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Hidary, Richard


Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric. Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash.


Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press 2017. XI, 335 S. m. 2 Abb. Geb. £ 75,00. ISBN 978-1-107-17740-6.


Catherine Hezser

Graeco-Roman rhetorical education and public oratory were im-portant parts of ancient rabbis’ Palestinian provincial environment. It is therefore likely that at least some Greek-speaking urban rabbis would have been familiar with some rhetorical presenta-tions and techniques. The first centuries C. E. were also the time of the Second Sophistic, a literary phenomenon in which language, paideia, and identity were closely linked. Richard Hidary’s study examines the impact of this rhetorical and sophistic environment on rabbis and rabbinic argumentation: »How deeply did classical rhetoric impact rabbinic literature and thought?« (2) How do rabbis’ educational and oratorial practices compare with those of professional rhetors in the East? The seven chapters of his book look at this relationship from various perspectives. Based on the assumption that Hellenistic rhetoric was also known and practiced in Babylonia, both Palestinian and Babylonian, early and late rabbi-nic texts are presented as examples of rabbis’ alleged rhetorical knowledge here.
The main problems with H.’s approach are the inappropriate generalisations. Rhetoric is seen as the most important aspect of both Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis’ cultural and scholastic environment, to the exclusion of law, philosophy, and other religious traditions. Rabbis are assumed to have known sufficient Greek to understand Greek oratory (10: »it is clear that rabbis knew Greek well enough to make Greek puns«). The impact of Graeco-Roman rhetoric is found everywhere and considered all-pervasive, from the Mishnah to post-Talmudic Midrashim, from rhetorical techniques to the structures of entire sugyot and midrashic homilies. The discussions of small rhetorical forms (chapter 4) and hermeneutic techniques (chapter 5) are most persuasive, carrying forth prior scholarship on these issues. Much less persuasive are the chapters on midrashic homilies (chapter 1), and Palestinian and Babylonian Talmudic sugyot (chapter 2–3), where fixed and ill-fitting rhetorical frameworks are superimposed on the rabbinic texts to make them look like a rabbinic version of Greek oratory.
H. first creates a social base for his assumption of a high impact of Greek rhetorics on rabbis. Rabbis are presented as public orators who gave sermons in synagogues and study houses immediately after 70 C. E., continuing a Hellenistic Jewish practice. These sermons are believed to have drawn large crowds. They are also seen as the »Sitz im Leben« of midrashic homilies that are presented as carefully constructed rhetorical pieces (chapter 1). Not only are the very few Palestinian rabbinic references to audiences taken literally, they are also interpreted in a way that fits H.’s theory. E. g., the talmudic tradition claiming that »all the people are running« to hear R. Yochanan expound in the study house of R. Benaiah (y. B. M. 2:11, 8d) is not only deliberately exaggerated but may also refer to disciples of sages only (the context deals with rabbinic student-teacher relationships). H. admits that references to rabbinic »sermons« (is this term appropriate for their practice of »expounding«?) almost only appear in amoraic traditions of the third and fourth centuries C. E. This generally late and sparse evidence does not support the claim »of rabbis as popular orators who sought to educate, edify, and even entertain their audiences« (43). In fact, Palestinian rabbis’ teaching and discussions are mostly presented as having been conducted in private and semi-private spaces, very much in contrast to public orators who sought the limelight and occupied stages.
We lack any evidence of the »expounding« speeches that some late antique rabbis may have delivered to local audiences on some Sabbaths. To use the later edited and written texts of the book of Acts, Midrashim, and the Talmuds as direct reflections of oratory is methodologically inappropriate. H. seems to believe that Acts 13:14–41 is a literal rendering of Paul’s sermon in Antioch (45: »Paul begins his speech …«) rather than an edited literary unit. Not dis-tinguishing between the Hellenistic Diaspora Jew Paul and Pales-tinian Pharisees and rabbis he concludes that the latter would have been similarly acquainted with Graeco-Roman rhetoric (46). In-stead of analysing midrashic proems as literary constructions of midrashic editors, these are viewed as reflections of the rhetoric rabbis used in their sermons (57: »The rabbinic sermon in amoraic times – and perhaps beforehand as well – thus consisted of a standard tripartite structure that parallels what a typical epideictic oration would have sounded like«).
A fixed rhetorical structure (exordium, narration, peroration, confirmation, refutation, peroration) derived from Demostenes is superimposed on exemplary midrashic homilies, the discussion of Passover in Mishnah Pesahim 10, and sugyot in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. These sugyot seem to be considered reflec-tions of actual disputes amongst rabbis (83: »even the truncated form of lectures that serve as the basis for many sugyot still may retain a kernel of the structure and lines of argumentation from the original oral presentation«). Instead of squeezing these texts into rhetorical frameworks, H. should have examined the scholastic techniques that led to the creation of written compilations in an-tiquity. The Second Sophistic as a literary phenomenon rather than a rhetorical style would have provided a useful comparative body of material. Although rabbis are likely to have disputed with col-leagues, the disputes that appear in the Talmud are literary constructs juxtaposing the views of rabbis who may never have met in real life. Dispute, controversy, and multiplicity of viewpoints must therefore primarily be seen as a feature of rabbinic literary documents. In real life, a rabbis may have known the views of a few of his colleague-friends only.
The last two chapters (chapter 6–7) deal with »lawyers«, both rabbinic and heavenly ones. H. considers it possible to »analyze rab-binic court proceedings« (217) and concludes that the rabbinic court system was a combination of inquisitional and adversarial processes. Except for the patriarchal court, perhaps (against the common scholarly view that R. Yehudah ha-Nasi was the first patriarch H. adheres to the traditional assumption that the patriarchate started with R. Gamliel, cf. 84), rabbinic adjudication seems to have been informal, comparable to Roman jurists’ practice of respondere, and quite different from Roman provincial courts. In his discussion of late midrashic references to heavenly lawyers Plato’s heavenly court serves as a comparative device. Broader conclusions about different attitudes toward truth are drawn. While rabbis may have agreed with Plato’s criticism of rhetoric as a way of revealing truth, and in fact »limit and control the application of rhetoric« (276), unlike Plato and early Christian theologians, »the rabbinic view of divine truth can include diversity« (284).
My critical points are not meant to negate the importance of studying rabbinic literature in the context of ancient rhetorical handbooks, speeches, and techniques. Yet unfortunately, the way in which this is done here is rather overstated and simplistic. Any such studies need to be more aware of the differences between oral communication and written documents, rabbinic self-fashioning and ideology versus social reality. Furthermore, rhetoric would have constituted only one aspect of the scholastic environment in which rabbis lived. Philosophy, jurisprudence, and the religious beliefs and practices of Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Zoroastrians would have constituted other, overlapping frames of reference.