How the Talmud Works

How the Talmud Works

How the Talmud Works

How the Talmud Works

Excerpt

The Bavli, or Talmud of Babylonia, the foundation-document of Judaism, sets forth an orderly world, resting on reason and tested by rationality, all in accord with consistent principles. The document in its coherent intellectual program of inquiry and in its modes of formal cogency embodies that same passion for order, proportion, and rationality that, animates its concrete discussions. In this twopart recapitulation of some of my monographs on how the Bavli works—the problem of the Bavli's intellectual cogency and formal coherence—I spell out in exemplary detail the evidence that sustains that characterization of the writing.

A commentary to the Mishnah, a philosophical law-code made up of sixty-two topical expositions or tractates compiled in the Roman-ruled Land of Israel by ca. 200 C.E., the Bavli, produced at about 600 C.E. in the Iranian satrapy of Babylonia, in the vicinity of present-day Baghdad, takes up the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a., the Old Testament). The Talmud translates Pentateuchal narratives and laws into a systematic account of its “Israel's” entire social order. In its thirty-seven topical presentations of Mishnah-tractates, the Talmud portrays not so much how people are supposed to live— this the Mishnah does—as how they ought to think, the right way of analyzing circumstance and tradition alike. That is what makes encounter with the Bavli urgent for the contemporary situation. To a world such as ours, engaged as it is, at the dawn of a new century by standard reckoning, in a massive enterprise of reconstruction after history's most destructive century, old systems having given way, new ones yet to show their merit and their mettle, the Talmud presents a considerable resource.

The Talmud embodies applied reason and practical logic in quest of the holy society. That model of criticism and reason in the encounter with social reform of which I spoke is unique. The kind of writing that the Talmud represents has serviceable analogues but no known counterpart in the literature of world history and philosophy, theology, religion, and law. That is because the Talmud sets forth not only decisions and other wise and valuable information, but the choices that face reasonable persons and the bases for deciding . . .

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