#42—The rabbis and the rain, with Julia Watts Belser [MIPodcast]
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From the rain of the heavens, you will drink water— a land that the Lord your God seeks out perpetually; the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it from the year’s beginning to the year’s end.
If you heed My commands with which I charge you today to love the Lord your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your being I will give the rain of your land in its season, early rains and late, and you shall gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in the field to your herds, and you shall eat and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 11.11–15, trans. Robert Alter)In this episode, Julia Watts Belser talks about how rain permeates some of the earliest rabbinic texts. Surprisingly, many rabbis challenged Deuteronomy’s depiction of rain as a sign of divine favor versus drought as a sign of divine displeasure. Her new book from Cambridge University Press is called Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. In the land of Israel rain falls during a single crucial season of the year beginning in October or November and continuing through the spring. Early rabbinic texts show a deep concern with the seasons. Lives depended on successful harvests which depended on healthy rainfall. So the weather proved God’s blessing or cursing to the people of Israel. In this episode we’ll learn more about this delicate situation through some of the most important Jewish texts. I’m joined by Julia Watts Belser. She’s an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University. She’s published articles in places like the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. Her new book from Cambridge University press is called Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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HODGES: Julia Watts Belser, thanks for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
JULIA WATTS BELSER: Delighted to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
HODGES: Maybe talk a little bit first about yourself and your educational background.
BELSER: Sure. I did my doctoral work at UC Berkley and the Graduate Theological Union with a focus on Jewish Studies, particularly Judaism and late antiquity—interested in the study of Jewish culture, particularly through the prism of the Babylonian Talmud, one of the greatest books on the Jewish bookshelf. So interested in questions of gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, kind of relationships between body and land, in late antique Jewish culture.
HODGES: Did you anticipate that sort of academic trajectory for a long time? Was it something you looked forward to as younger person?
BELSER: I was actually always really interested in the relationship between social issues and religion, religious texts. But I didn’t anticipate falling in love with the Talmud. It was really in graduate school that I came to realize that I had a deep fascination with Jewish texts—that I really wanted to focus in on the Talmud. I was drawn in on especially, I mean so much in Jewish studies attracted me but there is something particularly about the quality of the Talmud. The kind of stories it would tell, the nature of its narratives, that I just found really engaging, sometimes paradoxical, difficult, challenging. And so it felt like the kind of text I would want to spend a long time, maybe a lifetime, working on.
HODGES: And you’re also ordained as a rabbi, give us a little background on that.
BELSER: Sure. So, in addition to the academic study of Talmud and my scholarly work in Jewish studies I also engaged these texts religiously, I’m interested in…you know, I am a rabbi and I am interested in teaching these texts in Jewish religious contexts as well. In some ways I think of these as two different hats that I wear. I think of the scholarly toolbox which offers me a different set of critical tools and then the religious toolbox that invites me to think about questions of meaning and the inner significance of the text. But even as I make that neat distinction, I think it’s a little bit facile and as I look at my own work I see… I’m interested in thinking about some of the gentle interplays between the questions of how scholarship can in fact engage, live alongside with, religious questions but not be subordinated to them—remain critical, curious, engaged. And also an expression of religious—in its own way—religious commitment.
HODGES: So in terms of how your academic work and your religious faith come together, there are a lot of scholars who kind of demarcate between when they’re working in the Academy and when they’re working in synagogue or Church or anything like that. How has that played out in your experience in the work that you produce?
BELSER: Right, it’s a great question. So I think for me it’s very important to think carefully about the relationship between those two different spheres. And also in a lot of my academic, historically focused scholarship to keep a clear distance between the personal religious dimension and the scholarly work. My current book Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity is a work of historical scholarship. I’m interested in unpacking how the rabbis in late antiquity write about and think about their own texts. And so it’s not a place where I find my own voice coming out of a page in terms of my own beliefs, my own principles. In fact, there are number of times where I find my own inner life somewhat at odds with the text I’m writing about. So, it feels particularly important to pursue not just what feels attractive or interesting or compelling to me in these texts, but also to delve deeper into the places where I feel some dissonance with my own sense of religious sensibility.
HODGES: Have people come to you and sort of suggested like “oh you just need to not make that kind of distinction”? I know some people don’t like that kind of distinction but other scholars have found it to be a really fruitful way to engage with their work. So how do you talk to people that say they don’t like that division or they don’t think that’s a legit way to do it?
BELSER: To me it’s just been an important division to be able to think about my historical work and my more…because I also engage in, I work in Jewish ethics. I think constructively about theological and ethical questions. So I have another, a sort of alternate space in which I feel free to engage those questions. And so some of the narratives that emerged and are treated in one way in my book will come up in a different context, discussed in a very different way. And that’s the strategy that I found most straightforward, most transparent. Of course, it’s all happening in one life.
BELSER: So there’s a lovely interplay in my own head between these…But I’m also fairly tolerant of cognitive dissonance, I’m open to holding that kind of dissonance within these texts. So, I think of myself as someone who both deeply loves the Talmud and is also quite critical, at times at odds with the religiosity, the values that it presents.
HODGES: Yeah. I like that you brought up context, it’s a really important word—I think a lot of people answer this question this way—you wouldn’t show up to a friend’s birthday party ready with a paper that you’ve typed up ready to read it to them, like you would at a conference or something.
HODGES: These are different venues where you’re doing different things. It doesn’t necessarily devalue one particular task over another, just that in these particular contexts this is an appropriate way—you’re following historical methodology in assessing data. That’s different than making a judgment based on values and stuff like that.
BELSER: Exactly, exactly. For me it’s particularly important to allow the text to say things I don’t like. Of course I’m also interested in bringing out…and I think the kind of readings that I do become possible in part because I’m interested in certain things in the text. And so I see things, I am looking for things, that another reader who is not reading with the same eyes might gloss over, might not find interesting. But as an act of fidelity to the text, to be true to the text, I think it’s also very important to give voice to those places where I am not, I’m not in love.
HODGES: It’s a really fascinating conversation. The intersection in one person of their sort of religious sensibilities and their academic sensibilities and how those relate to each other. It’s fascinating. And I think, like you said in this particular book that we’re talking about in this interview—Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity—it is a work of historical analysis. So I wanted to start the main part of the interview here, I wanted to begin by asking you to read a passage from Deuteronomy that you placed at the beginning of this book. I think this passage does a nice job of setting the stage for it. It kind of combines power, ethics, and ecology in Jewish late antiquity right here in this passage from the Hebrew scriptures. This is from Deuteronomy eleven, if you’ll read from that.
BELSER: Wonderful, thanks. This is a translation that follows the beautiful work of Robert Alter in his Five Books of Moses. So, here’s Deuteronomy eleven, eleven through fifteen.
“From the rain of the heavens, you will drink water— a land that the Lord your God seeks out perpetually; the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it from the year’s beginning to the year’s end.
“If you heed My commands with which I charge you today to love the Lord your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your being I will give the rain of your land in its season, early rains and late, and you shall gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in the field to your herds, and you shall eat and be satisfied.”
HODGES: So, this scripture you cite in order to kind of talk about Deuteronomy laying out a vision of rain as relationship. And I wanted you to expand on that.
BELSER: Sure. So, I should say first in terms of context that these biblical verses that I just read have a very important place both in rabbinic Jewish religiosity and in contemporary Jewish practice. They’re part of the Shema, which is probably the most important, the most central Jewish prayer. It is an affirmation of divine unity and it is also an expression of a kind of deep covenantal commitment within Jewish life.
HODGES: [laughs] I’ve been calling that the “sheema.”
BELSER: Ah, the “shma,” shema.
HODGES: “Shma” Okay. It’s one of those words that I only read I guess.
BELSER: Yes, well now you’ve heard it said. The Shema is repeated twice a day, so you hear the centrality of these words, of this text. And I think that they also clue us in to an ecological dimension that’s present at the heart of Jewish religiosity. When we come to that passage in the Shema, we’re not just talking about a sort of disembodied love between God and humanity. We’re talking about a love that’s expressed, in part, though rain. That’s manifests in the flowering and the flourishing of the earth. But in Deuteronomy rain is an expression of God’s great generosity. For the rabbis of the Talmud rain is imagined as one of the greatest gifts that God gives. It’s God’s gift to the land, it’s God’s gift to the people, it is a sign of God’s love and loyalty both to humanity and to the earth. But the passage in Deuteronomy emphasizes that that gift unfolds in expressly covenantal terms. It begins with what I call one of the Hebrew Bible’s biggest “ifs.” That is, if you heed my commands with which I charged you today, then I will give you rain. So, if the Israelites heed God’s command then the earth will follow with grapes, with grain, the grasses of the fields will be lush. Humans and animals alike will eat and they will be satisfied. But, and here’s the flip side, if the Israelites turn away from God, if they don’t live by God’s law, then God will withhold rain and drought will cause the earth to wither. Which will of course, also cause the animals and the humans to wither and there will be starvation and grief in the land. So my book is subtitled “Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster,” and as much as I spend time talking about the wondrous texture that these Talmudic narratives give to that idea of God’s gift of rain, I’m particularly interested here in parsing out what happens when that gift was withheld—when rain is not present. Because when we hear this passage today we have to remember that the Hebrew Bible emerges out of an intense moment of ecological vulnerability—this is an ecologically vulnerable land.
HODGES: Yeah, this is something that’s very present to them. I think sometimes today when we think about rain it’s almost more in a romantic sense, unless you’re in an area that’s encountered some significant drought or water issues. It’s just, water is just there. We turn it on at a tap, so it’s a different kind of geography, it’s a different landscape.
BELSER: Exactly. It’s a different geography, a different landscape. This book had its very early life as a dissertation. So I wrote that in Northern California where drought is, of course, often on people’s minds. The ecology of California is actually very similar to the ecology of Israel, Palestine. Then I moved to Missouri. And Missouri, when I was there and a couple of years I was there, it had a very intense drought as well. So the writing of the book actually really sensitized me to the significant vulnerability of many lands in which I have lived. But particularly when we think about the land we now call Israel-Palestine in late antiquity this is a moment where the people, the writers of these passages, are very aware of living on the edge. It’s a semi-arid ecology, it’s a region that receives abundant rain in just one single season of the year. So in the few winter months the land has to soak up enough rain to sustain itself for the entire year to come. That means that drought is a very present threat and when it comes, drought is devastating to humans, animals, and earth alike.
HODGES: So what you do in the book then is you take this overarching idea of the covenant God made here and that’s emphasized twice daily in a fundamental prayer of Judaism here, and you talk about how it plays out in later Jewish texts.
HODGES: Particularly one called the Bavli Ta’anit. And this is a portion of the Babylonian Talmud. So let’s give people a better sense of the sources themselves before we move on. Because most people are familiar with the Bible but these extra texts, especially because I have a lot of Christian listeners so they’re less familiar with these texts.
BELSER: Absolutely. The Babylonian Talmud is probably one of the most important books on the Jewish bookshelf that you’ve never heard of. It is probably the most important Jewish book after the Hebrew Bible. The Babylonian Talmud is a vast complex compendium of Jewish law and lore. It’s a post-biblical text so it’s significantly later than the Hebrew Bible. It’s usually dated, its completion is usually dated somewhere in the sixth or the seventh century—hotly contested by scholars and I’m not interested in taking a stand here—sixth or seventh century of the common era. So just before the invent of Islam. It represents several centuries worth of oral tradition, debate, and discussion by the rabbis of Jewish Babylonia. Babylonia is a region that’s roughly equivalent to modern day Iraq and Iran. So, the Babylonian Talmud, called “the Bavli” for short, contains all kinds of texts and traditions, debates, arguments about Jewish law and Jewish practice, stories and legends, biblical commentary. Each volume of the Babylonian Talmud centers on a particular aspect of Jewish practice. So my book is an analysis of one particular volume that’s Bavli Ta’anit. And Bavli Ta’anit addresses the practice of fasting in response to drought. So in some respect we can say this is a text that is about religious response to environmental crisis. It’s full of rabbinic teachings about rain but it’s also full of stories and texts and traditions and rituals and laws whereby the rabbis are attempting to grapple with how they can respond to rain’s absence. Drought, I think, is like the climate change of the ancient world, if there’s some equivalent to current, contemporary environmental threat, and I don’t actually think there is. But the closest I could come would be drought, in terms of the kind of existential dread, the great fear that it provoked, and also the sense that it was a phenomenon that can hugely affect people’s daily lives and their ordinary rhythms of life.
HODGES: Yes, it’s like the biggest difference between that and your comparison to climate change would be people back then didn’t have the luxury of denying that it was going on. I mean this was, you know, especially right in their face.
BELSER: It’s a really great point, and that point about the inability to deny it is actually especially a propos in a place like Israel-Palestine because you know when the rain is supposed to come. You have a point where you know that the rain should fall. So if the rain is late, if the rains are delayed, if the rainy season is happening on the calendar but is not happening in real life, then the community is aware of crisis. And that rain calendar is tied deeply into the Jewish year. So it’s tied into the liturgical year, it’s connected to Jewish holidays, so to get inside that idea of the rain calendar I think we can imagine this as something that it’s likely that people would have felt these seasons, these seasons of rain as part of their understanding of the kind of sacred cycle of Jewish time.
HODGES: So, yeah it was connected directly to, kind of like you said at the outset, their relationship to God is directly tied to how well the rains are falling or not.
BELSER: Yes, yes.
HODGES: So you tied it into the idea of fasting here. Oh, one more question on that, “Ta’anit,” what does that word mean?
BELSER: It is the way that the rabbis talk about a fast.
HODGES: Okay, okay good. That’s a perfect transition…
BELSER: It is “a tractate on fasts.” And fasting is the ritual technology that the rabbis use to respond to rain crisis. They use it for variety of things, it’s their go-to method of dealing with major communal crisis. There’s actually a lot of things that you can use fasting to do in Late Antique Judaism, but I want to focus in on this idea of fasting as a response to communal crisis because that’s where it’s important here. I find fasting to be a really fascinating response to rain crisis. If you think about what fasting does, it brings the body center-stage when you are intentionally withholding food and water you become hyper aware of the body and its needs. So, fasting as a practice emphasizes both the spiritual and the visceral corporeal dimensions of drought. In a way fasting is actually about anticipating crisis. It’s about mapping a crisis that is eventually going to come if the drought continues onto the body, and feeling it first on a kind of voluntary basis before it becomes an involuntary affliction. So when the community begins to fast there’s not actually a food crisis yet. They’re fasting while their larders are still full, they could eat but they are intentionally withholding food in order to kind of transform their circumstance. They know that if rain doesn’t come soon they’ll face hunger and famine in the year to come. So fasting I think is a way to realize physically and somatically the seriousness of the crisis that they’re facing. It’s also a way that they hope to transform hearts and minds, to bring the community together, and also to be able to engage in contrition, regret, repair, to cry out to God. And thereby hopefully transform the relationship that is out of whack, that’s manifest here in the drought.
HODGES: Do the records suggest that they emphasized one of the other? It seems like the first description is very technical and sort of really gets into the symbolic meaning of how fasting is related to drought. The other seems more in terms of just “God’s upset, we do this. God gets happy, we get rain.”
BELSER: Yeah, yeah. So an earlier rabbinic text, the Mishna, lays out the kind of procedure for ritual fasting. And then the Babylonian Talmud—Bavli Ta’anit—expands and discusses it at great length. So I think we see both of these paradigms present in the texts. I will add that this analysis that I just offered, of the kind of symbolic significance of fasting, they never come out and say that. This is really where you see me as a scholar trying to get inside the religious practice to better understand what its significance is, how it is relating, you know, why it matters that they’re fasting rather than doing some other kind of…
HODGES: Yeah, like offering some sort of sacrifice or…
BELSER: Exactly, exactly. Sacrifices were closed to them, but presumably they could have developed any other you know….
HODGES: Right, cause the temple’s gone now, right?
BELSER: That’s right.
HODGES: So you talk about how the rabbis sort of lay out an incremental approach. It’s not just like full fasting enforcement here right from the beginning. There’s sort of a way they roll it out.
BELSER: That’s right. You actually start—in this rabbinic system of responding to rain crisis with fasts—you start with private fasts that are undertaken by elite individuals. You gotta be someone to start the fast. So people are fasting privately hoping to break the drought hoping to bring rain. If the drought extends, if the rain crisis becomes more intense, then the entire community gets involved. First, for what you might think of as partial fasts or half fasts, and then for more elaborate fasts that really deeply changes the very character of people’s daily lives. At the height of the process the rabbis describe how the whole community goes out into the public square. They pray together, they’ve got their Torah scrolls there, they are aware of their misdeeds and shortcomings, they’re reciting an extended liturgy calling out to God. Trusting in God’s compassion. They anoint themselves with ashes. And then, this is to me a really amazing gesture, then they put ashes on the Torah scroll itself. I find that a very powerful moment and it seems the rabbis did too because they comment on it. One of Talmudic rabbis, Rabbi Zeira says “when I saw that they were putting ashes on the Torah scroll my whole body trembled.” I love that image of Rabbi Zeira’s body trembling as he sees the Torah anointed with ash. Symbolically here I wanna kind of riff poetically at suggest that actually there is a way in which the Torah scroll is almost imagined as a kind of body. Of course, God doesn’t have a body in rabbinic Judaism per se, at least not a human fleshy body. But here are the Torah scroll becomes a kind of tangible concrete presence of the holy in the midst of the community. So the Torah scroll becomes the symbolic representation of God’s presence and the rabbis actually read it quite explicitly as an affirmation that God is here in the midst of the community in the midst of their crisis. So the rabbis use a couple of biblical verses to understand this gesture. Isaiah 63.9, “In all their troubles, God was troubled.” They quote Psalm 9.15, “It is as if to say I will be with him—that is I God will be with the community—in trouble.” So, the rabbis are reading these verses to affirm that God is not distant, God is not somehow set apart from the community but actually present when the community is in trouble, when the people are in danger. I see them saying here somewhat obliquely but nonetheless quite strongly that God is moved by human suffering. That God is in fact troubled by, affected by human pain.
HODGES: That’s Julia Watts Belser. She’s an assistant professor of Jewish Studies in the department of theology at Georgetown University. She’s published articles in places like the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and her new book that we’re talking about today is from Cambridge University Press, it’s called Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity.
Okay, so overall that kind of lays out the basic gist of the book where you’re talking about the problem that was faced and the way that the text sort of invites the community to respond to this crisis. And it’s all contingent on their relationship with God and how they respond to God. But like we were mentioning at the outset, the book is really ecologically focused. And this is part of a wider academic focus on ecology that we’re seeing more recently in the academy. So maybe you can give us some background on that sort of ecological turn in scholarship.
BELSER: Sure, there’s been a lot of attention to ecology and the humanities in the last decade or so. Scholars of history, literature, religion are coming to realize that ecology is profoundly important for all aspects of human culture. So we see ecology I think moving out from…I mean obviously it’s certainly of importance in the sciences but you see now the humanities getting a piece of ecology. Thinking about the relationship between, the web of relations between people, land, place—how deeply that affects the stories we tell, the way we imagine ourselves, the literatures we produce, the rituals, the practices. In biblical studies we see this most clearly I think in the recognition that you can’t fully understand the religious thought of the Bible without understanding the people’s relationship with the land. My book is aiming to bring that attention, that type of attention to rabbinic texts as well—to understand how the Babylonian Talmud, the Bavli, conceptualizes and relates to the created world. It asks questions like, how are the rabbis relating to or thinking about their connection with place and place? How does that shape their ethics, their theology, their ritual, their practice, and their readings of the biblical text.
HODGES: So how do you prevent yourself from, sort of, injecting current contemporary concerns back onto the past? We talked about climate change for example. So there are people who are very aware of ecological issues right now and it can be tempting to just take our own concerns and put them back into the past text. So how do you negotiate that?
BELSER: Absolutely. This is really important and I think that, here again I’m gonna go back to that distinction we made at the very start of our conversation between a kind of historically, academically framed approach that’s interested in understanding the rabbis own world. That’s what I’m doing in this book. And a more kind of scholarship that’s interested in practical implications—the kind of contemporary religious engagement with possible texts for the purposes of articulating contemporary a religious environmentalism. I’m actually quite interested in both questions but I want to be clear what I am doing in this book.
BELSER: In this book I’m interested in getting inside the head of ancient rabbis. I want to know how they related to the land, how do they understand the drought. I’m not so interested, in this book…in fact I eschew entirely thinking about the “so what” question in terms of contemporary Jewish communities: How can you use this to transform your own synagogue, your own community’s relationship to the earth today? So I’m a great proponent of religious environmental engagement. Some of my other work has looked at how rabbinic texts can be creatively re-read to articulate a contemporary Jewish response to climate change, for example. Or to recognize and resist environmental racism or violence or other forms of disproportionate environmental harms. So I’m very comfortable with that kind of activist work, with that kind of explicit engagement with constructive ethics. But this book is interested in understanding the ancient rabbis own self-understandings of their relationships, the way they see the relationship between humans, rain, God, and the earth.
HODGES: I wanted to ask on that before you continue…Are there people within the tradition that would privilege that historical interpretation, that would say “look, okay, so we figured out how they saw it at that time. We need to lock into that and think that way. And these new ways of thinking in terms of social justice are somehow modern impositions on what we should really be focusing on.” Do you see any of that in the Jewish community, where they resist this type of reading on those grounds?
HODGES: Does that make sense?
BELSER: It does make sense. I hesitate to say no, because I think you can always find people who will resist reading or virtually any ground.
But the way Jewish texts and tradition work, I mean there’s often a kind of…the rabbis themselves are grappling with and interpreting biblical texts, that is from texts from an earlier era, an earlier moment, in light of their own concerns. So this work of…the process of doing the work of textual interpretation is deeply embedded in the nature of how Jewish communities have tended to approach texts and tradition. Now that’s not to say that, I mean of course, some people will find certain readings some Jews will find certain readings of texts objectionable on all sorts of grounds. But the idea that you would interpret texts seems to me very deeply embedded in the fabric of the tradition.
HODGES: Okay, okay good. So I interrupted you, you were talking about avoiding anachronism.
BELSER: Yeah, so I think that on the scholarly side, of course, sometimes academics can get very concerned about the imposition of modern categories into and onto ancient texts, and in this book too I worked very hard to try and avoid that, to stay away from modern categories. It’s harder than you think, especially when you’re writing about things like ecology. The commonplace idea of “nature” for example is something that I see as an imposition on this text. I don’t think Bavli Ta’anit really has a category of nature in the way we moderns tend to conceptualize it. When we think about nature we usually imagine kind of landscape a backdrop, a sort of set piece that’s out there.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s a setting. It’s apart from us.
BELSER: Exactly, exactly. Bavli Ta’anit doesn’t talk about nature. It sees the whole world, humans and cows and acacia trees—um actually scrap the part about cows, but humans, acacia trees and goats, let’s stick with goats, right—alike as creation, as an expression of God’s creative power. So this category of “creation,” even though I’m actually a little bit allergic to using creation in contemporary discourse because of the way sometimes creation codes as a like anti-science faux, uh…
BELSER: But you know creation, that’s their category, that’s the category that’s meaningful for them, so I’m interested in thinking about, again, how does it work? So as a cultural historian of ancient Jewish texts I think we have to approach the past, or at least in this kind of work, I believe in approaching the past with an interest in its differences from our modern moment. I want to see its strangeness. I think that’s part of the magic of these texts, these ancient sources. They have the ability to transport us to a different way of knowing, a different kind of world. So one of the ways this is expressed in Bavli Ta’anit, we see Bavli Ta’anit unfold a really, what I find to be a really fascinating portrait of God’s presence manifest and expressed in the world, in the created world. In Bavli Ta’anit the rabbis inhabit a world that is full of divine signs. Everything is charged with meaning, it’s like hyper-charged with divine presence. So everything. Anything. Every cloud, every dirt track, every happening, all of it can be an expression of divine revelation.
HODGES: So you mentioned creation is a word that’s sort of been used by people that resist scientific thinking, but then you also talk about getting into ways of knowing that are more into what might seem foreign to modern thinkers today, that you can find God everywhere. So on the one hand you sort of resist those fundamentalist leaning interpretations of creation but on the other hand you are talking about texts that seem to have at least something in common with that, where God is just like everywhere, every moment.
BELSER: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I guess there are two ways I will answer that. On one hand I’d say, I don’t have to like the text, I have to explain it. But I do like this text. And the reason that I like this text is that I think it gives us a vision of a very kind of imminent, Jewish notion of God. A sense that the divine is not utterly separate from the created world, again, I’ll use their category. In some ways I find that an incredibly beautiful notion. A sense that you could in some way—here I’m being more romantic than the rabbis are, but just to kind of flesh it out, this is a kind of worldview through which you can imagine coming to know or sense something of God’s presence, God’s revelation, in the nature of the clouds. In the fact of the rain. So I think that there is a lot you can do with “creation” and ideas of creation that are very pro-environmental. We see this actually in many Christian communities with the creation care movement, which is an attempt to use creation and the idea of God’s creation as a very strong foundation for Christian environmental responsibility and Christian environmental action.
HODGES: We’ve been talking a lot about the rabbis and we gave a little bit of a background on the texts themselves, but haven’t talked much about the place of the rabbis in the religious community of the first centuries of the Common Era. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
BELSER: Sure. The first few centuries of the Common Era were a formative time for the rabbis. Scholars usually date the beginning of the rabbinic period to the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, that’s the second Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. The old scholarly paradigm used to be that the rabbis sprung fully formed and victorious from the ashes of that great defeat, but now scholars recognize that the rabbis began, really like any new religious movement, as a marginal group. That they too had to construct and develop their own authority, that they didn’t arrive immediately as confident and well-respected authoritative religious voices. So for the first three or four centuries of the Common Era the rabbis don’t have the ability to command anyone’s allegiance. Over time, gradually, we see their influence growing, their circles are widening, they begin to become more widely influential. And eventually, by the early medieval era, their texts have become a powerful and authoritative force for expressing normative Jewish culture and Jewish practice. At this point, virtually every form of modern Jewish practice traces itself back in some way to these foundational rabbinic texts.
HODGES: How would one become a rabbi at that point? Were they creating schools or did they oversee synagogues, how did it work structurally?
BELSER: The rabbis are, at this point, not necessarily so closely associated with synagogues but, you are right, your idea of the schools is right. But first, before we get to rabbis in schools or Academies, that’s the often used term. The rabbis really, the earlier model of rabbinic learning is more on the order of disciple circles. So a couple followers, a couple students, who learn from a respected rabbi, at this point these are all oral traditions that are being passed down. They are learning the oral Torah of their teachers, they are commenting on it, passing it down in their teacher’s names but also adding their own insights. Eventually that grows and develops, we see the disciple circles begin to give way to more formal structures of schools or academies. And then by the end of our period, the point where the Babylonian Talmud is canonized, we can talk about two great academies in Babylonia, two sort of recognized and known schools. But that’s a very long process. I think it’s important to underscore the fragility of it, especially at the outset. It’s not something we get a sense of from just reading rabbinic texts. In rabbinic texts, the rabbis present themselves as confident jurors.
HODGES: Yeah, that’s the point.
BELSER: So you get the impression that they are in control of the whole affair. But history suggests otherwise, and in fact suggests that they are engaging in part in a kind of a confidence game that will eventually turn out to be masterfully successful.
HODGES: Your book introduces a really interesting idea into the conversation here that resists some of the bigger assumptions people make about rabbis. There is this idea that Bavli Ta’anit, for example, was a text that would then be used to bolster rabbinic authority; that these teachings and decisions and things, they were using texts in order to justify their authority in the communities and probably even their relationship with God, as almost representative of God, as interpreters of what God’s will is for the community and so forth. You say the texts though, they are not just these superhero stories about rabbis, but they also recognize and critique rabbinic ethical feelings. So they are not presenting themselves as whitewashed heroes or anything, but also critiquing themselves, and critiquing past figures.
BELSER: That’s right, that’s right. This is, in my view, one of the most distinctive and interesting dimensions of the Babylonian Talmud, and I see it very clearly in Bavli Ta’anit. This is a kind of both/and scenario, we want to hold both pieces of this together. On one hand, it’s absolutely important to see the way in which this text—the Babylonian Talmud, in particular Bavli Ta’anit—is engaged in the project of constructing and reinforcing rabbinic authority. They are involved in the practice of fashioning rabbinic power. But it’s also, at the same time, it’s open, surprisingly open, I think, to critiquing rabbinic authority. It tells stories that portray rabbis in a negative light. It shows their ethical failures, It reveals the frailties in rabbinic culture. So it’s an interesting question, how does the text manage to do this? What is it that makes it possible for the text to tell these not so flattering stories about some of its cherished culture heroes? First of all, it’s important to know that the Bavli tends to tell its least flattering stories about the most respected rabbis. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s much more likely to tell a story that emphasizes the shortcomings of someone we all know is one of the greats. Part of the reason the Bavli can do this, that it can do this kind of self-critical work, is I think because it’s completed, its final form is redacted and composed at a point where the rabbis are sufficiently well-established that they can afford to be self-critical. They can afford to turn their gaze inward. They can do the difficult work of ethical reflection, they can hold up a mirror to some of their flaws. It’s important here to note that the Babylonian Talmud is an insider text, it’s meant to be read and studied and learned primarily by other rabbis, or wannabe rabbis. So they are not necessarily proclaiming all of the stories at large to their actual competitors or people who are critiquing them on the streets. They are using the stories inside the study house as a kind of reflection, a source of ethical reflection for thinking about how to do better. I think we should read this as the Bavli’s means of striving to make better rabbis. To help its own rabbis grapple with the dangers of power and authority. It’s, in effect, asking them to check themselves, to work against the tendency towards self-aggrandizement or the potential to become haughty or overly self-assured.
HODGES: It’s fascinating because, on the one hand as you said they had to have enough power established to where they wouldn’t feel anxious about critique, right? It’s almost like people who resist critique the most might feel threatened the most, they might feel most vulnerable. Whereas these figures felt comfortable enough in their skin to go ahead and engage with self-critique. On the other hand, there is still anxiety there, but the anxiety there is that they would use their position to become overly haughty or self-assured as you said. So the anxiety sort of transfers to being like, “do we have enough power,” to “are we abusing our power.”
BELSER: Yeah, in some ways I read many of these texts, many of the stories, as kind of meditations on the possibilities and perils of power. I mean, I’m fascinated by power so I’m always interested in looking at the ramifications of power.
HODGES: It’s the first word in your book title, so…
BELSER: Ah, yes, yes, yes. So one of the things that attracted me about these texts was the fact that the rabbis don’t always come out looking so good. There’s something there about power—about the capacity of a community, of an elite group within a community to be self-reflexive—that I find very interesting and actually quite worth thinking about. Not that we should adopt their same model per se today. But this seems to me a really important question for contemporary religious practitioners, contemporary, you know for all of us who hold power in whatever way within our lives, within our communities, how to think about its dangers.
HODGES: I see you setting the stage for that especially in the last chapter. As we talked all along, you don’t take that extra step in this book because that’s not what this book is, but you do set the stage for that kind of thinking…
HODGES: …when you’re relating stories about women and men with low status who had the ability to do things that the rabbis were expected to do. Talk more about how gender and class are represented in the texts.
BELSER: Sure. The final chapter of my book examines a series of stories that praise the simple piety of the anonymous, humble, holy man and holy woman. The presence of a couple of women here is actually quite significant in rabbinic Judaism. Because we don’t necessarily always see women emerging in quite this light. But these figures often are revealed to be more virtuous and more pious than some of the greatest of the rabbis. So in one instance, an unknown man averts a plague and spares his neighborhood, not because he’s a great scholar of Torah, not because he’s a master of the law, according to the value system of rabbinic Judaism, but because he lends out his hoe and his shovel to the local cemetery. A woman protects her neighbors from a blaze of fire because she shares her oven with her neighbors. It’s a concrete act of communal protection that trumps the efforts of the great sage Rav Huna. In another story, Rava, one of the greatest rabbis of the late Babylonian academy, is utterly crestfallen when he learns that God sends a daily personal missive to the otherwise unknown guy, Abba the Bloodletter. A bloodletter is a healer, he’s a medical practitioner but, let’s be clear, he is not at the top of rabbinic social hierarchy.
HODGES: Not a prestigious…bloodletting…not a very prestigious [laughs].
Julia Watts: Exactly. I mean he has some prestige, but certainly if the rabbis were doing a sort of ordinary ranking of merits they would place themselves far higher in terms of—ideally, who’s got favor with God? Ha, clearly, it’s the rabbis! So Abba the Bloodletter gets his correspondence from God on a daily basis and Rava, it turns out, only gets personal connection with God once a year. So Rava is quite distraught about this and he sends out his rabbi minions to discover what Abba’s secret is, and also probably to try and reveal that he’s not actually worthy of divine favor after all. But Rava’s ruse backfires. Despite the rabbi’s terrible behavior, Abba The Bloodletter reveals himself to be a humble, virtuous, pious man. Hospitable, careful, generous, right? And the reader is left to conclude he is in fact, actually far more worthy than the two hapless rabbis in the tale who steal his own rugs and try and sell them in the market, or the illustrious leader of the Babylonian rabbinic academy who sent those other rabbis on the first place. So, in thinking about these type of stories, I appeal to the work of the great historian of late antiquity Peter Brown. He’s talked about this type of tale as a story that dramatizes what he calls “paradoxes of sanctity.” He’s particularly focused on late antique Christian texts, so he emphasizes this type of storytelling appears quite often in Syriac, that is eastern Christian, sources from around the same time and actually a relatively similar graphical area. These tales, I think, underscore the idea that holiness and divine favor don’t correlate neatly with social status or with any other external signs or marks of a person’s virtue. In the rabbinic texts, they serve as a powerful somewhat unsettling reminder that the usual markings of high class, good status, masculinity, learning, elite family background, don’t actually testify to a person’s piety or their character. So these teachings are part and parcel of what I see as one of the Bavli Ta’anit central theological and ethical claims. You can’t actually judge by looking. You can’t make a clear and convincing link between social status and divine favor. Those external signs of success, prosperity and acclaim, right, they don’t actually reveal the inner dimensions of the heart. They don’t tell us much—maybe anything—about the nature of a person’s piety, or the truth of their connection with God.
HODGES: So that raises the question, if that’s the case on the individual level—where you can’t tell based on how prosperous the person is how righteous they are—how does that correlation play out in that wider covenant narrative that we talked about in Deuteronomy, where God promises rain and abundance when the community is righteous?
BELSER: This is, I think you’ve just named the crux of one of the most important—and potentially subversive, right?—dimensions on what’s going on in Bavli Ta’anit. In the biblical book of Deuteronomy we see this very clear notion of covenantal ecology. It’s a claim that God’s favor and God’s rain come in response to good behavior. But Bavli Ta’anit complicates this idea. It doesn’t entirely disown it, but it certainly messes up the neat and tidy assessment that we saw in Deuteronomy. Where Deuteronomy has a strict notion that obedience to God will get you a favorable weather forecast, Bavli Ta’anit is just not so sure. In Bavli Ta’anit we see the idea that virtue and piety might be rewarded. But that “might” is a critical difference than the confidence we saw in Deuteronomy. It might be rewarded. But Bavli Ta’anit also knows that sometimes there is a real disconnect between right action and reward. So I see this as a very theologically significant idea. It’s the recognition that signs of divine favor are not so easy to read after all. The healthy, wealthy, meteorologically well off—these aren’t necessarily the ones who have God’s blessing. And on the communal level as well we see this, too. If you think about the context of Jewish communities in late antiquity where a lot of Jewish history can be told as a series of one disaster after the next you can see how this might be an interesting, important, meaningful, resonant theology, right?—that the external circumstances of a community don’t actually testify, in a conclusive way, to its connection to God.
HODGES: It seems like that would become even way more important post-Shoah, post-Holocaust, where something terrible, something unimaginable occurred and we see the question of “where was God?” or the question of “Was there something done that merited that?” And so it seems that the whole conversation has shifted even further since that time, is that your sense too?
BELSER: Yes, yes. I think in a wake of the Shoah, after the Holocaust we see, particularly in the decades after, we see many modern Jewish theologians expressly reject the idea that there is a connection between sin and punishment, that you could understand an event like the Holocaust in terms of this sort of “if/then,” right?
BELSER: “If you’re good I will reward you. If you are bad I will punish you.” The rabbis aren’t there. They still keep the basic premise of Deuteronomy’s covenantal ecology intact. But they are working from within to challenge its certainties, to suggest in fact, that what the Deuteronomist seems to see as so clear cut has become a lot more complicated. So they still seem to believe that divine signs are everywhere. The problem is, they are hard to read, right? We’re not very good at deducing the kind of message that appears in the weather, in the political fortunes of the community. And there is a whole passage in the book where I talk about how the rabbis examine the kind of confusions that exist. People read or look at a body, a very ugly man, and assume that he’s scorned by God. And they are critiqued for making that assumption. For assuming that the container, the external, the exterior, reveals in some way the interior. It’s in some ways a very interesting…I mean I hesitate, I don’t want to think of it in terms of that this is somehow modern, because it’s not. This is a late antique idea that’s being emerged here by the rabbis. But I do think in some ways that they are at least playing with, exploring, some notions and ideas that will prove to be very important in later Jewish thought as well.
HODGES: It’s a place where a fundamental religious text has to be reckoned with in real time, in confrontation with actual experience, actual embodied experience, and that is a negotiation that just goes on and on.
BELSER: Yes, yes.
HODGES: That’s Julia Watts Belser, she’s assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University and we are speaking about her book Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity. We’ll take a break and be right back.
HODGES: Today we are talking with Julia Watts Belser. She joins us from Georgetown University, my old stomping grounds, and she’s the author of the book Power, Ethics and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity: Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster. Julia, to kind of wrap things up I want to talk a little bit about theology. Your book is paying attention to rabbinic theology, it’s looking more carefully at how these ancient Jewish texts think about God, you’re getting into their heads. And you observed that in academic Jewish circles today, as we talked about a little bit about before, there are some anxieties about the relationship of theology and scholarship. And I wanted to end by kind of exploring it a little bit more.
BELSER: Sure. For many years it was common to hear people say things like “Jews don’t do theology.” And what I think people meant by that statement was that Jews don’t do theology like medieval Christian theologians did. Of course now today there’s a whole range of ways that Christian communities are doing theology as well. But in any respect, we don’t tend to see systematic treatments of theological ideas, like comprehensive claims about God or belief, that aim to sum up the necessary proper way that practitioner should believe. That type of thinking, that type of writing doesn’t really appear in Rabbinic texts. Even that phrase I just said a minute ago, “practitioners,” I think that speaks to an important way that scholars of Jewish Studies tend to see Jewish religiosity. Judaism is a religious tradition focused more on practice, not on articulating a single mode of right belief.
HODGES: Does that have anything to do with the nature of authority in the Jewish community at all? Because you kind of talk about “they don’t do theology at all” but it’s in terms of the way that religion plays out for Jewish believers. But is there also a component of authority there? Because I think in Mormonism, by comparison, a lot of people would say the same thing, “we don’t do theology,” but we have authorities within the church who interpret texts and sort of provide an authoritative standpoint, right so…
BELSER: In a traditional framework the authority is emerging in terms of rabbinic texts and their interpretations in the medieval, late medieval, early modern, contemporary period that are focused on law—that is, questions of Jewish practice. So you can have right or wrong practice, of course that’s a loaded question today because there’s a lot of different ways Jews practice
BELSER: I’m not taking a stand here one way or the other. Um, but again from a traditional framework, the idea is that you might have an orthopraxy. But there is a lot of openness—a surprising, perhaps, amount of openness from an outsider’s perspective—about how one might respond to or think about matters of belief. We see that actually a lot in Bavli Ta’anit, where it tells many stories about what in Jewish we call “aggadah”—legends, tales, narratives, you don’t have to believe any of that stuff; I mean you can, right? But you don’t have to. Practice, then, becomes—at least in traditional contexts—an important litmus test for assessing Jewish religiosity. Not whether your beliefs line up.
HODGES: Okay, and I think that plays into why some people say “Jews don’t do theology,” because they’re thinking of theology in terms of that sort of Christian systematic model, and granted, there aren’t really people doing that…
BELSER: Exactly [laughs]…
HODGES: So you would say that disowning the idea of theology altogether, then, is a mistake.
BELSER: I do think it’s a mistake. I think it’s important to examine the way that Jews and Jewish texts are grappling with matters of meaning, of belief. This is not to say that we have to believe like they did, or in fact that there is a uniformity of beliefs in this texts because there is certainly not. But there is a lot more here, there’s a lot of juicy material to explore in terms of meaning, in terms of these questions of significance. I also don’t think there is such a sharp distinction between belief and practice. Theological ideas, ideas about meaning and its significance, are embedded in and expressed through practice. Practice makes sense, in part, because it’s embedded in a framework of larger significations, symbols, and meanings. So part of my work has been to understand and better uncover what some of that symbol network looks like in rabbinic texts about fasting, and drought, and rain.
HODGES: Now we’ve got an idea of what it’s not—it’s not a sort of systematic theology, kind of like a Christian model—so what would be Jewish theology as you see it playing out?
BELSER: Sure. Here again I want to emphasize that I’m thinking particularly about the kind of emergent theological ideas that I see being expressed in rabbinic texts. I don’t want to make larger claims about what Jewish theology is or should be. But I’m interested in thinking about the kind of thinking, the kind of meaning making that’s happening in the Babylonian Talmud. So one of the things I try to do in my book is to show that Bavli Ta’anit is articulating a complex and multi-vocal theology. First of all, it doesn’t speak with a single voice. It doesn’t emphasize coming to a single overarching theological claim. It doesn’t try to impose a particular set of beliefs upon its readers. Quite the contrary. Actually, what I think this text is doing is fracturing some of the more straight forward religious claims that we see in earlier biblical or rabbinic texts. It’s contesting and challenging some of these ideas. It’s opening up other possibilities. So in rabbinic texts, when we think about rabbinic law and the way rabbinic law works in the Talmud, scholars of Jewish law have often talked about the kind of dialogic or dialectical process of debate. And actually I see that kind of—point, counterpoint, response, alternative suggestion—that kind of dialectical approach I argue is also in some respects in a different way present in the aggadic, in the stories as well. As these stories are thinking about questions of meaning, questions of merit, virtue. My book asks a lot of questions about ethics and the way in which rabbinic texts imagine the ethical responsibility and also grapple with their own ethical shortcomings. There is a lot of opportunities to think through these questions in a very open ended and multi-vocal way.
HODGES: They model a way that you can critically engage with, not only the past of the rabbis or some mistake of the rabbis, but also the complications of the authoritative texts, the revered texts, that you can actually grapple with those too. And that different people do different things with those texts. The flip side of that would be, does it risk become an interminable discussion, or is that the point?
BELSER: The Talmud is an interminable discussion and I think that is the point. This is a text that at the end of the day…if you want a sort of concise and clear answer to a question of Jewish law or Jewish practice, the Talmud is the last place to look. The best place to look is to go to the bookshelf and pull out a nice concise code of Jewish law that’s been systematized by one of the sixteenth or seventeenth century rabbis, that articulate a sort of take-home message. The Talmud is…The texture of the Talmud…it’s digressive, it’s reflexive, it can go down, it loves to go down the rabbit hole!
BELSER: So in many respects, this is a text that aims to invite its readers, its students, to a process of study. The journey here, to use the old phrase, perhaps is not more important than the destination, but certainly just as important. Of course the Talmud cares about practice. It’s composed in a culture in a religious milieu in which is right practice and right action is very important. But ultimately I think this is a text that aims to inculcate its readers into a love of study for its own sake. A love of text and tradition and learning that sees value in always going deeper, always turning over another possibility, another alternative.
HODGES: I was going to ask, is that how you see it really playing out in the lives of contemporary Jewish believers then? That’s how it plays itself out practically as how they practice religion?
BELSER: Yes, yes, yes. This is, I think, the idea that Talmud study is in fact first of all a religious act in its own right. When I talk with my students about this, I say it’s not just a matter of studying for the exam; this is not an exam you can cram for. It’s an invitation to a life of study, a life of learning. At the end of the day, the rabbis imagine this as Torah, they imagine all of this as the outflowing of divine revelation and the divine word. You can never grasp all of it, you can never finish it, you can never conclude it. But you can always go deeper.
HODGES: That’s Julia Watts Belser, assistant professor of Jewish Studies in the department of theology in Georgetown University. Today we were talking about her new book from Cambridge University Press, it’s called Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity. Julia, now that you’ve got this project completed—and you’ve been working on it awhile, you said it goes even back to your dissertation—what’s up next for you?
BELSER: I’m working on a new book now that will be coming out, God willing, with Oxford University Press, it is examining Babylonian rabbinic responses to the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple. So in this new project, I’m reading rabbinic stories of destruction through the prism of gender, sexuality, ecology, and disability studies. In some ways I’m still sticking with a theme of disaster, right? [laughs] I’m working on the foundational catastrophe in rabbinic thought. But here I’m interested in thinking about parsing its implications socially, culturally, and theologically, in terms of rabbinic memory. I’m thinking about rabbinic memory, but also aiming to grapple with the materiality of destruction, the fact that destruction is not just an idea, it’s not just a theological event, it’s something that happened to people’s bodies, to people’s lives. This is a conquest story, this is in many ways a story of what we would today call colonialism, imperialism. So I want to ask how those material dimensions of destruction affect rabbinic understandings of body, sexuality, corporeality, ecology. This is a book that traces the impact that Roman colonial violence leaves on the flesh and on the land, as well as in the mind and the memory.
HODGES: In addition to working on that project you are also teaching and doing other things.
BELSER: Yes, I teach at Georgetown. This semester I am teaching one version of our introductory course in theology in the theology department called “Problem of God.” Here at Georgetown I often teach courses on Judaism and late antiquity, the Talmud, Judaism and gender, and also a course on religion and disabilities studies.
HODGES: How far out do you think the book is?
BELSER: I’m working on the final chapter now, and then of course there is a long process of revision, review, conversation with other scholars, so but it’s coming along.
BELSER: It’s been a wonderful project, a fun project to work on.
HODGES: Very good. Thanks for coming on the show today, it was really fun talking about your book.
BELSER: Thank you so much for having me. It was really a pleasure.
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“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)