Jewish Word | The Hairsplitting Complexity of ‘Talmudic’

Two pages from the Talmud, part of the inspiration for the word Talmudic

More often than not, the word “Talmudic” isn’t about the Talmud.

It’s a word that politicians and diplomats, in particular, love brandishing to make a point. In the 1970s, it was a go-to word for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, known to opine that “we need a Talmudic student” to understand a particular policy. In 2016, a State Department spokesperson joked, “I have greatly enjoyed our exegetical and Talmudic efforts to understand American foreign policy.” Beyond politics, the word can be applied to almost anything. A baseball game might devolve into “those Talmudic debates that enthrall hardball devotees and mystify everyone else,” according to The New York Times. Or, as Wired put it, fans can analyze a favorite television show “with the dedication of Talmudic scholars.”

When deployed like this—in contexts unrelated to Jewish tradition—“Talmudic” is used to convey complexity. A Talmudic discussion, in present-day parlance, is one in which the smallest details are scrupulously parsed. Each question spawns new questions; debate continues ad infinitum.

Nevertheless, using “Talmudic” as a synonym for “complicated” is incorrect, argued William Safire, the late wordsmith, writing in The New York Times in the 1970s. In reality, the Talmud is one of the foundational Jewish texts and the basis of much of rabbinic Judaism (the form practiced in exile after the fall of the Temple). The definition of “Talmudic” is simply “of or pertaining to the Talmud,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sometimes, “Talmudic” functions as a criticism—an accusation not only of complexity, but of unnecessary or meaningless complexity. “In English, the word ‘Talmudic’ is usually pejorative,” says Adam Kirsch, author of Come and Hear: What I Saw in My Seven-and-a-Half-Year Journey through the Talmud, which details his experience studying one page of Talmud every day until he reached the end. But Kirsch never uses “Talmudic” derisively. “I think it contributes to a view—not just among the public at large, but among American Jews, as well—that the Talmud is this outmoded, extinct text that is silly, and that is a waste of time.”

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Kirsch believes that studying the Talmud is anything but a waste of time. At first glance, the Talmud’s most outlandish debates may seem “completely impractical,” with lines of questioning that get increasingly absurd, such as: When you build a sukkah, can one of the walls be an elephant? If you use an elephant, would there be gaps between the legs? Can the gaps be filled in with vegetation? What if the elephant runs away? Can you use a dead elephant? “No one has ever built a sukkah using an elephant as one of the walls,” Kirsch says. But digging deeper, it’s important to remember that these are thought experiments, not meant to be taken literally. Kirsch says they are more along the lines of the “trolley problem,” a modern-day philosophical thought experiment: A trolley is about to collide with five people, but you could move it to a different track, where it would collide with one person; should you act?

The trolley problem is meant to investigate our moral intuitions, Kirsch says. “Obviously, none of us are ever going to be in that situation.” Similarly, nobody actually wants to use an elephant to build a sukkah: “What it’s really about is, what constitutes a wall? What are the properties of a wall that make it a wall and not something else?” he adds. “There’s a sort of conceptual rigor to that discussion, even though if you think about it in purely practical terms, it’s silly.”

When you build a sukkah, can one of the walls be an elephant?

Of course, even within the text of the Talmud, sometimes the rabbis get fed up with other rabbis who raise hairsplitting questions. (One was even removed from the study hall, the Talmud tells us, “as he was apparently wasting the Sages’ time.”) But danger can ensue when critiques of the Talmud are used to misconstrue the Jewish faith. There have been periods when Christian polemicists accused rabbinic Judaism of being “too legalistic,” says Elana Stein Hain, director of faculty and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Kirsch agrees that this critique is concerning: “It draws on a very basic idea that Judaism is a religion of laws and the mind, while Christianity is a religion of ethics and the heart.” Throughout history, willful distortion of the Talmudic approach has fed antisemitism.

Hain, who values the Talmud’s dedication to “detailed back and forth” and “getting at the truth,” would herself use “Talmudic” in a positive way. Aaron Alexander, co-senior rabbi at Adas Israel in Washington, DC, who has spent many years studying and teaching the Talmud, agrees. Calling something “Talmudic,” he says, should be “an expression of humility”—an acknowledgment that someone is out of their depth, and needs to work harder to understand—or an outright compliment.

Examples of the word being used in this vein are less abundant, but they’re there. John McCain’s brother, Joe, once said the dinner-table debates of his youth were “like Talmudic scholars arguing about a single word or an adjective in the Testament.” A few years ago, a flattering book review praised writer Rebecca Solnit for her “Talmudic rigor and curiosity.” In these cases, the subtext is that the Talmud’s complexity is not a nuisance, but an asset; that the act of parsing complexity is valuable. This is why, says Alexander, the Talmud is his favorite work within the Jewish canon. He can always count on it to stretch his mind in unexpected directions.

“I’m a lover; I’m a lover of the Talmud,” he says. “An often frustrated lover.”

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