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The Event of Language. Speech, Thought, and Writing in the Rabbis (2019-2023)

Eva Kiesele, Research Area 3, "Future Perfect"
Doctoral Research Project

This project addresses a plain textual fact of rabbinic literature: rabbinic texts are entirely composed of individual “utterances” pitted against each other – where “utterance” can be anything ranging from biblical verses or parts thereof to apodictic teachings, statements attributed to named sages, brief anecdotes or even elaborate narratives, and finally, an anonymous voice highlighting contradictions, supplying explanations or normative understandings of other utterances. Unlike some of their successors, rabbinic texts of the classical period do not exhibit framing narratives or narrating voices. As unauthored accretions of oral tradition, they instead leave all the work to utterances being brought to bear upon each other. This practice of “bringing to bear upon” readily transcends historical sequence, geographic or textual provenance. As ever more utterances may be brought to bear upon what is already there, and in turn, what is there already may be brought to bear upon utterances made in the future, rabbinic texts appear to project a process of ongoing reference and relation, delimited neither by an originary beginning (beyond the Sinaitic revelation!) nor by a foreseeable end.

The unfolding of tradition would thus seem to stand as the unfolding of language itself. What view of utterances engenders such practice? Rabbinic literature does not theorize, and philological sincerity demands not to impute to the texts any views not expressed by them. This project boldly contends that we can nevertheless glean assumptions about the nature of language from these texts. To this end, I turn to those corners of rabbinic literature committed to principled discussion and higher degrees of conceptualization: treatment of halakhically (“legally”) significant human utterances. Close readings of exemplary concerns in rabbinic law – recitation of a mandatory prayer, protest from afar against occupation of one’s land, and the dispatch of writs of divorce – provide insight into the mutual relationship of speech, writing, and thought, as well as the transmission of utterances across spatial and temporal distance. It is my hope that this insight may shed light unto rabbinic literature’s construction of a transtemporal community of utterers.