Animals and Animality in the Babylonian Talmud

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Beth A. Berkowitz
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Beth Berkowitz’s Animals and Animality in the Babylonian Talmud is a meeting point between her work as a textualist, specifically an expert in rabbinics (the study of texts written by ancient rabbis), and her interest in the expanding interdisciplinary field of animal studies and animals. Her book both summarizes and surpasses existing scholarship at the intersection of Jewish studies, religious studies, and animal studies, weaving together carefully articulated ethical reflection and a major theoretical contribution to the study of religion.

One of the most repeated and well-defended arguments by recent scholars of religion giving critical attention to animals is that more careful attention to the human/animal binary (how it is produced, defended, and connected with other binaries) will change the way we understand the phenomena of religion. Such critical attention to animals will, or so the argument goes, cause us to rethink the scholarly categories we use, most notably the category “human,” and it will cause us to see in religious exempla new features previously invisible. Berkowitz has in effect taken up the challenge of making the field of rabbinics a test case for this broader scholarly inquiry.

The book consists of a rigorous, fine-tooth analysis of five passages from the Babylonian Talmud—in Bava Qamma, Sanhedrin, Bava Metzia, and Sukkah—that simultaneously raise ethical and theoretical questions about animals (the biological creatures) and animality (the category of thought). Berkowitz demonstrates a full command not only of Jewish studies and Talmud studies but also of animal studies. Readers looking for more general knowledge will appreciate the beautifully written prose, but readers familiar with, or trying to become familiar with, these academic fields will especially appreciate her copious footnotes, which engage nuanced questions and function as mini-bibliographies.

Berkowitz states clearly at the outset that she has ethical concerns that in part brought her to the topic of animals and animality, but most of the book would be unrecognizable as a treatise on ethics in the conventional sense. The tone and “microreading” methodology are largely descriptive, as she attempts to make sense of extremely difficult texts. That descriptive and interpretive thrust, in my view, ends up providing more riches for the ethicist to reflect on than a more didactic engagement with ethics could—for instance, asking if the rabbis have an ideal similar to today’s idea of animal welfare or rights.

Through the five passages she explicates, Berkowitz shows that the Talmud does something we might expect it to do in relation to animals: it carves into reality a binary distinction between animality and humanity that is used to articulate particular kinds of self, what we might call the rabbinic self or selves. This is an important accomplishment. Berkowitz, however, goes further, showing us not only how the text creates and utilizes this binary but also how it simultaneously, challenges, even deconstructs, this very binary. What Berkowitz shows is not simply that the Talmud has built up its notion of humanity, masculinity, Jewishness, and much else by leaning on the animal/human binary, but that it does so in a way that also questions this process of making meaning on the backs of animals.

The entire book deals fundamentally with the construction and deconstruction of otherness, a fundamental issue that shapes any particular ethics. In its most incisive moments, her work shows how, in putting into question the reliability of the human/animal binary, the Talmud creates the very possibility of ethical progress—the possibility of new ethical insights that radically change commonsense and philosophical limitations of the ethical impulse.

Berkowitz shows that the Talmud’s construction of animality participates in the familiar phenomenon of radically limiting concern for animals. But she also demonstrates, and here is the more rewarding and surprising part, that the Talmud at the same time points to the sleight of hand necessary to achieve the exclusion of animals from various ethical concerns. When various rabbis make rulings about specific animal species in specific contexts in ways that render these animals “the other” par excellence, Berkovitz asks whether the Talmud nods in agreement, blushes in embarrassment, or offers an ambiguous wink. She concludes that there is a kind of trap built into the Talmudic text—not a trap for animals, but for the rabbis who are trying to trap the animals in their own human categories. At the very moment the text depicts the rabbis engaged in taming animals and putting them in their subordinate place, the trap is sprung, for though Berkowitz shows us that the rabbis do indeed come up with a range of positions that enact the human/animal binary in ways bad for animals, she also shows that it is not clear the Talmud approves of their actions. A long quotation from Berkowitz’s conclusion is helpful here:

Each of the Talmudic texts I have examined trade in the human/animal binary while illustrating its inadequacies. Chapter 2’s clever ox . . . overturns the passage’s initial presumption that animals are incapable of advanced cognition. . . . In Chapter 3, when the Talmudic editors consider a range of opinions regarding whether animals possess moral consciousness, they cast doubt on the completeness of any moral consciousness. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 feature Talmudic editors casting doubt on a variety of anthropocentric habits: indifference to animal suffering; projection of danger onto animals; objectification of animals. These Talmudic passages alert their readers to anthropodenial, consider the motivations for it, and expose its failures. These Talmudic texts suggest not only that animal selves might exist—they clearly do, sometimes—but also that they have the power to disrupt schemes of subjectivity and to throw into question the basic binaries that structure the rabbinic nomos. (187)


For Berkowitz, the five Talmudic passages she considers point to the limits of rabbinic moral knowledge because the meaning of animals exceeds rabbinic understanding. In some sense, “the rabbis,” who are of course not only characters in the Talmud but its authors, know this—or at least the evidence of the Talmud suggests as much. This simultaneous rabbinic acceptance of, on the one hand, the dismal lot that civilization inflicts on animals, and, on the other hand, a sometimes boldly articulated and sometimes just barely conscious discomfort with that very acceptance, leaves its trace in the Talmud as a kind of nascent, precarious, and uncertain questioning that prevents the foreclosure of ethics. Berkowitz shows us how to read these remarkable moments in the text. As such, the book is essential reading for all future work on rabbinic texts engaged with the concerns of animal studies and a major contribution from Jewish studies to both animal studies and the study of religion as such.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Gross is Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
November 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Beth A. Berkowitz is author of Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures (2006, winner of the Salo Baron Prize for First Book in Jewish Studies) and Defining Jewish Difference: From Antiquity to the Present (Cambrid


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