PhD Oral Exam - Esther R. Mayer, Religion
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
This dissertation examines the 15 piyyutim attributed to Yosse ben Yosse that have reached us from the fifth century CE. Few written Jewish historic records from late antiquity have survived the vicissitudes of time. The underlying assumption in this study is that piyyutic texts contain historically relevant information and can thus partially address this historiographic lacuna and disclose aspects of the diversity of Jewish practices in late antiquity. In Appendix A of this dissertation, I present a fully annotated translation of the Yosse ben Yosse piyyutim, considered here as literary works as well as historically significant texts.
Four of Yosse ben Yosse’s piyyutim deal with the Avodah, the scripted review of the sacrificial ritual which took place on Yom Kippur in the Temple. The Avodah ritual was and remains ontologically central, and spiritually imperative, for Jewish practitioners as they beseech God for atonement. Whereas the destruction of the Second Temple made the bloody sacrificial ritual impossible, the ritual was transformed into a recitation and study of texts that, the sages assured, were as efficacious as the actual sacrifices. I dispute the attribution of one Avodah to Yosse ben Yosse based on a morphological examination of his oeuvre.
The Avodah piyyutim attributed to Yosse ben Yosse are generally assumed, by scholars, to restate and mirror the rabbinic Avodah narrative in Mishnah Yoma. This dissertation offers a different reading of Yosse ben Yosse, as a priestly narrative that contested rabbinic claims to authority. Appendix B of this dissertation presents a full comparison of the two narratives. Employing a methodology of comparative discourse theory, applied to both Yosse ben Yosse’s poems and to Mishnah Yoma, has led me to identify the similarities and differences between the two narratives, to describe the socio-political power relations between the priestly caste and the rabbis, and to glean some information regarding the rise of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic texts pertaining to the Avodah re-imagined the Temple as a site for the political validation of rabbinic authority over the priestly caste, seeking to cement rabbinic claims to henceforth be the uncontested authority in Jewish life. Yosse ben Yosse’s narrative on the other hand, focused on the re-enactment of Temple Avodah, with an eye to the restoration of the priestly authority over Jewish practice in the post-destruction era.
The power contest, between the revolutionary rabbinic movement and the conservative priestly caste, discloses new aspects of the cultural and religious diversity of Jewish responses to the destruction of the Second Temple, when Jews were redefining their political allegiances and religious loyalties in late antiquity. The study thus contributes to our understanding of Jewish religious and political developments that took place in late antique Palestine.