Seth Schwartz on the History of Modern Scholarship in Rabbinics

Something that I’ve wanted as I’ve studied for my rabbinics comp has been a summary of the history of modern scholarship regarding rabbinics.  It’s not hard to find a history of Hebrew Bible scholarship.  For that, you can look at the Face of Old Testament Studies, or books by Jean-Louis Ska and E. Nicholson on the Pentateuch.  But, in my opinion, it’s difficult to find comparable works on rabbinics scholarship.  I read Jacob Neuser’s Studying Classical Judaism: A Primer, hoping to be set on the path of learning about the scholarly trends in the field of rabbinics, but the book turned out to be Neusner’s account of why other scholars are wrong, whereas he is right.

In light of my disappointing experiences so far, I was refreshed to read Seth Schwartz’s article in the Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, entitled “Historiography on the Jews in the ‘Talmudic Period’ (70-640 ce)”.  This article set things that I have read—by S. Lieberman, J. Neusner, S. Safrai, etc.—in a larger context.  In this post, I will share some of what I read in Schwartz’s article.

Before Zionist scholarship on rabbinics, Schwartz narrates, the focus of scholarship was on philology.  But Israeli scholarship then tried to reconstruct history from rabbinic texts, in a manner that was naively uncritical about the rabbinic sources.  How this played out varied from Israeli scholar to Israeli scholar.  G. Alon, for example, focused on politics and presented the Palestinian Jews after the Destruction as united in their opposition to Rome, as well as in their obedience to the rabbis.  Alon disagreed with Saul Lieberman’s view that Palestine absorbed Greco-Roman culture, instead portraying the Palestinian Jews as self-enclosed and not highly literate in Greek.  At the same time, however, Alon held that there was not always harmony within post-Destruction Judaism, for he maintained that the rabbis fought among themselves for power.  Alon also acknowledged that there was collaboration among some Jews with the Romans, and, although Alon was primarily interested in rabbinic courts, he admitted that many Palestinian Jews brought legal cases to the Romans.

Israeli scholar E. Urbach overlapped with Alon in that he viewed post-Destruction Judaism as largely homogeneous, under the leadership of the rabbis.  Unlike Alon, however, Urbach emphasized religion, as well as depicted the rabbis as united in their aim of shepherding Jews through the crisis.  But Urbach brought up a thorny issue, which would become significant (as we shall see): the archaeological discovery of art—much like Roman pagan art—in synagogues.  Urbach’s approach to this issue was to say that the rabbis allowed art and even idols because they were concerned about the Jews’ economic well-being, and that the art had lost its pagan significance and become purely decorative by the time that it entered synagogues.

The issue of synagogue art will come up again in this post, but, right now, I want to turn to the issues that Israeli scholar Y. Feliks brought up.  Feliks accepted rabbinic literature’s figures for the agricultural yield of wheat, as well as appealed to the agricultural practices described in the Mishnah and the Talmud to describe ancient Jewish agriculture.  According to Schwartz, the problem with Felik’s methodology was that the figures for the wheat yield were idealized in rabbinic literature, making them unreliable for historical reconstruction.  Feliks also sought to present the land of Palestine as exceptional.  D. Sperber rejected and then accepted Felik’s figures, but he maintained a “glass is half empty” approach to Palestinian Jewish agriculture after 300 C.E.: he portrayed the size of the average Palestinian Jewish plot of land as small, and he asserted that its small size hindered the introduction of new technology that existed elsewhere in the Roman world, undermined agricultural self-sufficiency, and detached Jews emotionally from their land.  Like Feliks, Sperber uncritically accepted the picture that rabbinic literature provided as he sought to reconstruct the past.

Z. Safrai was more optimistic than Sperber in his depiction of Palestinian Jewish life.  Safrai took rabbinic passages about individual villages having communal and religious institutions, and extrapolated from them the notion that all Galilean villages had these institutions.  According to Safrai, Palestine had patriarchs, a Sanhedrin, schools on the Bible and the Mishnah, synagogues, a public bath, a rudimentary court system, and committees that supervised markets and trade according to the dictates of Jewish law.  Safrai did not agree with Felik’s Jewish exceptionalism, however, for he asserted that Palestine was poorer and less developed than parts of Roman North Africa and Italy, contrary to the views of twentieth century economic and social historians.  But Safrai still portrayed Palestine during the time of the rabbis as prosperous and populous, and, in his eyes, a factor behind that was trade.  Safrai maintained that different regions in Palestine performed their own individual tasks: Galilee produced olives, Judea produced grapes, the Jordan Valley produced dates and balsam, etc.  For Safrai, the Jews traded, but they were not economically dependent on pagans and Christians.  (We may see here traces of the anti-foreigner nationalism that characterized such Israeli scholars as Anon.)  Safrai’s conclusions were disputed by Israeli archaeologists Magen Broshi and Israel Finkelstein, on the basis of archaeological calculations regarding such factors as the capacity of the land and population density.

We now turn to non-Israeli scholarship.  Here, the issue of art plays a significant role.  Saul Lieberman presented the rabbis as the Hellenized leaders of the post-Destruction Palestinian Jewish community.  E. Goodenough, however, noted that the rabbis disapproved of the art that was used in the synagogues, meaning that (1.) contra Lieberman, they were anti-Hellenistic, and (2.) that they were far from being the leaders that many scholars assumed them to be, for the fact that their opinion on art did not prevail indicates that they were on the margins until near the end of late antiquity.

Jacob Neusner agreed with Lieberman that the rabbis were influenced by Hellenism, yet he also concurred with Goodenough on the marginality of the rabbis.  Neusner was also influenced by Morton Smith, who identified a synoptic problem, in which different versions of the same material appeared throughout rabbinic literature.  Although Neusner was initially a positivist—one who sought to reconstruct the history of the rabbis from rabbinic literature—his attitude shifted.  Rather than treating rabbinic literature as a repository of accurate history about the rabbis, he began to view it as a series of texts that were influenced by social realities and shaped by authors or compilers to promote an ideology.  Like Goodenough, Neusner did not uncritically take for granted the rabbinic texts’ picture of post-Destruction Palestinian society, in which the rabbis were in charge of Jews, who followed their halachah.  And, from Morton Smith, Neusner was sensitized to the reality that the rabbis adapted traditions for different purposes—which was why one could see different versions of a common tradition.  I learned from Catherine Hezser’s chapter on “Classical Rabbinic Literature” in the Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies that scholars of rabbinics sought the original tradition, the one behind the different versions, but Neusner did not think that this was even possible: in his eyes, all we have are ideological texts from rabbis who dreamed of being in charge, but who were not.

According to Schwartz, there are scholars who do not embrace the uncritical attitude of Israeli scholarship, yet also shy away from Neusner’s more skeptical approach of treating rabbinic literature primarily as a literary expression of rabbinic ideology, not as a source to reconstruct what the rabbis did.  Shaye Cohen, for example, discusses such topics as conversion, mixed marriage, and circumcision.  His approach is to find the earliest attestation of practices within rabbinic literature, and to speculate on why certain practices changed—what factors contributed to the shift in words’ meanings, or why attitudes were altered at particular times.  For example, Cohen argues that the shift from a focus on ethnicity among Jews to a focus on religion occurred during the Hasmonean Period.

Schwartz states that, since the 1990’s, even elements of Israeli scholarship have become less accepting of the historicity of rabbinic sources.  For instance, Hanna Colton has been working on Greek legal documents from the Judean desert, and she has challenged the notion that rabbinic law was normative for Palestinian Jews after the Destruction.

I’ll stop here.  There are still loose ends that I need to tie up for myself, but I hope you found my summary of Schwartz’s article to be useful.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Rabbinics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.