Not infrequently, I remark on my envy of colleagues studying charity in late antique Christian sources. Methodologically the grass is not necessarily all that green on the other side of the fence, but from the perspective of a rabbinicist, figures such as John Chrysostom or Basil of Caesarea are identifiable and locatable in time and place. But whose point(s) of view do the myriad discrete traditions and relatively few extended sequences of charity material in the collectively-authored and anonymously-edited late antique rabbinic compilations represent? Can these perspectives be woven into a coherent overall narrative about rabbinic charity in the land of Israel, Babylonia, or in any particular century? Or, can such a narrative be constructed for some aspects of rabbinic charity and not others? In this short essay I’ll reflect on these questions by way of three of my own articles: “The Formerly-Wealthy Poor: from Empathy to Ambivalence in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity” (AJSR 33:1 : 101-133) (“FWP”), “Redemptive Almsgiving and the Rabbis of Late Antiquity” (JSQ 18:2 : 144-184) (“RA”), and “Wealth and Rabbinic Self-Fashioning in Late Antiquity” (in L. Greenspoon, editor, Wealth and Poverty in Jewish Tradition, West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2015 [53-81]) (“WRSF”).
FWP was the first fruits of my methodological puzzling. I had assembled a large archive of rabbinic charity traditions with which I was pondering what to do. Faced with a mass of material that required organization and with scholarly discussions of the rabbinic “formerly-wealthy” poor that were neither comprehensive nor sufficiently informed by the philological-historical toolkit of contemporary academic Talmud, I set out to do just those things. As a result, I was able to discern a previously undetected pattern in the representations of these poor, a posture of tannaitic empathy followed later by a posture of amoraic ambivalence in both rabbinic centers.
Further reflections on writing FWP left me skeptical about the possibility of success in writing a comprehensive, “definitive” study of rabbinic charity. Given the literary nature of the rabbinic compilations, any broad scholarly conclusion drawn about a discrete topic in rabbinic charity that does not take into account all the texts pertaining to that topic studied in their literary contexts with attention to source-, form-, and redaction-critical issues is bound to be wrong to some extent. Comprehensive and rigorous analyses of discrete charity topics, I came to believe, would yield better-founded conclusions than broad surveys of material lacking such topical focus and analytic rigor. Which brings me (in part) to my second publication, RA.
I had been aware of the presence of redemptive almsgiving in rabbinic compilations, but as I examined past and present scholarly assessments of the rabbinic material, I saw a need for greater nuance. But even the initial step of gathering material proved complex. First, given the ubiquity in rabbinic literature of the theological idea that mitzvah performance entails reward, I had to take care to select texts about a “redemptive” reward for charity. (Christian sources were indispensable guides in this endeavor.)
Second, ideas do not necessarily come compartmentalized into neat little text packets in the rabbinic compilations. Slivers of rabbinic theological ideas about charity can appear in unexpected places; an idea like redemptive almsgiving may make a cameo appearance in a text that is largely about something else. For example, both M. Shekalim 5:6 and T. Shekalim 2:16 famously state that “fearers of sin” (yir’ei heit) would discreetly put funds into the “hall of secrets” (lishkat hasha’im), from which the “poor of good family” would discreetly take. These sources seem primarily to be about anonymous giving and receiving, as well as about the role of the Temple (or at least the domain of the sacred) in the charitable transaction. What may not seize our attention as readily is the unquestioned assumption that the pious donors’ anonymous deposit of funds into the hall of secrets will alleviate their burden of (unidentified) sin. Among other things, then, these two tannaitic pericopes may also be redemptive almsgiving texts.
Third, given that the rabbinic compilations themselves do not systematically collect redemptive almsgiving traditions, I was concerned that in doing so I might be creating (in Yaakov Elman’s words) a “system” of theology that never existed. (See RA, p. 147n.13). Fourth (and apropos), I became increasingly aware that there just aren’t that many rabbinic redemptive almsgiving traditions (although I have identified more since RA’s publication). This increased the likelihood that I might be exaggerating the importance of the idea to the rabbis.
These latter two methodological concerns are not unique to redemptive almsgiving. What does it mean that an(y) idea is found yet barely attested in rabbinic compilations? Does the fact that the redactors of a compilation include the scarcely attested theological notion mean that they believe in it and wish the audience of the compilation to do so as well? Or does this scant attestation simply mean that the redactors dutifully anthologized a particular theological idea of which they were aware, without more? Does the fact that one or two amoraim of a given generation teach the idea mean that other amoraim of that generation also accept it? Moving beyond rabbinic circles, is it meaningful (and if so, how) if the barely attested theological notion is also found in contemporaneous Christian writings? A parade example of the latter is Proverbs 19:17 (He who is generous to the poor makes a loan to the Lord), which is very important in Christian sources but barely attested in rabbinic compilations. Should we conclude that the notion was just as important to the rabbis despite its scant attestation in their literature?
Apropos, I have become increasingly convinced that despite persistent cries of “parallelomania!,” rabbinicists may profit from seeking out and cataloguing any and all apparent similarities between late antique rabbinic and Christian ideas about charity. Such apparent similarities may or may not turn out to be meaningful, but scholars cannot know that until these are collected and studied (see, e.g., RA, p. 156n.61). Christian (and for that matter early Islamic) sources may help us identify slivers and traces of theological and other ideas about charity in rabbinic compilations that we might otherwise overlook. (I think about overlapping discourses a bit in a forthcoming essay entitled “The People, Not the Peoples: the Talmud Bavli’s ‘Charitable’ Contribution to the Jewish-Christian Conversation in Mesopotamia” (Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 2016)).
WRSF is located at the crossroads of arguments about using rabbinic literature for social historical reconstruction and scholarly awareness of the intertextuality and thick “literariness” of those compilations, especially the Bavli. Viewing “wealth” not as a social fact, but as a text (meaning, as something to be interpreted), I ask not “which rabbis were wealthy and in what did their wealth consist?” but rather, “what is ‘wealth’ and how is it deployed in rabbinic self-fashioning in Palestinian amoraic compilations and in the Bavli?” For example, the Bavli famously portrays a number of amoraim as having risen to wealth. While hardly anyone today accepts these representations at face value anyway, there is good reason not to: those traditions were demonstrably formed from a thick intertextual web stretching back to the Yerushalmi, the midrash-compilations, and the Tosefta.
WRSF’s broader methodological lesson is that scholars working in rabbinic charity studies must take rabbinic intertextuality and the creation of texts out of other texts very seriously. And as we do so, we will relearn the lesson that social historical conclusions are difficult to draw from these literatures (especially the Bavli), although we can learn much about the history of ideas, of mentalité. Interestingly, to date there has been relatively little systematic study of wealth, poverty, and charity in the Bavli, which I suspect may be due in part to the well-known source- and redaction-critical complexities of that literature and the consequent difficulty of determining what conclusions to draw from it.
One example: B. BB 10a-b favors the establishment of a communal charity fund supervised by a reputable rabbi, into which anonymous donations are made and from which the rabbi makes distributions. Donating to that sort of fund is even identified as being redemptive. In that sugya R. Hiyya bar Abba quotes R. Yohanan (both Palestinians), but no Babylonian amora is quoted, and there is a heavy stam (editorial) presence. Moreover, this communal fund is strikingly reminiscent of Mishnah and Tosefta Shekalim’s “hall of secrets,” with the hypothetical supervising rabbi’s taking the Temple’s place. What are we to conclude? Did such communal funds really exist in amoraic Babylonia, or is this an ideal crafted by the stam on the basis of Mishnah and Tosefta Shekalim? Or did the amoraim or stam deliberately use the tannaitic precedent as the basis on which to fashion a communal institution? (Do we even have enough data to talk about an “institution”?) Rav Ashi, among others, is portrayed as a charity collector (B. BB 9a). Did he understand his work in light of what we see on B. BB 10a-b, including the idea that donating anonymously is redemptive, or was the latter idea unknown (or unacceptable) to him? Yet we must also temper our skepticism: amoraim of both rabbinic centers are portrayed as involved in charitable collection and distribution, and the eventual “rabbinization” of the Jewish people may have resulted in part from such contact, by means of which otherwise resistant non-rabbis may have been rendered more receptive to rabbinic Torah. But drawing social-historical conclusions about exactly how and why communal charity was done—especially from the Babylonian Talmud—is a tricky endeavor, particularly so when we take its “literariness” seriously.
In sum, the scholar of rabbinic charity requires ongoing methodological self-awareness. Care in gathering and systematizing texts, focused and detailed analyses of discrete topics, use of source-, form-, and redaction-criticism (especially of the Bavli), attention to intertextuality and the literary nature of rabbinic texts, and drawing meaningful and restrained conclusions, are all desiderata. The reward for these methodological pains will be a better and richer understanding of this fascinating topic.
Dr. Alyssa Gray is the Emily S. and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman Chair in Rabbinics and Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature at HUC-JIR in New York.