Talmudic Thinking

Monotheism and the sanctification of the trivial

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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. 

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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.