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Rabbis as Romans. The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100–400 C. E.
Oxford u. a.: Oxford University Press 2012. X, 295 S. Geb. £ 35,00. ISBN 978-0-19-517930-9.
This important monograph constitutes the first comprehensive study of the Palestinian rabbinic movement in the context of the Romanization of the province between the late first and early fifth century C. E. Hayim Lapin argues that rabbis constituted »a traditionalizing indigenous movement« which represented »one manifestation of provincial culture in the context of Romanization« (6–7). He is thereby able to integrate rabbis into the study of the Roman empire and its provinces in late antique and early Byzan-tine times. Accordingly, the book is written for both specialists in rabbinics and Jewish history as well as for classicists, Roman historians, and church historians. The heavily annotated book (the main text is only 167 pages, followed by a list of case stories and 65 pages of endnotes) moves from a general introduction to the history of the province to a more specific discussion of the position of rabbis within this context and of rabbinic provincial arbitration on the basis of case stories. The epilogue provides a sketch of the »rabbinization«, that is, the expansion of rabbis’ authority and influence, which seems to have taken place between the fifth and eighth centuries when many rabbinic documents were edited and more permanent institutions established. L. views developments in that later period as a move towards »a geographically more dispersed orthodoxy« (167), in contrast to the lack of institutional power throughout tannaitic and amoraic times.
The first chapter is »setting the stage« by arguing that Palestine after the revolts was »a conventional Roman province in which Jews, as such, played a fairly insignificant role« (17). The situation was peaceful: a basic »accommodation to empire« (32) coincided with occasional expressions of anger against the Roman colonial power. The destruction of the Temple and the priestly leadership had created a Jewish religious and cultural vacuum, however, in which the meaning of Judaism, both in the sense of a religious and ethnic identity, had become uncertain. The emergence of the rabbinic movement must therefore be seen as a novelty, »a Roman provincial phenomenon, one that exposes the possibility of provincial alienation and dissent expressed through invented indigenous traditions, below a surface of conformity […] to Roman hegemony« (36). Rabbinic Judaism could emerge only without a Temple, in the Roman provincial context, in a »period of indeterminacy« (35). Rabbis profited from Romanization with its »privatization of power« and »rule of [local] notables« (22).
In the second chapter the author sees the creation of the Mishnah with its literary conventions (around 200 C. E.), and its basic acceptance by third and fourth century rabbis, as an important step towards more »coherence, even institutionalization, of the rabbinic movement« (56). The question remains, however, to what extent the Mishnah can be considered representative of the rabbinic movement at large rather than of its editors and their circles of colleague-friends. Do the stylized discussions reflect actual rabbinic discourse? Or should this document be considered an attempt – perhaps by the first patriarch, R. Yehudah ha-Nasi – to construct the image of a rabbinic movement in analogy to Graeco-Roman legal and philosophical schools, where scholarly discussions about actual and imagined cases reigned supreme? This methodological problem of taking the literary documents as representative evidence of all rabbis’ »orthopraxy« and »concern for normativity« (57) also governs the following discussion in which L. argues for a »syste-matization« of traditions and a further process of consolidation in the third and fourth centuries. The literary phenomenon that the Mishnah and tannaitic traditions in general constitute the basis of amoraic comments and discussions does not necessarily indicate actual discursive coherence amongst third and fourth century rabbis: it may rather reflect editorial choices concerning the arrangement of the material in literary form. For individual amoraim, few of whom would have had access to the Mishnah (and Tosefta) as a whole, their individual teachers’ and teachers’ traditions would have mattered most, that is, throughout the second to early fifth centuries the rabbinic movement would have constituted a complex net of allegiances, disconnections, and antipathies, organized on the basis of »school« traditions, rather than »some sort of ideologically coherent group« (62).
In the third chapter L. correctly stresses Palestinian rabbis’ embeddedness in the Roman cultural environment but overemphasizes their urban »subelite« status. Although more rabbis are associated with cities in amoraic than tannaitic documents, the Palestinian Talmud’s numerous associations of rabbis with villages and rural areas deserves further consideration. Viewing amoraim as part of the urban literate subelites of late antiquity is a simplification and generalization which ignores variations in literacy and social status. We simply do not know what proportion of rabbis was able to write (even their own name), was knowledgeable of Greek, and conversant in Graeco-Roman cultural traditions. The real urban Jewish elites, namely, the Hellenized land-owning Jewish aristocracy, would not have considered most rabbis their equals, except for the patriarchal family. The view of rabbis as a provincial reactionary movement which stressed and developed local indi-genous traditions by at the same time imitating and appropriating elements of the dominant culture seems more persuasive. The transmission of case stories, which point towards informal arbitration, are a case in point. In these stories rabbis appear as legal arbiters who judge cases by »consensus privatorum« or »informal extrajudicial settlement« (124). They resemble Roman jurists and pro-vide an alternative indigenous way of settling legal conflicts.
In the epilogue L. argues against a decline of the Palestinian rabbinic movement in the fifth to eighth centuries. On the contrary, literary production and institutionalization (synagogues and academies) proceeded at that time. This period can be regarded as a time of »rabbinization of a broader Jewish population in Palestine and the diaspora« (151). The change was partly brought about by a greater rabbinic influence beyond their own circles, evinced by Hekhalot literature and piyyutim. Unlike previous Roman emperors, the Byzantine authorities treated Jews as »discrete kinds of imperial subject« (154) which, in turn, resulted in the development of symbolic markers of Jewishness, evident in synagogues and inscriptions. In the early Islamic period rabbis appear at the center of local religious communities. A detailed discussion of the factors which caused this change would surpass the framework of this book and will hopefully be dealt with in the future.
The book constitutes a significant contribution to the study of Judaism in late antiquity and can be highly recommended to students and scholars of rabbinics, Jewish history, Roman history, church history, and patristics.