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Reconsidering the Book and the Sword: A Rhetoric of Passivity in Rabbinic Hermeneutics

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The motif of the "book and the sword" as it appears in a Babylonian Talmud martyrdom narrative suggests that Torah and violence are mutually exclusive. This essay will explore in what ways the book and the sword have a more complicated relationship within the Babylonian Talmud and its sources than this narrative suggests. The essay will focus attention on a posture of interpretive passivity that rabbinic legislators adopt in a variety of legal contexts in which their audience's physical and social welfare is at stake, including criminal execution and women's claims upon their husbands. The essay will contrast the representation of the rabbi who laments, "What can I do? For behold the Torah said …" to the creative hermeneutics he in fact exercises. The essay will argue that this idiom, as it appears in several tannaitic texts and then is expanded in Babylonian talmudic texts, is unusual within Antiquity in giving explicit expression to embarrassment about scriptural canon. The essay proposes that the stereotyping of early rabbis as hermeneutically passive by Babylonian talmudic editors allows them to highlight their own exegetical and judicial activism as they transform inherited sources. The essay considers what the representation of hermeneutically passive rabbinic judges can reveal about the complex relationship between legal exegesis, judicial authority, and violence within rabbinic literature, from early to late, from Palestine to Babylonia.

Affiliations: 1: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America


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