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Neis, Rachel


The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture. Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity.


Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press 2013. XII, 319 S. = Greek Culture in the Roman World. Geb. £ 65,00. ISBN 978-1-10703251-4.


Catherine Hezser

Ancient Jewish religion and culture has traditionally been seen as auditory and textual, with a focus on listening to the word of God (e. g., the prayer Shema Yisrael) and reading and interpreting the text of the Torah (the »book religion« model). Biblical and rabbinic Judaism is commonly considered to be aniconic, opposed to images that might represent the divinity and suspicious of vision in general. Rachel Neis succeeds in correcting this impression by demonstrating the significance of visuality in Palestinian and Babylonian rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. She argues that Judaism took a »visual turn« in late antiquity (3 rd to 7th c. C. E.) which was crucial to rabbinic piety: »Vision was harnessed in order to shape rabbinic subjectivity« (8). Yet rabbinic vision always functioned »in the contemporary visual koine« (10) consisting of a »mélange of ancient biblical, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman traditions« (260). Therefore the study also shows how and to which degree »these rabbinic perspectives are themselves imbricated in various cultural formations« (8).
After a review of late antique visual theories (chapter 1) the five main chapters of the book focus on four aspects of rabbinic vision: rabbis’ imagining of pre-70 C. E. Temple pilgrimage and ritual (chapters 2–3), erotic vision (chapter 4), vision and idolatry (chapter 5), and the vision of sages (chapter 6). The focus is on how rabbis saw, not what they were seeing. Therefore the study consists of a close examination of a selection of rabbinic texts rather than dealing with ancient Jewish art or late antique art in general. Al-though this focus is certainly justified, given the parameters of the study, one nevertheless sometimes misses a discussion of the visual environment in which rabbis lived, especially in the chapter on pagan icons (chapter 5) which does not mention the Jewish use of pagan images in synagogues and domestic spaces. Relating rabbinic textual visuality to visual representation would be another fascinating question, although rabbis and Jews who commissioned the images probably belonged to different socio-economic and cultural groups within late antique Judaism.
The chapters on pilgrimage-related visuality are divided into homovisuality, defined as »a seeing that is mirroring«, and heterovisuality, »a seeing that is othering«, applied to »God gazing« (= homovisuality) and the vision of ritual objects (= heterovisuality). It remains doubtful, however, whether and to what extent these terms are useful and applicable in these contexts, especially since they are loaded with modern gender theories that developed especially in the context of film studies. The biblical and rabbinic texts that are mentioned in connection with these two types of visuality do not lend easy support to this categorization and N. later seems to retract the dichotomy (259: »the tactile nature of late-antique seeing brought subject and object […] together in a visuality that was always potentially chiasmic«).
In the first part of the discussion N. argues that in b. Hagigah homovisuality is »centered on the desire for, and the loss of, the sight of God’s face« (43) after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbis allegedly invented a re’iyah ritual in which the seeing was reciprocal: in the imagination of male rabbis the male pilgrim »saw« a male divine object; »the seeing has a mimetic, mirroring effect« (54, n. 59). But the text in b. Hag. 2a and 4b seems to merely exclude (partially) blind individuals from Temple pilgrimage because the yera’eh (»he will see«) does not apply to them. The much broader claim of »ocular reciprocity« cannot really be based on this text. There are no amoraic Palestinian traditions that might support the notion of »visual reciprocity« (56). Whether b. Hag. 4b–5a indicates the »Bavli’s construction of a thoroughgoing homovisuality, with its promotion of a perfect male body gazing at its divine double« (80) remains questionable.
Similarly questionable is the interpretation of b. Yoma 54a–b as evidence of an erotically charged heterovisuality of Temple-related cultic objects. In the Babylonian rabbinic vision of re’iyat panim priests open the curtain of the holy of holies to give pilgrims a glimpse of the entwined cherubim »in sexual embrace« (90). Since the cherubim were probably imagined as male and female and not all of the pilgrims would have been male (women were not obliged but not strictly excluded from pilgrimage as envisioned by rabbis), it is difficult to read this text in terms of a male »voyeuristic gaze« onto an eroticized female object (N. argues that the cultic objects are compared to a bride and feminized). The focus of the text is on the embrace which is compared to »the love of man and woman«. The erotic connotations are certainly present but not the binary opposition between a male subject and viewer and a female visual object. N. admits that »the precise gendering of the gaze and the visual object is ambiguous« (103). Should the chapters be based on the categorical distinction between »homovisuality« and »heterovisuality« then?
Much of the discussion is based on theories proposed by Daniel Boyarin concerning »carnal Israel« and rabbinic homoeroticism. In the chapter on »visual eros« (chapter 4) N. proposes that both Palestinian and Babylonian texts are formulated from the perspective of the »male gaze« which objectifies and sexualizes the bodies of women (123). At the same time, N. sees »feminizing, homoerotic implications of male beauty and the male visual object« (147) evident in rabbinic texts. In the context of Roman imperialism Jewish subjugation may have led to »gender anxieties« (152): »Rabbinic ambivalence about gentile eyes fetishizing Jewish men is found in Palestinian and Babylonian sources« (158). The Bavli story about Resh Laqish gazing at the handsome R. Yohanan (b. B.M. 84a–b) emerging from the river Jordan is discussed as an example of »reciprocal gazing between two males« in which the male visual object is feminized. N. considers this story »a critique of rabbinic masculinity and visuality, from the inside and at its core« (167). In its literary context R. Yohanan’s beauty stands for his Torah scholarship, though. Sexual pleasure and delight in the Torah are juxtaposed. R. Yohanan is presented as a teacher and model of Torah scholarship rather than a male sexual object, although modern perceptions might focus on the homoerotic undertones. N. concludes that, al-together, »rabbis seem to promote a refusal of homovisuality, and a restraint of heterovisuality« (167).
In the final chapter N. argues that rabbis set themselves up as icons, that is, visible representations of the holy, comparable with late antique pagan »holy men«. A glimpse at rabbis’ body parts (cf. y. Betsah 5:2, 63a) can allegedly lead to a »visual revelation« (207). Yet, again, the body parts represent Torah knowledge. It seems that the Torah-representing bodies of rabbis and the sexually charged bodies of women are juxtaposed in these texts, representing dif-ferent yet overlapping realms. The phenomenon that rabbinic halakhah concerns aspects of daily life would have prevented the spiritualization of vision and the body as it appears in late antique Christian texts. Also absent is the objectification of the rabbinic body in images. N. concludes that »the sage icon was largely an intra-rabbinic phenomenon, unlike that of the Christian holy man« (251).
The book, which has source and subject indexes at its end, can be highly recommended to anyone interested in late antique Jewish, Christian, and Graeco-Roman society and to scholars of rabbinic and patristic texts. It is written in a clear and concise language, but might have profited from more thorough editing (a few nonsen­s­ical sentences, such as the one at the beginning of p. 54, and some typos appear).