Jews, Gen­tiles, and Oth­er Ani­mals: The Tal­mud After the Humanities

Mira Beth Wasserman

  • Review
By – November 16, 2017

In Jews, Gen­tiles, and Oth­er Ani­mals, Mira Beth Wasser­man, a pro­fes­sor of rab­binic lit­er­a­ture at the Recon­struc­tion­ist Rab­bini­cal Col­lege, offers a close, con­tem­po­rary read­ing of Avo­da Zara, the Talmud’s trac­tate that explores how the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty should oper­ate with­in the larg­er, non-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. His­tor­i­cal­ly, this trac­tate has sparked intense con­tro­ver­sy with the Chris­t­ian Church, which under­stood the tractate’s neg­a­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of non-Jews as direct­ed against them; this assump­tion often served as a basis for the Church’s cen­sor­ship and per­se­cu­tion of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties through­out the pre­mod­ern age. How­ev­er, Wasser­man explores how the trac­tate might be best under­stood not as an extend­ed polemic against cross-cul­tur­al inter­ac­tion, but rather as part of a broad­er Jew­ish con­cern with how all of human­i­ty is interconnected.

The struc­ture of Wasserman’s book par­al­lels that of Avo­da Zara. Like the ancient text, it is divid­ed into five chap­ters. In chap­ter one, Wasser­man uti­lizes the work of lit­er­ary crit­ic Mikhail Bakhtin to exam­ine Avo­da Zara’s first chap­ter, a rab­binic con­sid­er­a­tion of the dif­fer­ences between Jews and non-Jews, shared through a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of the laws that reg­u­late finan­cial exchanges between these com­mu­ni­ties. At the same time, Wasser­man sug­gests that the nar­ra­tive por­tions of this chap­ter point to mate­r­i­al embod­i­ment, sex, death, rit­u­al, and aspi­ra­tions for life beyond the grave as salient aspects of human expe­ri­ence that all peo­ple share in com­mon,” there­by under­min­ing the chapter’s pro­hi­bi­tions against these inter­re­li­gious busi­ness transactions.

Wasserman’s third chap­ter address­es the issue of yeyn nesekh, liba­tion wine, which is also the sub­ject of the third chap­ter of the Avo­da Zara. Here the Tal­mud address­es how to deal with wine that has been owned or han­dled by non-Jews, and has con­se­quent­ly been declared unfit for Jew­ish use. How­ev­er, Wasser­man again sub­verts this straight­for­ward read­ing and iden­ti­fies a rab­binic unease with jus­ti­fy­ing a clear-cut divi­sion between these com­mu­ni­ties, as the edi­tors of the Tal­mud iden­ti­fy the laws gov­ern­ing the use of Gen­tile wine as a rab­binic inno­va­tion, insti­tut­ed for the sake of impos­ing dif­fer­ence when none would oth­er­wise exist.”

The focus of the Avo­da Zara shifts from con­struct­ing bound­aries between Jews and non-Jews to delin­eations between rab­bis and oth­er Jews in its fifth chap­ter. Sim­i­lar­ly, chap­ter five of Jews, Gen­tiles, and Oth­er Ani­mals decon­structs the Talmud’s val­ues hier­ar­chy, plac­ing Torah schol­ar­ship at the height of rab­binic impor­tance, over the dis­tinc­tion between Jews and non-Jews. Wasser­man high­lights this through a close read­ing of a nar­ra­tive sec­tion about King Sha­pur, a non-Jew…valorized for his embrace of Torah, even as a Jew is dis­par­aged.” Fit­ting­ly, this final chap­ter is titled The Last Laugh,” which serves as both a sub­ti­tle to the King Sha­pur nar­ra­tive itself, and a recog­ni­tion that the Tal­mud over­turns its pre­vi­ous argu­ments to den­i­grate non-Jews when the non-Jew in ques­tion is a stu­dent of Jew­ish life.

Jews, Gen­tiles, and Oth­er Ani­mals is a chal­leng­ing read that requires more than a basic under­stand­ing of rab­binic lit­er­a­ture. A sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the nuanced lan­guage of the Tal­mud, a com­fort with gen­er­al lit­er­ary the­o­ry, and the abil­i­ty to close­ly read Jew­ish texts is crit­i­cal to under­stand­ing Wasserman’s analy­sis. Still, the author does an excel­lent job of mak­ing a com­plex sub­ject acces­si­ble to a read­er ded­i­cat­ed to explor­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing, and at times con­tro­ver­sial, sem­i­nal text of Jew­ish thought.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions