Trauma and the Indexicality of the Missing Sign: Redaction of the Oral Mishnah as a Sign of Trauma

Trauma and the Indexicality of the Missing Sign: Redaction of the Oral Mishnah as a Sign of Trauma

Joel West
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/IJSVR.2021010106
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While the term “trauma” is often in current usage, the author points out that one does not even have a good measure of what the word itself means. In a technical sense, is “trauma” the result of an action or the action itself, and in what manner may one differentiate between the two? Further, having defined trauma and using a Freudian depth psychological model of trauma, the author reads a seminal Hebrew religious text. Using the Kleinian and Freudian analytic structure, the author understands the manner in which this text may plausibly have been redacted in an answer to cultural trauma. Structurally, this paper will examine Freudian depth psychological theory, the historical textuality of the Mishnah, and specifically the polysemous nature of the word "trauma" all in an attempt to understand a specific line of Mishnaic text in its historical context.
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Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah. – Avot 1:1



The Mishnaic1 book Avot, usually translated as “Fathers,” is a book of aphorisms which was redacted into written form between the years 200 and 220 CE. It is the second to last chapter of the tractate2Nizikin3, and the book is curious for several reasons: first, it is “normally,” generally published with the addition of an extra-Talmudic chapter, second, unlike the rest of the Mishnah, Avot has no Aramaic gloss, or Gemarah, something which is considered to be “normal” for Mishnaic texts and, finally, unlike the rest of the books of the Mishnah, it contains little to no Halakhah4, or Jewish law. Avot is “normal” in that its aphorisms, like the rest of the Mishnah, were only redacted into a written text in approximately 200 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi. How are we to understand this redaction of what was supposed to be a purely oral “text” and we what is a book of aphorisms and ethical statements is doing resting in a larger document or legal code?

The majority of the tractate Nizikin, aside from the book Avot, contains only legalistic codes of conduct having to do with torts and damages, such as civil damages, property law, land damages and the laws concerning what makes a witness acceptable or not; indeed the word Nizikin itself literally means “damages.” Historically, the Mishnah was redacted into a single document, at the cusp between the destruction of the Judean nation, with the exile of the Jews from Judea, and the creation of what is historically called “Rabbinical Judaism.” This is to say that Avot, and indeed all of the Mishnah, are books of oral memory, which were then transcribed onto paper and redacted for the continued memory of a specific people who had suffered several catastrophic national traumas, and that these traumas that this people experienced is both enacted, in the psychoanalytic sense, and then encoded in the words of and in the aphorisms of Avot.

To place Avot in a historical context is to understand the book for when and for where it was written. This historical context bridges the years 76 CE, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem to the year 200 CE. Not only had the, then proto-Jews lost their temple, but it was subsequently desecrated and rededicated to Jupiter, they had lost nationhood in the only way that made sense in that period5 and, also in many places in the Roman empire, these proto-Jews had been made de facto illegal group67. While being a Jew, may not have been in itself illegal, the requirements of Judaism, such as circumcision, were made illegal by Emperor Hadrian. One could be ontologically a Jew; however, it was illegal to practice Judaism.

To add to this national and collective trauma, there were also several infamous martyrdoms, the foremost of whom, Rabbi Akiva, the person which the Talmud calls “The King of Sages,” was killed as punishment in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt of 136 CE. The redaction of the Mishnah into a document from an oral “text” into a written one, while a form of “transgression8,” might then itself be viewed as reaction to these traumas and this redaction may have well allowed the Judean nation to survive transformed into a religious nation now in exile. As I then demonstrate, the Mishnah, as a document unto itself, and Avot, specifically in the manner its text reads as a legal and historical document, create a precedent, in the case of Avot, not of a legal code but the precedent for that code to be accepted s law. This transmission then also serves to bridge, in a psycho-historical manner, the traumatic vacuum created by the destruction of Judea. I then propose that Avot, as a document, in the assertions it makes, then creates its own authority and precedent and that this authority and precedent create the possibilities for what later became Rabbinic Judaism. By asserting the authority to amend and to interpret that code Avot gives the Rabbis authority to amend that code as needed. So, I am proposing that the traumas of destruction, martyrdom9 and exile which occurred, historically, over two thousand years ago, still exist, encoded in the text of Avot.

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