Theory and Practice in Essene Law

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Aryeh Amihay
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his Theory and Practice in Essene Law, Aryeh Amihay challenges us to synthesize the insights of legal theory and sociology in order to observe the gap between law and its application within the Judean Desert Scrolls. Offering us a new framework for thinking about the legal texts from this Jewish community, Amihay emphasizes the universality of tensions preserved within these sources while simultaneously highlighting their particularities. By exposing the discrepancy between theory and practice, Amihay animates the authors of these works and draws us into the lived world of these ancient sectarians.

Divided into two main parts, Amihay’s study first explores several pairings of legal themes —including Hierarchy and Exclusivity, Time and Space, etc. — before turning to related couplings of practices. He uncovers the tensions and gaps situated between the sectarian worldview and the practical formulation and application of their laws. He asks: if everything is truly predetermined, why should the group seek to convince outsiders of their errors (chapter 2)? If sin disrupts the natural order and if purity is a chief concern, why should intention matter when a member transgresses (chapter 5)? If all members are true “Children of Light,” why should a system of deterrence be necessary (chapter 11)? Through this study of the “laws that regulate relations between people” (113), Amihay demonstrates how this religious legal system, like all others, falls prey to the impossible balance between the ideal and the real. The sect’s use of instrumental, coercive, and punitive laws speaks to a reality of difficult group dynamics and, by identifying the points of inconsistency, Amihay allows us to recognize the ways in which the legal texts from the Judean Desert Scrolls capture a fossilized glimpse of a once organic community.

At the outset, Amihay cautions that extrapolating theory from “texts that are reluctant to provide one is admittedly a hazardous task” (17). However, the majority of his insights are well founded, grounded both in the available textual evidence as well as in contemporary theory. When he does venture into the highly theoretical, he is quick to admit that his claims “cannot transcend speculation” (140). Likewise when Amihay offers us a novel reading of the sources, he again applies appropriate caveats as to their limitations (149-151, 159-160). His work thus bears the marks of a sophisticated balance between close reading and cautious conjecture.

In an ostensibly unconscious and curious fashion Amihay’s own work mirrors the very tension he explores between the ideal and the applied. Amihay eschews the intrusive imposition of language and themes drawn from the field of rabbinic literature (5-9), yet he himself proffers several examples from this corpus (72-73, 95), and even expresses his surprise at the way in which his choice of materials “retroactively … correlates with a motif in rabbinic law” (114). Similarly, as demonstrated by his extended critique of the employment of the labels “realism” and “nominalism,” Amihay is highly attuned to the ways in which imprecise terminology impedes accurate characterizations of law. Yet, Amihay opts for the loaded nomenclature of “Essene” as this “made sense to an outsider contemporary of the sectarians” (14). Although Amihay is certainly aware of the debates over the appropriateness of equating this term with the sectarian community described by the scrolls, his decision represents a more practical consideration of reminding him of his own outsider status as an observer (14). While some may consider these subtle clashes between Amihay’s goals and his execution as a detriment, hopefully most will find this dynamic particularly instructive as a model of the very tension between theory and practice that he illustrates within the Essene corpus.

One of Amihay’s stated goals is to “call for greater interdisciplinarity” (10), a task at which he markedly succeeds. Indeed, within the first part of the book one can hardly turn a page without encountering another voice from outside of the traditional canon of scrolls scholarship — John Rawls (45), Søren Kierkegaard (73), or Henry David Thoreau (76). At times however, the abundance of interlocutors may appear overly intrusive or emerging from out of left field — such as the reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (37) or early Hasidic literature (169). Nevertheless, the wide variety of sources makes for a provocative and entertaining read.

An erudite and interdisciplinary application of scholarship, Theory and Practice in Essene Law offers an important corrective to the imprecise adoption of legal terminology and the use of anachronistic rabbinic categories for the Judean Desert Scrolls. Amihay’s excavation of the space between ideal law and lived practice brings to the fore a tension at the core of the Essene community, and revitalizes the figures preserved within these millennia-old legal records.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Goldstone is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aryeh Amihay teaches Judaism and Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a PhD in Religion from Princeton University.


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