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  • On the Third Yeshivah of Bavel:A Response to Robert Brody
  • Haym Soloveitchik

For Alfred Haverkamp


Let me begin by thanking Professor Brody for the attention that he has given to my essay "The 'Third Yeshivah of Bavel' and the Cultural Origins of Ashkenaz—A Proposal" (his essay in response appears in this issue of JQR).1 He himself is a renowned expert on geonica and has further drawn on the expertise of many equally distinguished scholars: the medieval Jewish historian of Ashkenaz and unquestioned authority of Jewish-Christian polemics, David Berger2; the authority on rabbinic chronology and master of the editing of rabbinic texts, Chaim Milikowsky; [End Page 289] Daniel Schwartz, a leading historian on the Jews and Judaism of the Second Commonwealth whose broad range of knowledge extends down to Wissenschaft des Judentums in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and Beryl Septimus, an authority on medieval Spain and Provence who has equally made serious contributions to the study of Mishneh Torah. I feel honored to have drawn the attention of so many distinguished scholars and challenged by their concentrated critical fire. Professor Brody drew on the expertise of numerous colleagues; the formulations, however, are his. He naturally assumes full responsibility for the end product and signed his name on the critique, and it is to him that I address my reply.


I must admit at the outset my perplexity. Many of the things attributed to me I never said, and for many of the things I did say, Brody simply registers his disagreement with no reason given for his dissent.

Brody opens:

I will begin by attempting to place Soloveitchik's theory in perspective by describing the central questions with regard to the establishment of the medieval Jewish community of Ashkenaz, other recent attempts to explain the data, and the similarities and differences between these theories and Soloveitchik's. Simply stated, early medieval Ashkenaz presents something of a conundrum: on the one hand, already the earliest known halakhists of Ashkenaz declared their allegiance to the Babylonian halakhic heritage as expressed in the Babylonian Talmud; on the other hand, Ashkenazi Jewry maintained a number of practices that were incompatible with this Talmud, some of which can be demonstrated to have Palestinian origins. How did such a state of affairs come about?

(RB 266)

I never addressed this problem in my essay. Nor would I, as the conundrum is illusory. No culture is monolithic; all cultures are composites, rich mosaics with one or two components being dominant. To give only one salient example from a later and far more crystalized and internally consistent culture than that of primeval Ashkenaz of the hazy ninth and tenth centuries: In the lighting of the Hanukkah candelabra, Ashkenaz (R. Moshe Isserles) follows Maimonides' dictum and Sefarad (R. Yosef Karo, the Meḥabber) follows that of the tosafists.3 Brody proceeds: [End Page 290]

The prevailing approach to this question for the last several decades has been to hypothesize that the initial Jewish settlement in medieval Ashkenaz was affiliated with Palestinian tradition—a notion that found some support in reports of the very early arrival of members of the Kalonymos family from Italy, which had close and long-standing ties with Palestine—and that Babylonian influence gradually overcame the initial Palestinian orientation but was unable (or perhaps saw no need to) eradicate all traces of the earlier Palestinian heritage. So it happened that Ashkenazi Jews preserved certain practices as ancestral customs despite their incompatibility with the Babylonian Talmud; some of these customs were ultimately of Palestinian origin (whether or not later generations were aware of their Palestinian roots). In essence, Soloveitchik accepts the notion of a Palestinian substrate that eventually was overcome by the Babylonian Talmud but was not completely eliminated, although he attempts to minimize its scope and significance.

(RB 266–67)

I never "accepted the notion of a Palestinian substrate that eventually was overcome by the Babylonian Talmud." Quite the contrary, I argued in a preceding essay in the volume (and which Brody addresses, as we will see in the next paragraph) that to the extent that we can document what was the practice of the earliest known...