Going West: Migrating Personae and Construction of the Self in Rabbinic Culture

— Reuven Kiperwasser

I will begin by explaining the title of my book. The title of this book, Going West, was inspired by the Aramaic term used by Babylonian sages for the Land of Israel, ma’arava (west). From the perspective of Babylonia, the Land of Israel is in the West. Translating this expression for the first time in English I was amused that that my new title recalls the bracing nineteenth-century American exhortation: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” This coincidence may be a fortuitous one. American “westerns” often feature a young man who heads westward and receives a rough reception, forging a new identity in the process. Palestinian rabbinic literature preserves numerous stories in which young Babylonians go west, confront the Land of Israel’s unwelcoming inhabitants, and recreate themselves, so to speak. In both contexts, a new persona is forged in the crucible of masculine combat.

The idea for this book came to me while reading and rereading Saul Lieberman’s small paper, titled “As It Was, So It Will Be.”[1] This made me think of his model on the relations between Babylonians and Palestinians in the Holy Land of late antiquity in terms of xenophobia and philoxenia. I concluded that I share with Lieberman some of his insights regarding these two, while disagreeing in general with his explanatory model. Even in the title of Lieberman’s article, we catch a glimpse of the scholar’s view of this model of relationship, and that of Lieberman’s own, difficult relationship with the Land of Israel—the nascent State of Israel. For Lieberman, Israel’s “Babylonians” were former European Jews, urban literati who found themselves surrounded by their more rural Israeli brethren (“Palestinians”), whose role models were far removed from the images of the typical European intellectuals. Lieberman’s insights, expressed in some of his hints and sometimes enigmatic notes, were first of all insights of Eastern European emigrees researching rabbinic literature in the contemporary State of Israel; a situation which I fully understand, based on my own experience. Experiencing being the “other’ in the Land of my ancestors, and being a scholar of rabbinic literature, I find myself particularly interested in how otherness was accepted and treated in rabbinic culture.

Saul Liebermann (Image: Eva Reifenberg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

 I wrote the first chapters of my book in Ann Arbor in 2014–2015, as a fellow of the Fraenkel Institute. My experience as a migrating persona in the United States, where I had never spent any substantial period previously, provided additional inspiration for the concept of this book. I continued working on it as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Berlin (2015–2017), the ultimate metropolis of migrating people who set out to find themselves and receive shelter in a city that is no less diligently looking to find itself. This is where the major body of the book was written. I finished its first draft shortly before returning to my home in Jerusalem, the city of dreamers and strangers. Thus, my route has come full circle, corelating with some semiotic formulae. The book, however, continued its journey overseas, experiencing adventures typical of the migration of texts and encountering various locals before finally arriving at Braun Judaic Serie’s welcoming port. Thus, the route of the book ended where it began to take on its written form, in the United States.

My book examines narratives of Late Antiquity in which rabbinic figures travel either westward from Babylonia to Palestine or eastward from Palestine to Babylonia. They encounter local rabbis, local lay people, and their practices and customs in these new settings. My study is the first in-depth research of the social, cultural, and religious aspects of the encounters between Babylonians and their Palestinian brethren. The book examines the social, cultural, and religious aspects of third- to sixth-century narratives involving rabbinic figures migrating between Sassanian Babylonia and Roman Palestine. I draw on migration and mobility studies, comparative literature, humor studies, as well as social history to reveal how border-crossing rabbis were seen as exporting features of their previous eastern context into their new western homes and vice versa. I believe that through their writing, rabbinic authors articulated the nature and legitimacy of their own scholastic practices, knowledge, and authority in relationship to their internal others.

This book belongs to the academic genre of the history of mentalities, as applied to Talmudic studies. It aims to describe and analyze how Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis thought about and represented their interactions with one another, with special attention to their beliefs, feelings, values, and mental attitudes of the Palestinian rabbis towards their Babylonian brethren. The book is based on the corpus of rabbinic literature of late Roman Palestine (third to sixth centuries) and from the related material in Sassanid Babylonia. I argue that these narratives reflect the ongoing interaction between the rabbinic elites of Palestine and Babylonia throughout late antiquity, that rabbinic figures from the “other” rabbinic centers served as the “internal others,” and that through these “others,” rabbinic authors articulated the nature and legitimacy of their scholastic practices, knowledge, and authority. The selection and juxtaposition of this set of texts aims to sketch a richer and more nuanced portrait of the discursive relationship between these two intellectual centers. One significant claim is that Palestinian sources about Babylonian rabbinic visitors or migrants provide evidence of a sense of inferiority (inflected by fear) on the part of the Palestinian rabbinic community.

In contrast, Babylonian sources suggest a particular self-confidence and even indulgence when confronted with the insecure hostilities of Palestinian rabbis. I tried to achieve my goals with the help of some theories, from which I will mention here only a few, such as Derrida’s model of the host and the guest, according to which the host (in this case, the Palestinian rabbinic community) is ever conscious of the danger of erasure or displacement by the guest (migrating Babylonian rabbis), inherent in the act of hospitality,[2] and as Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital and symbolic violence.[3]  Both are employed to see the complexity of the mentalities that emerge from the sources. The central premise of this book is that the narratives of Going West and Going East not only reflect the ongoing and intensive interaction between the rabbinic elites of Palestine and Babylonia throughout late antiquity; rabbinic figures from the “other” rabbinic center also served as “internal Others” through whom rabbinic authors articulated the nature and legitimacy of their scholastic practices, knowledge, and authority.

Ancient street slabs with menorah carving in Sepphoris (Image: Reuven Kiperwasser)

Now I want to share with the readers of the Urbanity and Religion blog an example chosen from the series of readings concerned with the reception of Babylonian immigrants in the domain of the Palestinian rabbis. The example is taken from the chapter in which I discuss the Palestinian rabbis’ use of the figure of the Babylonian Other in shaping their collective Self. Those examples deal with the mockery of the Babylonian newcomers. This story is a final anecdote in the tragicomic trilogy of encounters between Babylonian immigrants and the Galilee’s inhabitants. I have to add that I am again finding myself engaged with this particular topic due to my renewed interest in Roman baths in non-Roman literature, which was evoked by Aileen Becker’s presentation during her colloquium at the Max Weber Centre.

Floor of the synagogue at Hammat Tiberias (Bukvoed, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Rabbi Yasa ascended here, he went to the barber and wished to wash in the public baths of Tiberias. He met there a jester who gave him a punch on the nape of his neck. [The jester] said to him: The noose, on which I will hang is not yet tightened! There was an archon [there] who was judging a robber. He [the jester] went to stand there and grinned at them. The archon said [to the robber]: Who was with you? [The robber] raised his eyes and saw [the jester] grinning. He said: The one who grins was with me. They took him and judged him and sentenced him to death. When both were taken, they were loaded with two beams while Rabbi Yasa was done with bathing. [The jester] said to him: The noose that was loose is now tight. [Yasa] said to him: Bad luck to that man [= you]. Is it not written: “And now do not mock for your yoke will be tightened” (Isa 28:22)?

y. Berakhot 2:8, 5c

The first meeting of this Babylonian immigrant with a native of the Land of Israel is painful. The young rabbi is preparing to celebrate his arrival in the Land as he meets with his bride. Wishing to appear well-groomed before his new compatriots, he plans to visit the barber and then the public baths. The story involves a crucial urban institution—the public bath. By placing the story in the bathhouse, the editor follows a certain narrative logic. The bathhouse is a purely Roman institution, a marker of imperial culture that was extremely popular and widely accepted throughout the Roman Empire by both Jews and gentiles. In Babylonia, where Zoroastrian priests influenced the population, there were no public baths, because of a reluctance to defile the sacred element of water. Even King Khosrow traveled all the way to Antioch to experience the joys of the Roman bath and was condemned for his actions by his priests. Thus, even if public or semipublic baths existed in some form in Sasanian Babylonia, they did not feature the Roman innovations just mentioned. We may assume that Babylonians who found themselves in a Roman-style bath did not know how to conduct themselves there. Our Babylonian, unaccustomed to Roman bathhouse etiquette, comes to the bath and is easily recognized as an outsider. As with our previous protagonists, his behavior invites ridicule. The narrator does not explain precisely how the foreigner was identified as such, apparently relying on the reader’s understanding that a stranger is recognizable even when naked. Because his home country had no Roman baths, our hero simply did not know how to behave in his new surroundings and became the object of mockery.

Ancient ruins at Hammat Tiberias (Bukvoed, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Finding himself surrounded by a crowd of naked people, our shy Babylonian felt uncomfortable; perhaps he was still covering his nudity, as was customary in his homeland. For our protagonist, passing through the bath serves as a rite of passage; he encounters something clearly different from everything he knew before, after which his perception of the world changes. In the misty, liminal space of a public bath, a typical aggressive male episode occurs. Hidden in darkness, an assailant attacks his victim with a skillful blow, which represents a very violent form of attack, and its usage shows that this is a collision between the insider and the outsider, inevitably in the form of masculine combat. Confident of impunity, the scoffing joker utters a metaphorical maxim, which should be interpreted as: “the noose of the rope with which I will be hanged for this has not yet been knotted.” Having had his fun, the aggressor goes in search of further adventures in the bath, grinning contentedly. He then peers around, probably at some other curious event in the bathhouse, some distance away. It is there that he becomes not only a witness to another man’s game but himself an object of amusement. On the other side of the bathhouse, a dramatic scene is under way. An archon, that is, an important official, is absorbed in the work that he has brought with him to the bathhouse. Perhaps he is trying to resolve an unfinished court case with the robber, his defendant, or maybe the culprit in this case was apprehended in the bathhouse and faced an immediate arraignment before the magistrate, who simply happened to be on the scene. As part of the legal proceedings, the accused is asked a standard question about his accomplices. At that very moment, he glances up and sees the scoffer standing behind the pillar, still grinning from his previous antics. The defendant probably interpreted his smile as the malicious mockery of a free man among thieves. Out of spite, the robber proclaims that the scoffer is his accomplice. Without further ado, the judges of the Roman justice system condemn the robber and the jester to be crucified. Returning to the condemned Galileans, who are already equipped with beams for crucifixion, it is difficult to ascertain how the logs necessary for this form of execution appeared out of thin air in the public baths of Tiberias. But we may assume that the narrator’s need to engineer an encounter between the crucified robber, or the aggressive jokester and Rabbi Yasa allowed him to step beyond the bounds of reason. The tendency to joke can be dangerous. In a joke, the storyteller takes an everyday situation and injects an element from a completely different context; this is what makes it funny. The joke-teller is simultaneously the master of the situation and its victim. While he draws laughter, his ploy backfires, and he becomes the target of those he sought to ridicule.

Instead, he seems to be laughing at the absurdity of the entire situation: a real rebel and a bath jester, both evildoers from the narrator’s point of view, although only one is a criminal according to Roman law, while the other is actually innocent (albeit with an innocence that cannot be proven). Both seem resigned to their fate, carrying their crosses to their death. Our nameless mocker, who has tasted the destructive power of laughter, is nonetheless able to crack another joke when faced a second time with the Babylonian. This joke is based on the previous one, drawing on the same idiomatic formula: “The noose of the rope on which I will be hanged is now fully stretched.” Thus, he seems to be saying to the Babylonian: You are avenged! Yet the Babylonian does not even think of gloating. On the contrary, he laments the Palestinian’s unenviable fate and indicates that the opposite of mockery can be found by interpreting Isa 28:22. The jester’s declaration “The noose on which I will hang is not yet tightened” is seen as a reference to this verse. By citing it, the narrator seems to say, “Your noose was already waiting to be bound.” Thus, a witty banter, a form of talmudic “gallows humor,” is woven throughout this comic yet violent story. The humiliated rabbi, whose neck was probably still aching from the jester’s blow, offered an appropriate evaluation of subsequent events by interpreting a prophetic verse, as was customary for rabbinic intellectuals. Here, we see that rabbinic masculinity was quite different from the Roman vir and from the common Galilean male. The logic of power and its depiction, entangled with fundamental notions of maleness, suggests that hierarchies are constructed according to the principle of male superiority within any specific context.  Violence plays an ambivalent and disputed role in the behavior and expectations of masculinity across the social spectrum. However, I brought it here as an example of my readings not of the reason of the abovementioned hierarchies, but because of the appearance of the bath house as a landmark of urbanity and because of the somehow symbolic usage of it as an arena of intercultural exchange, which could be quite painful, but nevertheless constructive and thought-provoking. The entrance to the urban culture could as the entrance to the Roman bath, pleasant, interesting, but not without danger.

Reuven Kiperwasser was a fellow of the Religion and Urbanity research group in Erfurt in the fall of 2023. He specialises in rabbinic literature. He is a research
associate at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ariel University, Israel and teaches at Polis, Institute for Humanites, Jerusalem. His research interests include the interactions between Iranian mythology, Syriac-Christian storytelling, rabbinic narrative, and trans-cultural relationships between textual communities of Late Antiquity. Schechter publishing house published his critical edition of Kohelet Rabbah (7-12) with an introduction and commentary in 2021.

He recently published “A Guide to the Rabbinic Market Place: Roman Palestine in the 3rd–4th Centuries” on the open access platform Religion and Urbanity online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke.


[1] Saul Lieberman, “As It Was, So It Will Be” [Hebrew]. Studies in Palestinian Talmudic Literature. Edited by D. Rosenthal. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1991, 331–38

[2] See Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality. Translated by Rachel Bowlby. Cultural Memory in the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[3] See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.



Cite this blog post
urbrel (2024, January 15). Going West: Migrating Personae and Construction of the Self in Rabbinic Culture. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://urbrel.hypotheses.org/8313

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