- On the Dissemination of the Babylonian Talmud and the Origins of Ashkenazi Jewry
The stimulus for this essay was provided by the recent proposals of Haym Soloveitchik concerning the origins of medieval Ashkenazi Jewry, which were first presented publicly in a lecture at the World Congress of Jewish Studies conducted in Jerusalem in the summer of 2013 and later published in more detailed form in the second volume of Soloveitchik's collected essays.1 I discussed many aspects of these proposals with Professor Soloveitchik several years earlier, and he acknowledged these conversations in his publication and even credited me for specific suggestions,2 but I was unable to convince him that his suggestions with regard to connections between the "founding fathers" of Ashkenaz and the contemporaneous Jewish community of Babylonia were highly problematic. Now that these proposals have appeared in print, and in view of Prof. Soloveitchik's repeated assertions that he is no expert in geonica and requests for specialists in the field to evaluate his suggestions,3 I have [End Page 265] taken it upon myself to do so. I am grateful for the opportunity that Soloveitchik's fresh approach to this topic has provided for me to clarify, both for myself and for my readers, my thoughts on several related questions, as well as to explore some possibilities I had not previously considered.
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.4 How did such a state of affairs come about?
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.5 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 [End Page 266] 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.6 In my opinion he is clearly right in his critique of several scholars who exaggerated the extent of Palestinian influence on Ashkenazi halakhah, although it sometimes seems that he goes a bit too far in the opposite direction.7
What is revolutionary about Soloveitchik's proposals is the historical model that he offers in order to explain the transition from a Palestinian-inspired Jewish culture to one dominated by the Babylonian Talmud, its study, and interpretation. In Soloveitchik's view, the earliest, Palestinian-oriented settlers were not talmudists, so that the Babylonian Talmud did not have to overcome an entrenched Palestinian Talmud when it arrived on the Ashkenazi scene. More importantly and controversially, the Babylonian Talmud was brought to Ashkenaz a few decades after the initial wave of settlement by immigrants from Babylonia who had studied at hitherto unknown talmudic academies.8 It is the latter hypothesis on which I will focus.
For the purposes of this discussion I will accept the basic framework used by Soloveitchik and accepted by David Berger and Avraham Grossman, according to which the roots of medieval Ashkenazi culture go back only to about 9179...