Springe direkt zu Inhalt

‘What did the rabbis know?’ – Exploring Jewish Knowledge Culture(s) in Late Antiquity

17.12.2017 - 19.12.2017

Seminar/Workshop in the context of the Annual Meeting of the Association of Jewish Studies (AJS), Washington D.C.

Organisator und Beitragender: Lennart Lehmhaus

Seminar Outline

This seminar brought together scholars sharing an interest in an emerging subfield within rabbinic literature, in line with developments in adjacent disciplines. A growing number of recent projects and publications attest to an increasing awareness of new approaches (historical anthropology, cultural studies, critical science studies, gender studies) to the study of ancient sciences. Moreover, the diverse nature of ancient knowledge, its socio-historical contexts and varied ways of knowledge transfer have come more into focus. Earlier studies typically assumed the idealized Graeco-Roman scientific thinking as the foil against which one retrieves parallels and influences, without paying attention to the plurality of cultural transfers and endemic developments in Late Antiquity.

The seminar on rabbinic knowledge culture(s) formed a comparative perspective and engaged a broader approach, asking how manifestations of different forms of ancient knowing had an impact on the period under discussion, and in turn were shaped by larger socio-historical, cultural and religious formations. The contributions inquired into different but interrelated fields of knowledge about nature and creatures (Watts Belser; Neis; Hayes), the body and medicine (Fonrobert, Lehmhaus), law, truth and philosophy (Hidary; Hayes), the senses and spatiality (Mandsager; Novick; Kalmin), and ethnography (Redfield). Special attention was paid (e.g., by Kalmin; Hayes; Neis; Watts Belser; Fonrobert, Hoffmann Libson) to modes, practices, and concepts of knowing and reasoning (e.g., embodied knowledge; empiricism and theory; exegetical approaches) as well as to their epistemic dimensions (e.g., conceptualization of 'scientific' knowledge in ancient cultures and its embeddeness within other knowledge complexes; the "Jewishness" of knowledge in rabbinic texts). The essays addressed rabbinic conceptions of knowledge transfer, acquisition or displacement with a focus on strategies of framing or representing expertise and experts in certain genres and discursive contexts (e.g., lists, de-/prescriptive narratives, Halakhic debates, compilational, encyclopaedic or epitomizing discourses).

The papers and discussions within this seminar will help to increase the awareness for the topic within Jewish studies and beyond. Furthermore, the seminar has started a dialogue about methodological and theoretical issues at stake in such inquiries and it aimed at fostering collaboration among the involved scholars and forging links between interested colleagues among the numerous attendees at our sessions for future research on the topics at hand.

Panelists, Titles and Topics

Richard Kalmin (The Jewish Theological Seminary, NYC) - Empirical Evidence versus Competing Sources of Knowledge in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity.

This study surveys the issue of the relative importance of empirical evidence vis-a-vis other sources of knowledge in classical rabbinic literature. Chronological and geographical distinctions between Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis are occasionally significant, and this study attempts to explain the significance of these distinctions.


Christine Hayes (Yale) - "Humor as epistemic barometer in rabbinic literature"

This paper argues that the incongruity between "halakhic truth" and "scientific" or "empirical truth" was a source of humor for the rabbis and that the presence of humor in a rabbinic source can therefore serve as a guide to passages rich in information about rabbinic attitudes towards empirically based knowledge.


John Mandsager (University of South Carolina) - "The Visual Field: Communicating Knowledge through the Arrangement of Rabbinic Space"

In this paper, I will show how early rabbinic literature relies on visual signs (measurements, fences, and physical actions, for example) to enact and emplace their interpretations of biblical law; moreover, the expectations about how rabbinic spaces might be seen and what knowledge of idealized rabbinic ritual lives might be gained through that sight reveal the intersections of sight and space in rabbinic arguments for normative Jewish life and practice.


James A. Redfield (Saint Louis University) – Embedding, Sublation, Ambivalence: Ethnographic Techniques in Early Rabbinic Law

This paper introduces three concepts for analyzing the dynamic between description and pre/proscription in early rabbinic law: embedding, sublation, and ambivalence. It argues that, together, these concepts help us to see the spectrum of different ways that early rabbis used ethnography in their legal canon. Each of these modes is briefly illustrated by comparing rabbinic and

modern ethnographic texts; while, en passant, suggesting how it can resolve cruxes in the rabbinic laws themselves.


Rachel Neis (University of Michigan) – Critical Science Studies, Feminist New Materialisms, and Rabbinic Reproductive Biology.

Through a reading of sources in Bekhorot, Kilayim, and Niddah, I will consider the premise, promise, and pitfalls of a rabbinic "biology," with insights from STS and feminist new materialisms. Going beyond a recovery project that seeks to identify "influences" of Greco-Roman science, I will also seek to undo narrow constraints of genre, and instead to center considerations of politics, theology, and gender that underline the rabbinic production of knowledge about animal and human reproductive bodies.


Richard Hidary (Yeshiva University, NYC) - Comparative Law: Witness Testimony in Greco-Roman, Qumranic and Rabbinic Sources

This paper compares the Damascus Document and Talmudic Literature regarding the two very different approaches they take to the biblical requirement of two or three witnesses for conviction. The two court procedures they envision reflect more fundamental differences between the Qumranites and the rabbis in their approaches to divine law and the possibility of human involvement in its interpretation. Both systems, however, can be understood best as reactions to the agonistic and sophistic nature of the Greco-Roman legal system.


Julia Watts Belser (Georgetown/ Katz Center, UPenn) – "Nature, Sex, and the Dissident Body: Contours of Deviance in Bavli Sanhedrin's Account of the Flood"

This paper examines the Bavli's account of the sins that doomed the generation of Noah, particularly the claim that the flood came about because of perverse intimacies between human and animal kinds, to show how rabbinic discourse "naturalizes" disparities of social power and imagines social hierarchy to be ordained by the very nature of creation.


Charlotte Fonrobert (Stanford) – The Gender of Rabbinic Knowledge Production

The rabbinic project of knowledge production and management is centrally concerned with areas of social life to which women's knowledge is not only relevant, but for which arguably it is source - care and management of the body, as well as of the sacred, maternal knowledge, to name but a few. This seminar paper revisits the epistemological strategies and dynamics by which women's knowledge is integrated into the rabbinic project, at the same time as it is displaced. A critical question will be hermeneutic problem of identifying rabbinic knowledge as 'women's' knowledge.


Tzvi Novick (Notre Dame) – Measurement and Expertise

My paper considers questions about expertise and knowledge that arise from the practice of measurement as described in classical rabbinic literature, especially from Roman Palestine. How does measurement implicate expertise? What sort of knowledge comes to the fore in this practice? How do rabbis construct their own expertise in relation to the practice and practitioners of measurement?


Lennart Lehmhaus (Harvard/ Katz Center, UPenn/ Freie Universität Berlin, SFB 980) – Encyclopaedic turns in Late Aniquity and Talmudic knowledge culture

In my paper, I will argue for understanding discursive forms and contents in the Talmudim – especially those connected to medicine and other technical knowledge – as a vital part of the formation and consolidation of rabbinic traditions as well as taking part in a broader cultural trend of ordering and making knowledge accessible in “encyclopaedic compendia” and compilational texts.


Ayelet Hoffmann Libson (Harvard University) - From Expert to Individual: Developments in Rabbinic Epistemology

This paper examines developments in the dynamics of rabbinic knowledge and expertise by tracing the kinds of information needed to determine ritual impurity. Tannaitic sources construct a highly complex corpus of knowledge that relies upon rabbinic experts to determine the law. Later amoraic sources, however, grant far more significance to the knowledge of individual lay people. Tracing these developments reveals considerable change in rabbinic attitudes towards the role of experts, rabbinic authority, and the status of the individual.

Discussant/ Respondent: Shaye J.D. Cohen (Harvard)

Chairs/ Moderators: Annette Y. Reed (UPenn/NYU); Moulie Vidas (Princeton)



Discussant/Organizer: Lennart Lehmhaus, lennart.lehmhaus@fu-berlin.de, SFB 980 "Episteme in Motion", Freie Universität Berlin (CJS Harvard/Katz Center, UPenn) Chair: Moulie Vidas, mvidas@princeton.edu, Princeton University Discussant: Charlotte Fonrobert, fonrober@stanford.edu, Stanford University Discussant: Richard Hidary, rhidary@yu.edu, Yeshiva University Discussant: John Mandsager, mandsager@gmail.com, University of South Carolina Discussant: James Redfield, redfieldja@slu.edu , Saint Louis University Discussant: Julia Watts Belser, jwb84@georgetown.edu, Georgetown University/ Katz Center Discussant: Rachel Neis, rneis@umich.edu, University of Michigan Discussant: Tzvi Novick, novick.3@nd.edu, University of Notre Dame Discussant: Richard Kalmin, rikalmin@jtsa.edu, The Jewish Theological Seminary Discussant: Shaye J. D. Cohen, scohen@fas.harvard.edu, Harvard University Discussant: Christine Hayes, christine.hayes@yale.edu, Yale University Chair: Annette Reed, reedanne@sa s.upenn.edu, University of Pennsylvania Discussant: Ayelet Hoffmann Libson, alibson@law.harvard.edu