Religion & Beliefs

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Talmud

If we are to believe Solomon Maimon–and there are admittedly more than a few good reasons not to–he was a Talmudic genius, an accomplished and recognized illuiat a tender age. Yet later in his life, having moved from Poland to … Read More

By / February 12, 2009

If we are to believe Solomon Maimon–and there are admittedly more than a few good reasons not to–he was a Talmudic genius, an accomplished and recognized illuiat a tender age. Yet later in his life, having moved from Poland to Berlin and fallen in (in his own idiosyncratic way) with Moses Mendelssohn and his circle of Enlightenment thinkers, he had nothing but disdain for the Talmud:

Take the subject of the Talmud…in which the oddest rabbinical conceits are elaborated through many volumes with the finest dialectic, and the most absurd questions are discussed with the highest efforts of intellectual power; for example, how many white hairs may a red cow have, and yet remain a red cow; what sorts of scabs require this or that sort of purification; whether a louse or a flea may be killed on the Sabbath, the first being allowed, while the second is a deadly sin…. Compare these glorious disputations, which are served up to young people and forced on them even to disgust, with history, in which natural events are related in an instructive and agreeable manner, with knowledge of the word’s structure, by which the outlook into nature is widened, and the vast whole is brought into a well-ordered system…[i] For Maimon, Talmudic reasoning is atomistic. Its concern with the minute details of specific cases, each in isolation from each other, stands in contrast to the discipline of history with its ordered systems. In an age of Enlightenment, the Talmud appeared to be a dead relic. But not to everyone. If Maimon’s evaluation of the Talmud stands on one end of a spectrum, at the other end was that of his near contemporary, Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik (1853-1918). Soloveitchik was born in Volozhin, and spent most of his life associated with the famed yeshivah there, studying and then teaching Talmud. When Volozhin was closed in 1892, he moved to Brisk, where he served as the rabbi (and was thus is commonly known as R. Hayyim Brisker). It was at Brisk that he developed and popularized what would become known as the Brisker method for the study of Talmud. The key difference between the Brisker method and most earlier approaches to the Talmud is the former’s emphasis on concepts. The Talmud, of course, contains scores of disagreements that emerge primarily in the treatment of discrete and specific cases. These disagreements in turn generated among the Talmud’s medieval commentators–known as the Rishonim–an enormous literature filled with further interpretive controversies. Prior to the spread of the Brisker method, Talmudic scholars would most commonly elevate the interpretive solution of one of these medieval commentators as superior to the other possibilities. Soloveitchik insisted that to properly understand the Talmud one must recover the often implicit legal (halakhic) concepts underlying each of these disagreements. These concepts, which are drawn from other theoretical discussions within the Talmud, create an analytical structure through which one can understand disagreements both within the Talmud itself as well as among the Rishonim. The Brisker method is founded on the assumption that in truth there are no real contradictions in the vast and seemingly messy corpus of the Talmud and the literature of the early commentators. Halakhah is understood as a perfect, seamless, system that exists in a “pure” metaphysical form. To study Talmud analytically is to approach and enter into God’s revelation, eternally true and entirely consistent. Halakhah thus relates only to itself; it does not grow from nor is it directed to addressing specific, historically contingent, human needs. The Talmud is seen as a perfect record of this perfect halakhah. At the center of both Maimon’s critique and Soloveitchik’s defense stands the same book, the Babylonian Talmud. According to most modern scholars, the materials that ended up in the Talmud were produced by a loose network of rabbis who lived in ancient Palestine and Babylonia in the first through fifth centuries, CE. Over the next few centuries Jewish scholars in Babylonia redacted these materials into the Talmud. Weighing in at 63 tractates and comprising some 5,894 folios pages in the most common modern printed edition, the Babylonian Talmud provides a lens through which to read and understand Scripture; lore (aggadah); theological reflections; legal analysis; and a potpourri of cooking and medicinal recipes, magic, and other odds and ends. A distinctive dialectical, or argumentative, “voice” frequently connects these disparate materials. Despite its importance, age, and the intensity with which it has been studied for about 1,300 years, the Babylonian Talmud remains an enigma. We do not really know when, how, or why it was produced. Who was supposed to read it, and how? And how are we today to read this complex document? I have wrestled with this question for most of my adult life. My interest is in part professional. I am a scholar of the Jews in antiquity, and I am constantly mining the Babylonian Talmud for data. It is embarrassing to admit that although I have long taught classes on the Babylonian Talmud to undergraduate and graduate students in a secular university, as well as to students in more parochial settings, I continue to struggle with the question that sits like a white elephant in the middle of every class: What is this text? At the same time, I have a personal stake in this question. I am a relatively traditional Jew, and I turn to the Talmud also for religious edification. I continue to believe that despite its glorious weirdness, the Talmud has much to offer, and I treasure those moments of satisfaction that sometimes result from the simple act of study lishmah, for its own sake. Maimon too easily ignores the beauty and profundity of this text, but Soloveitchik’s understanding strains my modern and rational sensibilities. The answer, then, to my own and my students’ struggle with the meaning of this text must lie somewhere between Maimon and Soloveitchik. But where? ****** A few years ago I had the opportunity to present a conference paper in Russia. I was in Russia for only a week, and I saw nothing outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Yet I returned from that business trip just a little bit changed. I began to drink dark tea with sugar. I bought a cord of wood and used our fireplace more regularly that winter. I tried a variety of fruit infused vodkas and served my version of zakuski, a plate of Russian appetizers. I became interested in collecting wild mushrooms. And I read War and Peace. Tolstoy is up to many things in this novel, but the one that especially caught my attention was his attention to the nature of history, and its relationship to fiction. Might a novel, he asks, better capture history than the traditional “factual” narratives? It is this intriguing aspect of War and Peace that Isaiah Berlin takes up in his brilliant essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. Berlin begins his essay with a heuristic distinction between the fox and the hedgehog, citing Archilochus’s maxim, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This maxim can taken figuratively, to apply to personalities: For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel–a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance–and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle…. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personalities belong to hedgehogs, the second to the foxes…[ii] Was Tolstoy, Berlin asks, a fox or hedgehog? Did Tolstoy believe that history was a disjointed affair, or that it proceeded according to some single organizing principle? It turns out, Berlin argues, that this simple dichotomy cannot fully capture Tolstoy’s view of history. Tolstoy sees history as the total of the free-actions of human beings, and thus must believe that if someone in the past had acted differently, that history too would change. Tolstoy is thus stuck. History, created from an unimaginable number of choices and interactions, must seem disjointed; it can never be understood or described. Here, then, is Berlin’s insight: Tolstoy’s view of history “is a passionate desire for a monistic vision of life on the part of a fox bitterly intent upon seeing in the manner of a hedgehog.”[iii] Tolstoy, in effect, cannot accept the implications of his own convictions. War and Peace presents a struggle rather than a solution, a searing attempt to reconcile an incomprehensibly complex world with a belief that somehow, somewhere, there must be some sense within it. Tolstoy is a fox who wants to be hedgehog. ***** To Solomon Maimon, the Talmud is a fox. To Hayyim Soloveitchik, it is a hedgehog. They can come to such dichotomous conclusions because the Babylonian Talmud is a fox that wants to be a hedgehog. By this I mean that the Babylonian Talmud is made from materials that are “fox-like”; they deal with diverse matters in a disjointed fashion. We do not, and probably cannot, know if these earlier rabbis and their students had some overarching, hedgehog-like vision. What we do know is that the materials that they produced and that were transmitted over space and time to those who would ultimately redact them dealt with individual laws and scriptural verses. I think that it is likely that most of these earlier rabbis were foxes, dealing with matters of Jewish law and scriptural interpretation one by one, with little interest in or concern for the larger principles that might hold them all together. The redactors, though, were hedgehogs. They believed that the materials that they received were not as disparate as they seemed. The Babylonian Talmud represents the attempt by hedgehogs to make foxes more like them. It reflects their belief, or maybe just desire, that the world was not as fragmented as the foxes might think. The Talmud’s literary texture makes its editors’ penchant for hedgehog-like thinking most clear. Despite the enormous variety of literary forms that it contains, the Talmud nevertheless manages to have, as Jacob Neusner felicitously put it, a “unique voice.” Almost every sugya–a logical unit–of the Talmud draws from a tightly limited set of technical terms, usually in Aramaic, that structure its flow and unite the disparate materials of the sugya into a more or less coherent whole. Such structuring, occurring again and again throughout the Talmud, provides the Talmud with it unique voice, a sense that each part belongs to the same whole. It is not just that the Talmud speaks with a consistent voice, but the voice is itself that of a hedgehog. The Talmud relentlessly pursues relationships and consistency, in matters big and small. The Talmud’s editors, probably following the practice of some later rabbis (Amoraim), frequently hunt down the scriptural support that “must” underlie earlier received traditions. Traditions and Scripture, even when in apparent tension, really cohere as part of the larger truth of Torah. Rabbis are themselves made to be internally consistent. The Talmud juxtaposes not only the statements made by a single rabbi on a diverse variety of topics to test for consistency, but often goes a step further, extracting the principles that a rabbi “must have” used to arrive at each position, and then massaging these principles so that they too do not conflict. Similarly, the Talmud adjusts traditions that make its editors uncomfortable. This drive toward cohesion goes beyond the Talmud’s literary characteristics. The Talmud devotes much of its energy to generating legal principles, and then working out how these principles interact with each other. The impulse to move from individual legal pronouncements to abstract general legal principles and categories is present already in the Mishnah, but the Babylonian Talmud’s concern with abstract categories and their interrelationships goes far beyond anything found in earlier literature, or even in the Palestinian Talmud. Even aggadah, the non-legal portions of the Talmud that never enjoyed normative status among the rabbis, did not escape the hedgehog. The Talmud’s editors work through theological contradictions in the aggadah, predictably finding that none exist. Contrary theological positions that other rabbinic documents put side by side, the Talmud attempts to resolve. Contradictions often–although not always–vanish. *** The Talmud, like Tolstoy, demands that we ponder the very nature of truth. What does it really mean to be a fox who wants to be a hedgehog? The deep, implicit message of the Talmud is that we, as finite and fallible human beings, can only be foxes. We can never know the truth, but only small truths. The rabbis were convinced that there was a big truth–a hedgehog-like truth–that made sense of things. This, though, was God’s truth; a thing of heaven that we mortals could never fully grasp. To be foxes is the best that we can hope for, but it is precisely these small truths that further convince us that somewhere out there, there really is a plan that makes sense of it all. Whether or not this is a historically accurate reconstruction of what the rabbis really thought, it is a powerful and useful vision. The Talmud is not teaching us, as Maimon would have it, that there is nothing beyond hair-splitting dialectics on trivial matters. Nor, though, is it teaching us, as Soloveitchik understands it, that there is a single, totalizing truth to which we have access. The Talmud instead gives us hope even as it forces us into a stance of humility. Avoid the hubris of certainty and the false belief that we understand God’s truth, but never give up the conviction that it really is there. The Talmud thus gives us something far more than either a collection of disparate laws relevant only to observant Jews or the source of a single, exclusive, ideology: it provides a stance for living, to Jews and gentiles, religious and secular, ancient and modern. It teaches us that we can be humble about our ability to know the truth without falling into nihilistic despair, and that we must always be open to the possibility of our fallibility. To be neither a fox nor a hedgehog, but a fox who wants to be hedgehog, might be just what is called for today as we navigate our way between relativism and totalizing ideologies.

[i] Solomon Maimon, An Autobiography, trans. J. Clark Murray (rpt. 2001), pp. 27-28

[ii] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, Ivan R. Dee, 1993), p. 3.

[iii] Ibid., p. 75.