Talmudic Thinking

Monotheism and the sanctification of the trivial

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Excerpted from Invitation to the Talmud: A Teaching Book, with permission of the author.

The Talmud… records not only laws, but the processes by which laws are uncovered. By describing those processes, the rabbis propose to resolve the tension between ordinary life and logic. Using the data deriving from revealed laws of ritual purity and liturgy, the Talmud engages in the give‑and‑take of argument about what one is obligated to do and not do (for example) in eating a meal. 

The argument develops its themes through inquiry into fundamental, unifying principles and their application of those to ordinary affairs. Humble matters of where one puts his napkin are shown to reveal such underlying principles. These are then subjected to analysis and produce a search for still more basic, and ultimately unifying conceptions.

Principles of Everyday Life

The primary convictions which generate this search for hidden unities are that God is one, creation derives from the single, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator, and Torah expresses his wholly self‑consistent will. We deal, therefore, with the intellectual effects of the fundamental conviction of monotheism.

The conceptions turned up by the rabbis' quest for the principles to guide everyday deeds prove to be highly relative and abstract. For nothing is more abstract than the nonmaterial, or supramaterial, laws of purity and impurity. So even the placing of a napkin at a meal is turned into a sacred discipline for living, a discipline which requires that logic and order everywhere prevail, and demands, as I said, that concerns for a vast world of unseen, well-regulated, and highly principled relationships of sanctity come to bear.

talmudThoughtless action is elevated, sanctified, made worthy of thought, and is shown to bear heavy consequences. Thus, as Judah Goldin says, "Study, interpretation, debate are the discipline for living; without them no right action is likely…" (The Living Talmud).

The Talmud is a fundamentally nonhistorical document. It does not appeal to the authority of the past. The argument, though unfolding by generations of rabbis, is not about the authority and biography of the ancients, but about their timeless, impersonal reasons for ruling as they do.

The participants in the argument sometimes are named, but the most interesting constructions are given anonymously: "What is the reason of the House of Shammai?" "Do not the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel agree with R. Yose and R. Meir, respectively?" These elegant structures are not assigned to specific authorities, because to the Talmud the time and place, name and occupation of the authority behind an inquiry are of no great interest. Logic and criticism are not bound to specific historical or biographical circumstances. Therefore, the principles of orderly, disciplined, holy life are not reduced to the personalities or situations of the men who laid down or discovered those principles…

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Jacob Neusner

Professor Jacob Neusner is the senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology and a full-time professor at Bard College. He has published more than 800 books and innumerable articles. His publications range from the scholarly and academic to the popular and journalistic.