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Mokhtarian, Jason Sion


Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests. The Culture of the Talmud in Ancient Iran.


Oakland u. a.: University of California Press 2015. XIV, 273 S. = An S. Mark Taper Foundation Book in Jewish Studies. Geb. US$ 90,00. ISBN 978-0-520-28620-7.


Catherine Hezser

This revised and expanded doctoral dissertation by Jason Sion Mokhtarian, supervised by Carol Bakhos at UCLA, follows in the footsteps of Yaakov Elman and other, younger scholars’ study of the Babylonian Talmud in its Sasanian and Zoroastrian context. M. tries to find his own niche within this research area by distinguish­ing his approach especially from that of Shai Secunda (The Iranian Talmud. Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), whose book deals with a very similar topic: representations of Sasanians and Zoroastrians in the Babylonian Talmud. Like Secunda, M. stresses the importance of Babylonian rabbis’ integration »into a sociocultural network of religious and ethnic groups in late antique Mesopotamia« (2). Like Secunda, he uses historical, philological, and literary-critical methods to investigate Babylonian rabbis’ relationship to the Iran-ian political, cultural, and religious context. Rather than engaging in literary comparisons, an approach which can lead to »textual parallelomania« (23), M. opts for a contextualized approach which takes the considerable differences between the rabbinic and Zoro-astrian sources into account, differences which limit the compar-ability of the texts. Therefore his focus is on the internal rabbinic representation of Persians as Others, namely, Sasanian kings, Zoroastrian priests, and sorcerers who disregarded religious and ethnic boundaries.
As is the case with Palestinian rabbis’ portrayal of Others, Baby-lonian rabbis »politics of representation« were »aimed at bolstering their social power« (3–4). The centers of rabbinic activity were locat-ed close to the administrative centers of the Persian Empire and the Bavli allegedly shows that »Persian imperial culture […] impacts the rabbis more than […] Zoroastrian religion« (19). The fact that Baby-lonian rabbis and Zoroastrian priests did not share a scriptural basis »significantly limits any connection between rabbinic texts and the Zand« (30). Other issues that need to be taken into account are the different literary genres (as a translation the Zand seems to be more similar to the Targumim that to the Talmud) and the chronological difference, since much of Middle Persian literature was compiled in an Islamic context after the Arab conquest of the Middle East. The Islamic conquest would have constituted a »rupture« which led to changes in the titles and social positions of the Zoroastrian priests. Therefore »scholars should be wary of inter-preting ninth- and tenth-century Pahlavi texts as reflecting late antique Zoroastrian-ism« (37). Furthermore, Pahlavi texts represent »only one branch of ancient Iranian religions« within a context characterized by »heterodoxy«. By pointing to these important issues, which »diminish the value of researching intercultural interac-tions« through texts (42), M. cautions against too optimistic assessments of interaction and impact, which have been a tendency of earlier scholarship.
M. disagrees with Secunda’s belief that specific Middle Persian texts are reflected in the Bavli. Despite living in a multicultural environment, Babylonian rabbis allegedly developed an »insular rhetoric« (42). This hypothesis seems to be threatened by M.’s own admission of »rabbinic familiarity with and acculturation to Per-sian culture« (44). Loanwords and narratives suggest that rabbis were familiar with various aspects of daily life, especially with footstuffs and fashion items such as the girdle, which had a particular significance in Zoroastrian religion. Even if rabbis denigrate and ridicule Persian dietary and sexual habits and distance themselves from these practices, this does not mean that they present themselves as insular. Rejection and the creation of boundaries around one’s own identity presuppose knowledge and interaction with the Other. Perhaps Babylonian rabbis’ rather negative depiction of Persians and emphasis on their distinction from them was based on the need for self-definition in an environment in which Jews were well integrated socially and economically.
The need for self-definition may also have led rabbis to depict Persians as a »homogenized entity« (50), notwithstanding traces of more specific cultural and religious practices. Even if M. is correct in concluding that »The Talmud displays better knowledge of imperial culture and law than of Zoroastrian theology or rituals« (49), this does not necessarily mean that comparisons between rabbinic and Zoroastrian religious beliefs and practices are useless. Babylonian rabbis’ participation in the cultural sphere they shared with Zoroastrians and members of other religions may have left indirect traces in the form of creative adaptations of Babylonian religious and cultural expressions. The issue of cultural participa-tion and impact seems to be more complex than the simple dis-tinction between »parallelomania« and »insularity«.
In the second half of the book M. examines the Bavli’s depiction of Sasanian officials, Zoroastrian priests, and interreligious sor-cerers. While a few texts are discussed in detail, these chapters mostly provide a general discussion of the issues in the context of Sasanian history and politics. Like Palestinian rabbinic depictions of Roman emperors and officials, Babylonian rabbinic narratives about Sasanian kings are imaginary creations juxtaposing rabbinic and imperial authority. In this context rabbis’ main concern was the relationship between imperial authority and rabbinic legal autonomy. M. suggests that Shapur I was willing to accommodate non-Zoroastrian knowledge and to tolerate rabbinic jurisdiction as long as it did not interfere with Sasanian interests. Rabbis seem to have resembled the Zoroastrian scholar-priests ( herbeds) more than the administrator priests (mowbeds). Due to the similarities (transmitting traditions; studying and reciting Avestan; having disciples), »the Zoroastrian priests were a threat to the boundaries of rabbinic identity and authority« (94). An even larger threat were popular sorcerers who engaged in magical practices, disregarding linguistic, religious, and ethnic boundaries. This leads M. to the open question: »Was Sasanian Mesopotamia composed of interrelated groups that sought to defend their self-defined boundaries versus those that sought to break those boundaries down?«
In his conclusion M. stresses the need for Talmudists and Iran-ologists to learn from each other and to benefit from each others’ »methods, data, and arguments« (146). Just as knowledge of the Iranian context is necessary for a proper understanding of the Bavli, the Talmud can serve as an important body of evidence for the study of Sasanian history. Accordingly, the book can be recommended for scholars and students of both Jewish and Iranian liter-ature and history of the Sasanian period.