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What Is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement.

What Is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement, by Sergey Dolgopolski. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. 333 pp. $60.00.

The title question of Sergey Dogopolsky's ambitious book is disarmingly simple: "What is Talmud?" This, however, is no introduction to Talmud, companion to Rabbinic Literature or Talmud for dummies.The Talmud, that is the historical text finally edited towards the end of late antiquity in the sixth or seventh century, plays a secondary role in this sprawling, densely argued and somewhat opaque volume. The "Talmud" of the title refers to a method of argumentation and thinking which is no less strict, philosophical, or rational than the rationality of Aristotelean thought as mediated by Maimonides (p. 35). When Dogopolsky, in his introduction, says he is going to be analyzing a Talmudic treatise (p. 25), he is not referring to one of the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, but, rather to a book written centuries later in Spain by Rabbi Isaac Canpanton.

Once the underbrush of misunderstanding is cleared away, one must say that Canpanton's The Ways of the Talmud is an understudied work worthy of an intensive and extensive study. Dogopolsky reviews the contents of The Ways of the Talmud in a very competent and thorough manner in the second to last section of his book. However, Dogopolsky's primary aim is to situate Canpanton in an intellectual discourse with the likes of Spinoza and Deleuze (p. 103), and as an intellectual opponent to Maimonides (pp. 34-35), the great rationalist philosopher. For Dogopolsky's Canpanton, "talmud" holds the relationship to philosophy that (the recently revitalized) sophistry does (p. 34). Talmud is a mode of thinking in which tradition guarantees the parameters of discussion and perhaps its "truth" (p. 25), in which both "sides" of a discussion are not to be embodied and thereby historicized on the persons of historical Sages but rather "as eternal eons different from one another due to a phrase they will never erase and never write anew" (p. 49).

Canpanton's work is impressive in its systemic discussion of a certain method of studying Talmud, beginning with the student's first encounter with any specific Talmudic text (he instructs the student to "read the language with heartfelt joy two or three times out loud" [Darkhei Hatalmud p. 26, my translation]). The parts of Canpanton's method which are central to Dogopolsky's book are diyuk or "exaction," hidusb or "invention," and svara mibahutz or "external judgment: These are the tools of classic pilpul finely honed by Canpanton. Exaction is the approach to any talmudic statement which assumes that there is a logically compelling reason for that statement to be made. There are no rhetorical questions" (in the common understanding of this term) or "straw man" arguments. All statements are necessary and therefore the student must investigate why this statement must have been made. Exaction's companion term is "refutation" or kushya, which is used to refine the exaction and to clarify the understanding of the statement. "Invention" is the new understanding of the original statement arrived at as a result of the exaction and the refutations. The external judgment is, on a certain level, the guarantor of truth. To sum up the method with Dogopolsky, the method of Talmudic speculation (iyyun) is neither logical syllogism nor hermeneutic search for meaning but rather exaction and external judgment about the "orations" (meimrot=statements) of past ("past without any claim to presence," p. 103) Talmudic sages or masters. This results from the fact that the Talmudic masters' orations are "granted an unquestionable validity--something that since it happened it did not happen in vain" (p. 104).

It is these last points which pave the way for Dogopolsky's claims in the final part of the book, which is that the point of disagreements is not to ultimately come to an agreement, but rather Talmud is a method of disagreement within which both sides of the question arentrue since radically past. "Contrary to the view of disagreements as always false, Canpanton promoted a notion of disagreement as not false, but rather true. His art of Talmud exemplified an approach in which, unlike false disagreements, true disagreements should be preserved and even developed further" (p. 237). This is a development of that which is stated above that disagreements should not be embodied and histori-cized but seen as eternally different from one another. However, the place this ends up is with the claim that this understanding of disagreement forces one away from a linear understanding of time in which disagreement is only prior to agreement (or resolution). Since Talmudic statements are defined by their "radical pastness" this past is not something that is to be overcome. Rather, what is needed is "a hermeneutical charity towards others" which can respect the past, that is the other pole of disagreement, not for its historical value but for its pastness (p. 272). The spirit of (or, perhaps, drive towards) agreement need not haunt disagreements. "Rather, the Talmudist makes the form of the past the main path of thinking along the ways of hermeneutical charity in his or her attitude toward other, now or then" (p. 273).

This is a rather edifying conclusion to this volume. However, things are not this rosy. The problem with What is Talmud? is that while Dogopolsky seems to intend to be reading Canpanton as his "talmudic treatise," as I mentioned above, he often assumes that this is also a reading of the Talmud the historical book. Talmud, the methodology, is assumed to be Talmud the book with very little evidence. In the first section of his book, Dogopolsky only quotes one short sugya. The argument that the actual method or "art" of Talmud was only discovered in the fifteenth century is not convincing. One could accept What is Talmud? as an attempt to theorize Talmud as an abstract concept. That type of project is problematic for any number of reasons. First, Talmud as--in the written text--is not an abstract concept. It exists in a very material way and has a history. (Dogopolsky dismisses the need for redactional and source critical questions by shifting the statements to "eternal profiles that could always be manned anytime by anyone," p. 104.) If Dogopolsky's claim is that a certain reading of the Talmud, namely Canpanton's reading, gives rise to a certain notion of being a student of Talmud, which gives rise to a certain inviting notion of disagreement, I would have no quibble with him. However, the thrust of the book is that the "art of Talmud" is originally the art of the Talmud. This is not proven.

Beyond the substantive criticism of the book's argument, it must be noted that the books style at times seems to be opaque for opacity's sake, far beyond that which is necessary for an accurate representation of the ideas that are explored. At the end of the day, this book asks important questions and opens a philosophical and talmudic project which it is hoped the author will continue to pursue.

Aryeh Cohen American Jewish University
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Author:Cohen, Aryeh
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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