than documentary ideologies, he has not yet assessed the appearance and place of supererogation in any of the individual Tannaitic documents viewed as the independent statements of their own redactional authorships. A desirable next step in building upon what is accomplished here thus would be a comprehensive study of each individual Tannaitic document, on the one side, or of the entire corpus of each pertinent rhetorical form, on the other. The ultimate need is more systematically to identify where non-deontological rhetoric was used, or not used, by whom, and to what end. Novick’s work is an important and convincing initial step in this process, an inquiry into a topic that, when fully explored, may change the way we think about rabbinic Judaism, or specific rabbinic documents, over all.

What Is Good, and What God Demands is aimed at specialists and requires careful reading. The presentation is heavily dependent on the Hebrew and Aramaic sources Novick presents, and it is densely written. But Novick’s work deserves the careful reading it demands. He sets out with care distinctive features of Tannaitic rhetoric that scholars, generally concerned with the deontological aspects of the rabbinic tradition, have not yet deeply analyzed. Novick’s study is an important foundational examination of non-deontological rhetoric in Tannaitic Judaism. All future work on Rabbinic virtue-ethics will depend on this book, which reveals a heretofore largely ignored aspect of Tannaitic law and religion.

Alan Avery-Peck

College of the Holy Cross