Monday, May 30, 2011

The Ultimate Critical Edition

Professor Menahem Kahana is the unrivalled expert in Tannaitic Midrash (Midrash Halakhah). Over the past decade he has published two major books. The first was a partial and comparative edition of the two Mekhiltot on Exodus, focusing on the Aggadic section about Amalek. The second was an edition of Sifre Zuta on Deuteronomy - a midrash that was so lost we didn't even know it existed until Kahana found it.
Kahana's doctorate was a prolegomenon to Sifre Numbers. Now, almost thirty years later, the groundwork he laid there is beginning to come to fruition. The first volume of his critical edition of Sifre Numbers has been published by Magnes. It includes an introduction, and the full critical apparatus for the first 106 pericopes of the midrash. It also has a more minimal edition of the remainder of the midrash (a simple transcription of the Vatican MS). Two more volumes are supposed to appear soon, with his exhaustive commentary on the first part of the midrash. The commentary and the full edition of the last part is still in the works. The TOC and preface are online.
I haven't seen the book yet. But I've taken enough courses with Kahana, and read enough of his published work, to know that the standards of this edition are extremely high. I'm not sure I'll be able to find room on my shelf for all these volumes of a midrash that until now took up only a couple of centimeters. But I look forward to seeing the complete edition in print.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Talmud Department

The blogger who usually reports on Yossi Cedar's movie Footnote is busy running a major conference, so he hasn't noted that the movie won best screenplay at Cannes. I'm sure he'll rectify that soon. But now that the whole world has been exposed (or will be soon) to the joys and terrors of the Talmud department, it seems like a good opportunity to encourage young people to choose to study there.
For all the criticism that can be heard (sometimes from me), it is a remarkable department. The teachers are extremely learned, and they all are deeply committed to their students. Jewish studies has grown worldwide, but the Hebrew University Talmud department remains the best place in the world to study Midrash Halakhah, Geonic literature and medieval Halakhah, not to mention the core topics of Mishnah and both Talmuds. In general, I believe it is the best place to study what can generally be called 'Talmudic philology' and to gain a close and balanced familiarity with the manuscripts.
Besides all that, for the second year running the department is offering full scholarships for students beginning their BA. Full scholarships are also available for those beginning an MA and even for students pursuing supplementary courses to upgrade from a B.Ed to an MA.

And maybe you'll even appear in the sequel movie, Nispah (Excursus).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Peering through the conferenceshttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

Shazar has published a Hebrew translation of Ephraim Kanarfogel's Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical, Miraculous, Martyrological, Moribund, Dimensions in the Tosafist Period. In honour of this event, there will be an event at the Shazar offices on May 26th, with Profs Avraham Grossman, Yossef Hecker, Moshe Idel and the author.

Bar Ilan University is having a major conference devoted to Rashbam, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir of Ramerupt or thereabouts, in memory of Eliezer Touito. Non-fancy schedule here. It amazes me, the amount of attention that scholars of medieval biblical exegesis lavish on a fairly limited corpus. I must admit that it also frustrates me that despite all this enthusiasm for studying Rashbam's biblical exegesis, his Talmudic commentaries and, to an even greater degree, his Halakhic writings have received virtually no attention whatsoever. Anyway, Hanna Liss has recently published a new book on Rashbam titled Creating Fictional Worlds. I haven't finished reading it, so I'll hold off on criticism, but the basic idea is that Rashbam was responding to the Christian culture surrounding him, but not in the way people like the late Touito thought. The real backdrop is not the scholastic biblical exegesis that was being written in Latin, but rather the romances being written in the vernacular (French). I look forward to being convinced of this intriguing suggestion.

Monday, May 02, 2011


The new issue of ha-Ma'ayan is online. I haven't had time to go through it carefully. But there is one exchange that I thought was worth commenting on. Someone who berated R Yoel Friedmann for his critical review (in an earlier issue of ha-Ma'ayan) of R David Avraham's new edition of Sefer ha-Terumah. Friedmann is working on a doctorate on Sefer ha-Terumah, and noone knows the manuscripts of that work better than he does. His main complaint against the new edition was that the editor used the manuscripts in a haphazard way, without trying to determine their relative worth. It's worth mentioning that R David Avraham's previous project was a massive (8 volumes, I think) new edition of Sefer Kolbo. His footnotes there are exhaustive and sometimes exhausting but definitely helpful. But Kolbo is almost unique among medieval Halakhic works in that it exists only in a printed edition - no manuscripts of it are known to have survived.

The berater declares that Friedmann's perspective is irrelevant because it is academic, whereas Avraham is following the methodology of the 'Yeshiva world'. Academics concern themselves with variants and with determining the original text, while Yeshiva adherents are enamoured of the received text that has been sanctified by generations of learning. I've heard that claim before, and I find it silly, but if it's followed consistently, at least it doesn't purport to more than it achieves. However, as Friedmann points out in his rejoinder, this new edition is not a reproduction of the standard printed text, since the editor did in fact make use of manuscripts and presents this as one of the main advantages of his edition. In this light, the berater's position seems to be that the Yeshiva world insists on its right to use critical tools haphazardly. Ignoring them would bespeak ignorance, but using them carefully and consistently would apparently betray the values of the Yeshiva world. So a happy compromise is found in mediocrity.

The number of scholars within the "Yeshiva world" who are studying Talmudic philology and other branches of critical Jewish studies, and applying them carefully and successfully to traditional texts and traditional questions is growing. This issue of Ha-Ma'ayan includes a few interesting examples. But the tension is still there. Looking at other articles in the issue, one can find an attempt to resolve a Halakhic question with grave implications for the rule of law in Israel through comparison of manuscripts. On the other hand, in Rav Yoel Katan's regular column which surveys new books in the field, he criticizes the author of Derekh ha-Melekh for citing too many academic sources in a Halakhic context. Of course, there is a big difference between the application of thought to textual criticism and privileging any article published in an academic journal over traditional sources. But the allure of academic Jewish studies is quite bright.

The argument over Sefer ha-Terumah upsets me, partly because I know R Yoel Friedmann, but mostly because the study of medieval Halakhah is one field where the distance between academics and traditional learners is fairly small, and the opportunities for working symbiotically are great.