The Mind of the Talmud

When I read The Mind of the Talmud the first time around, not long after it was published in the 90s, it was mind-opening and shocking. This readthrough, I found it good and interesting but not shocking.

Professor David Kraemer argues that the literary form of the Babylonian Talmud communicates a philosophical approach. The Talmud presents extended arguments without resolution in order to convey the concept that truth is not determinable by people, and that truth can only be approached through a multi-voiced conversation. This rhetoric is a deliberate choice, and a significant contrast to other religious and intellectual traditions.

With detailed analysis from his doctoral dissertation, Kraemer shows how this style of extended and unresolved argument evolved over time, with later generations of Talmudic rabbis using features of the style with increasing frequency and intensity. Because of the evolution over time, the style was unlikely to have been invented by the last layer of editing, but the final layer of editing made some of the the most radical choices.

In a tradition that privileges earlier voices, Kraemer argues that creative interpretation by later authorities allows them to assert power over earlier layers. Kraemer takes this not uncommon modern reading even further with a more subtle point. The Talmud uses an interpretive approach whereby every small feature of scripture is intended to have one and only one teaching for halacha (Jewish law). To modern ears, this seems absurdly literalist and bizarre. Kraemer argues that this form of interpretation serves to increase the surface area of the text, allowing for more interpretive hooks. Not only that, the Bavli pioneers an interpretive method that draws interpretive conclusions by comparing not only to what the text says but to fanciful things that the Talmud imagines it might have said but doesn’t say.

Later layers of Rabbinic scholarship brought structure and system to the body of Jewish law, so it is striking to see Kraemer highlight the built-in contradictions and anti-conclusiveness of the style of the Bavli. The multi-voiced play of argument and interpretation fits nicely with the postmodern tradition, in which there is no single, stable, determinable meaning.

When I read The Mind of the Talmud for the first time, I’m not sure how much I noted the connection to the ideology of Conservative moment (the moderate traditionalist strand of Jewish thought and practice). Kraemer is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the main Rabbinical school for Conservative Judaism.

For example, Kraemer uses the story of the Oven of Aknai, a well-known Talmudic story where a voice booms down from heaven to resolve a dispute among Rabbinic sages, and the sages dismiss the voice saying “it is not in heaven” meaning that the right to decide is in human hands. In response, G-d laughs in amused approval, saying “My children have defeated me.” This story is a classic in the homiletic canon of Conservative Judaism, which emphasizes the power of contemporary scholars to interpret the tradition for current circumstances.

These selections are homiletic choices. By contrast, Orthodox readings gravitate toward other stories in the tradition that focus on acceptance of the yoke of heaven without question, the value of obedience to authority, the ideology that each generation is further away from divine revelation and wisdom. Selecting homiletic choices out of a vast corpus of source text is itself a traditional thing to do regardless of ideology.

I noticed Kraemer’s homiletic defense of Conservative arguments even more strongly in Kraemer’s later book, Reading the Rabbis, where he does closer literary readings of specific texts in the Talmud and shows how the literary forms and techniques are used to undermine seemingly conventional ideas. In that book, though the technique is subtle, the familiar selections and conclusions uphold common tenets of Conservative Judaism.

In both books, Kraemer’s theology is radical, but he shows no radical leanings in categorization or practice. This stance is influenced by Kraemer’s reading of tradition, where one can hold wild and fantastic ideas as long as one remains within the ideological and ritual bounds of the community.

Kraemer’s ideas of undecidability and interpretive play are from the postmodern tradition. Still, his writing style is scholarly straight argument and linear prose. He doesn’t succumb to the postmodern temptation to engage in filligreed interpretation and self-consciously playful writing. For this, one can to turn to Marc-Alain Ouaknin’s “The Burnt Book”, which draws on Derrida, Blanchot, Jab├Ęs, Neher, and Levinas. For more pointed and less conventional theological readings, check out the work of Prof. Aryeh Cohen, who uses close readings and postmodern approach to draw interesting inferences about the theology of exile and other topics. Disclosure, Aryeh is also a friend.

In the last chapter of the book, Kraemer contrasts the Bavli’s multi-voiced and inconclusive approach to the pursuit of truth to other religious and intellectual traditions. But he does not get into in-depth analysis of the Talmud’s rhetoric compared to more well-known hellenistic/classical forms. For this analysis, is an excellent summary in a journal article by David Frank. (I first learned that argument from earlier sources in a course at Bar Ilan university in 1983. But I don’t have the notes or a syllabus for the class, and I am enjoying the process of tracing those missing sources.)

Kraemer’s argument sounded shockingly radical when it came out; now the dissonances are notable and pleasing. Yet the perspective and methods of postmodern Talmud scholarship are still fairly obscure in contemporary discourse. Conventional rhetoric is still classical – one build a logical case toward a single conclusion, using counter-arguments to bolster the case for one’s preferred approach. It is still strange to counterpose multiple voices, and to synthesize an approach composed of not-fully-resolved arguments among the approaches and positions.

in a networked world with public conversational practice, and where people are sometimes tempted to remember the conversations, the rhetorical choices of the Talmud’s editors have renewed salience. When we attempt to condense discussion in forums, Twitter threads and perhaps Google Buzz and Wave, how much of the individual voices and arguments will we preserve? I suspect there are lessons to learn from the modes of Talmudic rhetoric.

I strongly recommend The Mind of the Talmud to anyone interested in Jewish thought, postmodernism, and/or premodern sources of inspiration for contemporary hypertext. If I know you in person I may have already recommended it to you. This book is not an introduction to the Talmud – try The Essential Talmud by R. Adin Steinsaltz for a traditional-flavored good introductory text. The book presumes some knowledge of Jewish text and thought, though I suspect that it is readable by someone with interest and Wikipedia. Chapters 2 and 3, in which Kraemer uses statistical analysis to show that the rhetoric of the talmud isn’t merely an invention of its editors, is persuasive but quite dry; the interpretive and argumentative heart of the book is in Chapters 4-7. The book is also rather expensive, but one can get somewhat cheaper copies used, and there is inventory online. If you have read it (or if you go read it now), I’d love comments and discussion.

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