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Rabbis on the Road: Exposition En Route in Classical Rabbinic Texts

  • Author(s): Haber, Ruth
  • Advisor(s): Boyarin, Daniel
  • et al.
Abstract

Throughout classical rabbinic texts, we find accounts of sages expounding Scripture or law, while "walking on the road." We may well wonder why we find these sages in transit, rather than in the usual sites of Torah study, such as the bet midrash (study house) or ʿaliyah (upper story of a home). Indeed, in this corpus of texts, sages normally sit to study; the two acts are so closely associated, that the very word "sitting" is synonymous with a study session or academy. Moreover, throughout the corpus, "the road" is marked as the site of danger, disruption and death. Why then do these texts tell stories of sages expounding en route?

In seeking out the rabbinic road, I find that, against these texts' pervasive notion of travel danger runs another, competing motif: the road as the proper - even necessary - site of Torah study. Tracing the genealogy of the road exposition (or "road derasha"), I find it rooted in traditional Wisdom texts, which have been adapted to form a new, "literal" metaphor. The motif of sages expounding en route actualizes the Proverbial "Way of Wisdom" making it a real road upon which sages tread. That way is paved by a (literalized) reading of the Shema's command, "speak [these words] as you walk on the road..."

In the first part of my study, I consider the motif's setting, asking what rabbinic texts tell us about this site. I find that danger is the keynote of discourse about the road; indeed the multitude of dangers and risks indicate that this is a far from suitable place for Torah study. Rabbinic discourse about the road seems to preclude discourse while on the road. The second part of my work focuses on teachings that (in spite of this pervasive sense of road danger) actually adjure travelers to study en route, declaring that Torah study protects travelers on the way. Not only do these teachings seem to justify the accounts of road exposition, but they also point the way to the roots of the motif; by closely reading each teaching and its links to the larger corpus, I mark the way to the Wisdom tradition in which the motif is grounded, and which it transforms. Finally, in the last part of my study, I consider a text containing many road derashot - and of which the main theme is the journey. This text, which concerns esoteric wisdom, complicates our motif, for here (instead of guiding and protecting us on the way), Wisdom is considered a dangerous path, from which we are warned away. And yet, even against warning and prohibition, it seems that the imperative to "speak [these words] on the way" is still in force. For here too, we find sages expounding on the way - accounts that are emblematic of the text's larger discursive journey towards this dangerous wisdom.

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