January 16, 2019

Talmud as Cure for the Coddled American Mind

“Just look at any traditional Jewish house of study. . . and you’ll see students and scholars, young and old (and, in the modern Orthodox world, male and female), engaging in what the Talmud suggestively calls “the War of Torah.” . . . .

The heart and soul of the “holy intellectualism” [that, in the words of one contemporary sage, characterizes the Talmud] resides in the spirit of discussion, debate, and disagreement that animates the give-and-take on each page of the Talmud and in the classrooms and houses of study where these ancient texts are being interrogated and explained. And that is why . . . the Talmud and its commentaries are generally studied in pairs, ḥavrutot, who argue, dissect, and strive to plumb the depths of the text. These study partners, often but not always, go on to become lifelong friends and confidants—sweet fruit from the “War of Torah.” . . .

Consider, [moreover], the talmudic ruling requiring of a judge the ability to “declare an unclean thing pure in 49 ways,” an expression meant to convey that the critical capacity to see an issue from all competing sides is, paradoxically, the way to arrive at a more refined sense of the truth. Similarly, Jewish jurisprudence invalidates a capital court case in which the judges return a unanimous verdict of guilty—an endorsement of both the utility and the moral superiority of “viewpoint diversity” if ever there was one. . . .

The two most prominent rival schools of jurisprudence in the Talmud are known as the academy of Hillel and the academy of Shammai. As a general rule, the law follows the academy of Hillel. Why? Because, [tradition] explains, the rabbis of the academy of Hillel would teach the opinion of the academy of Shammai before their own. Whether this reflected mere etiquette or sincere commitment to a more deliberative and inclusive approach, it’s clear that, in taking seriously the arguments of its opponents, the academy of Hillel did something fundamentally praiseworthy. . . . Talmud study may not be for everyone, but internalizing the pedagogy of that ancient and eternally new discipline would go a long way toward opening American minds again.”

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