Many Several years ago, I wrote an essay on ancient rabbinic understandings of masculinity. In that paper, I argued that the rabbis understood all human beings – men and women, Jews and Gentiles – to have an “evil inclination” that drove their appetites. For these rabbis, though, only Torah-true, well-disciplined, Jewish men really had the capacity to control this inclination, and it was that very ability of self-control that not only gendered as “masculine” but, in fact, defined what it meant for them to be a man. They thus created an alternative version of masculinity – one that had strong parallels to some early Christians and Roman philosophers – that stood in contrast to the hegemonic Roman understanding of masculinity as an embodiment of physical power and domination. I developed some of these ideas in a later essay on rabbinic asceticism, and these studies were joined by those of scholars such as Daniel Boyarin, Eliezer Diamond, and Ishay Rosen-Zvi who (despite my occasional disagreements with their conclusions) further enriched our understanding of rabbinic understandings of masculinity. In the meantime, I left this question as an active research pursuit and moved on to other things.
This summer I was asked to revisit the topic for a talk at a conference on “Religious Men in the Middle Ages,” held the other week at the University of Huddersfield. In this paper, I extended my previous conclusions to the Babylonian Talmud. I was struck by the research conducted over the last decade or so by scholars such as Marc Hirshman and Jeffrey Rubenstein pointing to a shift in rabbinic discourses of learning. The Babylonian Talmud, particularly in relatively late strata, uses violent metaphors for learning and intellectual discourse. Learning becomes a war, against both the evil inclination and, socially, against other rabbis. Rubenstein in particular has suggested that the institutionalization of the rabbinic academy had much to do with this shift, and I find his account largely convincing. At the same time, though, I think that his explanation can be enriched with considering issues of gender. As I wrote in the paper:
I would like to suggest here that the seeds for these aggressive intellectual tendencies can be found in the earlier, Palestinian literature, particularly the gendering of Torah study as masculine. This gendering arose, I have argued, from a conception of self-control; the active force – of which Torah was one tool – that allowed a man to subdue his desire was seen as male. The Babylonian rabbis inherited the gendering of Torah study as masculine, but the reasons behind it were ignored, perhaps as a matter of transmission but more likely of cultural difference. Self-control as denoting male power was, perhaps, distinctly Greco-Roman.
This basic equation of Torah study as a masculine activity helped to inform the development of the peculiar culture of the Babylonian Talmud. For Babylonian rabbis, masculinity meant violence, power, aggression, war, and competition. These became the values of the academy. The ability to argue aggressively proved one’s masculinity within the academy, and was rewarded by winning the competition for moving up the academy’s hierarchical ladder. The transfer of masculine values from the realm of true physical violence to the intellectual realm, though, was by no means transparent and clean. As we saw in the story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, the rabbis themselves acknowledged their adaption of traditional masculine values to the academy, and reflected on that very tension. They were not necessarily sold on their own creation.
The full paper will hopefully be forthcoming in the conference volume.