Review of Holger Michael Zellentin, Rabbinic Parodies of Jewish and Christian Literature

I’m grateful to Mohr Siebeck for having sent me a free review copy of Holger Michael Zellentin’s new book, Rabbinic Parodies of Jewish & Christian Literature (Texts & Studies in Ancient Judaism, 139). Anyone who studies ancient religious literature is bound to have come across stories which seem amusing and/or satirical. But determining when stories were intended to be funny, across a gulf of linguistic, historical and cultural difference, is challenging indeed. Zellentin offers a persuasive case for the presence of parody in a selection of passages in Rabbinic literature, and looks at how they reflect the use of parody to criticize both those within and those outside the sphere of Rabbinic Judaism. Zellentin defines three sorts of Rabbinic parody: intra-rabbinic (targeting the same text in which the parody is offered), inter-rabbinic (between different groups or communities of rabbis) and external parodies (targeting non-rabbinic groups) (pp.25-26).

The book’s introduction addresses some necessary preliminaries, such as the meaning of “parody” and some of the aspects which make it challenging to “get” ancient humor. A clear example from the Jerusalem Talmud is provided as an illustration, in the form a story involving rabbis visiting Babylonia from Palestine, who intentionally misquote Scripture to make their point.

Chapter one looks at the rabbinic treatment of the matter of a cat which had been borrowed and which, while on loan, was killed by mice. The scenario is relatively easy to identify as humorous, but Zellentin shows that there is more going on than mere absurdity. In a first instance, the mice ganged up on the cat and killed it, and the principle is cited in relation to such a situation that, in the case of “a man whom women killed – there is neither judge nor judgment.” In a second instance, it was that the cat had eaten many mice, and became sick and died. The same dictum is cited: “A man whom women killed – there is neither judge nor judgment.” And so we are given to understand that in the first instance, it is a case of “insufficient masculinity,” while in the latter, excessive virility, since it is clear that the cat’s overindulgence in mice is being compared to a man killed not by women doing violence to him, but as a consequence of promiscuity (pp. 27-32).

The parody runs deeper than this, however. The discussion of these cases, in neither of which is the borrower of the cat held culpable for its death, leads to a discussion of cases involving lending by teachers and other professionals. Rava’s students suggest that he is loaned to them, a suggestion which would rob him of monetary compensation, and this angers him. Zellentin notes that when the two discussions are placed together in the Talmud, it becomes clear that Rava and the student “rebellion” is being compared to the mice who rebel and overpower the cat. There is thus a satire within the parody, as fun is poked at not only unlikely cases involving cats, but also a teacher and his students. Rava’s failure to come up with a clever rabbinic-style response to his students is a shortcoming on his part, but the editor of the story makes matters right by offering just such a solution in the end.

Chapter two focuses on a temperance sermon in Wayiqra Rabbah. The sermon is unusual in it’s condemnation of all drinking, and its confident placement of the blame for Nadav and Avihu’s deaths on alcohol consumption alone. The sermon is parodied through the inclusion of a story involving children who try to get rid of their father, whose drinking habits cost them money. When their plan backfires, they end up committing to pay for his drinking habit in perpetuity. Zellentin sees in this complex of material not only a rabbinic satire of an extreme stance towards alcohol consumption, but also a parody of the sort of view found among Encratite Christians. The combination of the tea-totaler stance of the sermon and the perpetual drinking of the story combine to reinforce the rabbinic approach which emphasizes moderation and balance.

Chapter 3 I found particularly fascinating, as I have been working on the story in chapter 18 of the Mandaean Book of John, which features a dream that serves as a portent of the birth of John the Baptist. In this chapter, Zellentin examines the story of Bar Hedya, a dream interpreter who gave favorable interpretations to the dreams of those who paid him, and unfavorable to those who did not. This story from the Babylonian Talmud is seen as a parody of the doctrine (and stories reflecting it) emphasized in the Jerusalem Talmud, that the meaning of dreams follows the interpretation given to it by the interpreter, a principle open to abuse of the sort illustrated by the Bar Hedya story. The resolution of the story is full of parodic irony, as Bar Hedya meets a fate that more literally reflects details in the dreams he interpreted.

In chapter 4, Zellentin turns to the first of two parodies aimed at Christians. In a story about Rabban Gamaliel and his sister, Imma Shalom, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer, the siblings go to a “philosopher” seeking solution of a dispute. Imma Shalom gave a lamp to him as a bribe. The philosopher cites the ‘awon-gylayon (a pun on the Greek word euangelion, “Gospel”) as allowing a daughter to inherit even if there is also a son, thus deciding in her favor. Rabban Gamaliel offers a bigger bribe, a Libyan donkey, citing the Law of Moses (which does not allow a daughter to inherit in such instances) as well as the Gospel saying that “I did not come to reduce the Law of Moses.” The philosopher then reversed his decision, saying that the donkey kicked over the lamp. In addition to parodying the word for “Gospel” and making fun of a “philosopher” who is a Christian and yet swayed by bribes, Zellentin suggests that the ending of the story alludes to the anti-Christian polemic which claimed that at Christian love feasts, a lamp would be kicked over, signaling the start of orgiastic behavior in the darkness.

In chapter 5, the story of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai and his sojourn in a cave is treated as a parody of Christian ascetic practices. The main character and his son spend time hiding and eating inedible carob, but out of concern about unspecified disturbances and not out of ascetic motives. Rabbi Simeon also deals with the matter of the purity of Tiberias (built on a burial site). Not only does his concern for such a matter set him and Rabbinic Judaism apart from Christianity, but in his controvsies with others, he is presented as outperforming Jesus on the miracle front by simultaneously restoring a corpse to life while turning his opponent into a corpse.

This brief overview does not do justice to the book’s careful and well-argued treatment of the challenging yet incredibly rewarding topic of parody in Rabbinic literature. Zellentin aims for precision as well as breadth, and whether one is interested in Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, or other religions in their context such as the Mandaeans, one will find much that is of value and interest in this volume.

Zellentin notes that the rabbis do not speak of “Christianity” in so many words, and that, even if they had, what they meant by Christianity in their time would be a rather different phenomenon or set of phenomena from what the term conjures up in our minds. And it was precisely because there was still some overlap between “Judaism” and “Christianity” as well as diversity within both spheres, that the rabbis felt the need to parody and in other ways satirize and polemicize against the views of others. For students of the New Testament, the book provides an interesting perspective on how non-Christians interacted with Christians, how they perceived their literature, what they knew of it, and how they viewed it. And so the book offers a study that covers not only the reception history of the Jewish Scriptures and of Rabbinic tradition, but also of the New Testament.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient Rabbinic Judaism or the other traditions with which it intersected and interacted in ancient Babylonia and Palestine.

  • Jared Calaway

    Sounds great.  Too bad it is nearly $200.  I don’t know why, but I am very fond of Rabbinic literature.  I find most of Genesis hilarious, by the way.

  • Jared Calaway

    Sounds great.  Too bad it is nearly $200.  I don’t know why, but I am very fond of Rabbinic literature.  I find most of Genesis hilarious, by the way.

  • http://wearethestories.wordpress.com Eric Gregory

    James:

    I referred to this post on my own blog: http://wearethestories.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/holy-satiric-tradition/

  • http://wearethestories.wordpress.com Eric Gregory

    James:

    I referred to this post on my own blog: http://wearethestories.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/holy-satiric-tradition/

  • Pingback: Eric Gregory

  • Guest

    You neglected to mention the book’s price.  Surely with a book priced at $200 that’s a major fact that should be included in any review?

  • Guest

    You neglected to mention the book’s price.  Surely with a book priced at $200 that’s a major fact that should be included in any review?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Guest, the price is typical for this publisher and European academic presses in general, so it didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. But I w of course assuming, as the publisher also must, that books like this will generally be purchased by libraries rather than individuals.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Guest, the price is typical for this publisher and European academic presses in general, so it didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. But I w of course assuming, as the publisher also must, that books like this will generally be purchased by libraries rather than individuals.


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