Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals

The Talmud After the Humanities

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Mira Beth Wasserman
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , April
     2017.
     328 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249200.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This title has also been reviewed in JAAR by Julia Watts Belser.

Mira Beth Wasserman’s book, Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities, brings the Talmud into a reciprocal conversation with the humanities. Reflecting a dual sense of afterness, the title calls on Talmud studies to follow the humanities as an intellectual guide for the analysis of the Babylonian Talmud. It also signals an attempt to reckon the Talmud with the current shift in the humanities toward their own afterness—the post-humanities’ effort to look beyond the human and its binaries (237-8). Wasserman selects Tractate Avoda Zara (AZ) to demonstrate this, engaging a variety of theorists, new and old, across a number of somewhat contemporaneous turns, in new materialisms, post-humanist theory and critical animal studies. Wasserman frames AZ’s chapters thematically in relation to these turns, looking at bodies, animals and objects in the construction not only of humanness, but of multiple binaries of otherness, including Jewishness and Non-Jewishness. She orients her work to enhance the study of Talmud through contemporary theory, and to expose readers of contemporary theory to Talmud, demonstrating Talmud’s contributions to post-humanist concerns.

Wasserman’s strongest argument for crossing the Talmud with the humanities is her selection of AZ. While the tractate’s name, “foreign worship,” promises to explore the legal boundaries of forbidden divine relations, its content focuses on those of forbidden human relations, she argues. In elegant prose, Wasserman’s book delivers sustained, nuanced close-readings that analyze the complex interactions between Jews and non-Jews, as the rabbis construct Jewish difference out of a purported human sameness. Wasserman uses this as a jumping off point for framing the theoretical aim of the book, exploring the rabbinic construction of hierarchical binaries through various human and nonhuman “Others”, a central post-humanist concern. As Wasserman demonstrates in the book’s introduction, the history of this tractate is riddled with the imprints of mixed relations, and of what happens when non-Jews exert power over Jewish discourse. The content struggles with these exact relations and how to keep Others in bounds. From this mixed discursive space, Wasserman argues that the Talmud is already in conversation with and impacted by the “Others” of Western thought, and that a serious engagement of both together is in order. Using a tractate whose focus is to police the messy relationships between its insiders and outsiders, Wasserman calls for the exposure of Talmud to its academic outsiders, and to invite all Others in.

Through Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals does a fair amount of translating fundamentals across disciplines, it is primarily written for rabbinics scholars. The majority of its content is occupied with the nuances of rabbinic discourse, and would capture the attention of scholars in this field. Still, because of the effort Wasserman puts into translating across disciplines, it could serve as a more serious entry point for someone interested in exploring Talmud. Indeed, it is written in the literary tradition of Talmud studies, and further develops this approach’s reach. Wasserman looks to establish, emphasize and theorize the artistic cohesion of the Talmud, and  launching itself on the scale of the tractate, Wasserman reads AZ as a complete literary unit, arguing that it performs authorial artistry and thematic coherence despite the multivocality of its talmudic content. Building on other talmudic literary studies that highlight the intentionality of the Babylonian Talmud’s anonymous redactors (22, 235), Wasserman approaches talmudic literature through the tractate unit in order to demonstrate the redactors’ authorial bravado on a larger scale. This expansion of talmudic literary studies offers wider, replicable paths for exploring craft and authorship within the Babylonian Talmud.

Throughout the work, Wasserman hopes to offer a kind of rabbinic anthropology, registering the rabbis’ conceptualizations of being human. While Wasserman explicitly focuses on the humanities, it makes sense to orient the project toward anthropology, as both disciplines share an object of study: the human. It is no surprise that the recent theoretical turns she explores have emerged in and impacted both fields, and that Wasserman’s project could open new ways of looking at them together through the Talmud. While Wasserman focuses her interventions more squarely in the humanities, a multitude of responses to these shared questions have emerged within anthropology, which could perhaps provide a more proximate home for the Talmud’s suggested contributions. While I understand the impulse to present alternative rabbinic materialities, one wonders for example, if Wasserman’s presentation of Mira Balberg’s notion of extended personhood as a form of new materialism (176), a theory that raises the human as the defining feature of the nonhuman, might find more kinship with anthropological theories of animacy and distributed personhood that extend the human, like Marilyn Strathern’s (The Gender of the Gift, University of California Press, 1988) or Alfred Gell’s (Art and Agency: Towards a New Anthropological Theory, Clarendon, 1998), rather than new materialisms that seek to undo this supremacy. The book’s move to approach religious texts through secularizing lenses has been countered by recent post/nonsecular responses within anthropology, offering renewed focus on materiality that takes the constructed realness of religious beliefs seriously by placing religion and secularism on an equal playing field—a motivation that Wasserman no doubt shares in forming this exchange between Talmud and the humanities. In suggesting that the rabbis’ codifications of the human have something to say back to the post-human, Wasserman compels us to take the rabbis and their worlds seriously. Given the anthropological aspirations and religious origin of Wasserman’s project, there is reason to frame this work within these non-secularizing, internally-constructivist efforts.

Wasserman’s attempt to chart an interdisciplinary path within this traditionally insular field is important, and makes an important case for engaging rabbinic material comparatively. After taking the Talmud through this dual afterness and exploring its many outsides, we find that it is in deep conversation with Other interlocutors, who are now positioned to turn back and follow it. The rethinking of secularism that has emerged from this discourse, reflects Wasserman’s conviction to explore these fields together reciprocally, for the betterment of both.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shira Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature, Graduate Student in Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.

Date of Review: 
January 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mira Beth Wasserman teaches rabbinic literature at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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