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Out of Cite

The politics of footnoting are as old as the Talmud

Sharrona Pearl
November 03, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Some might be surprised to learn that there is an entire book written just on the history of footnotes. But it comes as no surprise to scholars: We know that footnotes are not just afterthoughts. We use them to give credit where it’s due; to sneak in points too eccentric for the main text; and to have fights, sometimes snarky, sometimes funny and elegant and insightful. But they are also tools of power. Citation determines not only whose voices are heard in terms of who is given credit, but how the entire conversation proceeds.

Recently, scholars like Sara Ahmed and Richard Delgado have alerted us to the role of citation in maintaining power, or correcting power imbalance. Ahmed points to footnoting women as an act of feminist resistance, while Delgado shows how legal scholarship long relied on a closed circle of white scholars. By expanding who is cited—in scholarship, in the courts, in daily experience—not only are more people in the conversation, the conversation and the laws themselves change. As Ahmed writes (and I cite), “Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.” Recent efforts like the Cite Black Women collective, created by Christen A. Smith in 2017, bring attention to the vital role that citational politics plays in the very establishment of what counts as knowledge—and what doesn’t. Those who are uncited and ignored in the textual record are rendered invisible and unacknowledged, as are the ideas they represent.

When I first began to pay attention to the politics of citation through Ahmed’s work, I got it about citation, because I’d already, in a very different form, encountered the stakes for it. In Jewish textual practice, citation is both a way of establishing authority and a mechanism to creatively subvert it. It ensures that minority positions are heard and that minority opinions are documented for others to cite later. Nearly two millennia ago, I realized, the rabbis were already making the case for preserving minority perspectives.

Consider the famous case of the Tanur Shel Akhnei, in the Talmud’s Tractate Baba Metzia 59b, a debate about the purity status of an oven, which shows the commitment of the text to highlighting all opinions, even when it may seem ridiculous. Rabbi Eliezer, the text states, failed to convince Rabbi Yehoshua of his approach through logic, so he called upon nature to support him. A tree was uprooted, a steam flowed backward, and walls began to fall, after he asked for these signs if he was correct. Rabbi Yehoshua continued to reject his opinion, which was, despite all these signs, overruled. But Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is still clearly stated and often referred to in later debates, even though it was, according to the text, wrong.

But my knowledge about Rabbi Eliezer, and indeed many minority legal opinions in Jewish texts, helped me see all that I still didn’t know—how I couldn’t know certain traditions, approaches, and theories if they were not cited, and how those traditions, approaches, and theories can then be functionally erased. The Talmud comprises the Mishna, the original record of oral law, and the Gemara, the collection of debates around those laws. These texts record only the cited rabbinic discussion and how the debates are resolved; the resolutions are then codified into Jewish law, Halacha. We learn about Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion and the majority position by which the law was decided. But we have no idea what other ways might have been, what other perspectives might have been offered. From my experiences learning Talmud, I grasped how the intellectual traditions to which I was drawn were framed by conversation, both who was in and who was out. I also, following Ahmed, appreciated that there were different kinds of citation: A throwaway footnote that exists to say it is there (like, say, my citation of the footnote book above) cannot possibly contribute to debate in the same way as an idea that is central to the text (like Ahmed’s arguments here).

Jews know canons, which are a set of texts that are codified as the key reference points for a given set of ideas or institutions. Western philosophy has a canon, as does feminist theory. So, too, with Judaism: The entire structure of our religion is based on canons. We also know controversy. The entire structure of our religion is based on that, too. Controversy and canon are often contradictory, but through the creative use of citation in the Talmud—the major collection of rabbinic oral traditions—debating the laws is codified in the very canon that lays them out.

Early Jewish texts found ways to balance both controversy and canonicity. It’s a pretty nifty—and creative—trick that the Gemara plays, using citational practice as a way to keep interpretation flexible even as the authority of the text is rendered absolute. Even though Rabbi Eliezer is recorded as wrong, he is there, and we can draw on his methods. The Talmudic approach to citation, in which a later scholar, an amorah, cannot offer an opinion without citing an earlier position from a tannah that ostensibly matches it, leads to enormous creativity in how those earlier positions are framed and interpreted. A later rabbi can call on Rabbi Eliezer to propose a similar position, even though Rabbi Eliezer was overruled. The fact that it is recorded means it is fair play.

Judaism is—now—a text-centered religion and community, whose practices and traditions are connected, sometimes by the most tenuous of threads, to a collection of writings. It’s how it works: Every Halacha, every ritual, every obligation is linked, sometimes painfully and often creatively, to some text in the canon. It starts with the Five Books of Moses, whose laws are interpreted in the Mishna, debated in the Gemara, and, ultimately, codified in a series of much later texts, most prominently the Mishneh Torah, from the 12th century, and the Shulchan Aruch, from the 16th.

As Moshe Halbertal explains in The People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority, the Gemara has a deep commitment to not debating opinions from the Mishna but instead saving the debate for those in the Gemara itself. Scholars exercise enormous creativity in interpreting Mishnaic positions to adhere to their own. In Tractate Gittin 36b, for example, there is a lively debate in the Gemara that is really about whether rabbinic law can replace a literal interpretation of the Torah. Rav Nachman cites multiple earlier sources to support his radical claims; Shmuel, who is a traditionalist, relies on a similar set of sources for the opposite point of view. Mishnaic frames are thus expanded through a discussion that is always citationally anchored in the text. Meaning remains expansive, and citation serves as a kind of technology of interpretation that incorporates multiple views and legitimizes controversy itself. Rabbinic scholars have great freedom to interpret text and meaning in the context of the canonic tradition, through a network of controversy and authority. The Mishna, which ostensibly interprets the Torah, is canon commenting on canon, and the Gemara is yet another step in the process. Halbertal argues that the radical canonic developments of Kabbalah and Jewish philosophy are possible within the canon because of the flexibility that places canonic reinterpretation at its core.

The Jewish approach to citation extends beyond authority to recognition: It’s a way to respect the wisdom of those who came before. I was always taught to ground my Jewish learning in this network of citation and affiliation, rooting my own approaches in the positions of what I had learned. In its way, it’s a kind of humility, in which one’s own ideas are always necessarily connected to a vast network of scholarship and interpretation and time and effort.

These practices are also, at their core, a recognition that in a textual culture, citation is a currency that dictates who gets to participate in what ultimately shapes the discourse, the findings, and the entire structure of that which is being recorded. Citation, Judaism insists, matters, not just for canonicity but for flexibility. And those who are not cited are not seen to matter, in the textual memory and structure. The Cite Black Women collective, in alliance with Ahmed and others, insists that it is not just canons but citation itself that needs careful thought and attention. As the example of the Talmud shows us, citation practice can influence the way that canons accommodate (or not) multiple voices and minority perspectives. A robust citation politics acknowledges those who came before while leaving room for interpretation of their positions.

There is danger in this flexibility: People’s positions can be misstated and misused. There is also huge promise. For text-centered traditions like Judaism, or indeed academia, as Halbertal points out, textual interpretation is the greatest source of creativity and knowledge production. The Gemara in Tractate Eduyot debates even debate itself, noting that minority opinions in the Mishna may be present in order to allow them to be cited as authoritative if the approach changes. Or, the other side offers, they may be there to make clear they are overruled to stop others from citing them in the future. But, regardless, they are there. And they are cited later.

But of course within the Mishna itself, let alone what came after, only some positions are stated and enshrined—today as well. And, still, it is not a meritocracy that determines who is most heard. Rather, it’s a network of affiliation: People cite their friends. They cite what and whom they know best, which often starts with the most dominant, the most famous, and the most powerful institutional figures, who are rarely women and even more rarely women of color. The corrective of Cite Black Women is to be as attentive to citation and text as we ought to be attentive to all aspects of representation, to ensure a lively and diverse set of intellectual experiences, including those we might otherwise miss. It’s better for equity. And it’s better for knowledge.

Canons are problematic and exclusive, but they also, in some ways, work. The shared commitment to the Jewish canon and its controversies have kept the textual tradition vibrant and evolving. Canons can be debated and critiqued for their contents, omissions and even existence, but they—and what they contain—should not be ignored. Judaism resisted canonicity prior to the emergence of the rabbinic tradition by not writing things down, due to a concern around fixing meaning and knowledge. That concern, as we see in the fixedness of other canons and the participants within them, remains deeply relevant. In response, the rabbinic scholars negotiated a sophisticated model that keeps interpretation and meaning vibrant within canonic constraints. It’s powerful, but it has its limits, as the citational politics of Ahmed and others make clear.

Canons keep communities together, but they do so in part by excluding other texts, other voices, and other ideas. Flexibility in interpretation, and generosity in citation, are two key technologies that keep interpretative practices rich and allow for an expansion of knowledge and ideas. But ultimately, though the rabbinic tradition in Judaism and today’s progressive scholars share an awareness of citational politics and the networks they produce, they differ in their goals: Jewish textual study wants to keep controversy and interpretive richness in, but noncanonic texts and positions out. Ahmed and others want us to establish a new canon of the voices that have always been left out before.

Sharrona Pearl teaches medical ethics at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other. Her work is at and she is on Twitter @sharronapearl.