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Reviewed by:
  • What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement
  • Michael Bernard-Donals
What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement by Sergei Dolgopolski New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. 346 pp. Cloth $60.00

Is there a distinctly Jewish rhetoric? It's a worthwhile (and difficult) question to answer: with its several thousand-year-old tradition of disquisition, argument, knowledge making, and philosophy, a Jewish rhetoric, whatever it might look like, would have a longer tradition than the Greco-Roman one that has served as the underpinning of most of what we think of as Western philosophy. The Jewish and Hellenic worlds shared trade routes, cultural space, and texts beginning in the first millennium BCE, and in the thousand years between the rise of Athens as a hub of literacy and philosophy and the partition of the Roman Empire, Jewish culture underwent a drastic shift as Jews went from the Babylonian exile, to the culture that emerged around the second Temple, to a longer (and some might argue permanent) exile that led to the diasporas throughout Europe and western and central Asia and to the formation of the rabbinical tradition that gave birth to the Talmud. These changes were inevitably impacted by the cultures (and the peoples) with which (and with whom) Jews, and particularly Jewish thinkers and scholars, interacted, and so just where Jewish ideas—in philosophy, metaphysics, rhetoric, artistic traditions—leave off and where those propelled by the Greco-Roman tradition begin is hard to say. In the field of rhetoric, this is a particularly difficult matter, due in part to the difference between the ideal, if not the actual, understanding of rhetoric as [End Page 291] being tied to a civic culture in the Greco-Roman tradition and the ideal, if also not the actual, understanding of Jewish rhetoric as tied to a divine law.

It is in this context that Sergei Dolgopolski's book, What is Talmud?, can be best appreciated. It wrestles with the question of how, or whether, Talmud can be said to bear more than a family resemblance to rhetoric, with which many of its authors were undoubtedly familiar, and if it does, what the nature of its relation to rhetoric and philosophy (philosophy in its genealogy from the pre-Socratics, through Plato and Aristotle, through Heidegger, phenomenology, and poststructuralism) might look like. Dolgopolski takes pains, at the beginning of his book, to distinguish between the Talmud—always with the definite article "the"—and Talmud. The first refers to the body of work, the books in which the Jewish oral law was collected in the first five hundred years of the common era, and to the commentaries and the philological and historical work that it has generated. Dolgopolski calls the work of scholarship "the project of objectification" (10) and sees the commentaries as an attempt to render the work a kind of "harmonic whole" (11). Talmud, on the other hand, particularly in the view of R. I. Canpanton, the fifteenth-century Spanish rabbi and philosopher who wrote The Way of the Talmud, is "an art, techne," that nonetheless is "not reducible to other classical arts of its rank, such as ars rhetorica or ars logica, . . . a scholarly discipline/art sui generis, strongly interconnected to other disciplines" (12).

Dolgopolski's book has three principal strands by which it makes this argument. The first, central thread maintains that Talmud is a significant mode of thought in its own right, one that is related to hermeneutics, biblical exegesis, anthropology, and particularly rhetoric but that is finally different enough from all of them that it has an entirely different epistemology and (thus) methodology. Wound around this central strand are two others. One of them is comparative; here, Dolgopolski sets the methodology and epistemology of Talmud side by side with those of the Greco-Roman tradition and its Western and more contemporary correlates, including the work of Heidegger and those who have followed it (Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas and others). The other strand is a close—at times almost too close—reading and analysis of Canpanton's text (which has not been translated into English but has drawn the attention of scholars of Talmudic texts, including Daniel Boyarin) as a...


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