This article offers the argument that suffering (yisurin) in the Babylonian Talmud functions as a locus for the relationship between God and rabbinic Jews. Scholars of rabbinic martyrdom and asceticism have tended to claim that the Talmud's positive portrayal of suffering is a theodical apology for unexplained evil in the world. However, the article argues that the Talmud—in contrast to earlier rabbinic texts—presents suffering as spiritually relevant not primarily to justify preexisting suffering, but rather to develop a site at which to interpret information about an individual's spiritual status.
The article draws on theories of sacrifice's structure and function, in conjunction with close analysis of rabbinic texts that relate suffering to sacrifice. The pericope at the core of the article's argument demonstrates a strikingly technical approach to the human experience of suffering, describing four examples of yisurin in which no real physical suffering occurs; in each instance the “victim” experiences extremely mild discomfort at most, and at the least barely registers an experience of inconvenience. Nonetheless, these experiences all qualify as “suffering,” and are thus still understood to bear indisputable soteriological import. Physical suffering in the Talmud is thus open for interpretation, yielding information about the status of the sufferer's spiritual self.
Human suffering is viewed as religiously desirable in both late rabbinic and early Christian literatures. By developing an understanding of its hermeneutical function for the rabbis, this article helps to elucidate the value of suffering for rabbinic literature as a subset of late antique religious discourse.