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Belser, Julia Watts


Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity. Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster.


Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press 2015. XI, 239 S. Geb. US$ 103,00. ISBN 978-1-107-11335-0.


Catherine Hezser

This excellent study of Bavli tractate Ta’anit investigates »the nexus of meaning that links Jewish conceptions of ecology, theology, and ethics« (4). The tractate deals with both communal and individual fasts and prayers to prevent droughts and bring about rain. From biblical times onwards, droughts were seen as God’s punishment for the sins of the Israelites. They were believed to be forestalled only through the meritorious behavior of the community and particularly pious individuals. This course-effect scheme continues in Palestinian rabbinic sources and also underlies the Bavli’s dis-course. What is new in Bavli Ta’anit, however, is the critical stance taken toward this »covenantal ecology«. In their long narrative sugyot the editors seem to convey the notion that exemplary piety does not necessarily lead to divine protection. The texts »decouple human virtue from divine reward, asserting that even exceptional merit cannot guarantee miraculous rescue in times of distress« (5). Furthermore, with its emphasis on the piety of ordinary people, the tractate seems to criticize an obsession with status and hierarchy within the Babylonian rabbinic community. This more complex approach to merit and divine protection serves to »destabilize the straightforward link between ethical virtue and material good fortune« (213). It criticizes surface appearances and »allows Bavli Ta’anit’s redactors to articulate a sharply self-critical stance toward rabbinic culture« (215).
The author follows Jeffrey L. Rubenstein’s redaction-critical approach to the analysis of the Bavli’s long narratives by, at the same time, elucidating the results of the textual study on the basis of critical theory. The carefully orchestrated sequence of chapters leads from a focus on droughts and rain as signs (chapter 1) to the inherent ambiguity of natural signs (chapter 2), the protective power of merit in view of disasters (chapter 3), charisma and ritual fasting (chapter 4), the limits of human charismatic power (chapter 5), and the critique of surface appearances (chapter 6). An introduction that outlines the main themes and a short conclusion entitled »Power and Perception in Bavli Ta’anit« frame the analytic chapters.
The first chapter emphasizes the great importance of rainfall in ancient Mediterranean societies that heavily depended on agriculture. At the same time, important differences between the ecosys­tem of Roman Palestine and Sasanian Babylonia existed. Whereas the Land of Israel contained vast desert areas and few alternative means of irrigation, Babylonia had the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as water sources which made the lack of rainfall less disastrous. Nevertheless, Bavli Ta’anit continues and augments the »the elaborate theological reading of rain and drought present in the Hebrew Bible and in Palestinian rabbinic traditions« (35). Rain continues to be seen as »a potent natural sign that recalls God’s potency and generosity« (ibid.). In light of the mostly theoretical nature of the Bavli’s discourse, an ecological approach, which relates texts to the natural spaces in which their authors and editors live(d), seems less useful despite its contemporary appeal. While I share the author’s belief in the necessity of studying the material conditions of the ancient rabbinic experience, the study shows that Babylonian rab bis built upon the pre-existing theological model rather than taking their different Babylonian ecology into account. Why they did so rather than creating an alternative model that would have fitted their own circumstances more (water in abundance, leading to floods) remains unexplored. The author emphasizes correctly that the Bavli cannot be used for modern environmental ethics and rejects the so-called »Earth Bible« approach.
The rest of the chapters do not deal with ecology but with an aspect in which the Babli’s approach can be considered innovative: a more complex and critical assessment of the traditional connec-tion between drought and sin and rainfall and merit. The author argues that Bavli Ta’anit stresses the ambiguity and indeterminacy of natural signs. Droughts and other types of disasters are not always the outcome of sinful behavior: »the Bavli introduces instability into the interpretation of misfortune« (61). The editors seem to have made a deliberate »choice to amplify ambiguity and destabilize the gaze« (ibid.). They did so by »introducing striking uncertainty into the moral implications of fasting« (73). Public communal fasts are rarely mentioned and the leaders of the community humiliated (ashes on their heads) to make their rituals more effective. Humble non-rabbinic figures are presented as more meritorious than prominent rabbis and more efficient when praying for rain. Within the context of the Bavli, this emphasis on a disconnection between merit, social status, and divine providence seems to have served as a corrective to the Babylonian rabbinic emphasis on status and hierarchy observed by Rubenstein in other texts.
Particularly prominent in Bavli Ta’anit are the so-called charismatic tales about individuals whose prayers for rain are efficacious. Such tales have many analogies in the Mediterranean world, e.g., in the literature of the desert fathers and Iamblicus. What is particularly interesting is the Bavli’s elevation of non-rabbinic men and women of a low social status. Their frank and fearless speech (par-rhesia) before God is meant to indicate an intimacy with the divine that ordinary rabbis lacked. The author suggests that »Bavli Ta’anit marginalizes the place of charisma in its own religious world« (137), a process that is matched by the editors’ distinction between earlier generations of sages and their own contemporaries. Only the charismatics of earlier times had a relationship to God that enabled parrhesia and made their prayers for rain effective. This presenta-tion reveals »a self-critical discourse about the capabilities of late Babylonian rabbis, relative to their ancestors« (146).
The association of charismatic power with low-status individuals of both genders rather than with the high-status rabbinic male indicates that, according to the editors, appearances were deceptive and true merit was hidden underneath the surface of society. The author concludes that »Bavli Ta’anit uses aggadic dialectic to fashion a self-critical voice that uses paradoxes of sanctity to challenge prevailing rabbinic attitudes toward social status« (185). The discourse was internally directed to address aspects of rabbinic society at the editors’ own times such as the »widespread tendency […] to valorize social privilege over personal piety« (188). Issues of social status and gender seem to have been used deliber-ately in this critical stance.
What is lacking from the discussion is a comparison with the Sasanian Zoroastrian environment. It would be interesting to know what the Persian position toward natural disasters was and wheth-er and to what extent merit and divine protection are linked in Zoroastrian religion. Hopefully, such questions will be taken up by the author herself or by other scholars in the future. I can highly recommend the book to students and scholars of ancient Judaism, rabbinic literature, ancient Christianity, Graeco-Roman and Per-sian culture. It constitutes an important contribution not only to studies of the Babylonian Talmud but also to the wider study of »holy (wo)men« in late antique society.