In Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud after the Humanities, Mira Beth Wasserman offers an insightful examination of an entire tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, one of the central texts of rabbinic Judaism. Wasserman’s book brings the Talmud into conversation with contemporary critical theory, offering a compelling example of how engagement with animal studies, new materialism, and other critical theories can illuminate late-antique Jewish literature and culture. She analyzes Bavli Avoda Zara, the tractate on idolatry, arguing that the complex and often fractious discourse of the Talmud is animated by a sustained literary energy, driven by philosophical concerns that go far beyond the details of forbidden religious practice. Read through Wasserman’s exemplary anthropological gaze, the tractate becomes a meditation on rabbinic conceptions of the human, a text devoted to parsing both the kinships and differences between Jews and Gentiles. The first chapter probes the relationship between Jews and Gentiles through stories of origins and eschatology, as well as narratives of martyrdom that grapple with questions of human transcendence in the world to come. Particularly striking, in my reading, is Wasserman’s discussion of the Bavli’s story about Adam’s response to the winter solstice, his fears that the dwindling light is a punishment for his own sin, and his celebration when the days begin to lengthen again. The Talmud concludes that a festival that Adam rightly established was turned by non-Jews to idolatrous purpose. Though the narrative rebukes Gentile religious practice, it also offers a sympathetic origin story for solstice celebrations, inviting readers “to imagine that even Adam’s most errant idolatrous offspring might not be utterly irredeemable” (45). Wasserman is quick to emphasize that this tale contrasts with others in Bavli Avoda Zara’s own corpus. It is not her aim to crystalize the Bavli’s “real” feelings about Jews or Gentiles. In a reading project that owes much to Boyarin and Bakhtin, she emphasizes the dialogism and multivocality of the Talmud, excavating the enduring questions that drive the Bavli’s discussions. Wasserman’s analysis resists easy conclusions about rabbinic perceptions of non-Jews. She reveals how the Talmud’s rich discourse “enlists narrative, law, and dialectic to unsettle the judgments about non-Jews that are its patrimony from the Mishna” (40), the way its stories challenge and complicate more clear-cut assessments of Jewish and Gentile difference. The final portion of the chapter considers Jewish-Gentile relations through stories of martyrdom. While Wasserman’s reading of the social dimension of these tales strikes me as quite incisive, I found myself hesitating over her claim that these stories grapple with broad philosophical tensions over spirit and flesh, a dichotomy that seems to risk reading too much into the text. In the second chapter, Wasserman situates Bavli Avoda Zara in the context of animal studies. She argues that rabbinic discussions of bestiality become a prism not only for navigating the difference between humans and other animals, but also for contouring Jewish and non-Jewish relations. The Mishnah, an earlier rabbinic text, forbids Jews from stabling their livestock among Gentiles on suspicion that they will engage in sexual relations with the animals; it goes on to limit non-Jews’ interactions with Jewish women on suspicion of sexual transgression, or with Jews on suspicion of murder. While this continuum situates women “somewhere in between the categories of the human and the animal” (77), Wasserman shows how the Talmud contests and complicates these hierarchies. Bavli Avoda Zara does not always reify a binary divide between humans and other animals. Instead, it often serves to underscore the kinships between animals, women, and Gentiles—to highlight, by contrast, a particular moral capacity that belongs solely to Jewish males. Even so, Wasserman argues, the Bavli acknowledges that “it is not just women and Gentiles who harbor animal impulses, but Jewish men as well” (100). In the world of Bavli Avoda Zara, the human condition is largely indistinguishable from animal life. Torah alone elevates certain humans from the bestial—and, at that, only imperfectly. The rabbinic project of erecting boundaries between Jews and Gentiles is marked by similar urgency and imperfection. “Despite the social segregation imposed by Jewish law,” Wasserman contends, “some semblance of attraction always slithers through” (119). The third chapter examines the Bavli’s preoccupation with Gentile wine, juxtaposing rabbinic fears about poison and contamination with narratives about secrecy and snakes. Wasserman draws attention to a key legal and symbolic parallel: “Wine belonging to Jews that is left unsealed and unguarded is presumed to have been compromised through contact with a Gentile; liquids that are left uncovered and unwatched are presumed to have been infiltrated by snakes” (141). In a masterful reading of a complex portion of talmudic legal reasoning, Wasserman shows how snakes come to displace Gentiles, becoming a symbolic locus for condensing and expressing rabbinic perceptions about the danger non-Jews pose. The comparison becomes a potent way of justifying the creation of communal boundaries. But while the Gentile-as-snake offers a visceral account of the danger non-Jews pose, Wasserman argues that, when it comes to disclosing the reason for the prohibition on non-Jewish wine, Bavli Avoda Zara intentionally obfuscates. Arguing that the Bavli deliberately adopts a strategy of esotericism, she highlights a Kafkaesque quality of the Bavli’s argumentation—a tension between rhetoric and logic that challenges the very possibility of successful interpretation. In Wasserman’s reading, the chapter ultimately reinforces a rabbinic commitment to secrecy, a strategic veil that covers the knowledge that rabbinic prohibitions against Gentile wine do not rest on scriptural authority. It is a risky claim, an argument that aims to demonstrate that a complex passage deliberately confuses. That Wasserman makes it work is a testament to the success of her reading strategy, her capacity to set the details of this passage in a literary frame that reveals how strategic silence taps into the larger themes of the tractate. Chapter 4 considers Bavli Avoda Zara’s attention to objects associated with idolatry, arguing that rabbinic texts emphasize the way that human intention (not any inherent property of the object itself) grants or denies meaning to a statue or image. Wasserman begins the chapter with a discussion of new materialism, a foray into theory that helps contextualize the study of objects as a site of interest for the humanities, but which ultimately strikes me as only partially applicable to the Talmud’s own discussion. The key contribution of this chapter, in my view, lies in the insightful way Wasserman connects the Bavli’s discussions with philosophical debates over form and matter that animate Plato and Aristotle’s discussions of mimesis and Eastern Christian controversies over iconoclasm. Unlike earlier rabbinic texts, Wasserman argues, Bavli Avoda Zara grapples with similar questions about representation. Through narrative encounters between rabbis and philosophers, the Talmud posits a critical gap between the material image and that which it represents—but, perhaps even more importantly, reveals its own engagement with the broader intellectual currents of the age. In the last chapter, Wasserman probes Bavli Avoda Zara’s final pivot: its turn to the question of internal Jewish difference, the formation of social distinctions between the rabbinic Jewish elite and other Jews, designated as amei ha-aretz. Building on her earlier claim that the Bavli’s “othering of non-Jews is an exercise in separating like from like,” Wasserman observes that when the tractate confronts this internal other, “the task of asserting difference in the face of commonality becomes even more pressing” (219). The last chapter of Avoda Zara parlays the elaborate system of restrictions governing Gentile food and wine into a social system for separating rabbis from non-rabbinic Jews. But the tractate’s final tale has the last laugh. By portraying the Sassanian King Shapur as honoring the rabbinic stringencies that separate Jews from non-Jews, the Bavli subverts the rabbinic practice of using dietary restrictions to forge a cordon of distance between Jews and Gentiles—imagining these table laws instead as a wedge that separates Jews from Jews. The story of King Shapur, Wasserman writes, “invites our collusion in redrawing lines of exclusion and inclusion, turning settled notions of Jewish superiority inside-out and upside-down” (232). Throughout the book, Wasserman displays a masterful ability to synthesize a large body of complex material, guiding the reader through the details of complex legal reasoning without getting lost in the weeds. Perhaps inevitably, there were moments when I wished Wasserman might offer more sustained attention to the dynamics of a particular passage, but that is surely an impossible desire for a book that takes on the difficult task of reading an entire tractate. Marked by eminently readable prose, Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals will engage specialists in the field, while remaining highly accessible to readers in adjunct disciplines. Wasserman’s accomplishment is substantial, and her work promises readers a rich reward. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 21, 2018
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