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The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud

jan peczkis|Friday, July 15, 2016

Talmud talmudic ethics,religious Jews
A major theme of this work is that the traditions of the Palestinian Talmud had a much more favorable view of non-learned and non-rabbinic Jews than did the traditions of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli). (For specifics, see p. 8, 45, 123, 126, 131, and 134.)


Populist as well as elitist tendencies could be found among the rabbis throughout Jewish history. (p. 123). However, author Rubenstein makes it unambiguous that the Babylonian rabbis’ pronouncements against the AMEI HA’ARETS (“people of the land”: p. 124), such as those that use the imagery of animals, were ones of contempt. (p. 14, 123, 126). Furthermore, according to tractate Berakoth 47b, a Jew was an AMEI HA’ARETS if he failed to attend upon the sages, even if he was learned in Scripture and Mishna. (p. 125).

The author elaborates on the obvious hostility between the sages. It was primarily a Babylonian issue. (p. 55).

Rubenstein repeats the argument that the violent imagery in the Talmud, directed by the sages against both the AMEI HA’ARETS and the GOYIM, were nonliteral and hyperbolic. (p. 131). However, he presents no evidence to substantiate this premise, apart from the overly-broad generalization that the Talmud often uses nonliteral and even bizarre imagery. Rubenstein relies on old apologetic works by rabbis, which are contained in this 13-volume Hebrew-language source: OTSAR HAGEONIM. Thesaurus of the Gaonic Responsa and Commentaries following the order of Talmudic Tractates. (Edited by B. M. Lewin. 13 volumes. Haifa, 1928-1943). (p. 131, 198; especially p. 209).


The following subject matter refers to Bavli Pesahim 49a and 49b, and a few other verses. (I invite the reader to read these tractates in the online Babylonian Talmud--Soncino edition--as I did.)

The following are some direct quotes from Rubenstein:

The Stammaitic traditions against marriage essentially equate female AMEI HA’ARETS with animals, referring to such wives as vermin… (p. 129).

The sources portray the AM HA’ARETS as not fully human, neither behaving in a human manner nor deserving humane treatment…The traditions bear a certain affinity to earlier sources, both Palestinian and Babylonian, that compare slaves and gentiles to animals. Various laws are not applied to slaves or gentiles on the grounds that scriptural exegesis connects them to animals. (p. 130).

The animal imagery rather functions as an explanation for mutual hatred and as a justification for violence. (p. 131).

The sages perhaps perceived their academic world of Torah study as increasingly professionalized, elitist, and isolated from the general population. As a result, nonrabbis outside of the academy were viewed as ‘Others’, and even included with other categories of ‘Others’—slaves, gentiles, and animals. (p. 141).

Because the AMEI HA’ARETS do not study Torah, the Zohar deprives them of the status of "Israel," meaning that they are not fully Jewish, and consequently not fully human. (p. 157).

--------End of direct quotes-----------


The “Jews were persecuted” trope is the standard answer (or exculpation) for the anti-goyism in the Talmud. (This is an all-purpose response, as virtually everyone can excuse their conduct by saying the same thing. And which peoples have never, at one time or other, faced injustice or persecution?)

Although author Jeffrey L. Rubenstein does not approach Jewish persecution from this angle, he does indicate that it had customarily been overstated. He comments, “Earlier Talmudic historians tended to adopt the ‘lachrymose conception of Jewish history,’ suggesting that persecutions at the end of the Amoraic period forced the closing of rabbinical schools and resulted in a new historical epoch. Recent scholars, however, have generally abandoned this historiographical perspective and its propensity to attribute many significant historical changes to persecutions. Moreover, in a detailed study, Richard Kalmin has argued that Sasanian persecutions do not satisfactorily account for the conclusion of the Amoraic era.” (p. 22).


The dialectic approach of “objections and solutions” is a specifically Babylonian theme, and not found in the Yerushalmi or other Palestinian sources. (p. 45). Although pilpul is, in popular conception, commonly associated closely with the Talmud, such is not the case. Rubenstein comments, “Dialectical approaches to Talmud study were by no means an inevitable or natural development.” (p. 147). He then adds that the works of the Geonim, Rashi, and the early Tosafists, were largely free of dialectics. Among the Ashkenazi Jews, the Hasidim commonly frowned on dialectics. (p. 147).

Clearly, the strong conflation of pilpul and the Talmud is a relatively recent development. Rubenstein writes, “In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the mark of an outstanding rabbinic student was to excel in pilpulistic disputation…As pilpulistic discourses became increasingly convoluted, hypothetical, and pretentious, a means by which scholars showed off their erudition, a backlash developed that bestowed on the term pilpul a pejorative sense.” (p. 147).


The decline of Jewish religion, in the last two centuries, did not end Jewish elitism. Instead, the elitist traditions of the rabbis lived-on in secularized form. Thus, the tendency of learned Jews to look down on unlearned Jews (and the GOYIM as a whole) was transferred to a nonreligious plane. It also played a role in the origin of a pro-Communist Jewish intelligentsia. For details, please click on, and read my detailed review, of Jewish Radicals and Radical Jews.
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