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Sacrificing Diachrony: Were the Rabbis Ritual Reformers?

Tue, December 18, 12:45 to 2:15pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Beacon Hill 1 Complex

Abstract

Between the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the redaction of rabbinic texts in the early third century, there were many ways in which the practice of Judaism shifted, at least as practiced by certain elite groups. One question that emerges in this context is whether theoretical attitudes towards some of these newly-desuetudinous practices changed along with the disuse itself. Probably the most central locus for this question is the category of sacrifice. Although organized public sacrifice almost certainly ceased with the destruction of the Temple, it is a frequent topic within rabbinic literature, comprising approximately a quarter of the corpus, both early and late.
While sacrificial matters have largely been neglected by the scholarly fields of rabbinics and late antique Jewish history, sufficient material exists to trace certain trends, at least in broad strokes. Specifically, two schools of thought have emerged, which notably present two diachronic approaches that move in opposite directions. One school, represented by the work of Guy Stroumsa, Moshe Halbertal, and others, sees the “end of sacrifice” originating with the rabbis, as they conceptually sought to move away from technical sacrificial ritual and embrace interactive modes of piety such as prayer and moral action as replacements, if not improvements. The other approach, taken by Mira Balberg’s recent book on sacrifice, emphasizes the focus on technical detail in rabbinic depictions of sacrifice, seeing it as a departure from a more interactive biblical mode of sacrifice.
This paper first charts and considers these two dichotomous diachronic approaches within the secondary literature and then endeavors an alternative path forward. It will raise the question whether there is sufficient evidence to argue for a diachronic shift in the theoretical attitude to sacrifice in the early centuries CE. Were the rabbis, in fact, ritual reformers?

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