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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2008
Number 69
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Rabbinical Dynamics in the Babylonian Talmud

The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein.
Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press.

A review essay by Matthew Schwartz

History has had its dark ages the post-Mycenaean Era in Greece, early Medieval Europe. Jewish History has a period which is perhaps not so much dark as gray the age of the Savoraim or, as Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein prefers the Stammaim, which fits unobtrusively between the amoraim and the gaonim. The names of that time are not the well known Hillel and R. Akiva nor Abbaye and Rava, but the likes of R. Rehumai and R. Revai of Rov. Yet these scholars and their colleagues edited the Babylonian Talmud, bringing it into the magnificent form which has so profoundly impacted all of Jewish life and thought ever since.

Professor Rubenstein argues that our Talmud Bavli in many ways reflects, in fact, the world of the stammaim, their culture and their studies, not only the earlier world of the Amoraim. When we study the culture underlying the Babylonian Talmud, what we are seeing is largely the culture of the stammaitic academy which is the true basis of all later yeshivot. The stammaitic yeshivot were more highly structured and densely populated than ever before, although the change from the Amoraic era was not radical. Dialectical skills became more important than what appears in the Palestinian Talmud. Largely from the Bavli do stories come of sages shamed by erring in scholarly debate. The Bavli retells a number of stories of Palestinian rabbis, but often reworks them to reflect the Babylonian style and context of the stammaitic era, although the editors are careful to avoid fabrication. They were less likely to change a halacha, but a story could be redacted so as to make a point in a way that helps us now to understand their own times.

Rubenstein finds that the house of study developed and its dialectic intensified as the center of study shifted from Judea to Babylonia and progressed into stammaitic times. Stories of scholarly arguments come more from Babylonian than Palestinian sources, and more attention is given to explaining minority opinions. The Babylonian climate was more combative and competitive, leading at times from scholarly to ad hominem exchanges, and the sources will use military imagery to describe yeshivah debates, e.g. the wars of Torah. However, much of the contention reflects a hyperbolic style that was used in debate but not in general life and so does not indicate an exceptional contentiousness in daily relations.

The Jewish culture reflected in the Babylonian Talmud seems to place also greater emphasis than the Judean on the lineage and status of rabbinic leaders. Some stammaitic stories indicate a sense of women as impediments to study and the finding of true love and union only in the study of Torah. A certain hostility toward the non-scholar appears in the stammaitic materials, although it is likely that actual relations between rabbis and laymen were no less amiable than anywhere else.

What is new in Professor Rubenstein work is the thesis that much of the Talmud reflects the era of the stammaim and not the amoraim. This is plausible and perhaps natural, yet we would like to see something more specific on this in the ancient sources themselves. While the rabbis were hesitant to reveal the Torahs mystical secrets, they certainly held back little on most other matters. Certain historiographical questions assert themselves especially when we deal with an era so long ago and so little known. Political structures and social practices can be described, but does every recorded expression of an amoraic or savoraic sage reflect his own era? The stammaim were individuals with a variety of personalities and ideas and with highly developed dialectic skills. Much of what they said reflected their own individualities that often transcended the ambience of that moment. Their thought world focused not only on the social world of Babylonia, but more on the transcendent task of preserving and enlarging the Torah teaching of revered predecessors.

Professor Rubenstein speculates that the Babylonian academies had changed from the Palestinian of past centuries. The schools were now larger and more structured, and the teachings tended to be more anonymous so that the response to halachic inquiries would be typically in the name of the entire school body, not merely a single rabbinic scholar (like the responsa of later times) and would be composed out of discussion of the assemblage of scholars of the academy. Perhaps the stammaitic school felt itself to be a sort of corporate entity. The Palestinian schools were often called bet vaad in the Palestinian sources, while the Babyonian tended to prefer the term bet midrash. Sometimes the same story recounted in both Palestinian and Babylonian sources will change the scene from a bet vaad or even from a private premises to a bet midrash, reflecting the stammatic milieu.

Professor Rubenstein opposes Jacob Neusners documentary approach to the Bavli, which argues that the redactors reworked their sources at will so that it is often impossible to know what the earlier sages actually said. A second approach is faulty in being too uncritically accepting of reports of earlier traditions. In fact, the later sages treated their sources with reverence. They would be arguing and interpreting but not falsifying.

The savoraim recognized the work of Rav Ashi and his colleagues as the completion of horaah or amoraic teaching, and they saw their main task in completing and editing the work of the amoraim. These savoraim did not leave us the sort of literature, outside the Bavli, that can offer a modern researcher a picture or insight onto their lives and work. That this was also a time of some political and social unrest due to wars and persecutions in the Byzantine and Persian empires further complicates our historical picture. Also the time of the savoraim was probably not as long as some other historical eras several generations rather than several centuries. The Jewish history student of today feels deeply the lack of personal descriptions of the savoraim. Did personal stories circulate about them in their own times like the stories related of the tanaaim in the Talmuds or of the rabbis of Eastern Europe closer to our own times?

Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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