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  • The Philosophy of the Talmud
  • Peter Ochs
The Philosophy of the Talmud, by Hyam Maccoby. 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, [End Page 161] 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, 19th 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. We often sense the brightness immediately, but to argue publicly for its appearance is to give evidence of the patterns of instruction that should actually lead us to make judgments of this kind. Maccoby reads the rabbinic literature as a repository of such patterns, several of which he illustrates through the central chapters of this book.

In his chapter, “The Talmud and Moral Theory,” for example, Maccoby reads two rabbinic passages (Mekhilta Yitro 5 and TB Shabbat 88a) as illustrating a pattern of dialectical moral reasoning in the Talmud. One passage emphasizes moral voluntarism (“Israel was offered a choice at Sinai”), the other moral determinism (“If you do not accept the Torah . . . here will be your burial”). Maccoby reads the two, together, as offering an alternative to what he considers Kantian voluntarism. In “The Rabbinic Social Contract,” Maccoby reads accounts in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8 and TB AZ as displaying another dialectical lesson: humanity has a natural moral faculty (displayed in the Noahide laws), but it is weak...

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pp. 161-163
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