Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Redfield on Rabbinic ethnography

ANCIENT JEW REVIEW: Curiouser and Curiouser: In Search of Rabbinic Ethnography (James Redfield).

The essay is on the genesis and development of his PhD dissertation: "The Sages and the World: Categorizing Culture in Early Rabbinic Law." Stanford University (Religious Studies), 2017.

Excerpt from the essay:
The Mishnah, in its typically terse and declarative style, does not develop this description of wedding practices. Nor does it portray villagers called to testify that they remember the crunch of roast wheat, the hymn at a bridal procession, or the sheen of a bride’s hair. Yet as the text reading evoked those images, it expanded my preconceptions of “law” to a far wider variety of things, people, practices, and modes of thought. If legal language falls on a spectrum from purely normative to thickly descriptive–from Do’s & Don’ts, on one end; to what we really do, on the other–then I came to see rabbinic law as closer to the latter (especially in the associative, generically hodgepodge Tosefta; the Talmuds; and “minor tractates”; not to mention the rabbinic “wisdom” traditions of sayings, exempla, and anecdotes). Early rabbis did not simply lay down rulings by fiat or tradition, but cited real-world evidence to prove or exemplify their propositions. On the contrary, as they debated what one should (not) do, they took many roundabout detours to study, describe, and classify what people were actually doing; driven by a desire to develop their normative theories, of course, but also by a degree of curiosity in its own right.

Are there patterns among these descriptive detours, the rabbit-holes of the rabbinic imagination? Do they point to consistent interests? Retrace stock motifs and techniques? How can we map their interconnections, and how are they linked to normative projects–broadly defined–at the nerve-center of this rabbinic canon?

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