Thus is the status quaestionis as it emerged from a mini-symposium at Harvard University yesterday. Firmly on one side of the question was Shaye Cohen and Moshe Halbertal. Both pointed to the radical difference between the Mishnah and Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. The extensive and systematic treatment of academic halakhic problems (grabbing on to a halakhic issue “like the proverbial dog with a bone,” in Cohen’s memorable analogy); its conceptualization; and the inclusion of rabbinic disagreements all set it apart from previous literature. Even more so, Halbertal especially emphasized the novelty of the entire halakhic process – halakhah itself was an invention of the Rabbis, he argued.
Not quite on the other side was Aharon Shemesh and Vered Noam. Both acknowledged that the Mishnah was an innovative document, but both also emphasized to different degrees the pre-existence of traditions that either made it into or were implicitly acknowledged in rabbinic literature. Shemesh highlighted striking literary parallels between rabbinic justifications for violating the Sabbath in order to save a life and passages in the New Testament. Noam focused on laws of corpse impurity in which the early Rabbis appear to be responding to laws that are attested at Qumran. Shemesh was more cautious about positing a model of “halakhic development,” but both saw more continuity where Cohen and Halbertal saw rupture.
So which is it? As strange as the Mishnah as a literary document is, its contents, I think all would acknowledge, was not entirely the creation of the Rabbis. They did create halakhah, but they also took existing practices, justified them, conceptualized them, and systematized them. The answer, then, is not either/or. Although the spotty data will always limit our ability to discern where and how the Rabbis innovated, much scholarly work is left to be done. The fundamental question (or at least the one I’m most interested in), though, is not where or how, but why. How do we explain the “Rabbinic project” in a historically sensitive way?