Religion 41 Syllabus

Submitted by Diane L. Dix on Tuesday, 9/9/2008, at 8:19 AM

Religion 41
Reading the Rabbis
Amherst College
Fall 2008

Professor Susan Niditch    Chapin 114
Office Hours: Th 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m., and by appointment    Phone 542-2270 (office)
    549-6074 (home)

Books to Buy:  available at the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop

Barry Holtz        Back to the Sources
David Kraemer        The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism
Moses Mielziner    Introduction to the Talmud
Jacob Neusner        There We Sat Down
H. Shanks, ed.,     Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism
Hermann Strack    Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible

Also:  A set of readings available in the Religion Department Office.

General Plan

Weeks 1-6:  Readings in the midrashic collections:  We will learn what midrash is and explore methods of dealing with this literature that interprets the Bible; discussion of methodologies from fields such as anthropology, folklore, and more traditional Rabbinic scholarship.  Most important, what do the Rabbis reveal about their view of humanity, God, and the ways of the world through their reformulations of biblical texts?

Week 7:  Introduction to the Mishnah, the major second century codification of legal material; discussion of its relationship to biblical law; Mishnah as a key indicator of Rabbinic worldview and culture.

Week 8-13: Readings in the Talmud (the Mishnah plus its commentary, the Gemara), the most complex expression of Rabbinic thought with which we will deal.  The Talmud provides the exegesis of laws of the Mishnah, but along the way presents folktales, proverbs, exempla, philosophical dialogues, prayers, and many other genres of literature.


1. Four formal papers on suggested topics, details to be provided along the way; occasional additional writing assignments for in-class work.    Religion 41:  Reading the Rabbis

Sept. 2:    Introduction to the course and sample readings.

Sept. 4, 9:

1.    For a historical overview of the period of Judaism from which all our sources come this semester, read articles by Cohen and Gafni (chs. 6 and 7) in H. Shanks, ed. Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism (buy or reserve).  Levine’s article (ch. 4) helps to set the stage.
2.    For an introduction to the literary genre "midrash" read B. Holtz, ed., Back to the Sources, "Midrash," 177-211 (buy or reserve).
3.    Genesis 1-3 in the Hebrew Bible (esp. 2:4-3:21).
4.    Genesis Rabbah XIV-XX (in xeroxed packet available in Religion Dept. Office, Chapin Hall (M-F 8:00-3:45 except during the lunch hour, 12:30-1:30).  Employ "Study Guide" to assist in your reading.

Sept. 11, 16:

1.    Exodus 12:1.  Take stock of this verse in Exodus.  It is a simple introductory phrase, is it not?  Check out the context, then go on to the Rabbinic reading for this week.
2.    Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (ed. J.Z. Lauterbach), Pisha, Chapter 1 (Vol. 1, pp. 1-15) (xeroxed anthology).

Sept. 18, 23:

1.    Exodus 22:20-23.  In class we will discuss the nature of the law code to which these verses belong and then quickly move to your assignment in Mekilta.
2.    Mekilta, Nezikin, Chapter 18 (Lauterbach, Vol. 3, pp. 137-146, xeroxed anthology).  Employ your “Study Guide” at the end of the syllabus and apply your first two weeks' work in the course to analyzing this chapter of Mekilta.  Ask more traditional "Rabbinic-scholar" questions of yourself as well as the anthropological and literary-critical ones.
3.    You may be interested in the following which deal with proselytism:

            B.J. Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (reserve).
            E.E. Urbach, The Sages, pp. 541-554 (reserve).
                George Foote Moore, Judaism, Vol. 1, pp. 323-353 (reserve)
        Scot McKnight, A Light Among the Gentiles.  Jewish
            Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (reserve).

Sept. 25:  No Class

Sept. 26:  Paper Due

    A five page paper analyzing Mekilta, Bahodesh, Chapter 4, p. 224 (Lauterbach, Vol. 2, xeroxed anthology).  Be sure to use your study sheet.  Show me what you have learned.  What are the Rabbis' motivations for explaining this particular verse in this way, their messages, their methods?  What is the form of the passage, its structure, content, and themes?  How might such a re-use and extension of a biblical text reflect and affect world-views of Jews in the classical period?  We will discuss our findings in class.

Sept. 30:  No Class, Rosh Hashana

Oct. 2:

1.    Lev 19:9-10.  Be prepared to explain the significance of this law for understanding aspects of economic ethics in Israelite priestly tradition.
2.    Sifra Parashat Qedoshim 1 and 2 (pp. 144-156 in edition by Neusner and Brooks in your xeroxed packet). 
    In what directions do the Rabbis of Sifra take Lev 19:19?

Oct. 7:

1.    Read the war code in Deuteronomy 20.
2.    Sifre.  A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy.  Piska 190 through end, 204 (pp. 211-220, xeroxed packet).

    What sort of ethic of war does the Rabbinic text present?  How does it differ from the biblical code?  What is its implicit attitude toward non-Jews and how do these rules of warfare define what constitutes the group.  In class we will discuss just wars, crusades, and attempt to define this commentary's political and martial ideology.

Oct. 9:  No Class, Yom Kippur

Oct. 11-14:  Mid-Semester Break

Oct. 16:  Folklore and Rabbinic Literature

            The Oral World and the Written Word

1.    Read John Miles Foley, Immanent Art, chs. 1 and 2 (reserve).  What characteristics typical of orally composed works are found also in traditional-style works composed or preserved in writing?

2.    Look back over some of the Rabbinic texts assigned during the semester thus far and at materials included for next week.  Are qualities of the oral represented in these written texts?  Be prepared to discuss.

            Rabbinic Tales

3.    H. Schwartzbaum, "Talmudic-Midrashic Affinities of Some Aesopic Fables," in H. Fischel, ed., Essays in Graeco-Roman and Related Talmudic Literature, pp. 425-442 (reserve).
4.    A. Dundes, "Structural Typology in North American Indian Folktales," in A. Dundes, Study of Folklore, pp. 206-215 (reserve).
5.    S. Niditch, Folklore and The Hebrew Bible, pp. 3-31 (reserve).
6.    Go to the library and explore S. Thompson, Motif-Index in the reference room; S. Thompson, The Types of the Folktale (reference room); D. Noy, Motif-Index of Rabbinic Literature (reference room).
    You are now a folklorist, used to looking at the structure and style of traditional narratives and at comparative folk literature as do some of the other scholars discussed above.
7.    Genesis Rabbah 19:10, 64:10, and 83:5 (xeroxed packet).
    Treat these fables as folklore. Check type and motif indices to set them in their context in world literature and Rabbinic folk literature.  Next, however, place each passage back in its midrashic context.  How do the Rabbis use the fable?  How does the midrashic use of this folk genre alter it?  Can you explain why Rabbinic versions of folk genres are often less complicated and so on?  Do folklore methodologies help you better to understand certain aspects of midrash in general?  certain specific midrashim?

Oct. 21:  Paper Due.  Note: In class we will share our findings.

    Use Dov Noy's Index to find a midrashic tale you like.  Then explore the tale in and out of context using the tools of the folklorist.  Let our class discussion be your model.

Oct. 21, 23:  Mishnah

    1.    Reread S. Cohen, "Judaism to the Mishnah," pp. 195-223 in H. Shanks, ed., Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.
    2.    Be aware of Strack, Introduction, pp. 108-148 (new edition), pp 29-64 (old edition).  (Keep in mind for reference purposes.)
    3.    M. Mielziner, Introduction, pp. 3-8.
    4.    J. Neusner, "The Mishnah as Literature."  Pp. 109-150 in Formative Judaism (Brown Judaic Studies) 37 (available in xeroxed packet).
    5.    Mishnah (Danby, ed.):  Berachot (available in xeroxed packet).

    Try to get a sense of what is going on in the codification process.  Do you detect principles of organization in M. Berachot?  Use EJ for help with details.  Remember your lists of Rabbi identifications in Strack and Mielziner.  Do you agree with Neusner that the Mishnah did not come about through the stream-lining and codifying of halakik midrashim (i.e. of interpretations of biblical law) but that it was more free-standing and a collection apart from or even complementary to biblical law?  How are biblical quotations used in the Mishnaic passages you have read?  Does Mishnah include any non-legal (non-halakik) elements?  What world-view and what kind of society does M. Berachot reflect?

Oct. 25:  Reading Talmud:  Background and Introduction

1.    Re-read Gafni's article, pp. 225-265 in H. Shanks, ed., Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism (reserve or buy).
2.    Read Jacob Neusner, There We Sat Down (reserve or buy).
3.    Read Robert Goldenberg, "Talmud" in Barry Holtz, Back to the Sources, 129-158 (reserve or buy).

Oct. 28, 30, Nov. 4:  The Talmudic "Dream-Book"

1.    Jacob Neusner, "The Babylonian Talmud as a Document of Religion and Literature," pp. 147-172 in Formative Judaism, Brown Judaic Studies 46 (available in xeroxed packet).
2.    Read b. Berachot, 54a-57b (xeroxed packet).
3.    Read Richard Kalmin, Sages, Stories, Authors, and Editors in Rabbinic Babylonia, ch. 3, pp. 61-85 (xeroxed packet).

    This is your first large portion of Talmud.  Use all of the methods introduced to you in the first half of the semester to dig into this interesting sequence of passages:  First, ask how the Rabbis expand the simpler text from the Mishnah.  Outline the structure of 54a-57b and follow "Aids."  Think of Gemara as midrash on Mishnah.  Try to apply techniques suggested in Part B of "Aids" to this portion of the Talmud:  isolate literary forms; use folklore methodology where applicable and seek appropriate comparative literature; think in terms of Rabbinic "mythology" and world view.  In the next few classes  I will introduce you to tools of study employed by Bible scholars.  While preparing at home think of the following questions:

    1. Are there clear differences of opinion in the "dream book" in b. Ber 55b-57b?  Can you find different "schools" of belief among the Rabbis mentioned?

    2. How do you think this passage (55b-57b) developed?  Can you detect any pieces which seem self-standing apart from the discussion before and after them?  Can you detect any pieces which do not fit well together?  Your exegetical work above with literary forms might help you here.  Are some of the Rabbis mentioned earlier in date than others (see Strack, Mileziner)?

    The "redactional" chore I'm proposing is a difficult one, but it is fun to try.  The Talmud did not spring up suddenly full grown, but developed as traditions develop.  The passages often present themselves as if they were tape recordings of one discussion among a group of Rabbis.  Much of what is now contained in the Talmud is based on such discussions but a literary process has also taken place, a process of editing, expanding, compiling, deleting, elaborating and so on.  Can we trace the evolution of any individual passage?  A related question which one should begin to address is:  How was all of this material preserved?  Do oral composition and/or oral preservation play a role in lending form to the passages as we now have them?  Kalmin’s study is one attempt to explore the evolution of the passage.  Do you find his work convincing?

Nov. 6:  Paper Due

    Read the story of Hillel's rise (b. Pesahim 66a-b, xeroxed anthology) and attempt a 1000 word redactional analysis of the passage.  Can you detect earlier and later portions of the passage?  Can you see hints of any process of development?  Is there an original core which was expanded?  We will discuss our work in class.

Nov. 6:  The Roots of Jewish Mysticism

        Read and be prepared to discuss relevant portions of b. Hag 12a-16a (xeroxed packet)

Nov. 11:  Another sort of holiness

1.    Geza Vermes, "Hanina ben Dosa" in Post-Biblical Jewish Studies, 178-214 (xeroxed packet).  Pay special attention to the passages cited by Vermes.
2.    b. Ta‛anit, pp. 270-272, 334-350 in JPS translation (xeroxed packet).
3.    Jack N. Lightstone, "Magicians, Holy Men, and Rabbis," pp. 133-148 in Approaches to Ancient Judaism, Vol. 5, ed. Wm. S. Green (xeroxed packet).

    What constitutes "holiness" in the cases of Hanina and Honi?  What models of piety do stories about them provide?  Do these models contrast with that of the scholar-sage? 

Nov. 13, 18: The Meaning of Death

1.     David Kraemer, The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism.
2.    b. Shabbat 20a; 152a-153b; b Berachot 17b-19b (xeroxed anthology).

Nov. 22-30: Thanksgiving Break

Nov. 20, Dec. 2, 4:  The Rabbis and Gender

1.    M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (reserve).
2.    J. Neusner, "The Case of Mishnah's Division of Women," in Method and Meaning, 79-100; "The Case of Mishnah's System of Purities," Method and Meaning, 101-131 (reserve).
3.    m. Niddah (xeroxed packet).

    Do Douglas' theories provide you with key information about Rabbinic notions of order vs. chaos, about the role of women, about the Jew's relationship to God?  Does m. Niddah reveal a specific "symbol system"?  How has Jacob Neusner approached the subject of purities?

    In class Professor Niditch will provide you with additional relevant primary material from the Rabbinic corpus.  For class, you should have read m. Niddah with great care.  It is difficult material.  Work through it slowly.

Dec. 9: Final Summation

Dec. 10:  Paper Due:  A selection of topics will be made available or you may select a topic with help from Professor Niditch.

    How to Exegete a Midrashic Passage:  A Study Guide

A. The Text Itself

  1.    Before looking at any secondary literature, ask yourself:  What is the structure of this passage?  How does point A lead to point B and so on?  Make an outline.  What important themes and concerns emerge in this first overview of the passage?

  2.    What are the specific Rabbinic exegetical techniques used by the Rabbis to explain, expand, and elaborate upon the original biblical texts?  Work on your own, inductively at first.  Then compare your results with M. Mielziner, Introduction, 117-187.  Mielziner provides you with a complete outline of Rabbinic methods of exegesis.  Can you find in his outline, the names and explanations of the methods which you have seen put to use in the passage with which you are working?

    How have these methods changed the original biblical passage?  What do these changes reveal about the concerns, world-views, etc. of the Rabbis?  Do certain differing or even contradictory world-views emerge?

  3.    Possible historical identification of details:

    Keep in hand and become acquainted with Judah Goldin's concise history of the Rabbinic period (in your packet of xeroxed materials) and the essays by Cohen and Gafni in Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.  Their extended essays provide a general introduction to the historical periods and places that serve as the background for our difficult-to-date sources.

    Are any of the Rabbis mentioned by name?  If so, find out who these people are by looking them up in Mielziner, Introduction, the index and pp. 22-55 and/or Strack, Introduction, index, pp. 415-422 (new edition), pp. 357-361 (old edition), and pp. 56-100 (new edition) and pp. 105-134 (old edition).  If you can identify some of the people mentioned, jot down their dates and some information about them.

    Are any other names mentioned?  any places?  any historical occurrences (e.g. the destruction of the temple?)  These you may look up in Encyclopaedia Judaica (available in library reference area and in Yegian Collection in Chapin Lounge Library).

    Often historical handles are difficult to find, so do not be overly concerned.  When a text says Rabbi X spoke to Emperor Y, for example, it is extremely unlikely such an event ever took place.

    Such scenes are "true," however, on another level as pieces in a Rabbinic symbol system.  They reflect ways in which the Rabbis cope with reality and understand their world, a world which belongs to a particular time and setting.  Such scenes do provide historical insight in this sense.

B. Comparative Approach and Modern Theory

  1.    Have you seen motifs found in the passage anywhere else in Rabbinic literature?  The same interpretation elsewhere?  or story?  For help use E.E. Urbach, The Sages (on reserve).  As time goes on you will acquire your own comparative lists.  Often I will assign you two or three passages which do employ some of the same motifs.  Do such comparisons help you to understand this passage more deeply?  Can the same motif be put to very different uses? 

  2.    Can you identify recurring frameworks in the very language used by the Rabbis?  Such repetitions in framing language may help you to describe the literary forms in which the Rabbis' interpretations appear and to understand the underpinnings of the intellectual process in which they engage.  Does this passage reflect a certain traditional mode of expression?  How is this mode expression related to a certain mode of thought?

  3.    Can any of the small bits of content in the passage, i.e. those which you can isolate and describe outside the context of the passage, be compared to motifs of folk literature?  (e.g. a fire-eating dragon; a witch; a pot containing gold.)  For help see S. Thompson, Motif-Index (reference room of library).

    Such comparisons allow you to place Rabbinic literature in the context of world literature and to see the fund of folklore which the Rabbis could draw upon for their own special thematic purposes.  What are these purposes?  How does a Rabbinic use of one of these motifs differ from a more general folk use?  Is there any difference?  Does every culture use such motifs with its own special nuance and sociological signification?

  4.    Can you find larger pieces of tradition in the passage which fit specific genres of literature:  Folktales?  proverbs?  jokes?  prayers?  songs?  Do the Rabbis have some favorite genres peculiar to them?  See if you find any recurring patterns of content as the term proceeds.

  5.    Do any of the methods of the fields of a) Bible; b) Anthropology; c) Literary Criticism; d) Early and Oral Literature, which will be presented to you along the way, help you to understand the passage, its language, structure, content, theme, method of composition, etc.?

6.    Most important, week by week, are you acquiring a sense of Rabbinic attitudes to various issues in religious, political, and gender ethics, a visions of the Rabbis' views of humanity, the world, and the divine?  In what ways do they define the self and the other, the community and the non-Jewish world, the human and God?  What relationships do they perceive between earth and heaven, male and female, parents and children?  Are there competing Rabbinic attitudes and visions in regards to many of these aspects of religion, culture, and society?