Classical and Jewish forms of argument compared

The rhetoric of Jewish thought is distinctively different from the classical tradition. In The Mind of the Talmud, which I summarized last week, David Kraemer analyzes the Rabbinic tradition of argument, describes its philosophical implications, and contrasts it with the classical tradition, but does not go deeply into that contrast.

David Frank’s article, Arguing with God, explores those differences in more depth, drawing on a set of thinkers including Susan Handelman, David Kraemer, Emanuel Levinas, and Chaim Perelman/Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. In short; the classical tradition favors speculative thought and declarative exposition in search of unitary truth; the rabbinic tradition favors practice, situational context, and multi-voiced argument that does not reach a single conclusion.

In Jewish tradition, people argue with God and win. In the bible God changes God’s mind, in the Talmud God concedes the turf to the Rabbis. The Jewish tradition takes a pluralist approach, in which minority opinions are preserved, and the truth is contained in multiple voices. Frank shows how Jewish thought contrasts with some of the basic assumptions of Aristotelian logic: “In Jewish logic, it does not follow that if two people disagree, only one must be right… Talmudic logic seeks out and cultivates an “included middle” – one that attempts to find or invent common ground between contraries.”

The biblical arguments with God are about ethics and justice; people are arguing that God should live up to God’s own standards. Modern/postmodern thinkers including Kraemer and Levinas read the Talmud as leaving the arguments and decisions in human hands. In Levinas’ view, seeking the divine directly is madness; people are enjoined to seek the divine through recognizing and meeting ethical obligations to the Other.

Citing Ronald Arnett on Levinas, Frank makes the case that Levinas offers a corrective to classical philosophy’s focus on the self. “Rather than beginning with self, Levinas shifts our focus to the face of the Other, which becomes for him the face of God. We are responsible for and too this face, which is sacred.” The ethical imperative in the Jewish tradition “corrects and reverses the hierarchy of Western philosophy, placing the ethical response to the Other before the pursuit of Being, or ontology.”

In the journal article, Frank argues in favor of a more expansive vision of reason that draws upon both the classical and Jewish traditions. Frank shows that classical thought is characterized by a feud between philosophy and rhetoric in which philosophy won; and argues that Jewish thought never had this split. Citing Levinas and Perelman, Frank argues in favor of a vision of reason that draws both on classical demonstrative logic and Jewish ethics and pluralism.

On the Jewish side of the argument, Frank draws on the liberal interpretive tradition that favors arguing with God rather than obedience to divine will; and the Mitnagdic tradition favoring scholarship and ethics over the Hassidic tradition of mystical experience (for background, see The Faith of the Mithnagdim, an intellectual history by Allan Nadler that is sympathetic to the Mitnagdic side of the split.) I align toward Frank’s biases, but acknowledge that they are biases.

As for the classical side, I think Frank goes a bit Godwin when he draws on Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism as the ultimate conclusion of classical rhetoric. (Isaiah Berlin makes a similar argument about the roots of totalitarianism, pointing particularly at the Continental side of the Continental/Anglo divide). Judaism, Anglo-American pragmatism, and many other systems of belief and philosophy can also be used to justify abuse of power – I think the problem is crazy people with guns, not the style of argument preferred by a given set of crazy people with guns.

Both of the traditions of argument that Frank presents are alternative modes of conscious reason. Meanwhile, much of the discourse over the last century has been about the roots of persuasion in unconscious and social motivations. Frank (and Kraemer) don’t acknowledge the stream of thought from Freud through Edward Bernays, and on to Cialdini and BJ Fogg, to name a few, where reason is, if anything, secondary to interpersonal and intrapsychic influence.

Frank elides the difference when he discusses the ethical advantages of argument. “We now know that ethical behavior is much more likely when argumentation and persuasion are taught as means of dealing with difference and disagreement. What I might do would be to defend argumentation as learned in the strange corridors of the Texas legislature – argument can be persuasive, as long as a hierarchy of persuasion is met; the argument is in the context of meeting the listener’s desires and is seen as socially acceptable.

I strongly recommend the Frank article. It’s a good summary of a topic that I find really interesting, having a traditional Jewish background and Western education, and observing different intellectual norms that are often taken for granted on each side. I’d been looking for a concise, logical, and sourced summary of this polarity since 1983 when I first heard the argument made in a class that Rabbinic rhetoric poses a distinctive and deliberate alternative to classical thought.

7 thoughts on “Classical and Jewish forms of argument compared”

  1. The included middle is a very good concept — I remember it from years ago when reading post-modern cultural criticism. Related conceptually but not in terms of tradition to the excluded third. I think the included middle permits ambivalence — I wonder if that is a community-oriented communication/negotiation strategy as much as it is a rhetorical move.

    And I wonder where it would place the “mutual understanding” (if not also agreement) sought after by speech pragmatics. An ambivalent rhetoric sensitive to the included middle would seem to also slip the bonds of mutual and reciprocal commitment. And from the critique of power perspective, is the included middle included only and for as long as it presents no great challenge to authority? Does it serve authority insofar as authority subsumes the middle and thus neutralizes it?

  2. Frank makes the case, building on Kraemer, that Talmudic arguments are deliberately multi-voiced and inconclusive, and also that the Talmud goes to lengths to emphasize pluralist decision-making. The decisions of competing schools were both considered valid, adherents could hold to local practice, and even in the small number of areas where one might want to enforce adherence, the Talmud finds various ways to avoid it (Kraemer’s analysis is very good on this). It is a nice argument to make that these things are related.

    As for relationship to mutual understanding and commitment, the Talmud makes distinctions between things that need to get decided and things that don’t; those distinctions aren’t necessarily obvious and intuitive. One interesting place to look would be the Talmud’s treatment of speech and business ethics, where there are practical needs for understanding and commitment. I wonder whether anyone has looked at those topics from this angle?

    As for relationship to authority, the Talmud gives plenty of leeway to the schools of Hillel and Shammai to disagree, but Karaites and Christians were out of bounds. The room for disagreement and challenge was bounded. Frank clearly wants to apply the rhetorical strategies he describes to other contexts, and his work is not purely theoretical and historical. So one might be able to see how and whether Frank deals with the question in situations with contemporary power structures. The c.v. here has sources:

  3. The following question ran through my mind forwards and backwards regarding the Talmudic reasoning you describe: What difference does a reason make? and What reason does a difference make?

    I’m reminded of The Differend by Lyotard, also, which is a brilliant examination of juxtaposition.

    But I realize too that I’m approaching this from discourse and linguistic intercourse, in which Habermas’ emphasis on mutual understanding relies on validity claims made during the normal proceeding of rational speech. And I suspect that the methods you’re describing apply to text and its interpretation, less perhaps to subjective claims made vis a vis an interlocutor in the interest of reaching understanding as well as the inter-subjective binding that can accompany it (as seen by speech pragmatics).

    Consensus among individuals then using a hypotactic approach would juxtapose with the type of agreement that would result from paratactic reasoning — the latter being in my mind as likely to wind up in mind-boggling frustration and a kind of suspended relational ambivalence when compared with the action coordinating agreement sought after by the former.


  4. Yes. This is why the place to look for models of interpersonal communication is in the area of speech and business ethics, where mutual understanding and agreement is necessary, rather than in text interpretation and in abstract debate, where it isn’t. (The style of the debate is actually not abstract, but the content is.)

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