Narrating the Law

Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Narrating the Law
    Book Description:

    In Narrating the Law Barry Scott Wimpfheimer creates a new theoretical framework for considering the relationship between law and narrative and models a new method for studying talmudic law in particular. Works of law, including the Talmud, are animated by a desire to create clear usable precedent. This animating impulse toward clarity is generally absent in narratives, the form of which is better able to capture the subtleties of lived life. Wimpfheimer proposes to make these different forms compatible by constructing a narrative-based law that considers law as one of several "languages," along with politics, ethics, psychology, and others that together compose culture. A narrative-based law is capable of recognizing the limitations of theoretical statutes and the degree to which other cultural languages interact with legal discourse, complicating any attempts to actualize a hypothetical set of rules. This way of considering law strongly resists the divide in traditional Jewish learning between legal literature (Halakhah) and nonlegal literature (Aggadah) by suggesting the possibility of a discourse broad enough to capture both. Narrating the Law activates this mode of reading by looking at the Talmud's legal stories, a set of texts that sits uncomfortably on the divide between Halakhah and Aggadah. After noticing that such stories invite an expansive definition of law that includes other cultural voices, Narrating the Law also mines the stories for the rich descriptions of rabbinic culture that they encapsulate.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0594-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Contemporary books are familiar. A patron selecting a recently published volume in a bookstore instantly knows its kind. Bright cover colors and cheap construction indicate a beach or plane read. Footnotes and endnotes announce scholarly work. My three-year-old son identifies his books by their glossy dust jackets and large illustrations. The familiarity of contemporary books derives from one’s experience of similar ones. Today’s books classify themselves. Classification is helpful for library cataloging or gift purchasing alike; it is also important in directing readers toward particular ways of reading. One does not expect scholarly conclusions from a children’s picture book or...

  4. Chapter 1 Privileging Legal Narrative: Resisting Code as the Image of Jewish Law
    (pp. 9-30)

    Jewish history witnesses a long-standing tension over legal codes.¹ Though there have been attempts to reduce Jewish law to a code of mandates and prohibitions, each such attempt has encountered resistance.² The earliest codes of Jewish law are embedded within the Torah; Bible critics long ago hypothesized their originally independent documentary origins. Though they are blatantly separable, the fact of their embedding speaks to redactors who resisted the codificatory impulse by contextualizing such codes within the narratives of ancient Israel.³ Even while canonizing controversy, the second-century Mishnah organizes Judaism through its code; but the later Talmuds that preserve and comment...

  5. Chapter 2 Deconstructing Halakhah and Aggadah
    (pp. 31-62)

    The dichotomy that divides rabbinic literature into “Halakhah” and “Aggadah” (meanings elaborated below) is extremely well entrenched both because it is seemingly self-evident and because it can be exceedingly helpful. When it comes to assigning talmudic legal narratives to one of these classifications, the categorization is not self-evident and, as this chapter will demonstrate, the limitations on interpretation that derive from the dichotomy cease to be helpful. Talmudic legal narratives constitute a genre that elides the division between Halakhah and Aggadah; this liminal status marks this set of texts as an ideal site to reflect upon the nature of the...

  6. Chapter 3 A Touch of the Rabbinic Real: Rabbis and Outsiders
    (pp. 63-95)

    The existence of the Babylonian Talmud, a massive anthological work attentive to periodization and scholarly citation, is an incredible boon for historiographers of late antiquity. And yet, scholars sometimes bemoan the absence of other data from the period. The imbalance between the Babylonian Talmud’s extensive source material on a wide variety of intellectual and social issues and an archaeological field that has produced little beyond magic bowls is striking and presents a unique environment for the symbiosis of literary and historiographic work. In this and the next two chapters I take note of the significance of the genre of talmudic...

  7. Chapter 4 Social Dynamics of Pedagogy: Rabbis and Students
    (pp. 96-121)

    No relationship is more central to the fabric of rabbinic culture and its law than that of teacher and student. The pedagogical scene of student before teacher is the implicit context of all talmudic text. Readers rightly presume such a setting when they read talmudic legal discussions that present themselves as dialogues. Despite the ubiquity of texts that implicate a pedagogical environment, only a small percentage of talmudic texts lend themselves to explorations of the social dynamics of rabbinic pedagogy. This chapter takes the opportunity offered by one such text to undertake this exploration.¹

    This chapter attends to two narratives...

  8. Chapter 5 Torah as Cultural Capital: Rabbis and Rabbis
    (pp. 122-146)

    In his book The Rules of Art, Pierre Bourdieu models a method of literary analysis that employs his own socioeconomic framework of analyzing culture to read Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education.¹ The novel is structured around the life of Frédéric Moreau and several friends and set in nineteenth-century Paris. Many critics have understood Frédéric as a proxy for his creator, and literary analysis of Sentimental Education is dominated by historicist readings that map the novel onto Flaubert’s autobiography. The Rules of Art, by contrast, employs the novel as a window onto nineteenth-century Parisian sociology. The book opens with each of its...

  9. Chapter 6 Lengthy Bavli Narratives: A New Theory of Reading
    (pp. 147-163)

    Much of this book has treated the brief legal episode and the tension between such stories and the nonnarrative legal sources among which they are ordinarily juxtaposed. A central feature of this dynamic is the relationship between the episode and its respective amoraic interpretation. I have posited thus far that the stam is animated by a centripetal (tending to unify) dynamic that struggles to resolve the seemingly deviant case story with less complex nonnarrative legal texts.¹ The Talmud contains another narrative type worth introducing to the conversation—the lengthy narrative. This narrative type contains more scenes and relatively elaborate characterizations...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 164-168)

    This book aims to develop an appropriate hermeneutics for the study of Bavli legal narratives. It begins by recognizing the ways in which the dominant hermeneutics for reading these narratives is limited. The discourse of Jewish legal interpretation has often operated (and continues to operate in many contexts) with a default understanding of law as a set of rules. This picture of Jewish law encourages readers to transform legal texts that are not penned within the genre of rules into legal rules. In the case of the genre of legal narrative, this occasions a flattening of the story into a...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 169-216)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 217-228)
  13. Subject Index
    (pp. 229-232)
  14. Source Index
    (pp. 233-236)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 237-239)