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Dialogue and Dialectics: Talmudic

Dialogue and Dialectics: Talmudic

The Talmuds are compendia of commentaries, legal opinions, and sayings by and about rabbis of the first six centuries c.e. There are two: the Palestinian (or Jerusalem) Talmud (c. 400) and the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli (c. 600). Both are arranged as commentaries, tractate by tractate, of the Mishnahthe compendium of the law of Judaismitself a collection of legal sayings of rabbis and sages from up to the third century b.c.e.

Dialectical argument is a tool of systematic analysis. In the Talmudic framework, everything is in the moving, or dialectical, argument, the giveandtake of unsparing rationality, which, through their own capacity to reason, later generations are expected to reconstitute. Following the argument as set forth in the Talmud affords access to the issues, the argument, and the prevailing rationality. The Bavli sets forth not so much a record of what was said as a set of notes that permit the engaged reader to reconstruct thought and recapitulate reason and criticism.

A dialectical argument sets forth giveandtake in which parties to the argument counter one another's arguments in a progression of exchanges, often in what seems like an infinite progress to an indeterminate conclusion. A dialectical argument does not merely address the problem and a single solution; it takes up the problem and the various ways by which a solution may be reached. It involves not merely questions and answers or exchanges of opinion, a setpiece of two positions, with an analysis of each, such as formal dialogue exposes with elegance. Moving in an unfolding analytical argument, it explains why this and not that, then why not that but rather the other thing; and onward from the other thing to the thing beyond thata linear argument in constant forward motion. A dialectical argument is not static and merely expository, but dynamic and always contentious. It is not an endless argument, an argument for the sake of arguing, but a way to cover a variety of cases in testing a principle common to them all.

The 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 thirtyseven of the Mishnah's sixtythree topical tractates, the Bavli portrays not so much how people are supposed to livethis the Mishnah doesas 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 andabove alltheir 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 longago 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.

An Example of a Dialectical Argument

The Mishnah is a law code organized by topics, and Baba Mesiathe Middle Gateconcerns civil law, in the present case, torts and damages and contradictory claims.

Mishnah Baba Mesia 1:1

  1. Two lay hold of a cloak
  2. this one says, "I found it!
  3. and that one says, "I found it!"
  4. this one says, "It's all mine!"
  5. and that one says, "It's all mine!"
  6. this one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half,
  7. and that one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half,
  8. and they divide it up.

Bavli Baba Mesia 5B6A

  • This one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half, [and that one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half, and they divide it up]
  • Is it concerning the portion that he claims he possesses that he takes the oath, or concerning the portion that he does not claim to possess? [Samuel Daiches, Baba Mesia (London, 1948), ad loc.: "The implication is that the terms of the oath are ambiguous. By swearing that his share in it is not 'less than half,' the claimant might mean that it is not even a third or a fourth (which is 'less than half'), and the negative way of putting it would justify such an interpretation. He could therefore take this oath even if he knew that he had no share in the garment at all, while he would be swearing falsely if he really had a share in the garment that is less than half, however small that share might be]."
  • Said R. Huna, "It is that he says, 'By an oath! I possess in it a portion, and I possess in it a portion that is no more than half a share of it.'" [The claimant swears that his share is at least half (Daiches, Baba Mesia, ad loc.)].
  • Then let him say, "By an oath! The whole of it is mine!"
  • But are we going to give him the whole of it? [Obviously not, there is another claimant, also taking an oath.]
  • Then let him say, "By an oath! Half of it is mine!"
  • That would damage his own claim [which was that he owned the whole of the cloak, not only half of it].
  • But here too is it not the fact that, in the oath that he is taking, he impairs his own claim? [After all, he here makes explicit the fact that he owns at least half of it. What happened to the other half?]
  • [Not at all.] For he has said, "The whole of it is mine!" [And, he further proceeds,] "And as to your contrary view, By an oath, I do have a share in it, and that share is no less than half!"

source: Jacob Neusner, Tractate Baba Mesia.

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.

Talmudic 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 Platothose wonderful exchanges concerning abstractions such as truth and beauty, goodness and justicewill find familiar the notion of dialectical argument, with its unfolding, ongoing giveandtake. But Talmudic dialectics differ in two ways. First, they deal with concrete cases and laws, not abstract concepts. Second, the meandering and openended 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 thoughtprocesses that they document. Not only is the argument openended, 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.

See also Dialogue and Dialectics: Socratic ; Judaism ; Philosophy ; Sacred Texts .


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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