Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud after the Humanities

Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud after the Humanities

Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud after the Humanities

Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud after the Humanities


In Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals, Mira Beth Wasserman undertakes a close reading of Avoda Zara, arguably the Talmud's most scandalous tractate, to uncover the hidden architecture of this classic work of Jewish religious thought. She proposes a new way of reading the Talmud that brings it into conversation with the humanities, including animal studies, the new materialisms, and other areas of critical theory that have been reshaping the understanding of what it is to be a human being.

Even as it comments on the the rabbinic laws that govern relations between Jews and non-Jews, Avoda Zara is also an attempt to reflect on what all people share in common, and on how humans fit into a larger universe of animals and things. As is typical of the Talmud in general, it proceeds by incorporating a vast and confusing array of apparently digressive materials, but Wasserman demonstrates that there is a whole greater than the sum of the parts, a sustained effort to explore human identity and difference.

In centuries past, Avoda Zara has been a flashpoint in Jewish-Christian relations. It was partly due to its content that the Talmud was subject to burning and censorship by Christian authorities. Wasserman develops a twenty-first-century reading of the tractate that aims to reposition it as part of a broader quest to understand what connects human beings to each other and to the world around them.


But of this frame, the bearing and the ties,
The strong connections, nice dependencies,
Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
Look’d thro? Or can a part contain the whole?

— Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”

Strange bedfellows

According to legend, a precious stone was once lost from the sacred vestments of the high priest, and a contingent of sages set out from the Jerusalem Temple to find a replacement. They traveled all the way to the coastal city of Ashkelon, where a non-Jew named Dama ben Netina was known to possess just the type of gem they were seeking. Intent to secure the stone, the sages offered Dama an exorbitant sum—600,000 dinar, or some say 800,000. Dama demurred. He explained that his elderly father was sleeping, and the key to the jewel box was under his pillow. the sages would not be put off. They proposed a higher sum, and then an even higher one. Still, Dama refused to disturb his father. the sages departed empty-handed. It was not long, however, until they had reason to return. the following year, a red heifer was born into Dama’s herd. This was a rare and momentous event—only the sacrifice of a red heifer could release Israel from impurity, and sometimes generations passed without such a birth. Dama knew there was no limit to the price his precious new calf could fetch, and yet he told the sages of Jerusalem, “I ask only for the sum that I lost for the sake of my father.”

The story of Dama ben Netina is one of many accounts of interactions between Jews and non-Jews that appear within the pages of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate ʿAvoda Zara, the work that is the focus of this book. the legend offers a sympathetic, even admiring depiction of a non-Jew, and in this it is exceptional—much of the material . . .

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