Sources of Judaism - Rabbinical Literature

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3C Sources of Judaism – Rabbinical Literature

by Dr. Sarah Imhoff

Dr. Sarah Imhoff is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies and Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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In almost all of its manifestations, Judaism has a strong textual tradition. The texts of Rabbinic literature (generally, those written between the second and ninth century in Palestine and Babylon) serve as the texts that have shaped the Judaism seen today. Unlike Karaite Jews, who upheld the authority of the Bible but did not accept the additional rabbinic teachings, rabbinic sages and their followers recorded the “Oral Law,” or complement and commentary to the “Written Law,” or Torah. Hermann Strack and Gunter Stemberger’s Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash serves as the canonical reference book for rabbinic texts, including chronological, geographical, and archaeological information about each text. Charlotte Fonrobert’s Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature collects scholarly essays on various rabbinic texts and their social and historical context.

Often scholars and religious readers alike divide the content of rabbinic texts into two genres: halakhah, or law, and aggadah, or narrative. While religious practitioners often emphasized the former because of its applicability to everyday life, over recent decades, scholars have come to pay additional attention to the latter to explore rabbinic culture, values, and language.

The Mishnah, the first collection of rabbinic Judaism, was likely compiled in the early third century ce and is traditionally attributed to Rabbi Judah the Prince, although scholars find little evidence to support this claim. Herbert Danby’s translation, although old, remains useful; Jacob Neusner’s translation uses more contemporary English language, but has received criticism from other scholars. The work itself contains six sections or “orders,” each of which presents rabbinic commentary on Biblical material. Book-length studies of rabbinics do not often focus exclusively on the Mishnah, but of those that do, Neusner’s The Mishnah: An Introduction serves as a clear gateway, and Judith Romney Wegner’s Chattel or Person? represents an example of a thematic study in its discussion of the Mishnah’s treatment of women.

The Palestinian Talmud, also known as the Jerusalem Talmud and Talmud Yerushalmi, redacted in the fourth or fifth century ce in Palestine, collects rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah in order to expand and apply its religious material. The text reproduces a small section of Mishnah and then prints additional, often extensive, rabbinic discussion related to the Mishnaic material. The Yerushalmi’s style can be fragmentary or elliptical at times, and did not ascend to the place of religious authority that its later Babylonian counterpart reached. Nevertheless, the two can be fruitfully compared, as Christine Hayes demonstrates in Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds.

The most significant and voluminous rabbinic text is the Babylonian Talmud. It follows the same format as the Yerushalmi, but it is more extensive and contains commentary on more Mishnaic selections. As its name indicates, it was redacted in Babylonia, also known as Persia, in the sixth or seventh century. The Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud is common, and the Schottenstein Talmud Bavli with facing Hebrew and English is an excellent, if occasionally religiously ideological, resource. Jeffrey Rubenstein’s Talmudic Stories and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud deal with linguistic and cultural thematics within the Talmudic corpus. Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel and Jonathan Schofer’s Confronting Vulnerability analyze the Talmudic constructions of bodies and sexuality. Talya Fishman demonstrates the Talmud’s lasting legacy and formative power as she traces the readers and interpreters of Talmud into the Middle Ages in her Becoming the People of the Talmud.

Other rabbinic sources, called Midrash, while somewhat less authoritative in subsequent religious communities, continue to interest both scholars and practitioners. Azzan Yadin’s Scripture as logos represents the less common emphasis of halakhah in midrash. Most midrashim contain primarily aggadah and have therefore attracted academic commentators interested in language, narrative, and culture. Judah Goldin’s The Song at the Sea is a classic, and in many ways, marked the beginning of the field of the literary study of Midrash. Steven Fraade’s From Tradition to Commentary concentrates on literary and textual issues in the midrashic text Sifre to Deuteronomy. Daniel Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash and David Stern’s Parables in Midrash and Midrash and Theory represent similar, though by no means identical, contemporary approaches to literary theory and Midrash. Susan Handelman’s controversial Slayers of Moses explicitly joins postmodern theories of textuality and rabbinic texts. Judith Baskin presents an encyclopedic look at the portrayal of women across rabbinic sources in her Midrashic Women.

The twelfth and thirteenth century emergence of Kabbalah, a mystical trend within Judaism, marked the addition of a religiously authoritative corpus. The Bahir, whose final version was created in the thirteenth century, represents the earliest kabbalistic text. Aryeh Kaplan has translated the esoteric and stylized Aramaic into Sefer ha Bahir. The Zohar, the major text of Kabbalah, appeared later in thirteenth century Spain. Scholars agree that Moses de Leon wrote the Zohar, although tradition and Leon himself attributed it to rabbinic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Daniel Matt’s translation is essential. His introduction volume, also entitled Zohar, and Pinchas Giller’s Reading the Zohar provide helpful guides to the esoteric and obscure text and traditions in the Zohar. Arthur Green’s accessible A Guide to the Zohar is more theological and aimed at contemporary Jewish communities. In On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead Gershom Scholem, the most famous scholar of mysticism, discusses recurring symbolism and concepts in Kabbalah. Moshe Idel’s Kabbalah and other works analyze the textual traditions of Jewish mystical piety. Lawrence Fine’s Physician of the Soul describes the world and life of sixteenth century mystic Isaac Luria, whose influence shaped subsequent kabbalistic interpretation, theology, and practice. Elliot Wolfson’s Through a Speculum that Shines and Language, Eros, Being both use a variety of methodologies from textual analysis to philosophy to unpack kabbalistic hermeneutics and approaches to gender and representation.

Kabbalah and its traditions, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Medieval Jewish philosophical traditions, exemplified by Maimonides, emphasized rationality.  Isadore Twersky’s Introduction to the Code of Maimonides provides background and relationships of this intellectual trend. While some scholars have seen Kabbalah as simply a negative response to this rational trend, Gershom Scholem and others have shown Kabbalah’s relationship to earlier Jewish mysticism. Barry Holtz collects tiny representative pieces of these traditions, from the Torah to rabbinic literature to mysticism, to show the varieties of Jewish textuality in Back to the Sources.