Plato, Bakhtin, and the Rabbis Meet Again

Eva Kiesele on Jenny Labendz’s Socratic Torah

Socratic Torah
Jenny R. Labendz, Socratic Torah: Non-Jews in Rabbinic Intellectual Cutlure, Oxford University Press, 2013, 272 pp., $74

Confusion often precedes the discovery of truth. The process goes something like this. I hold a strong belief. Someone questions that belief. I recognize my conviction is built on shaky foundations, and now I am confused. Disoriented, my mind casts aside what I thought to be true so that I can see what is really true.

The dialogues in which Socrates employs his special method of cross-examination — the so-called elenchus — beautifully capture this human experience. Meno thinks he knows what virtue is until Socrates begins asking questions. By interrogating other beliefs Meno holds dear, Socrates leads him to acknowledge several inconsistently held values. After some time, Meno reaches aporia, the perplexing state of mind that forces him, finally, to admit he does not understand his own beliefs. “My mind and my tongue are numb, and I have no answer to give you.”

In Jenny Labendz’s first book, “Socratic Torah” refers to dialogues between a rabbi and a non-Jew about Torah, presented in a way that, to her, resembles Socrates’s elenchus. She offers a committed, contemporary reading of a distinct subset of rabbinic dialogue, marshaling recent developments in the study of Plato, Bakhtinian literary theory, and epistemology to advance her central argument: rabbinic intellectual culture made room for non-Jewish contributions.

The gentile interlocutors are but a vehicle through which, apparently, new forms of knowledge are imported, and the book thus aims much higher than a banal, politically correct re-reading of rabbinic literature. Socratic Torah points towards the epistemological heart of the rabbis’ intellectual endeavor. Labendz walks the thin line between religion and philosophy, two disciplines whose relationship to one another has only recently become the focus of rabbinics scholars. Unfortunately, the path she charts can at times be unclear, and more than once the fundamental divide between these two distinct fields is muddled.

If my count is correct, Labendz presents ten dialogues as “Socratic Torah” proper, and three more as “partial Socratic Torah.” With about a hundred examples of non-Socratic Torah dialogues with gentiles that she identifies in Palestinian rabbinic literature alone (rabbinic texts produced in Roman Palestine — one of the two great rabbinic centers in late antiquity — which are the focus of the book), the selection of sources can hardly be considered a “representative” sample, notwithstanding debates about what constitutes responsible representation of rabbinic literature. Her aim is to see how this one corner of rabbinic literature fits into or diverges from the whole. Despite this limitation in scope, the book does succeed in touching on numerous fascinating questions. Perhaps even more significantly, Socratic Torah encourages the field to engage with a set of critical issues facing contemporary Talmudists.

Labendz employs a number of important approaches that have become almost indispensable in contemporary American research on rabbinics. She takes a refreshing turn away from the historicizing focus on doctrine towards broader notions of “intellectual culture” that open new pathways for intercultural comparison. She exhibits an increased sensitivity to literary form instead of content alone and, in that vein, considers the editorial intent in choosing one form over another. Finally, she imports tools from some more “mature” neighboring disciplines, such as literary theory and Classics.

What can be learned about the rabbis’ “truth claims” and their attitude toward non-Jewish thought from their choice of this particular dialogical form? (There are cases where the same content is conveyed differently.) Socratic Torah finds an important predecessor in Christine Hayes’s frequently cited paper, “Displaced Self Perceptions: The Deployment of Minim and Romans in b.Sanhedrin 90b-91a,” with which Labendz repeatedly engages. Like Hayes and others in her wake, Labendz makes use of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogue: “True” dialogue takes place when the author sets his heroes free and lets them express themselves independently. In “Socratic Torah,” this means that the rabbinic editors let their gentile heroes express their very own gentile thoughts and insights. But where Hayes concludes in a Freudian vein that the rabbis safely projected their very own anxieties onto fictitious Others, Labendz interprets her data to reveal that the rabbis were willing to listen to and even incorporate into their own study of Torah the gentile insights.

The rift between these two opposed readings runs deeper than simply using Freud or not. It originates with basic assumptions about how to apply Bakhtinian thought to rabbinic texts and, implicitly, with what the application says about how rabbinic texts are presumed to operate. Given some American Talmudists’ recent embrace of the great Russian critic, this should cause some thoughtful pause. In the sciences, if an experiment yields systematically divergent results in two different runs, one suspects that a variable has either been overlooked or ill-defined. In the context of rabbinic studies, one variable likely to be insufficiently defined is the imagined role of the text’s creator. For Hayes, he is the puppeteer pulling the strings of all the various voices in the text — even those used to deflect the composer’s own anxieties.

But Labendz interprets these dialogues as learning processes, which seems to imply that the redactor produces “true” dialogue only if he has actually heard something from an external source. Her interpretation depends on reading the gentiles’ words in these dialogues as authentically “gentile,” from beyond the store of rabbinic knowledge, opinion, or sentiment. “Learning” means that the learner grasps something he did not have in his hands before, whether an outright novelty or just a revelation of what his previous knowledge implied. In this sense, Labendz’s reading is more positivistic than Hayes’s.

As exciting and fruitful as the application of the Bakhtinian model to rabbinic literature may be, there are questions that can and must be asked. How exactly do we apply a model of dialogicity first developed to read nineteenth century novels to fragments of a late antique text, whose tight borders readers define and entirely different levels of narrativity govern? What do we do with the fact that this late antique literature is built almost exclusively from discursive material, in contrast to the high percentage of descriptive material surrounding the dialogues in novels? Does Bakhtin provide us with ready-made answers, or does he help us to ask questions? In other words, do we transfer Bakhtin’s findings concerning Dostoyevsky’s novels to individual rabbinic dialogues, or should we use Bakhtin’s model to discuss the dialogicity of rabbinic dialogue?

Labendz depicts the rabbis’ interlocutors as possessing independent “Bakhtinian” voices, and this has far-reaching epistemological implications. She cogently argues that the aim of “Socratic Torah” can neither be to convince a non-Jewish audience of some rabbinic belief nor to prepare rabbis for arguments with non-Jews; rather, the form was valued in its own right. From this, Labendz concludes that “the rabbis appreciated Socratic Torah for what it contributed to rabbinic knowledge” — a claim not without problems. Like their Platonic counterparts, these rabbinic dialogues are about knowledge. To my mind, however, this hardly implies that such discourse can have no other function than knowledge production.

It would have been fascinating to see Socratic Torah take on the third chapter of Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, which explores what might have brought Plato to “thwart” his depiction of Socrates as a serious mediator of knowledge with episodes in which his hero seems little more than a deceptive sophist not living up to his own standards. Instead, Labendz takes an entirely different path by positioning “Socratic Torah” squarely within late antiquity’s broader epistemological shifts. These can be seen in the Neoplatonists’ increasing tolerance for non-rational “proof.” Where the questions posed in “Socratic Torah” draw on the interlocutor’s intuitive and empirical insights, Labendz diagnoses a reverse shift. Namely, that the rabbis came to rely on logic and experience in addition to revelation and tradition.

Elenctic dialogue requires that the interlocutor state his true beliefs. In Labendz’s view, this sincerity attests to a deep awareness of the personal nature of knowledge on the rabbis’ part — where “personal” signifies the universal and innate rather than the subjective. Accordingly, behind “Socratic Torah” lies a distinct epistemology: “The rabbis embraced experiential, intuitive, personal knowledge as part of what it takes to justify the truth-claims of rabbinic Judaism.” Here one misses substantiation from inner-rabbinic material. Far more significant, Labendz does not fully entertain the possibility that the apparent empiricism in “Socratic Torah” might be unique to the genre, and hence play a rhetorical rather than an epistemic role.

Rabbinic epistemology is an intriguing topic, and one that has so far gone almost unexamined. One cannot praise Labendz enough for her bravery in opening this Pandora’s box. That said, epistemology is also the one area in which the comparison of rabbinic and Platonic dialogue becomes most problematic. In Labendz’s view, “Socratic Torah” and Socrates’s efforts in Plato are “strikingly similar.” This is so because she focuses most of her attention on form, and is ready to ignore differences in content and epistemology.

But there are elementary distinctions that must be taken into account. Here are four. First, Plato’s Socratic dialogues present almost exclusively a priori inquiries, most often into the nature (or: proper definition) of certain moral concepts. “Socratic Torah” is about seeming contradictions between biblical verses, between a verse and halakha (rabbinic law), a verse and certain beliefs held, or between Torah and common sense. In short, Plato’s dialogues are about true a priori statements, while “Socratic Torah” is about the intellectual acceptability of a certain legal system and way of life. Given the rabbis’ enormous awareness for the contested and ultimately idiosyncratic nature of their own biblical hermeneutics — Labendz quotes a fascinating example in her eighth chapter on “Socratic Torah” in the Babylonian Talmud — I doubt the rabbis themselves would have considered the issues at stake in these dialogues “true” in any philosophical sense of the term.

Second, Socrates’s method in Plato is embedded in a whole theory of learning as recollection, which itself hinges, crucially, on Plato’s theory of ideas. A priori inquiries lead us back to the ideas our souls have viewed before birth (Meno 81-86, Phaedrus 249). The insight is actually the soul’s recollection; and since all things in nature are related, one who is reminded of one thing may recollect everything if he only keeps searching (Meno 81). For Plato, knowledge of everything is a potential inherent in everyone. The famous rabbinic myth of the fetus to whom an angel taught Torah in utero, only to forget it upon birth, is not really operative in rabbinic intellectual culture, which instead rests on the revelation on Sinai and its subsequent interpretation.

Third, in Plato’s model, where learning means recollecting, an instructor’s task is to help his interlocutor to recollect, a process Socrates famously compared to midwifery (whence the term maeutics, Theaetetus 148-151). Maeutics empowers the student in independent thinking and poses a notable alternative to learning from tradition. It even obviates the concept of a teacher (a designation Socrates refuses for himself). Or in Socrates’s own words: “Because I have, in common with midwives, the following characteristic: I’m unproductive of wisdom, and there’s truth in the criticism which many people have made of me before now, to the effect that I question others but don’t make any pronouncements about anything myself, because I have no wisdom in me” (Theaetetus 150c). Even if we accept Labendz’s assumption that the rabbis deal with “truth claims,” it is needless to say that the rabbis would not have subscribed to this didactic concept.

Fourth, Socrates is on a mission with his elenchus, as Plato has him explain in the Apology: out of pure disbelief in the Delphic oracle’s decree that there was no one wiser than him, Socrates sets out to test all those men said to be wise. The stereotypical form of this test, the aporetic question and answer series, takes on the following form: Socrates asks an initial question, to which the interlocutor replies p (often a definition); Socrates asks a number of further questions, to which he receives the answers q, q’, q”, … ; he then shows that p, q, q’, q”, … cannot hold true at the same time. One of the interlocutor’s premises must be wrong. This is classical logical falsification, and it is important to understand that elenchus by nature cannot serve to prove the truth of any claim. Its only use is to reveal false definitions and assumptions. Although Socrates sometimes expresses his willingness to learn from his interlocutors should their “wisdom” last through the test, this, as a matter of fact, never happens. They fail, and Socrates never learns from any of them.

Differences in content aside, Labendz’s structural comparison allows her to transfer valuable insights about the Platonic dialogues to “Socratic Torah.” In her third chapter she suggestively asserts that “Socratic Torah” empowers its audience. Platonic aporia necessitates the reader’s active judgment. In contrast to those aporetic dialogues, “Socratic Torah” offers definite conclusions — at times even based on rabbinic principles disconnected from the conversation. However, Labendz sees here a more active role for the audience compared to inner-rabbinic dialogues, where the audience is “not invited to question either rabbi.” She argues that the reader will judge both sides’ arguments more carefully if one partner to the conversation has no authority over the reader. Once more, it is worthwhile to juxtapose her reading with Hayes’s, who reads this feature as an outsourcing of rabbinic anxiety. Labendz, on the other hand, considers it an inclusion of self-criticism and an expression of rabbinic self-confidence regarding cultural mixing.

Another structural similarity can be identified in two patterns that interestingly characterize not only Socrates and “Socratic Torah,” but also related dialogues in the Gospel of Mark. In all these texts, one and the same question is dealt with differently depending on whether insiders or outsiders are asking. The conversation leader is portrayed as intellectually flexible enough to respond to different audiences on their own terms. This not only explains why “Socratic Torah” is a genre uniquely reserved for non-Jewish interlocutors but also allows Labendz to imagine a late antique intellectual ideal.

Labendz’s reading is decidedly benevolent, at times to a fault. I would like to briefly outline an alternative, less benevolent approach that argues that Socrates and the rabbis predictably and reliably trump their interlocutors. As described above, Socrates’s goal is to examine those who claim to have wisdom, and then usually to disprove their wisdom. It is for this purpose that he approaches his interlocutors. Unlike in the Platonic dialogues, in “Socratic Torah” the inferior partner in the conversation (the gentile) always initiates. Labendz deems this difference irrelevant, since it is clearly the rabbi who, like Socrates, retains the upper hand. But let us take it seriously for a moment.

In each instance of “Socratic Torah,” the gentile (who in some dialogues is called a philosopher) approaches the rabbi and points to an inner contradiction in the rabbi’s belief system. In other words, he tries to disprove the rabbi’s wisdom. In her second example about a gentile and R. Yehoshua b. Qorḥah discussing divine foreknowledge and emotion (BerR 27:4,) Labendz notes that the gentile’s opening presents a mini-elenchus, and if I am not mistaken the same can be said about her third example concerning a Samaritan and R. Meir debating Jacob’s truthfulness (BerR 70:7). At least in these two cases, then, we have the following structure: a gentile seeks to challenge a rabbi by means of a standard Hellenistic rhetorical pattern, the elenchus, whereupon the rabbi subverts the game and bests the gentile by means of his own super-elenchus. This turns the episode from a didactic dialogue into a piece of hilarious polemic.

The choice of whether to interpret a text polemically or not is ultimately up to the reader; there can be no solid proof of which was intended. Yet, the book might have benefitted from an exploration of some other options. One can imagine a productive conversation with Homi Bhabha and his “cultural mimicry,” or closer to the home turf of rabbinics, Joshua Levinson’s “contest narrative.” Indeed, even drawing on relevant insights from classicists and philosophers could have proven fruitful. The lack of discussion among equals is typical of Socratic dialogue, and T.A. Szlezák has suggested that “with partners of equal strength Plato could have left fundamental questions unsolved in a definitive way; such radically aporetic conclusions do not exist in Plato, as is well known […].” Similar considerations may productively be applied to “Socratic Torah” in the future, especially in conjunction with Labendz’s observations about the audience’s involvement in inner-rabbinic dialogue and “Socratic Torah.”

Jenny Labendz’s firstling presents us with many intriguing perspectives, of which only a few could be mentioned here. Through successive close readings of a small set of texts, she manages to open up a remarkable room for discussion. By utilizing some of the vast research on Platonic dialogue, Labendz unleashes fascinating questions about the apparently “Socratic” dialogues found in rabbinic literature. Did the rabbis have a notion of eliciting knowledge from people? Did they believe that there is something to gain intellectually from fellow humans without a rabbinic background? Was the ability to engage complete Others in conversation valued? To what extent are these dialogues didactic, and are they designed to educate others or only the rabbis themselves? What does this particular literary form do for the audience? What can we learn from them about rabbinic epistemology?

As is inevitably the case with a “closed” book, there remain paths not taken, and it is precisely this uncharted territory that makes the book fruitful for future engagement. The field of rabbinic “epistemology” awaits further exploration — in line with or in opposition to its philosophical twin. Labendz has presented us with a nice debut that will hopefully receive the many dialogical responses it deserves.