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

Keynote lecturers


Rabbinization, Localization, and the Dynamics of Syncretism

David Frankfurter, Boston University

 Developing religious institutions, whether Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism, are ultimately products of local environments despite their every effort to appear trans-regional and eternal. The production of Christian (etc.) religion on the ground will always involve a negotiation between local traditions, habitūs, and immediate landscapes (on the one hand), and new idioms of authority and charisma, including textuality (on the other hand)—a negotiation played out across multiple social sites that I have called syncretism. Syncretism, in this sense, is neither teleological (resulting in a complete “Judaism” or “Christianity”) nor dependent on pure ingredients (as critics have condemned the term). My paper is thus a challenge to the study of rabbinization to consider this model, but I will offer experimental illustrations from the corpus of Babylonian incantation bowls.


‘Babylonian Rabbinic Hegemony’ revisited

Marina Rustow, Princeton University

In this talk I will revisit the question of how and when the Babylonian-Iraqi construction of rabbinic Judaism established firm footing outside Iraq in the tenth and eleventh centuries and whether it matters when considering the larger question of ‘rabbinization’. My hope is to reframe the question: instead of what I described in 2008 as ‘Babylonian rabbinic hegemony’, I’ll discuss Iraqi constructions of Judaism in the plural. I’ll also temper the geographic marker by asking whether, given that those constructions were mobile and portable, they were Iraqi at all. While in a pair of articles in 2010 and 2014 I explained the mobility of Iraqi Judaism(s) through factors such as taxation, migration to cities, imperial collapse and migration westward, those explanations now strike me as a little vague, or even as a sleight of hand masking an absence of hard information about Jewish communities outside Egypt and Syria with seemingly objective but ambient data about everyone else. My reconsiderations here will be more pointillistic than grandly explanatory, but also more geographically far-reaching; my hope is to avoid the analytical impasse of ‘Babylonian rabbinic hegemony’ by considering additional documentary sources from the geniza and elsewhere.


The Two Late Antiquities of the Jews of Asia Minor

Seth Schwartz, Columbia University

Jews in the best-attested regions of Asia—Ionia, Caria and the areas near the great central river valleys of Anatolia—show few signs of “rabbinization” at any point before the middle Byzantine period (c.750–c.1200). I wish to argue that there were two modes of late antiquity, the first beginning surprisingly early in the third century and ending around 410, and the second extending from 410 to 700. The first late antiquity features heightened integrative pressure from the Roman state—even in the throes of its later-third-century crisis—whose landmarks are the Constitutio Antoniniana (212), the great Christian persecutions (249-311), the “Edict of Toleration” (313) and the Edict of Thessalonica (380). This is the period too (I will argue, as a consequence of integrative pressure) of the first profusion of identifiably Asian Jewish material culture whose surprising characteristics include intense localism, reemergence but also enduring weakness of “normative” communal structures and institutions (and, conversely, Jewish identification mediated through non-Jewish institutions like trade and neighborhood associations, devotion to theatrical performance, etc.), and ambivalence about integration in municipal structures and practices (e.g., euergetism) that were weakening but still viable. The second late antiquity shows signs of “standardization”: an iconography is shared trans-locally, Jewish onomastics is transformed and standardized, there are communities, synagogues and officials. Unlike in other areas, e.g., Egypt or Italy, there is as yet no trace of rabbis.


What Made Rabbanites “Rabbinic”?

Sacha Stern, University College London

The study of Rabbinization in the first millennium CE is often predicated on a notion of rabbinic Judaism that is actually far from straightforward. The term “rabbinic” (rabbani) is not attested, as a qualifier of Judaism or anything else, before the ninth century, whilst there is little sense in the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrashim that their authors saw themselves as expounding a “Judaism” that was “rabbinic.” By the late Geonic period, what identified many Jews as “Rabbanites” was their allegiance to the Mishnah and Talmud (or what we call rabbinic literature), but this allegiance was sometimes illusory. Thus, in the case of the calendar—one of the most public expressions of disagreement between Rabbanites and Qaraites—the Rabbanites used a calculated calendar that had no foundation in the Talmud, whereas the Qaraites observed the new moon crescent and intercalated the year on the basis of aviv, both of which can be traced back directly to tannaitic sources. The alleged continuity of Rabbanite Judaism with the Mishnah and Talmud has underpinned modern scholarly accounts of the Rabbinization of Judaism in the early medieval Near East, but attention needs to be given to the internal ruptures in the transmission and diffusion of early rabbinic traditions, and the apparent absence of an explicitly “rabbinic” identity until its invention in response to Qaraite polemics.


Conference papers

“It does not befit al-Raḥmān to take a son …”: Late-Antique Arabia and the Qurʾanic Polemic against Divine Sonship

Sean Anthony, Ohio State University

The rejection of divine sonship is a major theological motif of the Qurʾan. In one of its earliest polemics against divine sonship, the Qurʾan declares that the heavens and earth nearly split asunder because of those who claim that “the Merciful (al-raḥmān)” has a son; “for it does not befit the Merciful (al-raḥmān) to take a son” (Q. Maryam 19:90-93). Such statements are prevalent throughout the qurʾanic corpus, but I contend that the use of the divine epithet al-raḥmān in this passage in particular – as well as in the so-called “Raḥmān-sūrahs” in general – evokes a memory of a specifically Arabian context: the rise of ‘raḥmanite’ monotheism in the kingdom of Ḥimyar in South Arabia in the centuries prior to the advent of Islam. 

How the Qurʾan relates to, or even draws from, the rise in the political fortunes of monotheism in Ḥimyar remains a historical mystery. This paper aims explore a potential connection between the Qurʾan and these earlier developments by investigating three groups of sixth-century texts that one might regard as testimonies to late-antique precursors to the qurʾanic polemics against divine sonship – in particular the sonship of Jesus – in an Arabian context. The first group is the ‘raḥmānite’ inscriptions of the Jewish and Christian rulers of South Arabian kingdom of Ḥimyar from c. 500-570 ad. The second are the Greek and Syriac sources on the Nagrān crisis of the 520s, precipitated by the siege and extermination of the city’s Christian population by the Ḥimyarite prince Joseph Dhū l-Nuwās. And last are select homilies of the miaphysite theologian Jacob of Sarug (d. 521), who corresponded with the inhabitants of Nagran during the crisis and composed several Homilies of Against the Jews which prominently feature, and rebut, Jewish polemics against divine sonship.


Rabbinization and Jewish Aramaic Bible Translation: Perspectives from Rabbinic and Targumic Literatures

AJ Berkovitz, HUC-JIR/New York

Two sites stand prominent among the landscape of ancient Jewish religious life: the study house and the synagogue. This paper contributes to the story of their relationship by surveying the rabbinization of Targum, the oral-performative translation of Scripture. It will begin with an overview of the history and trajectory of Targum. It will then explore the dialectics of rabbinization through a series of short case-studies from both rabbinic and targumic literatures. Attention to rabbinic literature will show how rabbis attempted to place their imprint upon Targum in both form and practice, going so far as to use the word “Targum” to indicate rabbinic` exegesis. Case-studies from targumic literature, itself a heterogeneous genre, will show that although the history of Targum arcs towards rabbinization, the process itself was non-uniform. This paper will highlight diversity by exploring the seemingly competing ways in which Targum acculturates to rabbinic thought and institutions, creates with traditions and formula developed by the rabbis as well as resists rabbinic prescriptions. Given the underdeveloped nature of Targum Studies, this paper will eschew concrete historical solutions for suggestions. It will highlight prospects and problems for future study.


Jonah and the Three Fish in the Synagogue at Huqoq: An Exegetical Motif between Mosaic and Midrash

Ra‘anan Boustan, Princeton University, and Karen Britt, Northwest Missouri State University

The recently discovered Jonah panel from the early fifth-century synagogue in the village of Huqoq (lower eastern Galilee) provides precious evidence for the circulation of traditions of scriptural exegesis across the boundaries that might be thought to divide rabbinic texts from the visual culture of the late antique synagogue. The panel, found in the synagogue’s nave, depicts the episode from the story of Jonah in which the prophet, having fled aboard a ship from his divinely appointed mission of announcing the destruction of the city of Nineveh, is cast into the sea by his shipmates (Jonah 1:1–2:1). The scene is replete with marine and maritime images familiar from a wide range of artistic mediums and even incorporates iconographic elements associated with depictions of classical mythological narrative (especially Odysseus’s encounter with the sirens). But the Jonah panel is perhaps most noteworthy for its presentation of the Israelite prophet being swallowed by a sequence of three successively larger fish, a motif that is not otherwise paralleled in the hundreds of extant visual depictions of the book of Jonah from Late Antiquity. Curiously, the motif of the three fish first appears in Jewish and Islamic textual sources in the early medieval period (after the seventh century), at least three or four centuries after its use in the Huqoq panel. Our paper will consider the distribution of this motif across visual and textual mediums with the aim of reconceptualizing the borderlines among various religious communities, both within and beyond the bounds of Judaism. In our view, the Jonah panel not only challenges teleological accounts of the dissemination of narrative and exegetical traditions from rabbinic text to synagogue art, but also undermines the common scholarly practice of identifying specific motifs as either “rabbinic” and “non-rabbinic” in the first place.


Innovation in Tenth-Century Karaite Interpretation of the Pentateuch: Ya‘qūb al-Qirqisānī’s Kitāb al-Riyād wa-l-Ḥadā’iq

Miriam Goldstein, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Ya‘qūb al-Qirqisānī’s Kitāb al-Riyād wa-l-Ḥadā’iq (Book of Gardens and Parks) is without a doubt one of the most original exegetical works composed in Judeo-Arabic during the medieval period. In this work, composed during the first half of the tenth century CE, al-Qirqisānī takes up a wide variety of angles in analyzing the biblical text, including bold new methods of interpretation. These methods differed greatly from earlier rabbinic tradition, with which he was no doubt familiar. His methods, though, also contrast strongly with those of his fellow Karaites, such as the exegetes of the Jerusalem school. In my paper I will present newly edited and translated sections of al-Qirqisānī’s exegesis on the book of Genesis, and will demonstrate its sui generis nature, breaking with earlier tradition yet unique even in its contemporaneous Karaite milieu.


Where is the Locus of God’s Greatest Glory? Diversity and Dialogue in Late Antique Hebrew Literature (Hekhalot, Midrash, Piyyut)

Yehoshua Granat, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The proposed paper will focus on a cluster of late ancient Hebrew texts that can be read as manifesting an ongoing dialogue between heterogeneous world views and “theological” orientations within contemporaneous Judaism. As a point of departure, we will consider a group of representative Hekhalot hymns which emphatically express the perception of the heavenly divine and angelic sphere as the ultimate focus of religious experience and attention. Against that background, we will examine certain Midrash and Piyyut texts that (arguably) encapsulate rabbinic or “para-rabbinic” responses to the challenge of the Hekhalot circles’ concentration on the heavenly realm and its ecstatic vision as the most sublime sort of devotional practice. First, we will regard the juxtaposition of the preexistent Torah and God’s throne, and the prioritization of the former to the latter in the process of cosmogony according to Genesis Rabbah. Second, we will consider the poignantly paradoxical superiority of God’s worship performed by inevitably imperfect human beings, to His celestial adoration by the multitudes of immaculate angelic beings, as an accentuated topos in the world of early Piyyut. The explication and analysis of the selected pieces will aim to shed light on ‘subterranean’ intellectual ‘negotiations’ between distinct, and in some sense contradictory and competing, religious ideologies of the time, and thus may hopefully make a worthwhile contribution to a fuller understanding of the “dialectics of rabbinization” and of Jewish culture in late antiquity as a multi-vocal shared space.


Dorming Rabbis: An Incrementalist Approach to Babylonian Rabbinization in Late Antiquity

Simcha Gross, University of Pennsylvania

The reassessment of the position of the rabbis constitutes one of the key paradigm shifts in the study of Jews in antiquity in the past half century. As opposed to earlier scholarship, two key revisionist assumptions are now widely accepted: that the rabbinic movement emerged largely following the destruction of the temple, and, as a new movement in the post-destruction period, the rabbis did not enjoy immediate popularity. These assumptions generated the question of rabbinization; if the rabbis were not always dominant, what was the process by which rabbis and rabbinic teaching did indeed attain an elevated position in the eyes of Jews around the world?

To date, the study of Rabbinization in late antiquity has focused intensely and almost exclusively on Palestinian rabbis and the spread of their influence within Palestine and then across the Mediterranean. Lamentably, there has been no comparable study of Babylonian rabbinization during late antiquity, despite the fact that it is Babylonian rabbinic authority and teachings that will become dominant across the known Jewish world in the early medieval period.

This selective focus is not simply a matter of neglect; it is the result of a number of widely shared – and I will argue deeply problematic – assumptions about how the Babylonian rabbis, Babylonian Jewish society, and indeed, the Sasanian Empire, differed from Palestinian society in crucial ways. These arguments precluded any need to seriously address the question of rabbinization in Babylonia. Once these older assumptions are jettisoned, an incrementalist approach to Babylonian rabbinization throughout late antiquity is possible, one that is attuned to social historical arguments about the spread of movements through networks and contacts. I will offer a model of such an approach through the case study of stories about Babylonian rabbinic lodging practices and the landlords with which they were regularly in contact.


Binyamin al-Nihāwandī’s Exegesis in Light of New Evidence

Ofir Haim, Mandel Scholion Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Binyamin ben Moshe al-Nihāwandī (fl. early ninth century) was considered one of the forerunners of Karaism by later Jewish authors. Binyamin authored several Hebrew legal works and biblical commentaries, most of which are now lost. His exegetical and halakhic opinions, which reveal his scripturalist leanings, often appear in Karaite works of the tenth century and onward.

In this paper, I present and closely examine several fragments possibly attributed to Binyamin al-Nihawandī, including two hitherto unknown texts dealing with the Book of Daniel and the End of Days. Attention is paid to the terminology and techniques employed in these texts, which may prove helpful in identifying other fragments containing the works of Binyamin. Finally, I attempt to determine the nature of contacts between midrashic literature and Binyamin’s exegetical writings, thus shedding new light on Binyamin’s attitude towards the rabbinic corpus in general and the Rabbanites of his age.

The Rabbinic Movement in Babylonia: Distinctive Features

Geoffrey Herman

Discussion on the nature of the Rabbinic movement in recent decades has focused on the Rabbinic movement in Palestine and the Roman sphere. Many of the assertions relating to how to understand the rabbis, and their place in Jewish society are not relevant or meaningful for Babylonia, and much of the evidence on which such discussion is based, is not available for Babylonia. This paper seeks to quantify what is different about the Rabbis in Babylonia and asks what if any characteristics the rabbinic movement may have shared with contemporary and comparable intellectual elites within the Sasanian milieu. 


Rabbinic Messianism and Rabbinic Christology: From the Amidah to Saadya

Martha Himmelfarb, Princeton University

This paper will attempt a better understanding of rabbinic messianism and eschatology and its development from early in the rabbinic era into the Middle Ages. It will focus on the variety of ways rabbinic traditions respond to contemporary non-rabbinic Jewish sources and to Christian messianic narratives and themes over the period in question.


The Transmission of Rabbinic Literature and the History of Rabbinic Judaism

Yitz Landes, Princeton University

Scholars agree that the second half of the first millennium witnessed significant shifts in rabbinic geography and hegemony. Yet, it is the case that many of the central processes behind theses shifts are almost impossible to trace. For much of this period, our evidence for rabbinic leadership is frustratingly slim, and uncovering these processes is hindered also by definitional issues, as it is difficult to even define “Rabbinic Judaism.” In this paper, I will present a method that can shed light on sveral of the shifts that occurred in rabbinic Judaism during this period, one that focuses on the study of the reception and transmission of rabbinic texts and knowledge. This model is based on the conviction that “Rabbinic Judaism” can be described as a practice of Judaism that bears fealty to the canon of rabbinic texts. As such, I propose utilizing the significant amount of work that has been done in the philological study of the rabbinic corpus in order to document the history of the transmission of rabbinic knowledge over the course of late antiquity and the early middle ages. This approach, in turn, allows us to gain greater insight into forms of rabbinic education and into the geographic diffusion of rabbinic knowledge that occurred during this time.


Slaughtering Practices, Rabbinization, and the Western Mediterranean in the Ninth Century

Hayim Lapin, University of Maryland

In their polemical writings, Agobard and Amulo, Bishops of Lyon in the ninth century, provide perhaps the earliest evidence for the presence of Jews, Jewish traditions and texts, and Jewish ritual practice in early medieval Christian Europe. Agobard in particular attests to the peculiarly rabbinic Jewish practice of inspecting the lungs of slaughtered animals to evaluate whether the animals may be eaten. This material has been studied previously from the point of view of early medieval anti-Judaism and for the orientation of Agobard’s Jews to Babylonian or Palestinian halakhah. This paper shifts the focus to the diffusion of rabbinic practice to the western Mediterranean, its demographic dimensions (the movement of new people and/or of new ideas), and its visibility to outside, Christian and Muslim, observers. 


 Others of Ourselves: Rabbinization in Geonic Times and Seder Eliyahu’s Discourse on Jewishness, Leadership, and Diversity

Lennart Lehmhaus, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Seminar für Judaistik und Religionswissenschaft

Departing from earlier largely “rabbinocentric” Talmudic history (i.e., the rabbis as religious and political leaders), more recent scholarship suggests a slower process of “rabbinization” and continued cultural competition within a diverse Jewry in changing socio-historical contexts. Seder Eliyahu Zuta and Rabba (SEZ/SER) may serve as rich and astonishing sources for these developments. While primarily appearing as ethical discourse, the texts elaborate on Jewish identity/identities and the (social) role of rabbinic scholars, partly educated, and unlearned people. These non-rabbinic or para-rabbinic interlocutors figure in outstanding passages of encounter and dialogue in Seder Eliyahu (SE), which touch upon core issues of religious identity and ideals of Jewish communal responsibilities. While, at first, these passages seem to indicate inner- and inter-religious polemics, a second look reveals their focus on instruction and inclusion despite a greater diversity.

Based on these dialogues and other passages, my paper will focus on SE’s discourse on leadership and community. The text offers (rabbinically biased) accessible and appealing alternatives of religious participation operating below the realm of Talmudic academies or rabbinic circles. Ambitious full-blown rabbinic erudition is augmented or contrasted with the ideal of ethical responsiveness and communal reciprocities. This discourse seems to reflect inner-rabbinic competition, Jewish plurality, (proto-) Karaite Scripturalism, and different Christian and Muslim communities. The rabbinization (and Talmudization) of Geonic Judaism unfolded partly in dialogue with or against the backdrop of lacking coherence in ritual, learning, and other customs – mirrored in Seder Eliyahu’s discussion of different halakha, liturgy, and minhag. Even the so-called “mainstream” of these religions/cultures in early Byzantine/Islamicate milieus were more variegated, and exchanges between Palestine, Babylonia, and North Africa (or Southern Italy) were more complex than previously assumed. Seder Eliyahu navigates this shared discursive space keeping a safe distance to traditional rabbinic learning (institutions), while exhibiting structural similarities with contemporary texts (e.g., PRE and so-called “late midrashim”), new Geonic literary types, and various Arabic-Persian, Muslim, or Syriac Christian forms of discourse. Consequently, one may study SE as a bridging tradition of the formative phase between late antique rabbinic literature and the complex rise of Geonic-Talmudic Judaism in the medieval period.


The Rise and Function of the Holy Rabbi

Avigail Manekin-Bamberger, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The vast corpus of the Babylonian incantation bowls brings to light an unprecedented magical technique: invocations of rabbis and particularly their legal prowess as powerful apotropaics in the combat against demons and disease. This technique provides us with evidence that at least some Babylonian Jews venerated rabbis for their legal powers and expertise in magical incantations. In this talk I will suggest that invoking rabbis in magical contexts is a natural extension of the portrayal of rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud. Additionally, I will suggest how and why this technique became popular among bowl writers in late Sasanian Babylonia. Finally, I will argue that a close reading of these magical texts may provide nuance in our understanding of rabbinization and diversity in the late antique Jewish world.


Jews in North-West Arabia: When, Where and How?

Laïla Nehmé, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Attention to the presence of Jewish individuals or communities in the northwestern part of the Arabian peninsula was drawn a long time ago by various academics. Newby, Lecker, Gil, Hoyland, Robin, Noja, Costa, are names which are familiar to anyone interested in the subject. The author considers herself as an outsider in the debate, being neither a specialist of religious history nor, strictly speaking, a historian of the period, but she will try to tackle the issue from a different, possibly more archaeological and spatial, perspective. She will base her contribution on the available material as well as on the material she has collected during the surveys she undertook in the area under discussion.


Affective Niche as Marking Diversity: Tanhuma-Yelammedenu Literature and Rabbinic Hegemony

Ronit Nikolsky, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

The debate around the place of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu Literature (TYL) within rabbinic literature makes it an excellent locus for the study of diversity in the society that gave rise and place to rabbinic culture: questions about how institutionalized this literature is, is it literary or performative, the relationship with the rabbinic institutions, its role in the synagogue, and what is reflected in its midrashic activity and halakhic proems.

Based on a nuanced understanding of the concept of cultural hegemony, I will introduce the affective-niche approach, from the field of the study of emotions. This approach studies the unique emotional engagement of a social group with its cultural canon. I will apply it to the TYL, reframing previous research of TYL within this suggested model. I will present a new study, which looks at the attitude of the TYL literature to the commandments (מצוות) and compare the type of engagement suggested in the TYL to that of “main stream” rabbinic literature, both contemporary as well as earlier.


Why “not an Apple” is not necessarily an Orange: Comparing and Grouping texts

Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, École Pratique des Hautes Études

One of the main questions around diversity and rabbinization centers around priests and priestly texts traditions vis-à-vis rabbis and rabbinic texts and traditions. This paper will focus on the phenomenon of Templization and its relation to Christian competitors.


Textual Archipelagos: Evidentiary Models for Jewish Society in Late Antiquity

Michael D. Swartz, Ohio State University

Students of Judaism in late antiquity are confronted with a challenge: While it is clear that society and culture in Jewish Palestine and Babylonia were more complex than depicted in the rabbinic canon, we lack evidence for the behavior and identity of the vast majority of Jews in those times and places. The goal of this paper is to think through models of dealing with the evidence for literature and material culture outside of that canon, drawing on recent methods for studying social networks and ancient material culture. Case studies from divination texts and early piyyut will provide examples.


Babylonia or All the East? Patriarchal Authority in the Church of the East in Islamic Late Antiquity

Lev Weitz, Catholic University of America

This paper explores themes of comparative relevance to rabbinization and diversity in medieval Jewish communities by examining that other religious organization centered in Babylonia, the Church of the East. In heuristic terms, medieval Christianity differed from Judaism (and Islam) in that its recognized centers of authority—bishoprics, metropolitan bishoprics, and patriarchates—were more institutionally defined, at least in the eyes of those who sought to hold that authority. But this state of affairs in no way relieved East Syrian Christians in Iraq, Iran, and further east from contestation over religious and social norms and who got to define them.

From this vantage point, this paper will look at several developments within the intellectual and institutional life of the East Syrian Church in the early Islamic centuries that parallel or otherwise offer comparative views relevant to the dialectical relationships between the Babylonian rabbinic establishment and other Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean. These developments include: resistance to the primacy of the Church of the East’s Babylonian patriarchate in Iran and east Arabia; textual methods by which East Syrian patriarchs sought to project their authority to distant Christian communities, including letter-writing and law-making; and the introduction of paper to the Middle East and whether this new technology aided the patriarchs in their efforts to administer territories over which they claimed authority.

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