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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2007
Number 66
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The World of Rabbi Nathan

The Making of a Sage: A Study in Rabbinic Ethics by Jonathan Wyn Schofer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
A Review Essay by Peter J. Haas

Nearly 30 years ago, William Scott Green published his study on the early rabbinic sage, Persons and Institutions in Early Rabbinic Judaism. His was the first substantial attempt to fix the character of the rabbinic sage on the basis of a literary-critical and historical-critical reading of the texts. In light of the developments that have taken place in the study of early Rabbinic Judaism—in literary theory and in our understanding of Roman and Persian civilization and culture in Late Antiquity—one would expect the book before us to build on and carry forward the work of Green. In this, Schofer’s volume disappoints.

Although it is not clear from the title, The Making Of A Sage: A Study In Rabbinic Ethics is in fact not a study of the Rabbinic sage per se, but is rather a commentary on a single work, namely The Fathers According To Rabbi Nathan (to be referred to hereafter as ARN = Avot d’Rabbi Natan), albeit with an eye on what it says about the sage. In other words, the author’s intention is to use ARN as a springboard for launching us into an examination of what it meant to be a rabbi and a sage in Roman Late Antiquity (and so, one suspects, what it means to be one today). To this end, Schofer tells the reader right at the outset that he intends to address three distinct but inter-related topics: what did it mean to be a rabbi in the classical period, what were the ethics of this rabbinic estate, and how do rabbis and their ethics fit into the culture and society of Roman Late Antiquity.

At first glance this agenda seems to be too broad and comprehensive to be satisfied through the reading of one book, particularly one as compositionally complex as ARN. As the author himself is careful to point out, we have no firm knowledge about the date, place or manner of the book’s compilation. Given the uncertainties of ARN’s provenance, it is hard to see how it can be used as an historical source. For Schofer, however, this complexity and ambiguity is not a weakness but in fact a strength. It is precisely this indeterminacy that allows him to claim that the book is not the voice of a single person or perspective, but is in some way representative of the rabbinic community in general, in Palestine during the late Tannaitic/early Amoraic period. That is, Schofer claims that the very composite nature of ARN allows us to treat it as reflective of the mainstream rabbinic consensus of its time and place. It should be noted that Schofer does not go so far as to say that ARN represents all Jewish points of view at the time. He notes, for example, that the ethics of ARN seem to be tension with other voices, such as “the Hasidism”. But with this qualification acknowledged, the author does claim that through an examination of this text we can adduce a broad picture of what the normative rabbinic Jewish leadership of the time regarded as the quintessence of the sage.

I shall return to this foundational assumption in a moment, but for the time being let us grant the author’s claim, at least for argument’s sake, that ARN is roughly representative of classical rabbinic ethics in the Palestine of its time. We can then turn to the method by which information will be gleaned from the work. The first of Schofer’s three chapters is devoted to this task. We begin with what might loosely be called a form-critical analysis. The predominant literary form of the work, he notes, is the maxim; that is, the wise saying of the sage. This is opportune since such maxims are, of course, prime sources for adducing ethical perspectives. Further, the author notes that in ARN, as in rabbinic literature in general, the maxims are arranged not by ethical topic but by sage. This mode of compilation, Schofer claims, grows out of the rabbis’ valuation of genealogy and the chain of tradition over the creation of systematic, ahistorical, philosophical inquiry.

Besides maxims, two other literary forms are detectable in ARN: The commentary and the narrative. The commentary form grows out of the fact that ARN presents itself as a commentary on the earlier Ethics (or Chapters) of the Fathers (Pirqe Avot). Thus the specific message of a passage in ARN can be adduced by understanding the passage on which it is commenting and the direction the comment takes in the generative passage. The narratives, on the other hand, through the stories they tell, provide us with exemplary illustrations of virtuous behavior. It is our task as readers to adduce the meaning of these various forms by placing ourselves in the cultural context out of which ARN grows and in which it assumes its readers to be situated. This context, we are told as though it were self-evident, is the rabbinic school with its teacher-disciple relationship and a mutually supporting peer group among the students (I assume Schofer has the Talmudic “hevruta” in mind here). Once we understand how it is we are to read ARN, we turn, in the second chapter, to an actual reading of ARN to identify the ethics of the sage that the book articulates and promotes.

The overall thesis in Part Bet, “Rabbinic Tradition,” is articulated in the conclusion, wherein it is asserted that, “according to the prescriptions of Rabbi Nathan, a rabbinic student becomes a sage through a process of subordination to, and internalization of, the Torah” (p. 116). This conclusion is hardly surprising and, despite its placement in the conclusion, is in fact assumed from the outset. That is, rather than leading us through a reading of the text and discovering this vision of the sage in it, Schofer assumes this result at the outset and then illustrates it and fleshes it out by selective citations from the text. The method, then, is deductive rather than inductive.

In other words, Part Bet is devoted to spelling out in more detail the inner workings of this ethic. The vision of the sage operative in ARN assumes, according to Schofer, that all humans contain within themselves basic impulses (“lev,” “yetser”) and that shaping the ethical life is a process of delimiting (“fencing in”), cultivating or governing these impulses as appropriate. The tools for determining what is appropriate, and for how one is to carry out the proper cultivation or governance, are illustrated in the rabbinic traditions about the life and teachings of the ideal sages. With this fundamental anthropology in mind, Schofer proceeds to illustrate, nuance and develop this view through his series of commentaries on selected readings of ARN.

This literary strategy is important for understanding the mission of the book before us. It is not, as we noted above, a study of an early rabbinic text as an historical and social document. It is rather the use of an early rabbinic text to illustrate certain preconceived notions of what early rabbinic Judaism must have been. In other words, the real subject of the book is a certain reading of classical Rabbinic Judaism, not the particular compilation known to us as the Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan. The operative mindset out of which this method grows can be identified by looking at two great theoreticians of how rabbinic texts should be read: Max Kadushin and Jacob Neusner. By approaching ARN as he has, Schofer has taken a clear stance on a methodological issue that has divided the world of the modern academic study of rabbinic literature. Let me explain.

For Max Kadushin, there is such a thing as “the” rabbinic tradition. To be sure, this tradition is hardly monolithic and stable across time and space; it acts rather like a living, growing organism, adjusting to exterior influences yet maintaining its internal integrity. On this view, there is no such thing as a definitive and final statement of the “doctrines” or “dogmas” that make up the tradition. Rather the tradition receives expression through a multidimensional network of symbols that interact and combine with each other in complex arrays of semiotic relationships. The governing idea is an organism as opposed to a system. One ramification of viewing the rabbinic tradition in this way is that one can see any major work as reflective, if only partially so, of the larger whole. In other words, in some ways every rabbinic book can be seen as a microcosm of the rabbinic macrocosm, containing in itself the essential patterns of thought that characterize the tradition at large. It is on the basis of this logic that Schofer can claim that ARN is representative of the rabbinic community in general.

Jacob Neusner, in contrast, began a series of studies nearly 40 years ago in which he stipulated that before one could make grand claims about “the” rabbinic tradition of Late Antiquity” (or any other era), one had to read the actual texts one by one, each on its own terms. Thus there is a bounded and distinct Judaism of the Mishnah, for example, that is different from the Judaism articulated in the Jerusalem Talmud on the one hand and the Babylonian Talmud on the other. This is not to say that these various “Judaisms” are totally distinct and unrelated, but it is to say that they are not entirely interchangeable. The job of the modern scholar is to be sensitive to the differences that animate each text. This is possible only if the scholar reads the texts as each authorship presents it, not by chopping the text up according to categories brought in from beyond the borders of the text. ARN, in this view, should not be seen as a microcosm of some macrocosm, but as its own statement of Judaism, built as a commentary on (and so a re-statement of) an earlier, received tradition, in this case, Pirqe Avot. This is not to deny outright that ARN is not representative of a broader community of rabbinic Judaism, it simply means this last claim has to be shown, not assumed. Put in another way, the ethics of the sage in ARN needs to be adduced from this document alone, and then compared to the results of conclusions reached from the reading of other texts. Only with all this comparative data on the table can the scholar begin the synthetic work of seeing what commonalities exist as to what constitutes a “sage” in classical Judaic culture.

The methodological disagreement between Kadushin and Neusner sketched above is not merely a matter of strategy but in fact reflect two radically different epistemologies. For Kadushin, there is an essence, or “Geist” the gives shape to the macrocosm and so animates all of its particular textual expressions. Such an abstract essence can be accessed through any and all of its expressions, be this literary, artistic or linguistic. This is a view that was very much bound up with the Wissenschaft des Judenthums. Neusner’s break with this scholarly tradition was founded on the text- and form-critical analysis that had been developed in modern biblical studies. What was of interest was not so much the commonalities, but the individual and particular. In a sense for him there was no “rabbinic Judaism” per se, but only a range of “Judaisms” and their texts, reading and commenting on each other so as to create a certain cultural and religious continuity (which then could be labeled, loosely to be sure, “rabbinic Judaism”). What this approach loses in global understanding is made up by insight into the multidimensional texture of the Jewish religious tradition as it was lived out in its various communities.

That Schofer indeed adopts the Kadushin model and not that of Neusner can be shown by his treatment of the two different versions of ARN (conventionally labeled “A” and “B” following the first scientific publication of the work, by Solomon Schechter in 1887). For the Neusnerian approach, one would need to select one version as the basis of the study because it is the text as we have it that is our primary datum. Schofer, in contrast, feels free to pick and choose among the two versions as the need to illustrate his thesis dictates, although he relies mostly on “A”. Where Schofer does note differences between the versions, these are treated as essentially of little weight or meaning. There is no systematic attempt to see if some theological, literary or other principle underlies these divergences. Instead, both versions are treated as composing a single coherent textual corpus.

The third part of the book deals with rabbinic theology. The central theme here is, as expected at this point, drawn from the outside. It is “divine reward and punishments.” The author comes to the obvious, really inevitable, conclusion, namely, that God rewards obedience and good behavior and punishes disobedience and bad behavior. What of course makes this conclusion “new” here is that it is asserted to be the governing trope of ARN. But the relationship of this theological theme and the content of the actual document Schofer is claiming to explicate are far from clear. Consider the following sentence that opens the conclusion of this chapter: “The rabbinic theology of reward and punishment consists of interrelated concepts and tropes through which the compilers of Rabbi Nathan frame the totality of their practice and set it in relation to normative ideals” (p. 145). In other words, the trope “divine reward and punishment” already exists out there in rabbinic theology and provides the framework within which the compilers of ARN crafted his text. The problem with this view and its formulation is that it is tautological. The existence of the trope is posited, examples are then carefully teased out and examined, and the results are then used to demonstrate that the trope indeed exists.

As in Part Bet, Schofer does go into some greater detail as to the content of this trope. The text sets up a series of values by which the sage is to instruct his disciples. The values to be inculcated uphold the value of scholarship and obedience to Torah, God’s word. In particular, the sage is to train disciples to be careful with speech and to nurture a certain character by controlling the heart, or yetser. By so doing, one earns God’s reward. These are the values, embedded in rabbinic Jewish thought in general, that are found to be characteristic of ARN as well.

At the end, Schofer turns to one of his three governing questions, namely, how this ethic relates to the Greco-Roman world and its culture in Late Antiquity. To this basic question Schofer turns out to have no answer. He concedes that on this point his answer is “heuristic rather than historical” (p. 165). The rabbinic world, he notes at the end, was after all a distinct community which in its literature rarely references the outside world. Once again, the premise of the book turns out to be self-fulfilling. The Making of a Sage proceeds from the assumption that it represents a closed community internally consistent and externally distinct from its surrounding.

In the end, then, the book is less a scholarly study of the ARN text, despite its 100 pages of endnotes (for a text of roughly 170 pages), than it is a scholarly commentary on the ARN literature as a microcosm of classical rabbinic literature more generally. To be sure, the discussion is rich and nuanced, and the author’s passion for the rabbinic values he sees at the heart of ARN is clear. But this is really a rabbinic discourse on a rabbinic textual tradition about a putative rabbinic ethic. It should not be approached as an academic book that uses modern methods to socially locate and critically analyze from a neutral standpoint a text from Late Antiquity.

Peter J. Haas, the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies, chairs the Department of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, and is a contributing editor.

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