- Time and Life Cycle in Talmud and Midrash: Socio-Anthropological Perspectives
Nissan Rubin, Bar Ilan, summarizes his view of the sociological-anthropological perspective on Talmud and Midrash in the following language: "Jewish society is based on the written text. . . . The context, the social reality . . . is likely to change as a result of political and economic shifts." So at issue is history and the changes that it registers. Historical facts produced by the politics and economics of the community of Israel therefore figure prominently in his analysis. Rubin's results stand or fall on the basis of the historical-critical method that animates his description of facts and analysis of their meaning. True, the anthropological approach aims at presenting the cultural perspective of the sages. But the entire project depends on historical facts, as Rubin makes clear in the inclusion in his title of " Time," a historical variable. Unfortunately, the claim that the Rabbinic canon supplies facts of history is not tested but assumed. The result is uncritical—pseudo-history and therefore hopeless.
He states, "The idea in most of the essays is that long-term changes in social structure have an impact on the structure and meaning of the life-cycle rituals." That encompasses the historical reliability of the Rabbinic fables which attest, in Rubin's account, to things that really happened that day in that particular place and that supply facts of history for the use of social science.
He deals explicitly in Chapter Two with the perception of time of the sages. Chapter Three turns to circumcision with reference to drawing down of the prepuce and the incision of the foreskin. The rabbis "devised a radical surgical innovation that thwarted this crossing of the community border" represented by concealing the rite of circumcision. Sayings attributed to sages in the second century by documents of the third or fifth or seventh century are adduced in evidence, as though stenographers recorded Rabbinic discourse as it took place and handed on transcripts of ipsissima verba until the words were written down three hundred years later.
Chapter Four discusses changes in the true value of the five sheqels given in the redemption of the firstborn. Chapter Five on rites or birth and marriage treats the deprived status of women. Chapter Six turns to the sages' conception of body and soul on the connection between social structure and cosmology. Chapters Seven and Eight concern death, the boundaries between life and death, and the blessing of the mourners, with attention to the Rabbinic practices of condolence. The thesis of the last chapter is stated as follows: "The loss of customs happened because elaborate mourning rites with special meals on each of the days of mourning require an appropriate social setting. Such [End Page 209] customs are possible when the community is composed of extended families. But as society becomes less integrated due to political and economical changes and families tend toward the nuclear type, it is less likely that the daily meals could be carried out." This is historical discourse and alleges facts of social reality. But the evidence is accepted merely because it is alleged long after the event is purported to have taken place.
Rubin adduces as historical evidence a wide variety of rabbinic sayings and stories that speak of events and ideas of a period long before the documents in which the sayings and stories were set forth and attained closure. So we must wonder on what basis we are supposed to take as fact the reports of what was really said by the authority to whom the saying is attributed and in the time and place in which the named sage flourished. A half century has passed since the critical agendum came to apply to the Rabbinic corpus. Much debate has taken place. The historical value of the Rabbinic documents has been subjected to serious criticism. The kind of history—the possibilities that the canon sustains—has come to a new definition.
Of all of this Rubin is ignorant. If the Talmud says...