The Talmud and the Desert Fathers – By Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin on Michal Bar-Asher Siegal’s Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud

Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 242pp., $90
Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 242pp., $90

The study of the Babylonian Talmud is right now a hot property — perhaps the hottest; perhaps I’m myopic — in Jewish studies. The Talmud has always been at the center of Jewish learning, but it has largely been a coterie endeavor, first for the Talmud scholars in traditional communities, and then for their descendants in universities and seminaries. The text itself is so fascinating as to attract quite a few, but it is a coterie nonetheless. Something else is happening now. Meta-questions are being asked: What is Talmud? Revolutionary new approaches to the literary history of the Talmud are being developed. And, new modes of research on the interaction between the Rabbis in Babylonia and their wider cultural contexts are being pursued. There is an active Talmud blog. There are forums on the Talmud in such venues as this one. Into this buzz of activity enters Michal Bar-Asher Segal with her Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud.

This book is a truly pioneering endeavor. Although Louis Ginzberg’s Die Haggada bei den Kirchenvätern (1899) has been studied at least intermittently over the last century, to the best of my knowledge no work has been devoted to what we might call Die Apophthegmata Patrou bei den Rabbinern. Bar-Asher Siegal’s work, one could say, comes to fill that gap. Her introduction reviews other literature germane to her specific project. In addition to the interesting but somewhat tangential relevance of the Persian project, from Elman to Secunda, Bar-Asher Siegal focuses on the more pertinent interaction with Christian materials that can be hypothesized in the Talmud. Although there is a significant amount of scholarship to adduce by now on this theme, a thorough examination of the evidentiary basis for these claims remains a desideratum — one that I hope to fulfill in the near future, Intsha’allah in my Shafer lectures to be delivered at Yale in the Spring of 2016.

One signal advance of Bar-Asher Siegal’s monograph over earlier pioneering attempts at discussing contact between the Talmud and Christian literature in Babylonia is the careful delineation of the spread of Egyptian monastic norms and literatures into the Aramaic- (Syriac-) speaking world of the Mesopotamian ascetics, thus rendering them in a language that we have every reason to believe could be understood, and perhaps even read, by Jews and thus Rabbis in those areas.

I need to say that, aside from the above-mentioned point that is surely necessary and new in its scope and detail, a lot of the early part of the book is extended throat-clearing. That said, Bar-Asher Siegal’s book is an important entry into an entirely new way of thinking about the Bavli, part of an enterprise shared by many young (and a few aging) scholars of breaking down the walls that have been constructed between so-called rabbinic Judaism and its others both within the historical communities of Jews, and between Jews and others of various types. It becomes clearer and clearer that the folks who produced the Talmud in Babylonia, the folks who produced the Babylonian Hekhalot (early mystical) texts, the scribes who produced the Aramaic incantation bowls, the monks, Christian savants, and fire priests were in close and intimate intercommunication with each other. Each bunch of talmudic scholars has their own hammer, but the nails are increasingly to be seen as of the same shape. It’s a brave new world for talmudic studies.

The excitement of this book is in its particular readings of well-studied talmudic narratives, and its demonstration of how points of obscurity (either known or unknown unknowns) are illuminated when compared with stories from the Desert Fathers. One of the most impressive of these is her work on the Bavli’s narrative of the conversion of Resh Lakish: Resh Lakish was some sort of brigand and perhaps a gladiator as well as a pursuer of women. He observes Rabbi Yohanan (the gorgeous) bathing in the Jordan and vaults over on his sword to approach “her.” Disappointed in love, he is persuaded by Rabbi Yohanan to come and study Torah, with Rabbi Yohanan’s even more lovely sister as a prize. Resh Lakish immediately loses his physical strength but becomes a “great man” in the study of Torah. Later on, in an argument over a point of halakha having to do with weapons, Rabbi Yohanan loses his temper and says: “A brigand is expert in matters of brigandry,” whereupon Resh Lakish cries out: “What have you benefited me; there [among the brigands] they called me Rabbi and here they call me Rabbi.” Resh Lakish sickens unto death. His wife begs her brother to pray and save him but he refuses coldly.

This story has been read and re-read by scholars (several times by me by now) and much has been gained from these readings, but it turns out that there was a whole dimension waiting to be discovered by Bar-Asher Siegal, for this story has a close parallel in the aforementioned Tales of the Desert Fathers, namely the story of Abba Moses, the Ethiopian. Remarkably, this Moses in his days of former brigandry had crossed a river with his sword in his hand — to be sure swimming, not vaulting, but the parallel seems close and significant nonetheless: “Therefore, both narratives, in the rabbinic and Christian hagiographical accounts, chose a shared literary motif to demonstrate the potency of two fearsome brigands: Resh Lakish and Abba Moses, on their way to commit a crime, making a manly effort in crossing a river, sword in hand, in their ‘pre-sainthood’ days.” Furthermore in both stories, the transformation from brigand into saint/sage involves significant weakening of the formerly powerful body. It is hard to imagine that the stories are unrelated to each other at least on the level of shared specific motifs, which is precisely the level of sharing that Bar-Asher Siegal claims here. The comparison is rich and enrichening.

Here, however, is where I begin to have some qualms about her reading. The story in the Talmud famously does not end well. The pleas of Resh Lakish’s wife to her brother to save her husband from the effects of the brother’s curse go coldly unheeded. Bar-Asher Siegal wishes to compare this moment in the story with yet another Christian motif, the necessity to abandon family in order to be in Christ, as in Luke 14:25-27. Remarking that “the desert fathers took this call to an extreme,” and severed all family relations completely, she compares this narrative motif there with Rabbi Yohanan’s behavior here. With respect to a story about another one of the Fathers who was deaf to his sister’s please that he intercede for her, she then writes: “I think the literary motif of both stories, according to which the protagonist’ [sic] hearts are not affected by their sisters’ misery, benefit [sic] from this comparison, stressing the separation from one’s family consideration in favor of ‘purely’ scholastic/monastic considerations.”

There is no question but that the parallel here is impressive and compelling. We have, as Bar-Asher Siegal claims, shared motifs that seem to be specific enough to actually point to a genealogical connection, one that Bar-Asher Siegal has rendered plausible in her account of the circulation of the Desert Father stories in Aramaic in the Sprachgebiet of the Babylonian Rabbis. To my mind, however, this sentence also illustrates the problematic side of the enterprise of comparison, since while in the story of the Desert Father it is fairly clear that the attribute in question is being praised, in the talmudic story it is not at all clear that that is the case.

Early Printing of the Talmud, with Rashi's Commentary. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Early Printing of the Talmud, with Rashi’s Commentary. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

At the very least, it must be said, I think, that the denouement of the talmudic story raises as a problem the conflict between responsibility to family and to Torah, a motif which is found elsewhere in the Talmud as well. In a sense, the stories could be read as a kind of dialogue between a Christian asceticism and a rabbinic one in which the complication of family is raised quite differently from the Desert Fathers’ version. Moreover, both of the repentant robbers are reminded unpleasantly of their pasts. Bar-Asher Siegal seems to blame Resh Lakish for his angry response, arguing that it is he who precipitated the deadly break with Rabbi Yohanan, while to me it is clear that Rabbi Yohanan is to blame for alluding to that past in his anger, exactly the definition of onab’at devarim (or “torture by words,” forbidden according to the Rabbis by the Torah).

I thus entirely disagree with Bar-Asher Siegal’s conclusion that “With all these differences, I wish to stress the commonality of both traditions: both literatures retain a sense that the past of its repentant leader is always a part of its present. There are ramifications, and, even for great abbas and rabbis, being once a robber presents a challenge to the members of the society they have joined.” The story is, on my interpretation, problematizing not Resh Lakish’s behavior but that of his antagonist, if anything. In the Abba Moses story, it is also not clear that the fact that his fellow monks refer to his blackness has anything to do with him being problematic but is also a critique of them. The past of the repentant ought not to be a part of his present, the story is saying. The identification of shared motifs is great; the historical explanation for them is absolutely compelling; the interpretation, in my humble opinion, could use some fine-tuning in order to bring out more fully the promise of Bar-Asher Siegal’s advance. I don’t believe that these “intriguing analogues in the two corpora suggest that monks and rabbis viewed the world around them in similar fashion.”

Even more compelling, however, is the extended reading of the story of Rabbi Shimʿon bar Yohai in the cave. Bar-Asher Siegal begins by comparing the Bavli’s and the Yerushalmi’s versions of the story (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b; Palestinian Talmud Shevi’it 38d). It is clear that both are based on the same narrative, but the Bavli’s version is much expanded with detail. In contrast to earlier readings from scholars, Bar-Asher Siegal proposes that the explanation for these additional materials is to “recreate Rashbi [sic] as a monastic-type figure.” Here are the bare outlines of the story. Rabbi Shimʿon (in the Bavli, together with his son) hides in a cave for a dozen or a baker’s dozen years, subsisting on carobs (miraculously provided in the Bavli). During that time, according to the Bavli, they prayed and studied. In the Yerushalmi we are told nothing of his activities. In both versions, their skin became unhealthy, but in the Bavli’s version this happened because they removed their clothes in order to save them for prayer-times and buried themselves in sand. After some other details that will not concern us here, Bar-Asher Siegal makes the telling point that in the Bavli’s version (and only there), “the sores, the cave stay and the difficulties are, for Rashbi, essential elements of his achievements. Without the stay in the cave, without the suffering and the sores, he would not have reached the high level he has now attained.”

Nearly two decades ago, Ben Zion Rosenfeld had indicated that the development of the character of R. Shimʿon was a response on the part of the Rabbis to the ascetic movement and the development of saints and holy men among Christians, but supplied no detail. This is precisely the desideratum that Bar-Asher Siegal proposes to fill. Astonishingly she discovers that in Jerome’s famous story of Paul the first hermit, he flees persecution, ends up in a cave, and discovers a palm tree and a spring of water in the cave that sustain him. A similar motif is found in yet another story of a hermit, one Abba Timothy, who similarly finds a spring of water and a date palm in the desert when he flees society and its temptations. His clothes wear out, as he had not discovered the clever solution of Rabbi Shimʿon and his son to this problem. I have skipped some further telling detail in Bar-Asher Siegal’s discussion here, but suffice it to cite her conclusion to this section: “It is significant that in the BT version Rashbi not only behaves like a monk in a cave, but he also endorses and proclaims notion consistent with monastic ideology.”

I found this study of the story of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai convincing and stimulating, making me wonder whether the elaborate magic realism novella about the extreme ascetic life and death of Rabbi Shimʿon’s son that we find in Tractate Baba Metsia might also find illumination in the context of stories about Christian hermits and ascetics. I will just add one minor reservation. While Bar-Asher Siegal seems to imagine literary editors sitting and assembling materials in a library from written sources — she refers, for instance, to “[t]he rabbinic authors’ choice to turn to these Christian materials” — I would prefer to think of motifs, even very specific motifs, circulating in a more diffuse fashion, and being available for rabbinic tellers of tales as well as stammaitic authors.

What is clear and further clarified from Bar-Asher Siegal’s groundbreaking work is that the Talmud is no longer a hermit, cut off from family ties with other so-called non-rabbinic Jews, nor Zoroastrians, nor Greek philosophy, nor Syriac monastic literature as shown so compellingly by Bar-Asher Siegal. It is not that this context rather than that context is more illuminating; rabbinic Mesopotamia was a meeting point of empires, languages, and cultures, a crossing-point between East and West, and the Talmud was part and parcel of that complex cultural world. Bar-Asher Siegal’s book opens another door into that world and the ways and means that its presence there sheds light on the Babylonian Talmud.


✪ A further comment that needs making although I leave it for here since it is arguably not the author’s responsibility: I find it hard to believe that the book was seriously copy-edited, and it is clear that it was not proofread: Homi Bhabha’s last name is repeatedly spelt BhaBha, and there are several errors of diction that a copy-editor would have caught. This is a critique of the press (Cambridge University Press!), not the author. And even more to the point, it is becoming endemic in more and more high level academic publishing.