Originally published in Selly Oak Colleges Journal, 1988.
The Talmudic Argument: a study in Talmudic reasoning and methodology, by Louis Jacobs. Cambridge University Press. 1964, pp. xvi, 220, £25.
The most influential religious work amongst Jews since the Bible has been the Babylonian Talmud. Completed c. 500 C.E it records the deliberations of the rabbis of the preceding few centuries on almost every conceivable topic, end quickly became the definitive text of rabbinic Judaism. Yet it is not easy of access even to those familiar with the languages (Aramaic and Hebrew) it uses, for the complexity of its subject matter is further confused by terseness of expression, and by an arrangement of material which might commend itself to those who memorize the text but which is not helpful to one who searches for a particular point or phrase.
In the past, intensive Jewish traditional education equipped many with the skills needed to reed a Talmudic text; the ‘yeshivot’, however, have never shown much inclination for historical and literary criticism of the text. Dr Jacobs, one imagines, addresses himself to an educated, English-speaking public, much of it with a ‘yeshiva’ background, yet nevertheless ready to respond to a more modern approach. He surveys 19 talmudic ‘sugyot’ (text/topics), trying to reveal their construction and literary genesis, and in particular to show the ‘way of argument’ of the rabbis. The book will be of value as a ‘companion’ to the Talmud student, for it will help him, in his reading of particular passages, and lead him to appreciate the care and purpose with which they were structured. The accomplished scholar will read it as demonstrating the thesis that the Talmud has a literary style of its own provided by the ordering of the material in a dramatic way (p. 203). Though there is such in the volume of more than passing interest to the theologian—for instance the treatment of the concept of ‘kevod-ha-beriot’ (regard for human dignity) in chapter 12—he is likely to be confused if he does not already have some training in Talmudic studies.