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 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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