Originally published in the Journal of Semitic Studies, 47:2 (2002), pp. 357-8.
Aryeh Cohen, Rereading Talmud: Gender, Law and the Poetics of Sugyot (Brown Judaic Series 318). Scholars Press, Atlanta 1998. Pp. iv + 242. Price: $34.95 hardback. ISBN: 0-7885-0499-1.
This book started its life as a doctoral dissertation and, although it has evidently been thoroughly revised, it bears all the marks of its origin in that it concentrates not on the Talmud as a whole but on a detailed account of the style and meaning of the Talmudic unit known as a sugya. There is a further limitation in that only a very few sugyot are examined. No doubt the author intends his approach to these sugyot to throw light on all the others but it cannot be said that he succeeds in this.
Dr Cohen’s aim is stated in his Introduction (pp. 1-2): ‘While nineteenth and early twentieth century Talmud scholarship relied almost exclusively on historical philological methods, the “linguistic turn” in literary analysis brought in its wake source and form-critical analysis. I continue this process by critiquing [sic] the literary and historicist presuppositions of these analyses and developing a methodology & for interpretation of the Bavli which accounts for contemporary theoretical understandings of text and textuality. This method opens the way for asking new questions of and about the sugyot in the Bavli’.
It has to be said that the book is too full of jargon and too inadequately organised for its basic thesis to be clearly grasped but, unless I have totally failed to understand the methodology to which the author refers in the Introduction, it consists of treating the Talmudic sugya as containing, beneath the surface of the literary formulation of the various arguments advanced, a kind of hidden agenda reached by decoding, that is, by using the tools of contemporary literary analysis. The heroes of the latter discipline such as Harold Bloom, Robert Cover, Jonathan Culler, Jacques Derrida and Terry Eagleton (though none of these can be even remotely described as Talmudic scholars) are laid under tribute for the supposed elucidation of the sugya so as to treat this as if it were a stanza in a song by Bob Dylan (p. 1237). This hardly works in the sugyot analyzed but, even if it did, the rereading of the Talmud (in the words of the author) would demand an examination of all the Talmudic sugyot, not just one or two which are made to serve the author’s purpose.
Cohen fails to note that every Talmudic sugya has a pattern of its own in which the particular topics are arranged in the form of progressive argumentation, one demonstration being refuted and then replaced by another and this in turn replaced. The interest of the compilers or final editors is far less in the subjects treated in the various proofs that are adduced than in the development of the argument as a whole in itself.
Take for example, Cohen’s chapter seven entitled ‘Women and Slaves: A Reading of Gittin 12a-13a’. In the passage he here examines, the argument weaves back and forth on the topic of right to maintenance of a wife by her husband and a slave being exiled to one of the cities of refuge after having been guilty of accidental homicide and this is compared to the case of a wife being so exiled. The cases of the slave and the wife are discussed since these are the only instances of one person being responsible for the maintenance of another. The term ‘exile’ is used in all the sources simply as the way of saying that so-and-so has to leave his home to go to live in the refuge city and is quite incidental to the actual argument about maintenance. The question discussed in the sugya is how does going to the refuge city by a slave affect his right to maintenance. In the same sugya another source is quoted relevant to the question of maintenance. This concerns a slave owner who dedicated to the Temple the profits of his slave’s work.
It is simply not on to reread the sugya and draw from it wide conclusions such as that the sugya when deconstructed refers to slavery being like Exile (caps the author’s) and, because the Temple is mentioned. In Cohen’s rereading the sugya is telling us overtly that the slave, biologically male, is represented as a female when compared to a wife, which seems equally far-fetched. Incidentally, in this case, the question of maintenance applies to a female slave as well. The maleness of the slave is not even indirectly relevant as the argument on maintenance proceeds.
For all that, there are fresh insights in the book on the question of how the Talmud was finally edited. The author’s criticism and partial acceptance of the views in this matter of Abraham Weiss, David Halivni, Shammai Friedman, Jacob Neusner and other experts in the field are all worthy of attention. It is the methodology that seems odd to one who has not been initiated into the mysteries of the philosophical use of language and who cannot for the life of him see how all this kind of rereading is in any way preferable to a plain reading of perfectly intelligible, straightforward Talmudic sugyot.