Classical and Medieval Jewish Rhetoric

Brandon Katzir, Oklahoma City University

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Themes and Context of Jewish Rhetoric

In a 2012 book entitled Jews and Words by Israeli novelist Amos Oz and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, the writers note that Jews have spent centuries building palaces—palaces of words. Sometimes these words are the words of tradition: the Tanakh, or Hebrew bible; the Mishnah and Talmud, extensive legal debates and their commentaries; codes of law like Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah or the Shulchan Aruch; philosophy books, like HaLevi’s Kuzari, Saadya Gaon’s Doctrines and Beliefs, or Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed. Often these works explain the words of tradition, as is the case for those of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the great medieval Torah and Talmud commentator known as Rashi, or the medieval grammarian Ibn Ezra, famous for sorting out linguistic difficulties in biblical Hebrew. The commentary tradition of Jewish religious texts is as old as the canonization of the Tanakh itself; Aramaic commentaries called targumim elucidated the bible since the time of its final canonization in antiquity. In the eighteenth century, the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe popularized new forms of writing, including sipurim, moral stories emphasizing the piety of everyday Jews, and maamarim, spoken discourses on Hasidic thought delivered verbally and then published in writing. Mussar, or ethical literature, ranges from the medieval period onward, but enjoyed a renaissance beginning in the eighteenth century. Various liberal movements, such as the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, have published treatises and essays advocating for religious change since the nineteenth century. 

Writing in these classic religious genres has continued apace in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik penned numerous essays and works of philosophy, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s published rulings on Jewish law take the form of igrot, or formal letters, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson gave numerous public lectures called sichot, which have been transcribed and published in multi-volume sets, and many rabbis have continued the tradition of publishing commentaries on legal texts, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in his Halikhot Olam or his Anaf Etz Avot, a commentary on the Mishnah tractate Pirkei Avot. And this inventory covers only religious literature in Hebrew and Aramaic, which, to continue Oz and Oz-Salzberger’s metaphor, might well represent the main hall of the palace, but is hardly consonant with the palace itself. 

It is also the case that Jewish rhetoric—religious or not—can be found in Jewish languages. Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), for example, boast early modern folktales, novels and poetry, newspapers, and religious instruction. Modern Hebrew, which began proliferating in the late nineteenth century, developed in isolated circles before becoming the language of choice among Jews in Ottoman Palestine and, subsequently, the official language of the State of Israel, expanding the canon of Jewish rhetoric to all the genres of rhetoric that exist in any other national culture. It’s also the case that rhetoric about Judaism or about Jewish communal politics or the Jewish community has been a common feature of every Jewish diaspora from Iran to Western Europe to Latin America and the United States in English and German, Arabic and Farsi, French and Spanish, Russian and countless others. Jewish publications talking about issues affecting the Jewish community or communities in which Jews live can be found all over the world and Jews have contributed to the literary cultures of their diaspora communities at least since the time of Philo.

Bibliography for Classical and Medieval Jewish Rhetoric

Below, I provide topical bibliographies of primary sources for classical and medieval Jewish rhetoric followed by a list of secondary scholarship on Jewish rhetoric. While these lists are certainly not exhaustive, they will hopefully provide a foundation for scholars hoping to incorporate Jewish rhetoric in the classroom or in their research. 

Classical Jewish Rhetoric

Below are some editions of the Tanakh (the traditional term for the Hebrew bible, based on the acronym TNKh, which indicates the Torah (five books of Moses), the Nevi’im (prophetic literature), and the Ketuvim (writings). In addition to scholarly and religious editions of the Tanakh, I have also included scholarly and religious editions of the Mishnah, the first written collection of Jewish oral law begun in 300 C.E., and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, a commentary on the Mishnah which spans centuries and began at least around 500 C.E. Where possible, both academic and religious editions are included. Online editions are included below. Many of these texts are available, with varying degrees of English translation, at 

  • Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, ed. Karl Elliger and Willhelm Rudulph. German Bible Society, 1997. 
  • JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH. Jewish Publication Society, 2001. 
  • Koren Talmud Bavli. Koren, 2012-2019. [42 volumes, English translation and extensive notes by Adin Steinsaltz] 
  • Koren Talmud Yerushalmi. Koren, n.d. [10 volumes] 
  • Koren Tanakh HaMa’alot. Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2001. 
  • The MishnahA New Translation, ed. Jacob Neusner. Yale University Press, 1991. 
  • Mishnayot Kehati, ed. Pinchas Kehati. Feldheim, 2001. [21 volumes, English translation available]
  • Philo. Philo: In Ten Volumes, trans. F.H. Colson, George Herbert Whitaker, and Ralph Marcus. Harvard University Press, 1991. 
  • The Schocken Bible, trans. Everett Fox. Schocken, 2000. [multi-volume]

Medieval Jewish Rhetoric 

Medieval Jewish rhetoric comprises the writings of philosophers, legalists, and sages from the ninth century until the end of the middle ages. Most of the Jewish writing of this period came from Jews in Arabic-speaking lands. Especially in the early part of the period, an estimated 90 percent of the world’s Jews lived under Islamic rule and spoke Arabic—or Judeo-Arabic—as their colloquial language. As a result, scholarship abounded in Islamic Neoplatonism, judicial philosophies, grammar, and poetry. 

  • Bahya ibn Paquda. The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart, trans. Menachem Mansoor. Routledge, 1973.
  • Benjamin of Tudela. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Travels in the Middle Ages. NightinGale, 2004. 
  • Gluckel of Hameln. The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, ed. Marvin Lowenthal. Schocken, 1987.
  • Halevi, Judah. Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel, trans. H. Slonimsky. Schocken, 1964. 
  • Ibn Ezra. Sefat Yeter. [Sefaria]. 
  • Judah Messer Leon. The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow Sepher Nopheth Suphim, trans. Isaac Rabinowitz. Cornell University Press, 1983. 
  • Moses Maimonides (Rambam). Guide of the Perplexed, ed. Shlomo Pines and Leo Strauss. University of Chicago Press, 1974. (2 volumes, English only)
  • Moses Maimonides (Rambam). Moreh Nevukim. Feldheim, n.d. (Hebrew only, this edition contains the original Hebrew of medieval translator ibn Tibbon and also the rarely printed work Milot Higayon, Maimonides’s treatise on logic) 
  • Saadia Gaon. The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, trans. Samuel Rosenblatt. Yale, 1989. With the exception of the Messer Leon work, all of these texts appear in Hebrew at

Secondary Literature on Classical and Medieval Jewish Rhetoric

  • Bartor, Assnat. Reading Law as Narrative: A Study in the Casuistic Laws of the Pentateuch. Ancient Israel and Its Literature. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.
  • Bernard-Donals, Michael. “Between Sublimity and Redemption: Toward a Theory of Holocaust Representation.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 34, no. 1 (March 2001): 61–74.
  • Bernard-Donals, Michael, and Janice Fernheimer, eds. Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014.
  • Bernard-Donals, Michael. “Synecdochic Memory at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.” College English 74, no. 5 (May 2012): 417–36. 
  • Birnbaum, Ruth. “The Role of Reason in Bahya and Maimonides” 19, no. 2 (n.d.): 76–86.
  • Boyarin, Daniel. Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. 
  • ———. JudaismThe Genealogy of a Modern Notion. Rutgers University Press, 2018. 
  • ———. Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. University of Chicago Press, 2009. 
  • ———. Sparks of the Logos: Essays in Rabbinic Hermeneutics. Brill, 2003. 
  • ———. A Travelling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 
  • Boyarin, Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin. Powers of Diaspora: Two Essays on the Relevance of Jewish Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 
  • Brody, Robert. The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Charney, Davida. “Performativity and Persuasion in the Hebrew Book of Psalms: A Rhetorical Analysis of Psalms 22 and 116.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 40, no. 3 (1974): 175-86. 
  • ———. Persuading God: Rhetorical Studies of First-Person Psalms. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015. 
  • ———. “Taking a Stance Toward God: Rhetoric in the Book of Psalms.” edited by Michael Bernard-Donals and Janice Fernheimer, 1–15. Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2014.
  • Cohen, Shaye. “Judean Legal Tradition and Halakhah of the Mishnah.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee, 121–43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • David, Joseph E. “Legal Comparability and Cultural Identity: The Case of Legal Reasoning in Jewish and Islamic Traditions.” Electronic Journal of Comparative Law 14, no. 1 (2010): 1–24.
  • Dolgopolski, Sergey. What is Talmud?: The Art of Disagreement. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. 
  • Edelman, Samuel M. “Ancient Traditions, Modern Needs: An Introduction to Jewish Rhetoric.” Journal of Communication & Religion 26, no. 2 (2003): 113–25. 
  • Einbinder, Susan L. Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France. Princeton University Press, 2002. 
  • Fernheimer, Janice W. “Black Jewish Identity Conflict: A Divided Universal Audience and the Impact of Dissociative Disruption.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39, no. 1 (2009): 46–72.
  • ———. “Confronting Kenneth Burke’s Anti-Semitism.” Journal of Communication & Religion 39, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 36–53.
  • ———. Stepping into Zion: Hatzaad Harishon, Black Jews, and the Remaking of Jewish Identity. Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique. University of Alabama Press, 2014.
  • ———. “Talmidae Rhetoricae: Drashing Up Models and Methods for Jewish Rhetorical Studies.” College English 72, no. 6 (2010): 577–89.
  • Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva, and Martin S. Jaffee, eds. The Cambridge Companion to The Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Frank, David. “Arguing with God, Talmudic Discourse, and the Jewish Countermodel: Implications for the Study of Argumentation.” Argumentation and Advocacy 41 (2004): 71–86.
  • Frank, David A. “The Jewish Question in the New Rhetorics of Kenneth Burke and Chaïm Perelman.” Journal of Communication & Religion 39, no. 2 ( 2016): 54–65. 
  • ———. “A Traumatic Reading of Twentieth-Century Rhetorical Theory: The Belgian Holocaust, Malines, Perelman, and de Man.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 93, no. 3 (2007): 308-43. 
  • Gitay, Yehoshua. “Biblical Rhetoric: The Art of Religious Dialogue.” Journal for Semitics 18 (2009): 34-56. 
  • Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in The Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
  • Greenbaum, Andrea. “Talmudic Rhetoric: Explorations for Writing, Reading, and Teaching.” In Judaic Perspectives in Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Andrea Greenbaum and Deborah Holdstein, 151–69. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2008.
  • Greenbaum, Andrea and Deborah Holdstein. Judaic Perspectives in Rhetoric and Composition. Hampton Press, 2008. 
  • Handelman, Susan A. Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas. Indiana University Press, 1991. 
  • ———. The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
  • Hidary, Richard. Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud. Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 2010. 
  • ———. Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019
  • ———. “The Rhetoric of Rabbinic Authority: Making the Transition from Priest to Sage.” In Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice, edited by Michael Bernard-Donals and Janice Fernheimer, 16–45. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014.
  • Holdstein, Deborah H. “The Ironies of Ethos.” JAC 20, (2000): 942-8. 
  • Ivry, Alfred. “Jewish Philosophers’ Perceptions of the Nature and Value of Philosophy.” In Wast Ist Philosophie Im Mittelalter, 897–903. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998.
  • Katz, Claire Elise. “Levinas–Between Philosophy and Rhetoric: The ‘Teaching’ of Levinas’s Scriptural References.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 38, no. 2 (2005): 159–72. 
  • Katz, Steven B. “The Epistemology of the Kabbalah: Toward a Jewish Philosophy of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25 (1995): 107–22.
  • ———. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” College English 54 (1992): 255-275. 
  • ———. “Letter As Essence: The Rhetorical (Im) Pulse Of The Hebrew Alefbet.” Journal of Communication & Religion 26, no. 2 (September 2003): 126–62. 
  • Katzir, Brandon. “Against the Philosophers: Writing and Identity in Medieval Mediterranean Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 52, no. 4 (2019): 366–83. 
  • ———. “Paths of Virtue: Legal Rhetorics in Judaism and Islam.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 48, no. 1 (2018): 28–48.
  • ———. “‘The Truth of Reliable Tradition’: Saadya Gaon, Arabic Rhetoric, and the Challenge to Rhetorical Historiography.” Rhetorica 35, no. 2 ( 2017): 161–88. 
  • Kiewe, Amos. Confronting Anti-Semitism: Seeking an End to Hateful Rhetoric. Kibworth: Troubador, 2011. 
  • ———. “Theodore Herzl’s The Jewish State: Prophetic Rhetoric in the Service of Political Objectives.” Journal of Communication & Religion 26, no. 2  (2003): 208–39.
  • Koban, John E. “‘Guard Your Tongue:’ Lashon Hara and the Rhetoric of Chafetz Chaim.” Journal of Communication & Religion 40, no. 2 (2017): 22–42. 
  • Kogan, Barry. “Judah Halevi and His Use of Philosophy in the Kuzari.” edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 111–35. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Lesley, Arthur. “A Survey of Medieval Hebrew Rhetoric.” Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, edited by Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, 107-133. Brown University Press, 1984. 
  • Lobel, Diana. A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  • Marcus, Ivan. Rituals of ChildhoodJewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe. Yale University Press, 1998. 
  • McComiskey, Bruce. “Laws, Works, and the End of Days: Rhetorics of Identification, Distinction, and Persuasion in Miqsat Ma’aseh ha-Torah (Dead Sea Scroll 4QMMT).” Rhetoric Review 29 (2010): 221-238. 
  • Meddeb, Abdelwahab, and Benjamin Stora, eds. A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • Metzger, David. “Maimonides’s Contribution to a Theory of Self-Persuasion.” In Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice, edited by Michael Bernard-Donals and Janice Fernheimer, 112–30. Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2014.
  • Metzger, David, and Steven Katz. “The ‘Place’ of Rhetoric in Aggadic Midrash.” College English 72, no. 6 (2010): 638–53.
  • Neusner, Jacob. The Mishnah: Social Perspectives. New York: Brill, 2002.
  • Rabinowitz, Isaac. “Pre-Modern jewish Study of Rhetoric: An Introductory Bibliography.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 3 (1985): 137-144. 
  • Ridolfo, Jim. Digital Samaritans: Rhetorical Delivery and Engagement in Digital Humanities. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2015.
  • Rustow, Marina. Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2008.
  • Schumann, Andrew. “Logical Cornerstones of Jewish Argumentation Theory.” Argumentation 27 (2013): 305–26.
  • Shemesh, Aharon. Halakhah in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Wolfson, Harry. Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Zaeske, Susan. “Unveiling Esther as a Pragmatic Radical Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 33 (2000): 193-220. 
  • Zulick, Margaret. “Prophecy and Providence: The Anxiety over Prophetic Authority.” Journal of Communication and Religion 26 (2003). 

About the Author: Brandon Katzir is an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma City University. He specializes in medieval Jewish and Islamic rhetorics, as well as in Jewish literature and culture more broadly. Katzir’s works have appeared in venues like RhetoricaRhetoric Society Quarterly, and Philosophy & Rhetoric.