Mira Beth Wasserman. Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylania Press, 2017.
Mira Beth Wasserman’s thoroughly researched and beautifully written monograph is an ambitious foray by a Talmud scholar into the diverse, often-fractious, and notoriously difficult jungle of critical theory. Wasserman’s project has a number of moving parts, but essentially, it is a sustained reading of the entirety of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Avodah Zara (hereafter, “AZ”) as a literary whole. She argues that a close reading of the tractate reveals the Bavli’s redactors not as disinterested editors working merely to preserve texts they received, but as artists in their own right, carefully organizing the material in AZ under “an overarching plan or an undergirding logic” (p. 23). Like Marcel Duchamp and his readymades––where found objects such as bottles, bicycle wheels, and snow shovels are (re-)assembled into works of art––Wasserman sees AZ as a bricolage of rabbinic material crafted by the Bavli’s editors into a “work of rabbinic anthropology” (p. 3). Specifically, she argues that AZ’s main theme is “a sustained deliberation about what distinguishes Jews from other people, and about what people share in common” (p. 4).
In order to advance this argument, Wasserman enlists the help of an eclectic band of literary theorists, anthropologists, continental philosophers, ecofeminists, new materialists, and more. These thinkers play the role of the Talmud’s conversation partners, either in solidifying the Bavli’s coherency by explaining its seemingly contradictory idiosyncrasies (e.g., Bakhtin in chapter 1), or as comparative systems to which the Bavli can “speak back” (e.g., Derrida in chapter 2; or Ian Bogost and Jane Bennet in chapter 4). Although her choices of contemporary theorists can be surprising––in the second chapter, for example, she interacts with the work of Mel Y. Chen, Jacques Derrida, Mary Douglas, Edmund Leach, and Martha Nussbaum––what holds Wasserman’s conversation partners together is that they are all “engaged in interrogating and revising conceptions of the human being” (p. 2).
The organization of the book follows the chapter divisions of the tractate. Therefore, the first chapter, “The Sense of a Beginning,” focuses on the first chapter of AZ (לפני אידיהן). Wasserman argues that the seemingly straightforward disparagement of non-Jews in the story that opens the tractate “is interrogated, challenged, and subverted in multiple ways” (p. 40). Employing Bakhtin’s ideas of “dialogism”, (pp. 47-50) Wasserman argues that the editors of the Bavli intentionally present a string of stories in the first chapter of AZ that subverts the Jew-Gentile dichotomy which they set up at the beginning of the tractate.
The second chapter, which shares its title with the book itself, examines “the diverse ways in which cattle, dogs, snakes, and other creatures creep into the Talmud’s discussions of relationships between Jews and non-Jews and between men and women” (p. 74). Utilizing thinkers who are often associated with a sub-field of critical theory called “animal studies,” Wasserman argues that AZ works to shore up the superiority of the Jewish man by associating animality with non-Jews and Jewish women. As a result, AZ differs from both humanist and posthumanist discourse inasmuch as it “escapes the ‘specieism’ that plagues Western philosophy” (p. 94), by elevating the Jewish man, in particular, rather than the human, in general.
The third chapter, “Leaky Vessels,” which focuses on the topic of wine belonging to non-Jews, is one of the more difficult chapters. Wasserman argues that AZ rationalizes the particularly strict regulations of Gentile’s wine through, among other things, comparing the danger of Gentile wine-handling with the danger of snakes. At the same time, this reasoning is obfuscated because the editors of AZ “heighten the mystery surrounding the laws of Gentile wine, promoting secrecy as a virtue and practicing indirection as a literary strategy” (p. 149).
In the fourth chapter, “Ethics and Objects,” Wasserman moves from animals to objects. She argues that the chapter on idols in AZ presents a theory of representation, i.e., “what constitutes the connection between an image and its subject” (p. 195). Rather than eschewing cultural contact with non-Jews, Wasserman argues that AZ reveals itself as a product of its broader cultural milieu––an active participant in the iconoclasm debates of late antiquity.
In the final chapter, “The Last Laugh,” Wasserman again picks up the theme of boundaries from chapter 1, but this time focuses on the way AZ delineates the borders between rabbinic Jews and non-rabbinic Jews by transferring “the suspicion and resentment” towards non-Jews from the beginning of the tractate onto “targets within a Jewish circle” (p. 226). In the end, AZ almost reverses its beginning by casting a non-Jew, King Shapur, as an adjudicator of Jewishness, thus demonstrating, “how the discourse folds in on itself, so that even as one hand inscribes boundaries, constructs concepts, and builds arguments, the other hand prods at the very foundations, sussing out seepages, poking holes, and unsettling things” (p. 233).
There is a lot about Wasserman’s undeniably creative reading of AZ that some readers may find idiosyncratic. After all, her argument for “treating the Bavli’s anonymous editors as authors rather than redactors” (p. 235) rests on the tractate’s internal consistency––on showing that AZ is “a coherent work of literature” (p. 21). However, as Wasserman indicates in the above quote about one hand doing and the other undoing, what makes AZ consistent for her is its very inconsistency. Furthermore, as Wasserman notes, “there is a tension between the strong reading I offer of AZ as a cohesive, authored work and the posthumanistic critiques that I draw on in treating individual passages” (p. 236). Indeed, there are some thinkers who would be uncomfortable with the resuscitation of “authorial intent” in a monograph so steeped in critical theory.
Wasserman’s book does something very important: it sets the table for a new kind of conversation––one where the Talmud can lead to a greater understanding of theory, not just the other way around. It is not difficult to imagine Wasserman’s work inspiring dozens of others. Might we explore how AZ’s constructions and de-constructions of boundaries could shed new light on Homi Bhabha’s concept of hybridity (cf. Location of Culture)? Are there new ways of understanding Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic theory, or their enfolded body (cf. A Thousand Plateaus), through comparison with AZ’s account of the relationship between bodies and objects? Could we use the not-quite-posthumanism in AZ to (re-)evaluate the usefulness of Foucauldian biopolitics as analytical tool? The possibilities seem endless, and for many Jewish Studies scholars, Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals is the perfect invitation to embark upon such daring scholarly expeditions without fear of leaving the Talmud behind.
M Adryael Tong is a Theology PhD student in the Christianity in Antiquity field of study at Fordham University