Talmud Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture

Article excerpt

by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 435 pp. $49.95.

Rubenstein offers a close "literary" reading of six stories from the Babylonian Talmud: "Torah, Shame, and `The Oven of Akhnai' (Bava Metsia 591-59b)"; "Elisha ben Avuya: Torah and the Sinful Sage (Hagiga 15a-15b)"; "Torah and the Mundane Life: The Education of R. Shimon bar Yohai (Shabbat 33b-34a)"; "Rabbinic Authority and Destruction of Jerusalem (Gittin 55b-56b)"; "Torah, Lineage, and the Academic Hierarchy (Horayot 13b-14a)"; and "Torah, Gentiles, and Eschatology (Avoda Zara 2a-3b)."

After studying the literary traits of these stories and their editors' compositional techniques, Rubenstein concludes that the Talmud has been extensively and carefully edited. He argues that the Stammim, an anonymous group of sages who lived after the Amoraim, edited and redacted the individual stories and placed them into their present contexts, a theory most recently clearly expressed by Halivni.

Rubenstein has produced a fascinating volume. He has offered new literary and contextual analyses of some well-known talmudic passages, and he has read them in creative and informative ways. Anyone who reads this book will find important new insights into these six stories. Rubenstein often traces phrases and images throughout the Babli in order to explain why they are appropriate to the sugyot he is studying, and their connotative significance in these stories. Most of the time these parallels greatly enhance our understanding of the cited passage. Rubenstein's most interesting comments center on the various themes and values that the stories express. It is here that he often offers fresh insights into the talmudic sugyot. The author has taken well-worked material and found many new things to say about it. While his interpretations are not always convincing, they are almost always plausible and interesting.

These strengths of the book are balanced by certain weaknesses. While one always benefits from new and original interpretations of talmudic passages, Rubenstein's literary conclusions leave us wondering for whom this volume was written. The book is too technical for the amateur in rabbinic literature, but it is hard to imagine exactly for which scholars Rubenstein wrote it. I doubt that many scholars of rabbinic texts would argue today that the talmudic stories are not well-edited literary creations, built from prior sources and designed to teach the values their editors held. Few would challenge the idea that many of the talmudic stories have been placed in their current contexts with a great deal of care. Few would doubt that the stories in the gemara are crafted along the same lines as the legal passages, and that they often share common literary and rhetorical characteristics, many of which originated in the biblical rhetoric and literary style, as Rubenstein himself acknowledges. …