In What Sense Were the Rabbis Roman?

Ishay Rosen-Zvi on Hayim Lapin’s Rabbis as Romans

Jenny R. Labendz, Socratic Torah: Non-Jews in Rabbinic Intellectual Cutlure, Oxford University Press, 2013, 272 pp., $74
Hayim Lapin, Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100-400 CE, Oxford University Press, 2012, 320 pp., $55

Pinchas Kehati used to say that he toiled doubly over his popular commentary on the Mishnah, the cornerstone of classical rabbinic literature: once to write the commentary, and once more so the readers would not notice that he toiled. The smooth, enjoyable reading of Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100-400 CE, leaves the impression that Hayim Lapin has exerted the same effort.

The main thesis is tantalizingly simple: since Palestinian rabbinic literature was created in a provincial setting, it must also be understood as provincial; or as, in Lapin’s words, “a local provincial cultural movement within its Roman imperial setting.” Lapin examines the repercussions of this argument for both rabbinic scholarship, which is famous for its tendency toward cultural solipsism, and Roman historiography, which has made scant use of rabbinic literature. His educational aim continues an important trend started by scholars like Fergus Millar and Benjamin Isaac. He admits he is willing to be “purposely reductive” to emphasize this facet of rabbinic culture.

Armed with the goal of “recontextualizing exceptionalism,” Lapin endeavors to use other provincial elites to learn about the Palestinian rabbis, but also vice versa. As he correctly notes, we know more about this group than any other provincial local elite. The problem is that what we “know” about these people we do not really “know”: most of the evidence is internal, and they, as my father used to say, thought rather highly of themselves. Scholars are constantly caught between the Scylla of exceptionalism and the Charybdis of parallelomania: using the outside world to decide how much faith to put in the rabbinic sources, while trying, not always successfully, to avoid circular logic.

Lapin goes beyond tutoring the reader to present a specific, and strong, thesis: the sages were provincial not only because they were controlled by the Roman “system” but also because they functioned within this system, derived profit from it, and internalized it. They occupied a place inside it that was not only — not even mainly — countercultural and oppositional. Lapin fights on several fronts at once: although he agrees with the “minimalists” of rabbinic historiography (“led” by Seth Schwartz) regarding the extent of Hellenization of the Jewish population in late antique Palestine, he takes issue with their claim that the rabbis were a closed group on the margins of the cities. Instead, he reads them as a local sub-elite within urban Jewish society. Against the theoreticians of subaltern and post-colonial studies, who emphasize the countercultural contexts of rabbinic literature vis-à-vis the Roman authorities (e.g., Daniel Boyarin in Dying for God), Lapin frames the world of the sages as growing with the empire. They are “one manifestation of provincial culture in the context of Romanization.”

To substantiate his claim, we have to ask three separate questions. In what manner did the rabbis fit into the provincial world they inhabited? What status did they occupy in that world? And how did they relate to it? Scholars usually discuss the first and second questions; but it is the third one — not the rabbis’ actual status but their attitude toward it — that is most intriguing and most relevant to the thesis advanced in this book.

Early on Lapin presents a valuable categorization. The term “Romanization” can be used in three different ways. First, the term can refer to the “embeddedness of subjects of the empire within an asymmetric fabric […] largely not their own making”; in other words, being involuntarily part of the provincial tapestry. The term also points to the manner of identifying oneself with the system. This is the most slippery and confusing meaning, which refers to “identification of one’s social or legal persona with one’s place within the dominant political system.” Finally, “Romanization” signifies the manner in which subjects take part in the dominant culture and adopt varying chunks of it. These three different meanings of “Romanization” involve the political, the (for lack of a better term) psychological, and the cultural. Things could be cut differently, of course, but the distinction itself is helpful, and scholars should be careful to spell out which meaning they are using when discussing such issues.

So what kind of Romanization does the book describe? Palestinian rabbis were an integral part of provincial urban life. They were affected by imperial processes and population (soldiers, officials, and citizens); they used the roads and witnessed the exercise of the imperial cult, as rabbinic literature well attests. After the edict of Caracalla in 212 they too became Roman citizens. They are, therefore (willy-nilly, once again), Romans, just as any countercultural movement is part of the culture it wishes to counter. This is reminiscent of Jacob Katz’s assertion that 19th century Jewish Orthodoxy is a modern movement, a facet of European nationalism and secularization. Here is the first meaning of “Romanization” in Lapin’s scheme.

But can Lapin demonstrate that the Jews were also Romanized, according to his second and third senses? Did they adopt Roman hierarchies and a Roman relation to the world? Before discussing this, let us remember that the book is specifically about the rabbis. Other Jewish groups unequivocally adopted Roman models willingly, as shown by inscriptions and coins from Jewish-majority towns like Tiberius and Sepphoris. Lapin also limits himself to the question of Romanization, the adoption of and connection to political structures and the ideology associated with them. He does not include Hellenization, which is a much wider (and older) phenomenon.

Lapin certainly demonstrates that the social conditions allowed for more than an imposed Romanization. The rabbinic movement took root in a period of rapid urbanization, which entailed a wide exposure to all facets of the Roman world. At least from the beginning of the third century most rabbis lived in cities and were tied to the urban “wealthy and literate stratum.” This stratum was the main source of rabbinic acolytes and also, no less important, the economic superstructure that supported them. (In his 1995 study of Mishnah tractate Bava Mezi‘a, Lapin claimed that in return the rabbis looked after the interests of this sub-elite.) The sages used urban institutions from markets to bathhouses and were in general “embedded in their urban Roman setting.” All this is convincing, but it still does not move us much further than the first sense of Romanization (with a glimpse of the third, cultural, sense). Were the sages “Roman” only in the manner that Satmar Hasidim in Jerusalem are “Israeli,” and those in Brooklyn are “American”? Both live in cities and are closely connected to moneyed elites.

To move beyond the trivial sense of Romanization, we have to ask ourselves not only about rabbinic habitus but also about their self-perception and self-consciousness. The sole chapter in the book that discusses such consciousness is the fifth, in which Lapin reads several rabbinic stories. These, however, present a more ambivalent picture than what the book’s title betrays. “Amoraic [i.e., third to fifth century rabbinic] texts,” Lapin writes, “seem to depict a more or less autonomously ‘Jewish’ community disaggregated from the larger society. At the same time, all the examples show something of the dynamics of Romanization.” He thus identifies, in this very effort of constructing identity in face of empire, traces of “embeddedness in the society.” But this is, we must admit, a rather minimalistic sense of embeddedness, which could be applied to any kind of interaction, oppositional as it is.

More than Lapin proving that the rabbis were Roman in more than a trivial sense of being part of the empire, he claims that such reading is profitable. This reading allows the rabbis, as well rabbinic studies, to leave the ghetto, to see themselves as part of a larger society and examine themselves in the context of wider processes in late antiquity. Such a reading might also encourage scholars of the empire to pay attention to “our” own small province, rabbinics. Lapin’s thesis seems at times more heuristic than empirical: he shows us Rabbis-as-Romans, not that Rabbis are Romans. Lapin is asking what we would see if we looked at the rabbis through these lenses. He then offers a series of comparisons with other groups and classes in the empire, such as philosophical sects or pre-Constantinian bishops, and even the Hellenistic “voluntary association.” (However, this requires him to regard anything not part of the voluntary structure, including the courts and the Patriarch, as pure fantasy.)

I am less convinced than Lapin that the rabbis adopted not only cultural practices but also Roman consciousness, or that they learned to speak the language of the government. Nonetheless, I have learned much, and enjoyed even more, from this erudite and fluent study. Even skeptics like me can use Lapin’s work as a fascinating, provocative thought experiment. What if, indeed, we think of the rabbis as Romans?