The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture

By Robert Brody

 

Introduction

One of the most misunderstood issues in the traditional Jewish religious world is the transmission of the legal traditions of Israel. Today all centers of religious learning view the transmission of the Toráh from a particular prism that was developed in Central Europe during the Middle Ages. One of the central beliefs of the Central European approach is that their brand of post-Talmudic rabbis carried on with the unbroken chain of the Oral traditions that goes back to Moses. Post-Talmudic rabbis are those who followed the closing of the Talmudic Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita in the 5th century, whose academic and jurisprudential lineage goes back to the schools at Yabnéh, in Israel, following the crushing Roman conquest of Judea in the beginning of the 2nd century of our era.

What divides the transmission before and after is the central fact that the Rabbis who gave closure to the “text” of the Gemaráh in the 5th c. (Rabiná and Rab Ashé) also stopped the transmission of the judicial ordination, or semikháh, issue that is not only recorded in the Talmud, but also prominently mentioned in Maimónides introduction to his Mishnéh Toráh (29 and 32). Most medieval Central European communities did not maintain the latter, and its tradition—which now has become dominant—believes Rabbinical ordination did continue to our days. This has affected Jewish unity, particularly among Ashkenazim, in two important ways: One, it gave rise to competing factions, and therefore ensuing divisions in world Jewry; and two, it gave the unordained-unnofficial rabbi a cultic status of unprecedented authority that no real Judge of Israel’s highest court, the Beth Din haGadol, since the days of Joshua ever had. This approach has completely violated the once democratic and check-and-balances methodologies of the Rabbinic tradition, and its multi-layered seek-finding approach to Jewish jurisprudence.

The two consequent ideas that are drilled in the hearts and minds of the modern Yeshiva student, regardless of Orthodox denomination, are that the chain of transmission is continued and determined by whoever happens to be the “dominant” rabbi of our age, and his sole authority is the zenith of the chain of transmission. Each Orthodox denomination has its champion: Schneur Zalman of Liadi for Chabad and Joseph B. Soloveitchik for the Modern Orthodox, for example. Modern Yeshiva culture generally refers to this way of relating to the ultimate authority as “the Gedolim.”Toráh observant Jews who decry this practice refer to it as “Gadolatry,”a combination of the word Gadol and Idolatry.

Outside Abraham ibn Daud’s (circa 1110-1180) Sefer haQabbaláh, the Jewish people did not have much on how to objectively assess the chain of transmission between the Talmudic period and the later Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. The heirs of the Talmudic academies were the Ge‘oním, whose influence lasted from the 6th to the 10th centuries, and to whom both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions claim their direct Rabbinic heritage.

The discovery of the Cairo Genizáh, which preserved tens of thousands of documents from the Geonic era, presents a watershed challenge to the ahistorical Central European divisive and authoritarian-vertical approach of Jewish tradition, and vindicates the text-centered horizontal approach of Sephardic rabbis of Muslim Andalusia, chiefly among them Maimonides, whose work has been continued by the still much unappreciated Haham José Faur. The following quotes that I have extracted from Professor Brody’s book The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture shows how the Geonic tradition really functioned, and crushes the many central myths of rabbinic authority and transmission maintained by the Yeshiva culture of our days.

DR

“One crucial point concerns the so-called kallah months of Adar (February/March) and Elul (August/September). It was only during these months that the academies functioned at full strength qua academies, in the sense that many students were in attendance. During the rest of the year they were occupied only by a nucleus of senior scholars and (probably) professional staff, while the majority of the students returned to their homes and studied on their own. This system, which in all probability dates back to the Amoraic period, allowed students to earn their living while pursuing their studies; these particular months were probably chosen because there was no urgent agricultural work to be performed then.” (p. 43)

‘(W)e know that not all tractates of the Babylonian Talmud were included in the curriculum of the academies. Our best source for this matter is a unique Genizah fragment which lists the tractates studied and the number of chapters in each. Partial confirmation of the information contained in this list is to be found in several other sources, particularly in responsa which attest that the tractate Nedarim was not regularly studied in the academy and that this situation already prevailed in the time of Yehudaii Gaon (mid-eighth century). The factors governing the choice of tractates included in the curriculum are obscure, but the tractates which were excluded have peculiar dialectical and terminological features which differentiate them from the bulk of the Talmud. It seems clear that this correlation is significant, but it is difficult to establish a clear cause-effect relationship. A possible explanation is that certain tractates were omitted from the curriculum because of their esoteric subject matter, and their linguistic pecularities reflect the fact that they were transmitted by other circles rather that through the mainstream channels responsible for the transmission of most tractates.” (p. 45)

“A large section of Rabbi Nathan’s (the Babylonian) account is devoted to the actual sessions conducted during the kallah month:

‘And when the head of the Academy wants to examine them concerning their study texts (girsa), they gather around him in the four Sabbaths (i.e. weeks) of the month of Adar, and he sits and the first row recites before him, and the other rows sit silently. And when they reach a point which is obscure to them, they discuss it between themselves and the head of the academy listens to them and understands their words. Then he reads (qore) and they are silent, and they know that he had understood their dispute. And when he finishes his reading, he recites and expounds the tractate which each of them recited at home during the winter and explains in the course of his exposition the point which the students have debated. And sometimes he asks them the explanation of laws… and expatiates to them on the meaning of each law, until all are clear to them…. Thus they did all the days of the month.

And in the fourth Sabbath, they call all the Sanhedrin and all the students, and the head of the academy examines each of them and investigates them until he sees which one is of quicker intelligence than his fellow. And when he sees one of them whose Talmud is not well ordered in his mouth, he deals harshly with him and reduces his stipend and rebukes and reprimands him, and informs him of the places where he has been lazy and negligent and warns him that if he does so again and fails to pay attention to his Talmud, he will be given nothing.

And this was their custom regarding responsa to questions: on each day of Adar he brings out to them all the questions which have arrived and gives them permission to respond… Then each one speaks according to his understanding and wisdom, and they raise difficulties and resolve them and discuss each matter and analyze it thoroughly. And the head of the academy hears their words… and analyzes their words until the truth is clear to him and immediately orders the scribe to write in response… And at the end of the month they read the responsa and questions in the presence of the entire fellowship and the head of the academy signs them, and then they are sent to their addresses. And then he divides the money among them.’ (p. 46)

“The procedure by which a Gaon was selected, on the demise or incapacity of the incumbent, remains obscure. Our chief source for this matter is Sherira’s Epistle, from which it appears that the crucial factor was the consensus of the scholars who made up the core of the academy if they were unable to agree on any candidate, as we have seen, the academy was sometimes split for years. In some cases we are told that the Exilarch was instrumental in the appointment of a Gaon… The choice would presumably have been based in principle on intellectual distinction and leadership, but considerations of seniority and family alliances may well have played a part.” (pp. 52, 53)

“… many legal innovations of the Geonic period concern court procedure. Not all of them, so far as we can tell, were initiated by the Geonim, but in any event their dissemination must have been greatly facilitated by the subordination of judges throughout a given reshut to the central authority of the Gaon or Exhilarch. When it came to communities outside his sphere of hegemony, the Gaon might cajole or persuade, but he had no means of enforcing any innovations of which he approved, whatever its precise legal status.” (p. 64)

“The Geonic academies shared the leadership of Babylonian Jewry with another institution of ancient vintage: the Exilarchate. The roots of this office go back hundreds of years before the Muslim conquest, probably to the Parthian period and certainly to Sasanian times… The essence of the system developed by the Iranian monarchs and adopted by the Muslim caliphs was the designation of an official representative to mediate between the members of an important religious minority and the central government. The Nestorian Christian minority was represented by the Catholicos, the Jewish minority by the Exilarch.” (p. 67)

“As might be expected, the authority of officials such as the Exilarch or Catholicos depended on their recognition, both by the communities they represented and by the Muslim authorities. It seems clear that they were chosen by the members of their own religious communities and that the appointment required the official confirmation of the caliph.” (p. 68)

“In contrast to their Christian contemporaries, however, the leading members of the Jewish community had quite limited scope when it came to choosing an Exilarch, for it was essentially a hereditary position. A large part of the prestige attached to this office within the Jewish world depended on its holder’s claims to represent the continuation of the ancient monarchic dynasty founded by King David, through his descendant King Jehoiachin, who was exiled to Babylonia at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. The claim of Davidic descent probably accompanied the Exilarchate from very early times, and paralleled this similar claim advanced in favor of the Patriarch in Palestine… Nevertheless, as Rabbi Nathan’s account would suggest, the transmission of the office of Exilarch cannot have been strictly hereditary, because we are informed of several instances in which there was more than one contender for the position; it appears that communal leaders were entitled to select the most suitable candidate from among the members of the Exilarchic family and that the Geonim played a prominent part not only in the ceremonies marking the accession of the new Exilarc but also in the selection process.” (p. 70)

“As a general rule, the Exilarchs and the Geonim seem to have been able to cooperate quite successfully in conducting the affairs of the Jewish community. Their coexistence was probably facilitated by the double division of authority which prevailed during the period: on the other hand, the geographical division between spheres of hegemony (the reshuyot); and on the other, the expectation that the Exilarch would provide intellectual and spiritual leadership. It is noteworthy that we hear nothing of disagreements between these two types of leaders on questions of principle or ideology.” (p. 75)

“Talmudic literature and archaeological evidence strongly suggest that many Jews in the first centuries after the destruction, in Palestine and Babylonia as well as in the Hellenistic diaspora, behaved in ways unacceptable to the rabbis; but there is no suggestion of an organized opposition to rabbinic ideology.

In the Geonic period, on the other hand, we hear of several organized movements which arose in opposition to the rabbinic mainstream. Our sources describe — albeit in very little detail — several such movements which arose in the first half of the eighth century; some of them continued to exist, if not flourish, for two hundred years or more. These groups had a number of things in common, including charismatic leaders with Messianic pretensions, which in some cases were restricted to the claim of a new religious dispensation and were without political overtones. So far as we know, all of them developed on the periphery of the Jewish world rather than in the centers of Palestine or Babylonia; Persia played a prominent role as the home of two Messianic pretenders, Abu ‘Isa of Isfahan and Yudghan of Hamadan…Some of these groups are said to have abolished many of the biblical commandments, but most apparently contented themselves with a denial of rabbinic authority.” (p. 84)

“Lacking any agreed authority — whether in the form of a body of tradition, an individual author, or an institution empowered to issue binding rulings — the early Karaites were extremely individualistic in their approach to legal questions. Jacob al-Qirqisani, who was active in the first half of the tenth century, wrote two major works, in Arabic: a legal code entitled The Book of Lights and Watchtowers, and a commentary on the nonlegal portions of the Pentateuch entitled The Book of Gardens and Parks. The first book of his code is our most important source for the history of the early Karaites’ inability in his time to agree among themselves and of the motives he imputed to many of the disputants. In addition to remarking that ‘of those present-day Karaites who are not members of the schools we have mentioned, you will hardly find two of them who agree on everything.” (p. 90)

“Talmudic literature provides us with abundant, if unsystematic, information concerning the existence and functioning of rabbinic academies in Palestine during the periods of the Tanna’im and Amora’im (approximately 70 – 350 C.E.). From about the middle of the fourth century until the ninth, however, our sources offer almost no direct evidence of any rabbinic academies that operated in Palestine. With regard to the ninth century the available sources are somewhat more promising, but they remain extremely fragmentary.” (p. 101)

“The head of the Palestinian academy was recognized by the Fatimid authorities as the official representative of the Jewish community in the area known as reshut, comprising Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, in temporal as well as in religious matters.” (p. 102)

“The prestige of the Palestinian academy depended to a large extent on its location in the Holy Land and its claim to continue the ancient Palestinian institutions of Jewish leadership. Although it had probably been located in Tiberias in the earlier period, by the second half of the tenth century the academy had relocated to Jerusalem.” (p. 103)

“The history of the Palestinian academy was marked by a series of struggles between factions and contenders for leadership, both within the academy itself and in the broader Jewish community, struggles which may be interpreted in large part as reflecting the rise and decline of competing Jewish centers.” (p. 104)

“The cultural landscape of Palestinian Jewry in general and o the circles associated with its central academy in particular was significantly different from that which prevailed in Babylonia and especially in the Geonic academies… The cultural elite of Babylonian (Rabbanite) Jewry before the advent of Se’adyah concentrated almost exclusively, as far as we can tell, on the study of talmudic sources and their practical application. In Palestine the situation was profoundly different in several respects. The spheres of intellectual and cultural activity were much broader than in Babylonia, and talmudic learning appears to have played a much smaller role. This emphasis is strikingly reflected in the overwhelming concentration, in the dozen of letters by Palestinian Geonim which have survived, on administrative and political matters rather than the legal and talmudic questions which dominate the writings of the Babylonian Geonim. Furthermore, the Palestinian Geonic academy itself seems to have occupied a much less central place in the local intellectual scene than its Babylonian counterparts. Very little of the literature produced in Palestine during the Geonic era can be connected with any degree of confidence to the central academy. In addition, the Karaites played a central role in the religious and cultural life of Palestinian Jewry and to some extent may be said to have cast the activities of their Rabbanite brethren into the shade.” (pp. 105-106)

“Perhaps the most important vehicle of creative self-expression among the Rabbinite Jews of Palestine was the writing of piyyut, or liturgical poetry. The multiplication of poetic liturgies alongside the ancient prose prayers was, in all probability, a prominent characteristic of Palestinian piety already in talmudic times… Later the centers of poetic composition shifted to Europe, but the genre remained heavily indebted to its Palestinian origins in a variety of ways.” (p. 106)

“Another area of activity, which overlaps to some extent with that of liturgical poetry, is the field of midrash. The poets appear to have adapted some of their commonest techniques from those prevalent in midrashic literature… The history of the redaction for the extant midrashic compilations is quite obscure, but the scholarly consensus is the classical collections were produced in Palestine during the Savoraic and Geonic periods. There is, however, no evidence that the academy of the Palestinian Gaon played any role in this undertaking.” (p. 108)

“Our earliest direct evidence of conflict between the Palestinian and Babylonian centers in the post-talmudic period is provided by perhaps the most piquant literary work of the Geonic era: an open letter addressed by one Pirqoy b. Baboy to the Jewish communities of North Africa and Spain. The author identifies himself as a disciple of a disciple of Yehudai Gaon, head of the Sura academy about 760, and on this basis is assumed to have written his pamphlet at about the turn of the ninth century… In the author’s view, the continuity of Palestinian tradition was fatally compromised as a result of Christian persecutions about 500 years before his time. By the time the situation of Palestinian Jewry improved, after the Muslim conquest in 634, the links of living tradition had been irreparably lost, and attempts to restore it on the basis of fragmentary written sources were doomed to failure. Palestinian practice in his time thus represented for Pirqoy an amalgamation of customs adopted as emergency measures during times of persecution with others resulting from ignorance and a break in tradition. Only in Babylonia had the living tradition been preserved without interruption.” (p. 113, 114)

“Pirqoy places considerable rhetorical talents at the service of his ideology. The body of his work, after an introduction devoted to praise the Oral Law and the ‘historical’ introduction just summarized, consists of a series of scathing attacks on several Palestinian customs, ranging from such central item of Palestinian culture as the use of liturgical poetry to such seemingly trivial matters as the custom of circumcising babies over sand rather than over a basin of water as was customary in Babylonia.” (p. 114).

“The superior attitude of Babylonian Jews — whether they remained in Babylonia or migrated to Palestine — and their aggressive attempts to impose their customs on the native Jewish community of Palestine are thus alleged to have begun no later than the middle of the eighth century; and although Pirqoy’s version of earlier history is highly suspect, these aspects of his account are probably accurate, at least in their essentials.” (p. 116)

“Our sources shed very little light on the arguments raised by the indigenous Palestinian community in its attempts to defend itself against the incursion of Babylonian tradition. Our only information bearing directly on the early period is provided by a further passage from Pirqoy’s tract: ‘Furthermore, he (Yehudai Gaon) wrote to Palestine concerning… all the precepts in which they act not according to halakhah but according to the customs of persecution (minhag shemad), but they did not accept (this) from him, and they sent to him: *Custom overrules halakhah.*'” (p. 116)

“At least according to Priqoy, the Palestinians did not attempt to argue against Yehudai’s strictures on academic grounds — for him it is a foregone conclusion that any such attempt on their part would have been hopeless — but only on the strength of custom. Several scholars have recently argued that the tendency to rely primarily on custom represents a continuation of the ancient Palestinian approach, which placed a greater emphasis on the living, day-to-day tradition and lesser emphasis on learned argumentation than did the Babylonian. Pirqoy’s insistence on the discontinuity of Palestinian tradition and his corresponding emphasis on the crucial importance of personal transmission — in addition to canonical literature — in the Babylonian tradition give the appearance of having been tailored to refute this sort of Palestinian defense.” (pp. 116, 117)

“Nonetheless, it would seem to be true that the Palestinian rabbinic scholars were unable to contend as equals with their Babylonian counterparts, in those fields in which Babylonians specialized during this period, namely the Talmud and halakhah. In addition to the argument of silence (both in regard to direct challenges from Babylonia and to the dearth of halakhic literature generally, including responsa), there seem to be some indications, albeit indirect and undated, that the Palestinians themselves suffered from a sense of inferiority in these areas. One likely indication of this is the translation of works of Geonic literature into Hebrew, the language of halakhic writing in post-talmudic Palestine.” (p. 117)

“As a final instance of Palestinian submission, we may mention a letter of the Palestinian Gaon Solomon b. Judah, written approximately a century after the Ben Me’ir affair, in which he mentions that his son is studying in Babylonia with Hayya Gaon. In all probability this is to be explained as an acknowledgement of the superior education to be obtained in the academy of the Babylonian Gaon, at least in those areas in which the Babylonians had traditionally specialized… At a greater distance Palestinian influence may be discerned in the development of the medieval Jewish communities of Italy and Franco-Germany, but ITS PRECISE EXTENT IS DEBATABLE. In addition, it appears that these communities were no longer aware, by the eleventh century (the time when substantial documentation becomes available), of the source of this influence. Their conscious allegiance, with regard to a literary canon, was to the Babylonian Talmud and Geonic tradition, while practices shaped under Palestinian influence derived their authority from ancestral custom.” (My emphasis, p. 120)

“It would appear, then, that the triumph of Babylonian tradition was virtually complete by the end of the Geonic period and that whatever survived of the Palestinian tradition was relegated either to isolated backwaters or to an underground existence. The broader picture, however, is considerably more nuanced. This is because the Babylonians themselves had absorbed important components of Palestinian culture over the years… At any rate, fairly soon after Pirqoy wrote, Babylonian Geonim generally accepted the legitimacy of liturgical poetry in principle and restricted themselves to criticizing or rejecting specific poems on halakhic grounds, primarily those of excessive deviation from the structure and themes of the standard prayers. By the early tenth century, and very likely before Se’adyah’s arrival, piyyutim were not only being recited in important Babylonian congregations but were also being composed by native Babylonians who served these congregations as cantors. In the field of Masorah, as well, the Palestinian tradition came to predominate even in the Babylonian sphere, a development which gave rise to mixed traditions.” (p. 122)

“The revolution created by Se’adyah Gaon in the agenda of the intellectual and cultural elite of Babylonian Jewry owed a great deal to Palestinian precedents, with which he had ample opportunity to acquaint himself at first hand. In the field of talmudic literature, he brought post-Tannaitic Palestinian rabbinic literature within the purview of Babylonian scholars, albeit in a role subordinate to that of the Babylonian Talmud. Outside this area, in which the Geonic academies had always specialized, Se’adyah’s greatly expanded the intellectual and literary horizons of his predecessors, branching out not only into the liturgical poetry, but also into the fields such as philosophy, linguistics, and biblical exegesis. Furthermore, Se’adyah’s lead was followed, in varying degrees, by quite a number of his contemporaries and successors.” (p. 122)

“When we turn to the northern shore of the Mediterranean, the first striking fact is that the unifying influence of the Islamic framework plays a much greater role than does geographical proximity. The ties between the Geonic academies and Spain are incomparably stronger than those binding the Babylonian centers with any nearer part of mainland Europe, which of course was in Christian hands… Ties between the Jewish communities of Babylonia and Spain can be traced as far back as the end of the eighth century, when the Exilarch Natronai b. Havivai migrated to Spain after being deposed from office… Ties between the Jewish communities of Babylonia and Spain can be traced as far back as the end of the eighth century, when the Exilarch Natronai b. Havivai migrated to Spain after being deposed from office (p. 132)

“With regard to Christian Europe, the evidence at our disposal is extremely restricted. In the time of Sherira and Hayya we learn of students from Constantinople attending the academy of Pumbedita, and of responsa addressed to R. Meshullam b. Qalonymus of ‘Lucca in the land of Frangah’ (that is, of the Franks). Aside from these specific instances, there are a number of vague references to the land of Frangah or Afranghah in Geonic responsa of varying date; it is difficult to say precisely which parts of Christian Europe are included in this designation.” (p. 133)

“There is nothing to indicate that the Geonim in general acted as dictators within their own academies, and it is very doubtful whether the institutional framework would have allowed them many opportunities from doing so. For instance, we hear of no mechanism for expelling members of the academy, whether by decision of the Gaon alone or of any other forum; the only disciplinary measure of which we have any record is a reduction in the stipends allocated to lazy students… Sherira Gaon describes several periods in which Geonim attempted to act tyrannically within their academies in unspecified ways and were confronted with a mass exodus of scholars, who might go over to the competing academy and remain there as long as they saw fit… we have no reason to suppose that scholars were unable to speak their minds freely; on the contrary, we have a number of records of disputes or of critical dialogues within Geonic academies.” (p. 148)

“It should, therefore, come as no surprise to discover that the Geonim did not consider themselves bound by the opinions or decisions of their predecessors, whether in their own or in the sister academy, and whether they had served only a few years previously or centuries earlier.” (p. 149)

“For the Geonim and the members of their academies, up to the very end of the Geonic period, the Talmud remained literally in the category of Oral Torah. The act of oral study or recitation and the oral “text” were described by forms of the verb GRS (literally ‘to chew’), the act of copying or the physical copy by forms of the verb NSH (originally ‘to pluck out’, the ‘to transfer, copy’). By the end of the Geonic period there were certainly written copies of the Talmud — the earlier clear is evidence for the existence of such texts takes us back approximately to the middle of the eighth century — and the Geonim were not averse to making use of these on occasion. Nevertheless, within the academies the dominant model of transmission — ideologically, and apparently also in practice — remained an oral one;” (p. 156)

“The second piece of evidence (to the preference of oral transmission) comes from Sherira’s Epistle. One of the questions addressed to the Gaon was: ‘How were the Mishnah and Talmud written?’ He replied, ‘The Talmud and the Mishnah were not written, but rather composed (tarossey ittarssu), and the Rabbis are careful to recite orally, but not from (written) copies, for we say, ‘Things which are oral, you may not say in writing,’ and we say, ‘These you may write, but you may not write laws.'” (p. 157)

“For our purposes it is worth noting the characteristic fact that the questioners speak of written texts, while the Gaon cites oral traditions in the first instance and adduces written texts only in a secondary role — even though the oral traditions he prefers are Palestinian and the written texts he cites belong to his native Babylonian tradition. Furthermore, “the elders” who were present on this occasion ‘protested vehemently’ over Hayya’s effrontery in preferring the combined testimony of Palestinian oral tradition and (some) Babylonian copies to their received oral tradition. This is in fact one of the very few cases in Geonic literature where anything approaching a textual emendation is proposed.” (p. 158)

“It appears that the members of the Geonic academies were identified to such an extent with the living and uninterrupted oral tradition of the talmudic text that they found it virtually inconceivable that errors had crept undetected into and contaminated this tradition as a whole (although they sometimes admitted the possibility that some of the oral versions could be mistaken). This is in sharp contrast to the attitude of medieval rabbinic authorities in Europe — especially those of Franco-Germany, who were further removed from the Babylonian wellsprings than their Spanish and Provençal contemporaries. These [Franco-German] scholars, who received the Talmud as a written text, had no such sublime faith in its textual accuracy and were wont to emend the received text rather freely — one might even say cavalierly — when they encountered difficulties in its interpretation.” (My brackets, pp. 158, 159)

“Because they were written in Judeo-Arabic, most of the Geonic monographs practically disappeared from view as the center of gravity of the Jewish world shifted to Christian Europe, beginning in the twelfth century. Aside from a few works which were translated into Hebrew during the relatively brief period before the knowledge of Arabic died out, these works were inaccessible to most European rabbinic authors and left almost no trace in medieval (and later) rabbinic literature. Some were quoted on rare occasions, generally in Hebrew translation, and others were at least known by name, but many were forgotten altogether until the riches of the Cairo Genizah became available in the last century. Unfortunately, the combination of rabbinic learning and knowledge of Judeo-Arabic is rare even among modern scholars, and progress in the identification and publication of these works has been disappointingly slow.” (pp. 254, 255)

“The impetus to systematic theological speculation came to the Jewish world from the outside, at a time when both Christians and Muslims were engaged in systematizing their beliefs and defending them by means of reasoned argumentation. This intellectual climate, in turn, was produced by number of causes, including the proliferation of controversies both within each religious tradition and between the adherents of the various faiths. This development was also heavily influenced by a growing acquaintance with the heritage of the ancient Greek philosophical tradition, albeit in a form substantially modified in the long course of transmission and translation. While Christian Arab thinkers had inherited many of the problems and arguments of religious philosophy from the patristic literature in Greek and Syriac, the Muslims were exposed to Greek philosophy for the first time in the eighth and ninth centuries, when large portions of this literature were translated into Arabic, generally by Christian translators, who worked sometimes with the Greek originals and sometimes with previous translations into Syriac. Plato and Aristotle were recognized as the outstanding representatives of ancient philosophy, but the works of neither were transmitted in complete and unadulterated form to the Arabic-speaking world of the Middle Ages.” (p. 284)

Summary

In the order above presented, the following is to highlight the ways in which the Geonic academies operated, and how they handled learning.

  • Talmidé Hakhamím (student of Sages) were not full time students. They made a living in agriculture, and they went to study during the off months of sowing and harvest.
  • Talmidé Hakhamím did not study the whole Talmud. There were groups who specialized only in certain tractates, and there were tractates which were excluded from study. The Geonic academies assigned tractates to study at home once they went back to work.
  • Brody suggests that the excluded tractates were probably off the mainstream curriculum because of the esoteric material and “linguistic peculiarities” contained in them, and thus reserved for more specialized circles.
  • According to Geonic record, learning was conducted in a very orderly and strict fashion, which aim was a complete understanding of the subject at hand.
    1. The text was recited on a row per row basis, while the rest sat in silence.
    2. When reaching an obscure point, the point was debated among the students, and then exposed to the head of the academy.
    3. Then the head of the academy “reads” back to them the text, while they sat in silence, which is indicative the head of the academy understood their dispute, and expounded it.
    4. Sometimes the head of the academy would inquire into the meaning of the law to each student, and he made sure they understood it clearly.
    5. After completing the course of study at the end of the kallah month, the head of the academy examines each student before the presence of the Sanhedrín.
    6. If a student does not have the Talmud “well ordered in his mouth,” then he was reprimanded.
  • Obtaining the office of Gaon was an elective process. The scholars of the academy chose the Gaon from a number of candidates. When there was no consensus among scholars, then the Exilarch stepped in to decide who was going to hold the title.
  • The Gaon could only disseminate his legal innovations within the circle of judges subordinate to him; outside this circle, he could only try to persuade.
  • The Gaon shared the leadership of the Jewish community with the Exilarch.
  • Although the Exilarch might had been a hereditary position, the Gaon played a role on the selection process.
  • There are no disagreements on record between the two offices of Gaon and the Exilarch.
  • Until the appearance of the Karaites, Rabbinic Judaism did not have any organized opposition.
  • Unlike Rabbinites, Karaites never formed a homogenized group of opinions.
  • There is no direct evidence that any rabbinic academies existed in Palestine from the second half of the 4th c. Evidence of them appears only fragmentarily in the 9th century.
  • The information we obtain more broadly starting in the 10th c. on about the Palestinian Geonim shows a marked difference with their Babylonian counterparts. The most glaring one is that Talmudic learning played a smaller role in Palestine, whose Gaonate was more concerned with political matters.
  • “Very little of the literature produced in Palestine during the Geonic era can be connected with any degree of confidence to the central (Babylonian) academy.”
  • Palestinian Geonim were more creative in the areas of liturgical poetry (piyyut) and Biblical exegesis (midrash), however there is no evidence they played any role in the compilation of the classic midrashic collections.
  • According to the view of Pirqoy b. Baboy (a disciple of a disciple of Yehudai Gaon, head of the Sura academy about 760), probably writing in the 9th c., mentions that the “Palestinian tradition was fatally compromised as a result of Christian persecutions about 500 years before his time.” In his view, “Only in Babylonia had the living tradition been preserved without interruption.”
  • Pirqoy criticizes the use of liturgical poetry common in Palestinian custom.
  • Babylonian Jews who migrated to Palestine tried to impose their customs on Palestinian Jewry beginning in the middle of the 8th c., but there is little information on any opposition response from native Palestinian Jews.
  • According to Yehudai Gaon, Palestinian Jewry’s customs are not according to halakháh but according to the customs of persecution (minhag shemad), and the Palestinian defense was “Custom overrules halakhah.”
  • Palestinian Jewry never tried to challenge Yehudai’s restrictions on any reasoned Talmudic grounds, but merely on the strength of custom.
  • According to Brody, there was a sense of inferiority of Palestinian rabbinic scholars indicated by their translations of Babylonian Geonic literature, written in Arabic, into Hebrew.
  • The use of liturgical poetry was incorporated into the Babylonian tradition by the early 10th c., although rejecting some on halakhic grounds.
  • Se’adyah Gaon (b. Egypt 882/892, d. Baghdad 942), “brought post-Tannaitic Palestinian rabbinic literature within the purview of Babylonian scholars,” and expanded the Babylonian intellectual pursuits into liturgical poetry, philosophy, linguisitics and biblical exegesis.
  • “At a greater distance Palestinian influence may be discerned in the development of the medieval Jewish communities of Italy and Franco-Germany, but ITS PRECISE EXTENT IS DEBATABLE.”(My uppercases)
  • Ashkenazi communities were not aware of the source of their influence, although they claimed allegiance to the Babylonian Talmud and Geonic tradition.
  • “The ties between the Geonic academies and Spain are incomparably stronger than those binding the Babylonian centers with any nearer part of mainland Europe.”
  • “Ties between the Jewish communities of Babylonia and Spain can be traced as far back as the end of the eighth century, when the Exilarch Natronai b. Havivai migrated to Spain after being deposed from office.”
  • “There is nothing to indicate that the Geonim in general acted as dictators within their own academies, and it is very doubtful whether the institutional framework would have allowed them many opportunities from doing so.”
  • “Sherira Gaon describes several periods in which Geonim attempted to act tyrannically within their academies in unspecified ways and were confronted with a mass exodus of scholars, who might go over to the competing academy and remain there as long as they saw fit.”
  • “[T]he Geonim did not consider themselves bound by the opinions or decisions of their predecessors, whether in their own or in the sister academy, and whether they had served only a few years previously or centuries earlier.”
  • “[W]e have no reason to suppose that scholars were unable to speak their minds freely; on the contrary, we have a number of records of disputes or of critical dialogues within Geonic academies.”
  • The Geonim strictly transmitted the Talmud orally. Only towards the end of the Geonic period was the Talmud committed to writing, although its transmission remained oral.
  • Sherira’s Epistle says: ‘Things which are oral, you may not say in writing,’ and we say, ‘These you may write, but you may not write laws.’
  • The Geonim, “found it virtually inconceivable that errors had crept undetected into and contaminated this tradition as a whole (although they sometimes admitted the possibility that some of the oral versions could be mistaken).”
  • Whereas, “[Franco-German] scholars, who received the [Babylonian] Talmud as a written text, had no such sublime faith in its textual accuracy and were wont to emend the received text rather freely — one might even say cavalierly — when they encountered difficulties in its interpretation.” (My brackets)
  • “Because they [Geonic texts] were written in Judeo-Arabic, most of the Geonic monographs practically disappeared from view as the center of gravity of the Jewish world shifted to Christian Europe, beginning in the twelfth century.” (My brackets)
  • [T]hese [Geonic] works were inaccessible to most European rabbinic authors and left almost no trace in medieval (and later) rabbinic literature. Some were quoted on rare occasions, generally in Hebrew translation, and others were at least known by name, but many were forgotten altogether until the riches of the Cairo Genizah became available in the last century.” (My brackets)
  • “[T]he combination of rabbinic learning and knowledge of Judeo-Arabic is rare even among modern scholars, and progress in the identification and publication of these works has been disappointingly slow.”

Commentary on Differences between Then and Now

In light to rabbi Yuter’s article, “Do You Practice ‘Gadolatry’?,[1]” and my understanding of the common behavior and procedures in the Yeshiva system today, I shall note the following differences:

  • In most Jewish Orthodox circles, Yeshiva students are professional students, meaning, they do not draw their living outside the Jewish Orthodox stipends.
  • Yeshiva students study every tractate of the Talmud without any discrimination.
  • Study of the Talmud in the Yeshiva system is not conducted in an orderly fashion by any stretch of the imagination.
  • According to Yuter, there is no official elective process for “office” of Gadol.
  • Neither would any rabbi would consider a Gadol himself.
  • Only the peers and students of a particular rabbi could deem him a Gadol, which is purely an arbitrary process. And being that it is so, there may be many “Gedolim” in any given generation, none of which would find consensus with each other, as the examples of Obadiáh Yosef and Moshe Feinstein clearly indicate.
  • The said Gadol is thought to be the absolute casting vote for determining halakháh.
  • Others who support any given Gadol ensure and enforce the said Gadol’s rulings and ideologies within the community.
  • There a myriad of disagreements among all Gedolim, not to mention with the secular Jewish leadership.
  • There are many organized oppositions today to Orthodox Judaism.
  • Neither the different streams of Orthodox Judaism form any homogenized group of opinions.
  • Contrary to common lore among Ashkenazim, there is no solid historical connection between the Palestinian tradition and them per the historical textual record.
  • According to the Babylonian Geonim, there was a break between the original Palestinian tradition (2nd-4th centuries), and its corollary which emerges in the 9th c. This break, according to Baboy, was due to Christian persecution in the Land of Israel before the Muslim conquest.
  • That break manifests itself in the intellectual output between the Palestinian and Babylonian Geonim.
  • The Palestinian Geonim did not play any decisive role in the maintenance of the Oral transmission of the Toráh, which laid exclusively in the hands of the Babylonian Geonim.Whatever was incorporated of the Palestinian Geonic tradition was under the control and guidance of the Babylonian Geonim.
  • Although the Palestinian Geonic predilection for the production of piyyutim, midrash, and the affirmation that, “Custom overrules halakhah” are shared by the later Ashkenazi tradition, 11th c. Ashkenazim—the period when we start to get a more evident historical record of Central European Jewish communities—were not aware of this connection according to Brody.
  • Had the said connection been the case, why would Ashkenazi communities pray allegiance to the Babylonian Talmud, and not the Yerushalmi (Palestinian) Talmud?
  • José Faur attributes Ashkenazi customary peculiarities to the influence of Jewish communities under the Byzantine empire, which may have well played a role on Palestinian communities as well before the Muslim conquest. Please read, “The Legal Thinking of the Tosafot.[2]
  • Unlike the Geonim and their peers, the Jews who adhere to the Gedolim system do act like tyrants.
  • Jews who adhere to the Gedolim system are constantly challenging the Andalusian Sephardic tradition to which Maimonides belongs to.
  • There is absolutely no sense of inferiority expressed by those Jews who adhere to the Gedolim system.
  • Like the Palestinian Geonim vis-à-vis Babylonian Geonim, Jews who adhere to the Gedolim system do not challenge the Andalusian Sephardic traditions on Talmudic grounds, but solely on strength of its own custom and self-appointed authority.
  • The Jews who adhere to the Gedolim system want to appear bound to past Gedolim, Acharonim and Rishonim, of course, of their own choosing.
  • The Gedolim system depends solely on the now adulterated copies of the text of the Babylonian Talmud, and the commentaries of past Gedolim, Acharonim and Rishonim chosen at their own discretion.
  • Unlike the Geonim, and their later successors in Sefarad, Asheknazi tradition had no direct access to the Judeo-Arabic texts of the Babylonian Geonim, nor was intellectually prepared to read them.
  • The much later Gedolim offer no hope in the latter regard.

Counterpoint and Conclusions

According to Yuter, those who adhere to the Gedolim system can only do so as a matter of (blind) faith on the words of a purported Gadol, not evidence or reasoned opinion. So in his assessment, it is impossible to convince them of an alternate and well-founded and historically provable and traceable tradition. However, a basic question could be posed to them, should they want to consider the evidence. If we are to claim that Toráh observant Jews belong to an uninterrupted tradition since the days of Sinai, how could they explain away the abysmal differences of the Geonic system and the current Gedolim system to which they hold dear.

In the current environment of Orthodox Jews move to the extreme right, one should find it ironic that the very people adhering to the Gedolim system, who demand proof and “high” standards and strictures on every imaginable thing touching Jewish life, would not, could not, find proof to the foundations of their own “tradition.”

haPosel bemumó A(t)smo posel (TB Eseré Yukhasín 70a, 70b)

(I)f a man always casts aspersions upon other people’s descent – for instance, if he alleges that certain families and individuals are of blemished descent and refers to them as being bastards – suspicion is justified that he himself may be a bastard. And if he says they are slaves, one may suspect that he himself is a slave, since whosoever blemishes others projects upon them his own blemish.  (M”T Sefer Qedusháh, Hilekhót Isuré Bi’ah 19:17)

_______________________ 

[1] Yuter, Josh. “Do You Practice ‘Gadolatry’?” The Jewish Press.com. 31 January 2013. Web. 28 September 2014.

[2] Originally published in Dine Yisrael, Volume VI (1975), pp. xliii-lxxii. Edited for SHU’s publication by David Shasha.

Advertisements

11 responses to “The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture

  1. Pingback: Sobre el estudio, práctica y pensamiento crítico de la Toráh | David Ramírez·

  2. Pingback: On Toráh Study, Practice and Critical Thought | David Ramírez·

  3. Pingback: Ideological and Contextual: Legal Reasoning Deployments by Kook and Uziel | David Ramírez·

  4. Pingback: Ideológico y contextual: los despliegues de razonamiento legal por Kook y Uziel | David Ramírez·

  5. This simply begs the question of why you think the Geonic model is correct, while the slightly Ashkenazi model is invalid due to not conforming to the Geonic model.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s