When Dr. Jonathan Milgram of Teaneck set out to write his first book, he didn’t expect to discover an ancient rabbinic tradition at odds with settled Jewish law – especially not one about inheritance by daughters.I noted his book here when it came out last month. One of its conclusions:
Dr. Milgram, 44, is associate professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. His dissertation at Bar Ilan University had been a detailed textual analysis of the eighth chapter of tractate Bechorot in the Babylonian Talmud. When JTS hired him for a tenure track position in 2007, it was time for him to start thinking about a new research project. After all, it is publishing — more than teaching — that ensures a professor’s professional standing. Rather than revisit his doctorate, he looked for a new topic to investigate.
That research, in a book called “From Mesopotamia to the Mishnah: Tannaitic Inheritance Law in its Legal and Social Contexts,” was published this summer. The word “tannaitic” in its title refers to the rabbis of the time of the Mishnah, from the second and third centuries of the common era. The book analyzes the main areas of inheritance law in the Mishnah and other tannaitic works in light of earlier and contemporaneous legal cultures, from ancient Mesopotamian to Roman. It also compares the Mishnah’s prescribed rules with the actual practices of ancient Jews as recorded in Judean desert papyri that survived the centuries.
“The tannaitic tradition’s richness cannot be overlooked by anyone who studies the literature seriously,” he said. “The variety of opinions preserved in rabbinic disputes demonstrates the coexistence of competing traditions in tannaitic times. What academic Talmud study adds is another layer: by employing specific critical tools it uncovers more variety and, therefore, a more complex richness to be appreciated.”
In this case, the results of that analysis, he writes, is that in the time of the Mishnah there existed “a tradition promoting the division of equal inheritance for daughters, even in the presence of sons,” albeit, in the final edited Mishnah, a concealed tradition.
That tradition of equal inheritance, Dr. Milgram believes, was “camouflaged” by being joined with a teaching about the bequests of fathers and mothers. In the later Talmuds, similar traditions of equal inheritance for sons and daughters were attributed to gentiles and heretics.