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The Iranian Talmud

October 15, 2013

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions recently posted
An Interview with Dr. Shai Secunda about The Iranian Talmud that I thought might be of interest to BLT readers, particularly including the historical review at the beginning of the post:

The contextual study of the Talmud has generally focused on the Greco-Roman historical context. Asher Gulak in the field of Mishpat Ivri compared Roman and Talmudic Law, Boaz Cohen as a Talmudist compared concepts, and historian Shaye Cohen of Harvard situates Rabbinic family law in Roman context. In contrast, Chief Rabbi Herzog rejected the very idea of comparison. However for many, there was a standoff for decades between Erwin R. Goodenough who saw Judaism entirely enculturated in pagan Greco-Roman culture and Saul Lieberman who limited the influence to legal terms. Now, with the turn to cultural studies, Daniel Boyarin and others return the field to situating Rabbinics as part of a Greco-cultural world.

But what of Babylonian influence on the Talmud? Technically, we are speaking of the Sasanian dynasty that took power from the Parthians in 226 CE. It was bureaucratically centered in Mesopotamia which had a majority of Aramaic speakers, including Jews, Christians, and Mandeans, but also a ruling Persian speaking population. Their religion was Zoroastrian. Most scholars of the Talmud only made brief note of the context, leaving the discussion mainly to those in the field of religion.

They either saw Zoroastrian religion as polluting the pure ethics of the prophets or a conduit of perennial wisdom. They attributed much of the worldview unique to the Babylonian Talmud to this influence, including Talmudic magic, sorcery, angelology, demons as well as menstruation and purity laws. They also noted that Adam and Eve in the Bavli reflect the Iranian Mashya (man) and Mashyana, the Iranian Adam (man) and Eve. R. C. Zaehner, a professor of Eastern religions, argues for Zoroastrianism’s direct influence on Jewish eschatological myths, especially the resurrection of the dead with rewards and punishments.

The Hungarian Alexander Kohut, who edited and vastly expanded the classic 11th-century talmudic dictionary, the Arukh, and filled it with Persian etymologies, and was fascinated by the world of Zoroastrian angelology and demonology, charted many correspondences between the Persian system and its Jewish counterpart. The Austrian talmudist Isaac Hirsch Weiss was drawn to parallels between Zoroastrianism and the Talmud; he listed a number of critical areas in which, he argued, the rabbis had adopted Persian practices. Just as interesting, in other places Weiss claimed to have found signs of resistance—instances in which rabbis established practices specifically as a means of precluding certain “Persianisms.”

Although “in general, the Iranian element has been relatively slighted,” this seems to be changing in recent years. In 1982, E. S. Rosenthal “urged the mastery of Middle Persian, the Sassanian lingua franca, as a gateway to Talmud study” (emphasis mine).
Dr. Secunda is publishing a book giving an introduction to the Iranian situated Talmud, titled The Iranian Talmud. This semester, he is teaching a class on Women, Ritual and Religion in Late Antique Judaism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His second book will be based on the topic of his dissertation, a study of the Babylonian rabbinic law of menstruation in relation to corresponding Zoroastrian texts, and he has a forthcoming article on Zoroastrian and Rabbinic ‘Genealogies’ of Menstruation: Medicine, Myth, and Misogyny. In an excerpt from this article, he observes that

The gender politics of textual production dictate that for the most part, ancient religious works which have survived into modern times were produced by and for men. When women are the subject of these texts, it is always through the male gaze. Hence female physiological processes, like menstruation, are often interpreted via male physiognomy, and the normative body is usually the male body. When we look at the way menstruation is depicted in male-authored texts, we find that at the very least the phenomenon is a source of wonder, if not always revulsion and misogyny.

For Sasanian rabbis and Zorasterian dadwars, menstruation was a physiological phenomenon accompanied by a set of prohibitions and purification practices.

Do click through to read the interview, in which Dr. Secunda discusses what the Iranian context adds to the study of the Babylonian Talmud, how his approach relates to Gemara and halakha, the relationship between the Talmud, Sasanian law, and Greco-Roman law, the inclusion of feminist perspectives in the study of rabbinic texts, and more.

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