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Stories of the Babylonian Talmud, by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.  316 pp.  $55.00.

It is characteristic of the style of the Talmud that the words of many generations are presented on each page, edited in such a way as to appear to be a single flowing conversation. As in biblical studies, modern scholarship on the Talmud strives to identify, expose, and analyze layers and sources within the received text. This approach, broadly called “Critical Talmudic Studies,” is flourishing, thanks especially to the efforts of scholars at institutions like the Hebrew University, Bar Ilan, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. At JTS, the European-trained generation, including such luminaries as Saul Lieberman and David Weiss-Halivni, raised up gifted disciples. Recent attention has emphasized the labors of the redactors, unnamed “Stammaim,” who shaped the ultimate form of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli).  

              The work of Jacob Neusner, legendary in its scope, made it problematic to read a text as vast and layered as the Bavli synchronically. Early on, Neusner emphasized the shaping over time of rabbinic narratives found in multiple forms in several sources. Whereas a prior generation of scholars trusted narratives about the rabbis as reliable sources of historical and biographical information, post-Neusner writers ask different questions: How did the stories evolve? What do the stories tell us about the issues that mattered to the particular time and place in which a given version appeared? As Jeffrey L. Rubenstein puts it in his first volume, Talmudic Stories (1999), “Stories express the spiritual world of the storytellers, not the real world of the characters.” (TS, p. 9) The second volume of his (so-far) three-part project focused more intensively on The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (2003), and in particular on the academies of the Stammaitic period. (The familiar references to rows of scholars, in which the novices sit in the back rows, and advance to the front rows as they progress—often retrojected to the Tannaitic period—actually describe the highly structured world of the late talmudic academies of Babylonia.)

              Among the current generation of academic Talmud scholars, Rubenstein has carved out a place as the expert on the rabbinic narratives about—rabbis. The goal is not to write mini-biographies, but to understand more deeply the dynamics of rabbinic culture and textual formation. Prof. Shamma Friedman (of JTS and Bar Ilan) has summarized three areas of scholarly attention: “1. The literary shape of the sugya and the historic relationship of its parts. 2. Parallel passages within the larger talmudic-midrashic corpus. 3. Manuscripts of the Talmudic text and other early textual witnesses” [“The Talmud Today” http://atranet.co.il/sf/talmud_today.pdf, p. 9]. This certainly describes part of the program followed by Rubenstein both in his earlier work and the present volume.

              There are alternative approaches to the material. Emanuel Levinas, for example, reads similar stories and investigates the underlying ethical implications, with little or no regard for redactional history. Rubenstein is not averse to talmudic ethics, but his primary project is the examination of the process of composition. Through close literary reading (with credit to other scholars, notably Jonah Fraenkel and Ofra Meir), comparison with parallel passages in other rabbinic sources (especially the Yerushalmi), and attention to the larger context in which the passage has been situated (by the redactors), Rubenstein aims to uncover the process of the reworking of traditions and what it teaches us about the cultural values of the Stammaitic editors.

              Let us take one example from Rubenstein’s current collection of readings. In Chapter 9 he considers the well-known passage from Menahot 29b in which Moses, on Mt. Sinai, asks God about the crowns that God is attaching to the letters of the Torah. Moses is then imagined visiting the classroom of Rabbi Akiba, said to be able to derive many halakhot from these crowns. Moses is seated behind eighteen (my text says eight—each chapter has an appendix in which Rubenstein compares major extant versions; mine is apparently from the first printed edition, Venice, 1520) rows of students and unable to follow the discourse. Rubenstein examines both the somewhat humorous beginning of the passage and its dark conclusion, with Moses questioning the justice of Akiba’s martyrdom and being told by God to “Shut up!” On his journey through this text, Rubenstein offers a detailed analysis of its poetic language. He takes up a suggestion by Menachem Fisch that there is a subtle relationship between this Talmudic narrative and Exodus 33:12–23, where Moses asks to see God’s face. Rubenstein maps out the comparison. One detail of this mapping: in the Exodus passage, God warns, “But you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” Structurally, this is loosely parallel to the silencing of Moses: “Silence! Thus arose in thought before me.” In Menahot God refuses to share the divine reasoning; in Exodus God refuses to reveal the divine face.

              Rubenstein also discovers an earlier rabbinic pairing of Moses and Akiba from Pesiqta deRav Kahana, which he shows to be one source drawn upon by the redactors of the Bavli. There are other sources as well that have gone into the composition of this narrative. Rubenstein concludes that this text “presents an honest expression of the rabbinic bafflement at the problem of theodicy” (p. 201). But his primary effort, in each chapter, is less to weigh the theological import of the passage under consideration than to pay close attention to the process by which it came to its final form.

              The existence of unnamed, post-Amoraic / pre-Gaonic redactors remains theoretical, but Rubenstein’s analyses of multiple passages compile an impressive amount of evidence for the theory. By extending the time-frame of talmudic redaction, the notion of anonymous, creative Stammaitic editors adds another layer of talmudic process, reminding us that “talmud” is a verb, not a finished product.

Laurence L. Edwards

Congregation Or Chadash, Chicago

and DePaul University