Book Review: Rabbinic Essays

Rabbinic Essays, by Jacob Zallel Lauterbach

Having come to read as much of the author as I have, I realize that he wrote mostly small works within the Jewish community and that his essays tend to belong in several categories and my impressions of them are one of two kinds.  Either I find his approach unacceptable and his insights lacking and his agenda less than pleasant to read, or I find his wit and style winning and his comments about historical rabbis acting in the same manner that he does dryly ironic.  This book, as one might expect, had plenty of both impressions, some of them positive and some of them negative, some of them inspiring and some of them exasperating.  I suppose that is not too surprising, since the author and I both have common rivals of sorts in Hellenistic Christianity and Orthodox Judaism, but we have very different worldviews and purposes.  Where the author wishes to copy the example of the Pharisees in smuggling heathen traditions and massive changes in the interpretation and application of the law, I see the author’s comment as evidence of the lack of validity of the oral Torah and the need to avoid Mishnaic technique being repeated in the contemporary period.

This book is a massive collection of essays at over 550 pages.  Included in this tome is a foreword that honors Lauterbach and his years of research.  After that there is a note on the editing of the essays as well as an appreciation of Lauterbach.  There is a sizable bibliography of Lauterbach’s writings that goes on for 20 pages–the man was a prolific writer, no doubt.  After that there is a presentation of his 1913 essay on the Sadducees and Pharisees that made me sympathetic to the Sadducees, always a bad sign.  After that comes a 1927 essay that looks at a particular and significant controversy between those two sects over a particular tradition.  The author then discusses the Pharisees and their teachings in a 1929 essay that paints them as progressive usurpers of authority.  After that comes the author’s lengthy discussion on the contrast between the midrash and the mishnah and why it was that the mishnah form developed at all, when it became important for decisions to be divorced from their justifications during the intertestimental period.  After that comes the author’s work on the ethics of the Halakah, which has already been reviewed (review forthcoming) elsewhere. The author spends almost 150 pages talking about the tashlik in a 1936 essay, a couple of rituals involving the worship near water and the propitiation of Satan, before the author moves on to essays on the Sabbath and on Jesus in the Talmud that demonstrates the bad blood between Jews and Christians.

Again, this is not a book that I agree with wholeheartedly.  The author’s approach to Jesus is far different than my own–he views the Gospels as contradictory and as late phenomenon, not in accordance with historical truth.  Likewise, the author’s claim to agree with the Pharisees in liberalizing and universalizing tendencies as opposed to the traditional and biblical understanding is not one I find a great deal of agreement with.  Without a doubt the author and I are not the same sort of people nor is our belief in the same sort of things.  That said, though, there is much to appreciate in the author’s scholarship and his obvious interest in untangling the origin of the Pharisaic approach and in the wide gulf between the Pharisees and their successors and those who took up the mantle of the Sadducees in the post-temple period that opposed the oral Torah and the “traditional law.”  As someone who is similarly opposed to the oral Torah, to the mishnaic approach, and to the traditional law that seeks to supercede the biblical one, the author’s attempts to claim the Pharisees as progressives like himself allowed me to see why the Pharisees are truly worth being disliked with a high degree of vehemence.  As such this is an important collection of essays whether or not you agree with the author’s perspective or approach.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Book Review: Rabbinic Essays

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I had to read one of those essays for my comprehensive exam in rabbinics.

    • Excellent :D. Which one?

      • jamesbradfordpate says:

        “Midrash and Mishnah: A Study in the Early History of the Halakhah.” It was a long essay. I wrote some blog posts about it the first time I read it, but I really grasped the essay the second time. The second time was when I read it on the Amtrak to New York City to retake the exam. I wish I had written a blog post about it after coming back, to refer to it due to my foggy memory.

      • That is a great essay. I happened to read it twice myself, the first time on its own and the second time as part of the Rabbinic Essays as a whole. I agree that reading it again was very useful.

      • jamesbradfordpate says:

        I like how the older scholars wrote. Nowadays, scholarly prose can get pretty dry. I feel a need to learn more about history, and I may do so by going through the Will Durant series. He just has a storytelling quality to his prose, which is lacking in modern works on classics.

      • Yes, I have read and listened to a couple of those volumes that he wrote along with his wife. I think older scholars had a stronger sense of good prose and the way that even very technical subjects of halachic interpretation could be made easier to understand when someone paid attention to issues of style. I think so few people today who fancy themselves (or are thought by others to be) scholars pay much attention anymore to making themselves pleasurable to read and possible to understand for someone not a part of their small scholarly community already.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: A Taste Of Text | Edge Induced Cohesion

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