Monday, November 24, 2014


Rachel Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 319. ISBN 9781107032514. $99.00.

Reviewed by Sarah Wolf, Northwestern University (

Version at BMCR home site


This masterful book explores modes of visuality in the writings of the early Rabbis, the small group of sages who lived in Palestine and Babylonia in the first through sixth centuries CE. Rachel Neis structures the book around four primary themes within which she explores Rabbinic understandings of sight: God, the erotic, idols, and the rabbinic sage. As she analyzes passages taken from a wide range of Rabbinic literature, Neis remains closely engaged with broader scholarly conversations about vision and aesthetics in Late Antiquity and beyond.

In her introduction, Neis lays out the theoretical and historical background for her investigation of Rabbinic visuality.1 She frames her project as a response to the historical portrayal of Judaism as fundamentally anti-visual, a tendency supposedly stemming from its aniconic theological commitments. Neis compellingly argues for detaching the study of vision from the study of images and challenges the notion that there is such a thing as a distinctively Jewish mode of relating to vision, questioning whether there is anything fundamentally "Jewish" about the rabbinic discourse of seeing. She argues instead that the Rabbis partook of shared contemporary theories of vision in the construction and reproduction of a distinctive Rabbinic subject. Finally, Neis questions this portrayal by what she calls "giving eyes" to the rabbis of Late Antiquity: that is, attempting to discover what they looked at and how.

In the first chapter, Neis notes that she is not so much interested in what is seen as much as in how it is seen. She gathers information about techniques of vision through the analysis of texts rather than artifacts. The belief in an intimate relationship between language and vision is inherent in Greco-Roman thought, as exemplified in the ancient art of ekphrasis, the production of vivid mental images through the use of words. Neis also addresses scholarly concerns about the privileging of sight, pointing out that for the rabbis, vision does not exist on its own but is closely bound up with other senses (such as touch) and modes of experiencing the material world (like eating and sex). Finally, she puts forth the characteristics of what she terms "Late Antique visual theory," focusing primarily on Greco-Roman and Zoroastrian understandings of sight. Two of the defining elements of the way the Rabbis understood vision are the belief in intromissive and extramissive properties of sight (that vision is caused by something entering and/or exiting the eye) and haptic vision (the intertwining of the sense of vision with the sense of touch). This definition of vision is paralleled in other Late Antique works ranging from Galen's De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis to Zoroastrian texts on medicine as the Denkard, revealing the breadth of cultural exchange during this period.

In her second and third chapters, Neis tackles the premise of Jewish aniconism in an examination of rabbinic modes of seeing God. The second chapter explores the rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 16:16: "Three times a year all your males shall see the face (yir'eh et-pene) of the Lord your God in the place that he shall choose—on the feast of the Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Tabernacles—and they shall not see the face of the Lord empty."2 The early rabbis interpreted this obligation—termed "re'iyah," or "seeing"—as a reciprocal one. Not only must the pilgrim see God, but he must also be seen, and therefore must be worthy of being seen. This emphasis on visual reciprocity, which Neis terms "homovisuality," is carried forward in the Babylonian Talmud, in which the encounter between pilgrim and God is portrayed as a mutual gaze in which each party looks at the other with both eyes.

In Chapter 3, Neis traces descriptions of visual asymmetry and mediated God-seeing, which she terms "heterovisuality," as a result of God's absence after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. A heterovisual experience of God entails a unidirectional visual encounter with a material object that represents the divine. In such an encounter God is "is entirely a visual object and not a seeing subject" (95). Neis argues that whether they imagined a heterovisual or homovisual encounter with the divine, the Rabbis projected such visual intimacy either backward or forward in time, to either the Temple or the messianic era. Part of the construction of Rabbinic sight, according to Neis, is their perceived lack of ability to see God in their own day.

The fourth chapter explores the erotic nature of vision as it is portrayed and legislated in Rabbinic texts. On the one hand, Neis argues, visuality in Rabbinic literature is heavily gendered: vision not only has a (male) gender, but gender is produced by the gaze itself. The object of the gaze becomes feminized, whereas the viewer becomes masculinized—the gaze itself, in line with extramissive notions of vision, is imagined to extend like a phallus in response to the desired object. Nonetheless, Neis also argues that Rabbinic discourses of erotic vision, particularly in their ascetic restrictions on the male gaze, also subvert the typical gendering of the gaze. She suggests that this "self-denial of human-human heterovisuality"—i.e., the proscriptive attitude towards erotic gazing—is presented as juxtaposed with the "restoration of divine-human homovisuality" (168).

The fifth chapter turns to idols, which are—much like women—a problematic object of visual attention for the Rabbis. Neis traces a number of different rabbinic approaches towards the proper way to visually engage with objects classified as "idols," paying particular attention to "looking away" (which she argues is a result of the rabbis' awareness of the potentially powerful spiritual experience entailed in gazing at a sacred image); "looking awry" (seeing as a destructive act that can have extramissive power to harm the idol); and "liturgical looking" (another actively destructive use of the gaze that is intended to harm the idol through a curse). Neis shows that the Rabbinic visual engagement with idols contained a wide number of possibilities for acceptable modes of vision, and that visually empowering techniques of looking at idols in fact helped the Rabbis to consolidate their identity in relation to their surrounding visual world.

Finally, in Chapter 6, Neis returns to the question of spiritually desirable vision. She argues that the Rabbis associated the sight of the sage, whose body was considered to emit the light of knowledge, with the sight of God's face. She points to the use of vision in Babylonian mnemonic techniques and Palestinian techniques of visualizing one's teacher in order to properly remember and attribute his teachings. For the Rabbis, the sight of the sage comes to stand in for the ability to visually access God.

Neis deftly analyzes an enormous range of material. She is well-versed in contemporary theories of vision and in feminist and post-colonialist critiques and the cultural contexts (Greco-Roman, Christian, and Zoroastrian) of her texts. In her treatment of the Rabbinic sources themselves, she combines sensitivity to historical layers within each text with the ability to use each work as a coherent document that is reflective of its producers and their cultural context. In her thoughtful argument in Chapter Two, for example, she traces the theme of seeing God's face across an entire tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, noting that "the progression and arrangement of material in [Tractate] b. Hagiga as a whole makes a case" for the Rabbinic longing for homovisuality with God and sense of loss due to the absence of the Temple (73).Such sensitive engagement with a theme throughout a whole tractate is rare for scholars of the Babylonian Talmud, who are much more likely to treat individual passages (sugyot) within the Talmud than a whole chapter, much less treatise.

Neis's treatment of the relationship between vision and language might have been usefully enriched by engaging further with the question of oral versus written transmission and pedagogy of Rabbinic texts. Within her discussion of the sage as a desirable and icon-like object of vision, Neis discusses the Late Antique idea of what she calls "visible teaching," a tendency to link sight with knowledge and memory. Neis also discusses Rabbinic writings that liken holy words to fire and light. However, these holy words were most likely spoken and not read.

The intersection of visual culture and Rabbinic literature (or indeed Jewish societies more broadly) has received little scholarly attention, and as such this book is a welcome addition to works such as Daniel Boyarin's "The Eye in the Torah" and Elliot Wolfson's Through A Speculum That Shines.3 Yet Neis's scholarship also reaches far beyond the boundaries of Rabbinics or of Jewish Studies, demonstrating how the Rabbis partook of and reacted to particularly Late Antique ways of seeing. Neis offers an enlightening contribution both to the study of Late Antiquity and to contemporary theories of vision and the senses.


1.   Unlike some other scholars, Neis intentionally does not distinguish between the terms "vision" and "visuality," preferring to "use the term visuality in its broadest sense to describe ways of being visual" (p. 25).
2.   The Masoretic text reads "will be seen" (yera'eh) instead of "will see" (yir'eh); nonetheless, as Neis points out, this seems to be the original meaning of the text.
3.   Boyarin, Daniel. "The Eye in the Torah: Ocular Desire in Midrashic Hermeneutic." Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring, 1990), pp. 532-550. Wolfson, Elliott. Through a Speculum that Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.

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