On a nice day in Mesopotamia, sometime in the late third century C.E., two rabbis were taking a trip together when something happened that threatened to destroy their collegial relationship. This is the story that the Babylonian Talmud tells:
Levi son of Rav Huna bar Hiyya and Rabbah bar Rav Huna were traveling on the road. The donkey of Levi went ahead of the donkey of Rabbah bar Rav Huna. Rabbah bar Rav Huna became distraught.
He (Levi) said [to himself], “Let me say to him something to restore his composure.”
He (Levi) said to him (Rabbah), “A donkey whose behavior is bad such as this one, what is the law regarding his going out with a bridle on the Sabbath?”
He (Rabbah) said to him (Levi), “Thus said your father in the name of Shmuel: The law is like Hananyah.” (Shabbat 51b-52a)
Sensitivity to slight is well-known among the Babylonian rabbis and forms the basis for this story. One rabbi, Levi, offends his colleague, Rabbah, when his donkey pulls ahead of the other’s. Levi tries to correct the offense by posing a legal question to Rabbah. The mere fact of posing a question is a display of subordination, since with the question Levi is recognizing Rabbah’s knowledge and authority. But the substance of Levi’s question is also significant, since it presumes that the donkey, not the rabbi riding him, is responsible for cutting in front. In describing his donkey as ill-behaved, Levi is telegraphing to Rabbah that the insult was his donkey’s fault, not his.
Does Levi’s strategy succeed in “restoring the composure” of Rabbah? We might look to Rabbah’s response. Rabbah cites Hananyah, who elsewhere is reported to permit animals to wear disciplinary devices like the bridle on the Sabbath. Rabbah cites Hananyah through a string of tradents: Shmuel, who in turn quotes Levi’s own father. The reason Levi posed the question, Rabbah archly implies, is not to get an answer, which Levi would have already known from the teachings of his father, but to wriggle out of the social consequences of the incident.
An even greater ambiguity lies at the heart of the story than whether Rabbah was mollified, and that is whether Levi’s donkey really was “bad” to begin with. The language Levi uses for his donkey’s bad behavior is asaqav ra’im, literally, “his affairs are wicked.” It is a phrase one would use today for a shady car dealer or corrupt politician. The phrase is curiously hyperbolic and invites the reader to wonder whether it is Levi, rather than his donkey, who is wicked. One can imagine Levi growing tired of playing second fiddle to the other rabbi, and out on the open road Levi threw caution to the wind and broke the rules of the rabbinic hierarchy. (A reader of rabbinic stories will know that much of interest happens out on the open road.)
This story presents parallels and intersections between the discipline of the rabbinic study house and the discipline of human/animal relationships. The story is about reversals of power and the reimposition of order. The hierarchy among species mimics the hierarchy among rabbis, both of which are disrupted within the mini-drama of the story. In the story’s unstable resolution, the restoration of the hierarchy between rabbis depends on the restoration of the hierarchy between people and animals. Critical to Levi’s question to Rabbah is the notion of the unruly animal who requires discipline. Without that, Levi is just one rabbi who has insulted another. Levi’s unruly animal is a convenient fiction designed to protect the rabbinic hierarchy and Levi’s own place within it. We never find out if the donkey’s unruliness is an outright lie because that is beside the point. We are drawn to see that whether the unruliness of the animal is true or false, it is useful.
This story exposes the unruly animal as a rabbinic fiction. The story reveals that the discourse of animal discipline is just that, a discourse, created to address human needs and purposes. The presumption found elsewhere in talmudic law that everyday disciplinary devices like the bridle, bit, nose ring, or halter are no “burden” on the Sabbath, and that they are as necessary and as normal as shoes and socks or one’s body itself, is belied by the story. The story denaturalizes animal discipline and operates as a meta-discourse, a discourse about discourse. Even animal agency itself becomes a fiction, a fiction within a fiction, manipulated by the characters within the microphysics of power.
This story about two rabbis and their donkeys opens a number of lines of inquiry for late antiquity. What were the everyday interactions of human beings with animals and how did those interactions shape both human and animal lives? What mediating roles did animals play in human politics? What were the mechanisms by which people tried to control animals and how did they justify those mechanisms? Finally, and in my view most intriguingly, how were late ancients onto themselves when it came to animals? In other words, what insights did late ancient people have into the problems and paradoxes of their relationship to other species?
My recent work looks at animal subjectivities as they percolate up in the pages of the Talmud, at the anthropocentrism that often occludes or suppresses those subjectivities and, ultimately, at the Rabbis’ self-awareness regarding that anthropocentrism. Animals are not unstudied within rabbinic literature. Excellent books on animal sacrifice and consumption – Mira Balberg on sacrifice, and Jordan Rosenblum on dietary laws – have recently appeared. Mira Wasserman’s Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals draws upon critical animal studies to consider the role of animals in tractate Avodah Zarah. Aaron Gross’s Question of the Animal and Religion reads a dialectic between “ascendancy” and “kindness” in a variety of classical rabbinic texts, framed by the abuse scandals at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughter company.
My work seeks out talmudic texts in which animals are agents and actors and in which there is explicit reflection on animal agency. Aside from the Sabbath ritual law featured in the story above, I have found torts law to be especially fertile grounds for inquiry, since in torts law animals walk around breaking things, eating plants, injuring people, injuring each other, injuring themselves, and generally acting like the fully animate creatures that they are. I intend my work to contribute to efforts within critical animal studies to challenge Cartesian humanist assumptions, to identify anthropocentrism as an active ideological investment rather than as a given, and to build a posthumanities that does not take human exceptionalism as its starting point.
Critical animal studies, in turn, has much to offer the study of late antiquity. Consider as an analogy the contribution of women’s studies, gender theory, and queer theory to the study of antiquity. With the advent of women’s studies, scholars of antiquity began to retell history with women participants and from women’s perspectives. Within gender studies, antiquity scholars explore how ancient texts and artifacts produced gender norms, making men and women. Queer theory looks at the subversion of gender and sexual norms and the intersectionality of those norms with other sorts of convention and suppression. These scholarly approaches are far from done paying off.
A similar progression has been set into motion with the study of animals. Historical accounts of antiquity are coming to include other species within them. A critical animal studies perspective reads ancient texts and artifacts with an eye towards their construction of species difference, asking about the making of “the human” and “the animal.” This perspective takes ancient people to be engaged in problems of humanity and animality and asks how the ancient human/animal binary intersects with other binaries such as male/female, free/slave, Jewish/Christian, Roman/barbarian, rabbi/non-rabbi, etc. It looks at queer spaces where the human/animal binary either breaks down or is altogether absent. Instead of taking for granted that some donkeys are bad and need to be harnessed, and that donkeys are vehicles in the first place, an animal critical lens reads the story of Rabbah and Levi as performing cultural work.
Colleen Glenney Boggs writes that “animals are animals in American literature and … we have not adequately accounted for them as such … accounting for them as such will change how we read that literature.” So too will accounting for animals change how we read Talmud and, beyond that, the literatures of late antiquity. For Boggs, accounting for animals means deconstructing the biopolitics of modernity. Ancient texts like the Talmud allow us to take biopolitics back to their formative years, to reveal how animals came to occupy the margins of personhood and how their only partially suppressed subjectivities formed the backdrop for the emergence of the human self as we know it.
Dr. Beth Berkowitz is the Ingeborg Rennert Chair of Jewish Studies at Barnard College. Her most recent publication is Animals and Animality in the Babylonian Talmud. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
 A parallel is found on PT Shabbat 5:4 (7c): “An ox whose behavior is bad may go out with his bridle. And our rabbis in the exile practiced thus.” The allusion to diaspora practice may have inspired the story in the Babylonian Talmud.
 Animals and Animality in the Babylonian Talmud, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.
 Colleen Glenney Boggs, Animalia Americana: Animal Representations and Biopolitical Subjectivity (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), 29.