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Law and Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature

Chaya T. Halberstam

Publication Year: 2009

How can humans ever attain the knowledge required to administer and implement divine law and render perfect justice in this world? Contrary to the belief that religious law is infallible, Chaya T. Halberstam shows that early rabbinic jurisprudence is characterized by fundamental uncertainty. She argues that while the Hebrew Bible created a sense of confidence and transparency before the law, the rabbis complicated the paths to knowledge and undermined the stability of personal status and ownership, and notions of guilt or innocence. Examining the facts of legal judgments through midrashic discussions of the law and evidence, Halberstam discovers that rabbinic understandings of the law were riddled with doubt and challenged the possibility of true justice. This book thoroughly engages law, narrative, and theology to explicate rabbinic legal authority and its limits.

Published by: Indiana University Press


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

Steven Fraade and Christine Hayes played a great role in the development of this book. They were both always dedicated and encouraging; as the years have passed, I continue to be inspired by their scholarship and wisdom, and I am extremely grateful for their enduring support. I owe them an immeasurable debt. I also wish...

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pp. 1-13

It is hard to imagine any leader who would not long for the clarity of divine knowledge. The eschatological vision of the eleventh chapter of Isaiah envisages the ideal leader in these terms: “The spirit of Yhwh shall alight upon him: a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor. . . . He shall sense...

Part One: Truth and Human Jurisprudence

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p. 15-15

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1. Stains of Impurity

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pp. 17-41

In the sphere of biblical ritual purity law, we witness a vivid encounter between the realities of human bodies and legal decisions. The physical determination whether or not a person contracts a scale disease or experiences genital flux invokes the legal categories of ritually pure and impure so that a sacred topography is overlaid upon the natural world. As Mary Douglas writes...

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2. Signs of Ownership

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pp. 42-75

In the last chapter, we saw how the rabbinic rules of evidence could intervene in the relationships people have with their bodies, creating skepticism where the Bible defers to intuitive knowledge, and providing legal facts to resolve the resulting cases of doubt. In this chapter, another relationship is examined: the relationships between...

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3. The Impossibility of Judgment

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pp. 76-105

The rabbinic texts that we have seen so far question, undermine, or overrule lived experience, offering legal solutions while maintaining a stance of doubt. While ambiguity about substantive reality may be tolerated in regard to ritual law and even to some extent in property law, as we saw in the Mishnah, criminal law would seem to demand more precision, especially with...

Part Two: Truth and Divine Justice

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p. 107-107

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4. Theologies of Justice

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pp. 109-146

In the last three chapters, we saw that the Hebrew Bible maintains a rhetoric of certainty regarding the enactment of the divine law because it can rely upon divine omniscience as an aid in the pursuit of worldly justice. Conversely, the early rabbis develop a stance of uncertainty when it comes to implementation of the divine law, insisting that divine knowledge is...

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5. Objects of Narrative

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pp. 147-179

In imagining God’s role in implementing justice both the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature depart from their focus on punishment that fits the crime, allowing God to operate emotionally and personally in his dealings with humans. In this chapter, I would like to return to our subject of evidence and beliefs about the capacity of humans to access truth; this time, we will approach the subject not just through...


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pp. 181-204


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pp. 205-212

Index of Scriptural Verses

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pp. 213-216

Index of Subjects

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pp. 217-225

E-ISBN-13: 9780253003980
E-ISBN-10: 0253003989
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253354112

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2009