In the present article I examine the rhetorical function of the phrase “in the west [the Land of Israel], they laughed at him/it” found in dialectical halakhic contexts in the Babylonian Talmud. I argue that the literary motif of “mocking westerners” allows Babylonian rabbinic authors/redactors to voice reservations about the nominalist or anti-realist orientation of some rabbinic legal interpretation as seen in the use of legal fictions, contrary-to-fact presumptions and judgments, a high degree of intentionalism, and acontextual interpretive techniques. The ability of Babylonian rabbinic authors/redactors to depict the rabbis’ nominalist approach as the object of mockery by various external and, in this case, internal others indicates a high degree of rabbinic self-awareness regarding legal interpretative assumptions and methods. The paper concludes by suggesting that rabbinic nominalism flows from a distinctive and somewhat scandalous rabbinic understanding of divine law—one that self-consciously rejects an ideal of divine law that assumes its truth and verisimilitude.
Schwartz, 1992, supra n.1, drawing on Y. Silman, “Halakhic Determinations of a Nominalistic and Realistic Nature: Legal and Philosophical Considerations”, 12 Dine Israel (1984–85), 249–266 [Hebrew], and others.
For a critique, see Rubenstein, supra n. 1. For further refinement and discussion, see Hayes, 2011, supra n. 1; Schwartz, 2008, supra n.1; Vered Noam, From Qumran to the Rabbinic Revolution: Conceptions of Impurity (2010) [Hebrew].
See, for example, Hayes, 1998, supra n.2; Halbertal, 1997a, supra n.1; Yadin, supra n.2; and Rosen-Zvi, supra n.2, who picks up on Halbertal’s insight that the very juxtaposition of different interpretations is a “consciousness-creating structure” (Halbertal, 1997a, supra n.1 cited in Rosen-Zvi, supra n.2 at 332).