Academic journal article Shofar

The Philosophy of the Talmud, by Hyam Maccoby

Academic journal article Shofar

The Philosophy of the Talmud, by Hyam Maccoby

Article excerpt

New York: Routledge, 2002. 240 pp. $85.00.

After the demise of the modern paradigms of rationality, can we still speak of the rationality of our religion? If so, where is its rationality to be found? Many philosophers of religion today offer either of two contrary answers: either "no, because we cannot speak of rationality in any general sense at all," or "no, because religion is extra- or sub-rational." According to a romantically orthodox position, Judaism is an extra-rational religion, because our sages deliver a divine message whose authority and meaning cannot be gainsaid by any recognizable standard of rationality. According to a skeptically postmodern position, Judaism is sub-rational, because it is constituted by political, economic, and psycho-social phenomena that cannot be reduced to any sets of rational principles.

In The Philosophy of the Talmud, Hyam Maccoby introduces an answer that is far more promising than any of these: that, while we may recognize no humanly constructed, universal rationality, the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrashic collections display indigenous patterns of rationality. This is a rationality that emerges from out of rabbinic argumentation itself, rather than as judged by criteria imported from classical Greece, 19(th) century Germany, or other, contrasting sources of rational practice. These various rationalities are not merely self-enclosed, however; rabbinic thinking can import patterns of rationality learned from Greece, and vice-versa. Maccoby therefore calls his study of rabbinic rationality "the philosophy of the Talmud": it is philosophy, the way Greek thinking is philosophy, except that its logic and conditions of truth and falsity may differ from those of Greek philosophy.

One of Great Britain's most active author/editors in rabbinic thought, Maccoby writes many books, and he tends, in each one, to offer only one facet of a larger project. The same is true of this book. Here, he collects classes of rabbinic sugyot that illustrate various patterns of rabbinic rationality. Learning these patterns, a student of the Talmud should be prepared to debate the major philosophic issues of our day from out of a distinctly rabbinic perspective. Within the limits of this book, however, Maccoby does not also illustrate what such a student's philosophic approach would look like in any significant detail. For the most part, moreover, he does not attempt to justify his manner of collecting those classes of sugyot within the terms of recent Talmudic scholarship. These are not oversights of Maccoby's, however; he has simply chosen to offer just this much within this book, inviting readers to wait for the next book to see how his Talmudic readings engage the philosophic debates of the day. Within these limits, we should be encouraged by what Maccoby has begun.

In Michael Wyschogrod's felicitous words (in The Body of Faith, 1996), we should no longer locate rationality in the artificial coherence of vast systems of thought but locate it, instead, in the "brightness" that graces those of our everyday judgments that hit the mark, or that enhance the virtues we associate, in rabbinic terms, with the light of Torah. …

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