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“In the west, they laughed at him:” The mocking realists of the Babylonian Talmud

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In the present article I examine the rhetorical function of the phrase “in the west [the Land of Israel], they laughed at him/it” found in dialectical halakhic contexts in the Babylonian Talmud. I argue that the literary motif of “mocking westerners” allows Babylonian rabbinic authors/redactors to voice reservations about the nominalist or anti-realist orientation of some rabbinic legal interpretation as seen in the use of legal fictions, contrary-to-fact presumptions and judgments, a high degree of intentionalism, and acontextual interpretive techniques. The ability of Babylonian rabbinic authors/redactors to depict the rabbis’ nominalist approach as the object of mockery by various external and, in this case, internal others indicates a high degree of rabbinic self-awareness regarding legal interpretative assumptions and methods. The paper concludes by suggesting that rabbinic nominalism flows from a distinctive and somewhat scandalous rabbinic understanding of divine law—one that self-consciously rejects an ideal of divine law that assumes its truth and verisimilitude.

Affiliations: 1: Religious Studies, Yale University,


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