Barry Scott Wimpfheimer. Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 239 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4299-7.
Reviewed by Dvora E. Weisberg (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles)
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
New Ways of Reading the Talmud
Every so often, a book comes along that not only adds to our understanding of an academic field, but also challenges some of the assumptions that define or ground that field. Although Barry Scott Wimpfheimer’s Narrating the Law does not announce itself as such a work, I believe it has the potential to reshape the way scholars of rabbinics think about the Babylonian Talmud and, by extension, about classical rabbinic literature. This review will therefore offer the reader both a chapter-by-chapter overview of the book and some thoughts about the enormous possibilities Wimpfheimer’s work presents for thinking about rabbinic texts.
Wimpfheimer’s work focuses on legal stories in the Babylonian Talmud, arguing that the conjunction of law and narrative makes these passages harder to characterize in a literature normally divided between halakhah (law) and aggadah (nonlegal material) and therefore makes them the ideal texts through which to arrive at a rich, complex understanding of the Talmud as a whole. Wimpfheimer proposes to teach us “how to read Talmud ... by describing how the Talmud functions as a work of literature” (p. 2). He seeks to avoid the practice of reading legal narratives as statutes, thus depriving them of their richness as narratives. His work draws on Robert Cover’s approach to law as a culture’s attempt to make meaning. He acknowledges the influences of David Weiss Halivni, Shamma Friedman, and Daniel Boyarin; insofar as he uses legal discussions to explore rabbinic power, his work also echoes recent work by Beth Berkowitz.
The book’s first two chapters challenge two traditional approaches to reading Talmud. In chapter 1, Wimpfheimer considers the relationship between the Talmud and law codes. Like Halivni, he sees the Talmud’s search for justification for laws as a response to, or rejection of, the Mishnah’s preference for statutes presented without reasons, a rejection, one might argue, of codes. However, he argues, the Talmud, while not a code, features a “dynamism that is itself driving toward a code” (p. 10). The Talmud takes disparate sources and contradictory statements and seeks to make them cohere. This drive is disrupted by legal stories, which leads those who seek in the Talmud a clear legal system to view these narratives as problematic. For Wimpfheimer, influenced by Cover, legal stories offer a different, more open way to describe law, a way that focuses on process as opposed to outcome alone. He illustrates the way such an approach might work with an analysis of Megilla 7b, a bizarre story about drunkenness on Purim. The reading he offers suggests that reading legal stories as narratives can create a richer understanding of law and the way that law works in life.
Chapter 2 challenges the traditional distinction between halakhah and aggadah. Wimpfheimer notes that this distinction is used as a lens to read texts; the assignment of a text to one genre or the other determines how the text is read. It may also determine how the text is valued, insofar as halakhah is generally considered more important than aggadah. After a brief history of the dichotomy, including a critique of Yonah Fraenkel’s test to define and distinguish between the two genres, Wimpfheimer considers a Talmudic story about a lovesick man, a story that has been read both as aggadah and as halakhah. This story, he argues, challenges the usefulness of the distinction between the genres and supports the value of reading such stories as narrative rather than statutory law.
Having introduced the notion that Talmudic legal stories constitute a literary genre, Wimpfheimer turns in chapters 3-5 to an exploration of selected stories as a window into the social dynamics of rabbinic culture. Chapter 3 focuses on ethics and culture in the rabbinic courtroom. Chapter 4 considers pedagogy and the relationship between teacher and student. Chapter 5 discusses the use of the Torah as cultural capital. Wimpfheimer’s goals, spelled out at the beginning of chapter 3, are to assert “the significance of the genre of Talmudic legal narrative within rabbinic historiography” while “slightly tweaking the manner in which such work is conducted” (p. 63). While some scholars consider these stories very reliable sources for historiography, Wimpfheimer is more reserved. He notes that like other types of stories, legal narratives are highly “tellable,” suggesting significant shaping and editing, and that we should be cautious in reading them as reliable witnesses to the past. However, Wimpfheimer sees such stories as “terrific witnesses to social dynamics” (p. 67); although they may not tell us how the rabbis operated in the broader community, they tell us a great deal about the rabbis’ view of the world.
Chapter 6 focuses on the lengthy Talmudic narrative. Wimpfheimer challenges Jeffrey Rubenstein’s claim of stammaitic authorship of such narratives. He notes that while the stam seeks to unify disparate sources, in lengthy narratives “the centripetal energy is absent, replaced by a centrifugal energy that is willing to follow the contours of life to more dialogical places” (p. 159). Lengthy narratives, according to Wimpfheimer, are more likely to challenge rabbinic power, and reveal concerns about the way that rabbis behave. They “are process rather than product” (p. 159).
Wimpfheimer’s book is provocative in the best sense of the word. He calls into question assumptions that have guided students of the Talmud for centuries and that persist in scholarly work today. As Wimpfheimer notes in his introduction, it is difficult even to describe what the Talmud is. Descriptions and definitions of the Talmud tend to be limiting and self-fulfilling. To describe the Talmud as a “legal” text is to imply that it has an agenda involving the generation or determination of law. This in turn influences the way we read legal stories. Although Wimpfheimer does not reject this understanding of the Talmud, he insists that we consider legal narratives as more than building blocks in a cohesive unit or contradictions to be smoothed over. His “thick” readings offer a new way to look not only at stories, but also at the passages in which they appear.
To challenge the absolute dichotomy between halakhah and aggadah is to question the way rabbinic texts have been categorized for one thousand years. Moreover, much of contemporary rabbinics scholarship rests on this division, anticipating that we will bring different approaches to our reading of each genre. As Wimpfheimer notes, the dichotomy has also allowed generations of scholars to privilege halakhah over aggadah. His work is especially welcome in light of the ever-present problem of defining “aggadah.” Finally, Wimpfheimer’s work offers new insights into the role of the stam in shaping the Talmud. Because questions about the intentions of the stam are inseparable from questions about the purpose and nature of the Talmud, Wimpfheimer’s work has the capacity to enrich any discussion about the Talmud.
This book is important for those who read Talmudic stories and for those who mine Talmudic narratives for historic and halakhic information. I doubt that anything Wimpfheimer says would affect a more traditional approach to halakhah, but it could be important for those who engage in liberal or non-Orthodox halakhah. I would argue that it poses a special challenge for those who use narratives to generate contemporary halakhic positions in the field of ethics, whether economic, sexual, or medical. Use of narratives in halakhic decision making always raises questions, insofar as it is not always clear whether those narratives were “intended” to generate halakhic norms. This book argues for a more complex discussion about legal process and product, a discussion that requires serious engagement as Jews continue to mine rabbinic literature for Jewish approaches to contemporary life. I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about the Talmud or the contribution of the Talmud to the ongoing story that is Jewish law.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Dvora E. Weisberg. Review of Wimpfheimer, Barry Scott, Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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