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Dialogue and Dialectics

TalmudicTalmudic Dialectics And Philosophical Dialectics

In that aspect, the Bavli recalls the great philosophical dialogues of ancient and medieval times. Those familiar with the dialogues of Socrates as set forth by Plato—those wonderful exchanges concerning abstractions such as truth and beauty, goodness and justice—will find familiar the notion of dialectical argument, with its unfolding, ongoing give–and–take. But Talmudic dialectics differ in two ways. First, they deal with concrete cases and laws, not abstract concepts. Second, the meandering and open–ended character of Talmudic dialectics contrasts with the formal elegance, the perfection of exposition, that characterizes Plato's writings. While the Talmud's presentation of contrary positions and exposition of the strengths and weaknesses of each will hardly surprise philosophers, the inclusion of the model of extensive exposition of debate is sometimes puzzling.

The Bavli's texts of dialectical arguments are in effect notes, which we are expected to know how to use in the reconstruction of the issues under discussion, the arguments under exposition. That means we must make ourselves active partners in the thought–processes that they document. Not only is the argument open–ended, so too the bounds of participation know no limits. Indeed, the Bavli declines to tell us everything we need to know. It exhibits the remarkable confidence of its compilers that generations over time will join in the argument they precipitate, grasp the principles they embody in concrete cases, and find compelling the issues they deem urgent. It is that remarkable faith in the human intellect of age succeeding age that lifts the document above time and circumstance and renders it immortal. In transcending circumstance of time, place, and condition, the Bavli attains a place in the philosophical, not merely historical, curriculum of culture. That is why the Bavli makes every generation of its heirs and continuators into a partner in the ongoing reconstruction of reasoned thought, each generation adding its commentary to the ever welcoming text.


Neusner, Jacob. The Divisions of Damages and Holy Things and Tractate Niddah. Vol. 2 of Talmudic Dialectics: Types and Forms. Atlanta: Scholars Press for South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, 1995.

——. Introduction. Tractate Berakhot and the Divisions of Appointed Times and Women. Vol. 1 of Talmudic Dialectics: Types and Forms. Atlanta: Scholars Press for South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, 1995.

——. Tractate Baba Mesia. Vol. 21 of The Talmud of Babylonia: An Academic Commentary. Atlanta: Scholars Press for USF Academic Commentary Series, 1990.

Jacob Neusner

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