- “This, but Also That”: Historical, Methodological, and Theoretical Reflections on Irano-Talmudica
Some fifteen years ago, Yaakov Elman and a handful of young talmudists embarked on a major effort to correct a scholarly lacuna, namely, the dearth of talmudic studies that take the Bavli’s Sasanian context seriously into account. The history of scholarship has been recounted time and again, but the primary point bears repeating. Unlike researchers of Palestinian rabbinic literature who have consistently aspired to read rabbinic texts alongside classical literature and the archaeological record of Roman Palestine, for decades most scholars of the Babylonian Talmud did not so much as glance at Sasanian literary or material remains. Working against the clock, as it were, scholars of Irano-Talmudica have already made important advances by laying the groundwork for a contextualized study of talmudic law in its Sasanian milieu, offering new readings of talmudic narrative and myth in light of Iranian parallels, and suggesting novel understandings of Babylonian rabbinic ritual against neighboring non-Jewish ritual systems.1
Fifteen years is less than a generation, but given the work achieved in this span, it is productive to take a step back and reflect on the field’s development. I am grateful to the editors of the Jewish Quarterly Review for inviting me to share some of my own thoughts on Irano-Talmudica, which have been composed dialogically (though not as a formal response) in view of Robert Brody’s hard-hitting contribution to this forum.2 [End Page 233]
Let me state from the outset that I have no intention of “placing my head between great mountains” and positioning myself between the philological darts and bulls’ eyes. Almost by necessity, any young and ambitious area of research will make claims that later need to be reassessed. To that end, a careful rereading of the sources—especially by a leading talmudist like Brody—is both genuinely welcome and critical for the health of the field. The danger would be if, in response to such an evaluation, we were to conclude that research in this direction should be abandoned, rather than determine to further sharpen and deepen it. Even more problematic would be the reassertion of fallacies that have previously, and unjustly, hampered the study of the Bavli in its Iranian context. These include: (1) historical untruths about the nature of the Sasanian world and the place of religious communities, like that of Babylonian rabbinic Jews, in it; (2) paralysis in the face of well-known methodological challenges relating to Middle Persian literature and the Bavli; and (3) a type of philology that aspires to a single and static form of meaning.
The Western Sasanian Empire was a diverse and fluid region that housed numerous religious communities in close proximity, including Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Syriac- and Greek-speaking Christians, Mandaeans, Jews, and still other less-documented groups. There are many descriptions that one can legitimately apply to the Sasanian Empire; Brody’s “more inner-directed” and “less cosmopolitan” are not among them. The empire was quite literally a world power with vibrant politics and currents of knowledge and culture that traversed religious and ethnic boundaries. Regarding the notion that Sasanian Zoroastrianism discouraged conversion, this too is incorrect and probably owes more to modern debates within the Zoroastrian community than to the late ancient evidence. In terms of relations between the authorities and the different groups who lived in the region, Sasanian rulers developed dynamic and diverse strategies for fashioning a place for non-Zoroastrians within the empire.3 As for the implication that Babylonian Jews were linguistically [End Page 234] segregated from Iranians based on the relatively low frequency of Persian loanwords in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic when compared with the incidence of Greek in Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, in light of the deep roots of Aramaic in Mesopotamia and its function in affairs of the Sasanian state, this is like comparing apples to oranges. In short, it is hard to understand why Jews who lived at the economic and administrative heart of the Sasanian Empire should be thought of as isolated, to the point that there would be little to gain from reading the Bavli alongside extra-talmudic Sasanian...