THE POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY BITNETWORK
VOLUME 3, NUMBER 1
Copyright (c) 1994 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Bitnetwork.
All rights reserved.
Office of Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940
Peter Ochs, Editor
Paula Massa, System Manager
Bitnet Address: POCHS@DREW. DREW. EDU
Telephone: (201) 408-3222
"V5345E@TEMPLE.VM.EDU" Sid Axinn, Temple U.
"YFPY0060@VM1.YORKU.CA" David Bakan, Willowdale, Ontario
"BAUER917@RAVEN.CSRV.UIDAHO.EDU" Dustin Bauer, U. Idaho
"NB2@EVANSVILLE.EDU" Edward A. Beach, U. of Evansville
"ASB@LOWELL.EDU" Antoinette Beiser, Lowell Observatory, Az.
"RELBT551@EMORYU1.CC.EMORY.EDU" Timothy Beul, Emory University
"PYRAP@CSV.WARWICK.AC.UK" Andrew E. Benjamin, U. of Warwick
"KPB@ACPUB.DUKE.EDU" Kalman Bland, Duke U.
"BRIDGES@APOLLO.MONTCLAIR.EDU" Tom Bridges, Montclair Cllg
"MSMARCO@PLUTO.CC.HUJI.AC" Marc Bregman, Hebrew Un Cllg (Jersl)
"BRESDAN@UKANVAX" Daniel Breslauer, U. of Kansas
"DHB2@MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU" Don Breslauer, U. of Michigan
"HB003@UHURA.CC.ROCHESTER.EDU" Haim Yigal Bodek, Rochester U.
"BOROWITZ@NYUACF.BITNET" Eugene Borowitz, HUC/JIR, New York
"BOYARIN@GARNET.BERKELEY.EDU" Daniel Boyarin, UC Berkeley
"BOYARIN@CSSC.NEWSCHOOL.EDU" Jonathan Boyarin, The New School
"RTHR427@EMX.CC.UTEXAS.EDU" Steve Carr, U. of Texas
"CHARME@ELBERETH.RUTGERS.EDU" Stuart Charme, Rutgers U.
"JHACHJES@MINERVA.CIS.YALE.EDU" JH Chajes, Yale U.
"ACOHEN@BINAH.CC.BRANDEIS" Aryeh Cohen, Brandeis
"75320.2253@COMPUSERV.COM" Phil Cohen, Brandeis
"BDICKEY@UA1VM" Richard Cohen, U. of Alabama
"ESKENAZI@USCVM.BITNET.EDU" Tamara Eskenazi, Heb Un Cllg (LA)
"HARVEY.FORMAN@TIGERTEAM.ORG" Harvey Forman, Tigerteam
"FRASTED@YALEVM.BITNET" Steven Fraade, Yale U.
"MGARBER@DHVX20.CSUDH.EDU" Marilyn Garber, Cal State
"ALEVINE1@CC.SWARTHMORE.EDU" Jay Geller, Rutgers U.
"GELLMAN@HUJIVMS.BITNET" Yehuda Gellman, U. of Negev
"RBGIBBS@PHOENIX.PRINCETON.EDU" Robert Gibbs, Princeton U.
"WMSG@MACMAIL.CC.ROCHESTER.EDU" William S. Green, SUNY Buffalo
"YGREEN@ROLLINS.BITNET" Yudit Greenberg, Rollins Cllg
"HAASXXPJ@VUCTRVAX.BITNET" Peter Haas, Vanderbilt U.
"SUSAN_A_HANDELMAN@UMAIL.UMD.EDU" Susan Handelman, U. of Maryland
"FSH4R@FARADAY.CLAS.VIRGINIA.EDU" Scott Hennesy, U. of Virgina
"JAFFEE@WASHINGTON.EDU" Martin Jaffee, U. of Washington
"KAGAN@LEMOYNE.BITNET" Michael A. Kagan, Le Moyne Cllg
"MKATZ@EAGLE.WESLEYAN.EDU" Marilyn Katz, Wesleyan
"MSSTEVEN@PLUTO.MSCC.HUJI.AC.IL" Steve Kepnes, Colgate U.
"KNOBEL@MERLE.ACNS.NWU.EDU" Peter Knobel, Beth Emet, Evanston, IL
"LANCE@FREELANCE.COM" Lance Fletcher, Free Lance Academy, NJ
"RHH1902@HAIFAUBVM" Ze'ey Levy, U. of Haifa
"KRLINDBECK@THEO.JTSA.EDU" Kris Lindbeck, Jewish Theol. Sem.
"DLUSTHAU@ABACUS.BATES.EDU" Dan Lusthaus, Bates Cllg
"JUDDMALTIN@DELPHI.COM" Judd Maltin, Slacker U.
"JNATHANS@LRC.MED.UWO.CA" Jay Nathanson, U. of Western Ontario
"HYUMP@HUJIVM1.BITNET" Paul Mendes-Flohr, Hebrew U.
"KLEYZEMER@AOL.COM" Marty Morgenbesser
"POCHS@DREW.DREW.EDU" Peter Ochs, Drew U.
"MP10@CUNIXF.CC.COLUMBIA.EDU" Michael Paley, Columbia U.
"HILLEL@UMAXC.WEEG.UIOWA.EDU" Jeff Portman, U. of Iowa
"V5118E@TEMPLEVM.BITNET" Norbert Samuelson, Temple U.
"MMSBC@CUNYVM.BITNET" Mel Scult, Brooklyn Cllg
"LJS2@LEHIGH.EDU" Larry Silberstein, Lehigh U.
"RSILAK@CCLU.LV" Regnars Silakalns, Lativa U.
"JSMNTMPL@TEMPLEVM" Julius Simon, Temple U.
"MICHAEL.A.SIGNER.1@ND.EDU" Michael Signer, Notre Dame
"CROWLEY@UXA.CSO.UIUC.EDU" Martin Srajek,
"6500OS@UCSBUXA.UCSB.EDU" Oren Stier, UC Santa Barbara
"73122.1413@COMPUSERVE.COM" Rabbi Ira Stone, Tmpl Zion-Beth Israel
"TEMES@HUSC.HARVARD.EDU" Peter Temes, Harvard U.
"PERICLES@TEMPLEVM.BITNET" Dan Thompkins, Temple U.
"GURFEL@UMBC" Alan Udoff, Baltimore Hebrew U.
"WEINBERT@SERVAX.FIU.EDU" Theodore Weinbert, Florida Int. U.
"STEDITH@RUF.RICE.EDU" Edith Wyschorgrad, Rice U.
CORRESPONDING MEMBERS OF THE BITNETWORK:
Annette Aronowicz, Franklin and Marshall
Almut Bruckstein, Hebrew U., Jerusalem
Jose Faur, Brooklyn
Michael Fishbane, U. Chicago
Barbara Galli, Montreal
Neil Gilman, Jewish Theological Seminary (NY)
Barry J. Hammer,
Hanan Hever, Tel Aviv U.
Sandra Lubarsky, Northern Arizona U.
Aaron Mackler, New Jersey
Jacob Meskin, Williams College
David Novak, U. Virgina
Thomas Ogletree, Yale Divinity School
Adi Ophir, Tel Aviv U.
Michael Oppenheim, Concordia U.
Judith Plaskow, Flushing Meadow, NY
Michael Rosenak, Hebrew U.
Richard Sarason, Hebrew Union College
Avraham Shapira, Tel Aviv U.
Susan Shapiro, Columbia U.
Kenneth Seeskin, Northwestern U.
Elliot Wolfson, New York U.
Michael Wyschogrod, U. of Houston
Martin Yaffee, U. North Texas
Bernard Zelechow, York U.
"Know thyself?" "But do not separate yourself from the community?"
Philosophy is not your basic team sport. Even postmodernists
suspicious of Enlightenment models tend to practice philosophy
alone, in the kind of quiet solitude that lets them attend, for
long stretches of undisturbed time, to long lines of undisturbed
inference. At the same time, as exhibited in our previous issues,
these postmodern philosophers tend to write about the virtues
of teamwork: "relationality," for example, or "dialogue," "love,"
or "communities of interpretation." It is not yet clear how these
virtues enter the long lines of postmodern inference. Do they
enter as premises? As conclusions? Or are these virtues summoned
as angels of rescue whenever postmodern-yet-modern argumentation
breaks down, or falls short of its goals? The question, in sum, is
how communal virtues could and should enter into the practice of
postmodern Jewish philosophy.
This was one of the questions raised at the third annual meeting of
the Bitnetwork, held last November during the American Academy of
Religion annual meeting in Washington. As previewed in the November
Newsletter of the Bitnetwork, our discussion topic was "The
Semiotics of Money: Reflections on B. Talmud Perek Hazahav" (by
Robert Gibbs and Peter Ochs). The Reflections stimulated hearty
exchanges among the twenty-five participants including many
specialists in Talmudic literature and a plan to continue the
exchanges next year. Among the general questions generated by the
session were: how does Talmudic study contribute to the practice of
postmodern Jewish philosophy (are there models for this practice
among the interpretive and dialogic methods of Talmudic study?)?
how do logical and philosophic models emerge from or contribute to
Talmudic study (is their use always a priori or reductive, or does
postmodern Jewish philosophy offer procedures for non-reductive
study of general models?)? are any of the methods of contemporary
rabbinic scholarship already in dialogue with any of the methods of
postmodern Jewish philosophy? As a means of responding to these
and related questions, we introduce in this issue a new section of
the Bitnetwork: Talmud and Postmodern Jewish Philosophy. Our first
topic, "Framing Women/Constructing Exile," is a study of b. Gittin
34b-35b by Aryeh Cohen of Brandeis University. Cohen's essay will
also be the topic of next year's annual meeting of the Bitnetwork
(to be held in November during the 1994 Annual Meeting of the
American Academy of Religion in Chicago). So that the essay will
provide an occasion for communal as well as quiet study, we hope
you will read it in the context of re-reading the sugya in Gittin
and of preparing your own brief responses or commentaries. Please
send your responses or additional commentaries to us by July 15,
for inclusion in Vol 3.2 of the Bitnetwork. Our plan for the 1994
annual meeting is for Ayreh to lead us in re-reading the sugya, in
light of his essay and of the responses it stimulated.
Among others, we will have to solicit responses from three of our
member philosophers who have spent the last year or two studying
Talmud in Jerusalem (Jacob Meskin, who returns to the States this
summer; Susan Handelman, due back sometime after that; and Steven
Kepnes, due back a year later). Their study is itself a
philosophic event, whose consequences we need to hear about.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem remains also a place of human anguish,
stimulus to Adi Ophir's commentaries on politics and evil. Note
with what energy and passion, and in what manner, a study of
communal virtues enters into his argumentation.
This issue features the following sections:
NEW MEMBERS INTRODUCTIONS.
TALMUD AND POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY: "Framing
Exile," by Aryeh Cohen.
POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OUT OF ISRAEL: Last edition of Adi Ophir's
Evil An Outline for a Political Theory of Evil."
Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in the
Description, Response, or Essay sections of this Bitnetwork retain
all rights for hard copy redistribution or electronic
retransmission of their words outside the Network. For words not
authored by individual contributors, rights are retained by the
editor of this Bitnetwork.
Subscription: The BITNETWORK is sent free of charge to electronic
mail addrresses. For present or back issues, send requests to:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Harcopies cost $5/issue; $12 per volume (3
issues). Send requests and payment to Jewish Studies Program/BIT
c/o Peter Ochs, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940.
Submissions: Electronic mail to: email@example.com. Disks (Mac
or IBM) to: Peter Ochs, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940.
New Members Introductions:
Kalman Bland: "I am chiefly a medievalist who works in
Jewish/Islamic philosophy, Kabbalah, and biblical commentaries.
Lately my research has turned toward the topic of medieval Jewish
aesthetics, especially with regard to the sense of sight and visual
culture, the one our nineteenth-century authorities assured us had
no existence. The October 1993 issue of the "Journal of the
History of Ideas" published an article on my initial findings. I
have taught Judaica at Duke since 1973, and am currently the
Director of our Center for Judaic Studies. My Ph.D. was earned at
Brandeis; my B.R.E., M.H.L. and "rabbi" were earned at the Jewish
Theological Seminary (New York); and my B.S. in Philosophy was
earned at Columbia University.
Aryeh Cohen: "I am currently writing my dissertation at Brandeis
University. Its tentative title is "Rereading Talmud: Literary
Theory and the Interpretation of Sugyot" (the essay in this issue
is a part of that project). I did my BA at Hebrew U. in Philosophy
and Jewish Thought. That's where I was introduced to Continental
Philosophy. At the same time I was studying at the Hartman
Institute and thinking about how to bring Talmud into dialogue with
contemporary philosophical discussions without giving it privileged
status. These interests converged when I started to read more
literary theory and think about Midrash and Talmud within those
Harvey Forman: "I am a member of Tiger Team Buddhist BBS. . . . The
membership here is composed of highly literate individuals, who in
addition to strong interests (and practices) in buddhism (many
academic buddhist/oriental philosophy lists are being gatewayed
here), are also strongly interested in both classical and
postmodern philosophers. I am involved with many of the postmodern
philosophy lists maintained by Kent Palmer (firstname.lastname@example.org) (for
a list, send a "lists" command to email@example.com). Most
of these are now being gatewayed into Tiger Team: the derrida
Kris Lindbeck: "I am a doctoral student in Ancient Judaism at JTS,
working on a dissertation on the accounts of Elijah's appearances
in the Yerushalmi and the Bavli, with especial emphases on folklore
studies, Greco-Roman or Christian parallels and what it all might
have `meant.' I find philosophical approaches to the Talmud
fascinating, but the few I have looked at closely are confusing
and/or anachronistic. Kadushin is a favorite, but difficult --
and is not really writing about Talmud. I look at wider Jewish
philosophy and philosophy in general not so much through academic
eyes as through the eyes of a person of faith and, as such, I have
learned as much or more about my Christian faith through Jewish
thinkers, ancient and modern as through Christian ones."
Judd Maltin: "BA 1993, State University at Albany, Philosophy. A
fledgeling, hoping for admission to the Hebrew U. at Jerusalem in
the 1 yr. visiting scholar program (possibly MA). Spent 1 term at
Oxford, Hartford College, and plans to remain in academia. Nothing
published. Interests mainly: Praxiology in
religious/quasi-religious systems, therapeutic value of philosophy,
personhood/menschlichheit; and in the role philosophical discourse
as therapeutics plays in Tanakh, Talmud, Haggadah, and Kabbalah."
Ira Stone: "I am a Conservative Rabbi with an interest in theology
and philosophy. I am something of a self-taught follower of
Levinas and have primarily been teaching Talmud and writing
Talmudic 'readings' fashioned after Levinas. I have prepared a book
manuscript of these readings and have published one of the readings
(Kerem Fall 93). I will be a visiting faculty member at the Jewish
Theological Seminary next spring, teaching a course called `The
Revolt Against Modernism.' It will focus on the reaction against
modernism implicit in Rosenzweig, Scholem and Leo Strauss(!). I
have also published articles, in Conservative Judaism and Judaism,
on issues not directly connected to postmodern concerns. Last year
my first book, Seeking The Path To Life: Theological Meditations,
was published by Jewish Lights."
Peter Temes: "I teach writing about social and ethical issues at
Harvard University and just completed a doctorate in English and
American literature at Columbia, with a dissertation on 'Martin
Luther King, Black Power, and the Idea of History.' I'm
particularly interested in practical ethics and Just War
Talmud and Postmodern Jewish Philosophy:
Aryeh Cohen, Brandeis University
An abridgement of A. Cohen's original essay. As noted earlier,
readers are asked to read the essay in the context of re-reading
the sugya in Gittin and of preparing their own responses or
commentaries. Responses will be presented in Vol 3.2 of the
Bitnetwork and re-discussed at our Bitnetwork session at the 1994
Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Chicago.
Here is an exercise in analyzing a sugya b. Gittin 34b-35b within
a number of different critical frameworks. The frameworks should
serve to atomize moments of the sugya in order to arrest its
linear progression, to force the reader into other channels or
textual webs, and thus to elicit new meanings. One goal of this
reading is to problematize the notion of Gemara as commentary to
the Mishnah, and perhaps of commentary in general. This sugya in
particular, and sugyot in general, appear to have a different
agenda than the Mishnah that they are purporting to explain. A
rhetoric of explanation opens up the Mishnah to concerns
that are those of the sugya and not necessarily those of the
Mishnah. Another goal of this reading is to problematize the
source critical methodology.... I will question the idea that
one can determine the layering and therefore the historical
construction of a sugya. ... I will argue, further, on behalf of
a literary analysis that sees tensions in a sugya as productive
of meaning, rather than as the result of misinterpretation. On the
positive side, finally, I will argue that it is the nature of the
sugya as a literary document ... that is central to understanding
what the sugya means. The defining characteristic of the sugya is
thus, not its linear progression, but rather its existence in a
literary world and the literary connections that tie it to that
world (its web).
The Sugya: Bavli Gittin 34b-35b
1. A widow has no power to recover [her Ketubah] from the
property of orphans save on taking an oath.
2. But they refrained from imposing an oath on her.
3. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel made a regulation that she should
take any vow which the orphans chose to impose on her and so
recover her Ketubah.
4. Why is this rule [about an oath] laid down with reference to
a widow, seeing that it applies to everybody?
5. Since it is an established rule that "one who seeks to recover
payment from the property of orphans cannot recover save on
taking an oath".
6. There is a special reason for the mention of a widow.
7. For it might occur to you to say that [in order to render
marriage more attractive the Rabbis made a concession in her
8. We are told [therefore that this is not so].
9. They refrained from imposing an oath on her.
10. What was the reason [of this refusal]?
11. Shall we say it is because of that which is attributed to
12. For R. Kahana said, and others say that R. Yehuda said in the
name of Rab:
13. A ma'aseh of a certain man in a year of drought, who deposited
a dinar of gold with a widow.
14. She put it in a jar of flour, and she baked it in a loaf, and
gave it to a poor person.
15. In course of time the owner of the dinar returned came and
said to her, "Give me my dinar."
16. She said to him: "May the poison of death have benefit from
one of the sons of this woman if I have derived any benefit
for myself from your dinar.
17. They said: Not many days passed before one of her sons died.
18. When the Sages heard of the incident they remarked:
19. If such is the fate of one who swears truly, so much the more
so for on who swears falsely.
20. What was the reason [that she was punished]? Because she had
derived advantage from the place of the dinar.
21. And what does it mean "one who swears truly"? One who might
be said to have sworn truly.
22. If that is the reason [why the Rabbis refrained from imposing
an oath], why is this rule laid down with reference to a
widow; it should apply to a divorced woman also.
23. Why has R. Zera said in the name of Samuel: This rule applies
only to a widow, but to a divorced woman an oath is
24. There is a special reason in the case of a widow, because
she finds a justification for herself on account of the
trouble she has taken on behalf of the orphans.
25. Yehuda said in the name of R. Yirmiah b. Abba: Rab and Samuel
26. This rule applied only [to an oath imposed] in the Beth Din,
but outside the Beth din an oath may be imposed on a widow.
27. Is this so? Is it not a fact that Rab would not enforce
payment of a ketubah [by orphans] to a widow? This is a
28. This is the version given in Sura. This is the version given
29. Yehuda said in the name of Samuel: This rule applied only [to
an oath imposed] in the Beth Din, but outside the Beth din an
oath may be imposed on a widow.
30. And Rab said: Even outside the Beth din an oath may not be
imposed on her.
31. Rab is following his own reasoning, for Rab would not enforce
payment of a ketubah to a widow.
32. Why did he not make her take a vow and so let her recover?
33. In the time of Rab, vows were treated lightly.
34. A certain woman came before R. Huna [to enforce payment of her
35. He said to her: "What can I do for you for Rab would not
enforce payment of a ketubah to a widow?"
36. She said to him: Is not the only reason the fear that perhaps
I have already received part of my ketubah?
37. By the Lord of Hosts [I swear that] I have not received
anything from my ketubah.
38. Huna said: Rab admits [that we enforce payment] for one who
jumps forward [and takes the oath of her own accord].
39. A certain woman came before Rabba son of R. Huna [to enforce
payment of her ketubah].
40. He said to her: "What can I do for you for Rab would not
enforce payment of a ketubah to a widow,
41. and my father would also not enforce payment of a ketubah to
42. She said to him: At least grant me maintenance/
43. He said: You are not entitled to maintenance either,
44. since R. Yehuda has said in the name of Samuel: If a woman
claims her ketubah in the Beth din, she has no [claim to]
45. She said to him: Turn his seat over! He gives me [the worst
of] both authorities.
46. They turned his seat over and put it straight again, but even
so he did not escape an illness.
47. Yehuda said to R. Yirmiah Bira'ah:
48. Impose a vow on her in the Beth din, and administer an oath to
her outside the Beth din, and see that the report reaches my
ears, since I desire to make this a precedent.
49. [The text above stated:] R. Zera said in the name of Samuel:
This rule applies only to a widow, but to a divorced woman an
oath is administered.
50. Cannot then a divorced woman recover her ketubah on
[merely] making a vow? Was not [a communication] sent from
51. "So-and-so the daughter of So-and so received a Get from the
hand of Aha b. Hedia who is also known as Ayah Mari,
52. and took vow binding herself to abstain from all produce
whatsoever if she should be found to have received of her
ketubah anything besides
53. a blanket, a book of the Psalms, a copy of Job and a much worn
copy of Proverbs, 54. and we valued them at five maneh. When
she presents herself to you, empower her to collect the rest."
55. Ashi said: The Get in that case was one given by a
Sugyaetics: I employ three critical frameworks in reading this
sugya: rhetorical, structural and intertextual literary analyses.
Joined together, these three produce what I call "Sugyaetics": a
study of the ways in which the sugya "works," what it "does" and
how. It is the particular poetics of the sugya.
Following Stanley Fish, rhetorical literary analysis asks, "What do
parts of the sugya do?" This question is asked especially at those
points in the sugya when "ambiguities" or "ungrammaticalities" in
the text are rendered more acute, rather than ameliorated by the
interpretive tradition (as represented, for example, by Rashi and
Tosafot). The question is answered by describing how various
rhetorical moves inform one's reading of the sugya. Structural
literary analysis examines relations between parts of the sugya, in
an attempt to move beyond the rhetoric of the linear argument.
Intertextual literary analysis examines way in which this sugya is
informed by other texts, or cultural constructs, or presupposes
All three analyses are held together by the idea of sugya as
narrative. There are three ways in which the sugya is narrative.
First, it presents itself as having a beginning and an end,
with a dialogical structure in which an answer follows a question.
. . . Second, the sugya is part of a number of greater or lesser
cultural narratives. The greatest of these is the narrative
of origins within which the laws and the life presumably governed
by those laws make sense.
In order for this moment of legal "history" to make sense it must
be part of the larger historical narrative. The sugya is also in
the matrix of other less sweeping cultural stories about men, women
and their relation to institutions of law. As the late legal
theorist Robert Cover said:
No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists
apart from the narratives that locate it and give it
meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for
each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the
context of the narratives that give it meaning,
law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed,
but a world in which we live.
Third, the sugya generates narratives, as illustrated in the early
and medieval commentaries on the Talmud. The relationships
prescribed or constructed in the sugya later become part of
the cultural baggage of the Halakhic tradition.
The anonymous layer of the sugya (the stam) is the site of the
tensions betwen conflicting interpretations of the Mishnah. One
narrative strand of the sugya consists of lo shanu statements in
our sugya, the apodictic statements of Rav and Shmuel. The other
strand consists of maasim. The two strands exhibit conflicting
ideas about the fraglity of authority.
According to the maasim, the rabbis are reticent to move outside
the limitations of an authoritative tradition; women endanger the
institutions of law, and men are the law's conservative guardians.
According to the lo shanu statements, the rabbis are freer to
interpret the law innovatively. This whole discussion is embedded
in the cultural narrative of exile.
they refrained from imposing an oath on her. (Gemara v.9-24)
The Mishnah's declaration, "they refrained from imposing an oath on
her," can be interpreted in two ways: either passively (they were
restrained from administering . . . by some unidentified outside
force), or actively (they stopped or no longer administered).
The initial question of the sugya assumes the latter. This
assumption frames the subsequent ma'asim as an answer to a
question. The question is: what was it that brought the Rabbis to
stop administering the oath to widows? The answer is that women's
swearing is dangerous. What is the connection between the ma'aseh
and the Mishnaic proclamation? A glance at the Palestinian Talmud's
discussion of our Mishnah supplies an etiology of the idea. The
P.T. begins its sugya with the following midrash:
At first the women would swear falsely and bury their
sons, as it says: to nopurpose did I smite your sons
The midrashic rereading of "to no purpose" (l'shav) as "because of
oaths of no purpose (shevuoth shav)" is the kernel of the ma'asim
in b. Gittin 35a. All the characters that will participate in all
the ma'asim are already present in this one line: a)the women;
b)the false oaths; c)the male victims. These parts become full
blown characters in the ma'aseh. That this idea of women killing by
oath is a prominent force in our sugya is evidenced by its
relationship not only to the first ma'aseh but also to the third.
This might be diagrammed as follows:
Women would swear-- A widow (13)-- A certain woman came...(38)
and bury-- May the poison of death... (16)--turn his seat over
their sons-- one of her sons (11)-- Rabba son of R. Huna (45)
While this might explain the "origin" of the idea (or possibly the
trope) of dangerous swearing women, the unattributed (or
stammaitic) discussion following the ma'aseh (20-24)
points out clearly that its connection with our mishnah is tenuous
at best. The sages' statement in line 19 clears the widow of any
charge of wrongdoing. This charge however is brought back and
strengthened in lines 20-24. The impact of line 24 ("because she
finds a justification for herself") is to a large extent dependent
on the idea of "One who might be said to have sworn truly (21)."
Sugyaetics: I claimed above that the linear progression of the
sugya is not its defining characteristic. The textuality of the
sugya, its existence in a literary world, and the literary
connections that tie it to that world pull the reader in many
different directions. I want to pursue this in two different
directions: by analyzing the internal relationships of the "parts"
of the sugya and analyzing the sugya's relations to other texts.
There are two types of statement that are identifiable elements of
the sugya. One is the ma'aseh, and the other is the lo shanu ("this
rule applies only"). There are three of each type, although two of
the lo shanu comments are ostensibly "variants" of the same
comment. The relation between two of the ma'asim has already been
mentioned above in passing. It would be worth pointing out the
extent of the structural and linguistic similarities between all
three ma'asim. First the first and the third:
a) A ma'aseh of a certain man in a year of drought, who deposited
a dinar of gold with a widow.
b) She put it in a jar of flour, and she baked it in a loaf, and
gave it to a poor person.
c) In course of time the owner of the dinar returned and said to
her, "Give me my dinar."
d) She said to him: "May the poison of death have benefit from
one of the sons of this woman if I have derived any benefit
for myself from your dinar.
e) They said: Not many days passed before one of her sons died.
a) A certain woman came before Rabba son of R. Huna [to enforce
payment of her ketubah]. and my father would also not enforce
payment of a ketubah to a widow?"
c) She said to him: Give me maintenance.
He said: You are not entitled to maintenance either, since R.
Yehuda has said in the name of Samuel: If a woman claims her
ketubah in the Beth din, she has no [claim to] maintenance.
d) She said to him: Turn his seat over! He gives me [the worst
of] both authorities.
e) They turned his seat over and put it straight again, but even
so he did not escape an illness.
The structural similarities between the two are:
b) legitimate grounds for compensation (i.e. the story)
c) demand for compensation
d) introduction of danger as a result of contradictory
e) dangerous outcome
In addition, both involve a man and a woman (a), but, despite the
changing of some parts of their roles, it is the woman who inflicts
harm through her words.
The relationship between the second and third ma'asim is also
obvious. Both have the same introduction (ll. 33 & 38), and the
same opening line of dialogue. The only differences are
due to their occurring one generation after another. In both
ma'asim this opening is followed by a confrontation, and while in
the second ma'aseh the woman gets what she demands and there is no
apparent danger to the men she only achieves her end by virtue of
circumventing the proper channels. The woman's response in the
second ma'aseh (l. 36) also recalls the woman's response in the
first (l.15). The context of the other two ma'asim imply
that there is a danger to this one too. This is further supported
by the use of the phrase chaye hashem tsevaoth by the woman. The
danger is that of the woman who demands, who swears, who confronts
the institution of law, and who is adamantly certain of her own
integrity. This is the danger of a woman's voice.
This particular framing of the ma'asim needs to be contrasted with
other attempts to frame them. The Tosafists ad locum juxtapose the
first ma'aseh with statements from b. Shavuot 26a and b. Nedarim
25b that pardon a person who inadvertently swears falsely. This
would seem to cover our case too. For the Tosafists this is a
problem that could not be reconciled by a source theory, since they
saw the whole Talmud as one interconnected work. They claim to
overcome this difficulty by harmonizing the various sources. Their
specific answer is unimportant to us except insofar as it regards
each piece of the sugya as autonomous and thus needing
the rest of Talmud. Nevertheless, the
Tosafists' question seems to support our framing of the ma'aseh,
even if their answer doesn't. They quote the following ma'aseh
from b. Shavuot 26a:
Someone said: a person (adam) utters an oath this excludes
one who is coerced.
How is this? It is like [the case of] Rav Kahana and Rav Asi.
When they left Rav, one said "I swear that Rav said such"...
And the other said "I swear that Rav said such"...
When they went before Rav he agreed with one of them.
The other said to him (Rav) "And I have sworn falsely."
He (Rav) said "Your heart coerced you."
The Tosafists point out that the circumstances here are closely
analogous to the ones in our ma'aseh (Git 35a). The result however
is radically different. There is no imputation of guilt at all and
there is no discussion of cosmic punishment wrought by their
Lieberman and Halivni see the ma'aseh in Gittin as an example of
the principle articulated in p. Shavuot 6:5 (37a), Leviticus Rabbah
6:3 (ed. Margaliot p.135), and Pesikta Rabati (ed. Ish Shalom)
132b: "Whether innocent or guilty do not resort to an oath." They
then claim that the Bavli did not accede to this principle and
therefore had to resort to a misreading of the ma'aseh (lines
20-21) in order to claim that she actually did swear falsely. All
three of these sources append the saying (as a saying) to similar
versions of a ma'aseh that is structurally related to ours. The
other ma'aseh involves a woman who has visited a woman
friend of hers, and while there she dropped the three dinars that
she had wrapped in her belt. They fall into loafs of bread that
are to be baked. When she discovers her loss (upon returning home)
she returns to the friend and asks for the dinars. The friend then
says: "I have no knowledge of them, if I know anything about them
may she [that is: herself] bury her son." Her son then dies. (In
the Lev. R. and Pesikta version this recurs three times, and
in the Pesikta version her original return to the friend's house is
at the urging of her husband.)
Notable similarities between Gittin and the others are the
following: a woman, baking bread, unwittingly swears falsely and
kills her son(s). The most important similarity is that all the
cases involve women. This is, of course, the kernel of the story
that is found in the midrash in p. Gittin. Recognizing this fact,
one sees that we are not faced with a general principal
equally applied to men and women, but, rather, a series of
narratives generated by a specific narrative (i.e. the midrash in
p. Gittin) about women's behavior in relation to oaths (they lie,
it is dangerous). Not acknowledging this, neither Halivni nor
Lieberman frame this ma'aseh with the other ma'asim in the sugya
in Gittin. Once we do acknowledge the significance of the midrash,
we can see that the differences between our ma'aseh and the other
ma'aseh are as crucial as the similarities between our ma'aseh and
the other two in the sugya in Gittin.
One might say that although the two different ma'asim are generated
by the same cultural kernel, they do not necessarily share any
relationship of influence on each other (nor a causal as opposed to
structural relationship with the original kernel).
This construction of women as dangerous to law reinforces one of
themes of the maasim: the rabbis' reticence to move outside the
limits of authority. The theme is illusrated in line 35,
"What can I do for you, for Rab would not...?" and lines 40-41:
"What can I do for you, for Rab would not . . .? and my father
would also not . . .?" Each narrative not only describes
but also enacts the rabbis' reticence. In contrast, the lo shanu
statements of Rav and Shmuel in the manner of lo shanu statements
generally minimize the original lemma's prohibition. By
interpreting the Mishnah directing, without invoking a line of
tradition as justification, these statements not only describe but
also enact the rabbis' willingness to interpret innovatively.
Sugyaetics: The relationship between the parts of a sugya are not
of interest to me historically, that is, in a search for the
proto-sugya or to chart the history of the development
of the sugya. I see all these characteristics as essentially
literary. They "work off each other" or "inform each other" because
of the structural similarities that bring the mind's eye to
interpret them. The tradents (the specific sages to whom the
traditions are attributed) are not then significant as informants
about the intellectual or social life of the time in which they
might have lived. They are at times significant because of the
literary impact that a quoted statement has, or the play between a
tradent and that tradent's role in another part of the sugya.
What, however, determines this construction of women as dangerous?
To answer this we must look to the beginning of the sugya. This
first part (ll. 4-8) is stammaitic . Scholarship has long since
decided that these "introductory" sugyot, often at the beginning
of Tractates and chapters but also at the beginning of specific
Mishnah sections are unique. Whether or not they are late
additions, they do seem to play the role of "title," that is,
providing a certain framing of subsequent sugyot.
FRAMING WOMEN/CONSTRUCTING EXILE
B Gittin 34b-35a:
4. Why [is this rule about an oath] laid down [with reference] to
a widow, seeing that it applies to everybody?
5. Since it is an established rule that "one who seeks to recover
payment from the property of orphans cannot recover save on
taking an oath."
6. There is a special reason for the mention of a widow.
7. For it might occur to you to say that [in order to render
marriage more attractive the Rabbis made a concession in her
8. We are told [therefore that this is not so].
What does this part of the sugya do? Justification for the
question is given in line 7. mishum hinah is proposed as a possible
reason for Rabbinic leniency in the case of a widow. The mishnah's
specific wording is construed as precluding this possible
misapplication of a ruling. What however is mishum hinah ? The
words mean "because of her grace." The ambiguity of the English
translation points out the strangeness of the phrase in the
original. There are two contradictory explanations given by the
traditional commentators. Rashi comments, "So that the men will
find favor in the eyes of the women, so that the women
will marry them." mishum hinah is a precautionary measure taken to
insure that women are not dissuaded from marrying for fear that
they will be defrauded of their ketubah payment wrongfully. There
is no comment in the Tosafot. However, on 49b the following is
attributed to R. Haim: "He explained mishum hinah that all would
want to marry her . . . " mishum hinah is "protective legislation"
intended to persuade potential future husbands to
marry a forlorn widow by giving her some money even under
It is, of course, impossible to decide between these two
interpretations, and this is just the point. The fact that mishum
hinah is such an obvious site of conflicting interpretations
points to its "ungrammaticality" and that what it does is far
different than what it means. In the next line the claim is
seemingly dismissed out of hand. However, I would claim that the
figure, "For it might occur to you to say. . . . We are told
[therefore that this is not so]" is a way of introducing a concept
under erasure (to borrow a term from Derrida). This means
that introducing mishum hinah creates a textual web within which
the rest of the sugya operates. This is what the first five lines
do: they set up the connection "widow =hen" without arguing for it.
The connection is granted as obvious. What is not granted is merely
the appropriateness of applying it in this situation to justify a
legal leniency. Alhough it is not accepted as legal reasoning, it
still has rhetorical power.
The term hen is a significant one in a discussion of what a good
woman is in the Book of Ben Sirah. There is a list (Chap. 26 ed.
Kahane p. 54), similar to the one found in Proverbs 31 of the
attributes of the "good woman" and the "bad woman":
13. A wife's charm (hen ) delights her husband, and her
skill puts fat on his bones.
14. A silent wife is a gift of the Lord, and there is
nothing so precious as a disciplined soul.
15. A modest wife adds charm to charm (hen al hen) and
no balance can weigh the value of a chaste soul. 
27. A loud voiced and garrulous wife is regarded as a war
trumpet for putting the enemy to flight. (RSV).
The salient point is that a woman of hen is silent (machrisha),
unassuming (=modest) (boshah), and passive (="chaste")(moshelet
b'nafshah). On the other hand, the woman who has a voice is
considered a war trumpet for putting the enemy to flight. This is
the construction of woman that is determining the reading in our
sugya. This is what was introduced under erasure in line 7-8.
These are also the very characteristics that are seen in our sugya
as problematic. The women are neither silent (line 16), nor
unassuming (41-44) nor passive (36). Within the cultural and
textual web formed by both the midrash and Ben Sirah list, it is
easy to understand where the danger and fear come from.
Sugyaetics/narrative: Let us take a moment to analyze the literary
power of the first ma'aseh. In setting up the narrative, the reader
is introduced to three sympathetic characters, in trying times.
First, there is a man who deposits a dinar with a widow in/because
of the years of drought. The widow herself is caring in both
accepting the dinar and giving the bread she baked to a poor
person. The poor person then leaves the scene. The fact that the
dinar is now with the poor person foretells a tragic ending. The
ma'aseh itself "claims" to be about the depositor. The significant
action however, is performed by the widow, while the tragedy
strikes her son, and we know that the son is stricken by way of the
anonymous "they said" (17) rather than the omniscient narrator who
tells the rest of the tale. The confrontation is doubly poignant
since it not only involves a lack of communication (the answer in
line 16 doesn't really answer the question in line 15), but also
confounds our expectations of what should happen to a person who
feeds the hungry in years of drought. Rather than being
rewarded, the widow is tragically punished, and it is the very act
of nurturingfeedingthat brings about the tragic death. At this
point of tragedy, the narration switches from an omniscient
narrator to the fallible, anonymous, "they." The sages interpret
this change as a result of the widow's oath. The context for the
failed expectations and the interpretive function of the fallible
narrator (i.e. "they"), might be the narrative's struggle with the
fact that proper action does not cause proper reward. The phrase:
shanat b'tseret (year of drought) (line 13) appears only once in
the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah 17:8:
He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending
forth its roots by a stream: It does not sense the
coming of heat, its leaves are ever fresh; It has
no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to
yield fruit. (NJPS)
This is part of a promise of divine salvation in times of trouble.
The contrast with the ma'aseh is obvious. Not only does the woman
have faith in God, but she also does good in the year of drought by
giving bread to the poor. She does not, however, receive divine
protection for her goodness; instead, her nurturing brings death.
There is intertextual evidence that the context of the ma'aseh is
exile. The year of drought in Jeremiah is a metaphor for times of
trouble, and exile is the trouble for the Rabbis. The seemingly
desparate attempts to interpret this anomalous series of actions
(lines 19-23) may all belong to an attempt to retell the
community's narrative of origins, within which there is
a coherent line of authority and of causality in the world. From
this vantage point, the oppositional nature of the maasim and the
overtones of danger take on new significance. If the authority of
law is to be upheld, whatever opposes or undermines faith in its
stability and its basis in tradition is dangerous. Within this
binary opposition, men are cast in the role of the conservative
guardians of tradition, while women are the opposition. Both are
locked into their roles (cf. line 39-40). There is a palpable
danger that the system will be overthrown. "The system" is the last
vestige of the pre-exilic covenantal relationship.
It is not suprising that a halakhic discussion of the collection of
ketubah money is embedded in the cultural narrative of exile.
Marriage and divorce have been the traditional site of metaphorical
conflict between God and Israel. Isaiah (50:1) and Jeremiah (3:8)
both use the Deutoronomic divorce laws (24:1-4) in their discussion
of the covenantal relationship. Similarly, the Rabbis use the
divorce scene, and the dispute over support (i.e. the ketubah
payment) as a, if not the, significant site for the discussion of
the covenantal relationship. Engagement, marriage, separation and
divorce are at the heart of Rabbinic mythology. A clear example of
this, with direct bearing on our sugya is the following midrash
from Eichah Rabba:
Another interpretation of "She is become like a
widow" (Lam. 1:1)....
The Rabbis said:
It is like a king who became angry at his consory.
He wrote her a bill of divorce and gave it to her,
but then he returned, and grabbed it from her.
Whenever she wished to to marry someone else, the
king said to her: Where is the bill of divorce with
which I divorced you?
And whenever she claimed support from him, he said
to her: I have already divorced you.
Similarly, whenever Israel wishes to worship idolatry,
the Holy One of Blessing says to them: "Where is the
bill of divorce of your mother whom I have dismissed?"
And whenever they ask Him to perform a miracle for them,
He tells them: I have already cast you off, as it is
written, "I cast her off and handed her a bill
of divorce" (Jer. 3:8).
Stressing the indefiniteness of the "as a widow" and not a widow,
the midrash articulates the existential fears of the exilic
situation. Is the covenant broken and irreparable ("divorce") or
is there still hope? What is the obligation to the law when there
is no obvious recompense?
From this perspective, it is not surprising that the legal
discussions that parallel and, in our sugya, partake of the
language and images of the "theological" discussions are so fraught
with danger and violent emotion. This construction of Rabbinic
society (the maasim ) meets the other narrative strand (the lo
shanu statements) in the statement attributed to R. Yehuda.
His ruling seems to subvert the need for a static legal structure
to insure the line of authority. To the contrary, he wants to
assert authority by legislating. He declares that the students of
Rav are wrong: that one must do whatever is required in order to
assure that the woman gets her ketuba.
The sugya, however, does not end here. Within the narrative
context, R. Yehuda's demand that he hear that his decree is itself
fulfilled by the rereading of the lo shanu statement from
above (22) in light of the narrative in lines 51-56. The message
that is sent "from there"(51) seems to accord with R. Yehuda's
ruling. She swore and should collect the rest of the ketuba
payment. The last line of the sugya subverts this move. The
statement attributed to R. Ashi denies the force of the Palestinian
ruling and narrows it to one specific case. Once again, however, a
significant moment in the sugya is a site of conflicting
interpretations. Rashi and Tosafot are at odds about how to reread
the ma'aseh according to R. Ashi's statement. The force of R.
Ashi's remark, however, is to bring the sugya back to the point
before R. Yehuda. This is the moment of tension that renders
divorce a site of legal/theological discourse. The sugya ends
without a bottom line, and we never hear the voice that will
confirm R. Yehuda's ruling.
Narrative/Afterlife of the Sugya/Sugyaetics
We have ended up, after all, with a somewhat linear narrative
following a nonlinear reading of the sugya. We have seen how the
sugya is a narrative and partakes of the larger cultural
narratives. In addition, the sugya generates narratives. This is
seen in the early and medieval commentaries on the Talmud. The
relationships prescribed in the sugya later become part of
the cultural baggage of the Halakhic tradition. The afterlife of
mishum hina is a good example of this.
The central moment of this sugya the crisis of authority is an
issue that repeats itself throughout the sugyot in this chapter. On
close reading, most of the sugyot are about the authority of the
institutions of law. It is in creating that authority through
interpretation that the relationships between men and women, and
between men, women and the institutions of law are created.
APPENDIX: DAVID WEISS HALIVNI ON OUR SUGYA
Halivni frames the sugya in terms of the debate about whether or
not one who swears truthfully is punished. He claims that the
Bavli, as opposed to the Yerushalmi (and other Palestinian
sourcese.g. Lev. Rabbah, Pes. Rabbati), cannot abide the claim
that one who swears truthfully is punished anyway. Or to put it in
another light, in the Palestinian sources all swearing is viewed
disparagingly and those who indulge in this type of activity are
punished. This, according to Halivni, is the reason that the Bavli
was forced to "misinterpret" the ma'aseh and claim that the woman
actually did swear falsely in some way. As Halivni says: "According
to this one must explain the ma'aseh in its simple sense
(k'peshuto), that the widow swore truthfully and even so she was
punished, for even one who swears truthfully is punished." (p. 537
With this explanation, Halivni attempts to explain the
ungrammaticality of the claim that she was punished for swearing
falsely because she had profited by saving the flour which would
have had to fill the space of the dinar. Halivni accomplishes this
by framing this sugya with other sugyot that concern the debate
over whether or not one who swears truthfully is punished. We
argued above that there were significant differences between the
maasim in Lev. Rabbah, p. Shavuot, Pesikta Rabbati and the ma'aseh
in our sugya. Halivni, however, also sees a connection with a
statement and ma'aseh in Tanhuma (Buber) in which two thousand
cities are wiped out for swearing falsely, at the end of which is
the same statement as is found in our sugya : "If such is the fate
of one who swears truly, so much the more so for one who swears
falsely." I will argue that the ma'aseh quoted in this Tanhuma
(and its parallels) is different enough from our maasim as to
problematize Halivni's framing.
The pericopae in full is as follows:
Our sages said, he is not even allowed to swear about
the truth. Why? Our sages taught, an Israelite should
not be promiscuous with vows or laughter, nor in
misleading his fellow [concerning] an oath saying it
is not an oath. A maaseh, at har hamelech [Hill of
the King]. There were 2000 cities and all of them
were destroyed on [account of] a true oath. If such
is the fate of one who swears truly, so much the more
so for one who swears falsely. In what manner do they
do it? A person would say to his fellow: "on oath
[shevuah ] that I am going to such and such place and
I will eat and drink." And they would go and do [what
they had sworn] and fulfill their oaths. For such it
is said: if a person incurs guilt, etc. (Lev. 5.1).
The differences between the ma'aseh in Tanhuma and ours are
glaring. First, in the original telling, it is not clear who is
swearing, or what is being sworn. Second in the interpretation
(following the question ketzad) there is no confrontation, there is
no legal action, there is no story about a specific incident
involving a specific person, but rather a generalized incident
involving thousands. The question that must be answered therefore
is what is the more appropriate frame.
It seems to me that the mishum hinah discussion determines the
reading of this sugya towards the frame that I have proffered.
Halivni's reading does not take cognizance of the specificity
of our ma'aseh (and the ones in Lev. Rab., Pes. Rabbati)i.e. that
it is about women. Further, the kernel of the ma'aseh in p.
Gittin, supports this framing. The fear here is not of swearing but
of women swearing. This difference also comes to light in Halivni's
further comments on the sugya.
And here, this difference between the Bavli and the
Yerushalmi also affects the explanation of the
mishnah; according to the Bavli nimnau mil'hashbia,
for perhaps she would swear falsely and be punished.
And for the Yerushalmi nimnau mil'hashbia for one is
punished even for swearing truthfully.
However, the point - in both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi - is that
she swears and in doing so she harms, not that she is punished.
This is the crux of the difference between my reading and
Halivni's. As I see the significance of the Midrash in the
Yerushalmi on Jer. 2:30, dangerous swearers are always gendered
female. Furthermore, neither Talmud is worried that she be
punished, but that she harm.
At the heart of the issue separating between the two readings is
whether the Bavli's frame is that of the principle that one is
punished for swearing falsely; or whether it is the problem that
seems to be structurally at the heart of all the maasim in our
sugya and is the "title" of our sugya: women swearing. In this
light the Bavli's question, why was she punished, does not proceed
from an assumption that there are innocent swearers, but rather
that there are no innocent women swearers. This is why the stam in
the Bavli must misread in Bloom's sense, rather than misinterpret
the ma'aseh. For the Bavli, the woman, by definition as a woman
dangerous when swearing cannot be innocent.
* This is part of a larger project of reading halakhic sugyot in
Bavli Gittin (my dissertation). The overall goals of the project
are (1) to develop a literary methodology for interpreting
sugyot,; that is to develop a sugyaetics or poetics of the sugya;
(2) to analyse the construction of women and men in Talmudic
divorce law, within the frame of feminist insights into that
kind of construction; (3) to explore the use of get as metaphor
for exile in midrash, and its effectif anyon the halakhic sugyot;
(4) to finish and get my PhD. I would like to thank the
participants of the Brandeis Doctoral and Postdoctoral Seminar on
Early Judaism and Christianity directed by Reuven Kimelman and
Bernadette Brooten for their very helpful comments on an earlier
draft of this paper, and especially Denise Kimber Buell for her
very thoughtful and insightful response to that paper.
1. cf. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller,
(Hill and Wang, New York, 1974). pp. 14-15: "We shall not set forth
the criticism of a text, or a criticism of this text; we shall
propose the semantic substance (divided but not distributed) of
several kinds of criticism (psychological, psychoanalytical,
thematic, historical, structural); it will then be up
to each kind of criticism (if it should so desire) to come into
play, to make its voice heard, which is the hearing of one of the
voices of the text."
2. The term sugya is itself a conflicted site of scholarly
interpretation. For this reason, I have adopted a somewhat circular
definition of sugya. Asugya is that text which appears upon
reflection to cohere as a unit with internal connections,
especially literary connections. This definition is circular since
it begs the questionwhy reflect on this unit and not one larger or
smaller. Other, seemingly empirical modes of marking a sugya the
two dots that signify its ending or the quotation of another line
from the mishnah to be discussedhave their own problems. The two
dots are a late and variable addition, as anybody who has checked
Sridei HaBavli against our printed editions and the MSS can attest.
The quotation of a new line of the Mishnah is equally tricky, since
a)new discussions are often started without quoting new lines of
the Mishnah, b)discussions of the Mishnah are not always in the
order that the Mishnah is writtenarguing for the editorial use of
these quotations, c)in other areas of Rabbinic literaturee.g.
midrash, or even in the Bavli's own midrash collections (e.g. the
end of chap. 1 of b Megillah)lemmae of themselves do not end or
3. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive
Communities, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1980). See
especially p. 25 where Fish claims that the meaning of the sentence
is attained by an analysis of what the sentence does, even though
there might be no informational content to the meaning.
4. Robert M. Cover, "Nomos and Narrative", Harvard Law Review,
vol. 97, Nov. 1983, (The Harvard Law Review Association, 1983),
5. A ma'aseh is a story or a precedent, but it is also defined by
a specific form, i.e. short verbal phrases mostly connected by
6. In Frank Kermode's understanding of "structural" thinking,
there is a "fabula" which underlies a narrative. In this fabula,
all the characters of the narrative are present as "functions". In
this way Kermode compares the relation between the betrayal story
in Mark and in the other synoptics. The relationship here is not
one of dependence or influence in the traditional sense. cf. Frank
Kermode, The Genesis Of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of
Narrative, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge,MA, 1979)p. 78ff
esp. p 83.
7. cf Shamma Friedman, Perek Haisha Rabah Babavli," in H. Z.
Dimitrovski ed., vol. 1, (Jewish Theological Seminary, New York,
1978) pp. 331-339. In his comments on the second and third sugyot,
Friedman's method is to distinguish between the "original" and
later layers of sugyot by form critical methods. While I agree
with the importance of these methods, the use I put them to is not
for a redaction history, but rather a literary and rhetorical
8. cf the reading of Rabbi Menahem Hame'iri, who cites this last
line as a proof that Rabbah b. R. Hunah's opinion was not accepted
since he was punished. This reading is generated by Mei'ri's
obvious empathy with the woman's claim of unfairness. Bet Habehirah
al masechet Gittin (Jerusalem, 1977) pp.149-150.
9. That the connection between the two ma'asim had been percieved
at an early date is indirectly testified to by the printed editions
of the first ma'aseh. Line 15 (or c) in the printed editions reads:
hav li dinari in Aramaic. All the MSS have the Hebrew version,
however the Aramaic, it seems to me represents a reading of the
sugya which understood a connection between the two ma'asim.
10. This illustrates what those in Critical Legal Studies refer to
as the central paradox: the necessity to have public proof of the
private. The woman intuits that this impossible proof is
being demanded (proof that she never profited from her ketubah
[nehaniti as in line 16] ) and she therefore forcefully crosses
the line from private to public. cf. Clare Dalton, "An Essay in the
Deconstruction of Contract Doctrine", in Sanford Levinson and
Steven Mailloux ed. Interpreting Law and Literature: A Hermeneutic
Reader, (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 1988) esp.
pp. 292-293, and the critique by Joan Williams in "Critical Legal
Studies: The Death of Transcendence and the Rise of the New
Langdells", New York University Law Review 62 (June 1987)
11. There are only two occurences of hai hashem tsevaoth (line 36)
in our Hebrew Bible: IKings 18:15 and IIKings 3:14. They are
connected thematically in several ways. The first is spoken by
Elijah, and the second by Elijah's pupil Elisha. Elisha's relation
to Elija is noted in the story itself (IIKings 3:11) by one of the
servants of the King of Israel, as a recommendation of Elisha.
Second, both are part of confrontation narratives between the
prophets and the king(s) of their times. Third, both narratives
have to do with drought, and the power of the prophet to alleviate
that drought. The only occurences of this phrase in Rabbinic
literature (Numbers Rabbah 21:6, Deut. Rabbah 10:3, Tanhuma (Buber)
Pinhas 5, Pesikta Rabbati 5 [ed. Ish Shalom 15b]), as far as I was
able to ascertain, are quotations of one of these two verses.
12. Lev. 5:4.
13. TK Zeraim pt. II on Tos. Bikkurim (p.835-6); and cf Greek in
Jewish Palestine, p.124 and n.74 where Lieberman shows that the
saying has a Greek equivalent from the same time (Righteous or
unrighteous, flea an oath; Maximus Planudes).
14. Sources and Traditions: Nashim p.536-538.
15. Some of the differences are equally notable: in Gittin there is
a legal transaction which starts the narrative (hapakid), and (as
noted by Halivni) the woman in Gittin swears that she never
benefitted from the money, which is ambiguously true, while in the
other ma'aseh she swears that she knows nothing of the money, which
is more obviously true.
16. see Stephen Greenblatt, "Shakespeare and the Exorcists," After
Strange Texts: The Role of Theory in the Study of Literature, ed.
Gregory S. Jay & David L. Miller (1985, University of Alabama
Press, Alabama) for a cogent critique of the traditional concept of
influence, and his argument for the idea of cultural negotiation.
17. cf Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse (Johns Hopkins University
Press, Baltimore and London, 1978) pp.1-25.
18. Acc. to Jastrow. He gets himself embroiled in the whole
problematic that interests us here by presenting what is
essentially Tosafot's opinion as the 'authoritative' meaning of the
phrase, and then adds Rashi's opinion in brackets at the end as
"oth. opin.". (cf.Hebrew Aramaic Dictionary hen & hina)
19. And consistently throughout the Bavli. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben
Isaac, 1040-1105) is rather forceful in his position, see e.g. his
comment on b. Ketubot 97b commenting on the statement "a divorcee
also needs hen": "for [mishum hinah] is a rabbinic ordinance
[takkanat hachamim] and not [done] for the love of the husband,
therefore what difference would it make to me if she was loved or
hated [by her husband]." (and cf. Tosafot there, too, s.v.
20. The Tosafot are a collection of commentaries on the Talmud
produced in France and Germany from the twelfth to the fourteenth
century. The early Tosafists were students of Rashi's.
ben Hananel Ha-Kohen; French Tosafist; second
half of the twelfth century.
22. It is like writing "he is not sick" rather than writing "he is
well". The effect of the former is to introduce sickness into the
discussion, as if the person had written he is sick.
23. As opposed to e.g. b BK 106a where analogous legal situations
do not lead to analogous cultural ramifications.
24. E.g. Isaiah 58;8-14.
25. Cf. Isaiah 58:8; Proverbs 31:15,20.
26. On narration see Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction:
Contemporary Poetics, (Methuen, London and New York, 1983) esp.
27. For equally "loaded" uses of the phrase shanat b'tseret in
maasim see: b Ber. 18b; b Yeb. 15b; (b Ket. 10b); b B.B. 8a, 11a;
b Hulin 94a.
28. Cf Jeremiah 17:7
29.Cf..also Jer. 17:3,4 which explicitly lists exile as the
30. On Narratives of origins see Kermode, The Sense of an Ending,
and more recently, and in relation to the Rabbis, see Daniel
Boyarin, "Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,"
Critical Inquiry 19:4 (Summer 1993), pp. 693-725 (esp.718-723).
31. David Biale argues this point on a more universal scale within
Rabbinic literature. Eros and the Jews: from Biblical Israel to
Contemporary America, (Basic Books, 1992) p.48.
32. Line 45, takes on this significance, within this frame. (cf.
Hagai 2:24;. Targum on Deut. 17:18.)Melech is the term used to
describe the term of the exilarch in the Letter of R. Sherirah
33. Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel,
(Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985) pp. 307-312.
34. In addition to the following midrash cf: Sifri Deut. (Ha'azinu)
#306 (ed. Finkelstein p.330; b San. 105a; Exodus Rabbah 31:10;
Tanhuma Mishpatim 11; Numbers Rabbah 1:5; Tanhuma Vayeshev 4;
Tanhuma (and Tan. Buber) Numbers 5; Midrash Psalms (Shoher Tov)
139:1 (ed. Buber p.527). This partial list shows that divorce as a
site of the existential tensions of the exile is a motif common to
most layers of Rabbinic discourse.
35. For an analysis of this text, and a critical apparatus for the
text, see David Stern, Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis
in Rabbinic Literature, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA,
1991) esp. pp.99-101. The text I am using is the one labeled
Ashkenaz in Parables, p. 257. It is in Buber's edition of Eichah
Rabbah p. 46, with some differences. The translation is basically
Stern's, p. 99.
36. Line 49, especially the phrase d'eavid bah maaseh is ambiguous.
All the commentators understand it to mean that the woman should
collect as Samuel ruled. On a literary level, however, it connects
the statement back to the first maaseh and perhaps recognizes that
it was really a maaseh baisha.
37. Cf. Barthes' discussion of the proairetic code (that is the
code which Barthes uses to analyse actions and their consequences,
including questions and their digressions and answers) in Roland
Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller, (Hill and Wang, New
York, 1974) esp. p. 19.
38. Saul Lieberman, "sefer maasim, sefer psakim," has shown that
the word maseh in many contexts has the meaning of psak, that
39. Alfasi (10th century Babylonian author of the work Halahot,)
quotes only the lo shanu line of our sugya. This may not seem
remarkable, since the common opinion is that Alfasi is
only interested in the Halakhic bottom line. What is remarkable is
that, in order to achieve a bottom line Alfasi also rearranges the
lo shanu statements. In the Halachot, Samuel's statement as quoted
by R. Zeira (line 23 & 50) appears only after R. Yehuda's
statement. Neither R. Ashi's statement nor the ma'aseh before it
are quoted. That Alfasi had to rearrange the sugya in this fashion
in order to have a linear reading which arrived at a "bottom line"
halakhic ruling, indirectly supports our understanding of the sugya
as it stands as not having a bottom line. For a partisan review of
the Halakhic tradition of commentary up to his time, see Menahem
40. mishum hinah becomes a prominent part of discussions about the
viability of woman's claim on her ketubah money and the mechanics
of collecting that money (the level of rigour in examining the
witnesses, e.g.). Mishum hinah is played off against other
principles which revolve around many of the same cultural issues:
i.e. "more than a man wants to marry, a woman wants to be married",
"a man doesn't want his wife to be embarassed by haveing to
appear before a court". See e.g. Responsa of R. Shlomo b. Adret
Part 5:90; Responsa of Mahram of Rottenburg part 4:362; Responsa of
R. Moshe Isserles 9:13.
41. P Shavuot 5:6 37a; parallels in Lev. Rabbah 6:3, Pesikta
Rabbati 113b. noted by Halivni on p. 537.
42. It is interesting to note (though not necessarily relevant)
that the destruction of cities on Har Hamelech is recorded in
bGittin 57b. There, however, the number is 6000, an there is
no mention of swearing truthfully or falsely.
Political Philosophy Out of Israel:
Adi Ophir's "Beyond Good: Evil An Outline for a Political
Theory of Evil."
This is the last of a series of excerpts from
Ophir's essay, versions of which first appeared
in TEORIA-VE-BIKORET (Theory and Criticism) and
in THE PHILOSOPHICAL FORUM XXI.1-2 (1989-90).
Initial excerpts appear in Vol 2.1 of the Bitnetwork.
Responses from David Novak and Jonathan Boyarin appear
in Vol 2.2.
. . . . We are now in a position to identify a necessary (though
not a sufficient) condition for a just society: only a society in
which no-one suffers more than his necessary lot is a truly just
society. In other words, in a just society all superfluous
suffering that can be prevented by means of a different
distribution of evils is indeed actually prevented . . . . But
even in this utopian picture there is no return to a theory of
justice based only on the distribution of goods. In a "positive"
theory of justice of that kind, the spheres of goods were the sole
basis to which the principles of justice applied, as a mechanism
that was supposed to mend an equilibrium that had been upset. But
a social model which represents only spheres of goods, as if only
these were the objects of struggle and distribution in society,
belongs to the utopian horizon intended by all moral politics, and
not to the actual basis from which it springs. A moral politics
can intend such a horizon only when it explicitly acknowledges the
spheres of its own discourse and action, the field in which goods
and evils exist in a continuous process of production and
This picture too is over-simplified: it does not exploit the
theoretical possibilities that open up with the reversal of
perspectives (from good to evil, from goods to evils). Evils are
not distributed just any way to anyone, but are allocated to each
person according to her status in the various spheres of action. It
is possible that a person will agree to suffer in one sphere more
evils that he deserves, in return for compensation in another
sphere. A poor man will agree (rationally) to suffer more than her
necessary lot if she knows (or believes the prevailing ideology
which claims) that she is paying a temporary price that is
necessary for the stability of the economy, which is a necessary
condition for the improvement of her condition in the future. And
perhaps she will agree to suffer for less than this. . . . A just
society has to make it possible for everyone to convert a
preventable suffering that is distributed in one sphere into evils
from another sphere, or into the suffering of someone else
who willingly participates in the other's suffering. . . . From a
moral point of view, the conversion of an evil cannot serve as a
substitute for attempts to reduce or prevent it, but in practice
this is frequently the prevailing situation. After the definition
of tyranny by Walzer (1985, 19), we can offer the following
distinction: in an unjust society the conversion of superfluous
suffering takes the place of social and political attempts to
reduce such suffering (a just distribution of the burden of
military service, for example, instead of a real effort to end the
war situation; the cultivation or organizations of volunteers to
assist the "deprived," for example, instead of a re-distribution of
social wealth). An in a really evil society the possibility of
converting suffering among the spheres is most limited; the person
enduring superfluous suffering is limited not only in his attempts
to find social arrangements that will reduce his suffering, but
also in his efforts to make contact with someone who will agree to
convert his suffering until the trouble passes (a black who is
prevented from seeking assistance from whites, for example, or a
Jew who is unable to receive help from Gentiles). From this we can
derive a possible definition for a (social) condition of radical
evil: this is the situation in which the channels for the
conversion of suffering of part of the population are
systematically eliminated by a regime which increases such
The conversion of suffering makes possible an entire spectrum of
social and political behaviors, from oppression to dedication, and
the very existence of social-political partnership. People cause
each other suffering in a systematic manner, in institutionalized
practices of social interaction. The partnership in the framework
of which suffering is distributed does not rest on power relations
alone, because even in the most repressive society several channels
for the conversion of suffering remain open. It is also impossible
to dissociate this partnership from a moral, utopian horizon,
because any given arrangement of the distribution of suffering
includes superfluous suffering the conversion of which can be
arranged and the reduction of which can be struggled for. The good
remains transcendent, divine perhaps, if there is a God worthy of
it, and goods are no more than its dubious representation. Evil,
in contrast, is a frequently changing form of human partnership.
A theory of political morality in general and a social criticism in
particular have to determine this form as the framework of their
discussion; a political act which has a moral claim has to
determine radical evil as an anchor for its criteria and the
reduction of superfluous suffering as the horizon of its
Radical evil, in contrast to the Supreme Good, is not an abstract
theoretical structure, but an actual possibility of social reality
which has already been realized here and there. Such a practice of
the distribution of suffering characterized the condition of the
Jews under the Nazi regime during the forties. This does not mean
that such a situation does not characterize other regimes, or that
other regimes are necessarily similar to the Nazi regime. But
instead of deriving the concept of radical evil from an
interpretation of the phenomenon of Nazism, I propose (after Arendt
and others, cf. Bruner 1990) that we understand radical evil as in
principle a structure of social power relations, of which Nazism
was a paradigmatic actualization, not the only one, not absolute,
and not the last. In the modern world, forms of administration
have developed by means of which a regime is capable of directing
the lives of huge populations while constantly observing each one
of the mass of individuals within them, down to the last intimate
details of his life and of intervening in this life at any
moment it wishes to and from whatever aspect it chooses (Foucault,
1979, Part IV). In such a world, where Orwell is a historian, not
a prophet, and 1984 occurs almost every year in this or that region
of the world, the regime that is founded on such forms of
administration has actually unlimited possibilities of producing
suffering and of blocking the channels for its conversion. But when
we speak of the administration of life, of rule over a population,
and of the ability to observe individuals and intervene in their
lives, there is no modern regime, be it the most free and
democratic, which does not rest upon moderate versions of certain
crucial aspects of these forms of administration. Such a
perception of radical evil and its potential presence in modern
society generates an important conclusion: there is a continuity
between injustice and radical evil, both on the conceptual level
and in the social reality that the concepts are supposed to
characterize. The distinction between evil and injustice (which
is no less essential than the distinction between good and justice)
is preserved but receives a new significance. Evil is not only
consistent with injustice, but can also be described as injustice
of a particular type, taken to an extreme. Evil (social evil) is
the acme of (social) injustice; while social injustice contains a
potential of radical evil. To know a society as unjust is to
understand the way in which it is different from a society that
embodies radical evil, but may under certain conceivable conditions
deteriorate and become a society of that kind ...
* * * *
The perspective that posits an image of radical evil on the horizon
of political action gives the social contract a new meaning: ...
suffering that is distributed by a regime that systematically
blocks channels for its conversion is a suffering that cannot be
justified in any way; the struggle to eliminate such suffering is
a categorical imperative of political action. Suffering whose
conversion is disallowed by societal arrangements is suffering that
is unjustifiable in principle. One can and should draw an
unequivocal line between unjustified suffering and suffering that
is unjustifiable-in-principle. A valid social contract cannot
include an agreement about suffering that is
unjustifiable-in-principle; it is based on a recognition of the
need to eliminate it. A social contract cannot include an
agreement that blocks possibilities for the conversion of
suffering; its whole purpose is to give validity to arrangements
for the conversion and distribution of suffering. Unconvertible -
and therefore unjustifiable - suffering, together with suffering
that one tries to eliminate, constitute - negatively - the outer
boundary of a valid social contract. A consensus on unjustifiable
suffering is a condition for the validity of the contract, with its
two facets that I presented above, and it appears implicitly in all
its formulations in the history of thought, from Glaucon in Plato's
Republic through Hobbes to Rawls. This agreement determines that
there are social ways of causing and distributing suffering and a
social form of bearing suffering that must not be given
legitimization under any circumstances ... Such a consensus is a
necessary condition for the possibility of a human community as a
moral community. A consensus of this kind finds explicit
expression only when it is deviated from, and when such
a deviation occurs it constitutes an opportunity to reinterpret and
reaffirm it. Generally the expression given this moral consensus
is not formulated in ordered arguments, for the agreement is the
basis of the moral-political discourse, the common ground that make
dialogue possible. What is involved is a common moral sensibility,
a shared sensibility with regard to radical evil.
The moral sensibility with regard to radical evil determines the
sphere that is justifiable, and cannot itself face the test of
justification. The sphere that is justifiable is the sphere to
which the social contract applies: its boundary is the boundary of
civic discussion; beyond it the civil struggles end and there is a
state of war. It is possible to claim that the homeless person
bears an unjustified but not unjustifiable suffering, and that
therefore the social contract and the political obligations derived
from it do apply to him. It would appear that this claim is made
today by most if not all of those involved in the social conflicts
surrounding the homeless in Israel. To claim this is to claim that
the suffering of the homeless person is not being eliminated at
present only because it is perceived, wrongly, as a lesser evil, in
order not to cause a greater suffering that would result from an
intervention that would undermine the foundations of the social
order, or so as not to miss out on a rare opportunity to improve
the condition of the society, or out of solidarity with a defined
group within the population. To claim this also means to claim
that there are opportunities open to the homeless person to convert
his suffering, and nevertheless, the conversion arrangements are
unjust because the perception of the existing arrangement as the
least of evils is mistaken. But it is also possible to claim that
the suffering of the homeless person is unjustifiable in
principle, and that whoever accepts the conversion arrangements
with regard to his suffering and does not seriously struggle to
eliminate it does not share his basic moral sensibility ... It
is possible that in another year or two this will be the claim of
the Israeli homeless person who will remain homeless even after the
emergency plans and the "special reorganization" are put into
effect; it is possible that this is the claim of the homeless in
New York today. My argument does not propose a procedure to decide
between these two possible claims, since there is no such
procedure; it proposes the necessary conditions for the
justification of revolt.
In the case of the homeless, a justification of this kind may seem
unreasonable: in America society as in Israeli society it is
difficult to imagine a systematic attempt to block the conversion
of suffering or an open declaration that it is not right to ease
the suffering of the homeless. Not so in the case of the
Palestinian who revolts. It is not difficult to conceive of a
description of reality according to which the Israeli regime
systematically blocks certain arrangements that are meant to make
possible the conversion of suffering in the Palestinian society,
and systematically thwarts efforts to remove this suffering. The
Palestinian is not invited at all to join the Israeli political
partnership as an equal, or to negotiate with it over his political
rights, and hence the Palestinian revolt is self-evidently
justified. But when a description of this kind is given, a
boundary appears between two moral sensibilities within Israeli
society, between which there is no possibility of compromise: one
sensibility will see the present suffering of the Palestinians as
justified or unjustified but in any case justifiable, while the
other will refuse in principle to justify it. This boundary is the
boundary of the argument in the framework of the Israelis'
political partnership. Whoever has crossed it (from justifiable to
unjustifiable) has cut loose from the agreement on which this
partnership is based and has no sufficient reason to obey the
regime that spreads a suffering that is unjustifiable in principle.
If until now he has avoided disobedience, he has done this for
pragmatic reasons, primarily because he is too weak, too much a
coward, and his only interest in such a step is a moral interest.
Or perhaps he has avoided disobedience out of other moral
considerations, for example, because he is afraid that the evils
that such a step might cause will cause greater suffering than that
which the refusal is likely to prevent. This is not the framework
in which to explore other reasons why so many Israelis might stop
short of disobedience . . . These reasons would presumably be
occasional and accidental with regard to the principle of social
partnership and not reasons that concern the moral principle
itself of collaborating with the occupation regime. The Israeli
who accepts a description of the stated kind of the condition of
the Palestinian has a reason to disobey.
* * * *
What is presently on the agenda - and this is the basic moral
question that is now on the agenda, all the rest is like background
noise, the output of the endless verbiage produced by
the political arena - are the borders of the Israeli social
partnership, the fine line between unjustified evil and
unjustifiable evil, the decision between obedience and revolt.
In this decision, the ordered arguments and the intellectual wealth
of the tradition are brought in to support, cultivate and shape an
existing moral sensibility, or to puncture a moral sensibility
flawed with doubts, but these cannot replace one moral sensibility
by another or establish one and undermine the other once and for
all. A moral sensibility is born from innumerable connections and
influences, but first and foremost from the intensity of a
person's experience of suffering and the ways in which he has been
exposed to the suffering of others. The learned arguments
generally arrive too late, and perhaps in too small doses,
to a moral sensibility that has already been formed. A
philosophical discourse at its best can only sharpen a continuous
process of exposure to the suffering of others and can illuminate
this suffering in a new light. To recognize the practices of
distribution of suffering in the society, to identify the modes of
conversion of suffering, to point out unjustifiable suffering
none of these can be derived from an a priori consideration, but
must be extracted from an interpretative analysis of social
reality; on this matter neither the philosophical analysis
nor the interpretative dialogue with the tradition has any
particular advantage. Many writers and artists, in poetry and
fiction, in journalism and film, sometimes in the visual arts, deal
with the exposure of evil, and they too ... have no special skill
in this matter. The writers of placards and the speakers at
street-corners, sometimes the stone-throwers and other violators
of law and order are likely in the right context ... to articulate
an outcry of pain that will expose the presence of an evil. The
graffiti-smearers and the philosophers are perhaps at the
two ends of a spectrum of differences between levels of linguistic
and conceptual complexity, of breadths of associative field and
wealth of affinities to other cultural products, but between
the two there is no difference in principle in the level of
sensibility to the presence of suffering, and if there is a certain
difference, it is not clear that it is in the philosopher's
favor. The crucial question is not in what genre of writing one can
represent evil more truthfully, persuasively or effectively (poetry
or analytical philosophy, for example) or from which social
position (representative of a stratum that is discriminated against
or of the cultural elite). The crucial question is how to
represent, in the language of the culture of the majority (or of
the ruling class), at the heart of the hegemony's ideological
discourse, evils that that discourse does not acknowledge as actual
evils and for the production and distribution of which that
majority that does not acknowledge its responsibility.
One of the ideological roles of a ruling class or group is the
production and dissemination of representations of the social
reality in which evils cannot be identified as products of the
social-political order. Evils have no objective existence; when it
is impossible to ignore them they are perceived in terms of the
negation of goods; they do not belong to the defined spheres of
social activity; they undergo a "naturalization," are perceived as
the hand of fate, accident, force-majeure, a flaw of birth, the
evil character of the individual: in brief, they are attributed to
factors outside the political system's sphere of control. It is
possible to interpret the critique of ideology from Marx to the
thinkers of the Frankfurt School, and also the works of Foucault on
the lunatic asylums, hospitals and prisons as a non-systematic
attempt to "de-naturalize" evil in modern Western society. When a
political regime disseminates evil and distributes sufferings in so
open and blatant a manner that it becomes impossible to ignore the
political context of the evil, justificatory narratives somehow
appear, describing an imminent utopia or a catastrophe that must be
prevented at all costs. These narratives portray the evil for
which the regime is responsible as the least of evils, an
uncondemnable necessity that is justified by a greater danger or a
greater hope that awaits at the gate. The evil is permitted
because what is involved is a threat to existence (whose,
precisely?), or redemption, or liberation, or, at least, the
defense of sanctified values (whose, precisely?) ... In opposition
to these attempts at justification, there also appear more
or less systematic efforts, by the victim or by those who identify
with him, to deconstruct the narratives as attempts by those who
are responsible for the dissemination of the evils to justify a
social and political order of which they themselves are the chief
beneficiaries. Deconstructions of this kind appear, for example,
in the critique of ideology of the Frankfurt School, or of the
Marxists (e.g., Jameson 1981) or the feminists (e.g., Hartsock
1983; Nicholson 1986), or also in works of "minor literature" (see
Hever 1990) that have cultural parallels in film (Spike Lee) or in
theater (The San Francisco Mime Troupe).
... To illustrate one way in which hegemonic discourse may make
contact with an alternative discourse on evils, I will describe
aspects of contemporary Israeli culture that are connected
to the Israeli response to Palestinian suffering. Since the
articles written by Achad Ha'am after his visits in this country in
1891, Zionist discourse has continued to confront the evils
produced and disseminated by the Zionist settlement project among
the Arab inhabitants of the country (Gorny 1985). After the
establishment of the state of Israel, with the emergence
of a refugee problem and a military administration, the public and
literary treatment of Palestinian suffering became more intensive
and conscious. The canon of Hebrew literature began to receive,
with honor, attempts to represent, in the cultural language of the
majority, the evils suffered by natives who turned into enemies,
became a minority and then become subjects under an occupying
regime (in prose, e.g., Hirbet Hizeh, Facing the Forests, The
Smile of the Kid, and in poetry, Alterman, Zach, Rabikovich and
Laor). These were attempts to touch the suffering of the other, to
understand the particular moods and the general social order that
caused this superfluous, preventable, suffering, and, at least in
thought if not in action, to open ways to reduce this suffering.
But the confrontation of the Israeli Jew with the suffering of the
Palestinian Arab is almost always linked, if only through hints,
with ... Jewish suffering and with a Zionist narrative, a "master
narrative" that justifies the Palestinian suffering, or at least
some part of it. This is how things are, even when we speak of
the sharpest of Israeli critiques that have been directed at this
narrative in its various versions. In one way or another the
writers attest to their affiliation with the national collective;
they want to speak in the name of this collective or against it,
but either way they draw their literary and moral authority from
their very link to the Zionist narrative and from the precise
character of this link.
Today, the confrontation with Palestinian suffering occurs in a
horrific political situation. The very attempt to describe this
situation, even to point to it, requires taking a stand with
regard to the collective profile, the social mechanisms, and the
cultural masks of this evil. The means that have been taken by the
Israeli government to suppress the Intifada have accelerated the
processes that are gnawing away at the democratic underpinnings of
the Israeli regime. Many moral restraints that had previously
limited the state's use of force have been put aside recently; loud
voices call openly, even within the Israeli parliament, for a
Jewish species of apartheid. The Jewish fear-neurosis seems, as of
now, in the Summer 1990, to be victorious. This fear-neurosis,
nourished by ancient roots and a terrible chain of modern traumas,
is stronger right now than the alliance between Zionist pragmatism
and universalistic moral interests (an alliance which, even if it
did not manage to draw Israeli policy towards a reconciliation with
the Palestinians, was able until recently to keep the question of
Eretz-Israel/Palestine and open one, at least on the formal level).
Perhaps things will yet change. But, now, at any rate, it appears
that a long heritage of dread of the other, the Gentile, has joined
with a power-oriented bravado within a weak political structure
that has a limited capacity of decision-making. Together they
produce and distribute various forms of evil among the Palestinian
population subject to the occupation regime.
Ahad Ha'am. 1953. "Truth from the Land of Israel," in Collected
Writings of Achad Ha'am. Jerusalem. (Heb.)
Foucault, Michel. 1975. Histoire de Sexualite. Vol I. Paris;
Gorny, Yosef. 1985. The Arab Question and Jewish Problem. Tel Aviv:
Am Oved. (Heb.)
Hartstock, Nancy. 1983. Money, Sex and Power. New York:
1990. "Hebrew in an Arab's Pen," in Theory and Criticism
(Heb.)Jameson, Fredric. 1981.
The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.
Nicholson, Linda. 1986. Gender and History. New York: Columbia.
Walzer, Michael, 1985. Spheres of Justice. New York: Basic Books.
POSTSCRIPT FROM ADI OPHIR:
The third volume of "Theoria ve-Bikoret" (Theory and Criticism)
which I edit has recently been published. It may be of interest to
bitnet members. It is a Hebrew bi-annual, published by the Van
Leer Jerusalem Foundation and Hakibutz Hameuchad and edited
collectively by a group of relatively young intellectuals (The
Group for Theory and Criticism). The journal is semi-academic,
interdisciplinary, trying to foreground theoretical and critical
issues in the study of Israeli Culture and Society and to promote
(sometimes to invent) Hebrew critical theory, both modern and post.
The journal is labeled "leftist" and "postmodern" by some of
its critics, though the terms are used here, as everywhere else I
assume, rather vaguely, and not always with justification. English
abstracts supplement the Hebrew papers.
The third issue contains papers (by Azmi Bishara and Yoav Peled) on
the Palestinian minority in Israel (the "Israeli Arabs"), on
power/knowledge in Israeli orientalist discourse (Gil Eyal), a
feminist theory of reading as a woman (Orly Lubin), a review of the
revisionist wave among historians of the State of Israel (Ilan
Pappe), a critique of Israeli sociology in light of its
interpretation of the Six Day War (Peled and Levi), an essay on
Horkheimer's "The Jews and Europe"" and its relevance today (Moshe
Zuckerman), and a presentation of the concrete utopia of the
Avital Geva, the greenhouse, which will be presented this year in
the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Gideon Ofrat).
Previous issues include papers on Hebrew literature, Israeli art,
and the question of the "modernization" of North-African Jews in
Israel. In the coming issue there will be papers on memory, the
Talmudic discourse, intellectual responses to the holocaust, Hebrew
poetry and art, and more. Most provocatively in the Israeli
context will probably be an essay by the historian Amnon Raz-
Krakotzkin which offers a rehabilitation of exile and offers the
state and consciousness of exile as a viable cultural option for
Israeli Jews and the best moral stance available for them in the
If you would like to subscribe to the journal or order separate
issues for your own or for your institution's library, please write
to: Theoria ve-Bikoret, The Van Leer Jerusalem Foundation, P.O.B.
4070, Jerusalem 91040. The price for a single issue is $14 and $25
for a one year subscription
(postage included). Submission of
papers is welcome. Since our resources
for translation are limited
we may have to ask for some help from the
DIALOGUES IN POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY:
In Vol 2.1, we redacted dialogues among a small group of NETWORK
members, and we'll return to that format in future issues.
Meanwhile, folks may want to join that dialogue network, initiated
and managed by NORBERT SAMUELSON. Just email to him at
TALMUD AND POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY. Please remember, responses
Cohen's essay are due here by July 15.
NEW WORDS: The NETWORK is happy
to receive your writings, reviews,
news items, responses, letters, and editorial
ideas and free will
offerings (such as offering to edit an issue or sub-issue!).
send them in!