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Reviewed by:
  • Plato and the Talmud
  • Daniel B. Gallagher
Jacob Howland . Plato and the Talmud. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 282. Cloth, $85.00.

Though separated by a millennium, the Platonic dialogues, Howland argues, have much in common with the Talmud. The former may look at the world from the viewpoint of nature and the latter from the viewpoint of creation, but both are no less bent on exposing the "law" rather than constructing it. The latter does so by focusing on God's saving action in history and the former by seeking eternal wisdom. Both are presented in dialogical form, utilizing open-ended questions to draw the reader into the conversation. Most importantly, both revolve around the fundamental question, "How should I live?" Socrates and the Talmudic rabbis push the frontiers of human knowledge as far as possible and then stand in awe in front of the unknown. The threshold of the unknown, Howland argues, is precisely the point at which Socratic and Talmudic thought show their reciprocal and unique fecundity.

Howland's procedure is to carry out a synoptic reading of the third chapter of the Ta'anit tractate, the Euthyphro, and the Apology, showing that each acknowledges the tension between rational inquiry and faith, while recognizing that a right relationship with God or the gods is precisely what allows us to realize our full potential as human beings. By illustrating concrete examples of "justice," "mercy," and "love," Talmudic aggadah and Platonic narrative prompt us to appropriate these virtues as our own. Each is based on an underlying pedagogical principle that human virtue is not assimilated merely through legal discourse or philosophical argumentation but through an immersion in an ethos that transcends abstract definitions and logical syllogisms.

The story of Honi HaMe'aggel is of particular importance to Howland. Estranged from the very community he desires to save, Honi finds himself in a predicament not dissimilar to that of Socrates. An additional parallel emerges in the Euthyphro, where we learn that the quest for virtue requires that we love that which is intrinsically loveable rather than that to which we are merely attracted. Socrates's passionate dedication to helping others recognize this is itself an example of his paternal devotion to the polis and its citizens. Yet both Plato and the rabbis realize that, more often than not, we fail to live up to the demands of virtue. This is precisely why Socrates and Honi teach that only by unifying active thought and reflective action do we make progress in virtue.

Because the Platonic dialogues, unlike the Talmud, do not presume that we are already in a relationship with God, their scope of inquiry is much broader and their method more rudimentary than the Talmud's. Plato interweaves narrative and philosophical discussion to show that the exercise of defining a virtue is just as important as arriving at its definition. Hence Socrates's philosophizing is public by nature, for it is only in the context of a community that the poets' skewed notion of the gods can be laid bare, challenged, and corrected. The gods, according to Socrates, are noble and good, and we should likewise be noble and good, for by imitating the gods we become godlike. Howland notes that the parallel between Socrates and the rabbis is limited, in that Socrates must confront overwhelming public prejudice against him, whereas the rabbis are surrounded by a sympathetic community, thus amplifying the moral and intellectual courage demanded of Socrates.

This book is not a historical study, as Howland admits. His concern is neither to retrace the influence of Greek thought on the rabbinical tradition nor to compare daily life in Jerusalem with that in Athens. Rather, he wishes the texts to speak on their own terms so that we may discern the assumptions that guide our reading of them. He is driven by the conviction not only that the Socratic and Talmudic traditions can speak to one another, but that we need be neither Greek nor Jew to understand what they have to say to one another. Ultimately, he does not believe the two traditions are reconcilable, yet he spends insufficient time explaining why...


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