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Cambridge University Library

Book: Diversity and Rabbinization, edited by Gavin McDowell, Ron Naiweld and Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra

Diversity and Rabbanization book cover
Author: 
Nadia Vidro
Mon 31 Jan 2022

Diversity and Rabbinization: Jewish Texts and Societies between 400 and 1000 CE ● Edited by Gavin McDowell, Ron Naiweld and Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra ● Open Book Publishers, 2021

The vast majority of Jews whose records are preserved in the Cairo Genizah were rabbinic. They derived their legal and theological systems primarily from rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah and the Talmuds and saw rabbinic leaders as the main authority. The only non-rabbinic group reflected in Genizah documents are the Karaites, who rejected the authority of the Oral Tradition and based their legislation primarily on the Written Law. Yet earlier Judaism, both before and after the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, was incomparably more diverse. A plethora of Jewish groups were active, including the Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, Jewish Christians, and others. Recent research suggests that the majority of post-70 CE Jews in Palestine and in the Diaspora may have been non-rabbinic and understood in many different ways what it meant to be Jewish. How then did it happen that by the second millennium CE most Jews became rabbinic?

This question takes centre stage in a new Open Access book Diversity and Rabbinization: Jewish Texts and Societies between 400 and 1000 CE, edited by Gavin McDowell, Ron Naiweld and Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra. This collection of articles surveys the cultural and religious diversity in Near Eastern and European Jewish communities from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages and tackles the difficult question of the rabbinization of Jewish society.

Articles in the volume discuss two different, albeit interrelated, meanings of the term “rabbinization”. Firstly, it can refer to the rabbinization of the past, whereby the rabbis projected their own practices and institutions to biblical and talmudic periods. Thus, Moses becomes Moshe Rabbenu (José Costa). Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer reworked Christian and Muslim legends about biblical characters to make them compatible with rabbinic traditions in the Talmud and the classical midrash (Gavin McDowell). Sherira Gaon’s depiction in his Epistle of talmudic Jewish society mirrored geonic Jewish society, for example, by presenting the exilarch of the talmudic era as deeply involved in the world of the rabbis, whereas the rabbinic literature itself pictured him as distinct and foreign to the rabbinic value system (Geoffrey Herman).  

Secondly, rabbinization can refer to the process by which rabbinic institutions were accepted as normative and the rabbinic way of life became spread in wider Jewish circles. How the rabbis themselves drove this process can be observed in some unusual rabbinic sources, including the talmudic tractate Kallah, the Sar ha-Torah section of Hekhalot Rabbati and Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, which appear to target non-rabbinic Jews with the view of promoting rabbinic thinking (Ron Naiweld and Günter Stemberger).

A range of sources are explored by the contributors when studying the diverse non-rabbinic forms of Judaism and the processes of rabbinization (summarized in the Afterword by Ra‘anan Boustan). Rabbinic literature itself provides some information on the rabbis’ activities in spreading the rabbinic norms and institutions. Richer corpora for non-rabbinic Jews and their gradual rabbinization include, for example, the piyyut, synagogal mosaics and Babylonian incantation bowls. All of these sources exhibit complex relationships with rabbinic Judaism. The piyyut was integrated into rabbinic prayer and had affinity with rabbinic midrash but had its Sitz im Leben in the synagogue rather than in a beit midrash and emphasised the priestly dimension of Judaism (Michael D. Swartz). The rabbis obviously took part in synagogal life but many synagogues had mosaic floors that contradicted the rabbinic aniconism and revealed a priestly orientation (Lee I. Levine). Some Babylonian incantation bowls cite passages from rabbinic literature but they were also shown by Gideon Bohak to reflect different magical practices than those attested in rabbinic sources (Geoffrey Herman).

The contributions to this volume that may be of the most immediate relevance to the readers of the Genizah Fragments blog are Robert Brody’s article “Varieties of non-Rabbinic Judaism in Geonic and contemporaneous sources” and Yoram Erder’s “Karaites and Sadducees”. Brody discusses three 8th- and 9th-century geonic responsa that deal explicitly with contemporaneous non-rabbinic Jewish groups. In the earlier, 8th-century questions, a gaon is asked about members of a specific non-rabbinic messianic group and whether they can be re-integrated back into rabbinic society. He replies comparing this particular group with other unspecified groups who rejected rabbinic authority, suggesting that he was aware of many. In the later, mid 9th-century question, a gaon is asked about a version of the Passover Haggadah that was unfamiliar to Babylonian Jews and he immediately (and wrongly) jumps to the conclusion that this Haggadah was used by Ananites, followers of the mid 8th-century Anan b. David. Brody concludes that by the mid 9th century the previously diverse landscape of non-rabbinic groups was dominated, at least in the eyes of the geonim, by Anan b. David, his followers and descendants. Brody then asks why Ananism and Karaism were so much more successful in the long term than earlier non-rabbinic groups. He suggests that the fact that Anan came from the family of the exilarchs, one of the most powerful and prestigious families in Jewish Babylonia, may have played a role. More importantly, Anan composed a legal code, a Book of Commandments, so that his movement centred not on the figure of a charismatic leader but on a set of written down teachings which could be followed long after Anan’s own death.

The article of Yoram Erder discusses the Karaites and the comparison frequently made in medieval Rabbanite sources between the Karaites and the second Temple sects of the Sadducees and the Baytusians. Erder argues that this comparison was purely polemic, employed to express hostility towards the Karaites. Indeed, rabbinic literature characterises Sadducees and Baytusians as those who did not believe in reward and punishment in the world to come. In contrast, resurrection was an important part of Karaite theology, something the Rabbanites were aware of but conveniently ignored. Erder then discusses what he calls ‘The Karaites’ Sadducee Dilemma’. This dilemma had to do with the Karaites’ own ideas about the ancient sects and their inability to distinguish between the Sadducees mentioned in rabbinic literature and the Qumran sect, or Sons of Zadok, the Zadokites. The Karaites accepted some laws of the Zadokites (the Qumran sect) but rejected the Sadducean denial of resurrection. This created difficulties for Karaite authors, who believed that the Zadokites and the Sadducees were the same group.

In his Afterword, Ra‘nan Boustan remarks that ‘a proper history of rabbinization still waits to be written.’ The collection of articles reviewed here makes an important contribution towards this goal.

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