Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla's Hermeneutics by Elke Morlok (Mohr Siebeck) Elke Morlok deals with the hermeneutics of R. Joseph Gikatilla, one of the most outstanding and influential kabbalists of medieval Jewish mysticism. His literary creativity falls onto the last decades of the 13th century, when very innovative ideas on kabbalah and its hermeneutics were developed and formulated for the first time. The author analyzes several key concepts throughout his writings such as his ideas on letter combination, symbol, memory, imagination and ritual and their varying functions within the hermeneutical and theosophic structures that underlie Gikatilla's approach. With the application of methods derived from modern theories on language and literature, she tries to create the basis for a fruitful encounter between medieval mystical hermeneutics and postmodern hermeneutical approaches. As Gikatilla incorporates two main trends of kabbalistic thinking during the medieval period, he was one of the most valuable sources for Christian thinkers interested in medieval kabbalistic thought. More
Plato and the Talmud by Jacob Howland (Cambridge University Press) This innovative study sees the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem through the lens of the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud. Howland argues that these texts are animated by comparable conceptions of the proper roles of inquiry and reasoned debate in religious life, and by a profound awareness of the limits of our understanding of things divine. Insightful readings of Plato's Apology, Euthyphro, and chapter three of tractate Ta'anit explore the relationship of prophets and philosophers, fathers and sons, and gods and men (among other themes), bringing to light the tension between rational inquiry and faith that is essential to the speeches and deeds of both Socrates and the Talmudic sages. In reflecting on the pedagogy of these texts, Howland shows in detail how Talmudic aggadah and Platonic drama and narrative speak to different sorts of readers in seeking mimetically to convey the living ethos of rabbinic Judaism and Socratic philosophizing.
What has Plato to do with the Talmud? The question is more than fair. The Platonic dialogues and the Talmud are separated in time by a millennium, and in spirit by the immeasurable gulf between the orienting concepts of the world that is by nature and the Word that is revealed by God. Plato's dialogues are philosophical dramas centered on the speeches and deeds of Socrates, while the Talmud comprises a detailed yet economically constructed law code (the Mishnah) coupled with an expansive and remarkably free-wheeling commentary (the Gemara). Socratic philosophizing consists in the critical examination of human opinions before the bar of reason; Talmudic inquiry measures itself by the comprehensive revelation of God in the Torah.' In origin, orientation, style, and substance, Platonic and Talmudic writing would seem to be worlds apart. Must not the fruits with which these texts reward their readers be equally disparate?
One might reply that Athens and Jerusalem are united by a shared devotion to the acquisition of wisdom. But because this devotion springs from fundamentally different experiences, Judaism and Greek philosophy embrace distinct conceptions of what wisdom is and how it can be achieved. In the view of Leo Strauss, these conceptions are radically incompatible. "According to the Bible," Strauss observes, "the beginning of wisdom [hakhmah] is fear of the Lord; according to the Greek philosophers, the beginning of wisdom [sophia] is wonder." The "one thing needful according to Greek philosophy" is thus "the life of autonomous understanding," while "the one thing needful as spoken by the Bible is the life of obedient love."
Strauss notes that the Jewish life of obedient love takes its bearings by the recollection of the "absolute sacredness of a particular or contingent event" — the historical moment when God entered into a covenantal relationship at Sinai with a group of former slaves wandering in the wilderness, and thus constituted the people Israel (117).4 The covenant that God presents to the Jews as a divine command is for Him a free act of self-limitation (114-15) — an act in which the omnipotent and therefore intrinsically mysterious God establishes Himself as "incomprehensible and yet not unknown." Because He is omnipotent, knowledge of God, as well as knowledge of the natural and moral order of the world, is rooted "in trust, or faith, which is radically different from theoretical certainty." While theoretical certainty seems to follow from speeches or what speeches reveal, trust is evoked by deeds:
The biblical God is known in a humanly relevant sense only by His actions, by His revelations. The book, the Biblel is the account of what God has done and what He has promised. In the Bible, as we would say, men tell about God's actions and promises on the basis of their experience of God. This experience, and not reasoning based on sense perception, is the root of biblical wisdom. (119)
In the Jewish tradition, Strauss summarizes, "there is no beginning made by an individual, no beginning made by man" (120).
The life of autonomous understanding, by contrast, is an intellectual quest "for the beginnings, the first things" that is guided by the idea of nature, understood as an intelligible, unchanging, and only partially hidden "impersonal necessity" that is "higher than any personal being" (110-11).7 As the fundamental order or structure of what is — a domain that ranges from individually existing beings to the ultimate reality or wholeness of the Whole — riddling nature (phusis, the root of our word "physics") arouses a love of wisdom (philosophia), the pursuit of which is both fearless and hopeless in comparison to the sacred awe of the Jews (log). While the rabbis relate that the Hebrews accepted God's Torah (literally, "teaching" or "instruction") even before they knew its content, Plato's word for philosophical desire is ergs, the Greek term for the intrinsically clever and resourceful passion of sexual attraction. What is more, philosophy aspires ultimately to learn what is good, something the Jews claim to have been revealed to their forefathers by God.'° The alternative of Greek philosophy and Jewish faith is thus one of essentially individual "progress" or essentially communal "return": while wisdom is the philosopher's distant aim, for the Jews it consists in faithfully remembering and practicing what God has already taught the community in the plain language of the Torah."
Strauss's concern with the conflict between "the biblical and the philosophic notions of the good life" arises from his intuition that it is nothing less than "the secret of the vitality of Western civilization" (116). This conflict cannot be resolved, because divine omnipotence is "absolutely incompatible with Greek philosophy in any form" (11o). This is not to say that there are not significant points of agreement between Greek philosophy and the Hebrew Bible. They agree about the importance and content of morality, and they agree that justice consists in submission to a divine law — although each solves the "problem" of divine law "in a diametrically opposed manner" (105-07). Such concinnities help to explain the "attempt to harmonize, or to synthesize, the Bible and Greek philosophy" that has, at least "at first glance," characterized "the whole history of the West." But this attempt is in Strauss's view "doomed to failure":
The harmonizations and synthesizations are possible because Greek philosophy can use obedient love in a subservient function, and the Bible can use philosophy as a handmaid; but what is used in each case rebels against such use, and therefore the conflict is really a radical one. (1o4, emphases in original)
Does Strauss's analysis of the relationship between Greek philosophy and the Bible leave room for, much less invite, a meaningful comparison between Plato and the Talmud? To begin with, Strauss rightly frames the problem of the relationship between what he calls "Athens" and "Jerusalem" in terms of competing ways of life. What is at issue is not simply what one knows, but how one lives; wisdom —whether it is conceived as hakhmah or as sophia — is in each case understood to be primarily and essentially manifested in a certain form of human existence. Strauss also correctly emphasizes the significance of morality and law in both traditions. But while he acknowledges the possible use of wonder and autonomous understanding in Judaism, and of obedience and humility in Greek philosophy, he does not discern the essential roles that these elements actually play in both traditions. These roles are particularly evident when one contemplates, not the Bible and Greek philosophy in general, but Plato and the Talmud in particular.
Consider the aforementioned problem of divine law. While rational analysis and reflection are essential features of inquiry and argument in the Talmud, it is less widely recognized that the quest for truth, "wherever and however it can be found," is favorably represented in the Hebrew Bible as well. But in the Jewish tradition, the quest for truth takes place within the horizon of a revealed Law (here capitalized to indicate its divine origins) that comprehensively orders human life and is passed down from generation to generation. Simply by inquiring into what is by nature, however, Greek philosophy implicitly calls into question the teachings of ancestral law, custom, or convention (nomos); not coincidentally, nomos is the term that renders the word "Torah" in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures prepared in Alexandria during the third through the first centuries BCE. Yet this difference should not be allowed to obscure a deeper similarity. For it is nature or phusis that is for the philosophers, as the Torah is for the Jews, the ultimate beginning and measure of thought and action, and it enjoys this status precisely because it presents itself as "given" independently of human activity. Put another way, philosophy uncovers or discovers the order of nature, but does not produce it; in subordinating itself to nature, philosophy is no more autonomous, in the literal meaning of "self-legislating," than thought that begins from the Torah. Nor is this subordination merely theoretical, because the philosophers' understanding of phusis directs their deeds just insofar as it guides their thought.
Of course, nature does not address human beings, much less legislate for a human community; where God speaks, nature is silent. But for the Greek philosophers, the order of nature includes the end or good at which things aim; because nature is teleological, it is also implicitly prescriptive. In particular, the philosophers find in the human inclination to learn and capacity for rational understanding a natural basis for the superiority of the philosophical life. This superiority, however, is not recognized in the laws or customs of any actually existing political community. Indeed, the Greeks' widespread ignorance of the worth of philosophy is a common theme in philosophical writing.'? As the public trial and execution of Socrates at Athens in 399 BCE makes clear, the problem goes beyond ignorance. It is not coincidental that Socrates was convicted of impiety and corruption, for the religion of the Greeks militates against philosophy. Like the Hebrew Bible, the Greek poetic tradition — the primary vehicle for the formation and transmission of religious myth — teaches that human life is limned by intrinsically mysterious powers. But unlike the Bible, the myths of the poets do not recognize a God who creates an ordered universe suited to human welfare, offers special instruction to human beings in the form of revelation, and rewards and punishes with justice tempered by mercy. The Greek tradition in effect acknowledges the "welter and waste" of which Scripture speaks (tohu vabohu, Genesis 1:2), but not the God whose breath or spirit hovers over these troubled waters. Because the philosophers see ordered nature where the poetic tradition sees chaos, there is, as Plato writes, "an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry" (Republic 6o7b). Aristotle accordingly begins his Metaphysics by explicitly disputing the belief, widely disseminated by the poets, that human excellence — in this case, in the acquisition of wisdom — is likely to arouse the jealousy of the gods (982b-83a).
The preceding reflections suggest an analogy between the self-understanding of the Greek philosophers and that of the Jews. The philosophers recognize no revealed teaching, but they have the guidance of phusis, and in their own view this sets them apart as the few from the many. While the point must not be pressed too far, one could say that nature is the (admittedly only partially articulated) Law of the Greek philosophers, which in certain respects differs from all other, merely human laws, customs, and conventions (nomoi) no less than the way of the Jews as taught in the Torah differs from the ways of "the nations" (hagoyim).
Other affinities between "Athens" and "Jerusalem" on the subject of law come to light when one compares the Talmud's attitude toward Greek thought to the pedagogical caution of the Platonic dialogues with respect to the role of philosophy in civic life. At first sight, the Talmud's opinion of Greek intellectual endeavors seems unambiguous: "Cursed be a man who rears pigs and cursed be a man who teaches his son Greek wisdom!" the Gemara declares.22 But this turns out to be far from a blanket condemnation of Greek thinking. Setting aside the problem that we do not know what "Greek wisdom" (hakhmat yevanit) means in this context, neither here nor elsewhere does the Talmud explicitly forbid its study; it only prohibits teaching such wisdom to children. The thirteenth-century scholar Israel of Toledo connects the quoted statement from tractate Sotah with Rabbi Eliezer's injunction against allowing children to engage in "excessive reflection." If, as Rabbi Israel thinks, "excessive reflection" refers to the "science of logic," or alternatively to "dialectics and sophistry," Eliezer's prohibition bears comparison to Socrates' assertion that no one under thirty years of age should be exposed to dialectical argumentation, lest he be "filled with lawlessness" (Republic 537e). Be that as it may, both Socrates and the rabbis make a sharp distinction between the formative education of the young that is achievable through good laws and those modes of thought — including techniques of critical analysis and argumentation — that only mature adults may safely pursue. This distinction is underscored by yet another Talmudic passage concerning Greek wisdom. Asked whether one who has "studied the entire Torah" may study hakhmat yevanit, Rabbi Ishmael quotes Joshua 1:8: "This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night." "So go, find a time that is neither day nor night," Ishmael instructs the questioner, "and that is when you may study the wisdom of Greece" (BT Menahot 99B, Neusner trans.). Ishmael does not explicitly forbid the study of Greek wisdom, but merely restricts it to a time that looks, at first, like no time at all. Strikingly, the Athenian Stranger of Plato's Laws concurs: in the best regime, a regime rooted in the educative power of good laws, philosophical discussion (particularly about the existence and nature of the gods) will take place among a select group of actual and potential civic leaders meeting in private only during the twilight between dawn and sunrise (951d) — a time that is precisely "neither day nor night."
I am not suggesting that the rabbis read the Laws. Neither Plato nor Socrates is mentioned by name in rabbinic literature. Greek and Latin philosophical terms are furthermore conspicuously absent from the rabbinic writings, even though the rabbis were`evidently acquainted with Hellenistic literature, knowledgeable about philosophical discussions, and in some cases interested in philosophical questions. This absence is presumably explained by the rabbis' informed judgment that philosophy was foreign to their basic concerns. In particular, they seem to have distinguished between the active life of morality and service to God that they embraced as Jews and the life of contemplation that they took to be the philosophical ideal.
Within the context of Greek thinking, however, Socrates is something unexpected: a philosopher for whom the vita contemplative is inseparable from the vita actives, and whose intellectual pride is tempered by religious humility. Plato's Apology of Socrates depicts the defense speech the philosopher offers at his public trial on the charges of impiety and corrupting the young. Socrates claims in the Apology that he began to engage in his distinctive philosophical activity — the process of questioning his fellow citizens and, inevitably, exposing the incoherence of their opinions — in order to test the oracle of the god at Delphi, which had declared that no one was wiser than he. Socrates explains that he came to understand the oracle to mean that he is wiser than others just to the extent that he recognizes his own ignorance. By examining and refuting his fellow Athenians, he shows that human wisdom is "worth little or nothing" (23a—b). In this way, he simultaneously serves the Athenians and the Delphic deity: Socrates humbles others in argument in order that they may come to share his knowledge of ignorance and his humility in relation to the wisdom of "the god," and so turn in earnest to the quest for truth and the care of their souls (cf. 29c1-3oa). Nor is the Apology the only dialogue in which Plato exposes the religious depths beneath the bright logical surfaces of Socratic philosophizing. In the Theaetetus, Socrates maintains that he serves "the god" as a philosophical midwife (149a-151d). In the Symposium, he presents the philosophical achievement of wisdom as the culmination of an initiation into the quasi-religious mysteries of eras (207a-212a). In the Republic, he characterizes as a kind of prophecy the soul's access to the intrinsic goodness and wholeness of what is (5o5e-5o6a). And in various dialogues, Socrates speaks of the divine being (daimonion) that directs his philosophical activity.32 The overall picture of Socratic philosophizing that emerges from these dialogues is one in which the love of wisdom that springs from wonder is moderated by a sense of awe before, and responsibility to, that which presents itself as divine.
If Jerusalem is at least partly reflected in the Platonic dialogues in the role that openness to divine beings or powers plays in Socrates' self-understanding as a philosopher, Athens is at least partly folded into Jerusalem in the Talmudic rabbis' love of rational inquiry. What may look like polar opposites from within the philosophical and religious traditions — either fear or wonder, either simplicity of heart and obedient love or autonomous understanding — stand together in creative tension in Talmudic inquiry. Readers who come to the Talmud after a long acquaintance with Plato cannot fail to be struck by the dialectical character of rabbinic thought, by the text's preference for raising questions rather than furnishing answers, and by its open-ended, conversational form. These features of the Talmud suggest that, while the tradition treats the letter of the Torah as absolute and unalterable, the meaning and specific application of God's instruction is in practice subject to multiple reasonable interpretations. Put another way, the very simplicity of God's revealed teaching (cf. Deuteronomy 3o:11-14) entails that reflection alone can determine how to embody this teaching in every aspect of life.
In this fundamental sense, revelation does not restrict thought, but rather focuses and motivates it. Beyond this, the rabbis regard the study of Torah as the fullest expression of the love of God. Seen in this light, the Talmud resembles a prayer of thanksgiving: in meticulously recording the play of the rabbinic mind, it magnifies God. In rabbinic Judaism, the humility of faith is thus the precondition for the expression of the majesty of intellect, which manifests itself in the moral seriousness and theoretical richness of an extraordinarily robust literary and legal tradition.
A further affinity between the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud comes to light when one asks what these texts seek to accomplish as pedagogical writings — writings that aim to shape the minds and mold the ethical and spiritual dispositions of their readers. This question, which stands at the heart of the present study, is motivated by a number of clear similarities between these writings. Like the Bible, both the dialogues and the Talmud repeatedly turn the attention of their readers toward the same fundamental question: "How should I live?" In addressing this question, they develop complex chains of philosophical and exegetical reasoning, offer theological speculation and moral exhortation, advance interpretations of other texts, and construct codes of law.37 Perhaps most important, they tell stories about people dealing with issues that might arise in the course of everyday life. These people exemplify various strengths and weaknesses of character and intellect, which are reflected in their judgments and actions. In narrating or dramatizing a variety of humanly revealing speeches and deeds, both the Talmud and the dialogues provide a range of moral and intellectual models that readers might choose to imitate.
The Platonic dialogues and the Talmud are also animated by certain shared convictions about the life worth living. They concur that the unexamined life is a deeply impoverished one, that the examination of life must take place in partnership with others, and that it is incumbent upon us to live up to our best understanding of things. Both accordingly present or represent debates covering a broad range of topics, and rich with ethical, legal, metaphysical, and theological implications. In doing so, they propose many more questions than answers, and give voice to various — and frequently incompatible —intellectual and moral perceptions. In these ways, both the dialogues and the Talmud compel the reader to assume primary responsibility for what he or she takes away from them. Yet while these texts exemplify confidence in reason, their confidence is tempered by humility before the mysteries of our existence. Both texts consequently seek to stake out a middle ground between the blindness of faith undisciplined by critical thought, and the sterility of reason bereft of wonder before the divine.
The foregoing reflections are not intended to challenge Strauss's assertion that Greek philosophy and Judaism cannot be synthesized or harmonized. But they are intended to introduce a crucial claim about the philosophical and religious lives that are represented in the dialogues of Plato and the Talmud. Put simply, I argue in this book that the tension between rational inquiry and faith, between the attempt to extend the frontiers of understanding and the acknowledgement of impenetrable mysteries, is essential to the being both of Socrates as a philosopher and of the Talmudic rabbis as Jewish sages. This claim goes beyond the observation that both Socratic philosophizing and rabbinic thought combine elements of rational inquiry and faith. My point is rather that the intellectual and spiritual existence of Socrates and of the rabbis unfolds on the border between what is known and what is unknown — between what can be confidently asserted and argued for, and what we must humbly admit to be beyond comprehension. In different ways, the contradiction implicit in Strauss's observation that God is "incomprehensible and yet not unknown" — the simultaneous opposition and cooperation between the religious faith or trust that binds us to the mysteries of God or the gods, and the philosophical passion for knowledge that guides us toward what the intellect can grasp — thus stands at the heart of both the dialogues and the Talmud. One overarching aim of the present study is to bring this animating tension to light.
This book aims to illuminate the inner connection between the exemplary lives of philosophy and faith as these are portrayed in the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud, and to clarify the ways in which these texts seek to educate their readers to live these lives. I do not argue that Socratic philosophizing and Talmudic Judaism are ultimately or essentially compatible, for they are not. Plato and the Greeks knew nothing of the revealed God of the Torah. The consequences of this fact are visible in the relative radicalism of Socratic inquiry — whose explicit formulation of certain fundamental questions, such as "What is piety?," is inconceivable in the context of the Talmud — and in the fundamentally different conceptions of things divine, God or the gods, and piety that are advanced in the Platonic and rabbinic writings. But in spite of these fundamental differences, I believe that a meaningful comparison of Plato and the Talmud is both possible and desirable.
This project must nevertheless reckon with a serious concern. A distinguished professor once remarked that "we modern scholars who approach the Talmud as philologists and historians will always remain bunglers in this field of study."38 With rare exceptions, however, no other approach is really possible for the modern scholar. For centuries, the study of the Talmud occupied an essential place in the lives of Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa. In the modern era, it was the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic communities of the Slavic countries (most notably Poland) and of Lithuania that constituted the leading centers of Jewish culture. The understanding of the Talmud in these communities was profound, because the Torah was the animating principle of their life, and the rabbinic scholar their highest ideal. But the Holocaust obliterated the thousand-year-old world of the Jewish shtetl, drove Yiddish to the brink of extinction, and, by one estimate, claimed the lives of "over 8o percent of the Jewish scholars, rabbis, full-time students and teachers of Torah alive in 1939." For the most part, the social conditions under which a Jew might achieve the most intimate familiarity with the Talmud and its ideals no longer exist. Most academicians who wish to study the Talmud today are consequently bound to approach the text as an artifact of a vanished world — and so are, and will remain, "bunglers."
It does not follow, however, that we self-conscious bunglers should not study the Talmud. The Talmud contains too much wisdom to be ignored, even — or rather, especially — when this wisdom has come to seem far removed from our everyday lives. And there is a further, very important consideration: more than one orthodox scholar has observed that even those who today strive to duplicate the original Lebenswelt of rabbinic Judaism — choosing, for example, to live and raise their children in orthodox Jewish enclaves in the United States or Israel — have lost touch with the wholeness of the Talmud's understanding of Judaism. In an essay first published in 1974, Eliezer Berkovits describes as a "spiritual tragedy" orthodox Judaism's inability to sustain the "original vitality and wisdom" of rabbinic Judaism as a "comprehensive ethos." Berkovits attributes this original vitality to the rabbis' "understanding of the overriding intentions of the Tora," an understanding that neither was nor could be "formulated ... explicitly," but was rather "absorbed into their [the rabbis'] own consciousness as the result of a life of dedication to Tara and its living realization." But with the written codification of Jewish law in texts such as Maimonides' Mishneh Torah`and the Shulhan Arukh, and the increasing reliance of Jewish communities on these texts to settle practical religious`and moral questions, this living, essentially oral understanding of "the comprehensive Tora" and "the totality of the ethos of the law" was gradually lost. Other authors have noted related changes in orthodox Jewish life in the decades after World War II, including a decisive shift of authority in the determination of Jewish practice from family and communal traditions to written codes of law, and the collapse in Jewish practice of an internal hierarchy of values. For these reasons, Jewish orthodoxy, no less than Jewish secularism, needs to become reacquainted with`the living wisdom that produced, and is reflected in, the Talmud.
While we cannot reanimate the actual life-worlds of the Talmud and the Platonic dialogues, we can attempt to inhabit the writings of Plato and the rabbis by means of an informed intellectual imagination. It may well be that the understanding of the alternative of the philosophical`life and the life of faith that results from such an attempt will be marked by a certain unavoidable abstraction. Indeed, Strauss's observation that "no one of us can be both a philosopher and a theologian.... but every one of us can be and ought to be either the one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology, or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy" is itself an excessively abstract formulation from the perspective of the Torah, which teaches a whole way of life and not a "theology." Yet Strauss rightly observes that "Western man became what he is and is what he is through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens." The comparative study of Plato and the Talmud responds to the challenge and the imperative of self-knowledge by pursuing one as yet largely unexplored way of reacquainting ourselves with the twin springs of the distinctive intellectual and spiritual life of the West.
Plato left perhaps as many as thirty-five dialogues. The Jerusalem Talmud contains almost a million words. The richer and more elegant Babylonian Talmud, with which the present study is almost exclusively concerned, runs to roughly 2.5 million words. Obviously, no single study can hope to encompass all of this material. In selecting the texts examined in this book, I have been guided by two considerations that arise from my intention to compare the philosophical and rabbinic ways of life. First, certain dialogues and tractates are particularly illuminating with regard to the relationship between rational inquiry and faith, because they deal with subjects such as prophecy and miracles. Second, the content of the Talmud can be roughly divided into argumentation pertaining to religious law and codes of conduct (halakha) and the free-wheeling, nonhalakhic discourse known as aggadah, a multifarious category that embraces, among other things, narrative, folklore, theology, homily, and biblical interpretation. While Talmudic debate on matters of halakha is rich with philosophical implications, it is on the whole of limited interest to readers who are not observant Jews. Aggadah, however, has the kind of universal appeal and accessibility that characterizes both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Platonic dialogues. This is particularly true of narrative aggadah pertaining to the lives of the exemplary rabbis the Talmud calls "sages" (hakhamim), for it is in this material that the people of the Talmud come to life as whole human beings —men who struggle, suffer, and rejoice; who quarrel, love, pray, get rich, and go hungry; and who, above all, try to live a life of Torah. If the halakhic disputation of the Talmud shows what it means to think like a sage, it is through aggadic narrative that readers may grasp what it means to be a sage. The stories of the sages are furthermore perhaps the primary means by which the Talmud is able to draw readers of all faiths and backgrounds into reflection and debate on humanly fundamental issues. And it is this combination of dramatic narrative and philosophical depth that makes Talmudic aggadah a literary cousin of the Platonic dialogues.
Mindful of the foregoing considerations, I have chosen to focus on short Platonic and Talmudic texts: Plato's Euthyphro, a dialogue about piety (which we will study in connection with Socrates' defense in the Apology against the charges of criminal impiety and corruption), and the third chapter of tractate Ta'anit of the Babylonian Talmud (18B-26A). These texts deal with a common set of issues, including human and divine judgments of merit, religious and moral extremism, and the partnership between human beings and God or the gods. Among the possible Talmudic alternatives, Ta'anit 3 also stands out because it has an abundance of aggadah. The aggadah of Ta'anit 3 — roughly 75 percent of the Gemara — consists almost exclusively of tales drawn from the lives of the sages, as well as legends involving other ordinary and extraordinary Jews. These tales, many of which concern miracles, present a broad range of concrete examples of thoughtfulness, piety, and moral virtue. The present study is an interpretative exercise that compares this aggadic material to an important part of the story the Platonic dialogues tell about the speeches and deeds of Socrates.
Reading the Euthyphro and Apology alongside Ta'anit 3 will establish that the tension between rational inquiry and faith in which Strauss finds "the secret of the vitality of Western civilization" is in fact an essential feature of both the philosophical life of Socrates and the reflective lives of the rabbis. More specifically, I argue that these texts are animated by comparable conceptions of the proper roles of inquiry and reasoned debate in religious life, and by a profound awareness of the limits of our understanding of things divine — an awareness that has both ethical and theoretical consequences. Plato and the rabbis, I maintain, regard thinking that is in the broadest sense theological — that reflects on our relationship to God or the gods, and to human beings in the light of this relationship — as an activity no less sacred than traditional rituals of prayer and sacrifice. Their writings are furthermore indispensable to this intellectual activity, both because they educate readers to undertake it, and because they provide the essential materials and contexts in relation to which it unfolds.
Although there is no exact equivalent of our concept of "religion" in the dialogues or the Talmud, the character of sacred thought in these texts is illuminated by a long tradition of speculation on the etymology of the Latin word religio. This tradition connects the concept of religion with relegere, "to go through or over again" in reading, speech, or thought; religare, "to bind anew"; and reeligere, "to choose again, or seek out what one has lost." These etymologies emphasize repetition and reaffirmation of the ties that bind worshipers with one another and with God, as one sees, for example, in the Israelites' frequent renewal of the covenant in Scripture and in the Jewish liturgical calendar of Torah readings. But they also reflect assumptions common to the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud. These texts, which simultaneously recapitulate and transform earlier reflective practices, invite readers to participate in the inquiries they present or represent. This process of learning and thinking, not just about the text, but through it, is sacred because it aims to recreate a binding relationship with the community of past and present inquirers and with God or the gods. This is the shared backdrop against which the nonetheless significant differences between Platonic and rabbinic thought can most fully be appreciated.
Another overarching aim of the present study is to illuminate the special pedagogical roles of Talmudic aggadah and Platonic narrative and drama. While the dialogues and the Talmud articulate and defend certain philosophical or religious accounts of the truth, they are equally concerned to teach readers how to learn — as well as`what it means, in human terms, to do so. These texts are accordingly remarkably self-reflective. They constitute curricula in the examined life that simultaneously present the subject matter to be learned and show by example how to go about learning it. While the philosophical argument of the dialogues and the halakhic disputation of the Talmud are crucial to the achievement of both of these ends, the same is true`of the more purely literary dimensions of these
texts. In particular, the dramatic and narrative elements of the dialogues and the Talmud contain moral and religious teachings that can be unearthed only by literary interpretation. Thus, the dialogues respond to a question like "What is justice?" not simply (and perhaps not even primarily) on the level of philosophical argument, but also by furnishing a concrete exemplification of justice in the speeches and deeds of Socrates. The same is true of the Talmud, which uses aggadic narrative to present conceptions of justice, mercy, charity, and the like as these are concretely embodied in the lives of the sages. This use of narrative and drama, I argue, is indispensable to the pedagogy of these texts. For the rabbis, as for Socrates, to learn is to make the truth one's own by appropriating it in a practical as well as a theoretical sense; it is both to know, and to live up to what one knows. The truth that one learns in this deep sense — including especially the truth about our essential human ignorance — becomes an attribute not just of one's opinions or assertions, but of one's whole existence. The dialogues and the Talmud accordingly use drama and narrative to display the essential unity, in the lives of the philosopher and the rabbinic sage, of the processes of inquiry and the practices of everyday life. In this manner, these texts teach readers while compelling them to reflect on how to apply this teaching in their own lives.
Finally, studying the Talmud alongside the Platonic dialogues will help us to see that Talmudic aggadah about the sages and Platonic drama and narrative seek mimetically to convey nothing less than the living ethos of Talmudic Judaism on the one hand and of Socratic philosophizing on the other — dispositions of mind and character that cannot be encapsulated in purely legal discourse or philosophical argumentation. This function of aggadah emerges clearly in the work of Eliezer Berkovits and Max Kadushin. In pondering the rabbis' understanding of the fundamental, essentially ethical principles and values of the Torah, Berkovits speaks of the "halachic conscience" —the spirit rather than the letter of the law, which informs the rabbis' application of Jewish law to actual life situations. As an intuitive understanding of the hierarchy of core Jewish values, the halakhic conscience mediates between established law and the unique circumstances of human existence, thereby transforming "the generality and abstractness of the Written Tora ... into torat hayim, a Tora of life." Because "no general law speaks to the specific situation," written codes of law are always "somewhat 'inhuman' "; in this sense, "only the Oral Tora, alive in the conscience of the contemporary teachers and masters," can "redeem" the written law. Berkovits's understanding of the halakhic conscience is echoed in Kadushin's characterization of the intrinsic and essential "value-concepts" of rabbinic Judaism as dynamic, constantly developing, organically interrelated, and yet ultimately indefinable. 58 So, too, Berkovits's notion of the redemption of Written Torah through the mediation of the halakhic conscience is paralleled by Kadushin's seminal conception of the "steady concretization" of rabbinic value-concepts by the extension and increasing application of halakhic judgments to everyday life and the development of aggadic interpretations of Scripture — the means, according to Kadushin, by which the rabbis were able to achieve both an ever-increasing knowledge of the mind of God and an ever more precise and complete adherence, in practice, to His will.
Taken together, the reflections of Berkovits and Kadushin — one an orthodox rabbi, the other a conservative rabbi — converge on one essential point: the core understanding of rabbinic Judaism, its intuition of the ethos of Torah as a whole, eludes explicit formulation. No set of definitions or principles, and no legal code, can capture this ethos, much less transmit it to future generations. This is why Berkovits insists that the halakhic conscience cannot be committed to writing, but is sustained and passed down through "Oral Tora." What cannot be said, however, may sometimes be shown, and it is the burden of Talmudic aggadah — including, in particular, narrative aggadah about the sages — to teach the values and transmit the ethos of rabbinic Judaism mimetically. To show what cannot be said is also the function of narrative and drama in the Platonic dialogues. For what the dialogues attempt to convey to their readers — to say it again — is philosophy as a way of life, including what we might call, following Berkovits, the "philosophical conscience" that allows Socrates to apply his best understanding of the Ideas of justice, courage, and the like to the concrete circumstances of everyday life.
The present study represents but one voice in a fascinating conversation about some of the richest parts of our shared intellectual heritage, a conversation in which having the last word is neither possible nor desirable. It is furthermore one of the small blessings of authorship that readers may often learn even from a book's mistakes. A fair test of my interpretation is whether it helps, in one way or another, to disclose some new levels of significant meaning in the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud. I shall be more than satisfied if the present study stimulates readers to return to these texts with fresh questions, and prepares them to hear some previously unexpected answers.
The plan of the book is straightforward. Chapter 1 reflects on the nature of the Talmud and the Platonic dialogues as written works. What do these texts give us, and what do they ask of us? What explains their basic structure and literary characteristics? I argue that the dialogues and the Talmud simultaneously preserve and transform oral traditions that might otherwise have been forgotten. Each text constitutes a curriculum that is intended to inform and sharpen the minds of readers as well as to mold their spiritual and ethical dispositions.
Both are pedagogically complex writings that speak to different sorts of readers in different ways, paying special attention to the tension between creative and critical reflection, on the one hand, and custom and tradition on the other. And both tell stories that are designed to show what it means to live the life of a philosopher or a rabbi.
From this point, the book develops more like a conversation than a systematic argument. Subsequent chapters shuttle between Ta'anit and the Apology and Euthyphro in an attempt to trace the way these texts weave together understanding and mystery, human purposes and divine givens, into a fabric that reflects both the expansive activity and the discriminating receptivity of thought.
Chapter 2 examines the story in Ta'anit 3 of Honi HaMe'aggel, a charismatic Jewish miracle worker who intercedes with God on behalf of his community. Honi succeeds in bringing rain during a drought even though he behaves in a way that makes him, in the eyes of the rabbis, not only unworthy of God's special attention and assistance but actually deserving of punishment. Honi's story, which raises basic questions about self-knowledge and the limits of human understanding, fits a pattern known to both the Greeks and the Jews of antiquity — that of the hero who is estranged from the very community he saves. Chapter 3 reflects on Socrates' self-presentation in Plato's Apology. Because Socrates' relationship to "the god" cannot be understood in the familiar terms of the Greek tradition, it poses a problem for the Athenians much like the one Honi poses for the rabbis. In his exemplary piety and wisdom, as well as in the way he tells his story, Socrates resembles the Hebrew prophets — men who understood themselves to be engaged in a moral mission at the behest of God. Chapter 4 takes up Plato's Euthyphro, a dialogue whose main dramatic action is structured around the theme of the relationship between fathers and sons that also plays a central role in the Honi story. By using this theme as a context for comparing Socrates to Euthyphro, his interlocutor, and Meletus, his accuser, this chapter begins to articulate the nature of Socrates' pedagogical care for his fellow citizens. Socrates exercises this care by engaging in philosophical dialogue — a process of circling back to, and thinking critically about, the ultimate beginnings of human existence.
Chapter 5 returns to the Talmud. This chapter considers a series of stories in Ta'anit 3 about the various (and frequently incompatible) attempts of the sages to exemplify the teaching of Torah in their lives. These stories emphasize the wisdom contained in the recognition of one's own ignorance, as well as the openness to new sources of learning that follows from this humbling self-knowledge. They also evoke personal responses that reveal something essential about who we are, and where we might find ourselves in the field of moral possibilities opened up by the examples of the sages. These are only some of the ways in which the text of Ta'anit itself exercises a kind of Socratic care for its readers. Chapter 6 examines Socrates' radical revision, in the Euthyphro, of the poets' depiction of the Greek gods. I argue that Socrates' revised theology aims to help the Athenians become better human beings and citizens. But because his philosophical activity is spurred by modes of direct access to god or the gods that both limit and guide his reflections on piety and divinity, Socrates' love of wisdom incorporates a sense of reverence before, and responsibility to, that which surpasses comprehension. Chapter 7 picks up the threads of the previous one by exploring two conflicting theological perspectives implicit in the aggadah of Ta'anit 3. The first holds that God is unwilling to abrogate the internal necessity of the order He established at the creation of the world. The second holds that God regularly performs miracles for the sake of righteous individuals, including the sort that involves changing the order of creation. By simultaneously incorporating both of these perspectives, Ta'anit 3 encourages rational inquiry that is moderated by a profound awareness of our human ignorance.
The Epilogue offers a synoptic reflection on the main analogies between the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud that emerge over the course of this study. Ta'anit 3 and the Euthyphro and Apology teach that "human being" is a relative concept, inasmuch as our thoughts and actions are properly measured by a divine standard. These texts use similar means to educate their readers for membership in an ideal or aspirational community of teaching and learning, and to convey to them the experience of being called by God or the gods to participate in such a community. They depict the education they offer as a means by which the soul, embracing as a sacred gift the opportunity to learn the most needful things, might liberate itself from the internal bonds of ignorance and habitual thoughtlessness. Mindful that they are speaking to very different kinds of readers, Ta'anit 3 and the Euthyphro and Apology undertake this education with a mixture of hopefulness and caution.
A few concluding remarks about what readers may expect. This book is not a historical study. While I am not competent to pronounce on the influence of Greek thought on the rabbis, I also am not concerned with this question. Nor do I wish to mine Plato and the Talmud for information about the culture of the rabbis or the ancient Athenians, although I have certainly benefited from studies that do just this. Rather, I propose to approach the texts on their own terms, allowing them as far as possible to dictate the assumptions that guide our reading. While this approach asks readers imaginatively to assume certain spiritual and intellectual frames of mind, it does not presuppose that we can learn from the Talmud only if we are pious Jews, or from Plato's Socrates only if we share his metaphysical assumptions. Were this the case, the philosophical and faith traditions of Athens and Jerusalem would have nothing to say to each other. But Alfarabi, Averroes, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas — to name only the leading examples of thinkers who stand, in one way or another, in both traditions — have found that they do have something to say to each other.
Finally, I have attempted to write a book that will be accessible to a wide range of readers. While the issues examined in the following pages are of scholarly interest, on the deepest level they concern us not as theologians or philosophers, but as human beings. Like us, Plato and the rabbis lived in deeply troubled times, yet they responded to the disintegration of their worlds with unsurpassed creative energy. Guided always by the question of how to succeed in what the Greeks called eu prattein — living well and doing right — they sought to make whole what was broken in the individual, in society, and in relation to the divine. Nor did they keep their thoughts to themselves, but chose instead to disseminate them in writing. It is with this simultaneously hopeful and willful act of spiritual and intellectual generosity that we begin our study.
The combination of hopefulness and caution with which the Talmud and the dialogues speak to their readers is especially evident in their pedagogical use of esoteric writing. This pedagogical esotericism allows readers to draw meaning from these texts in proportion to the intellectual and spiritual needs and capacities they bring to them. For some, the meaning of these texts resides in their relationship to an authoritative tradition of received wisdom. For others, their meaning lies not simply in what we can recover of the teachings they attempt to preserve, but also — and perhaps primarily — in the wisdom that these teachings may help us to discover in the future. But whatever their interpretative assumptions may be, readers cannot predict how these writings will speak to them, or what fresh insights they might occasion.
The Platonic dialogues and the Talmud have richly rewarded the time and effort of many earlier generations of readers. As for what these writings may yet communicate to us, one might imagine them saying to their readers what God says to Moses: "I shall be What I shall be" (Exodus 3:14). To entrust ourselves to them is to reaffirm Socrates' faith in the truth of oracle and the rabbis' confidence in the wisdom of the Torah. As we open up the meaning of these texts and attempt to retrace the distinctive paths of rabbinic and Socratic thought, we come to find ourselves exploring the borders between comprehension and mystery, faith and knowledge. It is here, in the good company of past and present inquirers united by shared texts and traditions and by awe and wonder before a divinity that can be known, but never fully comprehended, that we may rediscover the sacred character of thought itself.
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