Interview with Prof Moulie Vidas

Talmudic source criticism goes back to the nineteenth century philological method of reading texts where history, linguistics, and literary structure hold clues to a texts meaning. For Americans, Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise immortalized the issues around layering the Talmudic text by linguistic strata, solving difficult passages by looking at variant manuscripts, and even reading Tannaic texts outside of their Talmudic context. For some, these methods are simply handmaidens useful for a clearer understanding of the Talmud, while for the specialists in the academy these topics are their prime focus. Once the world of academic Talmud was limited to Rabbinical seminaries and taught by those whose erudition and pedigree was identical with that of Rosh Yeshiva. Now, the study of the Talmud has fully entered the academy and is open to all similar to the study of other texts of antiquity such as those in Greek, Latin, Coptic, or Syriac.


The new holder of the chair in Talmud at Princeton University is Moulie Vidas who graduated Princeton and after a brief stint at UC Davis returned to join the Princeton faculty in 2012. In an article celebrating his arrival in California, the local paper did a laudatory feature on him. “Here’s a guy, a secular Israeli, who studied Talmud at Tel Aviv University,” said fellow U.C. Davis faculty member David Biale, “and within a very short time came to master something that was considered only possible to people who went to yeshiva their whole lives.” Though the Tel Aviv native never set foot in a yeshiva as a youth, he says his interest in Talmud stemmed from a desire to know “what the other side thinks. When I got to actually study these texts, the brilliance of the Talmud, the great erudition, attracted me to it. “ Continuing his praise of Vidas, “He’s an incredibly charming, very intellectually curious, open-minded person, “ Biale said. “I think students are going to love him.”

His recent book, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, (Princeton University Press, 2014) starts a new research agenda for Talmudic source criticism. For the entire Introduction- see here.

The regnant approach to Talmudic source criticism is that there is a pristine early Amoraic layer in the Talmud and the later layer was an addition that changed the earlier material, making the discussion more abstract, or creating dialectics and justifications.  This approach is usually associated with Shamma Freidman and David Weiss-Halivni who focus on the modern construct called the Stammaim. Both Friedman and Weiss-Halivni seek to restore the earlier strata since it represent a reliable corpus of traditions, unlike the conjectures of the later “give and take.” Some rabbis, for example within the Kibbutz Hadati movement, will occasionally advocate for one of these excavated earlier positions as the true opinion of the Oral law.

In contrast, Vidas assumes that the entire Talmudic argument, the entire sugya is one unit. A somewhat similar literary approach was taught by Abraham Weiss at YU and by Louis Jacobs in his books on the Talmudic Argument. However, Vidas’ innovation is that the texts that seem like earlier texts are literary devices by the later era to create a sense of distance from themselves and the allowing for a creative opening. For him, demarcating opinions as traditional “can be used to invoke discontinuity” by fossilizing them as the past. He cites the Continental theorist Agamben, that quotations in a text do not transmit as much as distance; “the quotation at once… invests it with an alienating power.” The Talmud is no longer a conservative repository of traditions, rather a literary “self-conception of its creators.” There is no earlier opinion, just a later text presenting the topic as if there was a later and earlier layer.

Vidas accepts the views stated by others that the Bavli was about dialectic, analysis, and abstraction, portraying itself as innovative and creative against those who are too conservative. All their innovations were to be considers as from Sinai. Who were the conservative alternatives? The Tannaim- the repeaters- were those who made the goal to consist entirely of memorization, transmission and recitation. Vidas conjectures that they did not have the secondary role of textual preservation assigned to them by the creative Amoraim, rather they were a competing and antagonistic group that advocated recitation as its own goal. Based on this dichotomy, Vidas situates the Heikhalot literature with their emphasis on correct memorization and recitation as allied or even associated  with the tanaim. (Compare David J. Halperin, who situated the Heikhalot as outside of Rabbinic Judiasm entirely). The conclusion to Vidas’ book offered an illuminating contrast of the Geonim who stressed the continuity of the Oral law, probably due to Islamic era concerns. Those parts of Orthodoxy which echo with the concept of continuity,  may not see the Talmud for its creative analysis.

As noted three years ago on the Talmud blog by those in the field, the specialization of rabbinic texts is no longer a provincial Rabbinic or Talmudist position, rather one is now a specialist in Judaism in late antiquity or Judaism in the Greco-Roman world.  (Job seekers take note.) Saul Lieberman was proud that he never visited Columbia’s Library since he limited his sights to an internal perspective, in contrast during the same years E. R. Goodenough wrote about a Jewish-Pagan synthesis without having to cite Talmud. Now, Talmud is integrated with the wider historical context, hence Vidas has important comparisons and contrasts between the Talmud’s tension of recitation vs dialectics with those of Syriac Christians and Zoroastrians. In recent work, Vidas has written on priestly ritual law in comparative perspective and has edited a volume on ways of knowing in late antiquity.

Vidas’ work has already been subject to two online reviews. One at the Talmud blog here (link has been fixed)and one by Raphael Magarik here. In his review, Magarik writes that the book has two problems.

First, by examining closely the formal operation of [only] several substantial sugyot, Vidas wants to revise a picture of editorial activity that was built, by scholars like David Weiss Halivni, on hundreds, if not thousands, of such analyses… The book’s first half has to be read as a scholarly program. Significant future analysis is needed.

Vidas suggests we instead, at least sometimes, read sugyot as crafted, intentional wholes and ask: what literary effects did the editors intend? But such effects are culturally conditioned, and sometimes Vidas assumes that the irony or subversion a modern reader detects necessarily reflects authorial intention. To give one example, when Vidas asserts that punning associations between place names and problematic genealogical categories “seems in this context to be a parody of the arbitrariness of the production of genealogical stratification,” he implicitly assumes the rabbis saw homophones as arbitrary coincidences. But the rabbis, who sometimes regard language as quasi-magical, may have been completely serious about the significance of puns.

Vidas is currently working on a monograph on the emergence of Talmudic culture in Roman Palestine.

  1. How does the Bavli show its alterity, its past making? How does it show its distancization from earlier sources?

The first half of the book argues that, while earlier scholarship has been correct in emphasizing how the Talmud projects continuity with its sources, there are pervasive stylistic features of the Talmud that are used, like air quotes, to mark (or produce – more on this later on) these sources’ alterity. Consider how we use quotation marks in writing or air quotes in oral communication – we do that to mark a certain distance between ourselves and what we are quoting.

The most important of those features is the layered structure, the division between “sources” and “interpretation” or “narration.” The anonymous narrating layer of the Talmud that we encounter on almost every page guides us through the different “sources,” introducing them and commenting on them and constructing various relationships among them. Often, we can very easily distinguish this voice and its sources because of stylistic features: the narration and commentary are almost always in Aramaic whereas the sources are almost always in Hebrew; and sources are introduced with citation terms, whether they are attributed (“Rabbi X says”) or anonymous sources (“It was recited…”).

These features are not necessary. Both types of materials, for example, could have been expressed in the same language. This is especially evident when the interpretation is interpolated or added into a statement – in those cases, the choice to express the interpretation in Aramaic marks off (at least ostensibly) the original source from the later interpretation.

The Talmud could have (and sometimes does) re-formulate the statement in a way that does not indicate this distance. And indeed, in Tannaitic sources, that was probably the more common way to adapt rabbinic traditions – we can see this when we compare the Mishnah and Tosefta for example. My basic question was why the Talmud’s creators chose not to do this but rather keep sources and interpretations separate.

  1. How is the Bavli not simply chronology but literary device?

Some scholars might read what I just said and say: well, sure, but this distance is simply a result of how the Bavli came into being. Both Halivni and Friedman (to different degrees and in different ways) conceive of the layered structure as reflecting stages in the formation of the text and its sources. First, they say, the sources were produced; then, later rabbis came and weaved a narrative and interpretation around these sources. To the extent that we can observe a distance, then, it is simply because there actually was chronological distance between the sources and those who wrote the interpretation; and furthermore – these scholars suggest, the structure of the Talmud was meant to downplay, bridge, or even hide this distance.

The second chapter of Tradition suggests that this distance is not always a reflection of the text’s history. Rather, it is a feature of the text’s self-representation, which may sometimes be the result of a literary construction. The chapter offers two instances in the Bavli in which, I think, the most plausible way to account for the layered structure is that it was imposed on the passage at a later stage. When we compare these Bavli passages to what is likely their earlier versions in the Yerushalmi, we can see that in the Bavli there is a move towards a layered structure: narrating and discursive functions which in the Yerushalmi are taken on by attributed statements are taken in the Bavli by the anonymous layer. That is, the texts went through a re-organization to fit the pattern of representation in which sources are attributed whereas interpretation and discussion is anonymous. This produces, rather than simply represents, the distance between sources and interpretation.

I think there are good reasons to think that this process happened often. But regardless of their representative value, these cases allow us to re-think the layered structure. They allow us to think of this structure not as an inevitable consequence of rabbinic transmission, but as something that could be desired, a literary device that had an important function for those who used it.

In a nutshell, my claim is that in a culture that prized both transmission and innovation, the layered structure epitomized both. By distinguishing between what is transmitted and what is innovated, it allowed those who presented lectures in the academy to model for their students the process of innovation instead of just showing them the conclusion of that process; and it also allowed them to claim both kinds of authority – they presented themselves both as faithful transmitters of tradition from the past as well as sophisticated, innovative interpreters of these traditions.

  1. How are the Heikhalot and magical circles connected to the Mishnaic recitation way of thinking?

Hekhalot and non-Jewish sources give us a critical perspective on what the Talmudists were doing with tradition because, I think, they show us what other options were available for them at the time – what  the Talmudists chose not to practice, and in fact what they chose to argue against.

The argument in the book is that one way the “masters of talmud” defined themselves was to think of what they were doing as different from the reciters – the tanna’im or “masters of mishnah.” Note, in this context, tanna’im does not mean the sages of the Tannaitic period and the Mishnah, but rather those who the focused on the recitation and transmission of rabbinic traditions. Several Talmudic passages take a fairly negative attitude towards these reciters.

Following these Talmudic passages, traditional as well as academic scholars have portrayed these reciters as the mindless teaching assistants of the real scholars. My argument is that this understanding of the reciters is the result of ideological construction, and that what we see in the Talmud is one side of a debate about how to approach rabbinic tradition.

Some of the sages of the period prized exacting analysis of rabbinic tradition that resulted in innovative commentary, while others focused on ritual recitation of the texts that bridged the gap with the past.

The problem, however, is that a reading of Talmudic passages, even if it is very critical, gets us only so far – you can often reconstruct the democrat’s view from a republican’s, but it is far better if you have the republican’s speech itself.

This is where the Hekhalot and magical texts come into the picture. What I think we can see in them is something like the view that the Talmud does battle with – they emphasize a ritual approach to recitation of tradition, they de-emphasize critical analysis, and they present a rich discourse of memorization and retention that sees in these activities a goal in themselves and indeed likens them to the heavenly liturgy.

4. How is this similar to Zoroastrian, Syriac Christian, and Mishnah?

The Zoroastrian and Syriac Christian materials I used, in part, for a similar purpose – to show that, even though the Talmud often presents recitation as simply an aid to intellectual study, in those (and other Jewish) sources, recitation is a ritual in which intellectual analysis is far from the most important component. Furthermore, we can see that both in the Zoroastrian tradition and in the Christian tradition there were similar – but very far from identical – debates about the relationship between analysis and ritual recitation. What may seem at first as a very internal Jewish debate was one inflection of a broader conversation in the period.

5. What is the approach of the Geonim? How has that led later readers to see the Talmud through Geonic lens?

There were a number of developments in the Geonic period that I think really changed the way in which the Talmud and rabbinic tradition were understood. The most important is of course that the Talmud gradually became a fixed text early in this period – so talmud no longer meant an analytical engagement with rabbinic traditions but a study of a particular text, the Talmud.

Geonic literature – especially the influential sources after the Karaites – promoted understandings of rabbinic tradition that emphasized continuity and traditionalism. The Geonim did not, of course, invented these positions out of nothing – they had strong sources in the rabbinic corpus. But they chose to deemphasize other sources, and occasionally they reverse the tone and value of talmudic sugyot on the subject. Scholars such as Jay Harris have already shown that the Geonim understood midrash to be supportive of existing traditions rather than creative of new ones, in contrast with the frequent representations of Midrash as creative in rabbinic sources.

Let me give one example in which R. Sherira’s approach can be contrasted with the Talmud’s.

I mentioned earlier how the Talmud is often negative towards tanna’im, and scholars have shown that at least some layers in the Talmud prefer the innovation-oriented scholar to the retention-oriented scholars.

In tractate Sotah, Rav Nahman mocks the reciter who “does not know” what he recites, and the passage culminates in harsh words against such retention-oriented scholars who dare to issue legal instructions.

Sherira takes almost completely the opposite approach. He acknowledges the importance of penetrating dialectical study, but then immediately goes on a long digression that asserts, unambiguously, the preference for conversation. Even though the retention-oriented scholars “does not know” how to extract logical implications, the Ga’on explains, he is more apt than the innovation-inclined scholar to issue legal instructions.


6. What does Talmud study offer the secular student?

Part of what I think the Talmud can teach us is the limited value of questions about the value or purpose of learning. Of course, in some sense, such questions are important, and one can certainly ask them about the Talmud, and the answers will differ according to context.

The Talmud offers students of late antiquity a very significant testimony of various aspects of the period from dinner formalities through legal thinking through mythology – so significant in part because of its sheer size (I think it is the largest single document from the period, if it can be thought of as a single document).

For secular Jews or others in the community interested in reform, serious study of the Talmud can be part of undoing or criticizing repressive policies and views that have originated in the text or its commentaries. For the liberal arts student, it provides a fantastic experience of humanistic study which is at the same time similar and so obviously different from the Graeco-Roman tradition we practice; this de-familiarizing experience can truly broaden one’s mind – especially when it is joined with the agility of mind that Talmudic study itself encourages.

But again, the Talmud might also teach us the limits of questions about the value, utility or purpose of learning, because it shows us the enormous power and vitality of a leaning which almost completely suspended such teleological questions. Sure, that suspension may have originated in the sense that learning Torah was a divine directive and therefore valuable in itself. But I do not see a good reason it should not inspire those who do not obey or indeed believe in such directives.

7. What do you tell Orthodox scholars that think they own all access and interpretations of the Talmud?

The surprising answer to this question is that I don’t encounter this as often as I thought I would – and also mind it much less when I do! Of course, that is in part because the Orthodox people I meet tend to be those who are committed to cutting-edge work that is very critical of traditional understanding, and I realize that this is not precisely representative of the entire Orthodox community. But I’m pointing that out because it’s interesting that in Talmud – unlike, say, in the case of other sacred texts – some of the most daring research frameworks have come from people who are also committed to Orthodoxy or Halakhah.

I’m not sure what I’ll say to someone who thinks that just because they are Orthodox it means they understand the Talmud better than someone with appropriate training who is not Orthodox. That position seems just so obviously wrong to me.

But if, in order to understand the position you describe, I can try to read it more charitably, I will say that I understand why people can be suspicious of those who work in Talmud who do not have a traditional Yeshiva background. Now, that suspicion, like any prejudice or generalization, is very often proven wrong – there is a large number of highly-respected scholars who do not come from this background.

But it’s also true – and here I’m turning the critical light on my own community – that both secular Jews and Talmud academics have not been as successful as we might want in developing an apparatus that provides an alternative to the Yeshiva world in terms of training students. Studying Talmud without that background still requires an extraordinary personal commitment, and while many had this commitment and became leaders in the field, it is also true that we also see some bad work out there. Things are getting better and better, I think (with online databases, reliable dictionaries, better introductory texts, grammar books, etc).

8. Why does the knowledge of purity laws help define the scholar and canon?

What made Mira Balberg and me curious about the purity laws was that the Bavli represents the study of purity laws both as something amazing – the pinnacle of difficulty and achievement, and at the same time as something suspicious – associated with bad moral character traits such as pride, distant from the divine, this-worldly. Our argument was that this representation was used by the rabbis as a self-portrait to describe what they saw the achievements and failures of their scholastic culture.

We suggested that one of the reasons the study of purity in particular was apt for this purpose was a tension that was already there in Palestinian sources. On the one hand, the field of purity is perhaps the most “ontological” or descriptive of rabbinic fields: that is, it is concerned nor with what one should or shouldn’t do, but with what things are or aren’t – is this object pure? is it impure?

On the other hand, the rabbis were very much aware that this description was very much dependent on a scholarly process of argumentation and reasoning – consider the disciple in Yavne who could render the sheretz pure and impure a hundred times. This tension between a field that on the one hand purports to say something about “reality,” but in which reality is also very much susceptible to scholarly manipulation and deliberation (think about the oven of Akhnai), made it a good element in discussions of rabbinic scholarly ambition and its limits.

9. What does your forthcoming anthology show about knowledge among ancient Jews?

The drive behind Late Ancient Knowing was to try new approaches to intellectual history in late antiquity. What we felt was – I think I represent both Catherine Chin and me when I say this – that after a great deal of work in questions of the social history of the period (questions on identity or community or the body) we can return, armed with a fresh perspective, to questions about knowledge.

In part, we wanted to emphasize how knowledge was “practical” – how it allowed people not only to perceive the world but also to interact with it, and vice versa – how interaction with the world informed the way that people “knew” it.

The rabbinic corpus was particularly good to think with about practical knowledge because, in a sense, rabbinic literature presents a very clear challenge to simple distinctions between “practical” and “theoretical”: on the one hand, topics in anthropology or theology or epistemology are treated through the most mundane and practical questions (e.g., discussion of animal-related torts); on the other hand, these most mundane and practical questions are themselves often formulated in very theoretical and abstract way  (and all that without even getting into the serious historical problem of whether and how people in late antiquity observed rabbinic law). They are a very good example of how knowledge was produced and experienced very much within, rather than apart, of daily life.

10. Are you descended from the Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu diVidas?

I don’t think so. Perhaps even more lamentable than the low probability that we are actually related, is the fact that no one in my family was knowledgeable enough or industrious enough to even claim that we are descended from him, as far as I know.

6 responses to “Interview with Prof Moulie Vidas

  1. jamesbradfordpate

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.

  2. Vidas’ take on the formation of the Talmud should be compared (and contrasted?) with that of Ari Bergmann in his recently completed thesis which has attracted a good deal of attention. Perhaps you should have a post on Bergmann and an interview with him,

    Here is Bergmann’s abstract of his thesis.

    Ari Bergmann, “Halevy, Halivni and the Oral Formation of the Babylonian Talmud,” Columbia University, 2014.

    This dissertation is dedicated to a detailed analysis and comparison of the theories on the process of the formation of the Babylonian Talmud by Yitzhak Isaac Halevy and David Weiss Halivni. These two scholars exhibited a similar mastery of the talmudic corpus and were able to combine the roles of historian and literary critic to provide a full construct of the formation of the Bavli with supporting internal evidence to support their claims. However, their historical construct and findings are diametrically opposed.

    Yitzhak Isaac Halevy presented a comprehensive theory of the process of the formation of the Talmud in his magnum opus Dorot Harishonim. The scope of his work was unprecedented and his construct on the formation of the Talmud encompassed the entire process of the formation of the Bavli, from the Amoraim in the 4th century to the end of the saboraic era (which he argued closed in the end of the 6th century). Halevy was the ultimate guardian of tradition and argued that the process of the formation of the Bavli took place entirely within the amoraic academy by a highly structured and coordinated process and was sealed by an international rabbinical assembly. While Halevy was primarily a historian, David Weiss Halivni is primarily a talmudist and commentator on the Talmud itself. Halivni offers his bold construct of the history of the formation of the Bavli in the context of his commentary Meqorot Umesorot, which spans almost the entire Babylonian Talmud. Halivni explains the process of the formation of the Bavli as taking place well after amoraic times in a massive unstructured process of reconstruction. This dissertation will demonstrate that both of the theories of Halevy and Halivni are in need of careful analysis and revision. Halevy’s construct despite providing valuable scholarly insights is tainted by a strong ideological agenda. On the other hand, Halivni, as a literary critic, provides insightful literary analysis and his conclusions on the uniqueness of the stam have been firmly established in contemporary scholarship. However, when analyzing Halivni’s theory one must distinguish between his literary conclusions and his historical construct. The later is a constantly evolving theory, and it has presented numerous problems as it has developed over time, mainly in the introductions to Meqorot Umesorot.

    The body of this dissertation consists of three chapters, each focusing on a different model for the formation of the Bavli. Chapter One focuses on Halevy, beginning with his biography and continuing with an in-depth analysis of the scope and purpose of his Dorot Harishonim and the ideological import of his research. The second chapter addresses the theory of Halivni on the formation of the Bavli. After a biographical sketch of Halivni’s life, I review the scope and purpose of Meqorot Umesorot with a special emphasis on scholarship ki’peshuto, followed by a detailed analysis of his model and the evidence he offers in support of it. The third chapter proposes an alternative model for the formation of the Talmud which combines aspects of Halevy’s and Halivni’s theories. I propose a model that includes a fixed oral text, accompanied by an oral fluid commentary. This dual form of transmission accounts for the diverse structure and style of the apodictic material and the dialectical interpretative argumentation of the stam. The fixed apodictic text, the proto-Talmud follows the basic contour of Halevy’s model, while the understanding of the stam follows many aspects of Halivni’s description of the reconstruction of the dialectical argumentation by the Stammaim. By applying form criticism to determine the Sitz im Leben of talmudic transmission and teaching, combined with recent scholarship on the various forms of oral transmission, I propose a framework which allows for a developmental model which integrates the perceptive historical insights of Halevy with Halivni’s literary findings.

  3. Your link to the review on the Talmud blog actually points to the review by Magarik. I can’t find a review on the Talmud blog.

  4. How is Vidas’s approach to the Talmud that different from the approach of Prof. Jacob Neusner?

    Doesn’t Prof. Neusner also view sugyot as single redacted entities rather than as layered texts? In which case, we go back to earlier debates where Richard Kalmin pointed out differences (literary, linguistic, stylistic, etc.) in the layers.

    Is this not just revisiting earlier debates within the academy?

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