1. H-Net Review Publication: Mokhtarian on Dolgopolski, 'The Open Past:
Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud'
Sergey Dolgopolski. The Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in
the Talmud. New York Fordham University Press, 2013. xi + 379 pp.
$65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-4492-8.
Reviewed by Jason Mokhtarian (Indiana University)
Published on H-Judaic (April, 2014)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Virtual Thinking and Authorship in the Talmud and Beyond
This book by Sergey Dolgopolski situates the Babylonian Talmud's
modes of thinking and remembering in light of twentieth-century
philosophy and rhetoric. A singular piece of scholarship that will be
of interest to scholars of Jewish studies, rabbinic literature, and
philosophy, _The Open Past_ turns to the Talmud to engage problems of
the "virtual" and "open past." According to the analytic
philosophical tradition, the concept of the open past is "a technical
term referring to one's temporary inability to tell exactly which of
the descriptions of the past is accurate" (p. x). In general, the
goal of this monograph is to trace modes of thinking and memory
across time and within the Jewish tradition. To this end, Dolgopolski
asserts that the main question in the book is: "How does modern
thinking differ from historical methods of thinking, particularly
within the Jewish tradition?" The work is a history of thinking in
philosophy and Talmudic Judaism, offering points of mutual fruition
between the disciplines. While the monograph illustrates
for philosophers the idiosyncratic value of the Talmudic corpus
for their discipline in how it "provides an important
counterexample to how our ability to remember might be conceived and
carried out in practice" (p. 3), it offers Talmudists new insights
into how to think about thinking as it relates to the dialogical
character of the Bavli.
Although this book is, I think, addressed more to philosophers than
scholars of rabbinics, at its core it is a sustained critique and
re-orientation of text-critical Talmudists' assumptions regarding the
concept of thinking in the Talmud. For instance, on pages 131-132 in
_The Open Past_, the author summarizes his critique of past Talmudic
studies scholarship explaining that it has promoted flawed
categories of thinking persons and authors and would benefit
from reframing its notions of thinking based on the history of the
topic in Western philosophy and critical theory. An overarching goal
of _The Open Past_ is, then, to re-examine questions of thinking and
authorial subjects in Talmudic scholarship, especially as promoted by
David Weiss Halivni and Shamma Friedman, two giants in the
In what follows I shall give a synthesis of the most salient features
of the monograph. The book is divided into an introduction and four
parts, entitled "Stakes," "Who Speaks?," "Who Thinks?," and "Who
Remembers?" Each of the four parts contains two or three chapters
each, for a total of ten. After a conclusion, the author also adds an
appendix on Halivni and Friedman's reading of a Talmudic _sugya_.
In the introduction, Dolgopolski lays out the book's basic project.
The author perceptively traces how the history of "thinking subjects"
in antiquity and the Middle Ages leads to contemporary Talmudists'
problematic assumptions regarding the anonymous editors, called the
_stammaim_ (cf. p. 132). According to Dolgopolski, the rabbis of late
antiquity possessed an alternative epistemology of remembrance than
most Talmudists assume. In this view, Talmudists are imposing an
anachronistic understanding of "thinking subjects" upon their
analyses of the Bavli's numerous voices. Instead, the author argues,
the Talmudic sages "are no more and no less than agents and
placeholders for textual traditions" and "are not person-centered
thinkers mediating their thoughts in the text" (p. 4). The rabbis who
produce the Talmud should not be understood as thinking subjects.
Part 1 of _The Open Past_ opens up by exploring the benefits involved
in utilizing the thought of Heidegger, Levinas, and Plato's
_Phaedrus_ for the study as a whole. Dolgopolski argues that
contemporary source-critical Talmudists misunderstand the broader
implications of their own research on redaction--that is, without
Halivni and Friedman realizing it, their chronological studies are in
fact dealing with the philosophical question of "who is thinking" in
the Bavli. Dolgopolski wants to approach the Bavli as an
"intellectual discipline" and a "performance" (pp. 36-39). On pages
45-53 the author critiques Halivni's "literary-formal" approach and
Friedman's "literary-realist" method by stating that "the problems of
historical approaches to the Talmud have to do with assuming a
historically empirically unverified (and perhaps unverifiable) agency
responsible for the Talmud's genesis, while claiming to produce an
account of the empirically verifiable history of the Talmud's
production" (p. 46).
Part 2 of _The Open Past_ scrutinizes contemporary notions of the
Talmud's redactors _qua_ authors by using _The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer _(1876) authored by Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, as
an analogy (e.g., "Who, then, is the Mark Twain of the Talmud?," p.
71). The book finds fault with text-critical scholars for defining
"thinking in rigid association with a person (character, author)
found either in historical reality or in the reality represented
and/or constructed in the text" (p. 76). Halivni's position,
according to _The Open Past_, is that the "Author" is a
homogeneous-thinking singularity which includes multiplicity. For
Dolgopolski, however, Talmudists need to stop thinking about
authorial subjects in the Cartesian model of "they thought, therefore
they must have existed" (p. 83). In chapter 6, the author turns to a
close reading of _Bava Metzia,_ chapter 6. He summarizes his
conclusions based on the primary source that "the Aramaic speakers do
not have personalities" but rather "function as placeholders defined
by the difference in their choreographed roles, not by their
identities or by any content or structure of their arguments" (p.
Part 3 of _The Open Past_, entitled "Who Thinks?," is an erudite
survey of philosophical traditions about thinking, from Aristotle to
Augustine to Foucault, that help to contextualize Judaism's
long-standing notions of a thinking subject in the Talmud.
Dolgopolski analyzes key passages on this subject found in the
writings of Maimonides and Moses Hayyim Luzzato before then moving to
Halivni's readings of several _sugyot_ (see pp. 143-157) which he
attacks as "subscribing to the problematic and theologically charged
concept of the thinking subject" (p. 156). While much ground is
covered here, one of the more interesting claims of Dolgopolski is
where he explains that "specific refutations and defenses have no
intrinsic time of genesis" and that it is therefore wrong to
perpetuate the "illusion of synchronic conversations in the Talmud"
(p. 175). For Dolgopolski the Author of the Talmud is virtual, not
real (p. 176) and Talmudists need to revisit the philosophical
implications of the sequencing of refutations and defenses.
Part 4 of _The Open Past_ focuses again upon the virtual aspects of
Talmudic voices, which the author compares with Plato's _The Sophist_
(p. 187). In many ways, this part of the book represents its most
explicit statement on the benefits of bringing Talmudic studies and
philosophy into conversation. The comparison between Platonic
dialogues and the Talmud allows Dolgopolski to contemplate further
questions of virtuality. On pages 200-205, the author analyzes
Palestinian Talmud, Berakhot 9:1, and Bavli Megillah 19b-20a as a
means of illustrating the role of the virtual in the Bavli's
dialectical forms of argumentation. Part 4 of _The Open Past_ also
contains a chapter entitled "The Talmud as Film" which draws upon the
notion of a "montage" as a way of addressing Halivni's theories of
redaction. On this point the author argues that Halivni "addresses
that montage historically, in the time of history, not in the time of
the montage itself" (p. 246).
For Talmudists reading _The Open Past_, it is essential to pay close
attention to the author's analysis of Halivni and Friedman's
divergent readings of Bava Metzia 76a-b (see esp. table 2 on pp.
303-305). In many ways, the appendix represents the author's putting
his claims into action--that is, taking us through a text piecemeal,
citing Halivni and Friedman on that text, and then revealing certain
flaws of their assumptions about thinking. Dolgopolski also adds a
comparative chart about these two scholars' approaches towards Talmud
(pp. 194-196) before finally concluding that "they still show an
uncritical remnant of the traditional normative approach ... to the
Talmud, in which (a) the Talmud is both composed by one of the latest
name-identified authorities mentioned in it, Rav Ashe, and (b) by the
same token, is staged as early as in fifth-century Babylonia, or in
respective academies of the rabbis of previous generations" (p. 297).
In conclusion, Dolgopolski's book is an ambitious critique of two of
the most important Talmudic scholars of the twentieth century. While
the style and content of Dolgopolski's philosophical book is at times
too dense for an uninitiated reader, at its best it offers intriguing
and successful challenges to Talmudists' presuppositions regarding
the concept of thinking subjects and authorship that are rooted in
centuries of misconception about late antique ideas of reality and
virtuality. Regardless of whether one agrees with all of
Dolgopolski's conclusions, it behooves source-critical Talmudists to
take this monograph's insights as a signal to become increasingly
mindful of the philosophical ramifications of stammaitic theory and
collective authorship. While _The Open Past_ at times gives short
shrift to the inner-Talmudic reasons for Halivni and Friedman's
well-established modes of analysis, and does not engage enough with
relevant Talmudic texts as data and test cases, the monograph
nevertheless demonstrates the value of the Bavli's unique rhetoric
and compositional character for philosophical inquiries into
subjectivity and memory.
. For example, David Weiss Halivni, _Mekorot u-Masorot: Be'urim
Ba-Talmud: Massakhet Bava Kama_ (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, 1993); David Weiss Halivni, _Mekorot
u-Masorot: Be'urim Ba-Talmud: Massakhet Bava Metsi'a_ (Jerusalem:
Magnes Press, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2003); Shamma Friedman,
"A Good Story Deserves Retelling--The Unfolding of the Akiva Legend,"
_Journal for the Study of Judaism_ 3 (2004): 55-93; Shamma Friedman,
"Perek Ha-Isha Raba BeBavli be Tziruf Mavo Klali al Derekh Heker
Hasygia," in _Mekhkarim UMekorot: Sefer Alef_ (New York: Bet
ha-midrash le-Rabanim be-Amerikah, 5738), 275-440; Shamma Friedman,
_Talmud Arukh: Perek Ha-Sokher et Ha-Umanin: Bavli Bava Metsia Perek
Shishi: Mahadurah al Derekh Ha-Mekhar Im Perush Ha-Sugyot_ (New York:
Jewish Theological Seminary, 1990).
Citation: Jason Mokhtarian. Review of Dolgopolski, Sergey, _The Open
Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud_. H-Judaic, H-Net
Reviews. April, 2014.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States