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REVIEWS Revisiting Early Rabbinic Liturgy: The Recent Contributions of Ezra Fleischer How does one read a rabbinic text? The answer to this question has rarely been simple; the introduction of modern literary and historical methods has only further complicated the picture. Anyone sensitive to the differences between biblical and rabbinic worship systems, to the differences between the rituals performed in the Jerusalem Temple and those found in the rabbinic synagogue, must ask where, when, and how the latter system developed. The rabbinic literature itself raises the question and proposes answers that, until the nineteenth century, were satisfying, placing the origins of statutory Jewish prayers in a mythic antiquity and thus endowing them with great authority. But as Jews entered into Western university culture, they learned to ask new questions of the texts, questions that penetrated beyond the rabbinic sacred histories to ask, "What actually happened?" With this sense of history came a skeptical approach to the information embedded in the rabbinic corpus. In the years since Leopold Zunz's first application of philological tools to determine the "real" origins of the various prayers,1 university-based scholars have struggled to determine how to read the evidence, both rabbinic and extra-rabbinic, so as to reconstruct the origins of rabbinic liturgy. The major methods and players in the development of Jewish liturgical studies were well described by Richard S. Sarason in his 1978 article "On the Use of Method in the Modern Study of Jewish Liturgy"2 and need not be repeated here. For most of the twenty years since the publication of Sarason's analysis, study ofearlyJewish liturgy progressed little, satisfied with and dominated by the theories with which Sarason concludes his article—those of Joseph Heinemann, whose pathbreaking application of the methods of form criticism in his Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns3 revolutionized the field in the 1960s. However, in a series of Hebrew articles beginning in 1990, Ezra Fleischer raised a serious challenge to several of the fundamental assumptions underlying Heinemann's theories and proposed an alternative understanding of the genesis of rabbinic liturgy. Because Fleischer claims to topple the fundamental principles undergirding the training of the current generation of liturgical scholars, his articles have been greeted with considerable skepticism. But precisely because Fleischer is among the leading senior scholars of Jewish liturgy, one of the few who have advanced significantly the study of piyyut (liturgical poetry) and its liturgical setting, Fleischer's claims also may not be ignored.4 Whether or not one PROOFTEXTS 19 (1999): 179-204 C 1999 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 180REVIEWS agrees with them, they serve a critically important heuristic function in shaking the liturgical world out of a complacency that assumed that Heinemann's theories were fundamentally sound. They point to a fundamental limitation in our ability to reconstruct with certainty the origins of one of the most influential and important books in the Jewish library. They teach us that the assumptions we bring to the limited available evidence do more to shape our reconstructions than does the evidence itself. Because no extant Jewish prayer book predates the ninth century ce., the origins of this literature are shrouded in mystery. The rabbinic texts themselves place the founding of formal nonsacrificial Jewish worship in antiquity, assigning to various rituals mythic origins with the patriarchs, Moses, Ezra, or the Men of the Great Assembly. They presume that almost all significant prayers long preexisted the destruction of the Temple; at most, they were revived in the tannarne convocation at Yavneh under Rabban Gamliel.5 Beginning with Zunz, scholars have tried to date precisely the composition of various sections of the prayers, assuming that each blessing or part thereof was formally composed by one person and then promulgated to the people as a whole. The variety present in the medieval rites, in this view, is the result of slippage during use over time. Using mostly philological methods, various scholars have proposed reconstructions of "original" prayers, and then dated this reconstructed text by determining what historical event, usually in the Hasmonean or later Second Temple period, would have generated such a liturgical response. Heinemann's revolution consisted primarily in the suggestion that there...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3311
Print ISSN
0272-9601
Pages
pp. 179-194
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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