Senior Fellow: May–August 2018 and June–August 2019
Research Project: Talmudic Scepticism?
In two very distinct earlier projects, I identified a significant aspect of scepticism in the Babylonian Talmud that is specific to the Babylonian Talmud and was perhaps generated in the latest redactional levels of that signature and foundational text. The first was carried out a couple of decades ago on the endless dialectic of that Talmud (as opposed to the Palestinian Talmud’s habitus of deciding who is right and wrong in a given discussion). Although this has seemingly (and sentimentally) been read as an openness to different views, I tried to show that it was actually a closing down of the possibility of rational decision-making between oppositional opinions. There is, therefore, a strong element of scepticism involved vis-à-vis rationalism, or even rationality.
The second project that identified scepticism in the same level of the text was the much more recent project published as Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, in which I attempted to show that there is a collection of legendary rabbinic biographies in the Talmud that exposes the rabbis as grotesques closely related (at least typologically) to such genres as Menippean satire in Hellenistic/Second Sophistic writing. I argued there that, once again, and as in Menippean satire, intellectuals are both advancing their programme of rationality and amelioration while at the same time (unsystematically) expressing their deep doubt of its success, or even possibility of success.
In the current project, I wish to look for these strands in much less obvious places: in an extended passage, an entire chapter, of the Babylonian Talmud, namely the second chapter of the Tractate Pesahim. I plan a critical edition of and commentary on this chapter emphasising the redactorial activity and layers that make up its tightly edited style (it is itself a masterpiece of the redactor’s art in the Bavli). As an important part of identifying this late layer of editing that actually consisted of making the Talmud, I will be looking to see whether my former hypotheses of scepticism at work in this latest layer of the production of the Talmud holds up over an extended single redacted text (as opposed to pulling raisins out of a cake). I am looking for positive results, but am prepared for negative ones as well. Either would be telling.
Daniel Boyarin is Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley/USA.