The priesthood does not play a part in Avot’s succession list

Unlike the role of the priesthood in I Clement, the priesthood does not play a part in Avot’s succession list. The elders, the prophets, and the men of the Great Assembly are all explicitly denoted in Avot and thereby assume a role in Avot’s list. The Second Temple Leaders, the House of Gamaliel, and the tannaim also feature in Avot’s list since the members of these groups are listed together and in succession. In contrast, priests (like shoemakers (4:11)) only appear as individuals, and the priesthood as a result is omitted from Avot’s chain of transmission. As M.D. Herr has shown, however, priests were important teachers and officials during Temple times and therefore their omission from Avot requires an explanation. Consequently, scholars like Herr, who attribute the early portion of Avot to the Pharisees, hypothesize that the Pharisees omitted the priests from their chain of transmission sometime during the late Second Temple period in order to undermine other sects, such as the Sadducees, for whom the priesthood (so it is alleged) was a central element (see Finkelstein, Introduction, 9-11; M.D. Herr, ‘Continuum in the Chain of Torah Transmission’, Zion 44 (1979) [Hebrew], 44-56). It is questionable, however, whether the Pharisees actually viewed the priesthood as a vehicle for the Sadducees (see also above, Ch. 6 n. 36)). According to this hypothesis, one might suggest that Clement, unlike the Pharisees, was free to envision the Christian leadership as the heirs of the priests because he was not threatened by priesthood-oriented Jewish sects. It is questionable, however, whether this hypothesis (even if correct) can explain how the omission of the priests in the final edition of Avot was understood in the third century. Perhaps this omission was not understood polemically but as a natural derivative of rabbinic legal theory. As expressed in Avot 4:13, certain tannaim assumed that the Jewish polity was ruled by the crowns of Torah, of priesthood, and of kingship. These three crowns, moreover, were ‘the governmental extensions’ of the pillars of Avot 1:1: Torah, temple service, and correct civil behaviour (see Cohen, The Three Crowns, 19). Thus, according to this theory of the division of powers found in Avot, the priests did not belong in the chain of Torah transmission because their responsibilities were limited to officiating in the temple. Perhaps both priests and kings were omitted from Avot because the editor wanted to stress that only the rabbis were the true Torah authorities. In contrast, the Christian penchant for allegorizing and spiritualizing possibly led Christian authors such as Clement of Rome and Cyprian to view the Christian leadership as the spiritual counterpart to the Jewish priesthood of old (see E.W. Benson, Cyprian: His Life, His Times, His Work (London and New York, 1897), 31-34).

Amram Tropper, Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 213-214, n. 11.


The Talmud remains for most classicists and for most non-Jews in all disciplines virtually a closed book

One document of paramount importance in the history of ancient medicine, the Talmud, remains for most classicists and, indeed, for most non-Jews in all disciplines, virtually a closed book. Yet it has a strong claim on the attention of the student of Greek medicine, for the medical researches of the Talmudic rabbis in some respects far surpass the extent of knowledge demonstrated in even the best of Greek medicine….
The medical achievement of the Talmudic rabbis is all the more remarkable because it was incidental to the main interests of the authors of the Talmud. Medical matters are covered only when they help to shed light on religious concerns, in particular on ceremonial and legal points.

Stephen Newmyer, “Talmudic Medicine: A Classicist’s Perspective,” Judaism 29, Issue 3 (Summer 1980), 360-361.

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Orthodox Judaism and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have something in common

Here is where Orthodox Judaism and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have something in common. Sex in “Fifty Shades” is safe. It is carefully channeled around a set of rules and hardly the white-hot, unbridled licentiousness common in porn books. There are boundaries around desire, quite literally. The lovers are contractually bound; every detail of their erotic encounter is agreed upon: They will be monogamous, they will use birth control; diet, exercise and dress code are part of the deal. Can’t take the pain? Just say so. The portrait of their pleasure is thus carefully guarded, fenced in by rules of conduct.

Sex is also private. It is reserved for the secret sphere of the bedroom, or even better, Christian’s “Red Room of Pain,” which plainly possesses its own dangers — whips, clamps, riding crops, to name just a few choice items — but remains secluded from the rest of life, its own sacred space. It is a holy shrine to carnal pleasure, and it is cordoned off.

Danielle Berrin, “Like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’? You’ll Love Judaism,” Jewish Journal (31 August – 6 September 2012), 17.

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The Hafetz Hayyim oddly does not have challenged ideas

R. Yisrael Meir Ha-Cohen’s Sefer Chafetz Chayim is the only major work that touches on these issues, though it does not, to my knowledge, discuss newspapers explicitly. There has not been much debate concerning the arguments made by R. Yisrael Meir Ha-Cohen in his classic work, which surprises me. That is not to denigrate, Heaven forbid, the scholarship of the Chafetz Chayim; but, in Halakhah, all the great works are debated and challenged. Challenging the arguments made in a halakhic work is often a sure sign of its enduring relevance.

Michael Pershan, “Halakhic Values of Journalism,” Responsibility Inscribed, vol. 1 (2012), 34.

Demographers tend to be a feisty crowd

The national Jewish surveys done in 1990 and 2000 were the subject of much controversy because of questions like these. Additionally, in the 2000 survey, data was said to have been lost, misunderstood and miscounted.

Demographers, it turns out, also tend to be a feisty crowd, and after both national surveys they publically ripped into their peers’ methodologies and analysis.

But Phillips said that what outsiders perceive as catfights are pretty standard for the academic world, where merciless peer reviews are common. He points out, too, that all the demographers who criticize each other continue to work together and share data sets.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, “Who Knows Who L.A.’s Jews Are?,” The Jewish Journal (27 July-2 August 2012), 37.

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No other book composed in the early modern period had as profound and lasting an impact on Jewish life as Rabbi Karo’s Shulhan ‘arukh

No other book composed in the early modern period had as profound and lasting an impact on Jewish life as Karo’s. The Shulhan ‘arukh (“The Prepared Table” or “The Ordered Table”) eventually became the standard code of Jewish law throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world. with few exceptions, nearly every Jewish community had accepted it as authoritative within generations of its initial publication. The Shulhan ‘arukh as a “writing” delivered to the Jewish public by Joseph Karo had a truly transformative impact upon Jewish life. In this way, one can speak of Karo’s work as a discourse, as an idea. The book served scholars as a reference work and literate lay people as a manual of Jewish law. It stimulated commentary and controversy, resistance and cooptation. One is hard pressed to find another book written in the early modern period that endured as long as the Shulhan ‘arukh.

Yaacob Dweck, “What Is a Jewish Book?,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 368.

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The problem of reconciling the ideal justice of God with the sufferings of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked in the world was forced inescapably on the attention of the Rabbis

The problem, frequently mooted in the Bible, of reconciling the ideal justice of God with the sufferings of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked in the world, was forced inescapably on the attention of the Rabbis by the downfall of the monotheistic Jewish State and the triumph of heathen Rome. They solved it by assigning capital importance to a factor which in the Bible is only vaguely and obscurely hinted at – the hereafter or future world. It became an article of faith with them that the righteous suffer only in this world, the reward for their good deeds being reserved for them in the hereafter, while the wicked receive all their rewards in the present world for their few good deeds, and await their punishment in the future world. The spheres of the righteous and wicked in the next world are designated the ‘Garden of Eden’ and ‘Gehinnom’ respectively. This view was first clearly stated by Rabbi Akiba, who finds in the biblical ascription ‘A God of Truth’ (Deut. xxxii, 4), a categorical affirmation of divine justice. God is very particular with both the righteous and the wicked. For He exacts payment for the few evils which the absolute righteous perform in this world, in order to give them a goodly reward in the future. Likewise, He gives abundant peace to the absolute wicked and pays them for the few good deeds they perform in this world, in order to punish them in the future.’ Similarly, when Rabbi Ishmael was being led out to execution together with Rabbi Simon b. Gamliel, he ascribed the latter’s fate to the offence which he had committed in delaying justice, implying that he, himself, too was about to suffer in this world for his sins.

A. Melinek, “The Doctrine of Reward and Punishment in Biblical and Early Rabbinic Writings,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 284-285.

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The Shulhan ‘arukh would not have had its staying power as a work of enormous cultural authority had Rabbi Isserles’ glosses with it

…it is safe to say that the Shulhan ‘arukh would not have had its staying power as a work of enormous cultural authority had it not become an entirely different text when it appeared in Kraków in 1578–1580 with the glosses of Moses Isserles. Isserles, one of the towering figures of early modern Polish Jewish life, had been at work on his own law code for some time when he learned of Karo’s project. Rather than compete, he decided to append his own glosses with what he claimed were the Ashkenazic customs and practices. In this edition of the Shulhan ‘arukh, one finds a central dynamic of early modern Jewish history on the pages of a printed book: the coexistence, competition, and tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Indeed, the very categories of Ashkenazic and Sephardic are thrown into relief by the reactions to Isserles’ glosses. Thus Hayim ben Bezalel, brother of the famed Maharal, had little patience for Isserles’ attempt to summarize all of Ashkenazic tradition in his glosses and took it as a form of cultural imperialism and an erasure of difference among Ashkenazic and Polish practices from different regions.

Yaacob Dweck, “What Is a Jewish Book?,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 370.

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Talmud study has engendered a remarkable series of innovations by dint of the cascade of new media in the past century

One of the most venerable of Jewish book practices—Talmud study— has engendered a remarkable series of innovations by dint of the cascade of new media of the past century. These recent developments rest on a much longer history of practices centered on this core text of rabbinic Judaism. As scholars of the early modern period have noted, printed folios of the Talmud, first published in the late fifteenth century, expanded the engagement in rabbinic text study among jewish boys and men throughout the diaspora. beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, photo-offset reproductions of the 1880–1886 “Vilna Romm Shas” not only canonized this edition as definitive but also presented scholars with a daf of unprecedented standardization in both content and form. (The value invested in fixing the format of the daf is implicit in the “pin test,” in which yeshiva students are challenged to identify the words through which a pin, stuck into a page of the Talmud at random, passes on subsequent pages, a skill that relies on memorization of the text as well as knowing its placement on the page.) The standardized daf also facilitated the institution of Daf Yomi—inaugurated by Rabbi Meir Shapiro at the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel, held in Vienna in 1923—as an international practice that both promotes and regulates Talmud study within a modular rubric.

Jeffrey Shandler, “The Jewish Book and Beyond in Modern Times,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 382.

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Education at any level is not concerned with progress in a limited area, but in the general intellectual development of a student

…classes should reflect concern with texts but also concern for people’s feelings. Education at any level is not concerned with progress in a limited area, but in the general intellectual development of a student. Students cannot develop properly if they bear hostility toward a subject area, a particular professor, or themselves. The cultivation of proper attitudes in the student, towards his/her own self, colleagues and teachers, and the discipline as a whole is what we mean by good education. A congenial atmosphere, a pleasant emotional climate in the classroom, and the mutual respect of achievements is necessary to promote high standards and excellence without resentment. It is amazing what students will do if they want to and what they will not do if they do not want to.

Herbert W. Basser, “Approaching the Text: The Study of Midrash,” in Methodology in the Academic Teaching of Judaism, ed. Zev Garber (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986), 128-129.