Max Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind, 2nd edition, with an appendix by Simon Greenberg, New York: Blaisdell, 1965, 414 pp.; $8.50.
In Conservative Judaism, Volume XX, Number 1, Fall 1965
Rabbi Naftali Ropshitzer is said to have declared that, before he was born, an angel showed him two contradictory lists of rules for the conduct of life. In one list he read that a man cannot know the Torah unless he is as cruel as the raven to his wife and children (Eruvin 22a) but in the other list he read that a man must have more regard for the welfare of his wife and children than for his own (Hulin 84b). In one list: “A scholar should be like a flaming fire in his wrath” (Ta’anit 4a). In the other: “Who inherits the World to Come? The meek man, who bows low when entering and leaving” (Sanhedrin 88b). In one list: “Be satisfied with a minimum like Rabbi ben Dosa” (Ta’anit 24b). In the other: “The Nazirite is called a sinner for denying himself wine” (Ta’anit 11a). The Ropshitzer went on to recount many further contradictions and said that, at the time, he had been lost in thought, contemplating how hard it was to find a way of life in which these contradictions would be resolved. Suddenly he heard the words: “Mazal tov! A male child is born.” He remained wondering, and since then has still laboured to find the way to follow both sets of rules, however contradictory.
The Rabbinic aggadah abounds in contradictions because its thinking is not of the systematic order. The thought of the Rabbis was always very close to the complexities of life as experienced by the people, not as classified in the rarified atmosphere of the schools. In one of life’s situations an attitude of humility may be demanded. In another the opposite attitude may be called for. It is not surprising, therefore, to find two Rabbis, or even the same Rabbi, advocating both humility and its opposite, any more than it is odd to find contradictions among popular proverbs. “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” “Many hands make light work.” “Look before you leap.” “Nothing ventured nothing gained.” Claude Montefiore said that the Rabbis were poor philosophers who would have benefited greatly from sitting at the feet of the great Greek masters. The truth is that the Rabbis were not poor philosophers. They were not philosophers at all. They were much nearer to the poet recollecting his emotion in tranquility.
It is to the credit of two distinguished scholars of our generation-Isaac Heinemann and Max Kadushin-that they have called attention to the real nature of Rabbinic thinking as “organic”, not systematic, though the two do not use the term in the same way. Every student of Rabbinic thought will welcome the second edition of Kadushin’s classic, The Rabbinic Mind, in which his version of “organic thinking” is described.
By organic thinking in this context Kadushin means that the Rabbis did not operate with abstract ideas but with certain basic concepts, which they used in various, exceedingly complex, but thoroughly consistent ways as part of an organism. Each concept gives meaning to the others as part of the whole; so that it is a distortion to attempt, as so many modern scholars do, to understand any one in isolation. The four basic concepts are: God’s love (midat harahamim), God’s justice (midat hadin), Torah and Israel. Of each of these there are sub-concepts which have, as it were, a life of their own and are not derived from the basic concepts, but which tend to be grouped around that basic concept with which they have the closest affinity. The subtlety of any typical aggadic passage lies in the skillful interweaving of concepts and sub-concepts to produce a sustained and complete unit. Though Rabbinic thought does not have the form of a logical system, it is nevertheless thought; indeed of a particularly rigorous kind. The integrating principle is the organization of the various concepts to form a unit.
The Rabbinic Mind is a book requiring serious study, a task not helped, incidentally, by the author’s rather heavy style. But, if made, the effort will be amply rewarded. Though here and there Kadushin’s conclusions may seem arbitrary, his central thesis emerges triumphant. No one who wishes to understand the Rabbis can afford to neglect this fine insight into the very nature of their thinking.
Among the ideas that are less than convincing are the following: Kadushin (pp. 98 ff.) makes much of the common Rabbinic distinction between the plain meaning of a Scriptural verse (peshat) and its homiletical treatment (derash), taking the term “plain meaning” at is surface value. But there has recently appeared the comprehensive study by Raphael Loewe (“The ‘Plain’ Meaning of Scripture in Early Jewish Exegesis,” Papers of the Institute of Jewish Studies London, Jer., 1964, pp. 140-185), demonstrating that what the Rabbis meant by the “plain” meaning is not what we understand by the term.
On page 75 the author states that even views most widely held and emphatically put forward are not exempt from contradiction. In illustration he quotes the famous baraita (Sanhedrin 99a) in which it is stated that the unbeliever who says the Torah is not from Heaven includes even one who acknowledges that the whole of the Torah is from Heaven with the exception of a single verse which Moses “uttered by himself”. Yet Abaye states (Megillah 31b) that the curses in Deuteronomy were “uttered by Moses himself.” It is hard to believe that scholars of the calibre of Kadushin and S. D. Luzzatto, whom he quotes in a footnote as agreeing with him, should be guilty of such complete misunderstanding.
Surely it cannot be suggested that Abaye was a “modernist” before his time in refusing to share the unanimously held Rabbinic view that God was the author of every single verse in the Pentateuch. If Abaye really believed that Moses “made up” Deuteronomy himself, why should he apply this only to the curses in Deuteronomy? It is clear from a careful examination of the passage in Tractate Megillah that all Abaye is doing is making a distinction between the curses in Leviticus and those in Deuteronomy. The former, he is suggesting, are more severe than the latter, for the former were said by Moses speaking on God’s behalf (i.e. in the first person) whereas the latter were said by Moses himself (i.e. speaking of God in the third person). Abaye certainly believed, like all the Tannaim and Amoraim, that the words spoken by Moses, including those in Deuteronomy, were the words of God. (Cf. Jacob Emden’s note in the Vilna ed. to Sanhedrin 99a and Tosaphists to Megillah 31b s. v. Moshe me’atzmo and my Principles of the Jewish Faith, Basic Books, 1964, pp. 226-7).
It remains to be said that Professor Greenberg’s Appendix in the form of penetrating questions is valuable in stimulating further appreciation of Rabbinic thought.