In 1978 Prof. Wansbrough Reviewed Prof. Zahavy's Remarkable First Book on Eleazar ben Azariah

In 1978 Professor J. Wansbrough reviewed my first book in the distinguished journal, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 41, No. 2 (1978), 368-369. 

Below is the review. Get the book at Amazon.

TZVEE ZAHAVY: The traditions of Eleazar ben Azariah. (Brown Judaic Studies, No. 2.) xv, 365 pp. Missoula, Montana : Scholars Press for Brown University, [1977]. $7.50.

La scuola di Neusner merits special attention and profound gratitude. One has only to consider the contributions to the series ' Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity ' (Brill, Leiden, 1973-) and now the ' Brown Judaic Studies ' (Brown University, 1977- ) to appreciate the resourcefulness and extraordinary industry of a single Rabbinic scholar in the United States. Among the remarkable works generated by Neusner's teaching is Dr. Zahavy's study of Eleazar hen Azariah, a peripheral figura of the Yavnean ambient. The contribution of the study is as much methodological as it is substantive, namely, by the application of form and redaction criticism to post-Biblical literature, an exercise (possibly) inaugurated by F. Maass (Formgeschichte der Mischna, Berlin, 1937) and certainly pursued today with vigour and insight by Jacob Neusner (History of the Mishnaic law of purities, etc.).

Zahavy's treatment of the Rabbinic materials is as comprehensive and detailed as could possibly he wished, and one wonders what could have been omitted. I have myself long thought that lexical analysis might he applied to the Oral Law, but am inclined now to suppose that the very uniformity of that literature must preclude any very useful conclusions from the use of that method. What matters primarily are thematic (type) and morphological (form) data, and the statistical conclusions and/or inferences which can he drawn from them. Zahavy has provided precisely such data. Starting with Mishnah- Tosefta, and proceeding through the Talmuds and Tannaitic Midrashim to the later Rabbinic anthologies, he considers the development of the 120 traditions in which Eleazar figures either as protagonist or as minor participant.

The arrangement of the material is exemplary : legal traditions (pp. 13-130), non-legal (pp. 131-209). attestation (pp. 211-35), forms (pp. 237-63), transmission and redaction (pp. 265-77), legal themes (pp. 279-308), exegetical and theological themes (pp. 309-23), biographical and historical references (pp. 323-32), conclusions (pp. 333-40). From all this it may be safely observed that Eleazar owes his survival to concern with the deposition of Gamaliel II (see R. Goldenberg, in JJS, XXIII, 2, 1972, 167-90) and the redactional activities of Aqivan circles. Neither his life nor his actual function in those activities which led to formation of the Mishnah can be reconstructed. That is a refreshingly honest admission of which I should like to see rather more in the closely related field of Islamic Tradition.

From content alone it is possible, but very difficult, to elicit an individual profile: Eleazar's legal agendum is characteristically Pharisaic and Yavnean, his exegetical principles undefined or rudimentary (e.g. semukhot). Formal criteria (here distinguished as attributive, dispute, gloss, combination of independent rulings, and story) provide, however, more conclusive information, namely, that a high percentage at least of the legal traditions exhibit the loose combined form and, collated with their contexts, evidence of redactional intervention. Such might suggest that Eleazar was merely a foil for R. Aqiva (p. 277). That is to some extent corroborated by the negative character of his contribution to Mishnaic law, by the random nature of post-Mishnaic attributions to him, and the absence of consistently applied principles in the corpus of his legal rulings.

What, then, could have been the intention(s) in projecting historically this pseudo-figura? Though virtually nothing is known of him, his historicity need not be doubted. It is, however, his role in Rabbinic literature which matters : and this seems to be service as peg for minority views and marginalia, possibly also for occasional anti-Christian polemic. That at least is the way I should be inclined to interpret the lemma in Mekhilta de R. Ishmael on ' the merit of Abraham ' (p. 314). That might have been ascribed to anyone, but it may well have been important after 70 C.E. to see such dicta distributed amongst a group of authorities. In Islam that was achieved by the multiplication of isnads.

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