Sunday, December 27, 2015

The AJS annual meeting

REPORT: Connecting the dots. Association for Jewish Studies convention offers food for thought (Larry Yudelson, Jewish Standard/Times of Israel).
If your idea of a good time is hearing someone explain at length the connections between the treasures of King Tut’s tomb and the biblical ark of the covenant, you should have been in Boston last week for the annual convention of the Association of Jewish Studies.

I was there. And yes, I had a blast.

The meeting was held in Boston on December 13-15. This is a long report by a well-informed nonspecialist on some papers on Rabbinic and Second Temple Judaism. Excerpt:
A key difference between academic Jewish studies — a field barely 200 years old — and traditional yeshiva studies is that academics look not just at what the texts (the Torah, the Talmud, the midrashim) say but asks: How did those texts fit into the broader picture of the Jewish community of that era? How much do they represent the reality of their era, as opposed to what the authors wanted to be true? How does other historical evidence mesh with those texts? And when were those texts written anyway?

The central problem in these lines of inquiry is there isn’t all that much other evidence. Like paleontologists deducing a species of dinosaur from the shape of a fossilized jawbone, academic Jewish scholars are trying to recreate a world from bits and pieces (and sometimes, in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, actual scraps of parchment). If you visualize pre-modern Jewish history as a timeline, then you might put 1500 B.C.E. on the far left — that’s about when the Bible dates the Exodus — and the invention of printing around 1500 C.E. on the right. For most of this period, scholars have occasional points of evidence, but there are huge gaps. Some of the points on the timeline are the traditional Jewish texts: biblical books, Mishna, Talmud, medieval responsa. Other points are archaeological evidence: ancient inscriptions, buildings, utensils, animal bones. (The latter show, among other things, whether the inhabitants of a certain place at a certain time did or did not eat pork.) Then there is the evidence of books and texts that didn’t become part of the Jewish tradition. Some of those were written but not preserved by Jews — this includes books kept as part of Christian editions of the Bible; writers like the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who didn’t write in Hebrew, and those texts that happened to be preserved alongside Biblical scrolls in the dry caves of Qumran at the shores of the Dead Sea. And finally, there are those books written by non-Jews that give insight into Jewish histories, whether they are Christian church fathers describing their debates with Jews or Babylonian books from the time of the Talmudic sages.

Faced with three or four dots that more or less line up, the temptation is to connect them into a pretty picture. For a professor seeking renown and career advancement, that’s pretty mandatory. The danger, though, is that someone will discover a dot that was overlooked — and that shows the pretty picture didn’t capture all the dots; a theory that overlooked the evidence. So there is a tension between the desire to innovate and the fear of sticking out your not-yet-tenured neck.