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Narrating the Law

A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories

By Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

Publication Year: 2011

In Narrating the Law Barry Scott Wimpfheimer creates a new theoretical framework for considering the relationship between law and narrative and models a new method for studying talmudic law in particular.

Works of law, including the Talmud, are animated by a desire to create clear usable precedent. This animating impulse toward clarity is generally absent in narratives, the form of which is better able to capture the subtleties of lived life. Wimpfheimer proposes to make these different forms compatible by constructing a narrative-based law that considers law as one of several "languages," along with politics, ethics, psychology, and others that together compose culture. A narrative-based law is capable of recognizing the limitations of theoretical statutes and the degree to which other cultural languages interact with legal discourse, complicating any attempts to actualize a hypothetical set of rules. This way of considering law strongly resists the divide in traditional Jewish learning between legal literature (Halakhah) and nonlegal literature (Aggadah) by suggesting the possibility of a discourse broad enough to capture both. Narrating the Law activates this mode of reading by looking at the Talmud's legal stories, a set of texts that sits uncomfortably on the divide between Halakhah and Aggadah. After noticing that such stories invite an expansive definition of law that includes other cultural voices, Narrating the Law also mines the stories for the rich descriptions of rabbinic culture that they encapsulate.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. vii

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pp. 1-8

Contemporary books are familiar. A patron selecting a recently published volume in a bookstore instantly knows its kind. Bright cover colors and cheap construction indicate a beach or plane read. Footnotes and endnotes announce scholarly work. My three-year-old son identifies his books by their glossy dust jackets and large...

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Chapter 1. Privileging Legal Narrative: Resisting Code as the Image of Jewish Law

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pp. 9-30

Jewish history witnesses a long-standing tension over legal codes.1 Though there have been attempts to reduce Jewish law to a code of mandates and prohibitions, each such attempt has encountered resistance.2 The earliest codes of Jewish law are embedded...

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Chapter 2. Deconstructing Halakhah and Aggadah

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pp. 31-62

The dichotomy that divides rabbinic literature into “Halakhah” and “Aggadah” (meanings elaborated below) is extremely well entrenched both because it is seemingly self-evident and because it can be exceedingly helpful. When it comes to assigning talmudic legal...

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Chapter 3. A Touch of the Rabbinic Real: Rabbis and Outsiders

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pp. 63-95

The existence of the Babylonian Talmud, a massive anthological work attentive to periodization and scholarly citation, is an incredible boon for historiographers of late antiquity. And yet, scholars sometimes bemoan the absence of other data from the period. The imbalance between the Babylonian Talmud’s extensive source...

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Chapter 4. Social Dynamics of Pedagogy: Rabbis and Students

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pp. 96-121

No relationship is more central to the fabric of rabbinic culture and its law than that of teacher and student. The pedagogical scene of student before teacher is the implicit context of all talmudic text. Readers rightly presume such a setting when...

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Chapter 5. Torah as Cultural Capital: Rabbis and Rabbis

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pp. 122-146

In his book The Rules of Art, Pierre Bourdieu models a method of literary analysis that employs his own socioeconomic framework of analyzing culture to read Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education.1 The novel is structured around the life of Frédéric...

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Chapter 6. Lengthy Bavli Narratives: A New Theory of Reading

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pp. 147-163

Much of this book has treated the brief legal episode and the tension between such stories and the nonnarrative legal sources among which they are ordinarily juxtaposed. A central feature of this dynamic is the relationship between the episode and its respective amoraic interpretation...


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pp. 164-168


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pp. 169-213


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pp. 214-228

Subject Index

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pp. 229-232

Source Index

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pp. 233-236

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pp. 237-239

This book would not have appeared without the feedback, encouragement, and support of so many people, and the funding and research assistance offered by various institutions. I have had the good fortune of being mentored extensively by the two leading scholars of the Babylonian Talmud, David Weiss Halivni and Shamma Friedman. It was their respective...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205947
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242997

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel Boyarin, Virginia Burrus, Derek Krueger See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700757
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Narrating the Law

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Talmudic academies -- Iraq -- Babylonia -- History.
  • Judaism -- History -- Talmudic period, 10-425.
  • Jewish law -- History.
  • Aggada -- History and criticism.
  • Talmud -- Criticism, Narrative.
  • Narration in rabbinical literature.
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