Ordinary Jews in the Babylonian Talmud: Rabbinic Representations and Historical Interpretation
Jonathan Aaron Pomeranz, Yale University, 2016.
This dissertation addresses two questions. What was the nature of the relationship between rabbis and ordinary Jews in Babylonia? And what can be discovered about ordinary Jews from the evidence of the Babylonian Talmud? The dissertation argues that rabbis in Babylonia developed closer relationships with ordinary Jews over the course of the rabbinic period. The Babylonian rabbis transformed themselves from a relatively isolated elite group into a group that was much more integrated with ordinary Jews. Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, Babylonian sages seem to have achieved this integration largely on their own terms. Their closer social contacts with ordinary Jews were accompanied by a rise in their authority and the respect with which ordinary Jews treated them.
Each chapter of the dissertation contributes to this argument and sheds light on some aspect of the relationship between rabbis and ordinary Jews. The first chapter addresses the use of the term am-ha’aretz in the Babylonian Talmud. It demonstrates that the Babylonian amoraim used this term primarily to refer to non-rabbis who were unlearned in rabbinic traditions. Contrary to the prevailing opinion in rabbinics scholarship, there is no evidence that Babylonian sages regarded ammei-ha’aretz as sub-human. Instead, they generally were apathetic toward the ammei-ha’aretz. Near the end of the rabbinic period some Babylonian sages adopted a welcoming and conciliatory attitude toward the ammei-ha’aretz. The traditions that describe the hatred of the ammei-ha’aretz reflect a minority Palestinian view that, aside from a few hints, has largely been eliminated from Palestinian rabbinic compilations.
Chapter two discusses the rabbis’ role as legal experts in two settings where they interacted with ordinary Jews: the public lecture (pirqa) and the rabbinic courtroom. The section on the public lecture discusses the Babylonian sages’ choice of topics to teach in the pirqa. It demonstrates that the rabbis taught little civil law to ordinary Jews and tended to reserve such legal knowledge for themselves in their capacity as judges and legal experts. Women, in particular, are often depicted in rabbinic narratives as lacking in their knowledge of civil law. The section on the courtroom discusses the Babylonian sages’ advantages over non-sages in the courtroom setting and the ways in which the tension between judging justly and a rabbinic ethos of reciprocity among sages came into conflict when sages and non-sages were opposing parties in court cases.
The third chapter analyzes the both narratives in which Babylonian sages appear in synagogues and the teachings of Babylonian sages about the synagogue to show that the rabbinic presence in the synagogue underwent a dramatic shift over the course of the rabbinic period. At the beginning of the amoraic period, the synagogue was a non-rabbinic space in which sages were found only occasionally. Some sages did attend the synagogue, but synagogue attendance was far from universal among members of the rabbinic movement. The sages had little authority in the synagogue at this time and Babylonian synagogues may have had the kind of figural images that we know were present in the synagogues in the land of Israel. Around the end of the fourth century, the rabbis established a greater presence in the synagogue, started to have authority over synagogue affairs, and began to see the synagogue as a place for the study of rabbinic teachings.
The fourth chapter argues that there are folk traditions – both folktales and proverbs – in the Babylonian Talmud. These traditions reached the rabbis from ordinary Jews and therefore can tell us something about how ordinary Jews saw the world. The rabbis’ use and transformation of folklore can tell us about how the rabbis related to the culture of ordinary Jews. One particular point of tension between rabbinic worldviews and folk worldviews that emerges in this chapter is that the Babylonian sages accepted that divine providence was at work in the world and would protect those who behaved righteously, while ordinary Jews doubted that this was true. This chapter presents criteria that can be used to determine that a story found in the Babylonian Talmud emerged from non-rabbinic circles. It also argues that later sages, Rava and Rav Papa in particular, used folk sayings frequently in rabbinic discussions and that this provides further evidence of the integration of the sages with ordinary Jews near the end of the rabbinic period.