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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2013
Number 79
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Speaking of the Law

A review essay by Peter J. Haas

Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

The title of Barry Scott Wimpfheimer’s book, which juxtaposes poetics, narratives and law, might strike some as a cobbling together of literary incompatibles. This would seem to be especially the case for those of us in rabbinic studies, for example, who are used to thinking of narration as “aggadah” and law as “halachah” and that the two occupy distinct epistemological universes.

This literary and interpretational dimorphism has its roots, of course, in the rabbinic texts themselves and was solidified by the nineteenth century Wissenschaft scholars who used the distinction between aggadah and halachah as a foundational assumption for their formal critical analysis of rabbinic literature. In fact, it was assumed (or at least asserted) by the Wissenschaftlers des Judenthums that the literary bifurcation of aggadah and halachah reflected a difference in sitz in leben, in audience, in authorial intent and in everything else.

Wimpfheimer, in the book before us, wants very much, if not to entirely erase this literary division, at least to blur its edges. He makes it clear that he no longer regards this distinction as fully functional for modern literary analysis. To be sure, Wimpfheimer still recognizes that a difference can be made between aggadah and halachah on a general level, but he intends to demonstrate in this book that at times there are “narrations of law” that cross the divide and thus tell us about the law, or more precisely, about how a culture and its narratives produce certain legal assumptions.

As one might expect at this point, Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking about social location, cultural capital and negotiations of social status come into play as Wimpfheimer deconstructs narratives about the law so as to lay bare the social, cultural and psychological structures that can be adduced by reading laws as institutionalizing narratives and narratives as underpinning law.

Some scholarly context might be helpful at this point. In the development of the modern study of classic rabbinic texts (meaning here especially Mishnah and Gemara), this book very clearly situates itself methodologically in the post-Neusnerian period; that is, in aftermath of the revolution in reading rabbinic texts inaugurated and virtually institutionalized by Jacob Neusner and his students (full disclosure: I am one of those students). The revolution consisted at its core level in not reading either the halachah nor the aggadah as historically accurate portrayals of what really happened or what was really said, but rather in reading the rabbinic texts as a literature that was produced in a certain time and place and which consequently reflects in content, syntax and form a particular discursive community (namely some subset of “the rabbis”) with a distinct agenda.

This new reading strategy meant the modern secular university scholar was now to read the texts through the lens of modern literary criticism; Neusner was heavily influenced by form-critical studies of the New Testament, for example. It was also a core principle of this new paradigm of scholarly analysis that “the rabbis” did not constitute a single, seamless, monolithic whole, but rather were an evolving estate of religious virtuosi with its own internal conflicts and institutional developments. There may not have been “earlier” and “later” in the rabbinic reading of the Tanach, but there certainly was an earlier and a later Gemara according to the Neusnerian and post-Neusnerian reading of the text.

In a curious way, the book can be read not only as addressing how the rabbis narrated the law, but also about how modern, post-Neusnerian scholars themselves can now create a new narrative about the rabbis as narrators. That is, the book claims that the legal narratives of the Talmud are in fact also windows into the behind-the-scenes workings of the rabbinic narratives themselves. Thus the example passages discussed in the book are treated as cultural narratives that have been chosen precisely because they reveal how the rabbis situated themselves (their “habitus,” to use Bourdieu’s term) in their narratives about themselves. To achieve such analysis, Wimpfheimer is inviting us to perform a “thick description” (to borrow Geertz’ term) of the scenes described in the legal narratives so as to adduce the very human, social and psychological complexities of the interactions within and between late Amoraic rabbis and the Stam. What we discover, he tells us, is “Jewish law as it might be lived, rather than codified” (p.13). Although the Stam were intending to flatten out the traditions they received and smooth over the tensions and contradictions they found in Amoraic and earlier rulings, they left us instead with legal narratives which, if interpreted thickly and correctly, actual open a window to the messy social world with all its strains and ambiguities out of which the halachah emerged. So in a sense, this book also introduces us to a new way of reading the text, a new Talmudic hermeneutic, as it were.

It should be immediately stressed that Wimpfheimer is not advocating that we read legal narratives as some kind of historically accurate descriptions. Rather, the goal of his readings and their thick description is to uncover the presuppositions, tensions and contradictions that make the story “tellable” and which thereby also throw light on the how the rabbis related to each other, to their students and/or to the larger community in the world beyond the story. Thus the story in Qiddushin 32b-33b over a series of controversies of whether or not certain rabbis should remain seated while other rabbis stand or even serve them drink is not to be taken as a story about a particular wedding reception, but as an illustration of the kinds of social negotiations necessary for establishing a rabbi’s status vis-é-vis other rabbis, and by so doing gives us insight into the hierarchy of rabbinical status as understood by the Amoraim or the Stammaim.

Such an approach to the Talmudic literature of course produces a kind of literary analysis that replicates the mutli-layered complexity of the Gemara itself. For example, a story dealing with a verbal exchange between a rabbi and his students turns into a discussion by Wimpfheimer of the Greco-Roman concept of “Paideia” and how the assumptions of the student- master relationship assumed by that concept of learning generates particular tensions in rabbinic circles that need to be resolved by determining what constitutes proper behavior on the parts of both students and masters to each other (pp. 105ff). In the course of the discussion we gain insight into how rabbinic authority was established by charisma and maintained by enforcing (or at least expecting) signs of appropriate deference. The details of this hierarchy are then teased out by a reading of an encounter with R. Dimmi, related in Baba Batra 20b-22a (pp. 139ff). All this is located against the background of the gradual institutionalization of the rabbis from charismatic masters, to the “faculty” of structured institutions (namely, the Talmudic Academies). As we are lead through this process of reading and interpretation, we are also being shown, and this is the methodological point, that the old dichotomy between halachah and aggadah is too simplistic and that modern literary readings of the Talmudic texts can throw new and fruitful light upon readings that were once regarded as mere fables.

What we have at the end of these six chapters is a remarkable re-narration of some of the Talmudic narratives. Wimpfheimer puts together a plausible and compelling story of how the rabbinic estate came to establish and maintain its boundaries in the evolving Judaic society of Late Antiquity. One is left with the question, of course, as to whether or not the meta-narrative that is adduced is historically accurate or only an artifact of a certain method of reading the text. Are such narrations descriptive of actual practice (law), narrations of later commentators (aggadah), or poetic renderings of the modern scholar? Even the title of this book blurs those distinctions.


Peter J. Haas is the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies, Director of the Samuel Rosenthal Center for Judaic Studies at Case Western Reserve University, and a contributing editor.

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