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‘What did the rabbis know?’ – exploring Jewish knowledge culture(s) in Late Antiquity

Mon, December 18, 8:15 to 10:00am, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Union Station Room
Tue, December 19, 12:00 to 1:45pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Union Station Room

Session Submission Type: Seminar


This seminar brings together scholars sharing an interest in an emerging subfield within rabbinic literature and culture, in line with developments in adjacent disciplines. A growing number of projects and publications attest to an increasing awareness of new approaches (historical anthropology, cultural studies, critical science studies, gender studies) in 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 and 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. This seminar on rabbinic knowledge culture(s) from a comparative perspective engages a broader approach that asks how manifestations of different forms of ancient knowing impacted on the period under discussion, and in turn were shaped by larger socio-historical, cultural and religious formations. The contributions will inquire 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), and ethnography (Redfield). Special attention will be paid (e.g., by Kalmin; Hayes; Neis; Watts Belser; Fonrobert) 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). Papers (esp. Fonrobert; Neis; Novick; Lehmhaus; Redfield) will address 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 shall help to increase the awareness for the topic within Jewish studies and beyond. Furthermore, the seminar will start a dialogue about methodological and theoretical issues at stake in such inquiries and it aims at fostering collaboration among the involved scholars and forging links between interested colleagues for future research on the topics at hand.

Panelists/ Discussants: Title and topics

Shaye J.D. Cohen (Harvard) - respondent/discussant and general interlocutor for the discussion

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 (Stanford) – 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) – "Rabbinic Knowledge and the Dissident Body: Taxonomies of Otherness in the Blessings on Bodily Difference"

Rabbinic literature instructs observant Jews to recite the blessing “meshane habriyot,” which praises God for creating diverse creatures: individuals marked by dark skin, disability, and other forms of stigmatized bodily difference. Drawing upon queer theory, critical race theory, and feminist disability studies, this paper probes rabbinic knowledge production with regard to bodily difference, arguing that rabbinic blessing practice constructs geographies and taxonomies of otherness, affirming natural diversity, even as it aims to shore up the boundaries of the normate human body. It illuminates the way these rabbinic texts link conceptions of biophysical difference with social deviance, using intertwined discourses of ethnic otherness, sexual perversity, and disability stigma. Ultimately, I argue that these texts reveal the performativity of deviance, the ways in which rabbinic practice constitutes both the normative self and the dissident other by regulating and ritualizing the act of assessing and blessing the strange.

Charlotte Fonrobert (Standford) – 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/ 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 related to healing, 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.

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