Sabbatical 1 – Cross cultural encounters and King David

I am currently at the beginning of a three month sabbatical from the LJS. I had mentioned to members that I would be writing regularly some kind of update about my sabbatical – research and learning during the period, so here’s my first post.

This week I read a fascinating book by Shai Secunda, “The Iranian Talmud“. The book is a discussion of how to situate the Babylonian Talmud in the Iranian context and an important contribution to opening up the field of cross cultural studies in the Sasanian Empire. It is certainly a challenging field, not least because of linguistic challenges and a paucity of data, but nonetheless important if we are to view Judaism as a growing ethnic, cultural and religious community. For scholars this field is still very young and the book leaves open the possibilities for many questions and future avenues for research.

It is tempting to leap to theorising about how research of this kind might inform the Jewish communities’ self-perception – I admit the temptation is dangerous because a historical milieu over 1000 years ago should not be transplanted into the 21st century, but nonetheless the temptation is irresistible.

Only the most exclusivist communities in the Jewish world would seek to reject an account of Judaism as evolving or developing in an encounter (sometimes friendly, sometimes neutral and sometimes bloody) with other cultures: this historical reality is important to understand and we should be confident that it does not need to be used to bolster or denigrate existing Jewish life – it just is. That encounter is rich and exciting to uncover and read about.

The more wide reaching question for me (alluded to by Secunda with the specifics of Iran-State of Israel) is how we should understand the relationships between different ethnic, religious and cultural communities – a shrinking view of the world also means that our interactions have the potential to be more polyphonic and the embeddedness of our own traditions becomes part of the fabric of a global discourse – the conversation is evolving and we are part of that evolution.

I’m an amateur when it comes to cultural studies, but if we can see the way in which boundaries are sometimes real and sometimes only imagined we would be half-way to a more health outlook for our Judaism. Moreover, the conscious and sometimes unconscious or imperceptible way in which the boundaries become permeable or are transgressed is often where there can be fascinating, creative (and for some threatening) developments.

The Babylonian Talmud and other works of rabbinic literature have most vitality when viewed in this way too. But the challenge is of course doing this in a critical (as in the scholarly critical) way and not as some kind of popular discourse which betrays the nuances and inflections of the debate.

Secunda concludes his book with the words (reflecting on Iran and the State of Israel, Persians and Jews), “I cannot help but wonder how things might be if the citizens of both countries realized that they are far more connected than they ever dared to imagine.”

In the last academic semester I was teaching Leo Baeck College students and we were studying together the portrayal of King David in rabbinic literature. We were learning together this topic as a sort of tangent to my more specific research for my PhD. Thinking about King David has led me this week to think more closely on one particular text, as a precursor to writing more extensively about the rape of Tamar by Amnon as described in the Babylonian Talmud.

King David is described as having 400 children, all of whom are the product of the rape of a ‘captive woman’ (see Deuteronomy 21:10-14). These children then are characterised by the Babylonian Talmud (and this little piece is only found in the Babylonian Talmud) as shock troops with distinct hair styles. You can read one version of this text about half-way through bSanhedrin 21a. This is the product of the rabbinic imagination and, as far as I can tell, it is only extant in the Babylonian Talmud and is not present in any of the materials from the Land of Israel – though I will draw a connection to a midrash on Jacob’s encounter with Esau that is striking in its parallel ideas. Nonetheless, the biblical text does not support this description of David and the text asks many questions – about why David is imagined to have fathered so many children in this way, why their role is distinct and what their unique hairstyle is meant to signify.

I’m not going to claim that the exploration of this material has some higher purpose for the future of Jewish life in the UK. In fact, quite the contrary, I don’t think research in the humanities (and I’m not certain about sciences either) should have an explicit ‘functionality’ for the here and now. It fascinates me and the rich textuality of our Jewish heritage is important to me to understand. On which I’ll post the piece I wrote for the LJS newsletter about what studying rabbinic literature means to me.

So in the midst of an alarmist (and alarming) debate about antisemitism following some horrific and frightening atrocities in Paris and Nigeria, I’m trying not to seclude myself too much in my ivory tower, but the time to think is valuable and enriching. Well that and being able to say good night to my kids every night and celebrate Shabbat with them as a family two weeks in a row!

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