Rabbinic Tales of Destruction

Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem

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Julia Watts Belser
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2017.
     280 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190600471.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This important book by Julia Watts Belser demands that we look again at rabbinic responses to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. Rabbinic Tales of DestructionGender, Sex and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem has three great strengths. First, Belser leads the reader through complex passages of rabbinic literature deftly and elegantly, reading her texts against the grain, turning and turning each verse of Talmud to reveal new insights. Second, she gives a thoughtful crash-course in recent developments for studying the world of the early rabbis, considering authors too numerous to list. And third, she pays particular attention to theoretical studies, including methodologies of related disciplines such as feminist, disability, ecological materialist, and post-colonial studies. In all, Belser brings insights from the crises and successes of our own era in order to reveal new interpretations of these ancient texts. 

Belser turns to a section of the Babylonian Talmud concerning the destruction of the Temple, tractate Gittin 55b-58a, and sees political concerns as well as religious issues there: demeaning violence, redemptive recuperation, wounded, scarred flesh, and theology. Uniting all these threads, Belser demands that we pay attention to the physical bodies that carry these tales. Using insights from the study of constructions of gender, she looks at the way “rabbinic telling uses rape differently: to mark not the shame of the conquered [as Roman representation does] but rather the moral degradation of the conqueror” (43). But then she also insists that we recognize that such readings “eclipse attention toward the actual body costs borne by women captives” (44). With the hermeneutics of disability theory she considers the symbolism of beautiful able bodies, but also observes disabled ones, explaining that “for religious studies scholars, disability studies offers a theoretical framework for interrogating the way in which religious texts and cultural systems construct ideals of bodily perfection and demarcate certain kinds of bodies as different or deviant” (xxvii). She considered images in tractate Gittin of those “disabled by disaster,” and the way “stigmatized corporeal difference can be scripted onto entire populations” (81). Then, appealing to the ecological materialist insights that provided the foundation for her earlier book, Belser follows the trail of bone and blood until it mingles with the earth, arguing that “these passages [of slaughter] constitute an important counter-discourse to Bavli Gittin’s celebration of the heroic body” (103-104). 

Belser uses these many threads to develop the argument that Babylonian Talmud tractate Gittin offers an alternative to the prevailing interpretation of tragedy in biblical (and also many rabbinic) sources in which God punishes Israel for sin and breach of the covenant, instead drawing on post-colonial studies for ways of understanding how colonial realities allow us to see Gittin’s reframing of this devastation. Belser’s excavation of these tales reveals a considered focus on the nature of Roman imperialism, where even those narratives about sexual misconduct refuse “to pursue the claim that sexual sin served as the grounds” for catastrophe (29). In another countervailing move, she notes Jewish gestures of resistance and subversion. Nevertheless, she also suggests that too much scholarly work emphasizes finding “within these narratives a story of resilience and redemption” (xx). She therefore insists on reading in “two directions: revealing rabbinic subversion,” even as she also shows how a “rabbinic story acquiesces to empire” (xxi). She pursues theological questions of God’s empathy, but not at the expense of erasing bodies. Each reading demands another, building cumulatively to a fascinating and compelling presentation.

Rabbinic Tales of Destruction is made up of an introduction, encompassing a glimpse of the many perspectives and themes of the whole, followed by seven chapters and a postlude, each of which offers one particular focus. While celebrating the wonderful multivocality of this work, I recognize that it is contradictory on my part to complain of feelings of instability. Nevertheless, I do wonder at the boundary of where celebration of diverse lenses stops and the risk of excluding readers begins. Belser mentions only once in the introduction (and briefly) that others have noted that there are twenty-seven stories in the unit of Talmud she examines, that she approaches them as an anthology, and that she will treat them thematically and not in order (xxx-xxxi).

I could not help wishing for an appendix that would provide the whole passage translated and formatted in the way that she presents it within the book (I turned to an older translation that had no markers for when one of these “stories” started or stopped). Quite possibly Belser may have wished for such, but the publisher said no. In any case I felt the absence, especially as sometimes she would repeat a story in a later chapter, leaving me curious as to whether she had also left pieces out. Adding to the confusion, in some chapters Belser also quotes from and interprets Lamentation Rabbah, sometimes as a foil, and sometimes as support. All this left me wanting to envision how the tales in Babylonian Talmud Gittin fit together, and made me wonder if such a view would change how I felt about Belser’s argument. Overall, I suspect it would not have. Nevertheless, Belser writes in English, presumably to include people with varying familiarities with rabbinic literature. Her rich theoretical agility would only be made stronger by acknowledging a reader trying to stay oriented. 

Perhaps, however, there is no way to stay oriented in a catastrophe. Certainly one of the meta-messages of Belser’s rich book is that no single reading suffices. And certainly I came away from her book looking with new eyes at a world that I thought I knew. Ultimately Belser makes clear that trauma does not end with the catastrophe itself. Late in the book she explores narrative fantasies of revenge against Titus and Rome, which challenge redemptive visions and push us to ask whether some of these tales really involve redemption or only revenge (171). Here too we see how the wounds of conquest continue long after the dirt has settled.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan Marks is Professor of Judaic Studies and the Klingenstein Chair at New College of Florida.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julia Watts Belser is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department at Georgetown University. She is the author of Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity.

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