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Dialogue and Dialectics

TalmudicThe Role Of Dialectics In The Bavli

The Bavli translates Pentateuchal narratives and laws into a systematic account of Israel's entire social order. In its topical presentations of thirty–seven of the Mishnah's sixty–three topical tractates, the Bavli portrays not so much how people are supposed to live—this the Mishnah does—as how they ought to think, the right way of analyzing circumstance and tradition alike. The Bavli shows a way of thinking and talking and rationally arguing about reform. When we follow not only what the sages of the Bavli say, but also how they express themselves, their modes of critical thought and—above all—their examples of uncompromising, rigorous argument, we encounter a massive, concrete instance of the power of intellect to purify and refine. For the sages of the Bavli, alongside the great masters of Greek philosophy and their Christian and Muslim continuators, exercise the power of rational and systematic inquiry, tenacious criticism, the exchange not only of opinion but also of reason for opinion, argument, and evidence. They provide a model of how intellectuals take up the tasks of social criticism and pursue the disciplines of the mind in the service of the social order. This explains the widespread interest in the Bavli as shown by repeated translations of, and introductions to, that protean document. Not an antiquarian interest in a long–ago society, nor an ethnic concern with heritage and tradition, but a vivid and contemporary search for plausible examples of the rational world order, animate the unprecedented interest of the world of culture in the character (and also the contents) of the Bavli.


The Mishnah is a law code organized by topics, and Baba Mesia—the Middle Gate—concerns civil law, in the present case, torts and damages and contradictory claims.

Mishnah Baba Mesia 1:1

  1. Two lay hold of a cloak—
  2. this one says, "I found it!—
  3. and that one says, "I found it!"—
  4. this one says, "It's all mine!"—
  5. and that one says, "It's all mine!"—
  6. this one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half,
  7. and that one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half,
  8. and they divide it up.

Bavli Baba Mesia 5B–6A

  • This one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half, [and that one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half, and they divide it up]
  • Is it concerning the portion that he claims he possesses that he takes the oath, or concerning the portion that he does not claim to possess? [Samuel Daiches, Baba Mesia (London, 1948), ad loc.: "The implication is that the terms of the oath are ambiguous. By swearing that his share in it is not 'less than half,' the claimant might mean that it is not even a third or a fourth (which is 'less than half'), and the negative way of putting it would justify such an interpretation. He could therefore take this oath even if he knew that he had no share in the garment at all, while he would be swearing falsely if he really had a share in the garment that is less than half, however small that share might be]."
  • Said R. Huna, "It is that he says, 'By an oath! I possess in it a portion, and I possess in it a portion that is no more than half a share of it.'" [The claimant swears that his share is at least half (Daiches, Baba Mesia, ad loc.)].
  • Then let him say, "By an oath! The whole of it is mine!"
  • But are we going to give him the whole of it? [Obviously not, there is another claimant, also taking an oath.]
  • Then let him say, "By an oath! Half of it is mine!"
  • That would damage his own claim [which was that he owned the whole of the cloak, not only half of it].
  • But here too is it not the fact that, in the oath that he is taking, he impairs his own claim? [After all, he here makes explicit the fact that he owns at least half of it. What happened to the other half?]
  • [Not at all.] For he has said, "The whole of it is mine!" [And, he further proceeds,] "And as to your contrary view, By an oath, I do have a share in it, and that share is no less than half!"

SOURCE: Jacob Neusner, Tractate Baba Mesia.

The Bavli embodies applied reason and practical logic in quest of the holy society. That model of criticism and reason in the encounter with social reform is unique. The kind of writing that the Bavli represents has serviceable analogues but no known counterpart in the literature of world history and philosophy, theology, religion, and law. That is because the Bavli sets forth not only decisions and other wise and valuable information, but the choices that face reasonable persons and the bases for deciding matters in one way rather than in some other. And the Bavli records the argument, the constant, contentious, uncompromising argument, that endows with vitality the otherwise merely informative corpus of useful insight. "Let logic pierce the mountain"—that is what sages say.

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