In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

134 SHOFAR Winter 1999 Vol. 17, No.2 Book Reviews Responsa: Literary History of a Rabbinic Genre, by Peter 1. Haas. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996. 318 pp. $59.95 (c); $39.95 (p). One who wishes to understand the nature of post-talmudic rabbinic Judaism has no recourse but to study responsa. This is the case, ftrst and foremost, due to the sheer bulk ofthat material, for the responsa (she 'e/ot uteshuvot) easily constitute the largest single genre of rabbinic writing. To this statistical fact we might add the observation that quantity often drives quality. That a religious tradition expresses its normative outlook so predominantly in the form of answers written by textual scholars to questions submitted by other scholars or by laypersons presumably tells us a great deal about the nature ofthat tradition. The responsa have been studied, of course, by researchers who mine them for the information they contain on the history, anthropology, jurisprudence, and theology ofthe various Jewish communities which have produced them during the past thousand years. Yet it is puzzling that, given the obvious signiftcance of the responsa literature in rabbinic Judaism, the genre has not received careful and thorough study as literature, as a form ofwriting. Fortunately, some students ofrabbinic thought have begun to turn their attention to this objective. And one of them, Peter J. Haas, has now produced a book-length treatment that can only be described as an invaluable contribution to the fteld. Haas seeks to bring the study of responsa into conversation with academic methodologies such as anthropology, literary theory, and semiotics that have lately been applied to the study of legal literature in general. The one which dominates this book is what Haas terms the "literary/rhetorical approach," which draws heavily upon Chaim Perelman's neo-Aristotelian "new rhetoric" in its depiction of law as a rhetorical activity, a reasoned discourse aimed not so much at the deduction offtxed truth as at the persuasion of an intended legal audience. Haas translates and analyzes 28 responsa, representing the various "periods" of post-talmudic rabbinic Judaism, in order to illuminate the "rhetorical strategies" employed by their authors, the literary and argumentative techniques by which these rabbis establish both a sense of community with their correspondents and their own authority to speak in the name of Torah. And this allows him to ftx a new taxonomy, a way of classifying the responsa according to the historical development of these strategies. Haas labels the earliest responsa as "reiterative," in which the rabbi presents himself as essentially the passive oracle of Torah, reporting the applicable precedent and often repeating it several times over. The second, which comprises the bulk of the responsa, is the "interpretive" strategy, in which the rabbi identiftes the values and principles that inform the sacred texts and Book Reviews 135 proceeds to deduce from these the answer to the question at hand. The final strategy, called "analytic," is the latest to appear, associated with the rise ofthat form of rabbinic casuistry known as pilpul, which Haas dates (somewhat controversially) from the seventeenth century. An "analytic" responsum subjects the texts to such close reasoning that its conclusion is in fact a product ofthe rabbi's discretion rather than an answer that corresponds to the meaning of the texts upon which it is ostensibly based. One might disagree with details ofHaas's analysis ofthe responsa texts included in his book. One might also criticize his taxonomy, for it is possible to cite numerous "reiterative" and "interpretive" responsa composed in recent centuries alongside examples of close analysis and "discretion" appearing in responsa from long ago. For that matter, one might protest that a database of28 out of the approximately 300,000 extant teshuvot hardly affords a significant sampling upon which to base conclusions of the sort Haas suggests. These reservations, however, do not in any way alter the reality that Haas is surely correct. He is correct, that is, in his perception ofresponsa as literary documents, as pieces of textual discourse created by authors in the service of rhetorical ends and which therefore ought to be studied as such. There is much, of course, which remains to be done. Haas himself calls...

pdf

Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 134-135
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.