Originally publishes in BSOAS 66:1 (2003), p. 80-1.
ALEXANDER SAMELY: Rabbinic interpretation of scripture in the Mishnah. xi, 479 pp. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. £55.
This reviewer of Samely’s massive volume is torn between admiration for the author’s skill in applying modern linguistics and philosophy of language to the Mishnah and amazement at the inappropriateness of this methodology to the subject in hand. To those of us untrained in linguistic philosophy, it seems odd, to say the least, that an agenda which purports to champion meaning should result in the opposite.
Describing his aim, Samely writes (p. 2): ‘I concentrate on passages in the Mishnah where scripture is alluded to or explicitly quoted. In such passages we find largely unexplained, or even undeclared, hermeneutic dependencies between Mishnaic norms or statements on the one hand and scripture’s words on the other. Since there is no fully explicit or consistent account of these dependencies in the Mishnah, my explication of them is a matter of reconstruction and of categorization. My descriptions of hermeneutic components thus constitute an interpretation of rabbinic interpretation’. (emphasis added). But, surely interpretation of rabbinic interpretation is a very different thing from the rabbinic interpretation of scripture in the title of the book.
Samely pursues his aim with chapters on these ‘dependencies’ with such convoluted titles, to quote just one or two, as: ‘quotes and causes. The imposition of a perspective on scripture’; ‘Scripture words, Mishnah’s speech’; ‘taxonomic and paradigmatic extensions, logical constants’. To each of these formations a special sign is allotted, enabling each to be traced, by means of an index, throughout the whole of the Mishnah. Far from shedding light on Rabbinic interpretation, these often get in the way of understanding. At times, they simply state the obvious in a needlessly complicated manner.
Take the analysis of Mishnah Peah 8: 9. Here is stated that if a poor man, entitled to take for himself the portion of the field left unharvested (Peah), decided not to avail himself of his right because he trusts in God to provide his needs, God will reward him. In support the Mishnah quotes the verse: ‘Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord alone’ (Jeremiah 17; 7) Samely remarks (pp. 7-8): ‘There is no mention of the Peah in this Jeremiah passage or anywhere near it. Neither does the historical approach provide for the following understanding of the verse: Blessed is the (needy) person trusting in God (as opposed to Peah), for God will provide his security [trust]. But this is how the Mishnah understands the verse. The verse is on the one hand linked to the case of a (needy) person who refrains from taking Peah. On the other hand, the second half is read as containing God’s response to such behaviour. Such are the hermeneutic decisions that need explaining—interpretations which we do not already understand on the basis of our understanding of Scripture’. But the Mishnah is not, in fact, making a hermeneutic decision. It is not interpreting at all but applying the notion of trust in God to the needy man. Of course, the verse does not speak of Peah and, without the benefit of any hermeneutical principle, the Mishnah and its readers know this. No one, however obtuse, would ever imagine the Mishnah to be saying that Jeremiah is speaking of Peah or praising the poor man who, in his trust that God will provide, prefers not to rely on others to support him through charity.
Why Samely should have limited his study to the Mishnah rather than including contemporaneous works, the halakhic Midrashim, is far from clear. In the matter of midrash, in particular, it is in these that the Tannaitic methods of exegesis are employed. It is not as if the Mishnah has a Midrashic approach peculiar to itself. The author might also have considered the extent to which Midrashic-type argumentation is found in Scripture. In his chapter on the a fortiori argument, helpful when standing on its own, Samely deals with a hermeneutical principle found everywhere in the Talmudic literature. It is even found in scripture, see my article ‘The qal-va-homer argument in the Old Testament’ in BSOAS xxxv 2, 1972.
From the book’s title, a prospective reader might conclude that he is being led to a treatment of some of the basic problems of Rabbinic Midrash, such as why there are different Midrashic schools, how they differ and how the very use of Midrash by the Rabbis ties in with the doctrine of the Oral Torah and with that of Halakhah given to Moses at Sinai. And what of the distinction between Halakhic and Aggadic Midrashim? What about the fundamental problem, widely discussed in modern scholarship, of whether, in the case of a given halakhah, the scriptural verse quoted in its support is thought of as the actual derivation of the law or whether the law is known independently and the scriptural support ‘discovered’ later?
For all that, inadequate though Samely’s book is in living up to its title, his introductory warning (pp. 4f.) to historians to live up to theirs by refusing to read their own ideas into ancient texts, is well taken. To the complaint that Samely himself is guilty of this by interpreting the Rabbis through modern linguistics, he will no doubt reply that he is only using this as a tool to understand the words of the Rabbis. Whether the tool is more suitable for a different task, is another matter.