Rabbinization and Diversity Methods, Models, and Manifestations between 400 and 1000 CE

Rabbinization and Diversity:

Methods, Models, and Manifestations between 400 and 1000 CE

(a virtual international conference)

March 14–15 and 23–24, 2022

2-7 pm CET (9am-2pm EST/ 3-8 pm IT/ 1-6 pm GMT)

This conference builds on and continues the conversations begun almost seven years ago in Paris at the conference “Diversity and Rabbinization: Jewish Texts and Society between 400 and 1000 CE” (June 2015). The terms “diversity” and “rabbinization” continue to be the two primary categories that guide our efforts to conceptualize Jewish history during Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. We believe that, alongside ongoing investigation of the various bodies of empirical evidence, it is also important to develop new historical models and methods for examining both the persistent heterogeneity of Jewish social and cultural life in this period and the emergent dominance of rabbinic discourses across Jewish society.

It is our aim to challenge earlier approaches that viewed rabbinization as a linear process in which more and more Jews gradually became more and more “rabbinized” over time. Instead, due consideration should be given to the differences across regions, social strata, and institutional settings in the nature and pace of this process. It is our hope that a refinement of the methods and models that are brought to bear on this problem will bring us closer to a more nuanced historical account of what we might call the “dialectics of rabbinization.”

Evaluating models of diversity is one part of this task. Building on the many historical, archeological, literary, and methodological advances in the study of ancient Judaism over the past decades, we take as a given that the textual and material records attest a certain degree of heterogeneity in Jewish culture and society throughout the first millennium CE. But scholars have not arrived at a consensus about when source materials that differ in form, language, medium, mode of transmission, etc., represent sociologically or ideologically distinct and even competing groups or movements. Nor is there agreement on how we should conceptualize the relationships among the religious and cultural expressions produced within the architectural spaces of Jewish life (e.g., household, workshop, street, market, city, study house, synagogue, and cemetery).

Incantation bowl with an Aramaic inscription around a demon. Nippur. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source: Wikimedia Commons

If the diversity within the textual or material record does indeed point to sites of Jewish cultural production and reception that were differentiated by profession, class, gender, region, and other such factors, were there nonetheless social or institutional networks that connected or mediated among them? We encourage presenters to consider the different levels or types of diversity with which we need to reckon when considering the range of evidence for Jewish culture and society in this period.

Zodiac, central medallion, Hamat Tiberias synagogue. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A second, but closely related, question is which models and methods are most appropriate for conceptualizing the extension of rabbinic norms, authority, and prestige beyond the rabbis’ immediate familial and communal circles, and what was the impact of this process on the wider Jewish society. What terms are most heuristically productive for describing and analyzing the range of Jewish textual and material sources that circulate(d) at or outside the boundaries of the corpus of rabbinic literature? Should scholars avoid applying such terms as “non-” or “para-” rabbinic to these sources so that they might be studied in their own right? Or are such terms appropriate or useful in light of the definitive impact of rabbinic literature and piety on the production, transmission, and reception of these sources, both by earlier generations and by modern scholars?

Did rabbinization lead to the homogenization of Jewish culture and the standardization of Jewish social and institutional structures? Or perhaps the rabbinic tradition provided generic categories (e.g., mishnah or midrash), social types (e.g., the rabbinic sage), or discursive practices (e.g., halakhic debate) that could be deployed quite differentially as building-blocks within both long-standing and novel Jewish expressive forms. Are the hybrid forms of Jewish literary and religious practice that are particularly characteristic of the period between the fifth and ninth centuries (e.g., Hekhalot literature or certain strands of late midrash) evidence for continuity with “pre- or non- rabbinic” forms of Judaism? Or, alternatively, are they evidence for the “domestication” of Jewish diversity by an increasingly hegemonic rabbinism? Or perhaps some other explanation better accounts for the data.

In addition to addressing particular themes, topics, or bodies of evidence, papers will also apply or even propose models, methods, or approaches that address the theoretical and historiographic problems outlined above.

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