Thoughts on What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement

I picked up Sergey Dolgopolski’s What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement at the AAR and subsequently read it in one weekend. It is a fascinating study putting forth Talmud as an art alongside philosophy, sophistics, and rhetoric — an art predicated on irreducible and fundamental disagreement. Dolgopolski argues that the Western tradition has always privileged agreement as a goal and tends to dismiss disagreement either as the result of a mistake or misunderstanding or, more generously, as a necessary step along the way to ultimate agreement. Even if agreement is admittedly difficult to reach, so the story goes, it is held forth as both an ideal and as something that should be directly attainable. Dolgopolski believes that the advent of post-Heideggerian and poststructuralist philosophies and anti-philosophies has opened up a new path in this regard, but that they still maintain the basic agreement-centered schema — crucially, though, they provide a way of viewing Talmud, and specifically the understanding of Talmudic art present in the fifteenth-century rabbi Canpanton, as an alternative to Western philosophy.

To understand the notion of Talmud put forward here, it might be helpful to look at the example of Christian scholasticism, which I assume is more familiar to most readers of this blog and which also relies heavily on staged debates between different positions. The disputatio format in fact requires putting forth and provisionally supporting (with citations from tradition) a position that will turn out to be incorrect. The end goal, however, is to show how reason itself as well as all the authorities cited actually agree with a single position, which is very often simply the opposite of what is found in the impersonal “it seems” statement, such that the debate seems contrived.

Though Dolgopolski doesn’t explicitly mention scholasticism as a point of comparison on this level, the scholastic method seems to correspond to the basic instincts of the Aristotelian position as he lays it out — it shows a greater respect for disagreement and rhetoric than in Plato, but it still ultimately subordinates it to the philosophical goal of making present an eternal truth. Since all the church fathers are ultimately attesting to the same unchanging truth of the Gospel, it makes sense that the goal is to demonstrate that they all fundamentally agree, and the arts of grammar and dialectic are put at the service of that goal in terms of explaining away apparent disagreements.

In Dolgopolski’s presentation, Canpanton puts forward an art of Talmud whose assumptions couldn’t be more different. He starts with the principle that the masters of the Talmud wouldn’t have said something for no reason — their statement has to be significant and important, and every word has to contribute to that. The key reason that a rabbi would say something is precisely to refute someone else, and so in order to understand a Talmudic statement, you must uncover the position that the rabbi is implicitly refuting. Hence if a rabbi says that the sky is blue, you have to assume that someone was claiming it was some other color — because it’s not worth saying true things just because they’re true. If you interpret a statement in such a way as to make it seem obvious, that in itself is an objection to your interpretation. In this way, the disagreement has to remain in place and is never overcome in an overarching agreement — the purpose of Talmudic study is to clarify the dispute and make it as rigorous and fundamental as possible.

More than that, Canpanton believes that the masters of the Talmud always intend some kind of invention with what they say, either directly in the statement itself or in the implications one can draw from it. So as opposed to a philosophy focused on echoing the eternal and unchanging truth, Talmud is a way of producing new and surprising truths.

What makes this possible, Dolgopolski argues, is a “metaphysics” of the Talmud that finds truth in the radical past, a past so past that it has never been present — although on a common sense level one of course knows that these debates took place or at least could be envisioned as taking place at some previous historical present, structurally it is staged in a radical past. The student of the Talmud reanimates and deepens the disputes that took place in this radical, ahistorical past, but crucially, the student does not attempt to make that dispute “present,” to bring it to the present day. Rather, the student’s own understanding is projected into that radical past, so that he becomes as impersonal as the Talmudic masters themselves — even self-consistency is subordinate to the rhetorical demands of the dispute.

Dolgopolski believes that the Talmudic “metaphysics” of the radical past as the site of dispute between finite and irreconcilable disputants provides a way past both philosophy and the “metaphysics of presence” that underwrites it and other Western discourses. (Crucial to his argument is the distinction opened up by Derrida and poststructuralism between philosophy and metaphysics — so that Saussure still embraces the metaphysics of presence despite being philosophically naive, for example.)

In light of this metaphysics of the Talmud, Dolgopolski engages in often very dense and sometimes even opaque rereadings of the history of philosophy and particularly of Heidegger, Derrida, and Deleuze. These readings are quite suggestive and sometimes provide what at least seemed like a radical new perspective in which to view their work. Husserl, for instance, comes to seem partly “Talmudic” in method as he tries to carve out a space between logic and psychology that allows for the insights of both. He also includes a brief but very interesting discussion of Agamben’s The Open and puts forth Talmud as a kind of alternative to the “anthropological machine.” Overall, I would say that these readings call for a kind of sequel to What is Talmud? where they could be elaborated with greater length and clarity — because as it stands, they are often difficult to follow and serve mainly as a source for “flashes of insight” that may or may not be compatible with the author’s actual intentions.

I must also admit that when he turned to an elaboration of actual Talmudic passages, I was often simply lost. This is obviously due primarily to my lack of first-hand familiarity with the Talmud, something which I now feel a greater urgency about remedying, but it seems at least possible that his discussions there were of similar density to the philosophical readings and that therefore even someone as familiar with Talmud as I am with the philosophical tradition he addresses elsewhere would have difficulty with them.

Overall, though, this is a book that I will definitely be mulling over and returning to in the future. It is a little too expensive in hardback (especially given that the copy editing seems not to have been as thorough as it should have been with an author whose native language isn’t English), but I hope it finds a wider audience in both continental philosophy and Jewish studies rather than falling into the gap between them.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts on What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement

  1. Also, I should give Bruce Rosenstock credit for recommending it. Hopefully he will come by to make some further comments on the book, since he was one of the author’s dialogue partners as he was writing it.

  2. This does sound great.

    Adam, you mention a desire to remedy your “lack of first-hand familiarity with the Talmud”. Can you, or anyone, suggest how one might go about remedying such a lack (for someone with no knowledge of biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, etc)?

    My main previous encounters have been Levinas’s commentaries, which are fascinating, but (I rather assume) pretty idiosyncratic.

  3. Sergey is a good friend of mine and someone whom I greatly respect as both a Talmudist and a philosopher. Adam’s review of his book has captured precisely the ambitious project of offering Talmud as a different way of thinking and a different expression of Dasein (sort of close to what Simone Weil speaks of as “the impersonal”, that is, a way of breaking free of the whole legal and philosophical tradition that privileges the person in contrast with the thing–persona vs. res in Roman law terms) that forsakes what Scholasticism called “dominium” in favor of a radical openness to ownerless conversation and disagreement. I am translating Sergey’s terms into a register he doesn’t use, but I think he would agree that his work connects with the whole debate about dominium in the 13th cent. between the Franciscans and the Pope John XXII. The question there was whether one could live a life without claiming rights, and I think the rabbis were trying to live such a life in Talmud, though when they turned to apply the law, they thought of themselves and people as having property rights that they needed to protect. So, you could see the rabbis as holding two incompatible views about personhood. But this only reinforces the point Sergey makes: the rabbis were not seeking agreement.

    The sequel to the book that Adam hopes for is nearly done.

  4. The Talmud is now beautifully accessible in the new Steinsaltz edition, which offers full and clear comments on all points, a very readable translation (originally it was made into Hebrew, then rendered into English) by one of the world’s great contemporary rabbis, Adin Steinsaltz. You can literally start with any volume (there is a good introductory volume to the whole set, but it is possible to just jump in. Tractate Sanhedrin is a good place to start.). There is no beginning (or end).

  5. I might mention that it is possible to get the entire Talmud on line. I also have large portions on a IPhone app. I have been collecting most of the volumes of the Steinsaltz, but they are expensive and I gave it up after i found it on-line.

  6. This sounds awesome.

    I will just throw out, without argumentative foundation, my hunch that this mode of reasoning will be more at home in a (revisionist) Lutheran sense of theology as ongoing attention to the voice of the Other, rather than a Reformed sense of intellectual conformity with an eternal principle (Perhaps when I’m 80 I will have all the historical and intellectual pieces in place to defend such a view — but provisionally, I’ll just say I think the differences here relate to the idea that there are in fact deep strands of Luther’s work and his conception of theology which, anti-Semitism notwithstanding, bear a greater appreciation for Torah as itself the divine logos than you get in how Calvin[ism] actually functions.)

  7. In a similar vein, I would highly recommend “The Burnt Book” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin. Its a creative, idiosyncratic, but brilliant usage of Jabes, Blanchot, and Levinas to read Talmud.
    On a more academic front, D. Boyarin’s recent “Socrates and the Fat Rabbis” uses Bakhtin and the Sophists to provide a helpful counter read to claims for a Talmudic ethos of disagreement. Instead, Boyarin points to the rhetorical features in the Talmud that foster monologic dialogues that actually prevent voices of the other from remaining culturally relevant.

  8. Random House never published the whole Steinsaltz Talmud in english. And yes it is the Babylonian Talmud.
    Steinsaltz is in the process of publishing a new translation (not with Random House) that will try to provide an alternative to the complete Artscroll translation of the Babylonian Talmud (which is also worth while, though it has its problems).
    [I translated a few chapters for them last year.]

Comments are closed.