I have to confess that I derive a great deal of pleasure from civil litigation. It’s not that I spend any time in courtrooms—but I do enjoy studying the sections in the Talmud that deal with torts, liens, property claims and the interminable disputes between the generic "Reuben"s and "Simeon"s that populate the pages of rabbinic legal works. In that respect (and possibly only in that respect) I fit neatly into a stereotypical pattern of traditional Jewish religious scholarship.
Although there is no denying that intricate debates over goring oxen and contractual responsibilities have a firm basis in the Torah, not all Jewish thinkers were pleased with the prestige that was assigned to such topics in the traditional religious curriculum. Surely, they insisted, there must be more edifying matters to study than prosaic and academic disputes on civil law.
Medieval Jewish advocates of rationalism insisted that true religious perfection is achieved through the study of philosophy—that is to say, through a trajectory that progresses from the natural sciences and logic, until the intellect is so finely tuned that it can contemplate the most sublime and eternal of truths—that of a God who is completely outside the realm of time and space. They insist that this is the only way that the human mind can outlive the ephemeral existence of its physical body.
Viewed from that perspective, the study of law can never serve more than a secondary function in the quest for religious fulfilment. At most it might provide a blueprint for a well-ordered society, help discipline us in overcoming the distracting temptations of physical urges, or even guide us toward a grasp of the fundamentals of monotheism and the eschewal of idolatry. However, the ultimate path to perfection lies in metaphysics, not law.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra dealt with this question in his "Foundation of Piety and the Secret of the Torah," a short treatise on the significance of the commandments. In that work, he surveyed various branches of scholarship that serve as stages on the path to spiritual improvement. These include: the science of preserving the precise text of the holy scriptures (Masora), grammar, the written and oral laws, and the mastery of the Bible in its entirety. As for the Talmud—while it is undoubtedly essential for acquiring a practical understanding of how to observe the precepts of the Torah, people are seriously mistaken if they believe that it can suffice when it is not buttressed by the study of Masora, grammar and the full range of sciences.
At this point in his presentation, Ibn Ezra takes aim at scholars who devote all their time to the study of the order "Neziḳin," the section of the Talmud devoted to civil and criminal jurisprudence. He describes scholars who take more pride in their studies of Neziḳin than any other section of the Talmud. Though such a person may be worthy of a slight reward for educating fools and eliminating some injustices, he has not really accomplished anything to boast about. After all, if the entire Jewish people were to become truly righteous they would have no further need for those kinds of laws. Although talmudic study may provide a beginner’s guide to basic theological principles, social harmony and the pursuit of a disciplined life-style, the essential path to meaningful spiritual fulfilment must pass through science and philosophy.
A very similar analysis appears in the treatise "Exalted Faith' by the pioneering twelfth-century Andalusian philosopher and historian Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud. Ibn Daud compared the utility of talmudic civil law to that of medicine. Either of these professions may be pursued for financial profit, out of altruistic motives or in order to enhance one’s intellectual credentials. The cultivation of judicial expertise can also benefit humanity by curing society of some of its ailments. However, echoing Ibn Ezra’s observation, Ibn Daud observes that law is somewhat less crucial than medicine, since people are (at least in theory) able to live harmoniously without any disputes arising between them, in which case there would be almost no need whatsoever for the expertise of the jurists.
Now all this is true if one studies civil law with the goal of applying its principles in the real world. Ibn Daud was aware, however, that the typical scholar of talmudic law devotes much of his time and intellect to elaborate hypothetical constructions, formulating complex inquiries regarding “matters that have never actually occurred and will never occur.” The justification for this academic enterprise was the belief that it hones one’s mental acumen—whereas in actuality, he argues, those students are just wasting their time and they would be better advised to channel their energies toward more relevant objectives, such as the formulation of theological arguments that can be used to refute heretics.
Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed illustrated the quest for enlightenment by means of a parable of people gathered around a palace in which the king resides. The mass of simple religious folk, who observe the Torah without knowing why, are likened to those who desire to arrive at the palace and to enter it, but have never yet seen it and have no idea what lies inside. “Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law.” Such people can at best parrot the religious dogmas that they picked up from their traditional upbringing, but they lack any meaningful intellectual grasp of their significance. Maimonides declared that he composed his magnificent codification of religious law, the Mishneh Torah, in order to spare Jews the need to study the Talmud, thereby freeing up more time for the pursuit of philosophical perfection.
The eminent Provençal philosopher and exegete Rabbi Joseph Ibn Kaspi followed closely in the tradition of Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. In his ethical will, he noted how the Torah states that “if there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment... thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites and unto the judge" and comply with their instructions. The obligation is thus to act according to the judges’ rulings. From this he inferred that not every individual is bound to know all the details of the laws of "the four bailees, of pleas and counter-pleas, of loans and deposits." These subjects may be delegated to specialists. A person who never gets involved in litigation will have missed nothing by remaining ignorant of the law; and gaps in one's knowledge of civil law do not imply any defect in one’s spiritual development. In this respect, legal proficiency differs crucially from philosophical or theological truth, which each Jew is commanded to understand and internalize individually.
Now I would be the last person to discourage the study of sciences or of rational discourse. And yet it is clear to me that the abstract rational theology that was the ultimate quest of Ibn Ezra or Maimonides has lost its attraction to modern Jews.
I am unrepentant about my fascination with the goring oxen and contract disputes that were argued by the talmudic sages and their numerous commentators across the generations. It is true that Moses himself realized that the nations of the world would be moved to declare: “What nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law!”
Nevertheless, speaking personally, I can't always guarantee that my own predilection for Jewish legal dialectics arises from a high-minded sense of national pride, spiritual enlightenment or ethical improvement.
So sue me.
|This article and many others are now included in the book|