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Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash.


By Azzan Yadin-Israel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 308 + viii pp.

Scripture and Tradition is an examination of the exegetical methods and founding mythology of Midrash Sifra, a Tannaitic commentary on Leviticus. The Tannaim, the rabbis of the second and third centuries, produced texts in two modes. The Mishnaic mode presents apodictic laws to be memorized and recited, and the midrashic mode parses scriptural verses and comments on them. Mishnah and Tosefta are Mishnaic, and works such as Mekhilta, Sifra, and Sifre, "the Tannaitic midrashim," are midrashic.

The nature of the relationship between scripture and its midrashic reading is famously hard to define. Scholarship on midrash often uses "pun" or "play" to describe the relationship, but neither reflects the seriousness of Tannaitic midrash. Daniel Boyarin, in his Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (1990) suggested instead that Tannaitic midrash is a form of exegesis, an attempt to account for the meaning of words and phrases in the Torah using the rest of scripture as a key. Boyarin tested his thesis on the narrative portions of the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus. Azzan Yadin-Israel, Boyarin's student, has investigated whether Boyarin's insights can be applied systematically to the legal portions of the Tannaitic midrashim as well.

This choice required that Yadin-Israel write two books, because the legal portions of the Tannaitic midrashim come from two distinct schools. Extant works of the school of Rabbi Akiva are Sifra on Leviticus, Sifre Deuteronomy, and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simon on Exodus. This school also produced the bulk of Mishnah and Tosefta. Another Akivan school produced Sifre Zuta Numbers and Deuteronomy, which are known to have existed but were not preserved in their entirety. The school of Rabbi Ishmael produced (among others) Mekhilta on Exodus and Sifre Numbers, and has a more complex relationship with the Mishnah.

Scripture and Tradition is thus a sequel to Yadin-Israel's first book, Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash (2004). That book, a systematic study of terminology and exegesis in the Ishmaelian midrashim, claimed that the school of Ishmael used scripture as a guide to interpreting scripture, continuing a tradition from the Qumran community. The present book examines Sifra, the Akivan midrash on Leviticus.

The book is made up of three parts. The first (chs. 1-4) attempts to characterize the exegetical methods of the Sifra. The second (chs. 5-7) is dedicated to the character of Rabbi Akiva in rabbinic literature and the statements attributed to him in Sifra. The third (chs. 8-9) offers a comparative survey of other methods of interpretation in the Judaeo-Christian/late Roman orbit and situates Yadin-Israel's work in the context of previous scholarship.

Building off of Yonatan Sagiv's dissertation, Iyyunim be-darke ha-midrash shel ha-tannaim alpi parashiyyot nivharot ba-sifra (2009), Yadin-Israel separates Sifra into two strata: named statements, which he takes to be authentically Tannaitic, and "the anonymous Sifra." This last stratum forms a running commentary on the greater part of Leviticus. According to Yadin-Israel, it is a front for presenting received tradition as grounded in the written Torah. It is "vacuous," and not really exegesis. It subverts the very midrashic method in order to bolster the authority of received tradition in Mishnah and Tosefta. The attributed statements in Sifra, however, are not so: they are more "Ishmaelian" in their method than the anonymous Sifra.

The book probes important questions which have vexed scholars of midrash from the very beginning of the academic study of Judaism: what is the relationship between scripture, tradition, and homily in Sifra? How does this relationship compare to what we know about the other, Ishmaelian midrashim? How can we explain homilies that do not to flow naturally from the language of the verse or homilies that seem to make no sense at all? To this reviewer, his solutions seem too extreme. The suggestion that an entire exegetical work is "vacuous," and that it is not what it claims to be strikes me as requiring more substantial evidence than what Yadin-Israel provides.

Take, for instance, Leviticus 13:38-39: "When a man or a woman has spots on the skin of the body, white spots, the priest shall make an examination, and if the spots on the skin of the body are of a dull white, it is a rash that has broken out on the skin; it is pure ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])."

Yadin-Israel quotes the homily on verse 39:
   "A rash is pure"--this teaches that a rash is pure. (27)

Yadin-Israel, calls this is a homily with no meaning, because it is tautological. But reading the homily in context shows otherwise:
   "Rash" "pure"--this teaches that a rash is pure. Could it perhaps
   not cause impurity in itself, but cause impurity if it is an
   extension of an existing leprosy? It teaches, saying: "that has
   broken out" "pure." Could it cause purity to the leprosy which
   protrudes from it? It teaches, saying "it is (Kin)." Could it not
   cause purity to the leprosy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])
   which protrudes from it, but cause purity to the leprosy that it
   spreads to? It teaches, saying "it is a rash" ([TEXT NOT
   ASCII]). It is pure, but the leprosy that protrudes from it and
   that it spreads to are not pure but impure. (27)

The homily is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning: "the rash--pure," "that has broken out--pure," and then the two occurrences of "it is," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which are read as demonstratives limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched. Sifra here is reading the verse, noticing its grammatical features, and assigning meaning to them. The homily is clearly not "vacuous."

This homily is not alone. Many other homilies Yadin-Israel brands as vacuous, tautological, or meaningless turn out not to be so. Yadin-Israel also tends to expand or contract the verse quoted in the homily, in the process obscuring the homily and its intent. Translations are also not always exact (see, e.g., 29). Additionally, I disagree with the author's use of philological data in chapter 7.

This book cogently and lucidly presents a well-formed thesis to be grappled with and critiqued. I highly recommend the book as an excellent starting point for a discussion of the texts and readings in the original, and for extensive scrutiny in graduate seminars and by advanced scholars of Midrash and Jewish exegesis.

Amit Gvaryahu

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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Author:Gvaryahu, Amit
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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