ABSTRACT

In a well-known Talmudic story known as the “Oven of Akhnai”3 Rabbi Eliezer debates whether a certain oven should be considered ritually clean. Proposing every conceivable argument in support of his claim, Eliezer goes so far as to summon the powers of nature (rivers and carob trees) to bend in his favor. When these natural forces fail to convince his disputants, however, he enjoins a Heavenly Voice to speak up on his behalf, which it promptly does, provoking Rabbi Joshua to retort that “it is not in heaven,” where “it” refers to the law. As Rabbi Jeremiah explains, ever since the Torah was given to man on Mount Sinai, authority over its meaning has migrated from heaven to earth, whence, notwithstanding Eliezer’s ability to marshal both natural and supernatural evidence, the principle remains that “after the majority one must incline.” The story concludes with a postscript in which God, upon hearing the outcome of the rabbis’ argument, laughs and declares, “My sons have defeated me! My sons have defeated me!” However arcane the debate, the Oven of Akhnai reveals an uncannily familiar depiction of

ancient rabbis showing greater enthusiasm for questions of textual interpretation than for theological questions regarding the true will or intention of God. Resembling many modern representations of Jews and Judaism, the story may even be a source of this stereotype, for in the Oven of Akhnai the rabbinic tradition can be seen self-consciously representing itself, announcing with its pointedly happy ending (God’s laughter and approval) that a much larger argument has been won than the specific issue at hand. The Oven of Akhnai in fact renders visible the efforts of the rabbis to shore up their own authority and establish what has since been taken for granted, but which was by no means always assured: the centrality of the text in the life of the community. The “people” became a “people of the Book” when rabbinic Judaism succeeded its biblical

predecessor. As Moshe Halbertal explains, this was a development that depended on the hierarchical rise of the rabbi-scholar whose “leading role [ … ] constituted a revolutionary, postbiblical conception of religious authority” (Halbertal 1997: 6). Emmanuel Levinas’s observation, for example, that “Judaism is indeed the Old Testament, but read through the Talmud,” recalls

the complex interplay between two equally important canons: the “written law” (or Hebrew Bible) and the “oral law” (or Talmud) (Levinas 1989: 197). The product of a long and traumatic history, the massive sprawling intertext of the multi-volumed Talmud4 has often been regarded as the principal source not only of Jewish tradition but of Jewish survival. Scholars looking to make sense of this history have usually returned to the destruction of the

first temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon in the fifth century BCE as the point when Judaism (which had centered around the temple sacrifices) first found itself existentially threatened. It is Ezra “the scribe” who, on his return from Babylon, is generally credited with reconstituting the cult by establishing the written law as the new basis for communal life. His use of the word “drash” (“search”) for the act of reading also laid the foundations for what was later to become midrash, the rabbinic method of exegesis.5 “Searching” the Torah as a way of proving its relevance to new generations had been necessitated by the canonization of the Hebrew Bible (possibly as early as 150 BCE), after which time all new information had to be gained by interpreting those books already enclosed within the canon. The closing of the written law thus led to a further opening up of the oral law. The oral law was itself redacted6 following another crisis, the destruction of the second

temple and resultant exile in the first century CE. Uniquely, since the transformation of the oral tradition7 into writing entailed a risk to its vitality, the Talmud has usually been studied in an highly interactive social milieu, as Barry Holtz describes: “students sit in pairs or threesomes, reading and discussing out loud, back and forth [ … ] it is as much talk as it is reading; in fact, the two activities of reading and discussion are virtually indistinguishable” (Holtz 1992: 11). No brow-bent penseur sitting in solitude, the student of the Talmud learns alongside a havruta (from the Aramaic word for fellowship), whose presence turns textual study into a source not only of research, but of togetherness at a time when the unity afforded to people gathered in one place had given way to a life of dispersion. This hidden history may be glimpsed between the lines of the Oven of Akhnai. As a debate

over where meaning comes from, the story gestures in the direction of the power struggles that eventually led the scholars to usurp the rival authority of priests,8 philosophers, and prophets. The rabbis’ rejection of evidence drawn from the natural world (philosophy) and the supernatural world (prophesy) reinforced the absolute authority of the text. Moreover, by presenting an alternative source of meaning to the knowledge to be gained from both heaven and earth, the rabbis appear to have located the text within a third space: the space of exile. Contemporary critics have often been drawn to rabbinic exegesis for precisely these reasons. George Steiner, for example, has looked to midrash as an antidote to nationalist discourses and praised the diaspora as a situation wherein the text is “home” and each commentary a “return,”

Hermeneutic unendingness and survival in exile are, I believe, kindred. The text of the Torah, of the biblical canon, and the concentric spheres of texts about these texts, replace the destroyed Temple.