Nar­rat­ing the Law: A Poet­ics of Tal­mu­dic Legal Stories

  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
It is well known that the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud con­tains a range of dif­fer­ent texts, from legal dic­ta to mag­i­cal incan­ta­tions. Peo­ple tend either to read the whole thing through with­out ques­tion­ing how it all fits togeth­er, or else to focus only on the type of lit­er­a­ture that inter­ests them. The wave of crit­i­cal lit­er­ary analy­sis of the Tal­mud that has been pro­duced in the past two decades has, for the most part, focused on the non­le­gal nar­ra­tives often known as Aggadah. Halakhah, the legal aspects of the Tal­mud, has remained the ter­ri­to­ry of more tra­di­tion­al and philo­log­i­cal­ly mind­ed schol­ars. This vol­ume aims to break down these dis­tinc­tions between law and nar­ra­tive and between lit­er­ary and tex­tu­al analy­sis. Bar­ry Wimpfheimer’s book exam­ines legal nar­ra­tives, sto­ries that appear in the Tal­mud as part of a legal dis­cus­sion and which are osten­si­bly meant to illus­trate a legal prin­ci­ple as it was applied in an actu­al case. Apply­ing insights from lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and soci­ol­o­gy to the Tal­mud is no mean feat, but Wimpfheimer accom­plish­es this with ele­gance. These tools help him demon­strate how these sto­ries work in the con­text of the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud, show­ing the some­times sub­tle effect they can have on the legal impli­ca­tions of the text. This is one of the most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to Tal­mu­dic schol­ar­ship in recent years, and it has great rel­e­vance for any­one inter­est­ed in the appli­ca­tion of con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cal the­o­ry to ancient texts.

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