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The Talmud in its Iranian Context (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 410-412 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0032

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It seems almost customary to point out in reviews of edited volumes that all the various articles in a given volume do not cohere. This would not be the case for this concise, learned, and handy introduction to an important development in Rabbinics. However, the title sells this excellent collection of essays short. True, the volume may serve as a milestone for an important recent trend in the study of the Babylonian Talmud. However, this scholarly trend promises to transform our understanding not only of the Talmud but also the composition of Zoroastrian literature, and ultimately the religious diversity of the Sasanian Empire. The authors collected here are working on the cutting edge—a scholarly project that brings together the study of the Babylonian Talmud and Zoroastrian literature, specifically the several genre of Sasanian and Post-Sasanian Middle Persian literature, including legal texts and the zand (the translation and exegesis of the ancient Avesta).

Jewish Studies is a larger, more diverse, and more developed field than Zoroastrian Studies. Talmudists, as David Goodblatt's review essay in the volume points out, have for some time been working with redactional approaches. The notion of the stam, the anonymous final redactional level of the Babylonian Talmud, is now accepted by most Talmudists and this has led to an examination of the redactional tendencies of this final layer of the text as well as a greater appreciation of the reception history of Amoraic material. In turn, this awareness of the stam and its general dating to the sixth century has resulted in a renewed interest in contextualizing the Talmud in the later Sasanian Empire. In contrast, most of the few scholars who work on Zoroastrian texts are trained in traditional philology and are not often engaged in complex redactional critical work, let alone employ literary theoretical approaches.

Fortunately good scholarship can be viral—infecting areas marginal to our original questions. We enter one area with certain problems in mind and we find ourselves later oddly somewhere we did not expect to be. In this volume Yaakov Elman, Geoffrey Herman, and Shai Secunda make important contributions to the study of Middle Persian literature, and yet all three arrived at this material as Talmudists looking for material for comparative study. Elman and Secunda examine the mechanics and development of Middle Persian legal texts from a critical Talmudist's perspective. According to Elman this literature ultimately reflects back onto Rabbinic texts: "these two systems of law, the Sasanian and the rabbinic, overlapping in time and space, and in many respects sharing a common universe of discourse, a common economy and to a larger extent than we might have anticipated, a common culture, proceed in intellectually similar directions" (p. 44). Herman employs the "alternative perspective," the "popular and unofficial vantage-point" (p. 62), offered by the Talmud to understand certain Sasanian administrative titles.

Working with Talmudists and engaging with their questions has also inspired Iranists to ask new questions: Prods Oktor Skjærvø states that his examination of scholastic terminology in Middle Persian literature was inspired by the greater awareness, which he gained from his encounter with Talmudists, that he was dealing with "technical texts" (p. 178). Recent comparative work with the Talmud has pushed Sasanianists to ask new questions of their material. Yuhab Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina's contribution to the volume examines Zoroastrian literature from the perspective of intertextuality, introducing literary theoretical approaches and citing Boyarin's work on midrash. The chapters in the volume by Richard Kalmin, Jason Sion Mokhtarian, and Shaul Shaked address how Babylonian Rabbinic tradition was shaped by the specific Sasanian context. The emergence of a new perspective can be seen in a chapter on "Allusions to Sasanian Law in the Babylonian Talmud" by the senior Iranist Maria Macuch, who claims,

although we are still in the beginning, we may already maintain, that the question no longer is, whether Sasanian law was known or discussed by the rabbis, but rather to what extent it was adapted consciously or unconsciously and played a part in the formation of rabbinic law and certain rulings transmitted in the Talmud.

(p. 101)

The one quirk in the volume was the introduction, which is brief and suggests that...

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