An Interview with Dr. Shai Secunda about The Iranian Talmud

The contextual study of the Talmud has generally focused on the Greco-Roman historical context. Asher Gulak in the field of Mishpat Ivri compared Roman and Talmudic Law, Boaz Cohen as a Talmudist compared concepts, and historian Shaye Cohen of Harvard situates Rabbinic family law in Roman context. In contrast, Chief Rabbi Herzog rejected the very idea of comparison. However for many, there was a standoff for decades between Erwin R. Goodenough who saw Judaism entirely enculturated in pagan Greco-Roman culture and Saul Lieberman who limited the influence to legal terms. Now, with the turn to cultural studies, Daniel Boyarin and others return the field to situating Rabbinics as part of a Greco-cultural world.

But what of Babylonian influence on the Talmud? Technically, we are speaking of the Sasanian dynasty that took power from the Parthians in 226 CE. It was bureaucratically centered in Mesopotamia which had a majority of Aramaic speakers, including Jews, Christians, and Mandeans, but also a ruling Persian speaking population. Their religion was Zoroastrian. Most scholars of the Talmud only made brief note of the context, leaving the discussion mainly to those in the field of religion.

They either saw Zoroastrian religion as polluting the pure ethics of the prophets or a conduit of perennial wisdom. They attributed much of the worldview unique to the Babylonian Talmud to this influence, including Talmudic magic, sorcery, angelology, demons as well as menstruation and purity laws. They also noted that Adam and Eve in the Bavli reflect the Iranian Mashya (man) and Mashyana, the Iranian Adam (man) and Eve. R. C. Zaehner, a professor of Eastern religions, argues for Zoroastrianism’s direct influence on Jewish eschatological myths, especially the resurrection of the dead with rewards and punishments.

The Hungarian Alexander Kohut, who edited and vastly expanded the classic 11th-century talmudic dictionary, the Arukh, and filled it with Persian etymologies, and was fascinated by the world of Zoroastrian angelology and demonology, charted many correspondences between the Persian system and its Jewish counterpart. The Austrian talmudist Isaac Hirsch Weiss was drawn to parallels between Zoroastrianism and the Talmud; he listed a number of critical areas in which, he argued, the rabbis had adopted Persian practices. Just as interesting, in other places Weiss claimed to have found signs of resistance—instances in which rabbis established practices specifically as a means of precluding certain “Persianisms.”

A Galician scholar Joshua Heschel Schorr wanted to reform his religion radically by subjecting it to the rules of logic and a rationalistic approach. Schorr did not see in the ancient Iranian tradition an admirable “natural” religion or otherwise sagacious philosophical system. In Schorr’s orientalism, the Zoroastrian “Bible,” or Avesta, was filled with strange and preposterous superstitions. Any parallel he found between the Avesta and the Bible or Talmud was a sign of corruption in the latter and a reason for excision and reform.

In general, the Iranian element has been relatively slighted. Jacob Neusner began to frame some of his research in terms that encompassed the study of Sassanian Babylonia; in 1982, the late E.S. Rosenthal urged the mastery of Middle Persian, the Sassanian lingua franca, as a gateway to Talmud study. However recently Isaiah Gafni, the historian had a student Geoffrey Herman who is developing the Iranian historical context and Yaakov Elman, the Talmudist has a student Shai Secunda who is publishing a book giving an introduction to the Iranian situated Talmud, called appropriately The Iranian Talmud. (University of Pennsylvania Press)[go order it]

Shai Secunda is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a graduate of Ner Yisrael and a PhD from BRGS. He wrote his dissertation on “Dashtana – ‘Ki derekh nashim li'” : a study of the Babylonian rabbinic law of menstruation in relation to corresponding Zoroastrian texts,” which will be the topic of his second book. This semester he is teaching at Hebrew University “Women, Ritual and Religion in Late Antique Judaism.” In his forthcoming article “Zoroastrian and Rabbinic ‘Genealogies’ of Menstruation: Medicine, Myth, and Misogyny” he writes

The gender politics of textual production dictate that for the most part, ancient religious works which have survived into modern times were produced by and for men. When women are the subject of these texts, it is always through the male gaze. Hence female physiological processes, like menstruation, are often interpreted via male physiognomy, and the normative body is usually the male body. When we look at the way menstruation is depicted in male-authored texts, we find that at the very least the phenomenon is a source of wonder, if not always revulsion and misogyny.

For Sasanian rabbis and Zorasterian dadwars, menstruation was a physiological phenomenon accompanied by a set of prohibitions and purification practices… This paper will attempt a “genealogy” of menstruation in Judaism and Zoroastrianism that will include hitherto neglected texts like the Zand ī fragard ī jud-dēw-dād. The picture that emerges is one of intersecting discourses, many of which betray interaction between the two communities, yet also differences in outlook that remained.

1) Why is what you do exciting and interesting? How is what you do different than the fictional source critic David Malter from Potok?

I am blessed to be able to get up each morning, sit down in an office lined with books and a up-to-date computer, and read the same texts that Jews have been obsessing over for so long, and yet think about the infinite new and (I hope) important things that remain to be said – from the level of what the actual text (or texts) is, to how the text was produced, how it relates to its historical context, how it continued to affect Jews in the middle ages, and what it still means to Jews – and non-Jews – today.

Talmudic Scholars such as “Malter” and Halivni are, ironically, very traditional scholars. They charted out a specific derekh ha-limud – no simply task – and stuck with it to the very end. It may be at variance with yeshivish views of the Talmud and mesorah, but you find that even when pure yeshiva bochurim start reading Meqorot u-Mesorot, they quickly find their way. Prior approaches were not really engaged in other disciplines beyond philology – such as literary theory, feminist criticism, history of religions, etc. I’m trying to do more integrating across the humanities – history of religions, literary theory, gender, etc. And I acknowledge that this desire for integration is one of the (many) things Neusner did for the field. Also, and this is no false modesty, Halivni and Lieberman were iluyim, while I am just someone who tries to work hard and hone a set of integrated methods for productively reading rabbinic literature.

shai-book cover

2) What does adding the Iranian context add?

However, the Iranian Talmud focuses on Zoroastrian texts written in Middle Persian (an ancestor of the Modern Persian spoken by Iranians today) because to my mind this to my mind is the most promising site of comparison. On the most basic level, the linguistic context of Iran undoubtedly influenced the Bavli. We have for example a few hundred Iranian – usually Middle Persian – loanwords in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic. Quite simply, knowing Iranian languages leads to a more accurate understanding of the Bavli when it uses these loanwords.

A favorite loanword of mine, the word פיקאר (dispute), shows up in the best textual witnesses to a story in Taanit 24b. The printed edition and less reliable manuscripts have the rather bland עסק דברים (dealings), which probably originated as a late gloss on the rare Iranian term. In the story, King Shapur II’s mother, Ifra Hormiz, is actually telling her son to avoid disputing the Jews, not simply having dealings with them.

Crucially, the linguistic connections can act as a gateway to appreciating more profound interactions between the Bavli and other Iranian texts from the same period, offering the Bavli’s literary context. In terms of my example from Taanit, an Iranian text that may have been part of the Sasanian “Book of Kings” describes Shapur II’s efforts to engage all of his subjects in disputes (pahikārišn). The talmudic storyteller was apparently tapping into the same literary tradition. I have other examples in the book that show that the amoraim and/or talmudic redactors were aware of Iranian (probably oral) texts and participated in the production of Sasanian “literature.”

While these textual intersections are interesting, usually when the public learns about people like me working on the Bavli’s Iranian context, they want to hear about sexy, direct, and unassailable evidence of Zoroastrian influence on halakha or core theological concepts. The truth is rarely that simple, but awareness of the Iranian context does help us appreciate the protracted development of certain, sometimes central Jewish institutions. I discuss at length some talmudic beliefs about hell in the book. My friend Yishai Kiel has suggested, in a Festschrift in honor of Yaakov Elman, that the Bavli’s insistence on wearing a ‘tallit qatan’ even when one would not otherwise be obligated to do so may have been influenced by the similar Zoroastrian requirement to tie the kustig- a ritual belt. These are nice explanations that account for some of the Bavli’s novel beliefs and requirements, although the mechanics about how this sort of influence might have operated needs to be worked out.

3) How does your approach relate to traditional Gemara learning and halakhah
There are traditionalists who see the Bavli as virtually God-given. As the old wort goes, אמר מר stands for אמר משה רבנו. My book The Iranian Talmud is an academic book and not specifically directed at this community, though I did try to write it in a relatively accessible manner.

Anyone that understands how halakha actually works knows that it doesn’t stand or fall by demonstrating that a halakhic institution is based on a misinterpretation of a gemara, a printing error, or possible evidence of foreign influence. The real challenges to halakha for modern Jews do not come from philology or history of religions, rather from profound shifts in our cultural assumptions, for example the equality of women.

Historical context leads to a much fuller experience of Talmud Torah. As for those who think that Talmud cannot have a cultural context because it is the mesorah, I’m not sure my theology would work for them. Nevertheless, I think most yeshivaleit have a notion of “the hashgacha made it develop that way.” Which means you can still study how the “hashgacha” made it develop.

4) How is this different than the work done on Greco-Roman influence on the Talmud by Boaz Cohen, Shaya J. D. Cohen, and others?
Well for one, Classics is a far more developed field, and Talmudists have been engaged with it on a high level for longer. So the Cohens and their colleagues are able to build scholarship on a much stronger foundation. But more importantly, the centrality of ritual in everyday Zoroastrian life and the discursiveness of Middle Persian legal and exegetical literature is profoundly different from the vast majority of Greco-Roman literature. Many of the surviving Middle Persian texts simply “feel” more rabbinic. They deal with subjects like impurity and more specifically the transmission of impurity in three-dimensional space. After learning Ohalot, you can really appreciate what they are trying to do. And this is just one example among manny. Also, Middle Persian literature contains disputes that are at times structured kind of like basic talmudic sugyot. Plus, they have a complex exegetical relationship with “Scripture,” namely, the Avesta.
Academics have also expressed some skepticism, and are weary of terms like “influence” and what they represent. Indeed, so am I. In the last chapter of the book I try to develop some methods of reading that focus on the texts themselves, and which show how we must first chart the internal development of rabbinic (and Zoroastrian) texts before considering how they might have interacted with relevant Iranian parallels.

5) How is the Talmud closer to Sasanian law than Roman law?
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of law in Iran. While relatively early on in the history of Roman law, civil law was no longer the domain of the priests, in Sasanian law many of the jurists that show up in ritual discussions are also ruling in what we would call purely civil contexts. Legal systems that have two-way traffic between ritual and civil domains develop in interesting ways. I actually think it’s one of the things that make halakha what it is and so fascinating. It’s because of this two way traffic that, for example, property rights invade the ritual sphere in halakha – think the mitzvah of taking arba minim which must be, legally, owned. Similarly, the role that ‘intention’ comes to play in non-ritual halakha, I believe, is at least partially indebted to the ritual side of rabbinic law. We find some of the same features in Zoroastrian / Sasanian law.

6) In your article in Nashim, you show that the du-partzufim of the Talmud refers to an Iranian story and not the Greek story? Why is that important?

I respond there to Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion in his influential book, Carnal Israel, that the midrash about Adam and Eve being created as a kind of two-sided androgyne was a rabbinic response to Neo-platonic ideas. By comparing the midrash not just with Classical sources, but also with texts from across the Indo-European spectrum – including Iranian – I argue that in fact, the rabbis weren’t explicitly, polemically rejecting Neo-platonic ideas by describing a physical Adam-Eve creature in Eden, but participating in a version of the Indo-European myth. This is clear since other versions of the myth show up in, for example, late antique Zoroastrian texts that were not at all Neo-Platonic. Practically speaking, this awareness means that we need to stop thinking of classical Judaism (up until Judaism today)as something that emerged from an encounter between Jerusalem and Athens. There also is Pumbedita and the Sasanian winter capital, Ctesiphon. (see article)

7) What are the best things to come out in the field in the 30 years since the early work of Shamma Friedman?
There’s so much that has happened beyond Talmudic source-criticism. Some of the developments that I appreciate the most include the rabbinic literature + literary/folk theory school, which in Israel took off with the late Dov Noy and Yonah Frankel, and was advanced in Israel especially by Galit Hasan-Rokem and Josh Levinson and in the US by Jeffrey Rubenstein and others too. The new generation of law and narrative people is quite exciting, such as Barry Wimpfheimer and Moshe Simon-Shoshan, and Hasan-Rokem’s student, Dina Stein, who is the best practitioner of Talmud and Theory out there.

Gender also comes to mind. We have, apart from Boyarin, scholars such as Tal Ilan who has devoted enormous resources to feminist history and commentary, and Ishay Rosen-Zvi who has melded philology and gender criticism in fascinating ways. It’s great to see how along with more awareness of feminist critiques in the broader community, academic talmudists are hard at work thinking about how to use feminist concerns to read rabbinic texts more productively. I hope that more of the academic work on gender will make its way into the broader community, and also that vice versa, the community’s concerns and interest will encourage and dialog with scholarship. This is already happening to an extent.

Interestingly, also during this time the philologists have finally published important editions of classical rabbinic texts. Menahem Kahana’s dream edition of Sifrei Bamidbar was produced and finally published. It will set the standard for the foreseeable future. It is based on decades of running after every scrap of manuscript evidence in the world – from the great British libraries to the former Soviet houses of learning – and then writing an extensive commentary (which is not fully published yet) that takes into account every relevant parallel. When you pick up the edition you can see that the manuscript variants and parallel texts make an enormous difference in understanding the basic meaning of the midrash. Most importantly, Kahana has devoted years of thinking about how to make an edition that is both exacting, accurate, and accessible.

And after a decades-long delay, virtually every scrap of parchment on which Talmudic literature is written is classified in a three volume catalog. This was a project that dates back to the beginnings of Talmud scholarship at the Hebrew University, which survived years when only Israeli soldiers were stationed on Mount Scopus, and which was the life’s work of one of the century’s greatest Talmudists – Yaakov Sussman. The catalog is briefly discussed on the Talmud blog (http://thetalmudblog.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/shavua-hasefer-2012/)

And the biggest thing that happened in the last thirty years? One word – digitization. It changed everything: How we conduct research using multi-variable searches, how we read and manipulate the talmudic text, etc etc. Along with Elli Fischer I hope to write a book, that began as a review of the Artscroll Talmud app at the Jewish Review of Books, that will look at digitization and Jewish learning. (link: http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/83/brave-new-bavli-talmud-in-the-age-of-the-ipad/)

8) Have you taken up an interest in Zoroastrianism? Do you have a desire to visit Iran or know more about its culture?
I am very interested in Zoroastrianism, and publish in Iranian studies journals, sometimes without direct mention of Jewish studies. I am also interested in the modern day religion which is struggling to survive. I also am interested in modern day Iran and have been lucky enough to have some – very limited – contact with Iranists working in Iran today. And I have literally dreamed about walking around Tehran. I fervently hope that I one day will be able to do so while awake. The rich world of Iranian Jewish cultural production fascinated me as well, especially the great Judeo-Persian poets. All that said, I am professionally only engaged with rabbinic lit on the one hand, and pre-Islamic Iranian studies on the other.

12 responses to “An Interview with Dr. Shai Secunda about The Iranian Talmud

  1. yisrael dubitsky

    Sorry to sound so provincal, but will there be any scrap of “Eternity” left after every word, phrase, story, concept and law is reduced to borrowings, influence, cultural context etc.? I am afraid Shai glosses too easily over the theological challenges (and yes, i am aware others have tackled them before) around which such academic reductionism inevitably devolves. I am a fan of detail, and historical discovery, but can a paragraph be added about the effects of his research on practical halakhah and/or Rabbinic devotion? Question 3 glosses over too much

    • I think what is truly reductive is asking every academic about the effects of their research on practical halakhah and/or Rabbinic devotion.

    • Hi Yisrael. First, I perhaps did not express it so well in the interview, but the book makes it clear that the project of the Iranian Talmud cannot be one that just looks for obvious “Persian looking” things and then gets all excited when these are discovered. The last chapter of the book shows how the Bavli just doesn’t work that way. First of all, it is a second-order text in the sense that it is built on the Mishna and, to a certain extent, Palestinian material. As a result, the method of reading I ultimately suggest is one that tries to appreciate the way older rabbinic texts and statements (“Eternity” in your question) resonated differently (and sometimes changed along the way) in the Bavli, given its context.

      I of course don’t deal with theology in the book, and that too brief comment in the interview was originally directed mainly at the yeshiva world. But some of what I discuss in that same final chapter can be formulated into a theological response. Basically, if the twentieth century taught us anything about how language works, it is that meaning is not inherent in language (Benjamin’s “language as such”), rather it is achieved through a complex process in which one particular option is articulated as opposed to infinite others. Put crudely, if the other options didn’t exist then the particular utterance that was made would be meaningless. I think the same is true about Judaism. I guess you could say that I believe, at least from the human perspective, that there is not pure “eternity” to be found. But the eternity of halakha and Judaism, if you subscribe to it, -is-achieved in the course of its transmission, articulation, and being lived in the world. This is hard to put down clearly in a blog post, but when you read the final chapter of the book, my thoughts on the matter should be clearer.

    • To add to the author, and I can’t wait to read his book, some of what i have already read in this field also highlights the differences (e.g. in how we treat menstruant women, which of course is also expressly dealt with in the Pentateuch). So there’s plenty of room for “eternity.”

      To the limited extent that there was direct influence, and its cool to see where it was, there’s nothing wrong with khaza”l taking to heart ezehu khakham or yesh khokhma b’yavan (i.e. goyim). We are bound to rabbinic law because we lost s’mikha but it is ridiculous to think that if we had s’mikha things wouldn’t change (or that every posek since then absorbs ideas from all the earlier poskim as well as surrounding legal norms when making p’sak).

  2. Alan – thank you for your great intro into the subject matter (as usual on these subjects). its helpful for lay folks like myself who may not know all the background research in the area (on that note can you expand on the difference of approaches/methodologies (if there is any) between geoffry herman and shai?)
    Shai – does whatever you see in the bavli tied to persian influences have to be contrasted to how different it is from the yerushalmi (or mishnah) for contrasting what maybe general worldwide influences as oppose to particular ones? have you conclusively shown cause and effect of influences – or casting of middle persian – that shed new light on rabbinic law (more than it “feels like” or “looks like”)? if so, how many instances? if one can show it via greek or roman influences (or its opposite reaction) why shouldn’t persian direct influence not be easily shown?
    btw, nice work on du-partzufim.

    • Ruvie, I relate directly to these specific questions (and expectations) in the book. I would say it’s a little of both. The Bavli itself (and its Middle Persian equivalent) makes it difficult to point to direct Persian influence. But also more generally, as I responded above, there is rarely anything that you can point to in the world that is entirely a result of direct influence, and direct influence alone. These things are “negotiated” and the process of negotiation can drag on longer than even the negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

  3. who is the publisher of your book?

  4. Menachem Lipkin

    Can we get your book in Israel at an Israeli salary price?🙂

  5. Pingback: The Iranian Talmud | BLT

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