Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

"Do Not Go Out Alone at Night": Law and Demonic Discourse in the Babylonian Talmud
by Ronis, Sara A., Ph.D., Yale University, 2015, 559; 3663590
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation focuses on the modes of controlling, avoiding, and appropriating demons in the Babylonian Talmud, with particular attention to rabbinic legal discourse. Though scholars have largely overlooked demons as a source of information about rabbinic legal discourse, cross-cultural interaction, and theology, this dissertation has asked how the inclusion of rabbinic demonology enriches our picture of rabbinic discourse and thought in Late Antique Sasanian Babylonia.

I analyze rabbinic legal passages relating to demons within their larger textual, redactional, and cultural – Zoroastrian, Christian, and ancient Near Eastern – contexts, in order to uncover and highlight the discursive choices made by Babylonian rabbis in their legislation regarding demons, and in their constructions of the demonic. I argue that the rabbis constructed demons as subjects of rabbinic law in ways that adopt, adapt, and reject particular cultural options available to them. This act of cultural bricolage results in the creation of a uniquely rabbinic perspective.

The first chapter reviews previous scholarship on demons in ancient Judaism and religious studies more broadly and lays out the theoretical model for my study of those ancient texts which deal with demons. The second chapter examines one extended passage in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Pesahim 109b-112a) using source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism, in order to create a basic model of Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse. I argue that the Babylonian rabbis neutralize demons by turning them into subjects, informants, and teachers of rabbinic law, thus subjugating them to the legal system. The third chapter highlights those areas where the Babylonian rabbis differed from the Jewish traditions they inherited, by comparing demonic discourse in the law and narratives of the Babylonian Talmud with those of Second Temple literature and the Palestinian Talmud. I suggest that this differentiation was a crucial element of Babylonian rabbinic self-formation as an elite distinct from their Palestinian confreres. The fourth chapter contextualizes Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse within early Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, Zoroastrian, Armenian, and Syriac Christian literatures, as well as the Babylonian incantation bowls. I show that Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse aligns in content with ancient Sumerian and Akkadian understandings of the demonic, and adopts only the form of legal discourse from the contemporaneous Zoroastrian elite. My conclusion advocates for a more nuanced understanding of rabbinic interaction with non-Jews and non-rabbinic Jews which takes into account both past and present cultural traditions, as part of the construction of rabbinic identity as an elite group empowered over and against other Jews.

My understanding of the role of demons in Talmudic law also suggests one way for scholars of monotheistic religion more generally to understand the historical attitude towards and construction of semi-divine beings within monotheistic systems as part of a broader holistic theological and legal worldview. My work also contributes to a refinement of broader theories of demons, magic, and religion by situating demonological concerns within the realm of normative religion and not that of non-normative magic.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Hayes, Christine
Commitee:
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 76/11(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Religion, Near Eastern Studies, Judaic studies
Keywords: Babylonia, Babylonian Talmud, Demonology, Pesachim, Rabbinics, Sasanian Iran
Publication Number: 3663590
ISBN: 978-1-321-94622-2
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