Becoming the People of the Talmud
Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures
2011 | 424 pages | Cloth $65.00 | Paper $29.95
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Place of Oral Matters in Geonic Culture
Chapter 2. Oral Matters among Jews of Qayrawan and al-Andalus: Framing Sefarad
Chapter 3. Framing Ashkenaz: Cultural Landmarks of Medieval Northern European Societies
Chapter 4. Textualization of North European Rabbinic Culture: The Changing Role of Talmud
Chapter 5. Medieval Responses to the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture
Chapter 6. Rhineland Pietism and the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture in Medieval Northern Europe
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Transmission will never replace creation in the historian's romantic heart . . . but it does provide us with a set of hard, unromantic and revealing questions to ask about many received truths and tenets.
The importance of the Babylonian Talmud in the lives of observant Jews is taken for granted. Yet when considered from certain vantage points, the Talmud's role as a guide to Jewish life is bewildering. Though construed as a legal reference work, a significant proportion of the Talmud's content does not pertain to law, and the legal traditions themselves are presented in the form of pending disputes. (Critical scholars have determined that the resolved disputes are actually late interpolations into the talmudic text.) In other words, there is no evidence that the sages whose teachings are preserved in the Talmud, Babylonian amoraim of the third through sixth centuries CE, intended to produce a prescriptive guide to applied Jewish law. In the case of the Talmud, the ever-thorny problem of discerning authorial intent applies even at the level of genre. Does this voluminous repository of conflicting legal perspectives, legends, tall tales, and accounts of the sages' behavior (some quite unflattering) correspond to any known cultural or literary form that flourished in the Hellenistic or Persian societies with which rabbinic Jews had contact? The cultural roles that the Babylonian Talmud came to play in the lives of medieval Jews are far better understood, but it would be anachronistic to retroject these onto rabbinic Jews of earlier generations, whether amoraim, saboraim, i.e., anonymous redactors, or geonim, the leaders of the post-talmudic rabbinic academies around Baghdad in the seventh through eleventh centuries. The disconnect between the contents of the Talmud and the roles that it came to play in medieval Jewish culture (and beyond) is puzzling.
It is also difficult to understand why the Babylonian Talmud (unmediated by the commentaries and codes that transposed it into a reference work) has, for many centuries, enjoyed such prominence in Jewish education. As will be seen below, a range of medieval Jewish scholars plaintively argued that other textual products of Jewish culture were far better suited than the Talmud to assist students in their religious training and spiritual growth.
Another question about the Talmud's role in Jewish culture is best framed from the sociologist's perspective: As a rule, individuals learn proper comportment from living models—parents, teachers, and community members. It is unnatural to regard a (non-revealed) written text as the definitive guide to all socially and culturally desirable behaviors, for mimesis, rather than reading, is the primary guide to life. If anything, living life "by the book" is anomalous. The strangeness of regarding the Talmud as a guide to Jewish life comes into sharper focus when the scope of its teachings is compared with that of other legal systems. In most societies, huge swaths of life are left ungoverned by legal prescription; for example neither the spatial orientation of one's bed, nor the order in which shoes are to be donned is considered a matter to be monitored. Yet because the Babylonian Talmud—which came to be regarded as a prescriptive work—preserves advice about these matters, some rabbinic Jews have construed these arenas of life as ones that are subject to regulation.
Each of these observations underscores the fact that students of Jewish history have little sense of what the Talmud was within its amoraic Sitz-im-Leben, before medieval Jews assigned it particular cultural meanings. Robert Brody, a scholar of rabbinics, affirmed this point: "We have no way of knowing to what extent, if at all, the 'editors' of the Talmud—as distinct from the authors of the legal dicta embedded within it—intended to create a normative legal work, rather than an academic or literary corpus."
Why has scholarly ignorance about the Talmud's raison d'être gone largely unacknowledged? The most obvious answer is that there has been little room to even think about this question. The retrojective shadow cast by the medieval fashioning of the Talmud is enormous, and so generations of Jews who lived even earlier are presumed to have embraced the assumptions of their successors. The intellectual and compositional contributions of Rashi (1040-1105), the towering commentator on the Babylonian Talmud, and of the tosafists, its twelfth- and thirteenth-century glossators, have defined what are seen as "canonical" uses of this corpus in the arenas of education and adjudication. By the thirteenth century, these northern European approaches also transformed the classrooms of Sefarad, displacing other ways of relating to the talmudic text. In short, the "tosafization" of Talmud obscured earlier cultural realities. In Brody's words, "We are bound by a very specific perspective of the talmudic material—which springs from our talmudic education and draws upon Rashi and the tosafists in particular. It is difficult for us to free ourselves from this perspective." Or, as Haym Soloveitchik put it, it is difficult to think "in a mode other than Tosafist" when approaching issues of Jewish law.
The tosafist framing of the Babylonian Talmud seems to have contributed to anachronistic assumptions about the ways that Babylonian geonim of the seventh through eleventh centuries related to the Talmud (a topic to be considered in Chapter 1), and may even be discerned in certain historiographic representations of ancient Jewish culture. The retrojection of twelfth-century modes of Jewish study and decision making onto rabbis of the first centuries has fostered the impression that ancient "text-centered" Jews related to Scripture in much the same way that medieval Jews related to the Talmud, leading us to believe that medieval scholars who performed certain intellectual operations on the later text were following in the footsteps of forebears who had lived a millennium earlier. Yet scholars are not at all sure that ancient Jewish sages were proto-scholastics who derived answers to all their legal questions from Torah itself. Though Scripture was undeniably central to the lives of Second Temple period Jews, the label "text-centered" is of only modest descriptive utility, for it gives no information about a broad array of variables. Among these are the ways in which the text in question was encountered—through hearing, reading, or gazing, for example; the segment of the populace that had access to it; the occasions on which it was accessed; the text's status relative to other sources of cultural authority; whether its authority inhered in its particular material form or in its reproducible words, and whether it was interpreted and understood or revered in its inscrutability.
* * *
In attempting to think afresh about changes in the ways that the Babylonian Talmud was used over a discrete period of time and in specific places, the present study is very much a product of its own intellectual and cultural moment. Not long ago, the sheer breadth of the questions it attempts to address would have made the undertaking prohibitive. The possibility of painting on such a large canvas is only possible now because of the availability of secondary literature composed by scholars in an array of fields, most notably, in the recondite field of rabbinics. I could not have attempted to reconstruct historical narratives about changes in the ways that the Talmud was used over time and place, in both classroom and courtroom, without relying on secondary sources to guide me to the relevant primary sources, for I am neither a scholar of halakhah nor a historian of halakhah.
As a work of synthesis, the present study links scholarly findings encountered in a broad array of specialized disciplines in order to offer a plausible solution to a historical and cultural puzzle. Any new perspectives set forth in this book are not the fruit of pioneering archival research, but of thinking about known data in a fresh light; they were gained by bringing together works of scholarship from disparate fields—medieval Jewish and Christian cultural history, rabbinics, and anthropological and folkloric studies pertaining to orality and textuality—in new dialogues and concatenations. Like the medieval subjects of this study, I have scavenged widely and freely (though with attribution!) and, like them, I have used the borrowed pieces in ways that diverge from the ways in which I encountered them. In order to open up particular riddles of medieval Jewish culture, I have used whatever tools and insights I have been able to gather—including ones generated in chronologically and geographically remote arenas of intellectual inquiry.
The anthropological turn in the study of history has left its mark on the present work by encouraging researchers to think about the ways that texts function within the societies that revere them, and by drawing attention to the ways that rituals inscribe boundaries, both affirming and altering power relations. The same can be said of studies that stress the difference between "tradition" and "traditionalism." Distinguishing between the two, Brian Stock wrote, "'Traditional' action consists of the habitual pursuit of inherited forms of conduct, which are taken to be society's norm. 'Traditionalistic' action, by contrast, is the self-conscious affirmation of traditional norms—and the establishment of such norms as articulated models for current and future behavior." Traditionalism, Stock explained , "is precipitated by the application of ratiocination to tradition. The past is thought about, codified and, as an abstraction, made a guide for action." Medieval scholars who saw themselves as restoring some originary clarity formulated "past norms of conduct not as they were, but as they were thought to be." The version of the past that they affirmed was presented as a vision that was "more correct, truthful, and consistent than the welter of inherited customs which had been handed down from one generation to the next." Scholarly emenders who imposed their own visions of a society's past were, in no small measure, re-creating its culture and attempting to control its future.
The field of orality-textuality studies, pioneered by anthropologists and literary scholars, has also shaped this work by reminding historians that orally transmitted testimonies and written texts give rise to different sets of questions. Readers who receive a communication in written form lose out on performative and nonverbal cues that clarify ambiguity—pauses, inflections, emphases, and gesture, and wrestle with the text in order to extract its meaning. Inscribed data are thus highly susceptible to "logocentric" operations such as the parsing of words, the rearrangement of syntax, the elimination of perceived redundancies, and the harmonization of discrepancies through rationalization. Such reworkings of manuscript texts must be taken into consideration when attempting to reconstruct historical narratives. Indeed, before the technology of print imposed standardization, circulating manuscripts were continually rewritten by their readers. Manuscript readers held assumptions about reading and writing that could dramatically affect a text's discursive meaning, and often did. As one exponent of the New Philology put it, "Medieval writing does not produce variants; it is variance." The longer a medieval manuscript was in circulation, the more its reception varied, for later readers often encountered a text that was quite different from what earlier readers had seen. Discussing this phenomenon, Stephen Nichols noted that since "almost all [medieval] manuscripts postdate the life of the author by decades or even centuries . . . what we actually perceive [in the text] may differ from what the … [writer], artist or artisan intended to express, or from what the medieval audience expected to find."
One of the implications of this phenomenon is the likelihood that not all variants in medieval manuscripts of the same text are products of scribal error. Indeed, the very impulse to search for a correct ur-text is often misguided. Codicologist Malachi Beit Arié has stressed that these points apply in the case of medieval Jewish manuscripts: "Many principles and practices of classical textual criticism, such as the establishing of genetic relationships between manuscripts, stemmatic classification, the reconstructing of archtypes [sic] and the restoration of the original are not applicable in Hebrew manuscripts." It is impossible to consider changes in the role that the Talmud came to play in the lives of observant Jews without internalizing this discomfiting insight.
It was not only the physical text that could be expected to change while in circulation. Changes made to the manuscript over time altered the way in which readers experienced it, and affected the cultural role(s) that it played within a society. Of these bi-directional dynamics, Gabrielle Spiegel wrote, "Texts both mirror and generate social realities, are constituted by and constitute the social and discursive formations which they may sustain, resist, contest or seek to transform." For example, once a reader inserted some explanatory words in the manuscript that lay before him, subsequent readers of that manuscript would naturally embrace that meaning, and reject others. And inasmuch as the manuscript was presumed to be a representative of the past, such interpolations affected readers' understandings of the past. Corrective alterations to the manuscript had the same effect. A scholar who emended a text based on formulations that he encountered in earlier manuscripts may have assumed that he was restoring matters "as they were," but attempts to recapture the past can never succeed fully, given that people can only be in contact with a part of their cultural heritage at any given time.
As a material and historical object at the nexus between consumers, merchants, scribes, copyists, and artisans (parchment preparers, ink manufacturers, line rulers, quire sewers, etc.) a medieval manuscript was the product of interlocking social, economic, and cultural networks. But whereas Christians established dedicated venues for the copying and sale of manuscripts (e.g., monastic scriptoria, ateliers, workshops connected with universities), Jews tended to copy books for personal use, in non-institutional settings. In his study of 3,200 Hebrew manuscripts with dated colophons, Malachi Beit Arié discovered that half were produced for personal use. The significance of this fact, noted Beit Arié, was that medieval Hebrew manuscripts were far less likely to be copied under supervision. Indeed, he suggested, an individual who copied a Hebrew manuscript for private use was more likely to alter the received text by inserting his own comments.
Beit Arié's elucidation of this difference between manuscript production among Jews and Christians in medieval Europe suggests that Hebrew texts were even more vulnerable to variance than were their Christian counterparts. One might conjecture that the magnitude of variance may have been even greater when the text under consideration was one that had been transmitted for centuries as an oral corpus, and when Jews in disparate communities committed it to writing at different times. Such was the case with the Babylonian Talmud. Recognition that uncertainty is not the exception, but the rule, when attempting to reconstruct the cultural meaning and role of a medieval manuscript may make it somewhat easier to think about the Talmud (at least fleetingly) in a manner "other than tosafist." The medieval glossators' monumental enterprise, and the image of the Talmud that they made so indelible, constitute only one vision of the classical rabbinic past.
Changes in the "packaging" of tradition radically transform the mediated content. This is the case whether the transmitting scholar stitches together disjointed utterances so that they form a coherent narrative, systematizes received traditions in a particular written format, explains difficult words or passages by engaging ancient tradents in direct conversation, or comments upon them from the glossatorial sidelines. Awareness that such changes dramatically alter the embedded traditions, their place in society, and even the source of their legitimating power may make it easier to discern how processes of transmission transformed the Babylonian Talmud into a reference work and a guide to Jewish life.
* * *
Earlier scholars of Jewish history and culture drew attention to the unprecedented prominence of the Talmud in the lives of medieval Jews; indeed, Hayyim Zalman Dimitrovsky asserted that the defining feature of "the Jewish Middle Ages" was the emergence of Talmud study as a cultural ideal. Referring to the valorization of the Talmud in the Middle Ages, Nahman Danzig claimed that it was in this period that Talmud came to acquire the status of a "book," a status that Jews had previously bestowed only on the Tanakh itself, Haym Soloveitchik referred to the undertaking of the tosafists, the medieval talmudic glossators, as one that rewrote the entire Talmud anew, and Colette Sirat asserted that North European Jews transformed six orders of ancient tractates into a unified and continuous text in the Middle Ages. Common to these claims is the observation that medieval Jews experienced Talmud in ways that earlier Jews had not. Neither the corpus nor its constituent teachings were new, but the site of encounter between the student and talmudic tradition had changed dramatically. Unlike their amoraic and geonic predecessors, medieval Jews came to know Talmud as a written text, and they engaged it, not as auditors receiving oral tradition, but as readers studying a book.
Modern scholars have drawn attention to the greater availability of Jewish texts in medieval Jewish culture. Though a mere five percent of medieval manuscripts in Hebrew script are estimated to have survived, Alexander Samely and Philip Alexander noted that medieval exemplars of Jewish texts composed in antiquity exist in unprecedented numbers. These texts, they wrote, appeared "with disconcerting suddenness on this side, as it were, of a great manuscript divide." Roberto Bonfil referred to the transition of medieval Jewish societies from "orality" to "textuality," and Yisrael Ta Shma, drawing on the work of Brian Stock, spelled out some cultural ramifications of this shift. According to Ta Shma, the availability of written texts made it possible for readers to develop a "synoptic" perspective on tradition, and to hone the analytical tools needed for examining it. He also noted that the way in which Talmud was used in the Middle Ages was unprecedented: in earlier times, it had constituted a focal point for exegesis, but Jews of medieval northern Europe came to relate to Talmud as a source for adjudication. It was this radically different understanding of the text's function, wrote Ta Shma, that transformed Talmud into a guide for life.
Though there is ample evidence that rabbinic culture underwent dramatic transformation in the Middle Ages, and that the expanded role of the Talmud was one of its foremost manifestations, the reasons for this change are far less obvious. Why did scholars decide to re-package received teachings in a particular way, at a specific time and place? Precedents for such acts might be detected in the Jewish past, but synchronic developments should clearly be given top consideration. Some decisions may have stemmed from concerns about the loss of tradition. Others may have been connected with the impulse to cultivate a regional, "subcultural," identity. Ways in which medieval Jews related to data they encountered in the rabbinic archive, transmitted, and used it may also have been affected by the literary practices of non-Jewish neighbors. Finally, the very inscription of a formerly oral corpus may have generated its own dynamics. The visual encounter with a text that is a bearer of authority puts the onus on the reader to endow it with greater clarity and to bring it into line with what the reader knows to be true. In this sense, the inscription of the Talmud, a corpus of the Oral Torah, and the growing engagement with it as a written text constituted endogenous changes—and forces for change—within medieval Jewish culture.
Comparable developments in medieval Christian culture, and the analyses provided by twentieth-century scholars, offer ways to think about this problem. Some of the relevant works of scholarship document changes in practice that occurred in specific regions of northern Europe in the eleventh century, and others offer insight into the ways that these changes played out more broadly in social and cultural arenas. A body of influential research reveals that a significant—unnamed—cultural process transpired in northern Europe from the second half of the eleventh century through the middle of the twelfth. The present study therefore uses the term "textualization" to denote this slow and unconscious cultural process, during the course of which the society in question came to ascribe greater value to the authority of the inscribed word than it did to oral testimony, supported by gestures and props. The transition from the valorization of memory to the valorization of written records was not always a function of greater literacy. Textualization involved a change in mentalité that might be compared to changes triggered by the availability of a new technology.
The textualization of northern European Jewish culture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries should be examined within a broader regional context because nothing about the process itself was specific to one faith tradition. Disparate societies and cultures within a given region may have formulated discrete rules to regulate the occasions and settings in which writing was used, but textualization affected all inhabitants within a given region without reference to the confessional boundaries that divided them.
In discussing the "tosafization" of Talmud, I have suggested why this narrative of cultural change remained untold, for so long, within the field of Jewish studies, but, in fact, the textualization process itself—and its irreversibility—must also be credited with having imposed a certain ineluctable, and amnesiac, vision of the past. Bound by unexamined cultural presuppositions, contemporary readers and, arguably, those of the past millennium, have mistakenly assumed that texts played the same roles in earlier societies that they play in our own. Yet this is hardly the case. As Brigitte Bedos-Rezak noted, the "assumed epistemological centrality of the [medieval] document … does not correspond to the role, significance and meaning of documentation in the time and place it was generated."
Happily, scholarly writings produced over the last several decades by the medievalists Jean LeClercq, M.T. Clanchy, and Mary Carruthers have mediated access to cultures that ascribed oral testimonies greater authority than textual evidence, and shed light on the "oral-memorial" mindset that was eclipsed by the textualization process. By the same token, recent rabbinic scholarship has made it easier to dispel the deserved confusion wrought by the label "Oral Torah"—the referent of which is encountered today in the form of inscribed texts that occupy miles of bookshelves. Clarification of this seeming oxymoron has been greatly advanced by Ya'aqov Sussman, who noted in a voluminous study that Mishnah and Talmud, two of the corpora of Oral Torah, were transmitted in oral fashion throughout the period of the tannaim and amoraim, and by Robert Brody and Nahman Danzig, who concluded that oral transmission of Talmud remained the norm in the Babylonian academies for the duration of the geonic period.
While historical evidence indicates that the corpora of Oral Torah were transmitted in oral form over the course of centuries, it is far harder to detect when they began to circulate as written texts. The difficulty in reconstructing the moment of cultural shift was well put by Sussman, who framed the problem in cross-cultural terms. Within other cultures that had once vigilantly guarded the orality of specific corpora, he noted, the inscription of oral traditions triggered powerful protest. This was clearly the case among Zoroastrians when the Avesta was committed to writing, and among Muslims, when hadith were inscribed. Yet, surprisingly, wrote Sussman, no comparable protest appears to have erupted within rabbinic society when Oral Torah was ultimately consigned to writing. Offering a compelling, if frustrating, explanation for this silence, Sussman conjectured that Jews may well have raised objections between the fifth and eighth centuries, but that these reactions cannot be retrieved, having been expressed during the "Dark Ages" of rabbinic historiography.
* * *
The present work demonstrates that when the Talmud, a corpus of orally transmitted traditions, was inscribed in the Middle Ages and disseminated as a written text, a process was set in motion that affected what Hans Robert Jauss called "the horizon of expectations," transforming Jewish culture and society in significant and lasting ways. In tracking cultural developments that transpired within geographically diverse rabbinic communities from the tenth century through the twelfth, this study "slows down" the textualization process that enabled Jews to construe the Talmud as the legal reference work par excellence, and as a prescriptive one at that. Awareness of some of the stages in this process should counteract the tendency to assume that the role Talmud came to play in Jewish culture and society from the twelfth century onward was teleologically determined. If anything, the historical narrative reconstructed here suggests that the changing roles of the Talmud in Jewish life were conditioned by contingent decisions and broader contextual circumstances.
Overview of Chapters
Chapter 1 begins by exploring the distinction that third-century Palestinian rabbis established between written matters and oral matters. Situating this distinction within a broader historical and cultural context, the chapter elaborates on the rules formulated for the treatment of corpora within each category and it attempts to explain why these discrete categories were created. Subsequent analysis of certain geonic-era writings reveals the doggedness with which later Babylonian scholars attempted to uphold these ancient regulations in their post-talmudic academies, notwithstanding the fact that this impulse was in tension with their efforts to disseminate knowledge of the Babylonian Talmud. The resoluteness with which geonim preserved the orality of oral matters is boldly illustrated in their eschewal of written transmission while living in the environs of Baghdad, a cosmopolitan, multicultural, and highly textualized society and in Sherira Gaon's late tenth-century Epistle. Certain Jewish communities far from the geonic heartland possessed the Talmud as a written text, but in their own domain, the geonim strove to transmit talmudic teachings orally for as long as they could.
Geonic correspondence with rabbinic Jews of eleventh-century Qayrawan, today's Tunisia, reveals that the leaders of the Babylonian academies did not view the talmudic corpus as the sole source of Jewish law, and did not even assign it pride of place over teachings imparted by living models. Moreover, among the regulatory vehicles through which the geonim asserted their authority, talmudic exegesis had a surprisingly low profile Given the tenor of these findings, the production of halakhic compositions in Babylonia during the geonic period is particularly puzling. In line with earlier geonic scholarship, this chapter portrays the capitulation to written law as a late and concessionary development in geonic culture, prompted by the need to offer guidance to far-flung Jewish communities. But it also stresses the ambivalence that geonim felt about the works in question, whether the omnibus Aramaic compilations that were composed outside the academies, or the Judeo-Arabic legal monographs that were composed by geonim themselves. The cultural authority—or meaning—that later rabbinic Jews ascribed to both types of halakhic compositions probably did not mirror geonic perceptions.
Inasmuch as the geonim familiarized the rest of the Jewish world with the talmudic oeuvre, it seemed reasonable, in this study, to regard the place of the Babylonian Talmud in geonic culture as something of a baseline with respect to subsequent developments in rabbinic culture. Yet strikingly, Jewish communities of the eleventh century—the Sefardi ones of Qayrawan and al-Andalus, the eastern and western ends of the Maghreb, and the Ashkenazi ones of northern Europe—developed ways of relating to the Talmud that were dramatically different from from that of the geonim, as well as from one another. Noting the distinctive approaches that were characteristic of these discrete regions, this study offers some preliminary ruminations on why Sefarad and Ashkenaz, Jewish subcultures that first emerged in the Middle Ages, engaged the Babylonian Talmud in disparate ways.
Chapter 2 explores the roles that the Talmud played in eleventh-century Qayrawan and al-Andalus, Jewish communities whose rabbinic contributions were formative of Sefardi culture. Jewish students in these locations encountered the Talmud as a written text, and they related to the written Talmud as the preeminent source for adjudication. Yet when it came to transposing a confusing corpus of received teachings into applied law, the Jews in these two regions adopted different compositional formats. Scholars of Qayrawan who, among other things, pioneered the creation of study aids for the Talmud, wrote commentaries on the Talmud that steered each passage of the text to its concrete legal endpoint, that which was to be practiced. By contrast, rabbinic leaders of the pre-1088 Andalusian Jewish community composed digests of applied law. Speculation about why these two rabbinic communities cultivated the post-talmudic genres that were specific to their respective regions identifies possible analogues in the realms of Islamic jurisprudence.
Chapter Two also explores the broader cultural ramifications of two claims that were unique to the Jews of Sefarad: the tradition that local ancestors had acquired the Talmud as a written text centuries earlier, and the assertion that "our Talmud," namely, the text known by the Jews of Spain, had been inscribed in generations past for the express purpose of teaching applied Jewish law. It also notes that the roles played by the Talmud in Sefardi pedagogy and adjudication stand in marked contrast to those it played in these two arenas in Ashkenazi Jewish communities from the twelfth century onward. Medieval Sefardi society's tiered educational curriculum was designed to accommodate the varying abilities of a broad segment of the male Jewish population, and therefore offered Talmud study only to the most intellectually gifted. By the same token, the very difficulty of the talmudic corpus led rabbinic scholars of Sefarad to encourage judges (dayyanim) to consult geonic digests of applied law, rather than Talmud itself, when issuing decisions.
Without developing a new genetic explanation for the emergence of the Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jewish subcultures in the Middle Ages, Chapter 3 opens by suggesting that the specific characteristics of each may be partly explained with reference to the political, institutional, and cultural histories of each region. Just as Jewish communities of Sefarad were situated in areas that had been at the heartland of the Roman Empire, those of Ashkenaz were located at its frontier, an area that had been affected by imperial military and fiscal policies but was only superficially "Romanized." Cultural manifestations of Latinitas in pedagogy and law, manifest in the continued reliance on written documents as sources of evidentiary and dispositive legal authority, persisted in regions south of the Loire River long after the empire's collapse at the end of the fifth century, but matters were quite different in northern lands. Outside the barbarian courts themselves, societies north of the Loire tended to rely on the spoken word for administrative and legal practices into the eleventh century.
Chapter 3 continues by singling out formative social, economic, and religious developments in Christian societies of northern Europe from the eighth to the tenth centuries that may shed light on particular social, political, religious and pedagagic features of Ashkenazi Jewry. It also explores several developments within northern European society that shed light on distinctive characteristics of Ashkenazi Jewry's legal culture. Once the Carolingian Empire had disintegrated, legal professionals who could be trusted to interpret and apply written law ceased to be trained, and societies fell back on a range of non-written strategies for self-regulation.
In order to set the stage for the following chapter, Chapter 3 reviews evidence pertaining to the textualization of northern European societies over the course of the eleventh century. It summarizes possible precipitating causes of textualization that have been identified by specialists in medieval Christian cultural history, and it spells out some of the ramifications of the textualization process on classroom practices, pedagogic ideals, and the society's assessment of cultural worth. It also considers ways in which the ascription of authority to written texts led to the rise of new literary genres, new juridical practices, and an altered understanding of how individuals were to live their lives. For some medieval thinkers, the privileging of ancient documents awakened an awareness of the discrepancy between past and present—and it compelled them to develop strategies for bridging the gap between then and now.
In broad strokes, Chapter 4 intimates the contours of the textualization process that transformed Ashkenazi Jewry, from the time of Rabbenu Gershom at the turn of the millennium through the first generation of the tosafists in the twelfth century. Focusing specifically on the changing place of the Talmud in this society, it highlights shifts in text-related behaviors and attitudes, in readers' assumptions and practices, and in compositional activities, curricular emphases, pedagogic ideals and approaches to adjudication. In keeping with earlier historiography, Chapter 4 adopts as an organizational device the palpable divide between rabbinic cultural phenomena that were characteristic of the period before the First Crusade (1096) and those that emerged thereafter. And in considering the earlier period, this chapter brackets its discussion of developments in the realm of pedagogy from those that transpired in the arena of adjudication.
This chapter reads Rabbenu Gershom's inscription projects, along with the ordinances ascribed to him, as symptoms of the textualization process. It reflects on the cultural significance of early Ashkenaz's omniverous curricular proclivities, and explores the phenomenon of textual tampering, in which the reader re-created received tradition through active engagement as tradent. The anthologistic and aggregative tendencies of both the Mainz Talmud commentary and Rashi's Talmud commentary are mapped onto the historical narrative of textualization, and Rashi himself is shown to have consciously adopted the role of self-appointed mediator between "old" and "new" assumptions about rabbinic texts. Novel compositional features of Rashi's Talmud commentary occasion reconstruction of the learning conditions that prevailed in his time and ruminations about other classroom practices that his opus may may have set in motion. Chapter 4 also reviews the disparate scholarly assessments of the role that the Talmud played in the lives of eleventh-century Ashkenazi Jews by recapitulating radically divergent interpretations of the grisly events of 1096, when Rhenish Jews killed their own children and committed suicide. At stake in this debate is the possibility that non-talmudic sources of tradition, biblical and post-biblical, may have influenced their decisions to undertake these deeds.
Moving on to the twelfth-century, the chapter examines the project of the talmudic glossators who already held certain assumptions about what an authoritative text should be, and thanks to Rashi, had come into possession of a semantically comprehensible talmudic narrative. The tosafists' concern to determine the correct version of the Talmud, a project they pursued through intense archival research, and their presumption that the corpus was a unified whole, such that any unclear passage could be explained with the help of a clearer one, are emblematic of their immersion in a culture that now regarded texts as preeminent bearers of authority. The range of activities undertaken by the tosafists—their system of cross-referencing Talmud, and their resolution of ostensible conflicts within the text—would insinuate the Talmud into Jewish life with an omnipresence that was previously unknown. Through the activities of Rashi and the tosafists, the Talmud was transformed into a logically coherent corpus, one that a Jewish population newly hungry for textual guidance could construe as a universal reference work and a blueprint for life.
The vitriolic exchange between Rabbenu Tam, the leading tosafist of northern France, and Rabbenu Meshullam of southern France reveals that the assumptions undergirding the tosafists' attempt to bridge the discrepancy between the Talmud and life were not universally accepted in the second half of the twelfth century. Relying heavily on recent scholarship by Rami Reiner, this altercation is seen as a witness to the live and unsettled issues that needed to be addressed before the Talmud could serve as a reference work of prescriptive import.
Corollary developments of the textualization process that transformed northern European Jewish society and culture are spelled out in this chapter Social transformation was evident in the decline of an older ethos of discipleship and in the rise of a cultural hierarchy that privileged the most adept logician. As the Talmud acquired the status of a prescriptive text, discrepancies between talmudic teachings from the past, and life as practiced in the present, provoked anxiety—and triggered disparate solutions. Strikingly, all solutions to this problem worked on the assumption that life needed to be brought into congruence with the inscribed word. In their approach to this problem, the tosafists took as axiomatic that both reference points—the talmudic text and the behaviors of pious Jews—were authoritative, and they harmonized ostensibly conflicting positions in dialectical tours de force. This stands in marked contrast to the way in which a different group of twelfth-century Jews dealt with the newly awakened sense of cultural discontinuity between the textual past and the lived present. Whereas the tosafists acknowledged the "newness" of their own time, their contemporaries, the Rhineland Pietists (subject of Chapter 6) affirmed the illusion of "omnitemporality," maintaining that "things had always been the same." In order to ensure that their own practices were perfectly aligned with those of the past, they engaged in acts of historical ventriloquism and created hitherto unknown textual pasts. The chapter concludes by considering the impact of textualization on genres other than the Talmud—the preservation of responsa, standardization of liturgy, commitment of esoterica to writing, and inscription of customs.
The array of internal Jewish evidence considered in the first part of Chapter 5 underscores the fact that modern historians are not the only ones to have discerned changes in medieval rabbinic culture; some medieval Jews were well aware of the range of changes that had already transformed their societies and were continuing to do so. Certain evidence of this awareness takes the form of reportage, while other testimonies are outright protests. Jews who resented the new prominence, and in some places, virtual monopoly, of the Talmud in the classroom lamented the narrowing of the curriculum and marginalization of other subjects. The talmudocentric course of study was faulted for its preoccupation with irrelevant legal minutiae and its failure to address spiritual education. Arrogance and hunger for fame were cited as unsavory side effects of Talmud study, particularly as students, inspired by the tosafists, invested intellectual energy in dialectical gymnastics. Some critics claimed that the seductiveness of tosafistic casuistry actually resulted in greater ignorance of the Talmud itself. Other medieval Jews noted that the master-disciple etiquette was no longer observed, because books had become substitutes for teachers. One medieval scholar attempted to reconstruct the conditions that had prevailed within rabbinic cultural in earlier times, and to speculate about the cause of change.
The second part of Chapter 5 hypothesizes that a well-documented development in contemporaneous Christian culture may also have been triggered by the textualization of rabbinic Judaism. Historians are well aware that the Christian encounter with Talmud in the 1140s marked a turning point in the history of church attitudes toward the Jews and in the focus of anti-Jewish polemic. The old tolerationist Jewry policy associated with Augustinian theology had been predicated on the assumption that Jews would eventually come to understand that Hebrew Bible prophecies had been fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. However, when Christians discovered the Talmud, some theologians argued that the church's policy failed to take into account the obstructionist role that the Talmud played in shaping Jewish beliefs and perspectives. In attempting to explain why this Christian realization of the Talmud's importance occurred as late as it did, historians have focused on internal developments within the church, on trends in Christian theology, and on the growing importance of certain clerical orders. By contrast, this study posits that Christians only became aware of the Talmud when they did because it was not until the twelfth century that this corpus, as a written text, became a universal Jewish reference work. In an effort to support this conjecture, Chapter 5 briefly recapitulates the work of earlier scholars who reconstructed what Christians knew about extra-biblical Jewish traditions, when they came to know it, and how they encountered the information in question. This section of the chapter concludes with the (seemingly tautological) observation that Church's physical assault on the Talmud could only occur once a standardized text of that name was in widespread circulation.
The final part of Chapter 5 suggests that certain Jewish cultural phenomena of the Middle Ages may be construed as ones that evolved in reaction to developments that were part of the textualization process. The explosion of customary literature in Ashkenaz, and that subculture's heightened sensitivity to custom, are explained not only with reference to the non-written legal culture that prevailed in northern Europe over the course of centuries, but as a reaction to an unprecedented development in the history of Jewish law. After all, earlier generations of Jews had not regarded talmudic teachings, on their own, as prescriptive; a received legal teaching (halakhah) could only be seen as a mandate if a master attested to having seen it implemented in practice (le-ma'aseh). However, once the—unalloyed—talmudic text came to be construed as a prescriptive source of law, the latter requirement was overlooked, and halakhah on its own, without the vetting of any living witness, rose to a position of legal preeminence. Under these novel circumstances, the authority that had always been ascribed to communal practice asserted itself in the (new) genre of customary literature. Jews who lamented the distortion of juridical equilibrium insisted that the authoritative status of communal practice not be dwarfed by the Talmud's new role in adjudication.
Chapter 6 suggests that Rhineland Pietism, its practices, claims, and attitudes, and even the poorly understood circumstances of its appearance and disappearance, assume greater historical clarity when viewed in relation to the textualization process. Researchers have described certain Pietist practices as revivals of those that prevailed in Ashkenazi Jewish culture prior to the First Crusade, but this chapter suggests that the practices in question had never actually died out. Though the Pietists fashioned themselves as representatives of the past, by championing and emphasizing certain cultural practices that were being eclipsed, like the tosafists, they were asserting their own particular vision of the past. This chapter frames certain features of Pietism as perpetuations of longstanding practices and attitudes that were now under attack, some as acts of protest, and some as acts intended to accommodate northern European Jewry's new cultural standards. In an age in which a textual witness became the hallmark of cultural authority, Rhineland Pietists, consciously or unconsciously, engaged in acts of literary bricolage that simultaneously bear witness to their extraordinary erudition and to their inventiveness. The resulting fabrications supplied the evidence of a "textual past" that helped Pietists to legitimate and defend some of their contested practices.
After recapitulating examples of this phenomenon that were analyzed in earlier scholarship, Chapter 6 reconstructs the way in which medieval Pietists created a hallowed literary pedigree for their extreme penitential practices. The penances in question were analogues of contemporaneous Christian practices that developed in the medieval Rhineland under the influence of Irish monasticism, but by engaging in historical ventriloquism, Rhineland Pietists endowed them with inscribed ancestral legitimation The chapter also hypothesizes that the many passages about book manufacture, its tools and its agents in Sefer Hasidim, a Pietist compilation of exempla, were designed to repair a cultural logic disturbed by textualization. After all, the Talmud was a corpus of oral matters, yet Jews of medieval northern Europe encountered it as an inscribed text. This alteration in the material status of the Talmud blurred the longstanding taxonomic distinction between oral and written matters. The miscellany of Pietist-generated rules governing the treatment of "books" had the effect of redrawing existing taxonomic boundaries and of bringing the talmudic text into the category of a sacred artifact—a category that had previously included only the Torah scroll itself. The reclassification of the Talmud as a sacred work had bearing on the way in which that text's content might be read.
The widespread inscription of liturgy, and its standardization in a particular textual form in the twelfth century, posed a comparable problem for Pietists. Not only were blessings traditionally classified as oral matters, but reliance on a written book might reduce the worshiper's experience of prayer to that of a mechanical undertaking. Chapter 6's analysis of a peculiar Pietist prayer praxis described in Sefer Hasidim reveals that some Jews of medieval northern Europe found ways of ensuring that worship would never become a rote activity. Examination of this strange practice within its diachronic and synchronic contexts facilitates reconstruction of its mechanics—and exploration of Pietist prayer commentaries promotes speculation about the cultural meaning ascribed to this practice by its practitioners. Exploration of another compositional novum pioneered by the Rhineland Pietists, Masorah commentary, suggests that it too was a response to textualization and was intended to prevent yet another recently inscribed corpus of oral matters, the Masorah itself, a body of tradition stipulating precisely how a Torah scroll is to be written, from losing its living, oral quality. As in the case of prayer commentary, the Pietists' commentary on Masorah transformed the now-inscribed data into a venue for oral, recollective meditation.
The chapter concludes by explaining Rhineland Pietism's disappearance after a mere three generations with reference to the larger historical narrative of textualization. Once all the relevant corpora of oral matters—Pietist exempla, prayer praxes, Masorah commentary, and esoteric theological teachings—had been committed to writing, the Rhineland Pietists obviated their very raison d'être: they wrote themselves out of existence. Moreover, certain eccentricities of Pietist behavior were "culturally domesticated" once they were included in normative rabbinic compositions. Though Rhineland Pietism died out as a movement, many of its characteristic practices and attitudes, indigenous to the region's Jewish culture, were simply resorbed into mainstream Ashkenazi culture.