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Kanarek, Jane L.


Biblical Narrative and the Formation of Rabbinic Law.


Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press 2014. XII, 212 S. Geb. £ 64,99. ISBN 978-1-107-04781-5.


Catherine Hezser

This study, which is a revised doctoral dissertation supervised by Michael Fishbane at the University of Chicago, contributes to the ongoing discussion on the relationship between law and narrative in ancient Jewish literature. Whereas scholars of rabbinic litera-ture have focused on law and narrative in rabbinic texts, Jane L. Kanarek investigates rabbis’ halakhic use of biblical narrative traditions, the ways in which biblical stories were turned into rabbinic law. Her main premise is that »biblical narrative is embedded in the heart of the rabbinic lawmaking enterprise and is, in fact, in-separable from it« (1).
The repeated use of the terms »law« and »normative« in connection with rabbinic halakhic discussions is somewhat misleading, through. The study exemplifies how biblical narratives form the basis of rabbinic legal discourse and can be used as prooftexts in rabbinic halakhic argumentation. While this phenomenon is well known, K. is innovative in offering four case studies in which a close reading and analysis of a selected body of texts is carried out. The case studies examine how particular stories from the biblical book of Genesis are used in legal discourse in Midrash Genesis Rabbah and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds: the binding of Isaac ( Akedah) in Gen 22 (chapter 2), Rebekah’s betrothal to Isaac in Gen 24 (chapter 3), Jacob’s death in Gen 50 (chapter 4), and the journey of Joseph’s brothers’ to Egypt in Gen 42 (chapter 5). Genesis narratives have been chosen because Genesis is »the least legal« of the books of the Torah (3). As is shown in the ensuing discussion, the stories use terminology which link them to legal portions of the Bible, a phenomenon which facilitated their later halakhic use. Therefore the terms »narrative« and »law« may be used to refer to distinct genres while one has to take the »overlapping boundaries« (11) and »interdependence« (14) between these categories into account.
Amoraic rabbis’ halakhic interest in the story about Abraham’s »binding« of Isaac seems to rest on the type of knife he used. In Genesis Rabbah 56:6 a biblical narrative about human sacrifice is linked to discussions about the practicalities of ritual slaughter. It seems, though, that the biblical verse (Gen 22:10) merely provided the keyword and staring point for the rabbinic discussion of the implements to be used in shehitah. The rabbinic discourse does not indicate any further interest in the biblical story and continues to deal with rabbis’ own concerns. Rather than deriving »law« from biblical narratives, as K. claims, rabbis make biblical texts – wheth-er narrative or legal – subservient to their own halakhic discourse. The phenomenon that they sometimes use narratives halakhically applies to both biblical and rabbinic story traditions. It is part of a much broader issue: for rabbis (or rather the editors of the respec-tive passages and documents), actual practice was as important as words and theoretical rules. Therefore the biblical patriarchs’ be-haviour could have a halakhic value just as rabbis’ own practices did.
In Bavli Hullin 16a the Akedah is not read as »a normative legal text«. The value of Gen 22:10 as a prooftext for halakhah is even rejected and more logical moral-theological conclusions are drawn from the Abraham story. Obviously, halakhic and ethical interpretations of biblical stories can coexist in particular rabbinic texts and rabbinic literature as a whole. This also becomes clear in connect-ion with the second case, Rebekah’s betrothal (Gen 24). The story can be part of an ethical discourse about sexual morality and serve as a basis for halakhic discourse on the interim period between betrothal and marriage ( tevi’ah). In halakhic discourse various halakhic arguments can be based on one particular biblical verse. The author shows how Rebekah is also associated with halakhic issues elsewhere in rabbinic literature and concludes: »Genesis Rabbah and the Bavli […] weave together biblical narrative with rabbinic law in order to create new legal narratives, legal story worlds where biblical narratives become a realm for imagining, enacting, creating, and performing rabbinic law« (105).
A related issue is rabbis’ sometimes inexplicable neglect of a biblical text as halakhic legitimation of their own arguments. One might assume that the biblical reference to Joseph’s seven-day mourning for his father (Gen 50:10) might have constituted a good prooftext for rabbinic discussions of the shiv’ah ritual. In Yerushalmi Moed Qatan 3:5, 82c the verse’s validity as a prooftext is ques-tioned, however, and other biblical verses which relate to other contexts suggested; in Bavli Moed Qatan 20a only Amos 8:10 is quoted, a text which does not even mention seven days. K. argues that the association of mourning with festivals goes back to Mishnah Moed Qatan 3:5. Subsequent amoraic discussions need to be seen with in this broader network of associations: »legal exegesis creates mean-ing through forming a network of interconnected laws and narratives« (138).
The issue of textual fragmentation encountered in the rabbinic use of biblical texts is dealt with in connection with the story about the journey of Joseph’s sons to Egypt (Gen 42) which served rabbis as an example of a quorum of ten men necessary in certain ritual contexts. Yet in the Palestinian (y. Sanh. 1:6, 19c par.) and Babylonian discussions (b. Sanh. 74b) »no one biblical narrative proves decisive when it comes to the quorum of ten. Instead, we find fragmentary traditions, complicated textual histories, and questionable exegetical connections« (140). The author suggests that the »messiness of this textual tradition of an ‘edah consisting of ten individuals« may be due to »the lack of a larger referential exegetical web« that rabbis could refer to (169-70).
Although the study provides close examinations of only four (relatively short) parallel text complexes, it can serve as a starting point for further discussions of narrative and halakhah and the use of biblical texts in rabbinic documents. The book should be of in-terest to all scholars and students of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and ancient liter-ature in general.