“Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities” by Mira Beth Wasserman— Operating Within the Larger Community

Wasserman, Mira Beth. “Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities”, University of Pennsylvania Press  2017.

 Operating  Within the Larger Community

Amos Lassen

Mira Beth Wasserman in “Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals” gives 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. This tractate has brought intense controversy with the Christian Church because of its negative representation of non-Jews and this has often served as a basis for the Church’s censorship and persecution of Jewish communities during pre-modern times. Wasserman explores how the tractate might be best understood as part of a broader Jewish concern with how all humanity is interconnected.

Like the ancient text, Wasserman has divided her book into five chapters. Wasserman presents 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. She goes on to suggest that the narrative portions of this chapter actually deal with sex, death, ritual, and aspirations for life beyond the grave as parts shared by all people. In this way, she undermines the prohibitions that are given as prohibitions against these interreligious business transactions.

Wasserman looks at the issue of libation wine. Here the Talmud is about how to deal with wine that has been owned or handled by non-Jews, and is thus unfit for Jewish use. She 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 tractate then moves from constructing boundaries between Jews and non-Jews to delineations between rabbis and other Jews. Wasserman deconstructs the Talmud’s values hierarchy and puts Torah scholarship at the height of rabbinic importance, over the distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This is not a book for everyone as it requires an understanding of rabbinic literature and an awareness of the language of the Talmud and literary theory as well as the ability.

“Avoda Zara” is one of the Talmud’s most difficult tractates because of its topic and Wasserman does an excellent job of uncovering what is there as well as presenting a new way of reading the Talmud that brings it into the humanities, including animal studies, materialism and critical theory. We see “Avoda Zara” as an attempt to reflect on what all people share in common, and how humans fit into a larger universe of animals and things. In the past, it has been seen as a guide to Jewish-Christian relations and because of this Christian authorities often censored it. Wasserman has developed a twenty-first-century reading of it that sees it as part of a broader quest to understand what connects human beings to each other and to the world.

Although the words “avodah zara” mean “strange worship”, the tractate hardly deals with idolatry. We get a redefinition of the word “goy” which once meant nations. Under the new definition, the ancient rabbis divided the world into Jews and gentiles and each law presented is based on “a binary opposition between Jews and all other people.” The tractate shows the differences between different categories of gentiles.

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