Julia Watts Belser. Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity: Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
In 2014 the governor of California declared a state of emergency due to drought and claimed, “We can’t make it rain” (Martineau 2014). In the Deuteronomic and rabbinic traditions, however, God makes it rain as part of a relationship with the land and the people of Israel. Drought is not a natural disaster but a moral crisis, an explicit sign of a broken relationship with God. Julia Watts Belser, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University, presents how tractate Taʿanit in the Babylonian Talmud (hereafter BT) both inherits this Deuteronomic understanding and challenges the seemingly straightforward notion that “piety and virtue can assure good fortune in this world” (p. 5).
Belser’s introduction provides her methodology including the literary approach “ecocriticism,” which incorporates the realia of the physical environment into literary analysis. Belser also advances the concept “aggadic dialectic,” which “allows the Bavli to voice unsettled questions about its own religious assertions and articulate a self-critical ethical and theological voice” (p. 16). With BT as her predominant source, Belser analyzes how the sages “grapple with questions of disaster, merit, and meaning—challenging the ethical and theological implications of received traditions that linked sin more conclusively with suffering, that connected virtue more securely with reward” (pp. 20-21). Belser includes an introduction to rabbinic Judaism and its classical texts for scholars of other disciplines, which is a welcome addition.
In Chapter 1 Belser shows how BT inherits Deuteronomy 11’s covenantal understanding of rain as representative of divine communication. Rain and drought then have moral meanings: rain becomes a sign of spiritual prosperity, while drought signifies crisis. To ascribe this meaning, BT “scripturalizes” the natural world, using scripture to uncover the significance of natural signs.
In Chapter 2 Belser shows how BT complicates the meaning of rain and drought. By reinterpreting blessings as curses and vice versa, BT emphasizes the ambiguity of natural signs to destabilize the observer’s gaze. In doing so, BT is self-critical, claiming that status and power do not correlate to interpretive ability. Even Shimon ben Elazar is unable to recognize the disconnect between the external appearance of the ugly man and divine favor. Likewise, Belser shows how a successful fast does not necessarily correlate to divine favor; rather it may indicate the opposite, again highlighting the instability of the observer’s gaze.
Chapter 3 continues Belser’s discussion of the instability of the observer’s gaze. Through the motif of falling walls, BT demonstrates that merit does not guarantee safety from disaster. The instability of the observer’s gaze is also shown in the bodily suffering of Naḥum of Gamzo, whose external body is not indicative of his personal merit. Here Belser introduces the concept of performative perception, whereby interpretation has the power to shape events and to transform disaster like a falling wall into good fortune. According to Belser, BT uses performative perception to provide self-critique and to show that interpretation can elucidate that which is hidden. Through the concept of performative perception Belser illuminates the texts, providing a nuanced and careful reading of BT.
In Chapter 4 Belser discusses charismatic holy men through the lens of the Greek concept parrhesia, “a form of frank speech and social criticism…for the purposes of common good, in a way that ignored the ordinary expectations of hierarchy and deference” (p. 119). BT’s portrayal of the taʿanit tsibbur (public fast) heightens shame and inverts social hierarchy to improve the efficacy of the fast. Furthermore, the tale of Naqdimon ben Gurion as a provider of rain shows that parrhesia alone cannot bring about divine action. Rather, it must be paired with humility and an affirmation of God’s loyalty and power to achieve a certain intimacy before God. Later sages in BT, such as Rava, are unable to achieve this intimacy because of their ethical failures. Belser rightly sees this juxtaposition of the success of earlier sages and the failure of later sages as critical of later rabbinic authority.
Belser elaborates the discussion of self-critique of rabbinic authority in BT through the tale of Ḥoni the Circle-Maker in Chapter 5. BT further “rabbinizes” Ḥoni, using his tale to “grapple with the limits and ethics of charismatic power” (p. 150). Ḥoni’s intimacy with God becomes part of the powerful past, the likes of which later sages cannot reach. BT expresses concern for human power and the possible danger of confusing God with the rainmaker. Therefore, those who can provide rain should strategically conceal themselves in order to minimize their own influence and affirm the rain giving power of God.
In Chapter 6 Belser integrates rabbinic understandings of gender as necessary components of BT’s critique of rabbinic status. BT uses aggadic dialectic “to suggest that individual merit, virtue, and holiness do not correlate with the external marks of social status or public acclaim” (p. 186). As seen in previous chapters, hiddenness is a component of ideal charismatic action, as well as of critiquing rabbinic authority. Women and non-rabbinic men become hidden ethical heroes in BT and, at times, are considered superior to the sages themselves.
Belser provides a succinct conclusion by summarizing her book’s major points. Belser asserts that the final redactors of BT problematize the Deuteronomic theology that drought necessarily means divine disfavor. By destabilizing the observer’s gaze, BT provides a means to counter outsider perceptions of the relationship between the Jews and their God. The aggadic dialectic present in BT turns a critical eye on the Babylonian rabbinic community itself and its obsession with status and power.
Belser’s volume is an excellent read. Its prose is fluid and Belser provides the narratives and context in an accessible manner. Her readings of specific narratives, especially that of Naqdimon ben Gurion, are apt and at times one wonders how the texts can be read in any other way. Furthermore, Belser follows more recent trends in rabbinic scholarship by incorporating cross-Mediterranean examples throughout the volume and in doing so, locates the methods of BT in its wider ancient context. Overall, though Belser shows that BT prefers hiddenness, Belser’s merit is clear to see.
Martineau, Pamela. “Governor Officially Declares Drought, Urges Statewide Conservation” Association of California Water Agencies (January 17, 2014): Cited 27 September 2016. Online http://www.acwa.com/news/water-shortages/governor-officially-declares-drought-urges-statewide-conservation.
Catherine E. Bonesho is a PhD Candidate in Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.