Early Rabbinic Writings


Early Rabbinic Writings. By Hyam Maccoby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. xxiv + 245 pages. $59.50.

            In this volume the author demonstrates great erudition and shows extensive knowledge of a myriad of details of rabbinic literature. The flyleaf makes ambitious claims on behalf of this volume, such as, "Hitherto there has been no easy way for a student to grasp the scope and variety of the relevant rabbinic writings." The book will "enable the reader to embark on further study with a clearer orientation," and will "correct many mistaken views about rabbinic Judaism." Unfortunately the book does not fulfill these promises. It suffers from severe shortcomings and therefore serves neither the interests of the disciplines of Judaic studies nor the concerns of the enterprises of Jewish theology or Jewish-Christian dialogue.

            Maccoby begins with a 48 page essay treating various subjects. He deals with the idea of the Oral Torah in an apologetic quasi-theological fashion. In discussing the canonicity of rabbinic literature he posits a populist origin for Mishnah. His exposition on the style of rabbinic writings occupies one page and makes no mention of form analysis as a tool of exegesis.

            Maccoby then discusses the Pharisees, Sadducees and rabbis, the differences between Halakah and Haggadah, Haggadah and Midrash, Mishnah and Midrash. He briefly characterizes some of the major individual works of rabbinic literature: Mishnah, Tosefta, Targums, Liturgy and the Midrashim. In a six page outline of the "main rabbinic figures" and a two page summary of the main ideas of early rabbinic literature, Maccoby presents an uncritical composite of various rabbinic materials.

            Part II of the book presents Maccoby's translation of selected passages from the literature with his comments. The English rendering is by and large acceptable though it fails to capture the formal traits of the literature. In some cases the translation is awkward to wit, the Evening Shema` may be recited "until the shaft of dawn goes up" (p. 53). In his explanations of passages the author often leaves statements unexplained. In the preceding instance regarding Mishnah Berakot 1:1 he says, "An important principle of rabbinic legislation emerges," but we are not told what this was. The author fails to point out that passage exemplifies several major rabbinic literary forms such as the dispute-form and the m`sh--story, subjects of much emphasis in modern scholarship on rabbinic texts. A newcomer to these materials would be puzzled by Maccoby's lengthy discussion of ritual purity laws in connection with that pericope and by his apparent lack of interest in the development of the liturgy or its complexities and composition (pp. 53-4).

            More striking is his neglect in the discussion of Mishnah Berakot 8:1 of the formal characteristics of the disputes in this passage regarding practice at the table during a fellowship meal. In his comments on the substance of the unit, he fails to supply, but still summarily dismisses, the "elaborate ritual-purity explanation of the pericope," in favor of his lame interpretation, "In the first century, this `washing of hands' before a meal was probably a matter of hygiene only as in contemporary Greco-Roman practice." The dispute he says reflects, "A mere difference in etiquette" (pp. 56-7). Later, as an explanation of Mark, chapter seven, Maccoby informs us that "Jesus, as a Hasidic Pharisee, may have held that hygienic precautions showed a lack of faith in Providence" (p. 123). This kind of arbitrary reductionist interpretation projects rather than corrects mistaken views about rabbinic Judaism.

            In commenting on Mishnah Berakot 9:5 Maccoby observes, "The tractate opens with a tension between the commands of the Torah and the enactments of the rabbis. It is perhaps significant, then, that the tractate also closes with this tension" (p. 58). This comment reveals a basic failure in Maccoby's analysis. He does not have any appreciation of the distinctiveness of rabbinic Judaism as a new Judaic system that took shape in the first to third centuries. All recent research of consequence in the field has shown in great detail how the tension he speaks of permeates the fibers of that formative religious tradition.

            In this sampler of texts Maccoby does not make it clear why he chose one pericope for inclusion over another. He includes Mishnah Demai 2:2-3, it would appear, to correct "many misapprehensions, found even in scholarly books, about the `table fellowships' and their aims" (p. 68). But Maccoby's superficial explanation of that passage shows instead that he has little control over the social scientific, anthropological or comparative contemporary academic studies that pertain to this subject (pp. 68-70).

            The book grows increasingly idiosyncratic. On page 79 the author cites Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to elucidate Mishnah Bikkurim 3:1-4. A later passage illustrates Maccoby's tendency to blur social and historical distinctions in formative rabbinism. He tells us (pp. 95-6) that, "The haberim were not co-extensive with the Pharisees, who, as a religious party (otherwise known as the hakamim, `Sages' or soperim, `Scribes') claimed great authority over the whole field of Jewish law and thought, and had much wider aims than the haberim."

            A book on this subject must accept certain minimal assumptions to be acceptable and credible in the context of the modern scholarship on rabbinic writings and culture. These include, but are not limited to such principles as: analysis must be devoid of theological-apologetic intent. It must recognize the systemic discontinuities of rabbinism in Judaic history. It must take account of the relative influence of local and national forces over internal Jewish life and the role of religious ritual in those relationships. It must take seriously the effects of conflict on religious institutional change. It must broaden its view of religion and social life beyond the paradigm of norm against heresy. It must resist the temptation to posit changes in Judaism based on reactions to conditions outside the defined boundaries of the group's identity. These desiderata serve as crucial grounding for reasonable discussions in the discipline. Maccoby consistently ignores them.

            It should also be noted that the nine page glossary contains some errors and inaccuracies. The author for instance delineates a berakah too narrowly as, "a liturgical form expressing thanks for some benefit enjoyed." He says restrictively of the Talmud, "Gemara, the commentary on the Mishnah." The work includes a one and a half page book-list called "Further Study," and a nine page index.

            Early Rabbinic Writings suffers from the numerous problems I have summarized here and many others that space does not allow me to include. Accordingly Maccoby's book cannot be recommended. Scholars will find it of little value because it ignores the methods and substance of recent research. Non-specialists will find it lacking because its texts and comments do not adequately represent the religion it purports to depict. Theologians and practitioners of Judaism will deem it unacceptable because it dismisses many basic precepts of traditional interpretation and stands thereby outside of the main traditions of Judaism as well.

Tzvee Zahavy

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455