Connecting the dots

Connecting the dots

Association for Jewish Studies convention offers food for thought

Fragments of the Pesher Habakkuk, among the original Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947.
Fragments of the Pesher Habakkuk, among the original Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947.

If your idea of a good time is hearing someone explain at length the connections between the treasures of King Tut’s tomb and the biblical ark of the covenant, you should have been in Boston last week for the annual convention of the Association of Jewish Studies.

I was there. And yes, I had a blast.

The conversation about the ark and the pharaoh came late Sunday night, at a reception following a long day of presentations. The enthusiastic explainer was Raanan Eichler, who is doing postdoctoral research at Harvard. For professionals in the field of Jewish studies, the conference is a chance to network, to interview for jobs, and to present research. For me as an interested amateur, it was a chance to hear interesting talks about Judaism. And it also was a chance to check in with a couple of our area’s scholars of Jewish studies.

First, an important caveat. The AJS conference is the sort of convention where 17 panels can be scheduled simultaneously. Each panel generally featured three papers. So in my one day at the three-day conference, I totally ignored scores of papers. In fact, I ignored whole subfields of Jewish studies. Apologies if you’re a fan of the past thousand years of Jewish history, let alone 20th century Jewish literature, film, and sociology.

As it happened, the sessions of New Jersey scholars aligned pretty closely to my interests, leading me to discussions of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud. (Had I stuck around until Monday, I would have happily listened to Dr. Eitan Fishbane speak on “A Typology of Character in Zoharic Narrative.” )

Dr. Jonathan Milgram of Teaneck chaired one of the first sessions, “The Rabbis in Early Roman Palestine.” As he explained at breakfast, the responsibility of being chair means leading the session, fielding questions from the audience, and generally keeping things under control.

“You’d be surprised,” he said, “sometimes things get heated.”

Dr. Milgram is assistant professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He showed me a flyer for his forthcoming book, “From Mesopotamia to the Mishnah: Tannaitic Inheritance Law in Its Legal and Social Contexts.” It is being published by Mohr Siebeck, a 200 year old German academic press with a strong line in rabbinic studies and a willingness to price books as more expensive than a deluxe boxed set of a classic rock album. (Budget-minded Mishnah fans can relax: Dr. Milgram plans to donate a copy to the Teaneck library.)

A key difference between academic Jewish studies — a field barely 200 years old — and traditional yeshiva studies is that academics look not just at what the texts (the Torah, the Talmud, the midrashim) say but asks: How did those texts fit into the broader picture of the Jewish community of that era? How much do they represent the reality of their era, as opposed to what the authors wanted to be true? How does other historical evidence mesh with those texts? And when were those texts written anyway?

The central problem in these lines of inquiry is there isn’t all that much other evidence. Like paleontologists deducing a species of dinosaur from the shape of a fossilized jawbone, academic Jewish scholars are trying to recreate a world from bits and pieces (and sometimes, in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, actual scraps of parchment). If you visualize pre-modern Jewish history as a timeline, then you might put 1500 B.C.E. on the far left — that’s about when the Bible dates the Exodus — and the invention of printing around 1500 C.E. on the right. For most of this period, scholars have occasional points of evidence, but there are huge gaps. Some of the points on the timeline are the traditional Jewish texts: biblical books, Mishna, Talmud, medieval responsa. Other points are archaeological evidence: ancient inscriptions, buildings, utensils, animal bones. (The latter show, among other things, whether the inhabitants of a certain place at a certain time did or did not eat pork.) Then there is the evidence of books and texts that didn’t become part of the Jewish tradition. Some of those were written but not preserved by Jews — this includes books kept as part of Christian editions of the Bible; writers like the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who didn’t write in Hebrew, and those texts that happened to be preserved alongside Biblical scrolls in the dry caves of Qumran at the shores of the Dead Sea. And finally, there are those books written by non-Jews that give insight into Jewish histories, whether they are Christian church fathers describing their debates with Jews or Babylonian books from the time of the Talmudic sages.

Faced with three or four dots that more or less line up, the temptation is to connect them into a pretty picture. For a professor seeking renown and career advancement, that’s pretty mandatory. The danger, though, is that someone will discover a dot that was overlooked — and that shows the pretty picture didn’t capture all the dots; a theory that overlooked the evidence. So there is a tension between the desire to innovate and the fear of sticking out your not-yet-tenured neck.

(Monday night, I was told later, featured just that sort of a conflict, when Dr. Robert Brody — a professor of Talmud at Hebrew University, one of the most cautious academic centers — ripped into the work of a younger generation of scholars that has been highlighting the connections between the Babylonian Talmud and its native Iranian milieu.)

Of course, as a journalist and spectator rather than a professional scholar, I don’t have to worry about my academic credentials. In thinking about the sessions I attended, I can take to heart the word of Peggy Noonan: “Is it irresponsible to speculate? It is irresponsible not to.”

All of which is to set the stage for the second paper at the first panel, which used a variety of pieces of evidence to offer an answer to a basic question facing students of Mishna and Talmud: Who are the “minim” — a term often translated as sectarians — and why are they called that? Minim appear not infrequently in the Mishnah, which records that a blessing was added to the Amidah opposing them. (The blessing was later transformed into the curse against the “slanderers,” in part because Christians understood minim to be a reference to early Christians.)

Debates between rabbis and minim are recorded. But who were they? And why are they called “minim,” which literally means varieties?

David Grossberg of Cornell University began his session, “Minim, Heretics, and Sectarians in Early Roman Palestine,” by saying that efforts to look at the characteristics of the minim from the Talmudic polemics and match them up with the characteristic of known groups of Jews in the Land of Israel in Roman times failed. “The full range in rabbinic texts does not match up to groups known from other sources,” he said.

Instead, he proposed a theory to explain how the term minim evolved over the centuries, meaning at various times the general notion of a group that sticks together; a specific group of Jews who held themselves apart in the first century; and finally coming to its larger sense of heretics.

This theory connected disparate dots on the timeline.

The first dot is the biblical usage of the term “min.” Actually, the Tanach doesn’t use the term min on its own. It is used as in the first chapter of Genesis, where trees give fruit l’mino — after its kind.

“There should be an intermediate form, where it means type or kind in a neutral sense,” without the disparaging meaning it has in the Mishna,” Dr. Grossberg said.

He believes he found such an intermediate form in some texts from the Second Temple period, dots on the timeline between the conclusion of the Tanach and the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. These texts are the Book of Jubilees and the Wisdom of Ben Sira — both books were preserved in translation by non-Jews, although some Hebrew fragments of both showed up in the Dead Sea Scrolls. These texts, he said, use the phrase “min l’mino,” — a species after its species — as a variation of the biblical usage to make the point: People of a kind join each other. “It’s like the expression birds of a feather flock together,” he said.

Shlomo Wadler, left, with Dr. Moshe Bernstein of Teaneck. Right, Dr. Jonathan Milgram.
Shlomo Wadler, left, with Dr. Moshe Bernstein of Teaneck. Right, Dr. Jonathan Milgram.

He speculated that once this phrase became widely used, the second half would drop off and the simple “min” would stand for the whole expression — just as “birds of a feather” does. A “min” then would come to mean simply a group that stuck together.

And from there, it might come to mean a specific group that was seen, pejoratively, as too cliquish.

“It’s difficult to be more than speculative as to the identity” of this group, Dr. Grossberg said. But it could be a group mentioned by Josephus, which he said was headed by Judas of the Galilee and incited Jews against their Roman rulers.

“If the minim originally referred to a revolutionary group, it would have come to its demise in the first century” with the crushing of the Jewish revolt, he said.

“By the third century, the time of the Mishna, the term would have shed its specificity and the pejorative could apply to other groups.

“If so, minim began neither as heretics nor outsiders, but as a contentious insider group like the Pharisees and Saducees.”

Over time, however, the term became a stand-in for various groups opposed by and to the rabbis — which is why its usage never lined up neatly with early Hebrew Christians, he said.

Where Dr. Grossberg’s paper was speculative, connecting multiple points and hypothesizing connections, the paper that followed was much less so. Given by Dr. Harry Fox, associate professor at the University of Toronto, it reflected the sort of old-school Talmud scholarship featured in the Israeli movie “Footnote.”

Basically, it was an argument for moving a midrashic text, Shir Hashirim Zuta, from one point on the timeline to another. More than a century ago, Solomon Schechter had dated it to the time of the Gaonim, in the early middle ages, after the completion of the Talmud. Dr. Fox, however, argued that it was from the time of Rabbi Akiva, centuries earlier.

“These kinds of questions, the historical and geographic provenance of specific works, the textual development of individual talmudic anthologies, is what Talmud scholarship focused on from the 19th to mid-20th centuries,” Dr. Milgram said. Perhaps the best example is Prof. Saul Lieberman’s monumental critical edition and commentary to the Tosefta, Tosefta kifshuta, a third century companion to the Mishnah. “Then, in the 1970s, a shift took place in terms of a desire to better identify the ideologies behind specific  works, the greater purpose behind them, with an eye for skepticism about their historicity.”

To a certain degree, this sea change was due to the influence of Dr. Jacob Neusner, “who was a formidable force in really casting doubt on the historicity of these sources and asked fundamental questions like, if someone is quoted in the Talmud, did he really say it? Or is someone just recording something they wanted him to say?”

Dr. Milgram believes the field of Talmud is “coming back to an in-between kind of mode, generally having rejected most of Neusner’s assumptions, where the younger generation, in the books they are writing, are trying to address some of the larger questions Neusner asked but through a more sophisticated textual analysis that actually, at times, harks back to the older classical academic methods in the field of Talmud.”

He pointed to Dr. Grossberg’s session as an example: The question of min “is an ideological question. He accomplished his analysis through rigorous textual and linguistic work.”

At the session on the Dead Sea Scrolls later that day, there was a similar mix of the philological and philologically-informed speculation. Dr. Moshe Bernstein of Teaneck, professor of Bible and Jewish history at Yeshiva University, presented the challenges of characterizing fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls that restated Biblical law. “It’s a virtual given that there are two types of documents: One is analogous to the Mishna, one analogous to the Bible,” he said.

But really it’s not so simple, he added.

In his paper, Dr. Bernstein examined about half a dozen short law texts — and had differing relationships to the original biblical texts they drew upon.

Some were Torah with only the most minute variations. Others, he said, seemed to merge different earlier restating of law.

His conclusion: “We have our work cut out for us. Each text must be examined individually for its relationship to scripture. It’s probably premature to draw conclusions.”

Left unasked were the big questions: What did the text’s authors think they were doing when they retold laws from Leviticus? What authority did they think their teaching had?

Another speaker at the panel looked at the question of the authority of a specific character who appears in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls: the Teacher of Righteousness. The presenter was Archibald T. Wright, the rare non-Jew in the field of Jewish studies. He teaches at the divinity school of Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia.

He focused on the “explicit or implicit claim” in the texts that “the spirit of the Lord speaks through the Teacher of Righteousness.

“Each of these forms of inspired interpretation links interpretation to texts already considered sacred while containing a new inspiration,” he said.

These interpretive texts are referred to by scholars as “Pesher” texts, because they use the Hebrew word “pesher” to link a Biblical verse to its interpretation. Shlomo Wadler, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, gave a paper connecting the term pesher in the biblical Book of Daniel to its usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“Both Daniel and the Teacher of Righteousness are portrayed as individuals to whom God has given the interpretation of revelation granted to someone else,” Mr. Wadler said. And that usage goes back, perhaps, to the story of Joseph in Genesis, where a similar word is used to describe Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.

So: Genesis is one dot. Daniel a later dot. The Dead Sea Scrolls still later. And if the pesher of the Dead Sea Scrolls were applying the idea of dream interpretation to biblical texts, did that connect somehow to midrashic interpretation of biblical texts a couple of centuries later?

This is speculation, of course. Even when all the scroll fragments are analyzed, all the data considered, all the points on the timeline considered, all we have are occasional windows into a past that was real, and continuous, and ours. I don’t have the patience to piece together the full puzzle, particularly knowing so many pieces are missing. I don’t have the patience to look at all the images of seraphim in Harvard’s museum, one of Mr. Eichler’s projects during his postdoc. But I appreciate their effort and the chance, at the AJS convention, to enjoy some of the fruits of their meticulous labors.

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