Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Hagahot on Talya Fishman - part I

Talya Fishman, 'Rhineland Pietist Approaches to Prayer and the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture in Medieval Northern Europe', Jewish Studies Quarterly 11 (2004), pp. 313-331

Fishman has often dealt with interesting questions, and the direction she develops in this article - one she apparently deals with at greater length in a forthcoming book - seems especially intriguing. But there are points which bothered me about this article. Some are nitpicking. But some, I think, are symptomatic of a tendency to apply categories and processes from different cultures without testing them carefully enough.

In keeping with the early Ashkenazic practice, when I make a statement based on unpublished remarks of my teachers, I will mark it with MR, meaning mi-pi rabbi (from the mouth of my teacher).

First, I want to comment on something Fishman wrote recently somewhere else:

Writing in twelfth century France, at a time when variant manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud were in circulation, the most famous talmudic glossator, the Tosafist Rabbenu Jacob ben Meir Tam, attacked the rampant practice of textual emendation of rabbinic writings in his Introduction to Sefer ha-Yashar, i.e., "The Book of Probity." This critical perspective points to the emergence of two new historical conditions: (a) Written texts of the Oral Torah were no longer be regarded as aides de memoire, for had that been the case, lexical variants would not be a cause for concern. (b) There were now critical readers who paid attention to changes between one manuscript recension and another.

This short description (attached there to the wrong Sefer ha-Yashar!) implies that, before Rabbeinu Tam, there were no critical readers comparing recensions of the Talmud. This is ridiculous. Shamma Friedman, in his study of BM in the Lieberman festschrift, showed how European scribes were aware of two versions of the Talmudic text (which he finds represented by two manuscripts each), and they continually oscillate between the two. More to the point, Vered Noam demonstrated (in Sidra 17 [2001-2002]) that Rashi's textual emendations often obscure the hoary version he found before him. In other words, at least two generations before Rashi, lexical variants and their critical readers abounded.

I think that what Rabbeinu Tam was really doing was laying the foundations for a halachic revolution. As he himself says (p. 9), lots of people were criticizing the text. But RT wanted to read the Talmud closely, and to consider that reading authoritative enough to base new halachic conclusions on it. For that to be justified, he had to be sure that the version he was basing himself on was authentic.
In her present article, Fishman focuses on the concept of textualization - the process by which early medieval European society moved from finding authority in oral tradition to placing great emphasis on the written word. Yisrael Ta Shma wrote at length on this process in the introduction to his book on early Ashkenazic minhag (Minhag Ashkenaz ha-Kadmon, 2nd ed. Jerusalem 1998), which Fishman doesn't seem to mention here.
Specifically, she wants to trace the effects of this process in the area of prayer - not so much liturgy as practices related to it. A central source for her study is R Elazar Rokeach's commentary on the siddur, based on the Herschler edition - an edition which obscures a complex network of manuscripts, which make it very unclear what the Rokeach actually wrote himself (MR).
Fishman describes (p. 320) the early Piyyutim, composed in Palestine in the sixth-eighth centuries - as reflecting the "valorization of memory-intensive recollection", which aimed to transmit oral teachings "trespassing the rabbinic prohibition against inscription".
I find this very unconvincing. The allusions in piyyut are too obscure to expect memorization. What they demonstrate is virtuosity - the ability of the cantor to invoke, off the cuff, a dazzling array of sources, motifs, ideas and verses; to bring them all to bear on the specific setting - Yom Kippur that falls on Shabbat, a circumcision feast on Sukkot - and rework them artistically. The audience understood as much as they could. But they were an audience, not schoolchildren being drilled on their lessons.
As for the "prohibition against inscription" - there never was such a prohibition on aggadic material. Not in Palestine, anyway (MR, but see JN Epstein's discussion in Mavo leNusah haMishna).
The use of numbers as an organizing principle (p. 319) is evident in the warp and woof of the Talmud itself (Jeffrey Rubenstein's article in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture III, and Shamma Friedman's article on the Bavli, referenced there) and is not unique to midrash.
The term marviah, which Fishman translates as "am enlarging" (p. 315) seems, based on a quick Responsa search, to have one of two close meanings. Either to ease things, or to profit. In this case, I think it is clear (in light of the general theology of Hassidei Ashkenaz) that the second meaning is applicable. The Hassid counts the letters while praying, thus devoting more time to his prayer to God and finding new meanings in the words. Invoking Shiur Komah in this context is unnecessary.
To be continued.


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