Catherine Hezser. Rabbinic Body Language: Non-Verbal Communication in Palestinian Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017.
There is something counterintuitive in a study of body language and non-verbal communication in Palestinian rabbinic literature. For one thing, non-verbal communication is instinctively associated with living, visible, bodies. Such a study, therefore, may appear relevant to ethnographers who immerse themselves in fieldwork but not to scholars whose primary sources are silent and unmoving texts. Moreover, assuming an inquiry of literary portrayals of non-verbal communication is possible, rabbinic discourse may be problematic due to the fact that the voices of the rabbinic documents are generally perceived as coming out of, literally, talking heads. At first glance, then, the data seems resistant to a meaningful analysis of rabbinic body language.
Counterintuitive studies, however, can be quite rewarding, especially when they demonstrate the benefits and applicability of their novel approach. Catherine Hezser’s new monograph, Rabbinic Body Language: Non-Verbal Communication in Palestinian Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity, succeeds in doing both. First, the book’s overarching argument, that “body language constitutes an important part of the literary self-fashioning of ancient rabbis” (244), is convincing and well supported. Additionally, Hezser provides her readers with a practical model for analyzing non-verbal communication in rabbinic literature.
Hezser lays out her methodological approach in the book’s Introduction. To begin with, non-verbal communication, for Hezser, means any technique by which actors can convey meaning without the use of verbal language. This includes not only messages that are enveloped in hand motions or facial expressions but also, for example, ways of self-presentation through body postures and choice of outfit. Furthermore, Hezser works under the assumption – which may be obvious but is crucial nonetheless – that it is impossible to extrapolate “the actual body language of rabbis in real life” from rabbinic literature (19). Still, she argues, references to non-verbal communication which exist in rabbinic texts “must have been meaningful to [their] tradents, editors, and their audiences” (ibid.) and can, therefore, inform us on “aspects of rabbinic culture and society” (21). Consequently, Hezser maintains that every word (that refers to non-verbal communication) counts. For instance, she analyzes the cumulative significance of formulaic phrases that describe Rabbis sitting together (e.g., ‘X sat before Y;’ pp. 87-93).
So far for the collection of the data. As for the decoding of “meaningful” references to body language, the book’s primary method is comparative. Hezser situates rabbinic non-verbal communication within the larger cultural milieu in which the Palestinian rabbinic documents were produced. Hezser investigates “whether and in what regards rabbis fashioned themselves as similar to and, at the same time, different from Hellenistic, Roman, and Christian intellectuals” (20). Here, Hezser’s impressive command of non-rabbinic primary sources – and Roman/Byzantine history more broadly – comes to the fore. Throughout the book, she exhibits how the consideration of the broader cultural context of the Rabbis, in concert with rigorous analyses of patterns and tropes within the rabbinic corpus, yields a better comprehension of the dynamics and significances of rabbinic body language.
Hezser applies her method to the study of non-verbal communication in the realm of “social interaction of rabbis” among themselves or with non-rabbinic Jews and non-Jews (20). This theme is explored in four thematic chapters. The first chapter, “Appearance and Demeanor,” discusses depictions of Rabbis walking, their clothing and wearable ritual objects (e.g., Tefillin), and styles and color of their beard and hair (or the lack thereof). Hezser explores how such representations of external appearance are used for conveying the Rabbis’ self-perception of their role and status within their society. The second chapter, “Posture and Spatial Behavior,” examines proxemics in rabbinic literature, that is, portrayals of how “respective individuals place their bodies in relation to each other” (69). The chapter seeks to decode how rabbinic texts express assumptions (or aspirations) concerning social status and hierarchies when describing who stands or sits in the presence of whom, who sets out to greet whom, and the spatial configuration of two or more Rabbis who travel together. The third chapter, “Gestures,” analyzes descriptions of prostrations (when encountering Roman dignitaries or eminent Rabbis), kissing, hand motions, head nods, and spitting. Here, more than in the previous chapters, Hezser emphasizes the ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings that such gestures can carry in rabbinic discourse (e.g., how the object of a kiss impacts the kiss’ meaning; pp. 159-68). The fourth chapter, “Facial Expressions,” analyzes texts on figures whose face is “shining,” anecdotes on changes of facial color, instances of weeping, and accounts of laughter. The chapter shows how rabbinic texts employ facial expressions for “communicating emotions,” conveying “interpersonal attitudes,” and commenting on “particular situations” (204) in a manner of showing, rather than telling (see, e.g., the charged narrative in y. Ketubot 12:3, 35a, discussed on pp. 211-14).
Structurally, as Hezser notes, the organization of Rabbinic Body Language corresponds, by way of analogy, with the shape of the human body; the chapters “move from the most external to the most internal and intimate movements and from the full body to its limbs and small parts” (21). A similar body analogy is useful for appreciating Hezser’s study. On the cellular level, as it were, Hezser’s book is exceptionally rich. The most basic functional units of the book are its numerous examples, from rabbinic and non-Jewish writings, and the accompanying (mostly) short analyses. Hezser has clearly combed through tannaitic texts, amoraic Midrashim, both Talmudim, Christian writings, rhetorical handbooks, and more, to produce a comprehensive and detailed account of the features and roles of non-verbal communication in rabbinic literature. The organs of the book are the chapter subtopics, in which Hezser explores patterns and themes that emerge from the multiple examples she marshals. She tentatively proposes, to give one example, that the “very term ‘R.X. was sitting and expounding’ might imply that the expounding rabbi had a biblical scroll in front of him” (105). The organs make up systems, the four central chapters of the book, which at times appear to be divided arbitrarily (e.g., the section “Walking and Talking” in chapter 1 is closely related to the discussion of sitting and “Rabbinic Study Sessions” in chapter 2), but at the same time allow for a smooth reading experience, which is an achievement of the work that should not be downplayed.
Overall, Rabbinic Body Language’s thematic focus is social interactions between Palestinian Rabbis or between them and non-Rabbis. Hezser contends, first, that the Rabbis “adopted elements of Graeco-Roman body language by, at the same time, exhibiting culture-specific distinctions” (252). And second, that the Rabbis “wanted to be seen by others… [as figures who] elicit respect and veneration from their students, lay people, and even Romans, to all of whom they considered themselves superior on the basis of their Torah scholarship” (255). Details aside, the four core chapters of the monograph all reach these conclusions regarding rabbinic self-perception and cultural negotiation.
Hezser nods her head in potential larger implications of her work and future directions to pursue. She discusses, for instance, a narrative that shows that amoraic “storytellers were aware of the differences in interpreting body language that existed between Roman Palestine and Babylonia and used them to provide insights into power relationships among rabbis” (71). Hezser would agree, I think, that what she describes as inner-rabbinic “cultural misunderstandings” cannot be exhaustively studied through the lens of body language alone. On the other hand, as her book cogently shows, this and other topics cannot be effectively analyzed without thinking of non-verbal communication.
Perhaps Hezser was able only to gesture towards less familiar terrains of rabbinic culture because of her decision to make non-verbal communication the aim of the study, rather than evidence in a larger social historical or anthropological argument. Hezser treats body language exclusively and comprehensively, studying the phenomenon from head to toes and demonstrating its wide scope in classical rabbinic literature. In this regard, Rabbinic Body Language makes a clear contribution to the field since it attests to the applicability and necessity of its methodological approach. Therefore, although scholars have examined body language in rabbinic literature previously, Hezser’s book serves as a model for future studies. At the same time, further considerations of rabbinic body language might benefit from a more thematically focused orientation. Still, I can only echo Hezser’s hope, that “other scholars will take up this line of investigation” and pay greater attention to rabbinic body language (23).
Erez DeGolan is a Ph.D. Student in Ancient Judaism at Columbia University.