Eva Kiesele on Rachel Neis’s The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture
Rachel Neis’s The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity presents an arresting array of lush, acutely self-aware, and often surprising expressions of rabbinic sight. Neis has a filmmaker’s eye. She knows how to look and knows even better how to guide her audience’s gaze. When she reads the re’iyah — the rabbis’ (re-)construction of the ritual pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple — her pulling the curtain back from the Holy of Holies is outright cinematic. We are invited to “feast the eyes,” as a pithy talmudic idiom has it. But wait: we are in a book. This is a text about texts, and the luscious scenery in front of us is neither on screen nor on stage. It is “real” neither for us nor for the rabbis — the rabbinic re’iyah and its ocular feast never actually took place. We are in fact caught in the middle of what the film theorist Christian Metz called a “scopic regime.” And we are here to inquire how the rabbis gazed.
In this intellectual journey we are equipped with contemporary theories of vision. Behind us lies the century when the mosaics learned to move, when ancient theories of “intramission” (the notion that the seen object emits particles that strike the eyes) enjoyed an unforeseen revival, as Albert Einstein and fellow physicists proved that light can behave like particles. Later during the same century, Michel Foucault scrutinized the power of the medical gaze and demonstrated how social order is maintained by the spectacle of a publicly tortured body. All this while omnipresent commercials constantly flicker in the background, reminding us that vision can be a means of manipulation. We fumble with “icons” if we need money or wish to print a page, but which deity is it that we supplicate? Our age is often characterized as one of hyper-visuality. Judged by gazes, allured by beauty, shoved around by signs, reprimanded by the display of “normative” looks — we have come to understand that we construct the objects of our sight as much as they construct our own identity.
Curiously, we share this sensitivity for vision with Mediterranean and Near Eastern Late Antiquity. As Neis quotes, the early Roman Empire has been described as a “visually voracious and violent world in which there was a heightened, sometimes paranoid, awareness of the pleasures and dangers of spectatorial relations.” The athletic games, alongside the sculpted objects of imperially mandated worship, were indelible marks of Greco-Roman hegemony and shaped urban landscapes all across the Empire. Rabbis and Christians eyed them with particular scorn. Voices from both communities would eventually even declare the spectator guilty of murder (e.g., Tosefta Avodah Zarah 2:7 and Tertullian’s De Spectaculis 15.2-6). In turn, most of those martyred during the persecutions of the third century found their death in the arena — a grotesque prelude to the scenes laid out in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Yet, if the late antique subjects of Roman imperial power had good reason to feel controlled by vision, it had much deeper and less contentious cultural significance, too.
Greek thought uniquely tied insight to vision, as does the Greek language itself — the verbal root id- means either “see” or “know,” depending on the tense; and our word theory literally means “beholding.” Aristotle was convinced that we cannot think without images. Vision was almost universally understood as a mutual process between the seeing subject and the object seen. Competing ideas about the mechanics of vision impacted fields as diverse as philosophy, medicine, and religion. The late Roman and young Byzantine empires witnessed what scholars have come to call the “visual turn” of Late Antiquity: a new occupation with seeing. From the second century onwards, writers like Lucian strove to conjure visual experience, to let the reader become a viewer. In the fourth and fifth centuries, artists began to devote considerable attention to the eyes, often portraying them with a deep, inward-looking gaze. New forms of visual piety emerged.
Amidst this far-reaching cultural moment the major rabbinic texts took shape. Neis supplies a rich context, covering a range from the Roman West to India, from “pagan,” Christian, and Zoroastrian to Vedic texts, carefully embedding the rabbinic sources in contemporaneous discourse. She begins her analysis with the mechanics and the epistemology of vision. How did late antique rabbis imagine an external physical object leaving an impression on the beholder’s mind? Could such impressions evoke further thoughts, emotions, physical reactions? What is the relation between a present experience of sight and those impressions already stored in the mind; or, what does vision have to do with memory? From here she moves to disciplinary questions. Was sight amenable to control or left to impact humans freely? How does the disciplining of vision contribute to creating a distinctly rabbinic way of viewing? Analysis of the terminology rabbis used is naturally a decisive tool, and Neis does so to good effect. Yet, while the above questions guide the overall outline of the book, she keeps coming back to mechanics and epistemology in each chapter, producing increasingly “thicker” descriptions of rabbinic visuality.
In the course of her exploration, Neis reaches the conclusion that sight was an essential element of rabbinic relations with the divine. And here she catches us off guard: accustomed as we are — visually speaking — to conceive of the Jewish God first as the deity who forbade any images of his likeness, we are surprised to learn that seeing could play a major role in rabbinic discourse of devotion. Perhaps even more surprisingly, sight proves an essential element of the rabbis’ relations with and among themselves, too. Visuality, Neis argues, played a significant role in fashioning rabbinic identity. Along the way, the rabbis adopted, engaged with, and transcended contemporaneous modes of viewing.
We remember the Jewish God forbade images of his likeness. So we are surprised to learn that seeing plays a major role in rabbinic discourse of devotion.
What Neis successfully attempts here is nothing short of a paradigm shift in the study of late antique Judaism. Repeatedly she reminds us that the scholarly focus on aniconism — whether as a commandment or a transgression — has trained us habitually to reduce vision to looking at objects of art, or for that matter, worship. But, to put it in the most trivial terms: the rabbis had eyes, and they used them. “Eyeing idols,” as a previous paper and the fifth chapter of the book are titled, is only one of manifold ways of viewing. And while the rabbis deemed some of those ways offensive and made efforts to rein them in, they highly valued other ways of viewing and, indeed, encouraged them as conducive to a rabbinic way of life. Neis’s study is the first of its kind, and she adds a whole new perspective to our thinking about rabbinic culture.
Neis proves a master of method in teaching us to read visuality. She cleverly disarms our “de-visualizing” (or: aniconizing) reading habits through a hermeneutics of hyperliteral interpretation. To be sure, these readings are as intriguing as they may be challenging. For instance, she translates what we are accustomed to call “shewbread” — the twelve loaves on display in the Temple — as “face-bread,” rendering literally the Hebrew lehem ha-panim. She thus invites her readers to re-conceptualize the bread as a proxy for direct face-to-face encounter with God.
Just how firmly our “aniconizing” reading habits are entrenched may become clear when we consider the following example: the Yerushalmi records that “when R. Yohanan died, the icons bent over; they said it was because there was no icon like him” (Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42c). Following our accustomed hermeneutic, one would likely take this statement for jocular but ultimately meaningless polemic. Neis, in contrast, although far from dismissing the role of polemic, insists on accounting for the wording. Building on the fact that this statement comes in a series of “postmortem miracles that strike at the heart of Roman imperial symbols,” she reads the rabbinic sage as counter-idol. Only after her final chapter on “seeing sages”, where she demonstrates from numerous passages how the Palestinian Talmud consistently presents sages as figures to gaze at — whether in greeting or in learning — does the reader’s resistance to take the “icon” at face value finally wane.
Another talmudic passage exemplifies, in Neis’s reading, a divine intensity of seeing sages:
Rabbi [Judah the Patriarch] was marrying off R. Shim‘on his son, and they were clapping with the backs of their hands on the Sabbath. R. Meʼir happened by and heard the noise. He said, “Gentlemen, is [this] permitted on the Sabbath?” Rabbi heard his voice and said, “Who is this one who has come to chastise us in our own home?” […] R. Meʼir heard his voice and fled. They went out and hastened after him. The wind picked up his [R. Meʼirs] scarf from around his neck. Rabbi was looking out of the window and saw R. Meʼir’s neck from behind. He said, “I only had the merit of Torah (orayta) because I saw R. Meʼir’s neck from the behind.” R. Yohanan and R. Shim‘on b. Laqish both said, “We only had the merit of Torah because we saw the toes of Rabbi [reaching] out of his shoes.” (Yerushalmi Betsah 5:2, 63a; Neis’s translation)
According to Neis, the anecdote stages a revelatory moment: Rabbi receives Torah knowledge at the moment he beholds R. Meir’s neck. Although I do not fully agree with her interpretation of the punch line (I would simply take it to mean that Rabbi “merited” Torah because he bested R. Meir and put him to flight, not because he literally saw him), I find her ensuing reading of this passage entirely compelling. Neis points out two weighty biblical allusions. When Moses asks God to show him his “glory” (kvodekha), God declines but promises to expose his hindsight to Moses instead (Exodus 33:18-23). And Moses, Aaron, and the elders, ascending Mt. Sinai, see sapphire under God’s feet (Exodus 24:10). No matter how we read the punch line and no matter whether we read the allusion as ironic or not, the flashing sight of the sage is likened to a theophany.
In exposures like this, Neis forces us to question our common assumption that the rabbis do not mean vision when they use the language of vision. While due caution at hyperliteralism is certainly needed, the book makes abundantly clear the fragility of our alternative: under-reading. Even the most sight-averse reader can only admit that the weight of evidence supports Neis.
Proceeding along her literalist path, Neis uncovers different rabbinic modes and policies of viewing — from ascetic avoidance to highly efficacious nourishment (making beautiful babies), from reverent and not so reverent scholastic engagement to self-love, from yearning phantasies to ocular devotion. A recurring insight is that rabbinic visuality operates on surprisingly tactile grounds: vision seems to function as touch.
The tactility of vision is inextricably bound up in the way the ancients, including the rabbis, imagined the optical process. When sight is understood as an exchange of particles, whether intromissive or extramissive, gazing means reaching. As such, it can have immediate effects both on the object and on the subject of seeing. These effects may be beneficial — a sudden insight or recollection, a satisfying sense of beauty and gratitude (as expressed, for example, in the blessings of landscape mandated by Mishna Berakhot 9:1-2). But they can also be just as harmful — an overpowering sexual urge threatening rabbinic morale, or the killer gaze of furious rabbis. Ubiquitous pagan statuary necessitates control not because it is empty and vain, but because the idol stares back.
Neis corroborates her observation again by bringing the rabbinic passages into conversation with non-Jewish contemporaries. Julian the Apostate expresses beautifully (and reversely) the fear of the staring idol: “Therefore, too, whoever loves the gods, does he not gaze steadfastly (horōntas) upon the statues and the images of the gods, worshipping and at the same time shuddering at the gods looking at him (horōntas) from the unknown (literally, unseen)” (Julian, Oration on the Mother of the Gods 294c-d). Although I would argue that Julian’s statement leaves room for the possibility that the gods look at the worshipper from the great void and not through the eyes of the idol, it is clear that at least the sight of the idol triggers the sentiment of being watched. Neis alerts us that the rabbis’ scopic regime — the many ways in which the rabbis tried to channel and discipline sight — cannot be understood other than with these conceptions in mind.
We tend to flatten the distant past into a black-and-white still-life, especially if it is known to us only from texts. Did the late antique rabbi solitarily walking the streets of Caesarea feel like Sofia Coppola’s Charlotte in that gigantic intersection in the middle of Tokyo? Did Imma Shalom, the famed rabbinic wife, go on a diet because of Aphrodite’s perfect looks? The point is that visual archeology in the narrow sense — the unearthing of images — would be of no avail in either case. When trying to reconstruct a history of sensibilities, we ask how the ancients sensed their view, and not what they saw. Watching “Lost in Translation,” we understand Charlotte’s sentiments not because we caught a glimpse of the “real” Charlotte (who, of course, does not exist), but because we are watching a scene staged to convey these very sentiments in condensed form. We are “reading” a script. Pointing to ekphrasis as an ancient “theory about how language was intertwined with, and could invoke, vision and other senses and sensations,” Neis argues for the superiority of textual study over material remains in pursuit of ancient sensibility. Her book makes a refreshing claim for good old-fashioned philology.
That said, Neis is one of very few scholars primed to read rabbinic stories not just as narrative but as dramatic “stagings.” Precisely because of their extremely condensed nature, where narrative information is reduced to the necessary minimum, rabbinic anecdotes invite cinematic reading. Her study sets new standards. And alongside Neis’s cinematic sensitivity, French poststructuralism has thoroughly informed her. Foucauldian analyses of discipline and selfhood take over in the second half of the book. Three chapters — entitled “Visual Eros,” “Eyeing Idols,” and “Seeing Sages” — present a fascinating spectrum of rabbinic identity fashioning. All three build on the Foucauldian idea that the “governed” individual emerges as conscious, self-reflexive “subject” by entering negotiated power relations with the object of vision: the subject positions itself in a field of mutual scopic claims.
Neis’s is a work of cinematic sensitivity informed by French poststructuralism
“Visual Eros” engages male “phallic” gazes and female objects of vision, visual eugenics, (imperial) domination, and (sagely) self-determination. Neis proceeds from the schematic to the increasingly complex, from men peeking at women towards self-reflexive role-play. Visual “asceticism” undermines the male prerogative to look, the chaste male becomes himself an object of vision and, in Babylonia, potentially one of derision. Male rabbis depict themselves as submissive ocular subjects to the imperial viewer, and simultaneously devise scopic subversions.
Tactility of vision looms large in “Eyeing idols.” Neis identifies four different rabbinic ways of approaching idols visually. “Halakhic forensics” center on the art of discernment. The famous aestheticization of Mishna Avodah Zarah 3:4 — “what is treated as a god is prohibited; what is not treated as a god is permitted” — claims that idolatry lies primarily in the eyes of the beholder, not in the idol itself. One could perhaps read this as an attempt at restoring visual agency in a landscape dominated by alien culture. “Looking away” might be the default one imagines, but it is problematic for conceding power to the idol. A third and fascinating option is to neutralize the idol by “looking awry.” Tactile efficacy cannot be denied when rabbinic sources commend to “blind its eyes,” a technique successfully applied to the evil eye, as well. (One favorite small discovery in this fabulous book is that the eyes were among the organs most often struck in late antique iconoclasm.) Last but not least, “liturgical looking” offers a resort to ritual cursing.
Diachronic and geographic comparison guides the chapter “Seeing sages.” Tannaitic midrashim (Palestinian exegetical texts redacted during the third century) emphasize the visibility of the revelation at Sinai; the Sifre on Deuteronomy transposes the image of Torah as a fiery stream emitted by God, to the dicta of the sages. This incorporation of Torah becomes veritable embodiment in later sources, which refer to rabbis as “Sinai” or simply “Torah.” From the fiery Sinaitic imagery develops a second notion, that of specifically rabbinic physiognomics: Just like fire, “words of Torah make a mark on the body of anyone who uses them” (Sifre Deuteronomy 343). Torah study has become a visual marker of group formation. While the later Palestinian texts are concerned with the “efficacy of visual sanctity,” like the passage from Yerushalmi Betsah quoted above, their Babylonian counterparts integrate the iconic capacity of the rabbinic sage into their more developed and institutionalized scholastic culture. The Palestinian Talmud seems to play on platonic ideas of learning as visual recollection, claiming that “one who recites a tradition in the name of the person who said it should see the tradition’s author as if standing before him” (Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:2, 3a). In contrast, the Babylonian Talmud stresses the importance of “looking at [the teacher’s] lips” as guaranteeing authenticity of transmission and aiding memorization. It is only here, in the Babylonian Talmud, that greeting (“receiving the face of”) the sage is equated with “receiving the face” of the shekhina, the personified divine presence. Eyeing the sage grants direct access to divine teaching.
Neis’s study demonstrates conclusively that Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis actively participated in the visual turn of late antiquity. With notable self-reflection, late antique rabbis engage the visual with heightened interest, employ extant theories of vision, and shape new modes of viewing. Rabbinic visual sensibility, according to Neis, is firmly rooted in the world of late antique vision. Halakhic concerns, literary heroes, and its own terminology lend rabbinic visuality a unique flavor. It is on this plane that we can identify local nuances — a greater concern with idols (alien or sagely) in Palestine and greater prominence of visual Eros and scholastic looking in Babylonia.
These trends are familiar from research not explicitly devoted to vision. Palestinian rabbinic literature generally exhibits greater concern with idolatry; and similarly, the reflection of a higher degree of institutionalization and the “sexualization” of not inherently “sexual” material is characteristic of the Babylonian Talmud. In other words, Neis’s analysis of vision conforms to patterns well-known from classical textual study. If one senses an inkling of disappointment that this methodologically novel book does not challenge our assumptions about Babylonian and Palestinian rabbinic habits more, this should lead us to reassess the introductory claim for philology. It is true that the history of sensibilities may best (or even only) be written via textual study. However, we cannot possibly gain access to the actual, felt sentiments of late antique rabbis. We are limited to what they said about their sentiments, or, to borrow from Tom Waits — to their “emotional weather report.” Still, any such report is necessarily shaped by habits of speech and preexistent literary tropes. The rabbinic weather report looks a particular way because this is the way rabbis talk. To a certain extent, then, visual sensibility condensed in textual form must inevitably coalesce with non-visual, halakhic, or narrative sensibilities expressed in the same text. By its very nature, it cannot yield too divergent findings, as we are thrown back on the same set of speech habits and literary tropes.
Neis’s unique contribution lies in integrating a previously almost entirely overlooked aspect of rabbinic culture into this framework. Along the way, she has raised the methodological bar. This is a book that quotes literary theorist Gayatri Spivak and eminent representatives of the Jerusalem school of talmudic philology with the same ease, one that breathes contemporary criticism but wisely avoids imposing theory on the sources. Erudite and innovative, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture presents a substantial theoretical advance.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- Plato, Bakhtin, and the Rabbis Meet Again – By Eva Kiesele
- In What Sense Were the Rabbis Roman? – By Ishay Rosen-Zvi
- A Unified Reading of Maimonides’ Guide – By Dani Rabinowitz