What is a “ball”?  Does a ball exist when there is nobody around to see it?

Over the past couple of months I have been exposed to the thought of Bruno Latour.  Latour tries to thread the needle between seeing all of reality as a social or rhetorical construction and a strictly realist or objective approach.  For Latour, a ball is a “quasi-object.”  In the sense that it is a sphere made of some material and has a certain set of physical properties, it is an object.  But it is only in its interaction with humans that this sphere becomes a “ball.”  At the same time, as soon as a person interacts with such an object they are themselves transformed into a condition of “play.”  The relationship between person and object (or by extension, place or activity) is a reciprocal and interconnected one.  (I have much more to learn about Latour, and the example of the ball is not really his, but for a summary see here.)

Latour first came up for me this summer while I was attending  a conference entitled “Shared Ritual Practices and Divided Historiography: Media, Phenomena, Topoi” sponsored by the Dynamics of Jewish Ritual Practices in Pluralistic Contexts from Antiquity to the Present Research Centre at the University of Erfurt.  It was an interesting conference, not simply because it was full of excellent scholars discussing interesting ideas, but in a strange way also because I think few of us – or maybe I speak primarily for myself – knew exactly what we were supposed to be discussing.  What is a “shared ritual practice” and how are we to think about it in the context of “dynamics”?

Most of the participants took this to be a conference about Jewish rituals in a Christian or Roman environment (the program was heavily waited toward Late Antiquity and, somewhat less so, the Middle Ages).  Most of the papers that took “shared” as referring to such “trans-religious” rituals followed a historiographic trope that probably can be called the dominant one today in such studies: namely, that Jews tended to appropriate the rituals of the dominant cultures in which they lived and adapt them for their own use.  Probably convincing enough, but also a little flat.

Not all the papers took “shared” in this way, however,  Some (including my own) were more interested in understanding “shared” as referring to the rituals of rabbinic and non-rabbinic Jews.  How might we describe the “dynamics” of such rituals?  While nearly all scholars would reject a top-down explanatory model, in which rabbis advocated for new rituals and non-rabbis blindly followed, it is clear that we still have not developed a good and well-accepted model to replace it.

I was asked to talk on historiography and I had to flail around a little to avoid the well-trodden topic of the am ha-aretz, the group that the rabbis construct as a kind of contrast to themselves.  So instead I went for the other end of the spectrum, focusing on the hasidim ha-rishonim, the “pious men of old.”  There are six distinct traditions about them in classical rabbinic literature and scholars have usually argued that whether organized or real or not, the rabbis present them as a model to emulate.  In reviewing the traditions I argued that the evidence is actually far more ambiguous; in several cases, especially among later rabbis, the hasidim ha-rishonim seem to be intentionally dismissed as good role models for contemporary Jews.   They are the constructed “super-pious,” with whom the rabbis can think through whether it is possible to be too pious.  Previous scholars, I think, did not see this ambiguity in large part because through the Middle Ages and early modern periods Jews took the term hasid and hasidim as positive expressions of piety.  There was a bit of anachronistic projection.

This is where I am intrigued by Latour.  A person doing a strange set of practices isn’t pious; he (or she) is only pious when we call him (or her) that.  So too, some practices are denoted as “rituals” and laden with meaning and (most) others are not.  Can we treat practices, or “doings,” as quasi-objects and, if so, does that get us anywhere beyond traditional theories of ritual?  I’m not sure, but if you have any ideas I would be delighted to know.