Bereshit; once upon a time; a day that will live in infamy–any reader knows that the stories we tell are partly predetermined by how we begin. The stories of scholarship are the same, in miniature. Many begin with an idiosyncratic obsession, chance meeting, charismatic hero, callous villain, or province of ignorance that inscribes our ugliest history. Mine began with a quaint country scene, poking out from between the lines of a legal ruling; overlaid, in turn, on a lost or burnt piece of writing. A palimpsest: three texts, juxtaposed within a single frame.
[If] her marriage contract was destroyed [or] she hid it [or] it was incinerated;
[then if] they danced, made merry, [or] passed a cup of unripe grapes or a virgins' cloth before her;
[we hold that] if she has witnesses for any one of those–her contract is [worth] two hundred [zuz].
This tradition is cited in a discussion about the case of a woman who claims, after she has been divorced or widowed, that she was married as a virgin. If she was, then her marriage contract (ketubbah) entitles her to double the cash payment of, e.g., a widow, so her ex-husband (or his heirs) have a stake in arguing the contrary. But how can a bride’s virginity be proven after the fact, even after her husband is dead? In the absence of a written contract, what sort of evidence is admissible? And what sort of reasoning should be applied to that evidence?
For these questions, the rabbis (both of the original case and of its Talmudic commentaries) turn to what we would call ethnographic data. They bring forward a number of wedding practices as evidence for the question of whether or not she was originally married as a virgin. If they sang a traditional bridal hymn as she went out to the canopy (the hymenaion, after the Greek wedding god Hymenaios); if she went with her head uncovered, displaying her flowing hair to the crowd; if roasted kernels of wheat were passed out as snacks … the early rabbis admit these practices–preserved only in the villagers’ memory–as evidence for her virginity. “Everyone who is married as a virgin,” as their dictum goes, “is spoken of.” Literally: she has a voice. In place of a written contract, ethnographic data become legal evidence. The vox populi helps a woman to reconstruct her contract for the rabbis. Yet the three sources of law, and three orders of things, remain distinct.
The Mishnah, in its typically terse and declarative style, does not develop this description of wedding practices. Nor does it portray villagers called to testify that they remember the crunch of roast wheat, the hymn at a bridal procession, or the sheen of a bride’s hair. Yet as the text reading evoked those images, it expanded my preconceptions of “law” to a far wider variety of things, people, practices, and modes of thought. If legal language falls on a spectrum from purely normative to thickly descriptive–from Do’s & Don’ts, on one end; to what we really do, on the other–then I came to see rabbinic law as closer to the latter (especially in the associative, generically hodgepodge Tosefta; the Talmuds; and “minor tractates”; not to mention the rabbinic “wisdom” traditions of sayings, exempla, and anecdotes). Early rabbis did not simply lay down rulings by fiat or tradition, but cited real-world evidence to prove or exemplify their propositions. On the contrary, as they debated what one should (not) do, they took many roundabout detours to study, describe, and classify what people were actually doing; driven by a desire to develop their normative theories, of course, but also by a degree of curiosity in its own right.
Are there patterns among these descriptive detours, the rabbit-holes of the rabbinic imagination? Do they point to consistent interests? Retrace stock motifs and techniques? How can we map their interconnections, and how are they linked to normative projects–broadly defined–at the nerve-center of this rabbinic canon?
As an erstwhile ethnographer, my first encounters with rabbinic sources like this one had naturally raised such questions. But a framework for developing them did not materialize until I had to make decisions about terms and units of analysis. Where was my window into the early sages’ curiosity about their world? What terms did they–and should I–use to map and make sense of their detours? Again, my origin story keeps coming back to this little palimpsest, where a stitch in its texture became a methodological key for the work ahead:
… [if] they danced, made merry, [or] passed a cup of unripe grapes or a virgins' cloth before her …
For this word “unripe grapes” (as for the Mishnah’s “bridal hymn”), the text itself is a matter of dispute. A better-known reading is not “unripe grapes” but “glad tidings.” The words sound the same and could differ by just one letter (depending on which variants one selects). Such conundrums abound in rabbinic sources, and it is all too easy to gloss them over. Why does it matter what they called a wedding cup? Yet if we try to interpret what each would have meant to the villagers as they celebrated a virgin’s wedding–and rabbis, in order to assess legal claims, had no choice but to venture into such interpretations–the terms point in different directions. If this is a cup of “glad tidings” (see Greek evangelion), then its meaning is diffusely optimistic, yet unclear. (I find no equivalent term/object in contemporary sources). A century ago, for instance, Samuel Krauss insisted that “ ‘glad tidings’ is, unmistakably, [their] happy anticipation of [her] fertility!” But Krauss later saw that he was mistaken. The best reading (based on manuscripts; parallels; contexts; and other languages) is “unripe grapes.” And happily, we do have evidence for what this symbol meant to the wedding guests; or at least, we have inherited some educated guesses.
What is ‘a cup of unripe grapes’? – Rav Adda bar Ahaba said: They pass before her a cup of terumah wine, as if to say, “This woman is qualified to eat terumah.” Rav Pappa disagreed: What about a widow, doesn’t she eat terumah too? Rather, Rav Pappa said [it is as if to say]: “She is first as terumah is ‘first.’ ”
Two centuries after this practice of passing a cup of unripe grapes at a virgin’s wedding was cited as legal evidence by Palestinian rabbis, over in Babylonia we hear these rabbis speculating about the very question that preoccupied me: the meaning of this symbol in its context. Both rabbis agree that the wine in the wedding cup, wine from “unripe grapes,” is symbolically equivalent to the wine of biblical terumah. In raising this cup to the virgin bride, the villagers somehow identifying her virginity with the wine offered to the priests. Like ethnographers reporting what “the Bororo” say or do, these rabbis put their interpretations of that symbolism directly into the mouths of the villagers. They ventriloquize their informants, voicing “the native’s point of view”: this practice is “as if to say…”; no, no, it’s “as if to say…”
Yet in their role as anthropologists, interpreting a shared set of ethnographic data, the two rabbis disagree on a finer point of interpretation. What is the symbolic connection between terumah, unripe grapes, and a virgin bride? The biblical symbolism to which they refer–shared by the Jewish villagers, or so they presume–offers two possibilities. One interpretation, Rav Pappa’s, is especially good at drawing together fragments of evidence into a coherent picture. “Unripe grapes” (a word also found in Syriac, and which means, in Arabic, “first” or “new”), are “new” grapes, harvested while the skins are still green. Similarly, terumah wine is supposed to be from the “first […] of your wine” (Deut. 18:4). Interpreting the word “first” as the newest grapes of the season (rather than as the best grapes; they were likely no better than Beaujolais Nouveau), Rav Pappa can make the “unripe” grapes correspond to the “first” grapes of terumah. Therefore, he can have the villagers declare–as they raise this cup to the virgin bride–that she, too, is “first”; “new”; ripening in her sexual and social maturity. In a similar vein, both Talmuds record the practice of having a virgin sit on a “barrel of unripe grapes”; the wine that comes out is supposed to taste different if she is truly a virgin, and therefore (like the wedding cup) this practice serves as an ex post facto test of her legal status.
Rav Pappa reconstructs the symbolism of the original practice by fusing three elements: (1) A connotation of the word “unripe grapes”; (2) An interpretation of a word in a biblical practice which matches that connotation; and, crucially, (3) A biblical symbol (the “first fruits” of the priestly cult) that he transposes onto the culture of earlier Jews; presuming (“as if to say…”) that their culture continued to be modeled on biblical symbolism long after its substructure had been destroyed. In short, Rav Pappa thinks like an anthropologist: he draws on theoretical models to make sense of “native” words and practices in their own terms; but also, inescapably, in his own. These tensions between norm and encounter, self and other; as one records, classifies, and theorizes what people do, through the dense medium of words–call it Talmud or anthropology, it felt uncannily familiar, like I’d stumbled upon a new path for formative problems of the modern field.
That, anyway, is what I intuited when I first studied this text; before I saw support for Rav Pappa among Wissenschaftler des Judentums, and years before starting my dissertation in earnest.* Rav Pappa’s interpretation of the symbolism of ancient Jewish Palestinian weddings may or may not be right; I never wrote or thought about it again, except now through the rosy-colored prism of this origin story. But this encounter was crucial for the dissertation project by germinating its methodological kernel: the sages’ words and their curiosity about the world. It led me, again, to apprehend their legal terms and debates not only as normative–answering the question, What should one (not) do?–but also as descriptive, asking what people were doing; and, crucially, why. I wanted to make sense of those debates in terms of other curiosities: those that they had inherited; those with which they may have been in dialogue; and even ethnographic practices and attitudes far removed in time and space from their own. Rather than assume that influence or contiguity would best explain how they described and thought about the underlying logic of what people do, I cast a broader net–hunting for ancient and modern comparanda, and all the while trying to pin down a body of inner-rabbinic evidence that would manageably organize my analyses of their reflections on the matter.
At first, this process resulted in a common problem: a surfeit and a lack of evidence. Defining “curiosity” and “ethnography” too broadly, a vast amount of rabbinic material could qualify. Where is rabbinic law not interested in what people(s) do? Under this broad definition, couldn’t all rabbinic law be read as an exercise in Jewish auto-ethnography? On the other hand, as the rabbis had no term for “ethnography,” and as most of their descriptions seemed to be oriented both toward, and by, norms of conduct, the specificity of their ethnographic curiosity threatened to vanish altogether. Even in non-legal modes of discourse, I was hard-pressed to find any purely descriptive detours; rabbis are supremely interested in norms, however anxious or ambivalent they may be. Nor was I comfortable defining “ethnography” simply as the art of description of peoples. Interesting as the sages’ evocations of “Arabs” and polemical Others like the “people of the land” are, this seemed an artificially narrow approach, given how broadly other scholars–who already qualify as ethnographers–have defined their objects.
Ploughing through the early Palestinian literature–Mishnah, Tosefta, works of legal exegesis, and parts of the so-called “minor tractates”– in search of organizing rubrics for the sages’ curiosity, I asked a question that my teachers and other mentors had asked in their own work. Where does the sages’ legal language become a theoretical “discourse”: a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, inasmuch as it ties together otherwise discrete areas of practice; maps meanings from one area onto another; and, through words, generates relations of power-knowledge between people, bodies, and things? Others had asked this question in order to find rabbinic discourses of gender and sexuality (concepts and sciences that are arguably even more modern than ethnography), which emboldened me against the bogey of anachronism. On their shoulders, I peered around for terms that functioned as discourses of ethnography. I found four, which I would now translate into English as: (1) idolatry (“foreign worship”); (2) superstition (“the ways of the Amorite”); (3) manners (“the way of the world”); and (4) customs (“custom” and related terms). All of these fit the definition of “discourse,” and were marked as substantial, discrete textual units by rabbinic tradents, editors, and scribes. Further, these discourses function much like ethnography–as languages and intellectual practices for observing; describing; classifying; and making sense of what people do–even in ways that do not make sense to practitioners themselves.
At a higher level of abstraction, I wondered how the rabbis had used ethnographic discourses to develop their own theories about the logic of the practices that they studied. What concept of “worship” did they develop in the process of classifying practices as “foreign” worship? How might we compare those abstract concepts, and their descriptive functions, to the concepts which both orient, and arise from, modern ethnographic inquiry? Could we learn more about rabbinic concepts by juxtaposing them with anthropological concepts in other traditions, especially the concept of “culture”? Or, conversely, could we use the rabbis to critique and reconstruct alternative forms of our concepts? In sum, my approach was both archaeological and genealogical. I aimed to uncover the order of rabbinic knowledge about what people do, but also to interrogate its dual normativity: as a function of their own legal theory, and as a foil for dominant forms of our culture-concept.
If ever there were a set of early rabbinic conversations where curiosity about what people do lead to an intellectual practice and genre that we call “ethnographic,” and from there to a set of concepts that bear mutually fruitful comparison to anthropological concepts–this was it. I decided to organize the write-up of my notes on early Palestinian sources around these discourses, with forays into minor tractates and the Palestinian Talmud in order to see how these interests had evolved (or into the Babylonian Talmud for parallels). “Idolatry” was folded into the Introduction as an exhibit for the general approach, while “customs” split into two chapters. This yielded the following structure:
The extensive introduction (chapter 1) introduces this project of dynamic comparison between anthropological and rabbinic thinking, on three levels. First, most generally, it argues for selective comparison of intellectual practices (ways in which rabbis and anthropologists think); discourses (systematically interrelated forms of thought and expression); objects (human types and practices); and aims (normative theory). This particular comparison has the added benefit of both historical and theoretical groundwork. The new social history has replaced a rabbinocentric model of ancient Palestinian Judaism with a portrait of the rabbis as less culturally hegemonic and more deeply embedded in a wider variety of surrounding cultures and practices. If the rabbis did not develop their legal system in order to govern the Jewish population but as a marginal Roman elite in dialogue with others, then their curiosity about what people do, and why, can be contextualized beyond their normative interests in what Jews should (not) do. As the dichotomy between the “accommodation” and “resistance” hypotheses for reconstructing motives behind rabbinic legal innovations fades, the tradition fuses with new intellectual and social horizons. Further–on the side of anthropology–both critical studies of this scientific practice and theory, and historians of the discipline, have shown how it is not value-free, but guided and expressed through its own cultural norms. Therefore, we should not be misled by the labels “law” and “science” and assume that rabbis and anthropologists think differently by definition. Just as norms are central to science, science is central to the rabbis’ formulation of norms in their “legal” (halakic) language. Nor is one mode of thought necessarily more objective than the other. A rabbi is no more an “insider” of the target culture than an anthropologist. As the contemporary term “native ethnographer” suggests, this very binary between “emic” (insider) and “etic” (outsider) accounts of culture is tenuous; at least in the case of early Palestinian rabbis, it does not hold. Rather, the rabbi, as a marginal intellectual, circulates across the “emic”/“etic” boundary. He operates both as a theorist (e.g. sages who define the tokens of virginity) and an informant (e.g. villagers at a virgin’s wedding). Like rabbinic law, anthropology extracts synthetic generalizations from diverse sources: especially reports of representative practices and participant-observation in them. As ethnographer, a scholar may or may not be a “native,” but she is certainly a participant, observer, and theorist of what people do–informed by a subtle, largely implicit dialogue with scholarly peers. The proposal here is simply that, if we reconstruct select processes of inquiry and generalization in both intellectual traditions, they will bear fruitful comparison. Specifically, it proposes the “dialectic of halakic ethnography” as a theoretical framework for analyzing how norm and description interact within rabbinic law, particularly where practices and concepts that we call “cultural” are concerned. This theory, which can be used for both synchronic and diachronic analysis of legal material, suggests that early rabbinic legal ethnography is a dialectic between two polar modes of discourse: embedding (various ways to mark and preserve the descriptive specificity of human types and practices within normative generalizations) and sublation (the reverse, namely, various ways of reducing and subsuming descriptive features into norms). The theory is a bird’s-eye synthesis of rhetorical “moves,” classificatory tactics, and other features of rabbinic discourse that reappear more granularly in the chapters.
Second, the introduction presents a broad overview of scholarship since the 19th century that fosters engagement between anthropology and rabbinic literature, broadly defined. This work falls into four approaches: (1) the anthropology of rabbinic sources (that is, philosophical anthropology of their ideas about human being, nature, etc.); (2) anthropology and rabbinic sources (applying concepts from the discipline of anthropology in order to interpret certain features of rabbinic texts); (3) anthropology with rabbinic sources (using rabbinic subjects as subjects for an anthropological study, e.g., synagogue and yeshiva ethnographies or historical ethnographies of rabbinic reading practices); (4) rabbis as anthropologists (including rabbis within the formulation of anthropological concepts and practices of inquiry, taking seriously the complex textuality, modes of discourse, problems of representation and ideology endemic to both anthropological and rabbinic works. The latter approach, as far as I know, has been pursued mainly in this dissertation and a recent chapter/book précis by J. Boyarin). Through close readings of particularly dynamic engagements between social-scientific theory and history (A. Baumgarten; S. Schwartz), and philosophy (M. Douglas; M. Balberg) in ancient Jewish texts, this survey considers how the fourth approach can draw upon the others. Third and finally, the introduction presents the dissertation’s methodology, detailed above: a comprehensive study of the ethnographic and culture-theoretical functions of select halakic discourses, with sensitivity to their literary-historical context and philological composition, using both archaeological and genealogical methods. It concludes with chapter summaries. Briefly, as their contents remain unpublished:
2. Magic: “The Ways of the Amorite” as Polemical Ethnography. This chapter analyzes a discourse (better translated, I now think, as “superstition”) by which early rabbis labeled a catalogue of roughly 75 taboo practices (some exempted from this category, or disputed) and other popular practices (mainly apoptropaic and divinatory). I explore how this discourse served rabbis (of the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud, and minor tractate Semachot) not only as a way to oppose such practices, but also as a way to investigate and think about them, and thus as an ethnography reflecting a nascent theory of culture. I explore their theory’s comparability with Boasian “cultures”; although, in the revision, I am also entertaining a very different comparison to notions of “savage” and “civilized” in Victorian anthropology.
3. Manners: “The Way of the World” & the Ground of the Law. This chapter maps all the attestations of the term “the way of the world” (derek erets) in early Palestinian rabbinic traditions; reflects on its problematic polysemy; and focuses on texts relating it to “law” (Torah). This term seems to have a remarkable number of meanings, and in order to make sense of the rabbinic discourse that it indexes, interpreters have tended to either homogenize or be overly selective. Following scholars (M. Kahana, Y. Paz) who apprehend it as an ancient discourse and body of teaching embedded within rabbinic circles, this analysis essays new historical and conceptual comparisons in order to explain its relation to Torah, the paramount rabbinic discourse. Specifically, it reconstructs the term’s semantics by comparison with both ancient Greek (archaic themis and Stoic to kathēkon) and modern terms (“manners” in the sense of N. Elias; “culture” in the sense of E.B. Tylor). Both Torah and “the way of the world” are discourses of “culture,” but their juxtaposition suggests a complex hierarchy of rabbinic norms better appreciated against the background of Greek conversations on natural law and in light of evolutionary models of modern civilization.
4-5. The Customary: Discourse, Rhetoric, Ethnography and Strangers at Home: “Local Custom” in Rabbinic & Roman Law. Beyond terms and textual units usually identified with the rabbinic idea of “custom,” this chapter (the longest) begins by taxonomizing ways of talking about customary practices in the Mishnah and Tosefta, including not only terms, but also syntax, formulae, stock characters, and miscellaneous figures of speech. Despite the obvious heterogeneity of this evidence, it argues that the customary is a recognizable area of rabbinic thought in terms of the ontology; temporality; agency and provenance of the practices that it describes. It reviews three approaches to the relation between rabbinic law and custom, each of which depends on a conceptual binary that is weighted towards legal normativity (the model of progress from custom to law; the dichotomy of public law / private custom; or the notion that law is principled whereas custom is not). On a closer view of the sources, I do not find these binaries sustainable, arguing rather for an ethnographic approach to custom. Legal discourse on the customary reflects an exploration of the logic of what people really do, as well as attempts to classify and conceptualize it. Furthermore, these explorations reflect both general features of the dialectic of halakic ethnography in the introduction: they both embed customary practices within legal norms and sublate or subsume them within norms so as to minimize their descriptiveness. This dialectic is illustrated by case-studies in select legal formulae that are used to both embed and sublate customs in the body of the law. One case-study serves as the last chapter, on “local custom” in early Palestinian traditions, by comparison to contemporary Roman jurists.
All conclusions–to paraphrase Rashi–are difficult, and happily it is not my role to evaluate the utility or validity of these. Nor, despite the critical reflexes and logocentric discourse in which we are schooled, have I ever found that the evaluative mode is the one in which I do my best thinking. More and more, as I return to fascinatingly intricate corners of this textual universe like that first faint palimpsest, I dream of shaking off the dense medium of academic prose to evoke the rabbis’ and the reader’s enthrallment with the particulars of practice and their local meanings. As this dissertation becomes a book (currently titled Open House: Curiosity and Culture in Early Rabbinic Law), at least that might be my mantra. And when I return to the dissertated version–just as rabbinic baraitot seem to drift alongside edited sources–I’ll keep chewing on this text like any other: as a vade mecum of sources, scholarship, language and ideas. Again: a beginning.
Dr. James Redfield is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Talmudic literatures in the department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.
* This essay emerged as an attempt to sketch the genesis and ongoing evolution of that dissertation (The Sages and the World: Categorizing Culture in Early Rabbinic Law. Stanford University (Religious Studies), 2017); I thank AJR’s editors for occasioning it.
1. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubbot, folio 16b, Vilna print [my notes in square brackets]. The Talmud cites this law as a baraita: a Palestinian rabbinic tradition roughly contemporary with (but not included in) the Mishnah, edited c. 200 C.E.
2. I learned this Greek reading from Daniel Boyarin. Samuel Krauss, Griechische und lateinische Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch, und Targum, Berlin, 1899, I:114, reads a virgin’s wedding “procession” (hymenaia). The Palestinian Talmud has two readings, the Babylonian namnuma or Palestinian puryoma, a “litter” or “sedan” (from Greek phoreion). The medieval commentator Rabbenu Chananel proposes “a legality” (from Greek ennomos). Other proposals include a “canopy of myrtle” (b. Ket. 17b) or a “veil” (b. Ket. 17b) behind which the bride takes a nap (Rashi ad loc. s.v. קריתא). On the basis of comparative folklore and semantics (mainly from Arabic), red-colored “henna” has also been proposed: Reuven Bonfil, “ ‘What is hinuma?’: An Early Jewish Wedding Custom,” in Menachem Zohori and Aryeh Tartakover eds., Hagut Ivrit be-Eyropa: Studies on Jewish Themes by Contemporary European Scholars, Tel-Aviv, 1969, 57-70 [Hebrew]. The crux remains, but the ingenuity expended in these two millennia of scholarly glosses is richly ethnographic.
3. Reading בסורת with ms. Cambridge T-S F1 (2) 88 and y. Ket. 2,1,26b (חבית של בשורות, as “barrel of glad tidings” makes no sense–our idiom “barrel of laughs” notwithstanding).
4. See n. 2 above.
5. Samuel Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie, Leipzig, 1911, II:459 n. 322.
6. Samuel Krauss, “Etwas von den jüdischen Hochzeitsbrauchen,” MGWJ 83 (47), 1939, 469-80, at 477-78. The best case for this reading is ben-Yehudah, A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, Jerusalem, 1908-59, I:566 n. 3 s.v. בסורה [Hebrew].
7. b. Ket. 16b.
8. Immanuel Löw, Die Flora der Juden, Leipzig, 1911, I:77.
9. Aruch Completum, ed. Kohut, Vienna, 1880, II: 135 s.v.בְּסֹרה = בָּסֹר.
10. Rashi ad loc.: “first in her sexual intercourse.”
11. b. Yev. 60b. Similarly, in our context (b. Ket. 16b), R. Adda bar Ahaba explains the early Palestinian practice of passing around a barrel of wine at the virgin’s wedding as follows: “a virgin: they pass around a closed barrel; a woman who has had intercourse: they pass around an open barrel.” Here, again, he is trying to explain the symbolism of this practice for the villagers.
12. I am now working on the Oxford Bibliography on Anthropology in Antiquity (contracted for May 2018) partly in order to resituate rabbinic ethnography in its broader ancient context, and partly in order to advance a more liberal definition of ancient ethnography than, e.g., the denial of its very existence solely on the basis of terminology as per the method of “conceptual history” (Begriffsgeschichte. See Han F. Vermuelen, Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment, Lincoln, 2015, 2-3). Nominations of little-known ancient ethnographic traditions are warmly welcomed from AJR’s readers.
13. Jonathan Boyarin, “Kinship and Qiddushin: Genealogy and Geography in B. Qiddushin IV.” In Talmudic Transgressions: Engaging the Work of Daniel Boyarin, eds. Charlotte Fonrobert, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Aharon Shemesh, and Moulie Vidas, with the assistance of James Adam Redfield. Leiden, 2017, 386-406.