It’s fashionable to look at Passover as a universal idea. This makes sense; after all, how much more universal can you get than the theme of human freedom? Also, it’s a lot easier these days to be outer-directed and feel outrage at injustice. Thanks to the Internet, millions can now watch YouTube clips of people being oppressed in the Sudan or demonstrating in the Middle East.

David Suissa, “Liberation,” Jewish Journal (6-12 April 2012), 6.

The Jews, while maintaining their separateness, were open to the spiritual currents and movements of the times. They drew into their own civilization what appealed to them among the ideas and institutions of the world around them, striving for a synthesis between the indigenous and the extraneous in religious thought – both in theology and in philosophy – and, to some extent, in social organization. This was effected by interpretation. For this reason, it is important to see this activity clearly. Its task was two-fold. Its principal object was to explain the tenets of biblical religious culture to each generation in order to give the life of the community and the individual member guidance and direction, and to strengthen their faith in the existence and absolute, simple unity of God, his revelation in history through the Torah, his promise of the kingdom of God on earth and the final redemption at the end of days through the Messiah, son of David. The second objective was the defence of these concepts against Muslims and Christians in so far as these two daughter-religions claimed to have superseded Judaism.

Erwin I. J. Rosenthal, “The Study of the Bible in Medieval Judaism,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 2, ed. G.W.H. Lampe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 254.

What we have to realize is that, for the ancient exegetes, sexual relations with a pagan woman, outside marriage or within it, were associated with the risk of idolatry. The Mishnaic threat, ‘He who has sexual intercourse with an Aramean woman, zealots (v.l. the Zealots) shall fall upon him’ (m. Sanh. 9:6) is linked in interpretative tradition with Lev. 18:21. The Aramean woman seems to be the prototype of the seductress and the whore: ‘Do not sit on the bed of an Aramean woman’ – exhorts the Talmud (b. Ber. 8b; b. Pes. 112b). And the mention of zealot intervention is a reminder of the biblical story of Israelite misbehaviour recorded in Num. 25, the whoring after the Moabite women, and of the outraged Pinhas’s ‘zealous’ act when he slew with a single blow the Jewish notable Zimri and his paramour Cozbi caught in flagrante delictu (Num. 25:7-9, 14-15). It should also be recalled that according to the midrashic version of Numbers 25, the Moabite women used sex as a means to promote idolatry. They inebriated their Israelite lovers with the strong Ammonite wine and, when they were aroused, each took out of her bosom a little statue of Baal Peor and asked the man to worship it. If he protested that idolatry was not the purpose of his visit, she explained that, to worship Baal Peor, all he needed to do was to undress. This equivocal act of worship – which, in the circumstances, did not seem inordinately out of place – was however not the end to it. ‘Renounce the Torah of Moses – she said – and then I will give myself to you.’

Gaza Vermes, “Leviticus 18:21 in Ancient Jewish Bible Exegesis” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob J. Petuchowski & Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), 116.

One of the successes of literary-critical scholarship on the midrashic literature has been the determination of a plausible relative chronology of the documents, based strictly on internal literary criteria (e.g., use of Hebrew vs. Palestinian Aramaic; amount of Greek and Latin employed; nature and frequency of attributions; dependence on, or literary affinity with other documents). Documents deemed to be earlier bear stylistic affinities with the Palestinian Talmud, use a fair amount of Galilean Aramaic and Greek and tend to attribute materials to a variety of Palestinian Amoraim mentioned in the Palestinian Talmud. Documents deemed to be later are mostly in Hebrew, use little Aramaic and Greek, and contain fewer attributions (many of which are suspect).

Richard S. Sarason, “Toward a New Agendum for the Study of Rabbinic Midrashic Literature,” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob J. Petuchowski & Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), 59, n. 12.

While generalizations about ‘rabbinic theology’ and ‘the rabbinic mind’ can be useful as gross characterizations and for heuristic purposes, they can also be misleading precisely because they are unrefined. It is far too common to speak of the ‘sea of Talmud (and, by extension, Midrash) and, since the same exegetical and aggadic traditions appear in many documents, to glean illustrations and prooftexts from a variety of documents across the board without regard to their chronology or peculiar literary characteristics and integrity. The anthological character of this literature as a whole may easily cause us to overlook evidences of redactional-editorial activity in shaping, recasting, or restyling materials to fit their literary context in a particular document. But once we recognize such activity and take into account the distinct literary characteristics of individual documents, we simply cannot treat this complex literature as a single fabric.

Richard S. Sarason, “Toward a New Agendum for the Study of Rabbinic Midrashic Literature,” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob J. Petuchowski & Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), 58.

In the case of Boaz and Ruth the evil yetzer seemed to appear within a sexual context. This list in Sifre Deut., however, shows that the picture is more complicated. The evil yetzer draws one to all possible sins: it draws Boaz to intercourse just as it draws David to murder, and Abraham and Elisha to theft. Other Tannaitic sources clearly confirm this conclusion: the yetzer appears in various contexts in Tannaitic literature, none of which (except this homily about Boaz) is sexual in nature. It appears as creating doubleness in one’s heart, thus preventing the singleness-of-heart needed for religious worship (mBer. 9:5; Sifra Shemini 8); It is presented as the source of anger (t. B.Q. 9:31) or even as anger itself (mAvot 4:1); It prevents men from studying Torah (Sifre Num. 119) and from observing the commandments (Sifre Deut. 43).

Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “Sexualising the Evil Inclination: Rabbinic ‘Yetzer’ and Modern Scholarship,” Journal of Jewish Studies 60, No. 2 (Autumn 2009), 267

In America, we agonize over what counts as really Jewish, instead of asking where and how people can use Jewishness to make their own lives better and help others to make their lives better. Like any community afflicted by puritanism, we confuse markers of others being exactly like us, and limit our understanding of authenticity to that with which we are comfortable.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, “The Year of Principled Pragmatism,” Looking Ahead…Looking Back: A Special Supplement to the Florida Jewish Journal & the New York Jewish Week (24 February 2012), 2.

The practice of fasting on the 13th of Adar originated in geonic Babylonia. The responsum of R. Natronai is the earliest Babylonian geonic source that refers to the fast by a name, calling it Ta‘anit Purim. Of the four sources in the geonic period from Babylonia and its environs that refer to the fast by a name, most likely none of them calls it Ta‘anit Esther.

When the geonic sources express or imply something about the origin of the fast, they consistently state or imply that the fast is a rabbinic obligation dating from the biblical period. The approach most consistent with the geonic sources is that the fast arose as a consequence of an interpretation of M. Megillah 1:1–2 (“second approach”). It has been suggested that the authors of the interpretation were responding to and opposing widespread practices of fasting on Shabbat and Erev Shabbat. This led them to interpret M. Megillah 1:1–2 to imply a prohibition of fasting on Shabbat and Erev Shabbat. The result was a new “tradition” about an ancient fast on the 13th of Adar. There had not been a practice of fasting on the 13th at the time the geonic interpretation of M. Megillah 1:1–2 originated.

Mitchell Furst, “The Origin of Ta’anit Esther”, AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 344-345.

Though Rabbi’s Mishnah replaced the earlier mishnah compilations, no later Mishnah compilation ever replaced his work. Instead, Rabbi’s Mishnah was widely accepted in the rabbinic community and served as the central core of both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. Traditionally, the Mishnah’s immediate success has been attributed to its concise language, the inclusion of a variety of legal opinions stemming from the different tannaitic traditions, and the reputation of its esteemed editor. By highlighting these features, Avot contributed to both the immediate success of the Mishnah and the long-lasting survival of rabbinic Judaism. For the immediate context, Avot underscored the synthesis of scholarship and leadership embodied in the esteemed patriarch, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. Rabbi’s reputation contributed to the success of his Mishnah and that in turn amplified his own power and the power and pre-eminence of his immediate descendants. In the long tern, Avot encapsulated rabbinic ideals while laying the grounds for the halakhah and therefore continued to be well read and influential down through the ages.

Amram Tropper, Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 106-107.

Talmud blatantly differs from the document upon which it comments. The formalized rhetoric of the Talmud breaks Mishnah’s carefully unfolding taxonomy, in which circumstances combining to define a hypothetical case are systematically varied, in order to generate lists of such cases requiring classification with respect to the law’s application. First, Talmud fragments the mishnaic text, eclipsing its system.’ Second, the talmudic editors freely examine excised pieces of Mishnah in relation to other sources, equally deconstructed, such as a homiletical, scriptural exegesis (aggadic midrash) or more often a datum from an extra-mishnaic legal pericope. The overall effect shifts one’s focus from Mishnah’s ideal world to the Talmud’s own process of query and analysis. That process remains the principal, sustained trait of the Talmud’s authorship, overshadowing any structured definition of the world contained in Mishnah, the Pentateuch or any other authoritative document or tradition. While the authority of the documents, everywhere cited in fragmented form, lies behind the talmudic authorship, the Talmud effectively borrows that authority for its own scholastic critique. In making passages of Mishnah to some extent one body of evidence among a larger set of materials culled from other texts, the process of critique remains enduringly holy and authoritative. If there is sacred power in the documents, only the Talmud’s rhetorical endeavours make manifest that force in this world-much as the early medieval, Roman bishops claimed that the saints’ relics work their miracles subject to episcopal authority. Insofar as persons, namely, rabbis, engaged in Talmud-like scholastic activity, their authority in a sense both subsumed and displaced that of Mishnah.

Jack N. Lightstone, “The Institutionalization of the Rabbinic Academy in Late Sassanid Babylonia and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 22 (1993), 172-173.