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Plato and the Talmud, by Jacob Howland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 282 pp. $68.00.
The most important word in this book’s title is in (or near) the middle. Indeed, many would argue that it should be “or” instead of “and,” since there is an unbridgeable gulf between the theoretical life of free inquiry as exemplified by Plato’s Socrates and the practical life of faithful obedience to divine authority as embodied by the Talmudic rabbis. Indeed, the notion of a fundamental incompatibility and even animosity between “Athens” and “Jerusalem” appears to find support in both traditions. Thus, the second-century philosopher Celsus rejects the tenets of both Judaism and Christianity as obscure fables, while asserting that “things are stated much better among the Greeks” (quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, VI.1). Conversely, according to the Babylonian Talmud’s famous assertion, “Cursed be the individual who raises pigs, and cursed be the father who teaches his son Greek wisdom” (Tractate Sotah, 49a, quoted on p. 8). Finally, even the apostle Paul points out the difference, albeit only to stress Christianity’s own distinctiveness vis-à-vis the two opponents: “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:22–23).
While the author of the book acknowledges the relative truth of this view, he makes a compelling and well-documented case for not resting satisfied with it. Generally speaking, his approach consists in calling into question the differences and exploring the affinities between the putative contenders. Thus, he argues that the religious faith of the Talmudic rabbis, far from precluding rational enquiry, actually requires and fosters it. And similarly, Socratic dialectic proves to be based on a specific piety that includes an acute awareness of the limits of human reason. In both cases, the critical application of the intellect to the relationship between the human and the divine is an indispensable ingredient to living the good life: “Plato and the rabbis, I maintain, regard thinking that is in the broadest sense theological—that reflects on our relationship to God or the gods, and to human beings in the light of this relationship—as an activity no less sacred than traditional rituals of prayer and sacrifice” (p. 19).
And in both cases, what is at stake is promoting an ethos, a way of life that is exemplary, both theoretically and practically. In fact, the clear-cut distinction between the theoretical and the practical dissolves. As the book argues, Plato and the Talmud teach by example: they not only depict distinctive and exemplary figures—Socrates and the prophets—in action, but they also deploy a number of literary devices designed to puzzle and provoke their readers to carefully examine the text, as well as their own lives, in light of the examples. To make this point, the author, who is equally at home in the labyrinth of the Platonic dialogues and in the intricacies of the Gemara, develops a careful and fascinating comparative interpretation of Plato’s Apology and Euthyphro and the stories of Honi HaMe’aggel and Elazar in Ta’anit 3.
From the latter, it appears that the Talmud accords an important role to prophetic outsiders whose greater intimacy with the divine puts them at odds with the community as well as with the emerging rabbinical tradition. However, this intimacy also enables them both to test, challenge, and criticize divine power and authority and to save the community in times of emergency. In his reading of Plato, on the other hand, the author ably argues that Socrates’s philosophizing cannot be properly understood without taking seriously his claim that it is a specific form of piety. His attempt to refute the Delphic oracle’s famous assertion springs from a fundamental trust in the veracity of the god: “In brief, Socrates makes it clear that the Delphic oracle arouses, authorizes, and focuses his desire for wisdom, and that it is able to do so only because he is prepared from the outset to acknowledge the god’s authority as a speaker of truth” (p. 114). Moreover, his quest for wisdom has a marked theological-political dimension: it aims at once to constitute a human community of shared inquiry and to effectuate a moral and religious reform that focuses on the human and the divine concern for the Good.
Although the book abounds with valuable interpretive insights that are worth considering and reconsidering, the author’s concern with pointing out proximities and affinities at times seems to guide the interpretation rather than to follow it. To give but one example, the assertion that Socrates aims at constituting a community of inquiry disregards the fact that a number of Socratic dialogues intimate that the philosopher’s most specific and distinctive activity is actually solitary. As the author writes, “For Socrates, the relationship between god or the gods and the intrinsic goodness of what is remains obscure; this is not the case for the Jewish tradition” (p. 223). But it suffices to read the Symposium (Plato’s as well as Xenophon’s) to wonder whether this obscurity may only be fruitfully explored in the solitary reflection of the philosopher. Conversely, the relative non-obscurity of the relationship between the divine and the intrinsic goodness of being for the Jewish tradition may provide better opportunities for its adherents to form a community of inquiry. On this point, the analogy between the strangeness of Socrates and that of the prophets may indeed be no more than an analogy (pp. 107–108). However, this in no way detracts from the book’s great merit in waking its readers to the beauty, both of Japheth and of the tents of Shem (Genesis 9:27).
Department of Philosophy