Archive for June, 2012


The more the archaeologists dig around Palestine and its environs, the more evidence they discover of the variety and versatility of the activities of the Jewish people. Singularly interested in moral and religious questions they certainly were – else we could not explain Moses, the prophets, … – but not to the exclusion of everything else. All the evidence spells a normal, healthy people and the reason for it is self-evident. The reason was national independence and the integrity that came with the possession of soil, language, liberty and the strength of ethnic cohesion. The ancient Jew regarded himself quite naturally as the equal of the member of any other race or nation in his contemporary world.

Leon I. Feuer, On Being a Jew (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1947), 97.

What I do suggest is that religion, and such secular or anthropomorphic disciplines as philosophy, psychology, or sociology, have something in common, and that is an awareness of the abiding fact of man’s unhappiness. And it would seem that certain words of ancient provenance – like “good,” “evil,” “free will,” even “original sin” – do not have to be superseded by pseudo-scientific terminology just because they happen to derive from a God-centered approach to man.

Anthony Burgess, “The Clockwork Condition,” The New Yorker (4 & 11 June 2012), 72.

Far too many Jews are too lazy mentally to take the trouble to inform themselves about the trends and currents of contemporary life, and of how they and their lives fit into the pattern of what is happening…. They make a virtue out of their ignorance of the Jewish past, thus dispossessing themselves of vital links to the present and the future. As far as religion is concerned, when they do affiliate with synagogues and, when they do occasionally attend services of worship, they look upon it as a form of entertainment headlined by a rabbinical performer in the pulpit. The phrase, “I enjoyed the sermon,” is one of the chief criteria of the religiosity of the modern Jew.

Leon I. Feuer, On Being a Jew (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1947), 6.

In light of the creative dimension of the Mishnah’s redaction and a critical refusal to accept on faith the reliability of attributions to Sages in the Mishnah, the Mishnah is sometimes excluded from historical studies of first- and second-century Palestine. this is a shame because even Jacob Neusner, the scholar most identified with a highly sceptical approach to attributions, argues that many mishnaic statements with attributions truly cite positions which stem from the generation of their attributed tanna. While Neusner believes that we cannot verify whether a sage actually said or held the position attributed to him (and therefore rabbinic biographies cannot be written), he believes that we can verify if an attribution stems from the generation to which it is attributed. After applying his verification method, Neusner concluded that many an attribution may be dated roughly to the generation of its attributed tanna, a find of great significance for historians. Furthermore, the existence of a great number of mishnaic statements whose early dating cannot be verified (by Neusner’s verification method or by source criticism) or falsified are probably reliably dates as well. Although we cannot test the reliability of the attributions in these materials, I believe that we still dealing with levels of certainty common in the study of ancient history. In short, despite the strong redaction of the Mishnah, the Mishnah should still remain an important source for the legal, social and intellectual history of the first two centuries of Roman Palestine.

Amram Tropper, “The State of Mishnah Studies,” Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine, ed. Martin Goodman & Philip Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 103-104.

At times, the redactor preserved his sources as he inherited them, at times, he mildly altered them, and, at times, he significantly shaped them. How to find the precise balance between the conservative and creative dimensions of this editorial process is still unclear, but today there is a broad consensus that the Mishnah should be viewed as a tightly edited composition (see Wald 2007a). Even if the editorial process may have been limited at times to the selection and arrangement of earlier materials, these editorial judgements are of major significance since they reflect the concerns and goals of the Mishnah’s redactor/anthologist. In short, the Mishnah is now viewed not merely as a conduit through which earlier tannaitic literary materials were preserved, but also as composition it its own right.

Amram Tropper, “The State of Mishnah Studies,” Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine, ed. Martin Goodman & Philip Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 103.

Granting the importance of the analysis of the explicit and implicit rationales for halakhot, let us describe the refined historical approach mentioned above. History, in his new approach, is not narrowly conceived along political or socio-economic lines as it was sometimes in the past, but rather history is broadly conceived as the locus for a host of non-hermeneutic an non-formalistic factors which impinge upon the halakhic process. Ethical, theological, economic, political and other cultural forces play a role in the evolution of the halakhah and all these forces emerge within specific historical settings. The goal of the new approach is to reveal the traces of these forces on the halakhah without reducing all halakhah to mere epiphenomena of authentic, supposedly non-legal, historical activity. To accomplish this goal, the new approach introduces external factors only when internal legal justifications fall short. Features of the halakhah which cannot be fully explained by internal considerations, such as uncharacteristic legal stances, unprecedented novelties and the preference for a specific exegetical move over another equally valid one, are viewed as traces of external historical forces (see Soloveitchik 1978: 174; Hayes 1997: 181). Unsurprising mishnaic legal positions rooted in unambiguous biblical law do not call for historical interpretations, whereas the atypical, the novel and the unnecessary offer the historian a toehold and entry-point for the introduction and consideration of historical factors.

Amram Tropper, “The State of Mishnah Studies,” Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine, ed. Martin Goodman & Philip Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 101.

Mishnaic halakhah is presented in various forms such as precedents, enactments, edicts, customs, and, most commonly, casuistic formulations (i.e. case law). General rules also appear in the Mishnah, but they are the exception as mishnaic halakhot are usually embedded in specific cases and circumstances. Since the rationales underlying the halakhot of the Mishnah are rarely stated explicitly, scholars analyse halakhot so as to expose their implicit legal basis. At times, the implied legal reasoning for a halakhah may be ad hoc and cover little more than the specific case cited, while at other times, the implicit reasoning may involve a general principle with broader application.

Amram Tropper, “The State of Mishnah Studies,” Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine, ed. Martin Goodman & Philip Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 100. 

The analysis of the halakhah in the Mishnah commenced already in tannaitic times (see Henshke 1997) and has continued unabated until today. The Talmuds and their medieval commentators are well known for their attempts to reveal and interpret the legal concepts and principles underlying mishnaic halakhah. In contrast, modern historians have sometimes interpreted mishnaic halakhah, and halakhah more generally, as responses to historical factors, such as political or socio-economic crises. A potential drawback of this historical approach to the halakhah is the risk of viewing legal concepts and reasoning as little more than ex post facto rationales for laws generated primarily by contemporary historical realities (see Hayes 1997: 3-9, 17-24; Soloveitchik 1978: 174-175). Seeing halakhah primarily as a response to political or socio-economic crises risks minimising the significance of internal legal considerations and ignoring the nuanced relationships of halakhah to reality, “the patterns of resistance and response, of attentiveness and indifference” (Soloveitchik 1978: 174). Thus, contemporary studies of halakhah often seek to avoid these drawbacks in two ways: they highlight the legal reasoning and hermeneutics which justify the halakhah and refine the historical approach with methods designed to produce more compelling interpretations.

Amram Tropper, “The State of Mishnah Studies,” Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine, ed. Martin Goodman & Philip Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 100. 

The Mishnah is primarily an edited anthology of brief and often elliptical pronouncements on matters of Jewish law and practice, frequently providing conflicting views on the individual matters discussed. Some of these pronouncements are attributed to a named rabbi, or group of anonymous rabbis, while others are entirely anonymous. While the content often relates to scripture, the form is not midrashic.

Amram Tropper, “The State of Mishnah Studies,” Rabbinic Texts and the History of Late-Roman Palestine, ed. Martin Goodman & Philip Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 91. 

In those Tosefta layers which parallel the Mishna, the same names of Tannaim appear as in the Mishna and approximately in the same frequency.

Abraham Goldberg, “The Tosefta – Companion to the Mishna,” in The Literature of the Sages…, Ed. Shmuel Safrai (Assen/Mastricht: Van Gorcum & Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 295.