The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity by Rachel Neis, Cambridge University Press: New York, 2013.
It seems fitting that a book about the sense of sight should be remarkably clear-eyed. So, too, is it fitting that its gaze should sweep the length and breadth of the ancient Mediterranean, the Middle East, and even land on the Indian subcontinent, and that its analysis be measured, thoughtful, and lucid. Perhaps even more impressively, its author, Rachel Neis, an associate professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, has managed to write a book about sight that relies not at all on gimmicky metaphors of seeing and vision (something that this author, however, seems to have failed at completely).
Neis’s book stands as a corrective to a long tradition that has assumed “a Jewish resistance to, or even incapacity for, vision” (p. 1). Not only did Jews see, she argues, but ways of seeing helped to shape rabbis, and even rabbinic culture. Rabbinic visuality is inextricably tied to the Temple and the Torah, and not only participates in the broader field of late antique visual culture, but was part and parcel of it. Seeing a rabbi was to see as a rabbi, and both meant to see and be seen as subjects of God, Rome, Persia, or (perhaps most immediately) one’s teachers: other rabbis. Importantly, Neis does not include visual evidence in her data set. She is interested in the history and experience of looking, and to assume that “vision” can be understood from only visual sources, and that visual culture itself tells us only about looking, is to vastly underestimate our categories and our evidence (p. 19). Neis’ source material is the canon of classical rabbinic literature, where the late ancient rabbis of Palestine and Persia spoke about not only what they saw, but how they saw.
This book also marks a subtle shift in the historiography of the rabbinic movement. By including a first chapter on late antique visual theory (pp. 18-40), Neis carves out space for the rabbis in the complex currents of a much larger and broader set of cultures. Other recent books have made similar moves; spending less time arguing that the rabbis should be seen as participants in a broader culture, and instead showing how they were. Neis maps a wide terrain in this chapter, introducing Greek, Latin, Persian, and even Sanskrit visual theories. The rabbis, like most other elite, literate groups, made wide use of varying theories depending on when and where they were. (Another of this book’s subtle contributions, it should be noted, is that Neis reminds us that rabbis in Sasanian Persia were on trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent, and therefore likely to have access to ideas in Sanskrit literature in some capacity.)
The rest of the chapters are organized thematically. Chapters two and three introduce the crucially important concepts of homovisuality and heterovisuality; gazing at an entity that gazes back at you in the same way, or that gazes back entirely differently. The discussion of homovisuality in chapter 2 focuses heavily on the re’iyah ritual of Mishnah Hagigah and its transformations in the Talmudim, and reveals how the Bavli uses this ritual to mourn the loss of God’s face from the world even as it suggests that the same divine glory might be transferred to the rabbinic sage. Chapter three culminates in an examination of rabbinic practice oriented to the loss of God’s face, and how such an absence, and the lack of gaze—or presence of a far-off gaze—still shaped ritual and subjectivity.
The fourth chapter, “Visual Eros,” delves most deeply into the complex gendering of sight and vision in rabbinic sources. Among other important narratives, this is the chapter where Neis unpacks the famous story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Laqish. The subtle interplay of gender, eroticism, vision, and Torah is laid bare. The rabbinic gaze is typically male, but its erotic force defies such simple categorization: it turns male rabbis into feminized objects of desire, and equates a woman’s beauty to the acquisition of Torah, but makes both into ideal masculine virtues.
“Eying Idols,” the fifth chapter, deals with the inverse of the gaze Neis has heretofore analyzed: the aversion of sight from idols. This aversion is understood as a type of imperial looking-back. If late antique Christians gazed at the Holy Land and its Jews as subjects, those very subjects looked back at them, forming themselves as visual subjects and objects in the process. The last chapter, “Seeing Sages,” brings the gaze closer to home again, but sends it out on a long pilgrimage. To see a sage was, in many instances, to see Torah itself: the sight of the body of a learned rabbi was enough to impart teaching. While a similar discourse amongst Christians led to a cult of icons, Neis spends some time thinking about why that did not happen with the rabbis.
All throughout this book, comparanda, counter-examples, and parallels are brought in from contemporaneous Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Persian sources. These are not ornaments to festoon an already rich and textured argument, but an important part of the argument itself. They advance not only the specific points of each chapter (for example, when Neis uses Pseudo-Lucian’s Erotes to discuss the transformation of erotic desire from subject to object), but also serve to further illustrate the degree to which the rabbis were participating in the broader culture of the late ancient Mediterranean.
Rabbinic texts, Neis says as she ends her last chapter, were designed to shape rabbinic subjects. Rabbinic subjects saw the world a certain way, and they saw each other a certain way. The ways in which they saw were certainly “rabbinic,” but expressed in a language and idiom that would have been recognizable to other religious elites from Rome to Mahoza. To read rabbinic literature is to begin to see rabbis—and perhaps more importantly, to begin to see as rabbis.
Daniel Picus is a PhD Candidate in Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean at Brown University.