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.

Leviticus is often contrasted to the New Testament teaching about turning the other cheek, which is widely assumed to be a lesson in passivity. Not true. Jesus lived in Palestine when it was ruled by the Romans, for whom it was a sign of weakness to strike another person with the back of the hand. Yet that’s precisely what happens if I turn my cheek when you and I are facing each other and you go to hit me, and you, like most people, are right-handed. You have to go past my left cheek and backhand me to get a good blow. In Roman times, that meant you were confronting your own weakness even as you exercised power over me. Jesus teaches us not to ignore the wrong done to us; he wants us to force those who would punish us to experience how they are diminished by their lack of mercy.

Brad Hirschfield, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007), 95.

The real problem with the reality-show comparison is that it fails to explain what’s so enjoyable about long presidential seasons in general, and this one in particular. Unfolding over a year or more, this genre also incorporates elements distinct to the soap opera and the sporting season. Like a soap, there’s endless repetition, so you can miss half the debates and still feel current; there are implausible plot whipsaws; figures from the past return unexpectedly (like Newt Gingrich, storming in from the Clinton era to prove that 1990s-style petulance totally holds its own in today’s combative political environment). As in sports, the sweeping Monday-morning-quarterback pronouncements of the commentariat are often more entertaining than the game. And now that primary voting is under way, we’ll get a series of decisive win-lose moments, sure to be spiked with upsets and blowouts as well as poor sportsmanship, questionable calls and lots of instant replays.

Rob Walker, “‘The Best Thing Happening in Pop Culture Right Now’”, The New York Times Magazine (8 January 2012), 42.

While we talk today of the fluid and tangled nature of the many “blended” families in our society, the complexity of modern family dynamics does not even approach that of Jewish antiquity. The marital paradigm was the first marriage, and this paradigm was expressed in cultural, mythic, and ritual terms. Despite the meagre evidence, the demographics alone make it clear that most marital situations were not paradigmatic. Widowhood and divorce, both followed by remarriage, would have been common among Jews in antiquity. The possibility of levirate marriage and continuation of polygyny would have created families far more complex than we find in our own society. Our evidence even attests to stable nonmarital relationships, although their quantity and the details of they worked are obscure.

Michael L. Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton, NY & Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press, 2001), 195.

I think Judaism’s ancient tradition can help all people find deeper meaning and greater joy in their lives, whether or not they are Jewish. I have come to believe that religious traditions exist not to serve the faithful, but to help the faithful serve the world. The traditions are there for anyone to use to craft his or her life.

Brad Hirschfield, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007), 51.