I picked up Sergey Dolgopolski’s What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement at the AAR and subsequently read it in one weekend. It is a fascinating study putting forth Talmud as an art alongside philosophy, sophistics, and rhetoric — an art predicated on irreducible and fundamental disagreement. Dolgopolski argues that the Western tradition has always privileged agreement as a goal and tends to dismiss disagreement either as the result of a mistake or misunderstanding or, more generously, as a necessary step along the way to ultimate agreement. Even if agreement is admittedly difficult to reach, so the story goes, it is held forth as both an ideal and as something that should be directly attainable. Dolgopolski believes that the advent of post-Heideggerian and poststructuralist philosophies and anti-philosophies has opened up a new path in this regard, but that they still maintain the basic agreement-centered schema — crucially, though, they provide a way of viewing Talmud, and specifically the understanding of Talmudic art present in the fifteenth-century rabbi Canpanton, as an alternative to Western philosophy.
To understand the notion of Talmud put forward here, it might be helpful to look at the example of Christian scholasticism, which I assume is more familiar to most readers of this blog and which also relies heavily on staged debates between different positions. The disputatio format in fact requires putting forth and provisionally supporting (with citations from tradition) a position that will turn out to be incorrect. The end goal, however, is to show how reason itself as well as all the authorities cited actually agree with a single position, which is very often simply the opposite of what is found in the impersonal “it seems” statement, such that the debate seems contrived.
Though Dolgopolski doesn’t explicitly mention scholasticism as a point of comparison on this level, the scholastic method seems to correspond to the basic instincts of the Aristotelian position as he lays it out — it shows a greater respect for disagreement and rhetoric than in Plato, but it still ultimately subordinates it to the philosophical goal of making present an eternal truth. Since all the church fathers are ultimately attesting to the same unchanging truth of the Gospel, it makes sense that the goal is to demonstrate that they all fundamentally agree, and the arts of grammar and dialectic are put at the service of that goal in terms of explaining away apparent disagreements.
In Dolgopolski’s presentation, Canpanton puts forward an art of Talmud whose assumptions couldn’t be more different. He starts with the principle that the masters of the Talmud wouldn’t have said something for no reason — their statement has to be significant and important, and every word has to contribute to that. The key reason that a rabbi would say something is precisely to refute someone else, and so in order to understand a Talmudic statement, you must uncover the position that the rabbi is implicitly refuting. Hence if a rabbi says that the sky is blue, you have to assume that someone was claiming it was some other color — because it’s not worth saying true things just because they’re true. If you interpret a statement in such a way as to make it seem obvious, that in itself is an objection to your interpretation. In this way, the disagreement has to remain in place and is never overcome in an overarching agreement — the purpose of Talmudic study is to clarify the dispute and make it as rigorous and fundamental as possible.
More than that, Canpanton believes that the masters of the Talmud always intend some kind of invention with what they say, either directly in the statement itself or in the implications one can draw from it. So as opposed to a philosophy focused on echoing the eternal and unchanging truth, Talmud is a way of producing new and surprising truths.
What makes this possible, Dolgopolski argues, is a “metaphysics” of the Talmud that finds truth in the radical past, a past so past that it has never been present — although on a common sense level one of course knows that these debates took place or at least could be envisioned as taking place at some previous historical present, structurally it is staged in a radical past. The student of the Talmud reanimates and deepens the disputes that took place in this radical, ahistorical past, but crucially, the student does not attempt to make that dispute “present,” to bring it to the present day. Rather, the student’s own understanding is projected into that radical past, so that he becomes as impersonal as the Talmudic masters themselves — even self-consistency is subordinate to the rhetorical demands of the dispute.
Dolgopolski believes that the Talmudic “metaphysics” of the radical past as the site of dispute between finite and irreconcilable disputants provides a way past both philosophy and the “metaphysics of presence” that underwrites it and other Western discourses. (Crucial to his argument is the distinction opened up by Derrida and poststructuralism between philosophy and metaphysics — so that Saussure still embraces the metaphysics of presence despite being philosophically naive, for example.)
In light of this metaphysics of the Talmud, Dolgopolski engages in often very dense and sometimes even opaque rereadings of the history of philosophy and particularly of Heidegger, Derrida, and Deleuze. These readings are quite suggestive and sometimes provide what at least seemed like a radical new perspective in which to view their work. Husserl, for instance, comes to seem partly “Talmudic” in method as he tries to carve out a space between logic and psychology that allows for the insights of both. He also includes a brief but very interesting discussion of Agamben’s The Open and puts forth Talmud as a kind of alternative to the “anthropological machine.” Overall, I would say that these readings call for a kind of sequel to What is Talmud? where they could be elaborated with greater length and clarity — because as it stands, they are often difficult to follow and serve mainly as a source for “flashes of insight” that may or may not be compatible with the author’s actual intentions.
I must also admit that when he turned to an elaboration of actual Talmudic passages, I was often simply lost. This is obviously due primarily to my lack of first-hand familiarity with the Talmud, something which I now feel a greater urgency about remedying, but it seems at least possible that his discussions there were of similar density to the philosophical readings and that therefore even someone as familiar with Talmud as I am with the philosophical tradition he addresses elsewhere would have difficulty with them.
Overall, though, this is a book that I will definitely be mulling over and returning to in the future. It is a little too expensive in hardback (especially given that the copy editing seems not to have been as thorough as it should have been with an author whose native language isn’t English), but I hope it finds a wider audience in both continental philosophy and Jewish studies rather than falling into the gap between them.