Talmud and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If you haven't read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values lately (or ever) you need to do so.

In his exploration of a metaphysics of quality, Pirsig gives clear priority to the "classical" approach to life over the "romantic" approach.

He gives preference to the notion that to understand and deal with life one needs to be a hands on mechanic and not give your responsibility to specialists and remove yourself several stages from experience, reality and responsibility.

The quality of life deepens as one is immersed directly in the maintenance of responsibilities.

Now, this philosophy has some relationship to the Talmud and to Talmudic living, we are sure. But that's not where we are heading today.

At hand, we have a book to comment on, What is Talmud: The Art of Disagreement, by Sergey Dolgopolski.

This book is about some aspects of the Talmud as filtered mainly through two media: (1) an introductory work to the Talmud by Rabbi Izhak Canpanton (d. 1463) and (2) several 20th century post-modern philosophers.

The author makes grand and sweeping claims that are way beyond the scope of his 273 page dissertation. He claims to uncover the essence of Talmud (not the Talmud) and the nature of disagreement exposed therein. He proposes that he has done this through reference to a handful of random Talmud texts and closer attention to that student's manual by Canpanton.

Now, Mr. Pirsig would not be happy to hear about this approach. Dolgopolski shows no interest in getting his hands dirty taking apart the actual engine of Talmud texts. He's given over much of the responsibility for knowing how the vehicle runs to third parties. And true, he does read the repair handbook and parse it with vigor.

But yikes, I would not claim to be able to write a book about, "What is Motorcycle" based on reading about the machines and closely examining the maintenance manual.

There is an extensive literature about Talmud out there - libraries of books - rishonim, achronim, philosophers from the middle ages to the present, apologetics, and then the scholarship of the German wissenschaft and modern academic Talmud scholarship in the US and Israel. None of that seems to be of more than passing interest to Mr. Dolgopolski.

And lest we forget, the subject of argumentation is one part of the personality of (the) Talmud. I dunno. Many of my friends know how to disagree about things. I would not proclaim that to know how they argue is to appreciate their essences.

Oh yes, one more thing. Talmud that we know, with or without the "the", is central to the definition of a religion called rabbinic Judaism. Dolgopolski cares not a whit to look at that characteristic of the corpus. He dissects a study guide and proclaims he has control of the essential knowledge of a rhetorical system, its religion omitted.

Canpanton may be quite an astute educator, perhaps even a philosopher. Yet, his voice is one of many in the history of ideas that runs through the sea of Talmudic discourse and reasoning. His may indeed be a, "radical reaffirmation of the traditional sources in terms of their authority and their rationality." But we sure don't prove that by stipulation alone.

And you know, even if the repair manual is really faithful to the machine, I still prefer to know that the man who wrote the manual and the man using it and working on my BMW -- that they have actually ridden the machine themselves and felt the wind whistling through their hair.

So if you want to read a book about a manual about (the) argumentation in the Talmud, this may be the perfect volume for you. It doesn't get much more Romantic than that.

If you want to know the Classical feel of acceleration up a mountain on a sleek well-tuned bike, you won't find that here.


evanstonjew said...

Boyarin has a new book out that appears quite substantive on the form of the Talmud and how it compares to the Platonic dislogues. It's called Socrates and the Fat Rabbis.

Any opinions?

NonymousG said...

"He gives preference to the notion that to understand and deal with life one needs to be a hands on mechanic and not give your responsibility to specialists and remove yourself several stages from experience, reality and responsibility."

Was a book required to inform people this?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

have not seen the book yet, but you are right - all his books appear quite substantive...:>)