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Secunda, Shai


The Iranian Talmud. Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context.


Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2013. XI, 256 S. = Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion Series. Lw. US$ 55,00. ISBN 978-0-8122-4570-7.


Catherine Hezser

The study of the Babylonian Talmud within its Sasanian Persian context is still in its infancy. During the last ten years Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University has conducted groundbreaking research, promulgating the study of the Middle Persian language and Zoroastrian literature amongst Talmudists. Shai Secunda, the author of this mo­nograph, follows in Elman’s footsteps, describing himself as »a Talmudist with training in Iranian studies« (IX). His work is meant to provide an overview and foundation for the further study of the Bavli in its proper cultural, political, and religious environment. As becomes evident, this environment was multi-faceted, inter-cultur­al, and dynamic. Besides various types of Zoroastrians, Babylonian Jews, (Eastern and Western) Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Ma­nichaeans participated in the »religious diversity of Sasanian Iran« (19). The texts and discussions of the Babylonian Talmud which emerged in this context cannot be properly understood without a proper knowledge of Sasanian culture, especially Zoroastrian and Pahlavi literature and learning: »The Bavli is obviously not in any meaningful way equivalent to Middle Persian literature, nor does it constitute a purely Sasanian Iranian compilation«; but it is also not »hermetically sealed off« (112) from its Iranian context. S. shows how a careful intertextual reading can reveal points of contact and interaction by, at the same time, avoiding the problematic issue of direct influence. He argues that the scholarly focus should be on textuality, acknowledging the significance of orality in the transmission process. What can be discovered is not influence but the »interpenetra-tion of Sasanian oral texts in the Bavli« (127).
In the first chapter S. outlines the surviving evidence of Jewish and non-Jewish Sasanian culture besides the Babylonian Talmud: some »minor« tractates of the Bavli, seals and incantation bowls published by Shaul Shaked, some non-Jewish material remains (e. g., urban structures, temples, inscriptions, imperial architecture), and especially Middle Persian (Pahlavi) literature (the Avesta, Zand, and Denkart), Eastern Christian texts, Manichaean literature, and Mandaic texts. Although the Zoroastrian texts were edited in Islamic times they contain material which originated in late antiquity. The problem is to determine what ideas, rules, notions, and practices can be considered Sasanian. At the same time the intertextuality and »authorial problem« (27) of Pahlavi literature link this body of material to the similarly anonymous compilation of the Talmud which also underwent many transmissional and editorial stages. Both the Bavli and Pahlavi literature were »insular« writings (28) and products of complex historical and cultural developments.
The following chapters provide examples of »an inventory of interactions of varying significance and degree« (35) in daily life as well as in the intellectual and political sphere. By focusing on the textual aspects S. is able to avoid the positivistic pitfalls of some earlier studies (mostly of the Palestinian Talmud in the Graeco-Roman context) which claimed actual historical encounters and dependence. He merely notes that rabbinic narratives about encounters fit the phenomenon of mixed residence and »demographic variety« (37). Intermarriage, conversion, and interreligious disputes initiated by the Persian rulers could have constituted possible points of contact. One of the major problems of studying the Bavli in its Persian context becomes evident here, however: due to the sparse evidence available, much depends on conjectures, possibilities, and suggestions and many questions remain. What did rabbis know about Zoroastrian learning, given that Pahlavi was linguistically different from Babylonian and other forms of Aramaic? Did some Babylonian Jews study with magi? Was the so-called bei abeidan, mentioned in the Bavli, a place of intellectual exchange between Jews and Zoroastrians? Did the Iranian authorities require rabbis’ presence at these places and participation in the disputes, similar to Medieval religious disputa-tions imposed on Jews by Christians? The Denkart mentions official Sasanian disputations but does not refer to Jews in this context. S. admits that the hypothesis of interreligious Jewish-Zoroastrian disputes at the bei aveidan remains »speculative« (63).
Chapters 3 and 4 examine the respective image of the »Other« presented in Babylonian rabbinic and Zoroastrian texts. He con-cludes that rabbis and Zoroastrians »constructed opposing, mirror images of each other« (35), probably because they constituted si-milar yet competing cultures of learning. The rabbinic view of the »goy« engaged in magic and idolatry is matched by the Zoroastrian dualistic notion of non-Zoroastrians as »Others«. The Babylonian Talmudic texts discussed in this connection are difficult to interpret. E. g., anti-Persian views are repeatedly associated with Rav Yosef: to what extent were these views representative of other Babylonian rabbis or Jews in general? If the Bavli criticizes learning from a magus, did this magus represent Zoroastrianism for rabbis? What do terms such as amgushta and ratin refer to? With Shaked S. concludes that Jews constituted »the primary antagonistic rival of Zoroastrianism« (77). Babylonian Talmudic texts »depict the Zoroastrian priesthood as a kind of evil counterpart to talmudic jurists and sages« (80). Yet the Bavli also contains other texts in which Jews and Zoroastrians are not contrasted but compared with each other. S. suggests that the very »proximity between the two communities may have seemed threatening to some communal leaders, which in turn engendered stalk and mutually informing ›discourses of the Other‹« (88). Yet rabbis also recognized similarities between rab-binic and Persian law and presented the Sasanian king as »a kind of rabbi« (101). Altogether, relations would have been much more complex than the dualistic construction of the Other insinuates.
The fifth and final chapter presents a number of strategies for the further contextual study of the Babylonian Talmud. How should we go about to read the Bavli »in Iran«, taking the limits of the evidence into account? The focus on textuality and intertextual readings may »highlight examples of textual and literary interactions« (127), a strategy for which a number of examples are pro-vided in this book. Even if the texts are not historically reliable, parallels and analogies »in content and language« may occur and reveal the Bavli’s embeddedness in Iranian culture and participation in »a kind of late antique (…) ›text-scape‹ across Iranian lands« (131). How the Iranian context is to be distinguished from the Palestinian Hellenistic heritage is another issue awaiting future examination.
This relatively short (the body of the text has 146 pages only) but excellent and methodologically careful discussion sums up pre-vious approaches to studying the Bavli contextually and consti-tutes the basis of all future comparative studies. The book will interest not only Talmudists and historians of ancient Judaism but also scholars of Iranian history and Zoroastrian religion and schol­ars and students of early Christianity.