Postcolonial Studies analyzes the identity of the subjugated other and has become increasingly popular in the study of ancient Judaism. Historically, Postcolonial Studies, or Postcolonialism, emerged in the wake of decolonization during the twentieth century. Scholars from a variety of disciplines ranging from anthropology to sociology to political science began challenging what was known about the people who had been colonized, in particular the perception of these populations as inferior, and instead, examined the lasting effects of colonial rule. As a group that lived under imperial domination, ancient Jews may have had many characteristics in common with those populations. When used cautiously, Postcolonial Studies can illuminate our understanding of how ancient Jews functioned in their imperial contexts. I will begin with a quick overview of the major Postcolonialist theorists and theories before detailing how their work has been useful for the study of Ancient Judaism, and in particular of the study of Palestinian rabbinic literature.
Edward Said’s Orientalism transformed the study of former colonial populations. Said argued that portrayals of the east or the “Orient” served as the way colonial powers justified their violent expansion. The colonial powers argued that those they dominated actually needed to be controlled (e.g. Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”). The colonial powers thus depicted the native, local populations in ways that justified their imperial program. This claim has significant implications for the study of Ancient Judaism, since it emphasizes the importance of the examination of subordinate groups from an internal perspective, rather than relying on the portrayals of external observers. However, these internal works must be brought into conversation with the depictions of these groups by their foreign rulers, showing how ancient Jewish identities are negotiated and constructed in the context of imperial rule.
One of the primary theories of Postcolonial Studies is “hybridization,” chiefly propagated by Homi Bhabha. This notion of hybridization suggests that cultures regarded as subordinate living under colonial rule will absorb aspects of the dominant culture both consciously and subconsciously. Bhabha argues that, on the one hand, this imitation, or what he calls “mimicking,” undermines the power dynamic by narrowing the gap between the dominant group and the subordinate, which challenges their justification for rule. On the other hand, by imitating the dominant class, the subordinate people are also in a sense mocking those very cultural markers that were meant to distinguish them in the first place. However, as Bhabha argues, being Anglicized is not the same as being English. Those who are ruled are never able to convince their rulers of their sameness no matter how much they may seek to emulate them.
Hybridity and mimicry were certainly important facets of ancient Jewish life under the Roman Empire. Even though the rabbis, for example, adopted Roman baths and certain Latin literary tropes, they were never actually Roman. The adoption of these material customs, in a sense, demonstrated even more profoundly how different they really were. Although they adopted bathhouses, they developed their own laws surrounding their usage. Another example from rabbinic literature is the tendency to adopt Roman terminology as a means of illuminating their own identity. In Mishnah Ketubot 7:6, the rabbis differentiate between Dat Moshe, or Mosaic Law, and Dat Yehudit, Jewish law, using the Roman term for the province rather than Yisraelit, the normal rabbinic term. The rabbis are able to bring to light their non-Romanness through the usage of Roman terminology to define themselves.
James Scott’s understanding of subordinate, or subaltern, populations and his theory of the hidden transcript has become increasingly important in the study of Ancient Judaism. Establishing a dichotomy between the rulers and the ruled, the hidden transcript is the conversations of the subordinate people that take place away from the eyes of their rulers. Its creators are aware of their status vis-à-vis their rulers, but they often contradict the public transcript (their conversations with and behaviors towards their rulers) in private conversations. These contradictions are manifested in fantasies of revenge or subtle digs at the dominant powers.
When the theories of the postcolonial scholars are applied to the study of rabbinic literature, a number of questions arise. Did the Palestinian rabbis resist the Romans, emulate them, or, to some extent, both? How did the ideological discourse of the Romans pervade rabbinic culture? Were the rabbis, with all of their language against the Romans, themselves conscious of their Romanness?
The role of Seth Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish Society and Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? has been crucial in developing answers to these questions of the rabbis’ place in their broader Roman context. His demonstration of the rabbis' marginal status in Roman provincial society made Roman imperialism and rabbinic authority important categories for researchers to consider. In Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? he demonstrates the pervasiveness of the ideals of the dominant culture among the rabbis, but also the rabbinization of these values, a striking model of hybridity.
Hayim Lapin adopts many aspects of Schwartz’s reading in his Rabbis as Romans; but rather than reading the rabbis as a group on the outskirts of Roman society, he sees them as Roman provincials. Lapin’s claim is problematic, however, in light of the conscious ideological resistance of the rabbis, a point astutely made by Ishay Rosen-Zvi in his Marginalia review of the book. One is reminded of Homi Bhabha's argument that to be Anglicized is definitively not to be English; as such, to be Romanized is definitely not to be Roman. While the rabbis may have acted as Romans, they certainly were not Romans and would not have called themselves such. Lapin dismisses the idea of examining rabbinic texts as “resistance literature,” arguing that such a claim is overly dichotomous, neglecting to sufficiently nuance his own claim that rabbis acted as Roman provincial leaders and not rebels, if only on an ideological level.
Beth Berkowitz is another scholar who notably employs Scott’s theory of the hidden transcript in her study of capital punishment in rabbinic literature. Examining Mishnah Sanhedrin chapter six and the beginning of chapter seven, she argues that rabbinic portrayals of rituals of execution offer a conversation between the rabbis and Rome. The rabbis used the death penalty to claim the authority that they lacked, utilizing Roman methods of capital punishment and reappropriating them to demonstrate the ultimate authority of the Torah. Thus, they consciously created an alternative to the Roman practices that they maligned while still outwardly accepting them.
The cautious application of postcolonial theories shows us the ways in which the Palestinian rabbis reacted to their dominant Roman culture. While the rabbis neutralized some aspects of Roman culture, such as baths, they reacted strongly to Roman domination in other respects. They understood Roman rule to be part of God’s larger eschatological scheme, as shown by narratives such as that of the founding of Rome, a narrative first seen in the Palestinian Talmud, in which the Biblical sins of Israel cause Rome’s ascension However, part of this larger periodization would include Rome’s downfall. The sages would be safe and receive their just rewards as long as they maintained their distinctive practices. Alexei Sivertsev’s Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity addresses this phenomenon in later rabbinic works from the 5th-8th centuries, arguing that Jews created counter narratives that utilized the dominant imperial culture to place themselves at the center and position themselves as the successors to power.
Postcolonial Studies can help us further develop and nuance our understanding of the role of ancient Jews in their imperial context. To read rabbinic literature is to read the writings of a group living under foreign domination, a group that was regarded as inferior by the elites of the dominant culture. Of course, Postcolonial Studies are not only useful for rabbinic literature. The theories and methods associated with this field have been profitably applied to Second Temple Apocalyptic by Anathea Portier-Young, and to non-classical Rabbinic texts by Alexei Sivertsev. The psychological impact of living under such total rule for such an extended period of time certainly had an impact on the way that ancient Jews conceived of themselves.
See also Alan Appelbaum, “The Parable of the Seated Augustus: At the Intersection of Imperial History, Rabbinic Midrash, and Roman Art” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 4 No. 2 (2011), 268-279; Ra’anan Boustan, “Immolating Emperors: Spectacles of Imperial Suffering and the Making of a Jewish Minority Culture in Late Antiquity” in Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches (2009), 207-238; Anathea Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2011).
Bernie Hodkin was a doctoral student in Ancient Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was the Dirk Smilde Scholar at the University of Groningen in the Spring of 2014. She currently works at Dow Jones as a Due Diligence Research Editor.