At times, the redactor preserved his sources as he inherited them, at times, he mildly altered them, and, at times, he significantly shaped them. How to find the precise balance between the conservative and creative dimensions of this editorial process is still unclear, but today there is a broad consensus that the Mishnah should be viewed as a tightly edited composition (see Wald 2007a). Even if the editorial process may have been limited at times to the selection and arrangement of earlier materials, these editorial judgements are of major significance since they reflect the concerns and goals of the Mishnah’s redactor/anthologist. In short, the Mishnah is now viewed not merely as a conduit through which earlier tannaitic literary materials were preserved, but also as composition it its own right.
Granting the importance of the analysis of the explicit and implicit rationales for halakhot, let us describe the refined historical approach mentioned above. History, in his new approach, is not narrowly conceived along political or socio-economic lines as it was sometimes in the past, but rather history is broadly conceived as the locus for a host of non-hermeneutic an non-formalistic factors which impinge upon the halakhic process. Ethical, theological, economic, political and other cultural forces play a role in the evolution of the halakhah and all these forces emerge within specific historical settings. The goal of the new approach is to reveal the traces of these forces on the halakhah without reducing all halakhah to mere epiphenomena of authentic, supposedly non-legal, historical activity. To accomplish this goal, the new approach introduces external factors only when internal legal justifications fall short. Features of the halakhah which cannot be fully explained by internal considerations, such as uncharacteristic legal stances, unprecedented novelties and the preference for a specific exegetical move over another equally valid one, are viewed as traces of external historical forces (see Soloveitchik 1978: 174; Hayes 1997: 181). Unsurprising mishnaic legal positions rooted in unambiguous biblical law do not call for historical interpretations, whereas the atypical, the novel and the unnecessary offer the historian a toehold and entry-point for the introduction and consideration of historical factors.
Mishnaic halakhah is presented in various forms such as precedents, enactments, edicts, customs, and, most commonly, casuistic formulations (i.e. case law). General rules also appear in the Mishnah, but they are the exception as mishnaic halakhot are usually embedded in specific cases and circumstances. Since the rationales underlying the halakhot of the Mishnah are rarely stated explicitly, scholars analyse halakhot so as to expose their implicit legal basis. At times, the implied legal reasoning for a halakhah may be ad hoc and cover little more than the specific case cited, while at other times, the implicit reasoning may involve a general principle with broader application.
The analysis of the halakhah in the Mishnah commenced already in tannaitic times (see Henshke 1997) and has continued unabated until today. The Talmuds and their medieval commentators are well known for their attempts to reveal and interpret the legal concepts and principles underlying mishnaic halakhah. In contrast, modern historians have sometimes interpreted mishnaic halakhah, and halakhah more generally, as responses to historical factors, such as political or socio-economic crises. A potential drawback of this historical approach to the halakhah is the risk of viewing legal concepts and reasoning as little more than ex post facto rationales for laws generated primarily by contemporary historical realities (see Hayes 1997: 3-9, 17-24; Soloveitchik 1978: 174-175). Seeing halakhah primarily as a response to political or socio-economic crises risks minimising the significance of internal legal considerations and ignoring the nuanced relationships of halakhah to reality, “the patterns of resistance and response, of attentiveness and indifference” (Soloveitchik 1978: 174). Thus, contemporary studies of halakhah often seek to avoid these drawbacks in two ways: they highlight the legal reasoning and hermeneutics which justify the halakhah and refine the historical approach with methods designed to produce more compelling interpretations.
The Mishnah is primarily an edited anthology of brief and often elliptical pronouncements on matters of Jewish law and practice, frequently providing conflicting views on the individual matters discussed. Some of these pronouncements are attributed to a named rabbi, or group of anonymous rabbis, while others are entirely anonymous. While the content often relates to scripture, the form is not midrashic.
In those Tosefta layers which parallel the Mishna, the same names of Tannaim appear as in the Mishna and approximately in the same frequency.
Abraham Goldberg, “The Tosefta – Companion to the Mishna,” in The Literature of the Sages…, Ed. Shmuel Safrai (Assen/Mastricht: Van Gorcum & Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 295.
Are not the burgeoning populations of today’s yeshiva students — who have no desire to ever leave their study halls and are absorbed exclusively in individual contemplation — and religious Jews who cloister themselves in isolated communities and feel no responsibility to contribute to broader society, really a version of Christian monks, albeit with families?
This phenomenon is ripping away at Israel’s social solidarity, politics and economics, with many seeing it as a greater threat to Israel’s survival than her external enemies. While more intense and overt in the Jewish state, this dynamic is on the rise in America also. How many religious students or adults strive to connect to the Jewish people as a whole, not just like themselves? How many feel a deep responsibility to contribute to wider American society, participate in its public institutions or repay the benefits of America’s blessings? Sadly, too many rabbis and religious adults have lost interest in relating to the entire Jewish people in a real, not merely rhetorical, way. And many have even lost the vocabulary to deal with larger society’s burning challenges of social policy, the economy, poverty, justice and the building of a civil culture.
Eugene Korn, “In the Name of Judaism, Haredim Have Turned Inward,” The Jewish Week (20 April 2012), 20.
This trip shouldn’t be called ‘Birthright’ — it should be called ‘Birth responsibility,’” said Brett Levine, gesticulating as he spoke, a senior at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business with a major in finance. “As Jews, we have a certain sense of entitlement when it comes to Israel, and when it comes to our heritage. But what this trip taught me is that feeling entitled is not enough — we have a responsibility to our Jewish identity. We have a responsibility to Israel.
Hannah Dreyfus, “Birthright on Overdrive,” The Jewish Week (20 April 2012), 11.
I have never regarded material inequality — unless arrived at immorally, as it is in much of the Third World — as evil. Regarding people’s material status, two things should disturb us: a lack of opportunity to improve one’s material well-being and a poverty that is so bad that it deprives people of all dignity and hope. Neither condition has been prevalent in American life in my lifetime. On the contrary, America has been the greatest opportunity-giving society ever created.
Dennis Prager, “A Man and a Book,” The Jewish Journal (20-26 April 2012), 8.