Talmudic Thinking

Monotheism and the sanctification of the trivial

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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.

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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.