“Biblical Narrative and the Formation of Rabbinic Law” by Jane L. Kanarek

JaneKanarekJane L. Kanarek. Biblical Narrative and the Formation of Rabbinic Law. New York, NY: 2014, 212 pp., $62.99 (hardback on Amazon).

Jane L. Kanarek (Assistant Professor of Rabbinics at Hebrew College) argues that “biblical narrative is embedded in th heart of rabbinic lawmaking enterprise and is, in fact, inseparable from it” (1). Drawing on classical rabbinic sources, such as the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, the Mishnah, Midrash Halakhah and Midrash Aggadah, Kanarek explores how rabbinic literature integrates rabbinic law and biblical narrative. The integration is distinct from Jubilees in that rabbinic integration utilizes different exegetical methods. Rather than law and narrative operating as two autonomous realms, Kanarek argues that, in rabbinic literature, they exist dialectically (13).

Following her introduction, she explores the exegetical tradition of Isaac’s binding. She focuses on the Akedah as a legal source for rabbinic literature, namely the the type of knife that should be used for ritual animal slaughter (31). The Akedah is reframed in rabbinic sources in an interpretive web of narrative’s dialectical existence with law in biblical literature.

Chapter 3 traces the distinct rhetorical strategies of Palestinian and Babylonian text in Rebekah’s betrothal. For both traditions, she clearly demonstrates that both retellings are contextually grounded, integrating biblical narrative with rabbinic law for a rabbinic law-narrative. This provides “a realm for imaging, enacting, creating, and performing rabbinic law” (105).

Towards a more complex rabbinic web, Chapter 4 argues that the dismissal of an obvious prooftext is actually “a more complex exegetical route [that] leads to richer law and creates more legal meaning” (107). As a test case, she explores exegetical traditions around Joseph’s mourning (Genesis 50:10) and rabbinic shiv’ah. The exegetical approaches of the Yerushalmi and Bavli permit them to attain more meaning through reading biblical narrative and rabbinic law together.

Chapter 5  examines the “rabbinic definition of an assembly (‘edah) as consisting of a quorum of ten people” through Palestinian and Babylonian traditions (139). However, in contrast to previous chapters, he analysis yields results that the Bavli and Yerushalmi provide fragmentary textual traditions. Essentially they fail to fully integrate and anchor a quorum of ten – as rabbinic law – into biblical narrative.

She sums up her books fairly well: “The far-reaching and webbed nature of rabbinic legal reading expands scripture beyond genre into a rabbinic text that is simultaneously law and story. To read scripture rabbinically is to read it as a law-story” (183). Each of her chapter demonstrate a unique aspect of how the rabbis read scripture as a law-story.

Kanarek’s work it important to any student of rabbinic literature and Judaism, as it approach the heart of Jewish tradition. Her examination of the interplay between rabbinic law and biblical narrative comprises a wonderfully succinct argument that assists the reader in recognizing the exegetical approach of Amoraic rabbis. Although the audience is fairly limited, as rabbinic and Judaic studies comprise of a small group of people, those who are to and desire to engage with historical traditional uses of the Hebrew Bible most surely should read Kanarek’s publication. As for future potential of the study, especially as it regards my areas of interest, comparison of rabbinic law and narrative integration with ancient Near Eastern law and narrative integration (or relationship) may be a fruitful future endeavor.