Hayes on Rawidowicz

Reflections by
Christine Hayes
Yale University

Simon Rawidowicz, “On Interpretation,” PAAJR 26 (1957), 83-126

The Babylonian Talmud is the culminating masterwork of rabbinic Judaism and the central and defining text of the traditional Jewish curriculum. Yet a survey of seven decades of the PAAJR turns up only a small number of articles devoted to the Talmud, highlighting its precarious status within, and fraught relationship to, the enterprise of academic Jewish Studies.
Scholars of Jewish antiquity publishing in the PAAJR, particularly in its first 30 years, chose to channel their scholarly efforts into the text and analysis of the Hebrew Bible, the social and political history of the Second Temple period, Hellenistic Jewish literature, liturgy, targums, and philological and historical researches into rabbinic literature that pointedly did not engage the substance of talmudic discussion and debate.

The lack of critical editions cannot fully explain the lack of engagement with the substance of rabbinic literature. A fuller explanation has to do with the Wissenschaft valorization of “original” moments of textual and cultural creation (and corresponding denigration of the Talmud as decadent and derivative) and a concomitant emphasis on historical methodologies designed to uncover these original moments. Moreover, unlike the Bible, which had found a place in academic studies some decades earlier, and Hellenistic Jewish historiographic and philosophical writings that yielded more readily to existing canons of analysis, the Talmud was, in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, a text in search of a method.

A sea change was presaged in the 1957 issue of the PAAJR, with the publication of Simon Rawidowicz’s “On Interpretation.” This unusual and stirring call to abandon the prejudicial distinction between text and commentary in favor of a paradigm that viewed all textual production as authentic and creative “interpretatio” invited a deeper engagement with Talmudic content, an invitation answered in three ways over the next several decades. First, articles of a philological bent began to move beyond text criticism to new modes of analysis – especially form criticism and redaction criticism — that bear more substantively on textual meaning. Second, scholars traded the historical lens for a literary and exegetical lens allowing for a deeper exploration of the creative impulses and narrative forms of rabbinic texts. Rabbinic exegetical techniques – once deemed alien and arcane — found new appreciation as did rabbinic literary and legal creativity generally. Third, there was an increased interest in the thematic content and philosophical and religious ideas expressed in rabbinic texts. Rawidowicz’s article set Talmudic studies on a path of radical methodological expansion that would lead in time to the adoption of such diverse disciplinary tools as new historicism (cultural poetics), orality studies, gender studies, ritual studies, legal theory, discourse analysis, performance studies, the material turn, and more recently, the temporal turn.

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