Talmudic Thinking

Monotheism and the sanctification of the trivial

Print this page Print this page

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…

The Power of Logic

The presupposition of the talmudic approach to life is that order is better than chaos, reflection than whim, decision than accident, ratiocination (mental activity) and rationality than witlessness and force. The only admissible force is the power of fine logic, ever refined against the gross matter of daily living. The sole purpose is so to construct the discipline of everyday life and to pattern the relationships among men that all things are intelligible, well‑regulated, trustworthy and sanctified.

The Talmud stands for the perfect intellectualization of life, that is, the subjection of life to rational study. For nothing is so trivial as to be unrelated to some conceptual, abstract principle. If the placing of a napkin or the washing of the hands is subject to critical analysis, what can be remote from the Talmud's rigorous inquiry? But the mode of inquiry is not man's alone. Man is made in God's image. And that part of man which is like God is not corporeal. It is the thing which separates man from beast: the mind, consciousness. When man uses his mind, he is acting like God. That surely is a conviction uncharacteristic of modern intellectuals, yet at the heart of Talmudic intellectuality.

The Talmud's conception of us is obvious: We think, therefore we and what we do are worth taking seriously. We will respond to reason and subject ourselves to discipline founded upon criticism. Our response will consist in self‑consciousness about all we do, think, and say. To be sure, man is dual, we are twin‑things, ready to do evil and ready to do good. The readiness is not all, though some now think so. Beyond readiness there is mindfulness.

As the talmudic warning about not interrupting one's study even to admire a tree‑-that is, nature‑-makes clear, man cannot afford even for one instant to break off from consciousness, to open ourselves to what appears then to be "natural"; to be mindless is to lose touch with revealed order and revealed law, the luminous disciplines of the sacred. 

Etiquette & Social Order

Nor is the ultimate issue of man solely ethical; it is holiness. To be sure, one must do the good, but Torah encompasses more than ethical behavior. The good is more than the moral; it is also the well‑regulated conduct of matters to which morality is impertinent.

The whole man, private and public, is to be disciplined…

Other examples of the Talmud (besides those concerning how to conduct a meal, referred to here) would have laid greater stress on different aspects of behavior and belief; monumental discussions of civil obligations, torts and damages, for example, might well have been cited. But these would have produced a picture not much different, except in substance, from the one yielded by the Talmud's investigations into how a meal is conducted.

For no limits are set to the methods of exploring reason and searching for order. Social order with its concomitant ethical concern is no more important than the psychic order of the individual, with its full articulation in the "ritual" life. All reality comes under the discipline of the critical intellect, all is capable of sanctification.

The Unified Torah

The Talmud's single‑minded pursuit of unifying truths itself constitutes its primary discipline. But the discipline does not derive from the perception of unifying order in the natural world. It comes, rather, from the lessons imparted supernaturally in the Torah.

The sages perceived the Torah not as a melange of sources and laws of different origins, but as a single, unitary document, a corpus of laws reflective of an underlying ordered will. The Torah revealed the way things should be, just as the rabbis' formulation and presentation of their laws tell how things should be, whether or not that is how they actually are done.

The order derives from the plan and will of the Creator of the world, the foundation of all reality. The Torah was interpreted by the talmudic rabbis to be the architect's design for reality: God looked into the Torah and created the world, just as an architect follows his prior design in raising a building.

A single, whole Torah‑-in two forms, oral and written, to be sure-underlay the one, seamless reality of the world…On that account the Talmud links the private deeds of man to a larger pattern, provides a large and general "meaning" for small, particular, trivial doings.

Behind this conception of the unifying role of reason and the integrating force of criticism lay the conviction that God supplies the model for man's mind, therefore man, through reasoning in the Torah's laws, may penetrate into God's intent and plan. The rabbis of the Talmud believed they studied Torah as God did in heaven; their schools were conducted like the academy on high. They performed rites just as God performed rites, wearing fringes as did he, putting on phylacteries just as God put on phylacteries.

In studying Torah they besought the heavenly paradigm revealed by God "in his image" and handed down from Moses and the prophets to their own teachers. If the rabbis of the Talmud studied and realized the divine teaching of Moses, whom they called "our rabbi," it was because the order they would impose upon earthly affairs would replicate on earth the order they perceived from heaven, the rational construction of reality. It is Torah which reveals the mind, of God, the principles by which he shaped reality.

So studying Torah (in the broad sense) is not merely imitating God, who does the same, but is a way to the apprehension of God and the attainment of the sacred, The modes of argument are holy because they lead from earth to heaven, as prayer or fasting or self‑denial cannot. Reason is the way, God's way, and the holy man is therefore he who is able to think clearly and penetrate profoundly into the mysteries of the Torah and, especially, of its so very trivial laws. In context, those trivialities contain revelation. 

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.