Moshe Lavee. The Rabbinic Conversion of Judaism: The Unique Perspective of the Bavli on Conversion and the Construction of Jewish Identity. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018.
The debate over the acceptance of converts is not simply a contemporary phenomenon, argues Lavee. The Babylonian Talmud, Lavee shows, has dueling depictions of converts. On the one hand, some pericopae in the Bavli counsel treating the convert as “a newborn infant” and as “an Israelite in every respect,” reflecting a spirit of renewal, while also rewriting the history of the convert’s natal family. Other sentiments reflect a suspicion and unease of coverts, perhaps generated from a “genealogical anxiety,” such as the phrase, “Converts are as hard for Israel as a scab.”
This work is principally an examination of how the Babylonian Talmud “converted” Judaism to a rabbinic model, and the literary tools and methodologies that we can tenably employ to observe these historical developments (thus the first part of this book’s title “The Rabbinic Conversion of Judaism”). Lavee’s focus on conversion is a case-study that brings to light the gradual process of institutionalizing and legalizing the ritual of conversion, bringing the determination of Jewish identity under rabbinical authority.
In this work, Lavee examines these three quotations as they appear in a few folios in the b. Yevamot 46b-48a, which he refers to as a “Babylonian Mini-Tractate on Conversion.” A “Mini-Tractate” because it is self-contained and structured around a core of Baraitot, similar to how most tractates are structured around a core of Mishnayot, and “Babylonian” because he identifies particular redactional and ideological characteristics that evoke a Babylonian view of conversion (p. 28).
Attention to style indicates common literary characteristics among these three statements, leading Lavee to contend that they developed in the same “cultural milieu” (p. 227), rendering untenable the tempting anthological solution whereby the Babylonian Talmud simply preserved divergent viewpoints, and prompting a search for a more holistic explanation of the material.
Following a methodological introduction, the first three parts of the book each treat a literary and source analysis of these three central statements. The fourth (and final) part of the book treats the rabbinic conversion of Judaism and a comparative examination of Persian perspectives of converts.
In the methodological introduction, Lavee sets out for himself an impressive collection of methods, ranging from literary (including structural and source-critical textual readings) to critical theory of conversion and comparative materials from Greco-Roman and Persian cultural contexts. This study, therefore, uses rigorous text-critical analysis in order to present the development of cultural attitudes toward converts in different regions and time periods.
Throughout his work, Lavee is in conversation with those who adopt a “naïve” or “historical” reading of these texts, perspectives that accept a text’s attribution as either the actual position of the named sage or at least the prevailing position of the generation (p. 39). Instead, Lavee advocates for the “skeptical” approach, attentive to the late anonymous “governing voice” of the Talmud which is responsible for formulating and organizing much of the material. Lavee, therefore, rejects a reading of texts as snapshots of actual practices and positions of a particular generation and locale, views still held by some scholars especially in the Israeli academy, and instead argues that the best we can discern is a “sketch” over the “longue dureé” of historical trends (197).
Lavee’s skeptical approach prefers to examine the text literarily, accounting for the anthological nature and redactional process of the Talmud, reflecting the development of ideology and practice, as influenced by the surrounding culture. Within this approach, Lavee allows for observing general sketches and impressions of historical developments.
For example, a central focus of Lavee’s textual analysis is a comparison across parallel traditions found in the 3rd century Palestinian Sifra, the later Tractate Gerim of unknown provenance, and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. Rather than placing these texts along with a simple evolutionary model, Lavee sees an extended period of institutionalization and legalization whereby the process of conversion is placed completely within Rabbinic control. These innovations include the requirements of witnesses during the conversion candidate’s immersion, the need for those witnesses to be rabbinic sages, and the conversion court (184).
In addition to positioning himself in conversation with modern literary and source-critical Talmud scholarship of the past several decades, Lavee builds upon a recent appreciation for the Iranian/Babylonian context that shaped the worldview of the Babylonian Sages, as opposed to earlier scholarship which privileged the Palestinian Greco-Roman context. Thus, in the conclusion, Lavee argues for reading the conflicting attitudes of renewal and rejection as reflecting a Babylonian attitude of “genealogical anxiety,” marking the convert as reborn so as to disassociate them from their natal families while in so doing marking them as the “eternal other” (230).
Lavee’s inclusion of a 43-page appendix “The Conversion Mini-Tractate: Annotated Texts” helpfully provides the important texts in both the original and in translation, laid out in synopses along with their parallels. His annotated commentary serves the dual function of explanation as well as a presentation of the arguments found in the earlier chapters with page references back to the relevant sections. Readers, especially those from outside the field, may find this appendix useful for learning the corresponding texts both before reading, as well as afterward for a helpful synthesis of the arguments.
Lavee’s clarity of writing, especially his explicit explanation of methods and readings of texts, make this an accessible work. His interpretation of the development of conversion practices, the construction of rabbinic authority, the determination of Jewish identity, and influences from Greco-Roman and Persian cultures are valuable contributions to the field and of interest to a wide array of scholars both within and outside the field of rabbinic literature.
Yoni Nadiv is a PhD Student in Ancient Judaism within the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University