Reading the Rabbis: The Talmud as Literature

I read David Kraemer’s earlier book, the Mind of the Talmud soon after it came out in the 90s, and loved it. For those not familiar with it, the Talmud is a strange work. Nominally a large repository of Jewish law, it is a miscellanous compendium that also includes snippets of stories, commentary, philosophy, history, and other types of writing according to our categorization. Instead of a single threaded, logically developed argument, the Talmud is structured as an edited record of conversations that derived from an oral tradition.

Kraemer’s “The Mind of the Talmud” analyzes the distinctive literary forms of the Babylonian Talmud for what these forms reveal about the philosophical approach of the rabbis of the Talmud. Kraemer argues that Talmud’s methods reasoning with debates, stories, and interpretation posed a deliberate alternative to the hierarchical categories of Greek rationalism. His take on the Talmud is distinctively postmodern – he identifies ways that the Talmud’s multiply-voiced rhetoric destabilizes nominal authority structures.

A follow-up to the earlier work, Reading the Rabbis has Kraemer doing a close reading of a number of sections of the Babylonian Talmud from a literary perspective. Traditional approaches to the Talmud focus on nuances of the way that it constructs legal arguments. Modern scholarly approaches have look at the document from a historical perspective, and attempt to identify the historical strata within the edited text.

In Kraemer’s literary approach, he takes the compositional unit as a whole. He looks at the choices the editors made in assembling the materials into the published whole, the structure and rhetoric of the section. The book promises to generate new insights by using this method. But after reading the book, the insights seem less dramatic to me.

In the first sections of the book, Kraemer, who is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical training ground for the Conservative movement, looks at a few topics that are common in Conservative movement ideology.

In Chapters 3-5, the book examines three sections that discuss the relative authority of earlier and later sources. The authority structure of talmud is traditionalist, giving more authority to earlier sources – the 5 books of Moses have more authority than later biblical texts, the Mishna (an early compilation of Rabbinic writings) has more authority than the Gemara (a compilation of commentary by later Rabbis).

Kraemer does a close analyses of three sections, one about whether it is permissable to write scrolls with subsections of the bible (Gittin 60 a-b), one about whether the biblical passage about “an eye for an eye” is to be read literally or in reference to monetary damages (Baba Qamma 83b-84a), and third about laws that seem to have no source in scripture (Hagigah 10a-11b). Based on close analysis of the rhetoric of the text, that the later authors, in the way they analyze and draw conclusions from their source material, actually assume for themselves the responsibility to interpret and decide: “what appears to be a conservative submission to the word of God turns out to be a confident assertion of the authority of the living word of God’s earthly teachers.” (50).

This conclusion that later authorities have precedence in practice (though not in theory) supports the ideology of the conservative movement, which holds that innovation is not only possible, but traditional, within a context that is centered on tradition. This contrasts with the Orthodox ideology that “there is no innovation in Torah”, and ideology in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism holding that tradition is not binding.

In Chapter 6, Kraemer looks at the Talmud’s assessment of the differing legal opinions between the Rabbinic schoosl of Hillel and Shammai (Yevamot 13b-14a). Following Kraemer’s analysis, the Talmud goes out of its way to leave clear openings for differences in community practice – there are a small number of core principles, and beyond that, plenty of leeway for local opinion; and even tenets that appear to be core principles may be subject to variation on close reading. Congregationalist pluralism is a hallmark of the Conservative movement governance, and this interpretation supports that principle.

In Chapters 7 and 8, Kraemer reveals additional ways that he is situated within a sociological and ideological context. Chapter 7 is entitled “Women Categorized.” It explores the nuances of the ways that the Talmud categorizes the obligations of women in Jewish observance. In traditional interpretations of Jewish law, womens’ exclusion from roles in communal decision-making and synagogue leadership derive from womens’ lower level of obligation. In Kraemer’s close reading, he observes that the Talmudic Rabbis are extremely suspicious of categorization itself, and progressively undermine the categories they set up. And he finds alternative sources and interpretations that could make a strong case for alternative conclusions.

However, in the title and the structure of the chapter, Kraemer raises no protest against the seemingly obvious sociological problem in the structure of the discussion. In my copy of Reading the Rabbis, I was unable to refrain from annotating the title, “Women Categorized By Men”. In a power structure that consisted of men analyzing source materials and creating categories (however ambivalent they are about categorization), it is clearly problematic that the structure of categorization places women as exceptions to rules, and in the company of other lower-status members of society. Kraemer doesn’t take this on at all. He is willing to read the sources with an eye toward using traditional resources to remedy the discrimination of women, but not to make a radical critique that the structure of the argument is flawed by its social power structure.

In Chapter 8, Kraemer does a similar analysis about circumcision, which differentiates Jewish men from non-Jews and from individuals with ambiguous biological sex characteristics. Once again, Kraemer draws subtle conclusions from the nuances of the rhetoric, but does not do any significant critique of the categories themselves. Kraemer’s traditionalist approach does not go so far as to openly question the category structure he has to work with. There is no shortage other contemporary Jewish thinkers –Rachel Adler among many Jewish feminists who criticize the traditional structures because the tradition was written by men, Daniel Boyarin among other scholars who analyzes concepts of Jewish masculinity. Kraemer does not do radical analysis. He does close analysis to find room at the edges, but leaves the frame of the structure he finds.

My favorite chapter of the book was Chapter 9, which analyzes a section in Berachot 5a-b on Rabbinic approaches to human suffering. This is a topic that Kraemer has studied in depth and written a book about. In the section, the Talmud brings a large number of arguments showing that suffering is a valuable gift from God, like a parent’s valuable correction of a child. These arguments are undermined, at the end of the section, by a series of stories that show Rabbis discussing their own experiences of suffering and declaring that they didn’t find the suffering to have value and contain its own reward (p. 135). Hearing this, the Rabbi who is listening heals the sick person.

The text includes a statement that is even more radical than the ones that Kraemer highlights. When R. Yohan visits R. Eleazar on his sick bed and asks the sick man why he is crying, R. Eleazar replies, “I am crying on account of this beauty that will rot in the earth.” Not only do the stories undermine the ascetic message of the previous section, but the emotional heart of the story supports a shockingly Greek-sounding message of nostalgia for the loss of physical beauty instead of any moralistic lesson.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I appreciated the process of walking through Kraemer’s close readings of the texts, and seeing how Kraemer built his analysis by parsing out the rhetoric of the sections. But the selections of the sections, and the conclusions Kraemer draws from the analysis, read like fine and familiar JTS-style interpretive sermons. This is a valid practice by someone who is, afterall, a professor and community teacher based at JTS. But I didn’t find the book to be as thought-provoking and insightful as The Mind of the Talmud. – I need to go back and reread the book to see if it remains as impressively insightful to me.

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