Jewish Studies Talmud and Philosophy
Sergey Dolgopolski, Laura Taddeo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0206

Introduction: Key Terms and the Main Structure

“Talmud” means in Tannaitic Hebrew “learning,” “study,” or more precisely “expounding.” From the Middle Ages and on, the term came to refer to two corpora of rabbinic literature from Late Antiquity, called, respectively, Palestinian Talmud, or “Yerushalmi,” and Babylonian Talmud, or “Bavli.” Even broader, the term can mean rabbinic literature in Late Antiquity in general to include corpora of the Mishnah, Midrash, and other genres of late ancient rabbinic literature as well. There traditionally has been an incongruity in thinking about “Talmud and philosophy.” Philosophy was always understood as a discipline of thinking that has developed historically from Antiquity on. However, “Talmud” has been predominantly understood as an object, a book, “the Talmud” as opposed to “Talmud” as an intellectual discipline. That understanding leads to the first rubric in this article: the Talmud as an Object of Philosophical or Theoretical Inquiry: Comparative Study. The rubric embraces synchronic and diachronic comparative studies of the Talmud (as an object) in its relationship to philosophy as a discipline at various stages of its development. Yet beginning from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the Talmud acquired a new understanding. Now, like philosophy, it has come to be understood as a discipline of thinking (which renders in English as Talmud, without the “the”). Not totally unlike how the discipline of rhetoric has been classified by different authors as either a part of philosophy or the philosophy’s most significant other, Talmud also has been placed differently in relation to philosophy. Different authors understand it either as one among other philosophical disciplines or, alternatively, as a discipline of its own, distinct from philosophy. That translates into the second rubric of this article, Talmud as a Discipline of Thinking at different periods of its evolution from Late Antiquity to modern times. The third major rubric is thematic; it includes works in which Talmud and philosophy is a theme (“(The) Talmud and Philosophy” as a Theme). As is true for all schematic divisions, a specific work, author, or line of thinking can defy this partition. Focused as it is on relationships between Talmud and philosophy, this article does not address a related but radically different field of philosophy, that of halakhah (Jewish Law), for the latter treats the Talmud as neither an object nor a discipline, but rather as a source of law; this is a radically different pursuit belonging to a bibliography on law and philosophy, which is not treated in this article. This selected bibliography focuses primarily on individual monographs published in the last ten years, with an even more selective mention of what has proved to be influential works in this category published earlier. The compilers of this bibliography envision it as a node and invite additional entries accompanied by original bibliographic descriptions, which will be credited to the name of their authors. Rather than providing general bibliographic descriptions available elsewhere, the annotations of entries focus on the relation of each monograph to the theme of this particular article.

The Talmud as an Object of Philosophical or Theoretical Inquiry: Comparative Study

The rubric embraces synchronic and diachronic comparative studies of the Talmud (as an object) in its relationship to philosophy as a discipline.

  • Balberg, Mira. Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520280632.001.0001

    The book is a reading of rabbinic literature in conversation with and in application of the tradition of Foucault of analyzing the self as an object and subject of care, confession, and sin in Late Antiquity.

  • Bleich, J. David. The Philosophical Quest: Of Philosophy, Ethics, Law and Halakhah. New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2013.

    A polemical argument against the thought of Moses Mendelsohn, in particular against Mendelsohn’s idea that Judaism has no religious dogma.

  • Borowitz, Eugene B. The Talmud’s Theological Language-Game: A Philosophical Discourse Analysis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

    The book reconsiders classical medieval pigeonholing of the aggadah as nonlegalistic discourse. Following on the scholarship of Max Kadushin, the author sees the aggadah as the key to understanding how the legalistic discourse is working. Halakha is anchored in what the aggadah displays most clearly: in what the author describes, both following and modifying Kadushin in terms of “network as a paradigm,” and derives, in the author’s argument, from Kantian thinking and action, which proceeds in terms of either following or producing maxims.

  • Boyarin, Daniel. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

    This book subverts classical Christian intellectual idiom and theologeme of “Israel in Spirit” (to mean “Christians”) versus “Israel in Flesh” = “Carnal Israel” (to mean “Jews”). Moving away from the supersessionism that the idiom traditionally implied, Boyarin reclaims the power of body and sexuality as the place in which thinking happens, rather than a locus where the thinking transgresses. Thinking and desire no longer stand in juxtaposition to one another, which stands in contrast with the post-medieval predominant ways of understanding their relationships.

  • Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    As made implicit in a conversation with Jacob Taubes’s reading of Paul, this book reads Paul as attempting to combine “Hebrew” monotheism with “Greek” universalism in a vision of human unity, which results, unexpectedly, in a coercive absorption of cultural specificities into the dominant culture. The book reads theological notions of spirit and body and their projections onto understanding sexuality and gender as expressions of that difficult marriage between universalism and monotheism, for which Paul becomes an exemplary controversial figure.

  • Boyarin, Daniel. Sparks of the Logos: Essays in Rabbinic Hermeneutics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

    The author presents the difference between Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity as one that emerged as the outcome of a long process rather than viewing it as an overarching frame in which to discuss, analyze, and research these two cultures in Late Antiquity. Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity differs from how (post) medieval Judaism and Christianity see themselves in a clear separation from one another. Not totally unlike Milbank’s notion of radical orthodoxy, the book revisits the relationship of (post)-medieval Christianity with Christianity of Late Antiquity.

  • Daube, David. Collected Works of David Daube. Vol. 1, Talmudic Law. Berkeley, CA: Robbins Collection, 1992.

    This volume approaches Talmudic texts, first, from the theoretical point of view of a jurist (to address questions of dependence of rabbinic affirmations of legality from a difference between lands to the question of a corrupt judge rendering brilliant legal decision to the legal question of a contract with God made under duress to an articulation of varying notions of legal dissent in rabbinic literature to issues of the legality of self-sacrifice or of collaboration with tyranny). It approaches Talmudic tests, second, from a point of view of women’s rights in rabbinic law; third, from a comparative perspective on Roman and rabbinic law; and, finally, from the point of view of comparative hermeneutics of rabbinic law and Hellenistic rhetoric (rabbinic interpretation and Hellenistic rhetoric; Alexandrian methods of interpreting the Bible and rabbinic Midrash; rabbinic uses of particular rhetorical devices, notions, issues, and themes).

  • Friedlander, Gerald. Sepher Haaggadah: Consisting of Parables and Legends from Talmud and Medrash. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.

    Based on the Ch. N. Bialik edition of homiletical narratives (Haggadot) from the Mishnah and Talmud, this anthology selects narratives pertaining to general didactic themes of philosophy and ethics.

  • Halbertal, Moshe, and Avishai Margalit. Idolatry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    Moving from idolatry as bigotry against an anthropomorphic monotheist deity to a Talmudic dismissal of anthropomorphism and bigotry alike toward a philosophical understanding of anthropomorphic idolatry as an epistemological and ethical error to the Talmudic understanding of idolatry as a “strange worship” of a strange deity, the book shows how this ambiguity of the strangeness never resolves. The work is a paradigmatic example of thinking and analyzing rabbinic texts in a framework of strictly conceived philosophical concepts. Translated from Hebrew by Naomi Goldblum.

  • Handelman, Susan A. Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.

    The work applies the French post-1968 philosophy and literary theory (identified in the United States by the general name of post-structuralism) to reading rabbinic texts, arguing for congruity and congeniality of rabbinic and post-structuralist readings of texts.

  • Lightstone, Jack N. The Rhetoric of the Babylonian Talmud: Its Social Meaning and Context. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994.

    The author employs an approach toward a sociology of knowledge, and in that sense he talks about the “rhetoric” of the Babylonian Talmud. Rhetoric is understood in the sense of technical devices of rabbinic discourse and is analyzed with sociology of knowledge tools. Published for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion.

  • Lightstone, Jack N. Mishnah and the Social Formation of the Early Rabbinic Guild: A Socio-rhetorical Approach. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002.

    The author applies a “socio-rhetorical” method of analysis to the question of the origin of the rabbinic movement through an analysis of the Mishnah’s texts, whether or not they are taken at their face value. The argument in the book corresponds to the conversation with similar scholarship on Christian texts. The book includes an appendix: “A Comparison of Mishnah Gittin 1:1–2:2 and James 2:1–13 from a Perspective of Greco-Roman Rhetorical Elaboration, by Vernon K. Robbins” (pp. 201–216). Published for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion.

  • Maccoby, Hyam. The Philosophy of the Talmud. London: Routledge, 2002.

    A reading of the Talmudic texts as philosophical works, the book sees the former as privileging the logic of analogy over the “Greek” logic of “classification.” The author follows the line of attempts to subsume the Talmud’s form of argumentation under the rubric of philosophical argumentation or to translate the Talmud into philosophy, however unique or universal that “philosophy” would be. The author follows, in these respects, the efforts of Max Kadushin and Emmanuel Levinas.

  • Neusner, Jacob. Major Trends in Formative Judaism: Category-Formation, Literature, and Philosophy. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002.

    An inquiry into the logical categories-formation and literary styles in Mishnah, Tosefta, and Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, with particular emphasis on the literary forms of “acts” (maasim) and “parables” (mashalim). The argument in the book advances beyond logical analysis of categories and literary analysis of genres to analyzing philosophical problems in the Talmud, to use the author’s own terms.

  • Novick, Tzvi. What Is Good, and What God Demands: Normative Structures in Tannaitic Literature. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004187580.i-248

    A source-critical study of the philosophical conception of “ought” in Tannaitic literature of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Halakhic Midrashim on the Scripture. The book provides a philosophically valuable “dictionary” of the deontology, virtue ethics, and various notions of the legal obligation in the corpus. A pioneering book in asking about notions of importance for philosophy and its history in a framework of source-critical, empirical-philological analysis of rabbinic corpora. Empirical philology and philosophical philology come together in this work.

  • Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

    Drawing on David Weiss Halivni’s notion of hidden anonymous redactors of the Babylonian Talmud, the author provides a reconstruction of “reality” implied in and created by the Talmud as a literary text. In the book, the notion of “culture” serves as a framing notion for such a literary reconstruction of reality.

  • Stern, Gregg. Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Interpretation and Controversy in Medieval Languedoc. London: Routledge, 2009.

    The book overturns the paradigm of comparative study of Talmudic and philosophical literatures as two preexisting essences by showing how medieval Jewish Talmudism already engaged with philosophical tradition. A case study for that is an intellectual history of Jewish communities in which the Maimonidean version of Aristotelianism informed their understanding of Torah and Talmud as not merely informed by philosophy (a comparative perspective) but rather as having an intrinsically philosophical goal, and, as such, constitutes a “philosophic religion.”

  • Stone, Ira F. Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998.

    A reading of Talmudic passages and arguments inspired by Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic readings.

  • van Loopik, M. The Ways of the Sages and the Way of the World: The Minor Tractates of the Babylonian Talmud; Derekh ‘eretz rabbah, Derekh ‘eretz zuta, Pereq ha-shalom. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr Siebeck, 1991.

    A translation of and critical commentary on two of the “Minor Tractates” of the Babylonian Talmud—“Derekh Eretz Rabba, Derekh Eretz Zuta” (translated as: “A major and a minor tractate on ‘ways of the world’ or morality”). The translation and commentary illuminate the relationship between law and morality, formal rule and genuine justice, and the problematic relationships between the two as that relationship transpires in early rabbinic literature.

  • Zellentin, Holger M. Rabbinic Parodies of Jewish and Christian Literature. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1628/978-3-16-151472-2

    Exploring the relationships between the Talmuds and Second Sophistic, the book juxtaposes “satiric” and “ironic” parody in citing and/or mocking. The former casts a distance from the cited/satirized and is rare in rabbinic literature. Satiric parodies in each of the Talmuds cite the satirized text first, yet a Talmud satirizing the other does not cite the parodied texts. The book constitutes a conversation with Boyarin’s notion of the serio-comic, which obviates the question of whether the Babylonian Talmud is serious or comic.

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